I walk into the library this afternoon without knowledge of any special event. My stop is impulsive, convenient on the way from an errand. I do enjoy our public library a great deal and often feel thankful that I can take home any book or other media for free. But now I am staring at the ample back of a woman while listening to a very good cellist perform. I am trying to capture the cellist as a video on my cell phone. He is playing a most sonorous cello that is plugged in so the notes are “electric” in effect. Shortly I give up trying to get him on my cell, as said audience member keeps readjusting position in her chair, blocking my view. And she is dancing in her seat a little, primarily with shoulders. (I am calling her “Sunny” because that’s how she feels, despite her severely cut hair.) But I can hear him, so catch his cello notes while videotaping the floor or Sunny’s back. (Rather late it occurs to me I might have moved or recorded his performance as a voice memo.)
An older man–tall, dignified and possessed of a beautiful head of white hair–is shepherded to a seat. He is blind. It is made clear the view is no needed to enjoy the concert. I wonder about the man–if he has always been blind, if he lost his sight to illness or injury. He is unperturbed by anything, focused wholly on listening as far as I can tell. I decide to do the same.
But am not altogether successful. My mind drifts easily at concerts. Music of all sorts grabs my attention and may truly enthrall me but it also ignites a bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains that I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance again. There are jaunty pieces played; melancholy ones; two straight-up Bach sonatas; complex original compositions with several overlays of musical lines and harmonies thanks to his electronic equipment. A maze within a maze that creates a lush landscape and gives rise to pathways that take me to this spot and that. And then the music feels like a dreamy high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about.
And I think of my own cello. How I would have loved to play like the artist–the jazzy pieces, anyway. I studied classical music until 18; some years later I played more as I wished. My cello now sleeps against the wall of my bedroom. No, more likely it is in a coma, as it has been unattended too long. Not nourished. I think of opening the hard protective case often but cannot: it may have cracked again along old lines of ruin that it endured decades ago being transported from Michigan to Tennessee. The original cracks were repaired by my father’s skillful hands. Later as they reopened I got them repaired again; they cost me dearly. I played it some once more. And it sounded nearly good as new awhile but I didn’t play as easily. And I stopped altogether. Yet it is mine, it is in that burnished wood that resides a good length of personal history. It is also a possession of imperfect beauty, of a body with its own voice, even if stilled for now. And it yields stories just standing there. I touch it in passing. My cello can make me cry but I adore it as ever I have, though I have little to no substantial bravery left for making music.
It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally her entire life, almost until her death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep, sometimes fun. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench where she sat at her shiny grand piano; I’d sing all the old standards she wanted to play. We grew up this way. It was a way of being. Our family of seven would gather at the worn baby grand from time to time, but especially during Christmas. Our father, a violist primarily, played well enough, sang along. My mother might join in, a rare exception as she thought her singing not up to snuff. It was quite good enough, her voice; she left music making to him and us children, is all. She had other interesting talents. I can see her laughing as she winds up a tale of who and what she saw on her way to the grocery store. I can see her at her sewing machine, stitching rapidly, perfectly the seams of a burgundy velvet bodice with a pink drapey skirt for me.
I blink twice. Back to the present, though our present is threaded with strands of our past no matter our intention, whether conscious or not.Some things just bring it back more clearly than others.
The woman, Sunny, in front of me, then: her dress is a true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area, from neck to waist (I think), designed of thin black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but a plaid. Her earrings are like little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short and blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It is in the way she wiggles in her seat, the boots on her feet being sensible, the soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!-her shoulders are turning and going to and fro. She taps her foot in time: is she also a musician or is she a music lover only? The value for her is in her open engagement, her joy and as I look around I see many others who are smiling, moving. The blind man sits with eyes closed and quietly.
The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this library afternoon concert. It’s finely knotted, straggling ends lay along her upper back; they move as she moves. I do love scarves, and wear them often though not today. My love of them perhaps originated with my mother and Marinell, both of whom had many and used them often. There are scarf wearing women and those who are not; I think the same is true of men, anymore. My husband wears a charcoal and white tweedy wool scarf in winter and I like that. I collect scarves for all seasons, pull them out to dress things up or to make the ordinary less so or feel warmer as a sudden wind finds my neck. They are not always finely made; I get some from the trhift shop. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over original colors; one she made of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo dye. I resolve to wear more this winter. And that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out.
The piece the cellist is playing is rising and falling all about us. It is light and dark, rich and simple, warm and bittersweet. I look up to the open second story of the library, see a hand on the edge of its half-wall, then catch a glimpse of a teenager’s face, his longish hair falling forward. He disappears. I am gratified that everyone in the library can hear this good music, this sudden and free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.
I think I recognize a head farther up. I get up and wander about aisles of book shelves, peek toward the audience in hopes of identifying my friend. I don’t know Kathy well but suspect I would like to; we always seem too busy to get together again. She plays cello; rather, she also once played and is now taking lessons once more to brush up on her skills. It informs me of her personality a bit, that she has determination–and is brave–that she loves music and making it, that we likely have more in common.
But it isn’t her and the concert is ending. The performer is bowing and the applause–mine included–is enthusiastic. Sunny is chatting with someone and though I can’t see her face I know her eyes are the kind that quickly that light up with pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, and that is satisfying. I move down the stacks and look at mysteries. I am obsessed with mystery books lately, not my usual literary novels or other genres of books on bestseller lists. I want to lose myself in a rollicking good story, puzzle out the culprits, enjoy the history or foreign country or unique detective. I have a habit of constantly asking questions, some say too many, like to dig into it all, root out more answers. Or at least possibilities. Why why why? Who-When-What-How? I would like to try writing mysteries more. This is another thing that intimidates me, but in this case it is all the more reason why I want to try harder. It is writing, after all, only words on a screen or paper. But what passion keeps burning in me for just that.
Shortly I check out three books despite not needing more in my bedside or other stacks. Audience members are dispersing. The blind man is moving toward the entrance, and a woman is holding his hand. They look beautiful together, their white hair softly gleaming in the warm overhead lights, their shoulders touching. I think of my parents, how their white hair made them so attractive, how they held hands, loved each other.
I find it a tad hard to leave the library. I linger by new books, listen to chatter and drink of the peacefulness. Yet there is something nudging me like a shadow at the back of my mind, and it is trying to tell me something.
It is when I go outside and note the rain is now a decent sprinkle that I look up at the cloud-swathed sky and do remember: my nephew, Reid, died around this time. He took all his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of a life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he might leave us this way. There had been such terrible times, then lulls, then more dark days and nights. One never knew what the next week or month might be like for him as he was afflicted with bi-polar illness, and he drank and used too much. I knew it was agony for him, felt it in his presence often, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I knew how he felt. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, what more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be done here.
And yet. I still wish profoundly that it had been so different. It is a time that stays with me: that brilliant flame which was put out, in the night or very early morning as he chose to be no more. It has left a part of me where the lifesaving power of art and the potency of hope and strange and unkind designs of life can collide and hurt, then entwine, wrap around my heart with a long soft rope, squeezing my center until I weep. Until slowly, again, I know it must be alright; he is where he is and not screaming out, not even alone.
I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain about though I cannot explain it even when it seems absurd.
I start the car yet sit with forehead on the steering wheel as my throat closes. I open a window. Breathe as tears blur vision a moment. They recede as Reid moves through my mind, through the foggy, wet day, toward a gentler dusk. I put the car in reverse, drive to the coffee shop. Singing a song to myself as I drive, “The Wexford Carol”, which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Alison Kraus and which I heard again recently. It soothes me, releases sorrow, lets in more gratitude.
The coffee shop is packed with couples and teens, friends gabbing, single folks absorbed in their computers. As I sit on a stool and look out the window, I feel okay, even better, and sip my mocha as I nibble a warm slice of banana bread. I get a text from my husband. He is in Houston, between flights on his way back from Mexico after a 9 day business trip. He is tired, will be late getting in. I tell him about the cellist whose music and banter delighted, a used bookstore I visited, the warm ambiance of the neighborhood coffee shop, and how I have missed him. And he texts me back exactly what is needed: “I can’t wait to come home. I love you.”