Tuesday, January 29, 2013

O Great Winter Sky

Beauty, eh? Beauty trumps everything. Right?

I can be filled with bravado at the start of what the forecasters call a winter event. Transplanted Southerner, I wonder what it could look like this time, feel like, this snow, this cold, this play set in the air, in the clouds above me. A transformation of some kind will take place, and the heart that is ready can find wonder in that transformation.

O great winter sky!

I apostrophize in my way. I celebrate in my way. I defy anyone to bring me down, make me wary. I am its equal, humid South of my youth meeting the freezing rain on my Northern windows late in the evening.

I walk through the apartment, through certain rooms that may not yet have grown warm, radiator or no.

I imagine facing these temperatures in the simple New Orleans homes in which I grew up, the single thickness of their windows helpless against an unseasonable cold. I recall space heaters, incandescent red bars, humming in the dark of a bedroom. What if it did not end? What if this cold kept on, kept its grip, I used to wonder in my long pajamas under layers of quilts and throws.

Adult now, I trust that it will work out. How far could I really be from help, from heat, no matter what that freezing rain does overnight to front steps, to car door handles, to the slight incline of the side street where I live?

On the other hand, I am not unacquainted with the way slippery steps can ignore whatever cautious footsteps I place on surface after surface as I exit my front door. Will I make it tomorrow morning as I leave for work? Will the surprise come all the same? Will this be the place where the ache of years to come is born in hip hitting pavement, hand breaking fall, back attempting a stand without the strength it needs? How long will I lie there if I fall?

If I say it, if I name the foreboding, if I use all my powers of expression and imagination, can I make those scenarios remain distant? Can I live just for beauty a little longer? Can I apostrophize in my way? Can I celebrate in my way?

O great winter sky!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Going Alone

“That’s my violin teacher!”

The young woman sitting next to me at Symphony Hall this past weekend had not been able to help herself. Stranger though I was, she turned to me with undisguised glee. She talked to me but it was clear she would have talked to anyone in my seat. The conductor was not yet on stage, and the young woman had just been stretching, half standing in her seat to survey the members of the orchestra. Maybe she responded to my grandfatherly look; maybe she presumed I would be able to appreciate the excitement she was feeling on being connected to someone seated on the stage of Symphony Hall.

So I became her grandfather. I stretched as well to get a glimpse of the violin section. I smiled encouragingly at my fellow concertgoer as she pointed to an announcement in the program booklet. She would be performing the next afternoon with the Boston Youth Symphony; there would be a production of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. She was in a cloud, a musical cloud, that weekend.

I had come close to not being her grandfather. The ticket at my disposal that Saturday night was a single ticket in the first balcony. There had been a moment at 5:30 that afternoon when the lure of staying home and fixing an easy dinner and making progress in a novel that I had just discovered was strong. I had spent the morning with a family whose three daughters I taught over twenty years ago. Why venture out one more time? Who would be there to notice if I did not make it?

On the other hand, there are people I get to notice when I do make it.

The rows of seats of the first balcony wrap around three walls of Symphony Hall. Someone sitting in left center, where I had my ticket on Saturday, can see people seated to the left, to the right and even across the hall. At the end of the row where I had my seat, a gentleman in a tan cashmere sport coat raised a pair of opera glasses from time to time to watch the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and four soloists perform Verdi’s Requiem. Without the aid of opera glasses, I had a chance to record concertgoers who had joined me that evening in the first balcony.

1. One elderly gentleman had been brought by his adult daughter. He lumbered in with her help, settled his bulk in an end seat, kept the sweetest smile on his lips even as his eyes closed behind his glasses within the first ten minutes of the concert. His tie stayed neatly in place for the length of the evening. His daughter did not fuss over him as he slept; she read carefully through the libretto as the chorus moved from one part of the Mass to the next.

2. Two graduate students who had opted to share an evening of classical music sat close together. They leaned into one another as the evening advanced. They were equal to the demands of being part of a symphony audience, their posture seemed to communicate, at the same time that they meant this to be a date. With more to follow if they had their way.

3. One well-dressed woman with steel grey hair was sitting forward in her seat. There was no one nearby with whom she needed to confer, no one whose reaction to the music needed to rhyme with hers. She was smiling as she leaned forward. Her hair was long and fell over her shoulders and down her back – it was a way of wearing her hair that must have become her signature over the years. There was no mistaking the satisfaction she intended to savor during this evening of music.

4. A young family of four sat in balcony seats across the hall. From what I could make out, the two children were doing their best with a choice their parents had made – a choice their parents may have made before in other venues. The little boy seemed to know that he could fall asleep against his mother if that was his preference. No struggle there.

5. Not far from my row, I watched a man who from time to time could not stop his right hand from conducting. The hand remained low, never very high above his lap, out of sight to most of his fellow concertgoers. His dark shirt, buttoned at the collar, was tight around him. His eyes remained shut but only for concentration’s sake.

6. Two women sat at ease, each of them wearing a black sweater of some kind. Directed to the musicians on the stage, their looks of attention were mirror images of one another. They did not need to hold hands to communicate that they were a couple. They were used to facing a world together, used to knowing that the other would never be long from her side.

Hearing about my Saturday plans, a friend last week had asked me, “Are you going alone?” The answer that came most readily to my lips was not the true one. I know that now.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Moving On

The winter sky, blue and sunny and cold, seems enormous. It has returned, and no probing stare up into heights of glacial air will find any message there. Head held back, I find no sign that the contents of books will ever have something to say equal to that vastness.

That vastness shows me my size.

There are retreats that I have made in January, most starting on a Friday evening and going until Sunday morning. One in my early twenties lasted a month. I have tilted my head up toward a January sky in the middle of daytime walks and at the end of nighttime walks. There were sometimes stars, sometimes clouds, sometimes relentless sunshine that got me squinting.

It is January in New England, and I know not to be surprised if life comes to a standstill.

A snowstorm can be responsible. An arctic freeze. The three-day MLK weekend. A bout with the flu.

Any of these factors can briefly reinstate something like the holiday mood of late December. Life slows at points like the traffic on a snowy highway. What used to take thirty minutes of careful travel ends up needing at least forty-five.

Some years the brooks and ponds become walkways and skating rinks. The sounds of water in motion become muffled and blurred and eventually disappear.

Regular and unchanging, with no kindness in them but no malice either, winter days simply ask if you are ready to move on.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Uneasiness of Assisi

All tranquil in its Umbrian valley, Assisi is a place where life’s usual plans broke down. It is a place where a family broke down. Off a side street, far from the great basilicas, a chapel stands strangely quiet over the home where a thirteenth-century family of means had lived, where a father had chained his son.

The peace of Assisi is not an easy peace although something calms down inside as you walk the stone streets of the medieval town. Someone had turned his back on what this town – or any town – could offer as enticement or solace or future.

Rituals and festivals and images suggest that there is a path that Francesco Bernadone took that each of us can take, a behavior that we can emulate, a set of values that we can make our own if we study his life. No one really wants to imagine the disappearance of family and financial resources, though.

Where did Francesco go? What did he hear and choose to believe although no one else could hear it? Did he eventually think that he had indeed rebuilt a church?