Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

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There is nothing that can break the heart quite like music. Or reassemble its jagged, scattered, keening parts. It inhabits such power partly because music is a human birthright as much as it is any other creature’s (or element’s) within nature’s domain. Everything warbles, croaks, chirrups, bleats, bays, whistles, howls–something is offered up. Behold the loon’s peculiar call. The snake’s slither and hiss. The dog’s curious vocalizing. It is inside our voices, runs in our blood. Even the wind-blown grasses, fallen leaves and quieter waters have music to make. And when they do, we listen and it stirs us.

But the human of the species ascribes much more to what might be a simple rhythmic utterance. I know something of this, having grown up in a musical family and having aspired to become a musician the first two decades of my life. I hummed and sang as a little child and a violin was placed in my hands before kindergarten. I sat by family members at the baby grand piano and plunked along when I could. Surely all children come by music naturally, no matter what they hear, sing or dance to. Just watch them.

It becomes a communal state of being when a family is rooted, nurtured, shaped and bound by making music. It is a many-limbed entity that hews a major part of its foundation from vigorous realms of musical expression. Especially if it is classical music. Which means: in our house there was played on the stereo or via our instruments and voices an almost entirely classical repertoire.  The exceptions were hymns, a little big band music and musical theater songs. The emphasis was on quality of musicianship even then. If it wasn’t very well executed, it was not abided.

It’s a topic I’ve written about and around countless times, attempting to clarify its meaning and impact. There is an essential musicality of life, it goes to our cores and impacts all cultures– not just mine. And then there is the breaking and reassembling aspect.

Despite being inundated by it, I stopped my engagement in music before I was twenty. I simply abandoned all this: private cello and vocal lessons, innumerable daily hours after school of redundant, critical practice, rehearsing and performing in orchestras, studying musical scores, trying to decipher music theory and learning music history, memorization of long and difficult pieces, performing in voice concerts and music competitions, attending workshops and music camps, protecting my fingers so they would be strong and calloused for heavy pressure and rapid movement upon cello strings, protecting my voice so it was responsive, resonant, accurate.

There is far more to it than this but you get the idea. The ultimate goal was to be worthy of others’  time and teaching, and especially of a discerning audience’s approval. At least, that is what I thought. Learning to play classical music and play it well is about many things. Strict discipline. Patience. Being able to take and utilize criticism. Seeking or creating nuances of sound even within a single note. Duplicating with exactitude a composer’s complex marks on a page. Becoming mathematically oriented and intellectually awake even while opening profound emotional channels–and all this while practicing the same measure over and over and over, then performing in front of people who may be utter strangers as if it was fresh and personal.

And the fact was, I adored it, despite the laborious parts or disappointments, tired hands or those failed attempts with a new measure. Music nestled in my bones, directed my dreaming, held up hope and resided in my best places. And I was singing more and more; it was becoming more compelling than playing cello, at times. So on it went, this  life made of music among all the other activities of a child, then youth, those movements through time.

Until I could not do it, not anymore.

For years the drill went as usual, the pleasures were daily; it was nothing extraordinary. Many of my friends were learning instruments at young ages. In our city, elementary schools had music programs, courtesy of my father and others, started when children reached the fourth grade. If they did well on music aptitude test, they were given instruments to play throughout  their education, though many bought their own before long.

Our own house held six musicians who were blood-related. (I often thought my mother might have been one, too; she’d played “a little piano once” and possessed a pleasing alto voice.) There were three cellists (the girls), one of whom deserted to play flute and bassoon. One brother played viola while another played clarinet and saxophone, then flute and more. One of my sisters, Marinell, was a very good pianist but became a cellist who played professionally in symphonies and chamber music groups until her early seventies; she passed on at 78. My other sister, Allanya, played sporadically into her thirties with groups. She also learned how to repair instruments. The woodwind- playing brother, Gary, revolted and only played jazz professionally; he’s now in his mid-70s and still plays often. Our younger brother, Wayne, played viola professionally until recently–also past 70 now–and still sings professionally. Our father played all of the above and knew how to play several more. But other than playing sax, clarinet and trombone in dance bands while in high school and college, he always played violin and viola professionally. That is what he mostly taught others. He also was a conductor.

