We began each radiant morning at the outdoor café. It was easy to think everything was perfect: a summer breeze, people chatting amiably, our breakfast light and fresh. It had become a habit since we paused in our travels to re-evaluate our goals and check off the ones met.
We were headed to Rome for a long stay. Randolph was the organizer, I, the one who followed a seamless flow of time, admired random people who lived spectacular, ordinary lives. I watched the ways things were done or undone in each place and found them puzzling and fascinating. So I noticed her at the window as we sat and made plans and felt righteous about our choices. I nudged him out of his rapt attention to newspapers, then pointed to the third story of the graceful, decrepit structure.
“She has been there every morning, watching. I wonder about her.”
He shuffled the pages, and sat back. “Her pleasure, obviously. She likes to watch us do what we do. Natural enough.”
But I didn’t mean that. I wondered if she was alone; no one else elbowed their way into her spot. She leaned heavily on her hand, as though it was enough effort for the day. Was she waiting for someone? When did she last leave her apartment? And if no one came by, did she miss that? I thought I felt her eyes lock on mine once. I began to believe she was relieved to sit there, no agenda, at ease with aging and life.
The days turned into a week, ten days. Randolph found the village quaint and tidy enough to accommodate his need of quiet so he could work on his symphony. I wandered on my own for hours, often sat on the low wall just beyond the bakery. Several children played on rolling hills. I found myself thinking of having a child, my mother being a grandmother, my sister, an aunt. Maybe we could stay on here and construct a life that brought contentment, not just intellectual stimulation. Maybe we could both be happy for once.
Randolph waved aside the notion that night when I lay awake on his chest, my hand hot against his coolness. He had other things in mind, composing, sex, politics, travel, bravura performances but never children. I had no reason to think he would change his viewpoint. I feel asleep long after he did, in my dream ran through a murky maze of alleys where children played games of catch with Randolph’s black notebooks.
The next morning we found our table, waited for our usual order, and he scribbled notes about the second movement. mumbling about minor chords and lost melodic lines. As usual, I gravitated to the window, her window. This time I would ask the waiter who she was, tell him she reminded me of my grandmother, which was partly true. She made me long for things that disturbed me, made me restless in a way I could not define.
Before we finished the meal, a wailing emergency vehicle rushed to her red brick building. Two burly medical personnel emerged and dashed inside, taking the steps by twos. We all stood and strained to see what was happening but saw nothing until an emergency worker gave a thumbs up at her window. I shivered. Soon enough, out the front door slipped a stretcher upon which she lay, hazy eyes searching our murmuring group. She thrust her hand toward me. I stepped forward. She half-smiled, jagged-toothed, weary, then touched my arm. Startled, I stepped back but in halting words she whispered, “The time comes you go from him.”
“Maria speaks to you,” said a teen-aged girl, eyebrows arched high. “Listen.”
She followed the ambulance on her yellow bike, trailed by several others. Italian sympathy spilled over the street, surged around them like a current.
Maria would not return for several days. The café owner informed me she’d suffered a second light stroke but was better, coming home soon. He loved her, it was clear.
Randolph grew tiresome and tired of the village life so prepared to leave. I told him during breakfast that I was staying. He was only mildly surprised.
“You listen to everyone,” he shrugged, “and do what they want. We have had enough of each other, I guess.” He kissed me, got into his car and left. It was that easy.
But he is wrong. I heard from Maria my own thoughts. It was time for me, not him; for living art, not mimicking it or waiting for it to cheer me on. I would be here for her return, freshen her worn sheets with lavender from the hills, swap stories.
(Note: This is my revised response to Patricia Ann McNair’s writing prompt on her July 17 blog post: “We would see her there.”)
Most people came from musical families; I knew this was fact when I was a child. They were my neighbors, schoolmates and friends. I was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in my Midwest town’s public education music program. It encouraged students who tested well on standardized music tests in the fourth grade to take up an instrument. My father developed and oversaw the program, so I was glad I passed. I looked forward to participating in school and learning at home.
I was the last of five children to coach. I had tried violin before kindergarten. Though I liked it, I wanted to play what my sisters played: the cello. It just sounded better than any other instrument I had heard, except for the trumpet with its sparkling cheer or melancholic sweep of sounds. Since dad was known as “a string man” I surmised the trumpet would not be the best choice. I considered the French horn, as well, but never mentioned it; it seemed too formal somehow. The trumpet appealed to the dreaminess of a properly raised child straining to be free (and later jazz drew me like honey draws bees). I must have heard it played in that style on the few records of big band music we listened to occasionally. Dad had played lots of instrument as a younger man, including the saxophone and clarinet–he liked reed instruments. Brass seemed less favored; the violin and viola were his chosen instruments.
