Friday, October 22, 2010

Heart of Gould

When I was 13, we moved from Colorado to Germany. Amongst other things, my parents were especially excited about the musical opportunities (they assumed would be) afforded us there.

Having started playing the cello at the age of 11, I had used a school rental, a rental that had clearly seen better days. Not only was it cosmetically compromised, but its tone was swallowed, trapped, unable to give full scope to the incredible sounds a cello is capable of producing. I myself felt swallowed, trapped, and unable to give my full scope of emotions to this lacking specimen of a cello.

One day, my dad came home and virtually bounded through the door, catching me in a hug and announcing, "I found you a cello. You'll love this guy's studio. Simon's studio. You'll just love it!" The day for us to "meet" my cello donned gray and chilly, a pearl-white sky the backdrop as we wended our way behind buildings to reach the upstairs studio of Simon. We knocked. He answered. What I remember most is the smell. It reminded me vaguely of a sauna--of heated wood--and of sawdust, too, but just a hint. One side of the studio was a wall of windows, so the white winter light poured in from outside, illuminating the wooden floors, and the panorama of objects strewn all over the place. Like some mad scientist building a Frankenstein, Simon's studio was hung and littered with pieces of violins, pieces of cellos, strings, bows, and tools. And there, in Simon's hand, was the neck of my cello. Mine.

I was afraid to touch it. Afraid that it was too beautiful, and that my nerves would cause me to produce a sound that wasn't beautiful. That maybe Simon would say, "Nein..." and take it away from me. But he held it out to me, persisting until finally, with a timid glance at my dad, I took its neck in my hands, and sat down. I nestled its beautiful shape in between my knees and dared to touch the bow to the strings, willing myself not to shake. That first sound surprised me so much I almost dropped my bow. It leapt from the belly of the cello. The cello absolutely sang. And then I was unaware of Simon or my dad or the instrument-massacre lying in parts around me. I played, and instead of the sound stopping at my fingertips, I was filling the room with it, and it surrounded me and held me, suspended, until I lifted the bow from the strings, and the spell was broken. It was meant to be mine, like meeting a person who was somehow always your friend, even before you knew them.

The next order of business was to find a teacher. We had high hopes in this department, considering that we were in Europe, the proverbial cradle of elite musical instruction. Alas, we met with unexpected dead ends--teachers too far away, teachers too expensive, and teachers who were not accepting new students. But finally, we found Eleanor Gould.

"She sounds interesting," my mother said encouragingly. "She requested that she have the first lesson here, at our house, so she can see if she'll be able to teach you." I was intimidated. "Be able to teach me?" What did that mean? That if I squeaked a little while dragging my bow across my A-string, I'd be fired? Nervously I waited for her to arrive, and shortly, the doorbell rang.

She was tall. While I am short, and most everyone else is taller than me, Eleanor was TALL. She had on a strange, shaggy, fur coat, which was wet from the rain outside. My mom took it for her, saying something like, "This is an interesting coat. I'm sorry it got wet." Eleanor responded that it probably smelled like wet dog [it did], and then said, "Interestingly, it IS dog. Dog fur. I had it made after my dog died."

She was completely serious. To my mom's credit, she maintained a placid smile and said, "Oh! How interesting."

Eleanor's hair was black and long, and on her eyelids were swatches of thick, pale blue eyeshadow. Her voice was deep and rich, and she wore red lipstick. One of her eyelids drooped slightly more than the other, which I later learned was due to MS, something she didn't disclose until several lessons in, and only when pressed.

She came to sit down on a stool next to me, and when she sat, out of her mouth came a whoosh of air, "OOOoooofff...." I caught my mother's eye and bit my lip, hastily stifling the wells of laughter that threatened to bubble forth at any moment. When I played my cello, she rocked back and forth in time with the music, conducting me with one hand. She was business-like and straightforward, and the entire time I was worried that I wouldn't pass the supposed test. But at the end of the lesson, she declared me qualified, scheduled my first lesson, and rose from the stool with the same "OOOoooofff" as before.

She was strange, to say the least, and often abrasive in her teaching style. Furthermore, she taught me viola technique for my bow hold, which caused my next teacher some frustration, to say the least. But her area of expertise was viola, and we knew that when we started, and I had a two-year period in Belgium where I didn't take lessons and hardly practiced, which I believe caused my teacher in Georgia far more grief than a bow-hold incorrectly taught. It should also be noted that I was typically a bit of a basket case during my lessons, and she bore me well.

