Saturday, November 24, 2012

NOTHING TO DO WITH THANKSGIVING


HAPPY THANKSGIVING. This has nothing to do with turkey.  It's a photograph I took one afternoon when Elliot was supposed to be studying Algebra II.  I almost gave up hope. He wouldn't focus. Instead he found distractions, such as the one pictured here.  He barely passed the course, and now alas, he'll never be a brilliant mathematician.

But he does enjoy his theatre courses and maybe one day he'll spread those wings and fly out of his chair. I also hope to fly off this page someday, onto a bookshelf somewhere or into your imagination.  Such hopes are not entirely irrelevant.  For though hope cannot effect an outcome, it does keep us happy and thankful.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A POETIC DEATH: SHOULD IT BE ME OR THE PIANO?

Elliot came home to vote. And in the evening, he played the piano.  And a little later on, sitting outside under the fairy lights having a smoke in the cold autumn with his friend Josh, he asked me, "Will you leave me the piano in your will?"

The question both shocked and amused me because its innocence brought into sharp relief my own mortality.  Both of us know that if things go as they should, Elliot will outlive me.  And I expect that life will go on when I die.  But it was the thought of this piano, my piano, something I had brought into the family - it was the thought that this instrument's life would go beyond my own, that hit me with the shock of recognition.

That's why I laughed.  What else could I do? "My God," I cried.

"What!" he said.

It was because I was happy to have him home for twenty four hours before he went back to college, and because I knew that his life had already gone beyond my involvement in it.  And now disingenuously he'd sized up  what might  be left after I was gone - had understood, when it came down to it, as we sat together outside in the garden, when he contemplated us both: Mum, Piano, Piano, Mum, that the piano came up the winner.  I would die but the piano would remain, not the other way round.

And that was just as it should be. The piano had every right to outlive me. After all, this piano, a Petrof, had a certain pedigree and had already survived the fall of the iron curtain. Ben and I bought it in Moscow from Ivan Ivanovich, the head piano tuner at the Moscow Conservatory in 1994.  Ever since it has followed us round the world - from Moscow to Virginia, and then on to Brussels, back to Virginia and on to Rome and back to Virginia once more.  My Falls Church piano tuner took some interest in its origins and looking up its serial number determined it was made in Prague in the 1970s.  I had fancied it older.

Nevertheless I don't know what this Petrof lived through in the 1970's. We encountered it at a dacha outside Moscow.  Alex's piano teacher Marta, a violinist at the Bolshoi Orchestra, took us to see it - along with her husband and Ivan Ivanovich's daughter Svetlana. We met Ivan Ivanovich in the humble living room at this dacha and fell in love with its mellow sound and easy action.

Ivan Ivanovich and his friends wheeled the piano on a cart through the snow, up the road of the American Embassy Compound and carried it up the stairs to our apartment, and when I paid him for it both of us smiled. The transaction pleased us both. Everyone was happy.

It was on this piano that Irina, my Russian piano teacher, taught me Debussy's Children's Corner Suite and Tchaikovsky's Seasons.  Having this piano in our lives in Moscow made all the difference.  For me, it made life bearable.

This is why I well understand that knowing its history of survival  Elliot imagines it will outlive me too, and wants to honor that, and keep it himself until he is old. 

So I told him about a poem called "Ethics" where the poet Linda Pastan poses the question, admittedly tongue in cheek: "if there were a fire in a museum/which would you save, a Rembrandt painting/or an old woman who hadn't many/years left anyhow?"

 I asked Elliot and his friend Josh to picture the scene.  "You're in the Louvre," I said, "and there's a raging fire... what would you do?"

"I would hope," said Elliot, after some reflection, "that if I were an old lady in a fire at the Louvre I'd say to myself I'm dying in a fire in the Louvre... and that would be profound enough for me."

There was once another piano in Moscow.  I saw it at Chekhov's house - an  old upright on which Tchaikovsky had played for the Chekhovs when he visited them of an evening.  Hearing that story at the Chekhov house, I got it into my head that I wanted to play that piano too. I asked the tour guides if anyone played it these days. Dismissively, they said no.  There was a grand piano now, on the premises.

I took Elliot, then an infant, up there in his pram, and with a carefully chosen gift bought at one of the hard currency stores,  I pushed up the road toward Chekhov's house.  I knew what I'd say. I had prepared the words in Russian and practiced them as I walked.   I was going to give them the gift, and ask if I might play Tchaikovsky's Seasons on Chekhov's piano.

