Saturday, October 4, 2014

Coincidental Counterpoint


          “Bevy, if you were stranded on a desert island…”
          “Oh, no, please don’t ask me that again, I don’t know – ice cream and pizza.  Those are the two foods I would choose to have if stranded on a desert island.  Although I do love arugula.”
          “That wasn’t what I was going to ask you,” Laura finished, her voice flat.
          It was mid-September, and we were on our way to our self-designed retreat on Westport Island in Maine, to heal and reconnect at our friend Shelley’s vacant cottage after a very intense spring and summer.  Actually, over the past two years we had lost my mother, two dear friends, a cousin, two aunts, an uncle, and our sweet cat.  Most recently, Laura’s mother suffered a major stroke the day before she was to fly to Boston to be at our May 3rd wedding.  Her death three weeks later in a Santa Barbara hospital’s neuro ICU unit was almost more than we could bear. We work hard, try to be positive and upbeat, have an abundance of friends and family around us to share meals, interesting discussion, and healthy laughs, but we both became so exhausted from tending to our lives and work that we had little to give each other at the end of the day.
          We rallied to share a flawless early-August wedding day in our flower-filled, tented back yard with many of the people we love. But we returned to our jobs and other responsibilities too soon, stalling a much-needed period of quiet, mourning, and reflection.  By September we realized we had no choice but to take another week off for ourselves, hoping we might even be lucky enough to find time and space for celebration.
          Laura had just taken over as driver after my three-hour stint, and by now I was interested in closing my eyes and listening to a book on tape, but in the spirit of connection, I did my best to sound enthusiastic. “Oh, sorry.  What is the rest of the question?” 
          “If you were stranded on a desert island, what are the two pieces of music you would like to have with you?” 
          “Do you mean on my I-pod?” I asked.  For some reason I felt the need to be clear about how I would be listening to this music. “A desert island is sounding pretty good to me right now, so I’m not sure ‘stranded’ would be an accurate description.” Laura is one of the most patient people on the planet, so when I saw what appeared to be confused irritation in the set of her profiled jaw, I decided to play along.  Even I was surprised by what came out of my mouth next.
          “First, I would like to have The Incy Wincy Spider,” I said.
          She took her eyes off the road just long enough to stare at me. “You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy’ Spider,” she said, swerving slightly in order to keep between the white lines, making me seriously wonder why she would risk our lives on a busy highway to make that differentiation.
          I said, “I think both are right.”  I resort to this reply when in doubt – it’s easier than debating.
          “I don’t,” she said. “I think it’s definitely ‘itsy bitsy’.”
          “I will look it up the next time we have internet,” I said.  Another benefit of spending time at the cottage was that it lacked internet, so we would have more time to connect to one another in the silence and beauty of tall pines, the osprey, and the Sheepscot River. We had spent time there with Shelley, Susan, and Jan over the years - we call our group the Totem Mamas, so-named for a small piece of black female-shaped driftwood we picked up on a beach a dozen years before during our first weekend together, so her home and its good, healing energy felt familiar.  One hidden blessing of having to postpone our May wedding was that Shelley had time to become our legal officiant in time for the August date. Shelley is a deeply spiritual woman, and her cottage reflects this with chachkies from around the world – incense, meditation pillows, candles, wall-hangings, drums, flutes, gongs.
          “OK, let me explain.  It’s probably one of the first interactive songs you learned as a kid.  Carly Simon’s version is beautiful – she sings along with the seraphic voices of a chorus of young children.”  I could see by the curious look on her face that it was her turn to not be buying what I was selling, but I kept on talking, though I myself was unsure, and even curious, about what I was getting at.
           “I think also that the song is on my mind because my friend Jack sent me a video this morning of his little granddaughter belting it out in her baby car seat, and her voice screeched with enthusiastic intensity.” I demonstrated Jack’s granddaughter’s performance by singing the entire song, notching it down a bit so I wouldn’t lose my point, or my audience.
