Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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She Finds Her Homing Instinct/It Finds Her

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In the middle of the night there is a pingpoingscritchscritch that gathers velocity in her sleep, rearranging her legs and arms, soon despositing feet off the soft edge of the bed. It’s not as if she sleeps restfully, anyway, yet she has a habit of diving back into the blackness and willing herself to re-enter slumber’s sweet exile. But this noise is foreign. She soon is fully and consciously sentient and stands up on the dusty wooden floor. The very act of becoming vertical seems enough of a feat that she hopes the racket turns out to be worth the effort. On the other hand, she wants it to be nothing much. Either way, she will likely muse over it’s power to interrupt rest.

This is not, she realizes again, home. That is, it is not the home she knows well, familiar nooks and crevasses, creaks and whistles the other place offered like a nightly serenade in a cozy cave. The old spot was tiny, four hundred square feet. Enough room to live but not to entertain others for more than a short visit–not without some regret, at least. Yet she thrived within it, or perhaps it was the context, that job, those friends, the sculptures she created. Creativity ruled that space. It was required in order to live efficaciously, happily. Spareness and a need for objects skirmished, then made, broke and remade truces. But she is slight of stature and weight so such areas accommodate her with little complaint from either. However, her mind is expansive, a virtual accordion of energy and thought patterns. Space has little to do with her survival, much less thriving. It is all in how you view it, she thinks.

So here she landed, smack into a new  job and this large, newish place. It is at least twice as big as the other, perhaps two and a half times. The house it is a part of is enormous but reverberates emptiness until renovation will be complete. The idea captured her attention even more when the lower rent was quoted, that of inhabiting part of a building in the process of transformation. But it is a little odd now, in a night beset by pings and scrtiches.

She finds her way through her room and enters the kitchen, bumps into boxes and a chair, pots and skillets. How is she filling it so easily already? Where did all this come from and how did everything fit before? Will things snug together like a smart puzzle again? The thought paralyzes her for a moment, an equation she can’t figure out and must. And will. Her apartment feels so full yet empty. She shrugs and leans toward the mess and the sound as she does any task, with resolution.

The five rooms take on their shapes as her eyes peer into the width and depth of each space. It is as if they come alive as she studies them. As if they are quiet, vacant expanses that have been waiting to relinquish their bland, amorphous state under her deft direction. She thinks of performance art, of the theatre of the absurd.

Pingpingpoingpingscritch. Breeziness wraps around the leftover space as wind swirls through raised windows. She pads over to the sun room, drops to her knees and sniffs the air. Damp. Earthen-sweet. It is raining. The drops are striking the multi-leveled metal roof and bouncing onto the porch and back hoe in the back yard. A few blow onto her arm. There is a green plastic chair in the sun room or breakfast room, she isn’t sure what it is, and she sits in it. There was a moon in the deep earlier, making its way to fullness, so the rain is a surprise. It seems more reasonable as she sits with it, closes her eyes, presses against the wall. The outdoors trying to come in feels like a mother murmuring or a mythic god beginning a long story. It is strange to hear life here; there are real acoustics. When speaking or singing along with the radio her own clear voice cascades through each room as if seeking a destination not yet found.

She sleeps. The rain and her breathing lift and take her elsewhere. Soon there are tree frogs and cicadas and crickets chirping and rasping with a monotony only found in hot, humid country. She walks down the road in the dark, into woods, and pauses at a clearing. The frogs jump across the path–she recognizes them even though she is night blind, sleep blind–and she greets them. They look like friends. They are on their way to studios where things will be created–etheral paintings, kinetic sculptures, crazy pottery and moving or satirical drawings and photographs. All of which you have to peer at as though into a very deep wishing well. So she feels like taking a frog home whre she gives it a place on her pillow, then guards its primitive beauty. It rests between comments, sees and is transformed by her kindness. The frog, it turns out, is humanoid and a friend. She feels a swell of happiness inside the dream. They share mugs of tea that fit well in their froggy and people hands as they talk creativity and cost of living and tenured teaching jobs and what it means to become art. For art to be more and less than what they even imagined.

The light awakens her. She comes to once more with reluctance. Feels a cloak of sadness slip and slide about her. A bright eastern sky blinks, blue-eyed and finely spread like chiffon above the river and grass. Her neck aches. Feet and arms are chilly. Stomach grumbling. Homesickness will grow like a pernicious weed if she isn’t careful. She gets up and carries out her morning toilette. There is so much more work to be done, aching neck or not. Tree frogs speaking in dreams or not. Here there are mosquito eaters, moths and tiny spiders that cling to the walls like ninjas. She leaves them alone, glad of company.