So you can see how it was. We all played something; it was expected, even imperative. We all sang, harmonizing with one another around the piano as Dad or Marinell played. After we dispersed to other places we still would make music when we got together. This extended beyond our nuclear unit. My father’s younger brother was a flutist and successful composer (Dad was a music arranger, too) and his wife a pianist; my cousins have played cello and violin professionally. We have an opera singer in the family tree, Dad’s second cousin, I think. It goes on…

It would have been hard to back away from this life saturated with music. It never occurred to me; I was committed to being a musician then. I was passionate about music, happy to play classical. Things began to change a bit as I strayed into folk music by mid-teens, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar. I sang all the popular folk songs, started to visit coffee houses where singer-songwriters played. And then I discovered the joy of song writing, performing them as I could. To me, it was that happy union of two creative passions–writing (lyrics being a configuration of poetry) and music. But classical “art” singing had become the priority–or, rather, my father’s. I found it harder and harder to sing with hands clasped before me or at my sides, standing with erect carriage, my body so still. I wanted to move–I danced, as well–to express the music more fully. In community musicals I got the chance, so there was a small reprieve from the more rigid aspects of classical training.

Too, when Dad was home doing nothing much–a rare occasion–he would play the old standards from the thirties, forties and fifties on our piano while I got to sing out like a bird uncaged. And he did approve–just as long as I got back to business later. I understood that was frivolous singing, for relaxation and fun. It wasn’t serious music, important music, not to him. Well, this was no shock, but I resented it more as time went by and further explored genres like blues and jazz–but secretly. It was truly a forbidden world. I was drawn into its human woes and triumphs easily despite my primary allegiance to classical. Not that there wasn’t struggle, victory, comedy and tragedy in classical music–it was just set to another beat, was  given a different sort of platform, had a different life.

It was clear to me that being a fine classical musician was my father’s true calling, and also the teaching of it, the nurturing of the potential of each student. He did what he was meant to do and was lauded and even loved for it. It seemed some of my siblings wanted to follow suit.

But as much as cello held my poet’s soul in thrall, it was singing that had finally overtaken me. When singing I felt like everything in my life was cohesive, aligned. Enriched and authenticated. Freed. I’d had good training and I had a rapturous desire to sing truly well. I performed often at school and community events as well as music competitions. I did well. But it was no longer about singing well to please anyone. It was for the music that I sang, for the precise beauty of each note and the moving, sassy, challenging lyrics. It was singing for life. Its wonderment and aching. By 15, I was struggling to stay alive due to abuse from outside my blood family and then a assault. It was becoming nearly impossible to always keep up a good front, to speak nothing of it. And music kept me breathing, kept me reaching for a better day. Singing was my lifeline in so many ways, as well as my solitary writing.

But it was that singing that I finally let go after a second rape, after the drugs and breakdown they brought, after I could no longer see the point in believing God might seriously protect me in the world. Sometimes life overcomes the very best intentions, even courage mustered once again. Its contradictions consume such energy and effort. I was 20,  and exhausted.

After the grave woundedness and protracted healing, I tried to sing a bit more. Quietly, alone. It came out hard and slow, scraped my throat as if it protested against release of it song. I felt sick when I tried to sing more, as if all that music had slipped away, perhaps recoiled from my living. It left me nothing but a hollow echo and worse, it left me without the easy, spontaneous joy, the passion. It was as if my voice had been snatched from me, the essence squeezed out of it. There was nothing good to sing about or for anymore, not the way I wanted. I had not the stomach for it and, I realized, as many accessible opportunities. It would take such will and work. Each day living with music was both a balm and a bitterness as I felt it slipping away from my destiny.