As I worked at learning piano as well (I sought minimal skills, enough to I could justify making up songs on the baby grand), I took up the commanding cello. I fell in love with its stirring elasticity, its resonant notes responding to the briefest pressure from my bow and fingers. Its power startled me. Sometimes I felt it took over, leaving me breathless, anxious to catch up–to what? What did all that music mean? It was a mystery what could happen with practice and critical feedback and more sweating over tedious exercises that led me to sonatas and concertos. The years brought private lessons, innumerable performances in orchestras, solos at concerts and competitions, summer music camps. I played the harp for a year or two, but I wanted to do with the cello what my oldest sister did. She would go on to become a professional cellist (as a female cousin did, as well) though I had a suspicion by fifteen it was not to be. My middle sister had ditched cello for bassoon; it was the perfect choice for her. My brothers? They played violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone between them. Everyone sang, but have patience with me on that one. They became paid musicians as well, eventually.
But ambitions aside, music just belonged to me, and I, to it. All of us lived our lives imbued with its powerful force as well as a responsibility of making music and making it well. The family DNA supplied musical scores and an impulse to master instruments. We were the proverbial ducks born to swim, submerged at birth then quickly floating our way through music-making, music history, music theory. Except for my mother. She championed us all, hummed along, played a bit here and there on the piano. Her pleasure in our music and the applause of audiences offset my father’s critical analyses. It took all this to do well, then excel.
But although the cello found, loved me, even let me romance it back, all this time I was also doing something else, in private and on stages. I was singing. There you have it: three words I spent over five hundred words not writing. I have thought about this post ever since I mentioned elsewhere that when I write poetry it feels as though I am writing songs. It took me back to all this music business, the singing issue.
Try to imagine that singing is speech: you open your mouth and songs slip out as the native language. To give any other a whirl feels unfamiliar, even clumsy. Life is not a musical, exactly, but it is clearly something to be sung about. I wanted to sing all day long, in school, on the ice rink, in the pool, at the desk where there was homework waiting. Of course I sang at church but also while riding my bike, walking on the street. I needed to sing past bedtime when mother called up the stairs to turn out the light. I didn’t want to obey, could not. Songs were happening and they were not done with me. They were musical poems that lingered, danced, crested on words, a language that sang out, and my body and soul were the instruments. I would whisper the melodies if needed. And in the morning when I awakened, the song awaited me like a lovely puzzle, a tantalizing desire. A blessing. Sometimes I would take it to the piano when all the house was empty or strum my guitar. And singing on stage felt no different from singing from our maple’s treetop. It gave me profound joy like little else, opened up the universe, connected me to life’s deep soulfulness. It felt natural.
But it ended, which brings us closer to the whistling part.
It was a gradual separation that began in earnest after sexual and other assaults were survived, substances used to endure the fall-out. Finally and also importantly, time constraints developed along with unexpected choices. I grew up and married at twenty, but not to a musician–that happened much later. I attended college, studied art, psychology, sociology and writing, not music. Not being fully engaged with my passion, it became neglected. Or I neglected it because it was too close to what mattered most, so far from my reach I felt it leaving me daily. It all resulted in a terrible ache, a longing for something that felt no longer possible to recapture, refine. Rather than feel as though I was a walking wound again, I left music. It was that or try to find it in fragments, in random pieces of time and space. I have a practical streak. I turned away, went on with my life.
I did continue to play my cello off and on when alone but my now-untried skills failed to uphold what my ear needed to hear. I sang to myself, to the babies that were rocked with lullabies, who danced to music made up together. It was there, the music, all that time, like a fragrance that pervades the atmosphere but faintly. Occasionally I harmonized softly with my second husband, in the privacy of home. But it had changed, and my voice had been transformed from soprano to alto from having too many cigarettes and drinks. Life can challenge dreams; we all have them, often change or lose them. For much of my family, the music played on. For me, it quieted, then was finally silenced in one regard: I could no longer sing. This is reality. I don’t kid myself even though I do let my voice out for a phrase or two in church. Even joined a couple choirs years back and found it physically and emotionally taxing to create the necessary sounds. I put it back in a secret place where it hibernates, having forgotten what it used to do.
But wait, there is still music that surfaces. I could and can whistle. No other other animal can do it though there must be approximations. Whistling is undervalued and overlooked. Its wordlessness makes a case for relationship to instrumental music, my opinion. I have heard people whistle from exuberance or sorrow, offer an aria or a pop tune or something that makes no sense at all but is catchy, at least for the whistler. It can be as impressive an art as any other. There are competitions for whistlers, I have found. But kids can do it in time. I am no expert, but I can still purse my lips and blow as though on, say, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, yet the instrument is my own body. Like singing, yes? The notes are created by altering the shape of the mouth inside and out, by regulating the air from diaphragm to chest to throat and sinus cavities then out. A cinch. Before long, I may be working up a C major or D minor scale, then catching the drift of a tune, resilient, sweeping across space. Whistling may be cheap, even proletarian entertainment, but it is its own reward and then some. It makes people happy, including me.