She picks up the tape measure and measures. Questions the boxes. What to do with you? Where to place your contents, well-loved items that carry stories of people who made them or gave them to me, every piece well-travelled now? This is home, she repeats without speaking. Here. Now. Or, if not yet, will be. It will accept her things, the comings and goings because that is what happens to places: they are somehow made to fit those who live there. But other times she is made to fit the place, the work, the passage of time. It can’t be helped and it sometimes is just what she needs. It is a mutual design encounter. She likes to accept challenges, even looks for them. You trade some things for others, life is constant bargaining, she thinks. She traces contours and textures of each handmade ceramic mug, cup, plate.

Across the road is a busy diner, a white church, a stolid hotel that seems empty, and people who do not know her yet but know she is here. Down the street is a market, a laundromat, a bank, a disheveled house. Turn a corner and there is a library that once had hundreds upon hundreds of villagers reading books, rubber stamps marking dates due. She will visit there. In this new place there are people whose names will become as familiar as the shopkeepers she has just left behind. There are faces that will stay with her and others that will fade the moment she sees them. But it will all imprint upon her, odd and lovely tattoos of life, residual nicks and bruises and invisible healing, colors and constructs, wonderments and passions that carve and illuminate her way. This is how it goes for an artist roaming the world. First, the nest is made, an honorable task. Then, the deepening work, the striving and living that begets the art that begets the woman. Or the wiser woman who begets the braver art. It all counts.

Her soft hair flutters as the front door is opened. August’s light divides the living room floor into two spaces, each shadowy side soon to become more useful. She steps outside. Her luminous eyes send greetings into the north country atmosphere as a passerby nods. The rain lingers as a taste of summer in her mouth. She finds her sketchbook, pencil hovering. Soon autumn’s radiance will arrive, then the shocking dreamscape of winter. In the passage of time another mystery or a few will be revealed. Possibilities. Home will again be a place to welcome her, keep her close to what matters. There is room enough for more than one good potluck, much more art.

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Writing the Life of a Novel

They had a dream of a simpler life in Michigan’s northern woods after years in upper class Boston. But Sophia Swanson, a dancer for thirty years, cannot dance or even speak now. Thomas, a renowned biologist and her husband, pursues her relentlessly although he mysteriously drowned. And Mia, their adolescent daughter, tries to reconstruct her life far away with relatives, bit by salvaged bit. Keeping watch over everything is Daedalus, a Husky-German Shepherd mix who lives in the woods with Sophia. A year after the drowning, famous photojournalist Calvin Rutgers returns to Snake Creek after a lifetime away. He has lost his mentor to the depths of Amazonia and needs peace, a reconnection to family and history, and inspiration. He is welcomed home but Sophia isn’t so impressed. She waits to see who he really is and what he wants.

Other Than Words is a mystery,  psychological drama, and romance about lives being reclaimed; about trauma and healing; and about the arts as powerful medicine. It tells of a village that hums with seasonal rhythms and the complicated lives of its residents, who demonstrates a willingness to embrace the suspect and eccentric. Beautiful Snake Creek and Ring Lake are where old friends, new inhabitants and uneasy neighbors coexist.

I know this territory so well I can see every inch of the village, every part of the surrounding woods and waters. I am the creator of both place and people, or perhaps I am only the chronicler of their stories. I am a most happy captive.  They have been my dear companions.

In 1999 I became ill with a virus that left me literally reeling. I tried to get out of bed one morning and crashed against the wall and to the floor. Any light reaching my eyes made the room spin worse, so I covered my face with a blanket and blindly called my sister. I crawled to the front door when help arrived. At the ER, my diagnosis was labyrinthitis, a disorder of the inner ear. It took a good six weeks to be able to walk across a small room in a  straight line, but five months to recover enough to return to work.  In the meantime, I discovered if I sat very still at the computer desk and hold my head at just the right angle, the dizziness mostly abated. I could miraculously write for hours. And so, an old idea for a novel came to fruition and my life became a writing life, full-time.