It was snowing hard.  And when we got to Chekhov's house - his name still clear on the doorknocker - I was sorry to see the museum was closed that day.

After that I lost my nerve. I never returned to ask if I could play that piano.  I wonder if they would have let me in?

Whatever the case, we're all going to die.  Just let us leave the masterpieces behind us - those we have gazed upon and those we have played. Let them joyously outlive us.






Saturday, November 3, 2012

NO POWER AND POWER

Hurricane Sandy took none of our trees, and for that I'm very grateful.  While our neighbors across the street dealt with flooded basements, all we suffered was a three day power outage.  In the past we've had terrible flooding.  This year was kinder,  except that the house got cold.  Ben was with me on the first night but on Monday he had to return to Richmond - where he's been working round the clock to help get out the vote.

 So I was by myself, making soup on the stove top, and as it happened I went on a little journey of my own.  It was a journey into silence and back in time - to a place without internet access, television, cell phone, electric light or heat. It was a place with very little company,  but it was solitary rather than lonely, and I embraced it.

We had slept downstairs the first night of the storm while the wind howled. With Ben gone I continued to sleep downstairs, in Elliot's old room. We repainted it when he left for college and moved things around. Now it was unfamiliar. The last person to sleep in it was a friend of Alex's visiting from Australia. I covered the greyhound with a blanket, and the dachshund crept under the bedclothes and slept on my feet.

I'd lit some votives.  It was mentally clear in there, peaceful and uncluttered as I snuggled under a heap of duvets taken from other beds in the house.   I also had a flashlight - one Ben had taken to Burning Man last year, and I used it to read.
This is what it looked like, except darker ; )

I became absorbed in a novel by Luigi Pirandello - The Late Mattia Pascal.  It concerns a man with a messy life, who goes on a trip and reads about his death in the hometown newspaper.  His wife and mother-in-law have mistakenly identified the body of a drowned man as him.  So he decides to play along - to embrace a new identity, with mixed and amusing results.

It was such a delightful and engaging book and took me so far out of myself, that I kept on reading deep into the night.  At least it felt like that.  I didn't have a clock in the room so I'm not exactly sure. I only know that time stretched out because it was uninterrupted and the air in the room was cold.

I remembered going to the Argentine pampa years ago - and staying overnight at the freezing cold farmhouse of friends. The lights ran on a generator which was switched off at night, when the maids came around with gas lights.  The mattresses were hard and the bed posts made of iron. That had also been a journey into a different century.

In the morning I dressed quickly in the clothes I'd taken off the night before. Then I heated my coffee on the stove and walked the dogs.  The roads were wet and covered in leaves. There was a downed tree in the newly landscaped garden on the corner of Fisher. It had struck the corner of the roof and brought down a gutter.  The sidewalk in front was a mass of oak branches.  At the other end of the street there were more downed trees - pulled right out of their roots, and lying across the road. This probably accounted for the power outage.

That afternoon, I curled up on the sofa and continued reading.  It was Tuesday, and the college were I teach had cancelled classes.  I read Pirandello into the early evening when my neighbors Sara and Jacky knocked on the door.  They insisted I come out for Chinese food.

It was like being wakened from hibernation and I was reluctant.  I had become agoraphobic.  I said as an excuse that I didn't want to have to blow out all the candles or leave the dogs by themselves.  But Jacky promised he'd help me light them when we returned.

I was glad to get out in the end.  It was comforting to be in the warmth of an enormous family restaurant eating hot and sour soup and peking duck.   But  yet I felt somehow altered by my days without light and electrical contact.  I was a more primitive version of myself, a quieter version. Perhaps I was more self-possessed.  A little bit more centered and less easily distracted.

This alteration continued into Wednesday when I went to work.  I recharged my phone in the car and left the house. We still had no power.  I spoke to my neighbor Forrest who was waiting for someone to come and light his furnace.  Their basement had flooded and he had carried the water logged contents outside to be thrown away.  They lined the curb.  Suddenly I remembered it was Halloween.  Neither Forrest nor I had bothered to get pumpkins.

When I returned at 4 o clock I saw that the lights were back on.  A miracle! And I was glad.  I was glad for my journey into darkness and a different kind of power.  But the idea of a cold and dark Halloween had not been very appealing.