          When I finished, Laura said, “Bevy, I am shuddering at the idea of being stranded on a desert island listening endlessly to your personal reenactment of that song.  So..., what would be your second choice?”
          “Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux,” I said.  “I think the one I love is Opus 39.  I would want to count the Etudes Tableaux as one choice.  I hope that’s ok.”  (Was I asking permission from her, or from the omniscient and omnipotent answerer of questions?) “So that, and The Incy Wincy Spider.”
          “Not Joan Baez?  Nothing by Joan Baez?” she asked, looking oddly relieved. 
          “I might have chosen Baez twenty years ago, and maybe even last week, but I’m staying with these choices. “Here’s the thing about that piece,” I explained.  “It’s like you’re trying to keep going, and it’s at times a long, uphill battle, like in Camus’s The Myth of Sysiphus, when you’re pushing the boulder up the hill, pushing and pushing, and you think you’re almost there, and you give it another shove, and it’s briefly there, on top, only to roll back down again.  It’s a futile action, and I guess you can look at life that way - we all know it will end, so what keeps us going?  Why bother?
        I stopped talking as we passed through the Maine Turnpike tolls, to be sure I had her full attention.  “So the music begins in the lower range, and travels up and up and circles around the higher range, and the notes keep circling as if to find a foothold.  But quickly they tumble backward, spiraling down into and over themselves until there are a lot of low notes, and the feeling of struggle. Then it starts all over again, and there’s hope that this time we might make it back up and stay there for a while, and if we do, we can convince ourselves that we might never tumble down again. That’s how I felt the first time I heard it, and it still hits me like that."
         “Bevy, are you talking about the Itsy Bitsy Spider, or Rachmaninoff?” she asked.  Because if you’re talking about Rachmaninoff, it occurs to me that you could also be talking about the spider.”
        “Oh, god, I was talking about Rachmaninoff, but yes, both!  I hadn’t noticed the similarity until you pointed it out. Why did I choose those two pieces of the thousands I know?  To me, The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux are telling the same story!”
          "Bevy, I have goosebumps," she said, and I think she meant it.
          Just before my thirtieth birthday I realized I could stop feeling sad that my parents couldn't buy me a used piano when I was young.  An MIT colleague, Ronnie Schwartz, agreed to give me piano lessons, and the way things fall together when they're supposed to, I found a used piano at a church for cheap. Ronnie, an accomplished pianist and well-known concertina during her days in the Dominican Republic, was patient as I struggled through Für Elise, then a Bach Prelude and Chopin’s Funeral March. One day as we shared the piano bench, she offered to play Rachmaninoff for me. Her fingers blurred up and down the keyboard, as the music told the story of my life, word for word, note for note.  When she finished, we were both moved by my tear-covered face. Of course she was playing the piece from the Etudes Tableaux.
        When Laura and I arrived at the cottage, we were greeted by long lengths of colored prayer flags Shelley and I had sewn together a few years before.  Once inside, we began to unload our things, both dreading and looking forward to what we had to face in the quiet solitude of the cottage - a strange admission considering we were married just ten weeks earlier.
        Laura took sour suitcases up the wide maple stairs to the bedroom, and I noticed a green striped folder sitting on the edge of the wooden counter, remembering that Shelley was planning to leave it there for us.  I opened it and found that she had printed our wedding ceremony on clear, durable paper, and I sat down right away to read the whole thing, crying through most of it.  Shelley had included a package of copal incense from Colombia, for smudging and cleansing, and when I was finished reading, I got up and started a nice fire in the stone fireplace, and lit a stick of the incense.  I was ready to get this show on the road.