As our lessons progressed, the stranger aspects of Eleanor's personality were overshadowed by an increased desire on our parts to know her better. We asked her more questions. We inquired after her well-being more consistently. In short, we actively loved her.

During one lesson, I had a headache. She asked me to point out the spot on my head where it hurt most, and then said, "Hold on." She disappeared into her small kitchen for a moment, and then came back with something in her hands. She instructed me to be still--I wondered for a second what on earth she was about to do--and then she gently rubbed peppermint oil onto the spot where my head ached most.

Some little knot within--some hard little spot where I had harbored judgment or mockery or frustration--loosened. I found my eyes welling up with tears at her unexpected tenderness. Very quickly she was back to business-mode, but I didn't forget, and I won't forget.

Months into our lessons, she called me at home and said, "Would you like to come on an outing with me? To the orchestra?" I felt panicked. An outing? With my cello teacher? Just me? But I remembered the peppermint oil, remembered the loneliness of her tiny apartment, the blue eyeshadow on her tired eyelids, and found myself saying yes. When the night came to go, I was resolved to enjoy myself, whether it was going to be easy or not. I wore a nice outfit, and I smiled when I answered the door to find Eleanor standing there, in all her tallness. She was different, somehow. Relaxed, perhaps. We chatted on the way to the concert hall, and I realized finally how she was different on this night.

She was vulnerable. She asked me to come with her, extended herself and put herself on the line with the risk of asking a silly little 13-year-old girl to attend the orchestra with her. I don't remember what music they played. I don't remember the name of those who played. I know that I was lost in the music, and unaware of the rapture on my face until I turned to find Eleanor quietly smiling at me, knowing what I was feeling. And in her face I saw peaceful triumph, her happiness that the music had touched me.

Afterwards in the car, on the way home, she even laughed some. It was as if the actual atmosphere around us had changed. When she offered to stop somewhere for pizza, I agreed, wanting to suspend the strange magic. "Real pizza, though. Not your silly Pizza Hut. Authentic Italian pizza," she said. I asked, "Is there a difference?" She laughed loudly and stated emphatically that this was a travesty, my not knowing the difference between Pizza Hut and authentic Italian pizza. So we made our way to a pizzeria, where I learned that there is, indeed, a huge difference between the two. [Authentic pizza is out-of-this-world better.]

When she dropped me off that night, I felt an inexplicable sadness, one that had nothing to do with saying goodbye for the night. I felt sadness for her going home to a silent apartment. Sadness that I had not sooner allowed myself to be taught. Not cello, but compassion. Vulnerability. Loyalty, empathy and the kind of musicality that spills into all corners of our lives.

It is true that the stranger points of her personality are unforgettable, and yes, I still laugh to remember. But the poignant aspects of our time together, and her heart of gold, have left a far more indelible impression on me.

If you are wondering, yes, this is the cello created for me by Simon. She sounds even better these days.

Post-script: Eleanor Gould is an accomplished musician, which her long string of credits belies. While she may not have been the best cello teacher I had, I am certain she was someone's best viola teacher, and obviously she taught me plenty of important things.
Many things:

1. I am suffering from Perfectionist's Paralysis, hence the absence of closer-together posting. I know that's lame. I want to write more. I need to write more. Maybe I should set aside one or two days a week specifically for writing? At least a little something? Thoughts, my patient friends?

2. We are well out of the toddler stage with Savanna, at least age-wise (let's not talk about fit-throwing), and honestly, it is killing me. The fact that we have no more baby-babies in this house...*sigh*'s going to take a while, I think, for this to be okay with me. For that small spot of aching to dissipate. In the meantime, I am trying to adjust my mind to the upcoming project of potty-training, and trying to get excited about this new stage of family life we're easing into.

3. I love Pandora. So, so much. It has been guiding me through editing the last five shoots I've done, four of which still need to be tied up in a nice neat package for delivery. Guess what? On one of those shoots, we were on the roof. And in the street. And making tires spew copious amounts of smoke. And there were hair models, and my cousins, and a scooter. Epic. What I have been referring to as a "breakthrough" shoot. [A shoot that overwhelmingly reaffirms why I do this and love this and want to keep DOING this]

4. Savvy has Croup, and it's sad. I had her at the doctor two days in, where she was given a dose of meds to head it off, so she's mostly over it. But at night, it's still bad, since all the crap [why don't they just call it Crap?] moves into her throat and she can't quite cough it up without lots of struggle. I'm praying Jax doesn't catch it, and grateful that Reed is pretty much above the age where it does him much harm.

