Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The Walk Alone
We had such a sweet time at Joan's house in Joliet. Mia showed off her versions of "The Pink Panther" and "Meet the Flintstones;" Nora played some violin tunes and we all danced the Hokey Pokey in a circle to Aunt Joan's piano accompaniment. Randy took pictures from the couch and surreptitiously checked scores. Aunt Joan told a joke about a parrot that spoke five languages and later, over pizza, read a dramatic dialogue she'd composed between herself and her inner critic.
"We're having ourselves a regular salon!" I said sometime that afternoon, in between bites of the oatmeal cookies with white chocolate chips that Becky had made.
Joan was my mother's younger sister. She lost her only sibling when she was thirty-three. Aunt Joan and Becky and the girls and I get together about once a year and there's always a shock of recognition, usually accompanied by a big laugh, when Joan reveals some nuttiness or forgetfulness that reminds me of myself. Aunt Joan pressed a bag of fresh picked asparagus in my hands before we left that she and Becky had foraged in the forest preserv.
On this happy afternoon, I didn't think to ask her the eerie questions that occur to me later, "Do you see her in me?" "Did she laugh like you?" We were having too much fun in the now.
"Do you play?" asked Aunt Joan as I was admiring her piano books, then corrected herself, remembering my high school days. "I mean, besides the French horn, of course. You know I read an article lately that said certain personality types choose certain instruments. And French horns, very..."
"Brassy and loud?" I interrupted.
"Yes," she laughed, "And principled. And honest." She was flattering me, I think, but it still felt good to hear.
I do pick out tunes on our piano at home, for a few stolen minutes after the girls have gone off to school, slow and cautious versions of "Falling Softly," "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," the Soldier's Chorus from Gounod's Faust and most often, almost to the point of a daily discipline, "You'll Never Walk Alone." That one is a simple version for no more than four fingers at a time from an old book of Rogers and Hammerstein songs with colorful illustrations.
I love how the gorgeous chords build into the climax, but I prefer to play it very soft, rather than build to the loud Forte the score calls for. The song is a hymn, the final song from the musical Carousel, a play whose tone I found strange when I finally saw a production at Northwestern a few years ago. I guess we're meant to be swept up in the triumph of Billy Bigelow's redemption, but the wife-beating and daughter-slapping that precedes it are pretty hard for me to fathom.
But it's not usually the source material I think about as I practice, too distracted by my desire to get the left hand correct. The left hand is so important, you see, more than the melody on the right. It's the left hand that tempers the dominance of the main line with unexpected minor surprises. That keep you from getting bogged down in the predictability of that old tune we all know too well.
"When you walk through the storm, keep your chin up high and don't be afraid of the dark..."
You probably know this song. They scream it at soccer matches in Liverpool. Pink Floyd borrowed it in the song "Fearless." Elvis recorded it.
"At the end of the storm is golden sky/And the sweet silver song of a lark..."
I had been working on it for a few weeks, squinting at the page, remembering how I loved to look at the pictures when I was a girl, when the title broke into my consciousness in a new way and the realization dawned that the song was sung to a girl whose foolhardy father gets himself killed. A girl left lonely and adrift. I lifted my fingers mid-chord.
This song is a lie. I do walk alone.
I left the piano.
Bitterness can come over me sometimes - seeing dear Aunt Joan brought up a tangle of emotions and not all of them were easy. There's a huge stone in the landscape of my life and sometimes I knock into it without warning.
I'm not one of those who talk to loved ones who have gone before us. I don't look to the sky for guidance, nor picture my parents looking down on me with pride. Nancy and Christopher do not wait in their white pajamas for a happy reunion.
But on a bad morning, I did cry, "Mama, help me!" in tears, when I was wrenching my back wrestling our heavy mattress against the wall since Randy left for California on a seven a.m. flight and the exterminator was due any minute for the second visit, and he wasn't even the eco-type I found on the web (of whom Randy asked, "Do they politely ask the bugs to leave?") but a gruesome full-strength guy who made me feel like I had to turn in my organic card.
That cry was almost without thought, a kind of reflexive "Help me Jebus!" in a lost moment, but even as I made it, I knew my call was not to my mother's magic angel or her benevolent ghost. I called to her genes within me, or the wisps of her memory, or to a place where she lives in my imagination.
"Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown..."
Dorothy Day called it the long loneliness, living an entire lifetime without sight of the god she loved. Sometimes I think of her name for it and take the phrase for my own weird landscape, the one I walk through, although god is only one of the crowd of dead I miss.
But the storms of bitterness are temporary. I am Pacific and the waves calm in time.
I'm alone much of the time, but not all of that time is lonely. All the spare time I had this year, all that time I was looking forward to when the girls were both away at school all day for the first time, it all drove me a bit crazy. I've got to get back to teaching.
But I did write a book this year, with all that extra time I had. It's a YA novel about a girl who hears differently than those around her. I wrote about 40,000 words and I know many do more than that in a single month, but I am slow and self-editing. Still, I made a heroine I like very much and she's got a lousy (literally lousy) sidekick I love. The little boy is funny and the heroine girl is resourceful and hopeful, not a bruiser like Katniss, nor flimsy like a Twilighter. Query letter number three going out as soon as I post this.
"Walk on, walk on..."
There's going to be bitterness sometimes. But bitter is a flavor, like sweet, and like tangy. My cousin Becky's cookies had a hint of oven smoke but that didn't stop them from being enthusiastically devoured. By me. By nine o'clock that night.
Rocks reside in every landscape. Quarter rests, half rests, whole rests, they are all absences and yet they are still part of the music. Even if it's terribly sad, every part of this whole world is music.
Do you really think I could give up the piano, give up playing that song? The left hand is what brings me back. Not the unmoveable stone of the Melody, not the cloying lyrics, but the counter-melody, the subtler left hand, the challenge to the conventional Story about walking alone.