Other Than Words was the result: twenty-five chapters told from two different points of view, with a surprising five hundred and seventy-two pages. I have revised it fully eight times and counting.  I have pitched it at a writers’ conference and had one agent “nibble”, so I went back to work on it again.  And again. An excerpt was published in an anthology, and then nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  I want to publish this novel. I love the characters and their rich life stories. Still, I have put off the tedious business of innumerable submissions and more revisions. I have a job as an addictions counselor and don’t get home until eight-thirty each night. The hours left over are few. But on Fridays when I do not work,  I try to sit down to write by two o’clock and generally write until nine o’clock or later. But it isn’t enough. I want more time to work diligently at the craft–to bring this passion for the written word into a potent, more elegant state of being. To make the stories vividly alive, moving, truth-telling.

Because I need  time to work on more fiction, I will be posting fewer posts on this blog, likely twice a month at most. That is, unless a very, very short story idea grabs hold and won’t let go,  or my addictions work presents something I find intriguing, or my heart disease/recovery experiences strike me as worth putting out there for others who share the diagnosis. There is always one more good reason to write; I run out of time, never topics!  But the desire and intention is to sail this novel into the world so it may reach people who love to read settle-into-your-chair fiction. There is already another novel ready for more revision, and a third waiting for release from my head and onto white pages.

Today I want to share with you the opening paragraphs of Other Than Words. I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think if you are so moved, or if you would be interested in reading more.  Another blog might spring up about the novel and the writing process, or perhaps even a website. I’ll stay in touch. But right now I better get back to work.

Other Than Words

Part I-Sophia

Chapter 1

After Thomas died, I stopped talking. I had everything to lose by not speaking, but muteness, unlike speech, is a force that can’t be controlled. It took charge and relegated me to tenant status because I had nowhere else to live but in this body. I was caught between “Before His Death” and “After”. It was disorienting, but not an impossible way to live.

His body was retrieved from Ring Lake not far from the place we lived, the chapel-house, so named because it was originally a chapel here in the northern Michigan woods. Thomas’ mother and my family–parents, two brothers, a sister–came from the east coast to mourn and provide my daughter and myself with rudimentary care.  They tried to make sense of the disorder they found. They wanted to think I had lost my mind from the shock, but were closer to believing I had just decided to stop speaking. I was, after all, a dancer and choreographer, given to strange fits of introspection and moments of  theatrics. It didn’t occur to them there might be things I could not say aloud. Not yet; maybe never.

Janice, my younger sister, paced back and forth, her muddy shoes leaving dark stains on the wooden floor. I shared the couch with Daedalus, who looked more Siberian Husky than German Shepherd. He watched her with mild interest, his blue eyes like cool oases in the humid afternoon. The footsteps reminded me of Rorschach ink blots. I interpreted fear, extreme impatience. Hers, not mine. I felt porous as a sea sponge, everything drifting through me, leaving barely a trace.

Copyright 2011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Front Row Seats

                                                         

His body settled into the red Adirondack chair as though it was created just for him. J. spent an hour each morning with his coffee from Suze’s Soothers. It was a perfect spot, sheltered from the clutter of houses and shops along the shore and the people who clustered about them. Afterwards, it was a good walk back to his house. Then he got to work on his music at the old Steinway by the bay windows;  he could see Puget Sound as he composed.

He smoothed the dampish newspaper on his lap and gazed out over the water, family azure eyes squinting into the early morning light. The mist approached and captured the harbor like an elegant thief, just the way he liked it. Rich, sweet scents slipped in each breath. Waves rushed the rocks, then fell away in a soothing rhythm. J. came out of habit and because he could find music here. But when the sun took to the upper reaches of the sky and spread itself over the town in buttery tones, he retreated.  Everyone else discharged themselves from their habitats then, scurried into the streets, followed by tourists with their unbearably loud pleasure-seeking. For now, peace.  J. would wait for the first inkling of a melody to creep up, one that might be worth keeping. It had been a long, barren winter.

The other chair rested empty, its vivid redness an affront at first, then a comfort as always. It had taken some time to get used to it. For four years there had been Levi, and before that, Margot, his wife. Suze kept suggesting a dog, as though that would take care of everything. But what would a dog do with a chair like that? It wasn’t a sleeping chair. The thing would rustle around and whimper. It was better this way. No one dared sit in it. Six months ago J. had put a sign on the back when he came in the morning: “Occupied.” Never mind that it was not taken; the sign was official, no one was welcome. Sometimes customers complained but Suze diverted them to the back deck where they had the whole sweep of the town and water, the looming mountains. This was all J. wanted for a little while—the space between the coffee shop and Margot’s Miniatures (it retained her name though she was long gone, taken by cancer). Enough for two chairs and two people. Or one, as it turned out since Levi disappeared ten months ago after they’d had coffee at this very spot.