5. Reed will be 8 in less than a month. I'm telling you, seeing it coming doesn't make it any less mind-boggling. [Why am I always so surprised that my children grow? No one told me they wouldn't. Quite the contrary, in fact.]

6. Have I mentioned this [on my blog here] yet? If not, click on over and please PLEASE feel free to sign up to be a part of it! This idea speeds up my heart rate and makes my cheeks go rosy; I am so happy to start. I feel like I've finally found at least a beginning direction for all this....creative angst?....that keeps threatening to come pushing out of my eye sockets if I don't channel it somehow!

7. I will write again soon. A little formulating, I think, and then a plan of attack. [Funny, this is a rather logical way of going about a creative endeavor, don't you think?]

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spokane, the U.F.O.

Over a year ago, on one particularly early morning training run in preparation for the marathon (2009), I was out running long before the sun. As usual when running in the dark, I felt jittery and a bit paranoid, but knew that most of my run would be in daylight, so I plodded along the street, which was lit only by street lamps, interspersed further apart than I would have liked.

About half a mile into my run, I began to loosen up and shed my nervousness. I got into a good groove and as usual, began to enjoy the run. Suddenly, I spotted something in the distance. Something hovering strangely in the middle of the street. I was confused for a moment, then seized with something much like panic as I watched this object moving on the road....I squinted into the darkness, trying to make sense of it. Many options went through my mind: A cat?....Some sort of mobile camera? [It was 4:45 in the morning....we all know my mind goes to anxious places at such hours of the day]...a small, ferocious animal? At times, parts of it would glint in the inky-dark morning, and I would be overcome with a fresh wave of fear, thinking that this strange animal (?!) was quietly observing me. It was maybe 40 feet away.

I had stopped running, then walking, and simply stood on the side of the road, shaking and completely confused for several minutes. Presently, a car went past, and the object moved lightly away from the car. Something in my brain--probably the gear that doesn't usually start working until 8:00a.m.--whirred to life. Something about this was familiar. Then another car passed, and this object, this glinting, light object, was lifted high above the ground by the resulting air current. And finally it clicked into place.

It was a balloon.

A cellophane helium balloon.

Probably from some kid's party.

Something thoughtlessly let into the sky, with no idea of the terror it would cause an already-nervous morning runner.

Something completely, utterly, and hilariously harmless.

I laughed out loud, then continued laughing, which evolved into relieved tears and then more laughter. That Unidentified Floating Object--that shiny balloon in the dark--had almost unthreaded me at the seams. And all because I didn't know what it was.

This last Monday, I had a bit of a meltdown. A combination of plain old exhaustion and a delayed reaction to the news of our upcoming move. Somehow, when I first received that news a couple weeks ago, I processed it in a miniature, very-convenient way. I skipped Part 1, Assimilation, the part where you digest and then mourn the future event. The part where it's ugly and you cry hard enough that your breath comes in shuddering gasps.

I admit I wanted to skip that part. So after a few tears--the kind where you simply swallow that lump in your throat, and let it sit in your stomach for weeks--I sat down at the computer, wanting to be ready to move on to Part 2. Part 2 is Research. I googled "Spokane, WA" and spent a couple of weeks just absorbing facts, without letting the real scope of things reach my brain.

But Monday came, and, well, the floodgates opened. It was as if someone grabbed my shoulders and shook me, saying, "Do you not realize what this means?" Maximum processing happened. My dear friends, the upcoming events [read: newborns] coming in those friends' lives, events that I would possibly miss or of which I would only get to see a shortened version. The change of housing, of schooling, of friendships, for my children. [Hardest part yet] The adjusting.

And worst of all, the What Ifs.

The U.F.O.'s.

What if no one there likes us?
What if my boys hate the school?
What if the boys hate me for having to move?
What if my photography isn't well-liked there?
What if Phill gets deployed right after I get there?
What if I feel lonely for months and months?
And the more complicated set:
What if I love it?
What if it's a dream come true?
What if my children never want to leave there?

All of these things rose up and I examined them at great length, standing in a puddle of water-drowned tears in the shower. I prayed. First desperately, then fervently, then resigned, and then....something else. Hopefully. Faithfully. And at last, beginning to see that this Spokane, this U.F.O., well, this could be nothing more than a harmless party balloon. Floating in the dark for now, but a (maybe even delightful) relief when viewed up-close. So for now, that is how I am choosing to view it.

A balloon.