I had longed to sing so long, so deeply that it struck me soundly with pain when I opened my mouth. So I became more silent, an old way of dealing with things. I stopped wanting it in the same way, then hated ever wanting to sing. It had become a wound that would not give up and close. I was nearly an adult; I had to gather every remnant of strength and move on, leave behind what couldn’t be repaired or reawakened. The life I rebuilt sheltered a tunnel of subterranean anger. It held the fierce resolve to never be caught off guard in the world or in my heart. It would take many more years for that armor to be dismantled. But there were better changes in life direction. I lived another year and then another, grew up despite myself. In time, there were other goals, college, new family. There was love. I sang for my children a little, softly; their very presence somehow made music flow.

Sometimes I was asked to sing but refused. My voice had lain down, made a nest in a faraway cave, wanted to sleep. And a singer who does not truly sing, cannot hope to sing true.

I hadn’t lost my belief in Divine Spirit, but gradually there unfolded a profound renewal of my Christian faith which had been hibernating, only awaiting my return. God had not abandoned me, never would; I had mistakenly abandoned God’s wisdom and succor, inviolate compassion and mercy. I realized again that though the world has few welcome mats for a loving, transformative God, I can still live as though God walks with and among us, in the midst of all the chaos and terrible disregard and grief. I can open doors–mine, too– to what is true and good, still, and work with and share what I yet have left.

But I didn’t rekindle that potent spark of desire needed to sing–really sing. I may have given it away without fully understanding it– to weariness, to a leave-taking of youth, to old scarring that no longer meanly defined me. I remember walking away from my music and singing, as if from a dearly beloved. As if it was a terrible love that could not break through the heartaches. I chose to give it up in the end, to not do whatever it took for my voice to return. Even though it broke the believer, the dreamer within more thoroughly. Even though I was, in spirit, a ready warrior, last to go down, rising up for one more challenge.

It was something I could not, would not, speak about other than the barest reference.

The decades brought what marriages and children, fulfilling experiences and new places, trials and more loss, happiness, work, sharing my life. I sometimes got out my cello, its soulful sound billowing in the room, giving me goosebumps and peace. But it was hard to keep up skills without practice, without performance.

I did not sing except for my little ones, then less, then nothing came.

Until something astonishing came to pass.

In 2001, after my second parent died and my heart attack in the forest at 51, I worked hard to recover. I took three years off work to find ways to sturdy healing and a longer, happier life. Prayed and meditated often every morning, read and studied. Briskly walked an hour each day. Wept more easily, began to laugh more. Created peace and found gratitude. Made it a priority to have a little fun every day. Traveled a bit more and reached out. Started to make art and take photographs. And I wrote and wrote, wrote a novel and more. That sort of thing–the good stuff we can forget or just put off. Until it’s clear you can’t put it off, not one more second.

One morning I awakened with music full blast in my head, songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I barely had my eyes open when I began to sing, still in bed. They were the old standards I used to sing with my father, at first. The songs just slid out between my lips. I was sure they would disappear but no, I got up and they kept coming. I sang right out loud in the shower as if I had never stopped singing. My voice didn’t hurt, it wasn’t strained, it was on key. I was no longer a soprano but an alto–that was alright. I kept on, not laboring over notes, not trying to remember more songs. The songs arrived like they wanted to be sung. I was entirely happy with this, to have so much music rise up and be freed. To know it deeply again, to feel that rumble of air, recognize notes intimately as they swirled about and rose from my innermost being and then–that sharing of light and life. Oh, Lord. That perfect melding of heart, mind, body and soul given sound! And I knew I was all put back together. The old terrible things were just ghosts that had no songs of their own but now my music was back.

Music, it has always seemed, is God’s mouth.

I didn’t go on to become a fabulous singer in my fifties. Those lovely songs lasted for a few months. I find I can sing more easily at church whenever I attend–I had been used to feeling breathless and constricted. I also joined two choirs but the repertoires–classical– weren’t what I wanted, anymore. I enjoyed the seasons but did not return.