Suze told him: “Face it, he used you and left. He was your best friend, I know, but he stayed for free—years in your great hill house. Some people just take.”

J. could see her now through the window with her big hairdo—all those chestnut curls  piled up—and her mouth going a mile a minute, pen whipping back and forth between two fingers as she waited for the order. But she didn’t know Levi. It was like a bad accident, his leave taking. They had had words. J. said few of them but sometimes they came out fierce and stuck there, like an arrow on a bull’s eye. He had gotten surlier the last few years but doubted it was Levi’s fault. J. hadn’t sweetened up much since he’d left.

He shook his head. The coffee smelled good, Roman Gold, she called it, and it struck him that people had fancy names for things with humble beginnings.  Margot would have laughed at that. She had simple tastes, like him. And she loved his music no matter whether it was played in symphony halls or for the two of them.

“Margot,” he breathed, and the sound flooded him with bright sparks of pleasure just as they had all those years before. “Maybe I need a dog, after all,” J. muttered, “just to keep from talking to myself.”

“I’ve got one. A mutt. She’s fun even though she’s messy. ”

J. startled. A small girl of about six or seven was standing beside the empty chair, a rose-covered purse in one hand, green dress and matching sweater brightening her fair coloring. She smiled at him briefly, then plopped into the chair.

“That’s occupied. Taken.” J. sighed as his solitude vanished.

“I can read. It looks empty.” She pulled her sweater close in the chill. “It’s pretty here. My grandmother is getting tea for us.”

“Well, you’ll have to take the metal chairs behind me. Sorry, but I’m busy right now.”

She looked at him coolly, at the unopened paper, coffee mug in his large hands.  Her lips pulled to the side and her eyebrows shot up, a look of disbelief, then sat back. “I know. Everyone is busy. Except  grandmother. She says she has too much time now.”

J. followed the girl’s gaze; seagulls circled and sailed above them.  Moments passed in quiet, waves shushing, the mist rising in sunlight. The girl crossed her legs and emptied the purse contents on her lap. J. watched from the corner of his eye: a pack of gum, a bracelet with sparkly beads, five dollar bill, a wad of tissue, and a snapshot of someone with the mutt, he presumed. She suddenly kissed the photo and put everything back inside, snapping the purse latch as though she was locking it for good.

He cleared his throat. “I had a dog once. He was a looker, a Samoyed, do you know what that is? Admiral was fluffy-white but he was a very smart and strong dog. He knew what I needed without me saying it. We went everywhere, sailed with me, even.” He caught himself feeling nostalgic, which he disliked in himself. He glanced at the child to see if she’d been listening.

She gazed at him steadily, her large hazel eyes empty of sadness or worry, eyes that hadn’t been here long enough to see too much, he thought. But he suspected she missed nothing.

“Well?” she asked. “What happened to him?”

“He got old and died.”

She uncrossed her legs and stretched them out, sandals falling off. “Get another one.”

J. was shocked at the idea. “Another Admiral? Not possible.”

“No, a brand new one. A Sam—Sammy-ed? A sailing dog. You’d be happy.”

“Arianna? Arianna, where—oh there you are! You are not to take off like that.”

Arianna and J. turned around in their chairs.

“I’m fine, grandmother. We’re talking about dogs. He needs a new one.”

J. stood up, grabbed a metal chair and brought it in line with the Adirondacks. “Have a seat.” He nodded at her. “J. Arthur Capresa,” he added, holding out his hand.

“Mariette Faling.” She shook his hand and grinned.  “It looks like Arianna took the second seat despite the sign. Just makes herself at home wherever she is. I hope she isn’t interfering.” She put the cardboard tray with two hot teas at her feet and took the cups out, offering one to Arianna. As she eased her slight figure into the chair it seemed as though she had some pain but thought little of it. She sat erect, her head tilted at her granddaughter, silver hair in a loose chignon.

J. said nothing. He sipped his coffee as the other two chattered about Port Riser, the ribbons of light upon the calming waves, the hours ahead. He put the paper away and watched as the last gauzy fingers of fog were swept away by a fragrant breeze. When he glanced at the two, the sun gathered itself and fell upon Mariette and Arianna with their heads close together. They were splendid to behold.  A tune came to him that set his mind racing.  He followed it as it wound through him, heard the woodwinds pipe in, then the cellos and violins, a French horn bolstering the line, and then the percussion. He closed his eyes and listened, travelled far away.

“Don’t bother him, Arianna. I know his name; I think he’s a well-known composer. And he’s sleeping.”

Arianna tiptoed over to J. and whispered very distinctly in his ear. “Get. Your. Dog. Promise.”

J. kept his eyes shut; the violas were swooping in now. “Okay,” he whispered back and smiled, then into his mind swept Margot, calling him back to work at the grand piano. “I will.”

A Valentine to the Arts

I am a dedicated writer, so I appreciate the vast potential of words. They can create irrevocable damage; they can also illuminate mysteries and secrets. They are as apt to build a mighty life as take it down. Well-chosen, measured words are powerful enough to divide or unite nations. They teach us much about the natural and human-made worlds we love so much to inhabit. And words can convey crucial needs and flesh out our dreams.

It has been impossible to imagine a life without the written word since childhood when I was swept up by an early passion for playwriting, then poetry, soon followed by short and longer stories, and finally, as an adult,  novels that wait to one day be shared with many more.  A few things have been published. But the joy of creative journeying has been far greater than words alone might have allowed. 

Before all those words there was, for me, a way of being that was based largely on an absence of language spoken or syllables committed to paper. There was music.  Because my father was a classical musician, conductor and music teacher, our home was filled with music from morning until night. All five children played instruments as early as possible, some before school age. I sang, then played cello and sang, and when I could wrest the baby grand piano away from my siblings and father, I would noodle around on the ivory and ebony keys, making up tunes with a jazzy beat or melancholic drama. I played, studied and when sleeping, dreamed music.  In those otherworldly places within mind and spirit were childish symphonies that grew from happy hours climbing trees and floating upon clear lakes, figure skating against the frosty wind and playing kick the can with friends. I was trailed by music all day long. As I grew up, my cello warmed under my hands and spoke to me in deeper melodies. For a short time, the harp intrigued me and a guitar found its way to me, unleashing songwriting attempts. Singing often felt more natural than speaking. I understood that music was God’s language, and I was a willing believer.

Where there was music, dance surely followed. It didn’t always require the stereo, radio or a sibling’s instrumental accompaniment–just a tune whirling in my mind that set my feet sliding, leaping, spinning. I had discovered the best of both worlds: melody in motion. When multitudinous scarves were added, I was a firebird, a lowly flower seller, a warrior princess, a small, disheveled empress of all. Rhythm and melody moved my body as much as my heart and I felt freed of gravity.

Equally wordless was drawing. I had a small talent, but I did have vision. I drew what I observed but often I let the pencil or pen carry me away, as it seemed to move of its own accord. Houses became a near obsession and I could not have explained why. But they had substantial possibilities with their sun-reflective windows, their elegant porches, the way the chimney gave forth ribbons of smoke, the interiors sketched carefully so that I might wander from room-to-room as eye followed pencil. Add paint and an entire idea turned into a living thing. Later, photography would become a medium I loved. Visual arts were as magic as music and dance.  

I learned I could think of something, then provide it a life of its own, or, rather, simply give rein to imagination and let it express itself. Creating required work, but it most often felt like play. Discipline only increased the pleasure.

I might have felt lonely even within a large extended family of musicians and other creative souls, but there were always summer camps. When I arrived at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan it was as if I had stepped into the only universe that ever mattered: it was like home except populated by hundreds of youth and adults from all over the world.  Everywhere were people making art: music, theatre, dance, visual and language arts.  It was here that I realized the vast scope of the fine and performing arts. It was here that I learned that while language had its place of pride in my heart, all other arts cast a similarly powerful spell on me. I watched (and later joined) the dancers with awe, their graceful, sweaty bodies illumined by sunshine refracted from the lake beyond. I performed on open-air stages under the pines and was moved by the majesty of Beethoven and the delicacy of Debussy. Art studios drew me with the heady scents of linseed oil, turpentine, clay; there was the flash of a welder at work, the intent gaze of a jeweler as she aligned gems with silver and gold.  Stage plays shaped up with each rehearsal; I left light-hearted and inspired.

And not the least of my experiences occurred in the practice rooms beneath great trees and shimmering sky, when my cello and I became intimate allies in the effort to make good music. And my singing voice? It got to ride with the wind, carried high on the wings of birds.

I fell wildly, mysteriously in love with the arts from a young age, with the act of simple or complex creation.  Language has given voice to what matters most to me  and storytelling never fails to surprise, challenge and keep me company. But all the arts have saved me more than once and made beautiful this world in which we each struggle, strive and hope. Like wise spiritual teachers, they have mentored me every step of the way as they do countless others.

One should be so fortunate to experience a lifelong love such as this.