RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

A Plea from Little Sister in the Body

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In response to Peg O’Connor’s excellent essay “The Light at the End of Suffering” in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times, 4/7/13, I’d like to offer a somewhat different view than I’ve seen among the many interesting comments.

O’Connor writes about people with serious addictions like alcoholism, and the question of how much suffering people can take before they break down, hit bottom, kill themselves, or seek help in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wrote in my 4/9/13 comment on O’Connor’s piece in the Opinionator that some forms of suffering can be perceived as pleas from one’s ‘higher self’ – perhaps the ‘higher power’ that both believers and non-believers can accept – for a more nurturing quality of attention to be given to our whole self.

That self, we often forget, is constantly and faithfully served by “little sister/brother in the body” (a Native American expression).  My mother taught me this tender, respectful term in childhood.  It came back to me a few weeks ago when I found myself incapacitated by an almost insurmountable flu.  I was reminded that neglecting this loyal, physical being’s needs would cause her to send signals like fatigue, indigestion, headaches, and the like.  And if the neglect persists, as mine did, the next to last recourse is succumbing to illness.  (We all know the last recourse.)

For too long, in my case, I’d pushed the limits of a natural tendency toward insomnia  —staying up much later than sleepiness told me to rest.  This bad habit—which a holistic healer explained to me is actually an addiction to one’s own adrenaline—weakened my immune system, and I came down with a very nasty flu bug.  It was so agonizing and difficult to recover from that I had to accept the possibility that I could succumb permanently if something not much worse hit me.  – That, as they say, got my attention.

Little sister in the body was too sick to help me distract myself from suffering by immersing my mind in reading, writing, and listening to informative programs on NPR.  When I could not sleep I found my mental self alone with my physical self, enduring with her all the torments of weakness, dizziness, acute pain, and difficulty breathing. The only solace was a small green shoot of awareness that I had not been attuned kindly to “little sister” for some time.  She’d been fed with a moderate concern for nutrition, while I rode roughshod over her need for a restorative sleep cycle.

It was a state of de facto meditation, a more elemental consciousness than I’d allowed myself to experience in some time, all the more ironic because it resulted from illness rather than good sense.

For many years I used to have the good sense to be a regular practitioner of meditation.  I knew it to be of lasting benefit, but let the practice lapse.  Too many things to do, including many of no lasting benefit that I could have replaced by meditating!  Little sister expressed it elementally:  if I’d kept up the practice of meditation I could never have fooled myself into giving up so much sleep at the cost of my health!

Fr. Lawrence Freeman, who travels the world teaching meditation and its spiritual connections, recently gave a talk in New York which he began by saying that prayer begins with attention, as does meditation.  As I’ve written in the introduction to this website, my own interest in attention began by learning that healthy babies deprived of attention die, and therefore attention is necessary for life.  In Fr. Freeman’s talk, he referred to ‘the quality of attention’ in several contexts, all concerned with the quality of one’s consciousness.  Depending on one’s quality of attention, one could feel isolated from others, on guard or inimical, or in friendship with them–the feeling of community or shared being engendered by meditation.

If attention is the basis of prayer, it can also be that of healing, in particular a friendly and grateful sense of being shared with one’s little brother or sister in the body.  Attention may not be able to cure all forms of suffering (but it might if given more of a chance), yet it surely paves the way for us to deal with suffering as best we can.  And sometimes the only cure for our lack of attention is illness.