I believe, though, that the sudden gift of singing made serious repairs in my physical and emotional heart. It opened wider and then gentled and fortified my soul. That late-coming, magical time of having an easy, rich voice came to an end as mysteriously as it began. Now I hum about the house. I am a quite good whistler. Half-sing along with snatches of music I enjoy. I might even put on a CD and let loose when I’m alone. But more often I do not. There is a small empty room  inside me, that holds my singing. I keep it well tended, but the door is barely cracked.

I don’t make music with my family members now. I might, but it’s alright like this. They’ve been living their musical lives and I have lived mine in my way. We are ever attached soul-to-soul by inherited abilities and adoration of music, by the ways we yet make it and inhabit it. Or to it. For this alone, I love them well.

The result of all this is that not singing as I once sang (and hoped to sing) doesn’t hurt nearly so much. In fact, it doesn’t reduce me to tears, anymore. We all make choices whether we grasp the truth of it or not. Things get left behind. Or certain manifestations of our dreams slip away. It was likely that all that music played and created and sung was enough–for that time, for those needs.

My cello now reminisces in its case, is stained with the lost heat of my fingers, the sweat of my chest. My singer’s voice sneaks out now and then and sometimes startles me with its vivacity. And I attend great concerts performed by others. I hear music daily on the radio and computer, play my stacks of CDs. I listen to two primary genres: jazz and classical. Anything that catches my attention I will give a serious listen. Love a little soul and bossa nova, flamenco and Celtic, indigenous, experimental, singer-songwriter, electronic–but that is another post: such myriad music I adore or seek. I would, I admit, still like to compose music.

But classical music….its complexity and dignity, its swell and flow, the mercurial shaping of notes and rhythms; its fractious and buoyant nature contained within the bounds of deep structure, like an elegant sound architecture in wilderness…It yet serves me well and has my devotion.

But I would have sung jazz if I had found my way to it.

Here’s the thing: music is everywhere, moving us. That is its power and mystery. Its gift to us mortals. How can we all not hear it in our waking or sleeping, in our plodding, seeking lives? It is a primal connection to all. And I don’t have to even sing it to stay alive, anymore. It will go on within me or without me; it sings me–and surely you–through each moment. Will do so until eternity where there is surely an extravagance of music.

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For my sister, Marinell,
And for my father
and my dearest father

Little Dove, In Abstentia

landscape-under-snow-upper-norwood- Camille Pissarro
(Landscape Under Snow-Upper Norwood- Camille Pissarro)

Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He  looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.

He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.

It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.

It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.

In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.

He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.

Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.

When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.

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(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)

They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.

Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.

“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”

Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”

Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”

So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there.  Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.

Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.

It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?

His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.

“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.

“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all  his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”

The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.

When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.

Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia

Centering the Mind at the Edge of Time

IMG_2222It was the first several days following the holidays, that perpetual festival of people, feasting and gift-giving. I had looked forward to the gentler pace. In fact, I would have more time than I had in years, as I was staring January without a job and my spouse was back east on business. Peace and quiet, what we all desire in the midst of pressured lives, were enticing. I had plans: write, complete a few chores, walk daily, write, read, write. A long list of other goals was drawn up, some of which involved research and others which required dusting, sorting  and tossing. I managed the rudimentary plans.

But not quite as I expected.

Oceanside week-end 10-12 122I stepped into a kind of portal wherein I discovered anew that time disappears and daily living is malleable, even undefined. Where my  body took a journey and I learned patience. There was no structure that was requisite, one upon which important matters were dependent. And furthermore, the open-ended days and nights were inhabited by only myself. Nothing I did or did not do significantly impacted my immediate environment. Nothing I said or did not say made any impression on others in my abode. This struck me as both humbling and provocative. As an addictions and mental health counselor, I am used to addressing rooms full of people, as well as being attentive to individuals with trenchant pain. I am accustomed to being routinely, acutely aware of my behavior and others’.

All this ceased to matter.