The whistler’s music, for me, can be a generous smattering of auditory star dust that glimmers and rises on a whim. Islands of notes erupting from a landscape that feels like home. Sun dapples and rain splatters of sound that make me smile, remember. When whistling, I know I have forgotten nothing of what music means to me–I’m not talking about my taste preferences or how it relates to my philosophical or spiritual ideologies–but what it means to my innermost being. What I cannot sing today, I can whistle with precision and subtlety, a dash of friskiness. Maybe one day it will be a prelude to something that can flower with more attention. Nobody’s testing me for virtuosity. I don’t have to win a prize anymore.
Classical? Modern jazz? The old standards? A favorite number from musicals or a pop tune? Try me! But it is likely you will have to catch me unaware. I don’t perform for anyone but myself and that’s finally good enough for me.
(Note: A print of the painting at the top of this post hung in my childhood bedroom and, later, in my parents’ den.)
My family recently enjoyed a reunion for a week. We shared a variety of activities and talked from morning until evening. Our five adult children landing within the same city limits is a rare event. They got to reunite with an uncle and three aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.
One sunny afternoon we explored a few offerings of downtown Portland. My oldest daughter is an artist and since we all love the arts, we visited the choice Museum of Contemporary Craft. We saw an exhibit of bowls in many mediums displayed as part of a project organized by Ayumi Horie in partnership with the museum entitled “Object Focus: The Bowl”. Particularly curious was a table lined with bowls that we could pick up and examine, think about, admire. An option for the visitor was choosing an artist whose bowl was enjoyed, thus being given the privilege of taking a similar bowl home to use by checking it out at the Circulation Desk. This part of the project is called “Object Focus: The Bowl, Engage + Use.”
Yes, that’s correct–we got to utilize the very art that museums typically discourage us from touching. What an adventurous concept! I was all in, especially when the others encouraged me. We all agreed we would at least use a unique and beautifully crafted bowl for an upcoming family BBQ. The daughters started to think of foods the bowl might hold. I finally chose one created by Mike Helke. It is an unusual shape, and the glazes are lovely. I knew it could make something good happen.
We did fill the bowl with a luscious fruit salad for our family reunion meal. But we had a few other ideas and I seized upon one in particular.
It involves a troll. My troll.
She Who Rules Wisely (aka Crone aka Old Troll) was given to me by my mother over thirty years ago, following a Scandinavian trip both parents took. I think of this creature as an ancient and watchful being from first, another dimension, and second, a region that attracts me with its natural grandeur and history. Since her kind has power there and in my house, I afford her respect and a prominent place of repose. Every now and then we talk in secret; she is reassuring yet stern, frank but humorous–much like my mother and her sisters could be. But most of all, dear “SWRW” is a survivor who considers herself queenly when at her best. In fact, in private she confides she borders on goddess-hood. In truth, she is a bit raggedy after a long, nearly legendary life.
There was no question that she would chime in when she saw the bowl. She has opinions and likes the limelight. What follows is a transcription of her responses, aided by pictures she allowed.
“I see. Trying to get this one over me, eh? I happen to have been thinking about boats and beds, either of which this great piece of ceramic might become. Allow me to investigate further. I can’t sleep anyway, with all the racket.”
“Yes, yes. About the right size. Sturdy yet elegant. Best colors I’ve seen in eons. But which to use it for…no, no suggestions needed!”
“‘Oh, sail me across the great Atlantic, take me back to my fiords, dear! Make me a bed in the deep of forest, my true love will await me there!’ What? My voice needs a tune up? Never mind. This suits me well. But would it sink…anyone check that out yet? What are the specs?”
“This looks and feels nothing whatsoever like the ocean…”
“That was extraordinarily taxing to flip over. No, I didn’t need your help. I need to get an exercise regimen going. Now, what to do, what to do? I feel at home in here…A bed, a boat. Shhh…! I’m cogitating. “
“Brain fatigue. I might need to rest up first. Not as quick as I used to be. Wait….that gives me another thought. Watch this.”
“Not so easy to get comfortable but I’ve known rocks that were worse. The three rectangles are a deft touch but this rounded side sleeps poorly. What did you say the craftsman was building? Right, bowls.”
“Okay, it’s the fabric that is half the problem. Where did you get this? I don’t like it. Cheap.”
“An improvement but somewhat claustrophobic. Reminds me of some fishing boats I’ve sheltered under during my unbelievably long, occasionally nomadic life. I could tell you stories, but another time. If I could, I’d close my other eye and sleep away the rest of the evening. This whole experience is inspiring but, I have to admit, tiring.”
“You know what? I appreciate the generous offer, but you may keep it, Cynthia. It looks good, you like it, but to me it’s a boat that won’t float and a bed that hexes snoozing. My tail is starting to drag now. Let me give you some advice. Next time you want to bring home art, take me with you. I’m available for consulting, for a reasonable fee. Speaking engagements, as you know, are a heftier investment. But they might not be about any arts that you’d appreciate.”
“Hey…okay, here we go again. Storytellers–you all have to have the last word. Wait–keep that profile shot–my best side! I do look pretty good, eh? Yes, I do.”