        Laura and I passed one another on the stairway, and when I returned downstairs a few minutes later, she was sitting on the overstuffed beige living room sofa, near a large glass singing bowl and some ceremonial instruments, and the green folder was beside her. Her eyes were soft, so I knew she had read our ceremony, too.  Behind her, through a large bank of windows, I could see the lake sparkle through the leggy pines. I sat next to her and held her hand, and we talked about how much fun our wedding day had been, and how lucky we were to have so many loving people in our lives.
        The next morning, with pens in hand, we wrote letters to one another.  Laura tapped the singing bowl at the end of a half hour, and we read aloud, each of us speaking and listening in turn, with considerable emotion and a couple of apologies. As lunchtime approached, we began to feel an opening, and a softness toward one another.
           New England was glorying in a week of Indian summer, and we changed the energy up to plan our agenda:  kayaking, reading, more writing and talking, meditations on the decks and cliffs overlooking the river, daily fires in the stone fireplace, and healthy foods to nourish our bodies.  We would use the grill on the back deck to roast vegetables, chicken and fish.
           During these meals, and in the two-person kayak in the late mornings, with acres of  pines and birches as our witnesses, we talked more about the spider and Rachmaninoff, outlined some wishes and goals, and wondered about what might come next, after we leave this life, a question we like to think both of our mothers know the answer to. As an aside, during the half hour that we got online in the neighboring town of Bath, Maine during our third day of retreat, I found out that my cousin Diane was diagnosed just days before with stage four melanoma.  Diane was my best friend when we were kids - she's my age, and this feels so close to home.
My friend Deb, a hard-core pragmatist, repeats her mantra to me almost weekly. “Biffy, we’re all going to die some day.  Why not accept it and get on with your life?” Deb purchased three plots in a “green” cemetery in Maine about five years before, when she was taking care of her ill mother’s final details.  I visited the cemetery with her a few years ago, and standing shoulder to shoulder with her at her own grave site freaked the hell out of me.
During our remaining days together at the cottage, Laura and I talked about our losses and our joys, and the realization that it’s futile to try to control any of it – our own lives or the lives of the people we love. Death is a given, and we will obviously experience more or it as we age.  That’s the downside of a full life of friends, family, and pets.  But who’s to say what’s up, and what’s down, and what’s good or bad, anyway.  If I try to put a value on these things, then I’m trying to control what I can’t, and that only causes pain. We remembered the many times a so-called “bad” thing happened to us, only to open another door leading us to something we didn't know we needed.
   By the end of the week, after spending much-needed time with my new wife and longtime friend in this perfect cottage, I could consider that the spider was, without judgment or value, simply climbing up the water spout, being rained out of it, and climbing up again. Jack’s granddaughter knew all the time that this was all there was to it.  It seems to me that we unlearn the simplicity of things as we grow older.  I would like to have a talk with Rachmaninoff and ask him what he had in mind when he wrote the Etudes Tableaux, and in fact I could look that up on line at any time, but I think it’s best that I just put on my earphones and enjoy the music.
 Laura and I have decided to make a yearly trek to strand ourselves on this – or another - island.  Next year, I will bring along all of my Joan Baez and Janis Joplin music.  Laura will bring a couple of her antique books of children’s rhymes and fairy tales, and we’ll really do ourselves in trying to find in those stories the meaning of life.

You can listen to a 30-second sample of my favorite Etudes Tableaux piece.
Below is Jack's granddaughter singing itsy bitsy spider - it gets better as it goes along!


  1. That video is a perfect way to end this post. Am reflecting on all of this as a good friend died last night. Peace...

  2. Oh, Martha! I'm so sorry to hear this. Life is short - Deb and I keep wondering when we're going to get to see you and Steve...

  3. Oh my I listened to the music and it was emotional inspiring. Eh I can't figure out a way to describe how this effected me. I was taking my daily "nap" and somehow found myself in a pity party. This really helped get my head back on straight and my mood up again. Thanks Sis-tuh! Blessings

  4. Oh, Bev! You write so beautifully. We can only experience joy when we have also felt sorrow. Abrazos.