First off, not having to arise at 6:30 a.m. to go to a job, I found myself glancing at the clock: 5:30, back to sleep; 6:55, (mild panic) okay, back to sleep. And so on, until at around eight in the morning I might start to embrace consciousness more willingly. But even then, it turns out one can continue to delve deep into the rabbit hole of sleep and have eccentric, vivid dreams that stream rapidly. Without the need to jump up and prepare for a day out in the world, I’d partly awaken, then grab the tail end of the last dream and join the theatre of the absurd again. I can’t say they’re all worth noting or pleasant, but I found myself choosing to readily observe and participate in them. They provided ideas for stories and rumination.

Thus, it might be after nine before I arose. Guilt briefly crept in; my sense of duty is strong. But duty to what? After a shower I read meditation books, caught up on a few pages of each magazine piled on the dining room table, looked at my list. I glanced at the clock, then looked away. I could do whatever I wanted, and despite this feeling like a mandate rather than freedom the first few days, I did not wear my watch nor pay attention to how low or high the sun was, how little or much time I had left.

I wrote. I wrote until my eyes no longer could focus on the new twenty inch computer monitor. I wrote until I had nothing interesting to say–sometimes that took an afternoon, sometimes until a small mug of tea was consumed. But I was letting words guide me and helping them rearrange themselves. Characters advised me readily on their roles in my current short story as I moved around the apartment, checking the one healthy plant I have, folding laundry. I revised paragraphs while I walked outdoors in the frigid afternoons, in misting or pelting rain, in the pallid light of mornings. I recorded poems on my phone, took photos as I skirted the neighborhoods. Late at night: reading, jotting ideas, watching a candle burn low.

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In other words, I adapted and worked for four days. Then vertigo visited me.

I have had this mysterious inner ear disorder since 1999. Labyrinthitis. Whereas then I had been very ill with resultant dizziness debilitating for months, I now manage it successfully, most of the time. The problem with balance has remained a chronic state. I maneuver well enough that no one is aware I have this problem–unless they see me teeter and fall into a wall, yet quickly recover. Or move my head a certain way, like looking high up on a shelf, at which time I will begin to fall backwards before I catch myself. It depends on the angle at which I hold my head and an unpredictable vulnerability. Learning to correct my inner and outer responses to being off-balance has taken effort, with trial and error. I always have thought it a fitting analogy for what I teach others when confronted with hindrances or stressors: life is about readjustment of our own perspective much of the time, and how we adapt.

I can tell it has decided to aggravate me more than usual even before I get out of bed. I will turn over and inside my skull everything rushes and turns, as though I am on a boat and can’t get my sea legs. Sometimes there is nausea, sometimes not. The only way to combat it is to take medicine for motion sickness, and it makes me drowsy. I keep it at bedside, as sometimes I cannot stand up and walk.

So I awakened and knew that taking medication was the first order of the day. Everything else was up for grabs. After a couple of hours, I managed to do an errand, and then I was done. I lay on the couch, tuned into HGTV to gape at lovely houses while I rested. And fell into a deep sleep. I awakened; the room was a cloudy grey and the television mumbled into the quiet. I closed my eyes. After awakening three or four times I felt able to get up. But lethargy weighted me. My mind would not clear. I longed to write something, but writing did not have the faintest interest in me. I couldn’t read yet. Walking across the floor still intimated at walking on a floating dock. I lay down, drifted but did not slumber. Nothing good came to me–just a bleak feeling of loss: of this day, of this night, of my capricious health. A loss of direction.

Apple Festival 2012 005

When I awakened, I recalled a CD of meditation music my son had made me. I hadn’t had time to listen. He had told me, “Meditate. Don’t dance to it. Don’t do anything else. Listen to it. It’s seventeen minutes long.” Since my son has a powerful belief in self-healing that has aided him countless times and he prays for me when I am ill, to my benefit, I put on the CD. I wondered if he somehow knew I would need this healing music.

I sat in the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and let my ears open. Open deep inside. I followed the sounds into the maze of dreaming, the labyrinth of being. The wooden flutes and clarinet, cello, the piano and voices and nature sounds all moved within and settled in my interior. I breathed slowly. Soon I saw a distant emerald shore and floated there. Billowing violet and blue mists rose and fell, somersaulted and spun, translucent swaths of energy. The air shimmered and the music was a stream which carried me. I was strong, free. I was only one small part of the endless mystery.

