Has it really been ten weeks since the last time I wrote anything here? Yes, I believe it really has. It’s true that time flies when you’re having fun. What nobody tells you is that time just flies, no matter what you’re doing. It has the tendency to stretch out unbelievably when I’m in front of a class trying to answer a question – say, about Balzac’s caffeine habits – with arcane knowledge (my possession of which defies both logic and memory). It speeds up when I’ve got nineteen things that absolutely have to be completed by three o’clock. Yesterday. And sadly, that is most of the time.
In these last ten weeks, I have been writing, and teaching, and rewriting, and playing music. I’ve been practicing clarinet, and guitar, and violin, and piano. I’ve been singing, and writing songs. (And of course, there have been meetings – and meetingsandmeetingsandmeetingsandmeetings – and departmental commitments and library trips and not-long-enough afternoons with favorite novels.) And if I haven’t been coming here to write, it’s not for lack of music or thoughts about music. It’s partly because the weeks have melted away. And partly because every time I think about my music project, all I can think is “the year is complete.” December went up in a hiss and a puff, like the sulfur smell of a lit match. January slunk in around the corner of time and then slunk balefully out. February dropped into my lap like one of the stinging caterpillars that live in the trees down here.
And suddenly it is March, and the camellia blossoms have fallen like great crimson heads, the azaleas are exploding into Kodachrome vivacity on every street corner, and the sky out my office window is regularly more blue than grey. 2011, the Year of Living Musically, is officially only a memory now.
Where does memory live? I have heard all my life that scent is the most powerful sense, the source of memory going back beyond consciousness. Memory happens sometimes in laundry soap, or cologne, of early-morning coffee. The play of a breeze across jasmine flowers in the first dew of early-summer dawn. The ocean, the pale sting of salt and the whip of wind and white-frothed water, gulls circling, wheeling, screeing overhead. Pine needles left over at the bottom of a car seat folded down, from last year’s Christmas tree. Baby powder. St. Ives aloe lotion. The smells of last things, breath, tears, even the scent of forgetting as scent fades.
But memory lives elsewhere too. I have found it in sound, in the process of weeping over a broken string, the late-night insomniac touch as I caress the back of my violin as if it were a child’s body waking from a nightmare, as if it were the one crying, not me, and I could comfort it. And in the sound of a voice I feared forgetting, Dad’s many voices, teasing or compassionate, angry, teary, his patience tested, or biting back laughter from a joke I would not get.
The Mozart clarinet concert. Bach on the oboe. Dvorak on the cello. Fingers on the piano, in the darkened rooms of a house filled with waiting or sleep or loneliness.
I had forgotten so much. Music has opened a door to some of it, a side gate to some more, a window to the rest. Mostly, I have learned, I have a lifetime to remember. And a lifetime to remember it with. And a voice with which to sing it, to call it forth again.
I had my Dad’s grand piano shipped out to Louisiana. The day it arrived, I sat at the glossy black bench and stared at the keys. Could I even play it, here? Is this the life for this instrument? Can I ever call it “mine,” or will it remain “my Dad’s piano” forever? I set my fingers on the keys and began to play without thinking – and the music that came forth, the first thing played on the piano my Dad chose with care and research and hope and love, was the song he wrote when I was born. Fanciful chord progressions, melancholy cadences, a cascade of major and minor that almost remains unresolved. And the change from B minor to E major, the trick of a replaced pinky finger in the left hand, the place Dad always caught himself playing the wrong chord and grumbled under his breath … I heard my whole life, my whole soul, in those notes. A gift, every weird breath and fumble and arpeggiated harmonic cadence.
The Year of Living Musically has ended. Typing that sentence just brought tears to my eyes – unbidden, uncontrollable. Every day away from 2011 feels like a step away from the moment during which I was that close to Dad, and to my own unbelievably weird and cool project that brought him back to me, a little, in the first rush of heartbreak after his death. I have not written the words before today because I did not want them to be true.
But not saying them does not mean time stops. It is 6 March 2012. I sit at the desk in my office, staring out the window for a moment. The tree between my building and the next department sways in a sudden breeze, revealing a dozen indescribably different shades of green. I find myself wondering – with the Year of Living Musically over, what do I do now? Even, who am I? The work and art of music, its logic and its lilting, its possibilities and the ways it changes you, has become so much a part of my life that with this year over, I feel adrift. Unmoored. Alone, all of a sudden.
But I realize that I have done more than walk through the days and weeks like a tourist. I have taken a little bit of the music up into myself. It is in me. I am in it. I carry it, wear it, breathe it, in the words I choose and the way I hear the steady hum of the air conditioner (a low-frequency F) and the understandings that wash over me as I move through space and time … Music is who I am. It is who I have always been.
I am a musician’s daughter. A writer. A teacher. A sister, a daughter, a friend and mentor. And I have become, am always still becoming, a musician. I am alive, and as Marie Howe wrote, this is what the living do. I am living, and I remember you.
I dreamed last night that Dad was alive.
That it had all been a joke, a fake, part of a bigger plan. I was shocked.
“But I saw you,” I told him dumbly. “I closed your eyes. I watched them cover you with a sheet.”
He laughed, and I grew furious. “Are you kidding?!”
All the months, the heartache and grieving and the confusion and how we never truly healed, and the things we fought over, the stupid things like who gets that green glass bowl or the “Beethoven’s Fifth” bottle opener (I could just hear my grandfather saying “yuk, yuk”). The bleak mornings with no color. The shroud over everything and the various ways we found to prick holes in it, so we could at least breathe, if nothing else.
And after the anger came a wave of grief even deeper. Because of all I had left undone and all I had done wrong, every harsh or impatient word, every time I said “fuck” too loudly, every unkind word or impatient gesture – because you want to think that when you lose a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart, the rest of you becomes more attuned to other people’s fragilities, other people’s pain.
Sometimes it does.
Sometimes you are just struggling to wade through the morass of the day.
“What are you so upset for?” he asked then, in his most provoking voice, half petulant, half magnanimous. “Would you rather I was gone?”
“What?! Of course not.”
it’s just …
I think, Daddy, I can finally breathe without you, for real. I have started imagining my life, for the whole rest of my life, without you in every day. It has started to feel normal. I think I might just get through it OK. And I don’t know if I can lose you again. I think it might break me.
“It’s just … I have done so much, since you died. The days have been full, bursting with life and grief and more than grief, so much more than grief. Replete. And I couldn’t tell you about it. And now … It all seems meaningless, but I want you to know. To see. And I don’t know where to start.”
He grins, his buck teeth shaping the smile into its familiar quirky angles.
“Rosebud,” he says, in the voice I carry in every cell of my blood, “don’t you know? I’ve been right here, the whole time.”
I woke with tears on my cheeks, a strangled feeling in my throat.
The house in that first bereft wash of grey-rose dawn light hummed and sang. The day, already, at this hour reaching toward morning, full of music.
A last song for the Year of Living Musically : Valentine.
Thanks for being part of my most amazing year.
Love and music,