Charlotte Bell’s striking silver hair hangs to the middle of her back, her voice is quiet, and she walks with anticipation: pointing to the towering trees, florets of allium, and the neighborhood’s 100-year-old roses.
Walking with her feels oddly like stepping out of Salt Lake—the noise and rush—into reflective space.
Bell, author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, and Yoga for Meditators: Poses to Support Your Sitting Practice, teaches yoga and plays the oboe and English horn for Red Rock Rondo and the Salt Lake Symphony.
Drenched as she is in meditative practice and art, it’s no wonder she comes off as rooted.
When we step from the porch into her house, the cats converge: friendly Pushkin, hissing Lily, and sweet Jazzy, a thin, gray animal she rescued 19 years ago from a feral litter born in her backyard. When Jazzy’s littermates were poisoned in the alley, Bell started feeding his cautious mother from her porch.
They kept this arrangement for twenty years, the cat running to greet Bell on the sidewalk after yoga, while keeping a safe distance, and waiting to venture onto the porch until Bell left.
Then a surprise. In 2011, the animal walked right into the house. “She couldn’t hear. She was really old and fragile. It was so amazing, like day and night, overnight. She suddenly was an indoor cat. She’d sit on my lap.”
The feral mother used the litter box, acted like “a perfect house guest,” and stayed the two months it took her to die.
I asked her how she felt about putting old animals to sleep.
“I don’t want them to suffer, but I sometimes wonder if people don’t want to be with their suffering either. It’s hard to be with it.”
What kind of woman becomes a musician, writer, yogi, and haven to homeless creatures?
We sit at her grandmother’s table; it still has the original finish, and Pushkin winds around our tea and coffee cups. My chair is tied with hundreds of colored nylon strings Bell uses to make reeds for her instruments, something she describes lightly as a “pain in the ass.”
While ambitious musicians buy cane raw in the tube, Bell buys hers gouged and shaped and folded. After soaking, she cuts the bamboo for 45-60 minutes using a double hollow ground knife. The reed may only last four hours of play.
“I’ve had reeds that have lasted a lot longer and a lot less. What I hate is when I spend an hour carving one, and it still sounds like crap, and I can’t use it. There are periods we go through, called reed hell, where every reed you make is awful. You’ll get a really bad batch of cane, and you’ll have to learn to play on a poor reed. Every oboe and English horn player struggles with it, but it’s part of the territory.”
Bell used to cheat: buy her reeds from her old teacher or Bob Stephenson, the principal oboist of the Utah Symphony, who is known to whip them out in ten minutes like a champ.
When the cane is good, playing is easy, a joy. “You can express yourself. You feel like you have some control over the dynamics and the phrasing. It’s so fun. But when you’re struggling against your reed, if your reed is resistant in some way, it’s just not fun.” She grins. “And I’m doing it for fun, for the most part.”
The horn is often soloed, matched to cellos and violas, or paired with lower voices, like the French horn or bassoon. It reminds Bell of a human speaking: thoughtful and meditative. The oboe, on the other hand, tends to cut through everything and pair with the violins and flutes.
Oboe and English horn: they are her yin and yang in the orchestra’s swell.
In college, Bell slowed her involvement with music and stopped writing. She convinced herself she was incapable; papers felt like suffering.
It took years before she found a way back into creativity. The spark reignited with yoga but didn’t take hold until she signed up for a silent meditation retreat in 1988.
Pujari and Abhilasha Keays led five days at the Last Resort Retreat Center in Cedar Breaks, Utah.
“It was hellish beyond anything I had experienced in my life up to that point.”
She spent days cursing her teachers, her body, and fantasizing about escape routes. Then one night after readying for bed, Bell reached for a doorknob, and “the experience was absolutely exquisite. After opening thousands of doors in my life, this was the first time I had felt what it is to turn a doorknob.” It was the subtle sensation, she says, the extending joints and muscles, the chill of the knob.
The next day she “felt a sense of joy so intense and absolute that I thought (quite mistakenly) that I must be enlightened. Colors were more vibrant, my eyesight more crystalline. I became absorbed in sounds that would have been irritating the previous day. Later that afternoon my mind settled into a pervading peace like none I had ever experienced.”
By evening, the irritation was back, but a “desire to embody mindfulness had been awakened,” and when she returned home, writing became easy, started to flow through her.
She credits meditation entirely. It helped her slow habits of mind that weren’t creative and open space for new activities.
“You drop below the level of the mind that just wants to go through the same thoughts over and over again. You drop into a vast space, and there’s always more; there’s always deeper layers, and I think that it gets more subtle over time.”
“If you can really focus on what you’re doing, have the experience where you get so focused you start losing track of time, things just start to come through you that you didn’t know you had access to.“
I ask her if it’s another form of meditation to practice her instruments.
“It’s a meditation for me to play in a group. To practice,” she stalls, “it depends. I think playing piano as a kid was the first meditation I ever did. The absorption that happened as I was playing was quite similar.”
“On the oboe and English horn it happens more in a group because I’m in the midst of a complete piece of music. On the piano, it’s pretty complete on its own.”
Discomfort has been her answer: embracing hours of reed-making, sitting like a stone while her body protests, practicing for the moments she plays with the Red Rock Rondo, and providing companionship to animals leaving this world. The practice has led her to creativity and space.
The payoff is texture.
Pushkin is back on the table, again. He bites Bell; she says he’s hungry.
Camille Pack teaches Language Arts at a private boarding school and received her MA in Literature and Writing from Utah State University.