Tryon on April 30, 2011 011

Relief swept over me. Tears came. Such beauty was perfectly real, infinite. The exhaustion and dizziness diminished, then was no more. I was at ease again.

Today I feel well. Earlier I took a long walk and found it revitalizing, as ever. I began writing when the sun was brilliantly arrayed upon  many shades of green. Now night descends; the rich velvet of darkness rests on the city. I haven’t looked at the time. I don’t need to. Writing is being done. I have love in my life. I have this gift of freedom to do what I choose. It is up to me to follow whatever calls me from the unseen edge of time.

Moon Over Columbia River

Everything in This Life Can Be Lost, Broken and Freed

I took a sip of water after brushing my teeth and was surprised when my lip was grazed by a rough spot. I held the ceramic glass close and examined it. There was a minute crack less than a quarter-inch long; it lay along the edge, marring the smooth, shiny glaze. Now it threatened to crumble under the force of my gaze. As I examined the lush blues and greens that graced the form and vibrant golden circles that marked one side, disappointment rose up. My fingers touched the crack where the loosened chip was and it fell to the floor. Thoughts of repairing it were silenced by thoughts ranging from: “I can find another pretty one at the ceramics art fair this spring” to “It’s just a ceramic glass, not an heirloom–it isn’t that important” to “Why does everything I love break?”

This has become a common refrain. It seems as though many possessions have met fates I had not foreseen.

Less than a month before another handmade glass had cracked. It was a pale water-green—celadon– porcelain beauty that I had found at another art fair. It had been one of a matched set; my husband was given the other one and still sat upon the bathroom vanity, unscathed and appreciated. I wondered about the longevity of the latest ceramic vessel that was on my bedside table. Imprinted on the white and blue side is one word in pale red: cup. I treasure it; my artist daughter gave it to me.

I could list a couple dozen other items that have cracked, ripped, crumbled and unraveled. There have been several earrings that have disassembled when I wasn’t looking and just disappeared. A prized blue topaz ring I enjoyed for years was only a band with an empty mount when I got out of my car one day. It had been intact when I got in, or so I believed; the stone was never recovered. A crystal bell once belonging to my mother smashed after falling for no discernible reason. And a favorite hand-blown glass candle holder snapped in half when grandchildren strayed too close in their exuberant play. There was my cello, which was crushed almost beyond recognition when a moving company failed to secure it well. Then there were the dozen paintings. The canvasses had been removed from their stretchers and rolled up for safe keeping, then stored in the lower level of a carriage house in which I lived. A massive thunderstorm swept in during the night, the room flooded and the paintings were ruined. They were my paintings; each one was a kind of awakening and no longer preserved.

The earliest objects lost or broken always brought me to tears. They were lean years when, as a young mother of five, the few beautiful objects I had were either gifts or treasures passed on by family, like gold filigree earrings (one lost) from Spain that my parents gave me after their trip. Each loss felt like a small blow as I surveyed the humble life I lived; I felt a little shame as I longed for mere things. I had not been raised to lust after material things. My own parents’ home was modest but held lovely things imbued with memories. I understood even as a child that the most important things are those that were rich with meaning. Most often those were books, music, something handmade or unique, things that felt like blessings.

When the last ceramic glass broke and I groaned, “Why does everything I love get broken?”, my husband asked, “What do you think this is really about?” I didn’t like his response but I thought about it.

The first fact I considered is that much of what I like is breakable. I am drawn to pottery, objects made of glass, carefully crafted jewelry, fabrics that may be likely to fray, pull or stain easily when water dashes it. Hanging in the window is a delicate crystal bird. There are photos and lively cards from children that festoon the frame of a large mirror in one room; sometimes they fall out, get ripped or marred. But visual intrigue, that is a variety of color, texture and design, attracts me. And the few things I own, I have come to value. Either I should better protect them or accept they are perishable. Or purchase items that are guaranteed to not break, corrode, tear, shrink, or otherwise malfunction. Which is not my preference.

The second thought is simply that although I have gathered some possessions, the simple odds are that many of them will simply not make it until I am old enough to while away the days in an easy chair. Even when the lifespan of an object is long, it can have a proclivity for vanishing when you least expect it. But there aren’t many that are crucial to my happiness. In fact, although some might determine I have few possession of worth, I often feel there is a surfeit of things that clutter my life. Most of what I can see in my home can be done away with, and I have spells when I go on a rampage and clear out the clothes closets for donation, remove miscellaneous things from high shelves and trash them, load up bags of well-used or unsatisfactory books for resale. A surprising peace settles in the cleaner, emptier spaces. I feel light again. As things leave my home one way or another, I am ultimately not very distressed.

So I consider what I always have left. Books royally command this home and CDs and the stereo enjoy up a prominent space. And many areas are devoted to photographs of up to five generations of our families. Which reminds me, my camera is one of my prized possessions. I keep it close at hand and take care with it. My cello, with me since age twelve, sleeps in its hard black case in a corner. It was rescued by my father’s gifted hands after the devastation. The turquoise afghan my mother made long ago graces a chair. My husband’s resonant guitars await his touch. Pictures my grandchildren have made are kept a long while. There are the recordings of one daughter singing and works of art my son and another daughter have made. Cards from all five kids over the years are secreted away in the middle drawer of my ponderous desk. And my own writing is organized in files and boxes; current works are in haphazard stacks near the desk. I would rather not see any of these disposed of any time soon. Yet if all was swept away, I think I would be alright with it in the end. Having had little many years and then finally a bit more, it is evident to me that things don’t have a high place on my list of priorities. I can let those go, have even left them behind as I have moved place to place over the years. Needs would get met again.

It occurs to me that it’s my life I don’t want lost or broken anymore, yet as soon as the words land on this page I know the frail hope of such a desire. I know what has come before this day; the future will bring challenges again. For I have experienced cracks and chips and brokeness in every way over the years. I have endured health problems that have brought me to a grinding halt. I have experienced near death more than once and lived to tell the tales. There have been marriages and friendships that have failed due to faulty expectations, mistaken identities, poor timing, excess baggage, waning interest. Failure of faith has visited me more than I imagined, although since childhood I have lived and breathed a core-deep belief in God. Fear has nevertheless rendered me helpless to my profound consternation. Despair has at times whittled away self-worth, and in its place came the long, lonely descent into the bitter heart of self-abnegation. The price for staying alive has seemed very high at times when I had not yet learned how to hold on to what matters most and let go of what matters least. Before I learned to live free of whatever was keeping me from peace.

If I know what damage is, I know also the power of reprieve and renewal. It can happen when least expected, a phone call from a dear friend, the sight of a trillium blooming in the muck, a sweet song from years ago coming forward and escaping from my lips. Freedom for me is discovering that loss is temporary despite tenacious pain, woundedness can fully heal, and familiar people will leave while new people with their stories will arrive. What is resisted is often the lesson most needed. It is about forgiveness. It is about joy despite the grief we hate to feel but which can become holy. I have many times lost my liberty to people, to circumstance, to forgetfulness of Spirit. But the way back has been lit with beacons held out by many hands, some unseen or unknown at the time.

The truth is, whatever I can hold close, whatever I care about may become broken. It can be lost. But it may also lead to freedom and discovery despite mad random events or my expectations. Even love of surprising incarnations.

All this gratitude came from a broken cup. Do you see what I mean?

The Heart Chronicles #13: Regarding the Strange Music of a Heart

After I met with a writer friend today, I thought (as I often have) there are times that all that needs to be said fits best in a poem. This can seem true to me even when dealing with heart specialists, who truly (reasonably so) love their own esoteric language. But I can get frustrated sitting in examination rooms, searching for the right words. It is challenging to articulate emotional nuances, sensory experiences, and random thoughts that accompany pain or sudden discomfort. Dizziness or breathlessness. A sense of suspension of time. Flashes of intuition that come from deep within–and how they can be an accurate alert system.  How can I tell Dr. P what it really is so he can better help?

Sitting on the table, the stethoscope against my back and chest, I often suspect that what my cardiologist hears is something other than what I hear within. Because I do hear my heart in my inner ear as well as feel its beating. Dr. P early on informed me that most people do not; some of us do. I had complained that it was annoying, sometimes distressing, but he reassured me that I was fortunate, as then I could quickly inform him when something seemed unusual, wrong. Reluctantly, I agreed, but how to translate it all?

Then came an appointment that built a bridge of communication with Dr. P. It was after the second stent implant 18 months following the first. My heart seemed confused and angry since the last invasions, even though relatively small ones–a fouth angiogram and the tiny stent implant. Despite it being successful, I had worse arrhythmias than ever. They distracted and interrupted my life. They hurt and alarmed. They reminded me, even when I felt  pretty well, that I had coronary artery disease. My heart chided me.

“If you were a musician I might be able to explain them better because they have distinctive patterns of rhythm,” I told him in exasperation.

He grinned. “It so happens I was a musician. I played trumpet in high school. So try me.”

“Good. Well, it’s like a run of sixteenth notes followed by a half-measure of rests, then maybe six or eight more sixteenth notes, then a rest that goes on so long I feel like I am going to pass out. Then a full note and it kicks back in hard with plain old four beats to the measure. And I’m back to normal. But sometimes it’s like acid jazz–free-form, you know? And it feels like it could actually kill me. ”

“So,” he said, “that’s great–I mean, this musical thing. I understand better.” He shook his head. “That’s sure a new way to interpret and explain.”

It was a relief that music had come to my rescue again. But that discovery also gave rise to musings about heart disease, music as central to my being and just how my life had been changed. And as I wrote, confoundment, a sort of awe and anger all came to the fore. So here is that poem–never given to Dr. P. One day, maybe. But it helped me.

Memo to a Cardiologist re: palpitations

I have told you what I know, how there are
hidden notes beneath the bursts of pain but
it is not like the songs of my childhood,
gentle and guileless,
nor the songs that I stole into the night to hear
when I thought I was old enough
to know some things, the music all bombastic and tricky.
This is more like jazz, all icicles and firecrackers,
split time and beyond time but
unable to quit, moon-dazzled and
howling but cool as can be.

Or it might be something else
all the notes and sounds that were forgotten
or shown the back door in a lifetime of concerts
now gathered and tossed onto taut drum skins,
sizzling, renegade rhythms,
speaking out of turn but not committed to anything,
damaging each other in their greed for recompense.

And then there are nights of errant dancers,
when they burst out of my ribs
and tap and stomp and slide across my chest,
their steps wild like bats in darkness,
pushing me from bed and into
the thick of it,
now a possessed woman, drinking air.

And all this time I think I need to write it down
for you, the quarter notes, sixteenths and dotted halves,
the peculiar rests amid the trills and fortes, decrescendos,
notes tripping over each other,
one long life/line of syncopated simpatico,
the rhythms daring me to do something, anything
when the beats heave themselves over a distant waterfall 
and are gone. Floating in rivers somewhere exotic.

Someone has called for intermission
and I am left with the wild taste of starlight and
hot blood, salt and the sharp reminder
that this is where I have been left and will have to resume,
my midnight manuscript in hand, pen poised,
the symphonic possibilities of Antarctica or Amazonia
still unheard by anyone but me,
this sudden incremental music
a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.

And it always comes, the second or third or fourth part
of this ordeal/song/ride to unknown destinations.
From here it seems dangerous and entrancing as
a white panther caught in a wildfire — I imagine her now
as I lay back–her feet scorched but poised for
a death-defying leap across the chasms.
This heart is beating like a thousand captive birds with
each tiny wing pushing against the wind,
all the way into heaven’s celestial soundings
and, perhaps, back home again.

copyright 20011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson