and – up close – if you choose – you will see the foreleg of a winter-dressed pony, the extra cold-weather-coat trapping hair next to the skin of the horse, keeping him warmer. he is stopped, gazing at the distant field, ready to canter into it, the exploding of freedom of movement.
and you blink and it is a cattail. one of many in the field, waiting in the marsh through autumn and winter for early spring. as many as 250,000 seeds, white fluff sailing and transported by birds and breezes. and the life cycle continues.
it is winter in my studio. the rhizomes are gathering underground, together with the cattails. maybe around the spring equinox, maybe a bit later, the shoots will rise out of the ground – like a phoenix out of ashes – and new sprouts will grow and grow. the cycle germinates and pollinates and seeds will fly again. the birds and the wind and i will play for you – seeds and notes flying.
in the meanwhile, i wear my winter coat. it is keeping the heat in. it protects me. insulation for shelter in this long and cold winter, to shield in the storms, to brace in this fallow.
but soon, soon, with the sun and fresh air, the pony will run free.
green sounds different than red which sounds different than blue. green looks different than red which looks different than blue. green feels different than red which feels different than blue. so a color field of all three would seem to emit, depict, emote a wide spectrum.
i’m pretty sure that mark rothko and i would have been friends. his goal: “to capture the essence of basic human emotions on the canvas and then evoke those emotions from his viewers.” (masterclass.com) my goal: to capture the essence of basic human emotions on the piano and then evoke those emotions from my listeners. instruments – the canvas, the piano – that tap in. yes. friends.
in my mind’s eye, i can see a tour. all over the country to different art museums that house a mark rothko or two. a big yamaha concert grand on the wooden floor, placed in front of the giant color field painting, paused in silence, waiting. abstract expressionism on the canvas. and then, the translation – abstract expressionism on the piano. action. color field. repeat.
i’m pondering this painting green, red, blue. in thinking and feeling green, i ponder what i’ve already composed that sounds, feels, looks green. in thinking red, i ponder what i’ve already composed that sounds, feels, looks red. in thinking blue – specifically blue-around-the-edges in this case – i ponder what i’ve already composed that sounds, feels, looks blue.
in a push of creative courage, i can see this tour. in a room void of people or full of people, i imagine me and the painting and a piano. high ceilings, the swoosh of the sustain pedal brushes against the walls and swirls around. no other sound. yet. and then.
i’ll play for you i’ll play for you i’ll play for you
in the middle of the night – as i lie awake – i can hear the trains. not just the haunting whistles of freight chugging by or a late passenger railcar, but a train or two in the yard, idling. the sound hits me at just the wrong frequency – i am hyper aware of its rise and fall, the pulsing of it. once i hear it, i cannot un-hear it. it stays present and i stay awake.
nevertheless, the tracks hold sweet mystery and, each time i see a train, i wonder its destination, i wonder its journey, i wonder its freight or its passengers. i had not ever stood in the middle of a rural track, bent down – almost kneeling, photographing, until recent years. the track – a classic portrayal of perspective, narrowing further away.
i stood in the middle and looked both ways. south and then north. the south curved into the woods, the north was a straightaway. i turned back south.
in the right-now there seems no straight path, no tight focus, no horizon point that is clear. the tracks curve into the woods, beyond my sight, beyond my imagining. i meander. it makes me wonder.
we seek next and idle in our thoughts in the night, not-knowing. it’s liminal space, a diesel engine that needs to be kept warm for the next day, a time to be present on the tracks, bent down, looking for classic perspective. we are attendants.
i hear the haunting whistle in the wee hours and consider this journey.
roller-coaster-soap-opera-never-a-dull-moment-ever-changing life gifts us with people along the way.
some of them are in it – with us, as it’s said, for a season. we fill each other’s cups with the companionship of friends or loved ones, but time has a way of placing itself between people and proximity of place or heart push at the ability to spend time. schedules and responsibilities and changes interrupt the flow together and we drift.
some people are in it – with us – for specific reasons. they are colleagues, they are universe-drop-ins who walk alongside as we grow and evolve, in our work, on a walk we have chosen, a trail we have been set upon. they stop at waysides as we travel on and we lose touch.
others are just there. they may be constant companions; they may be in-and-out. but, whenever we wish or they wish, they are there and we are there. they ride the coaster with us, laugh with us, ponder with us, cry with us, get pissed with us, celebrate with us. we share stories, we share the truth, we share disappointments, challenges, impossible summits. it can be weeks, months, years and it is just as easy. they are touchstones in our lives and, likely, always will be. we spend time together and time apart, but they are never far away. they are our posse. and we could not do life without them.
we stopped on the trail and i sat on a bench, pulling off the boots that were making my feet beyond sore. jen offered her socks; she offered her boots. instead of rendering her shoe or sock-less, i used her bandaids. we loaded up my feet with bandaids and i didn’t tie the boots, clomping through a few miles in the snow, curling my toes to keep them from falling off. i whined about it and i apologized for whining about it. and i promised that next week – in our next hike – i would wear different boots. two times hiking in these was enough. we talked about feet most of the way back, for there is not much we won’t discuss – at length. brad yawned through my health insurance rant, but he listened intently anyway. we cheered with dark beer and brandy-old-fashioned-sweets at a neighborhood bar next to the railroad tracks. we made plans and talked about life and the previous week, another episode in the sitcoms and serial drama miniseries of our lives. right there, listening and caring. there.
we’ll have snacks at happy hour – though it will be followed shortly by a huge dinner together. but we all love to eat and the up-north gang does it well. we’ll talk about everything under the sun and we’ll laugh. nothing is off the table as we all age together, listing the things we are concerned about. we are an all-inclusive in-service about all that stuff, comparing notes, making recommendations, giving advice. it’s totally reassuring. we know who to call if – any time of day or night – there is water in the basement or if the tv antenna falls or if we need new tires or a pair of glasses. there. they are right there.
the perch a couple nights ago was done to perfection, as were the potatoes and cabbage slabs. 20 was in his glory; his wheelhouse includes fishhhh (as he says it) and cabbage. we eat together twice a week. every week. we take turns cooking and every meal includes wine and chocolate. he goes way back – 30 years almost – and his presence is a rock for us. through thick and thin he has remained steady. we keep track of the week by our mondays and thursdays together. there.
and there are those people – who can call on the phone from far away or across town – and with whom we can pick up as if no time has passed. we can laugh about the seinfeld episodes of mutual time, we can pine for time spent, we can rue how quickly time has passed. the thing we know – no matter what – is that they – and we – are there. whether we see them or not, no matter if it has been a long while, these people are always part of the very fabric of our lives and they are vital. they remember who we were, how we changed, what we went through. they know the gumption it took to get us to where we are now. they recognize us. they are from our elementary schools, our high schools, our colleges, our first jobs, our professional ladder rungs along the way. they are the people we met on airplanes, while shopping, at tennis tournaments, across the street. they are random and superbly unique and we celebrate meeting them – wherever it was. they are in our mind’s eye standing aside us through it all, whether in person or in spirit. their souls entwine with ours.
and then there are the beloveds. people whose dna is connected to ours in some way, people whose curve-of-face resembles ours, whose expressions we know by heart, without whom we would never be who we are. they are scattered, too, around the world and, though we wish – yearn – to see them often and more often, it is not so. nevertheless, they hold the prime spots in our hearts and are always right there, a breath away. our families.
so many chances to love, to feel love. so much time spent together. so much gratitude on the coaster.
i think about the turtles. they are there in the warmer months, sunning on logs and rocks that jut out of the river. but, when it dips below fifty degrees or so – and stays there – they disappear. apparently, they dive down to the muddy bottom, their metabolism slows down, they require less oxygen. their mucky homes keep them safe as they bide time, these wise, long-lived creatures of the water and the land.
from time to time on the trail we look for them. we know where they hang out and have watched for telltale signs of small snouts poking out of the water. but then it got cold and we just missed them.
the river is alive with other wildlife. geese and a few hardy ducks, squirrels, deer – we see them as we hike.
but we always talk about the turtles anyway. just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean we forget about them. we know they are there – somewhere – in hidden spots, places they feel sheltered and secure. i think about what they might be doing. they are silent and the fallow is long. i trust they are sorting what is next, kind of like us.
he can tell you i worry about them, despite the fact that i know they are completely capable, totally self-sufficient, quite brilliant actually. nevertheless, i am more comforted by seeing the turtles every now and then – at least – than by wondering how they are faring. time keeps moving, though, and i keep hope that when it warms up and the turtles have a more secure sense of themselves in the world they will reappear, out of the suspension of presence. i’m hoping for an early spring.
i know that the turtles are aware i am watching for them and waiting. and the river freezes. and then it thaws.
accuweather predicts a blizzard. and we wonder if it is truly imminent. on days of heavy holiday travel, there may be fierce winds, whirling snow, no visibility, bitterly cold temperatures well below zero. such extremes, circumstances that might dictate the comings and goings of loved ones trying to be together to celebrate.
we’ll keep watching the weather and the warnings. we’re hoping it’s wrong, that it’s exaggerated, that it’s cautionary but not totally necessary. that we will get to this day without the extremes.
it is days before the day before the eve of the day. and though i respect that app on my phone i continue to plan as if it will be days of celebration and joy and not snowplows and shovels and heet and de-icer.
there is still much to do. there are packages to ship, a few to wrap, a couple to deliver. there are trips to the grocery store and maybe a tiny bit of shopping. there is de-dogga-furring by vacuum and a little dusting and much tidying up.
and all the while sitting in the wonder of the season. people celebrating love and generosity, time spent gathered, kindnesses and the reminder of ancient stories carried into this time, open hearts, hope and light.
“…simple…elegant…splendid…” she wrote about the branch from the big old tree in our front yard, the branch we wrapped in lights and on which we hung a tin star. last year’s christmas tree. sometime after the holiday, we changed the tin star to a tin heart and kept it in the living room, in front of the big window.
i suppose it goes without saying – for anyone who knows us – that each of our christmas trees has a story. well, not just a story, but a full-fledged novel full of threads that wrap around them like $2.99 twinkly lights fresh out of the box. we’ve given meaning to the tiniest pine tree from the side of a trail, to the carcass of a tree behind our garage, to the branch that fell into our back yard, to a straight trunk-of-a-tree we lugged out of the woods, to a christmas-tree-on-a-stick.
this year, we were going to get a permit and go to a state forest to cut one down. only we didn’t.
20 was exasperated with the tree he had gotten his momma. the lights were all knotted – a titanic tangle – and the tree was disheveled. he put it in the box and bought her a new one, planning to toss the old one. we wanted a tree out back and figured we could make this messy tree into something worthy of the deck, so he brought it to us.
david spent time – lots of it – patiently untangling and cutting off the attached multi-colored light strands. then he attached the three pieces of tree, stacking them to see how it looked.
the tree – 6′ – stood limply, likely gasping from the trauma.
we decided to let it get some air and put it in the framed doorway between the living room and the dining room, where it could have a little space while we fluffed it a bit and decided about putting it on the deck.
only, it started growing on us, this sweet little tree – just trying to be a loved-christmas-tree – stood there, quietly watching us and waiting for our decision.
we whispered to each other – about her – on the couch, so as not to offend the little tree. and time to time, we’d take turns stepping into the living room to gaze at it. to ponder.
and then he took four hundred lights and gently wrapped them around the little tree.
we stood back and knew.
i said, “let’s call it e.e.” not for ee cummings, though he would definitely get it – all our christmas trees through these years. but the little tree knows – inside, in its heart of hearts – his poem “little tree” word for word. e.e.
but the e.e. is for 20’s momma, her first and middle name initials. as she – at 99 – struggles a bit with her health these very days, we will honor her, hold space for her, with e.e.
the silver ornaments shine on e.e.’s branches. e.e. holds out her arms graciously. and those lights. and we are entranced.
little silent Christmas tree…
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
“you must begin by knowing you have already arrived. your true nature lives as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.” (richard bach – jonathan livingston seagull)
i followed the seagulls on my ten-speed. to the beach, always the beach. later, i followed them in my little blue volkswagen, their screeches out my open window, their soaring showing me the way. and i felt kin to richard bach, his writings about freedom and passion and dreaming and the meaning of life. we met at the beach – crab meadow – and talked telepathically. well, i talked. i don’t know if he was listening. he was on the west coast and i was on the east, though i suppose jonathan livingston may have been able to deliver any message of gratitude i had.
and so we arrived at the fat seagull. it is beyond me why we had never discovered this bar and grill tucked into the downtown of manitowoc. it’s a cheers! kind of place, people who know each other gathered at the bar and around tables, eating, drinking pints, playing games, talking. in the way of wisconsin pubs, there is a vast menu and we order a thursday special to split. the bartender tells us that the two wine glasses they had were broken so he gives us diminutive stemware and charges us less. we choose the bottle still corked, wondering who last drank out of the open bottle and how long ago that might have been. we are kind of strangers in a strange land…17 draft beers and traditional old-fashioneds surround us and our tiny wines.
we listen to live music and gaze around – at people, at the bar, the old wood floor, the ceiling. it is a study in perfection. we feel alive – out and about – a two hour drive each way – food we didn’t prepare – wine we didn’t pour. we talk about how it feels. we laugh and dance. we don’t realize it’s raining out; it had been a beautifully sunny day. we are glad to be there.
we end this week in uncertainty. we reach backwards, examining all we have done – so far – in life and work, what we have accomplished, what we have not. sixty-something is not youth, nor is it aged. it is somewhere in-between, located wherever we are. we bring all we know – and all we do not know – with us. we try to trust that we have arrived, that we are on the tarmac – or – in the terminal, that we – too – despite our lack of certainty – have flown, screeching and soaring.
“instead of being enfeebled by age, the elder had been empowered by it; he could outfly any gull in the flock, and he had learned skills that the others were only gradually coming to know.”
a merger between old navy and, say, dupont could bring play to the whole wide world. stands of thongophones could be simply everywhere. i can see it…people gathering, favorite flipflops in hand, making music.
it was hard to resist the pull of this two-octaved structure. flipflops – the paddles provided – were chained to the wooden stand, laying on the ground, waiting. it was just a delicious invitation – “try me, try me,” it called. and then, channeling the group chicago, “thongophone, in the park…”.
pretty crazy, it had good pitch for polyvinyl chloride, not necessarily known for its musical talent. and the flipflops? well, everyone knows how i feel about flipflops. they are the symphony of summer, so definitely a good choice.
i, generally, don’t walk up to faux musical structures like this. i usually stand back and watch others discover and play, reveling in their adventuring and exploring sound.
but this time was different.
i played first on the lower octave side. for some reason, the first piece i played was the first piece on my first album, galena. the first day i played galena was also in one of those situations i don’t usually take part in…instead, sitting back and watching others and supporting their fun.
that time was different too.
that time – encouraged (read: pushed) by three girlfriends, playing at the piano in the restaurant in galena, illinois – set me on a road i didn’t know was coming. less than a year and a half later, i released my first album. now, fifteen albums and a variety of singles and blahblah later, i look back.
and i look forward. i’m not sure what’s there. but this past week i stood at my piano and played and sang three songs for d and one of his dear friends. it’s been a long time. i apologized for the dust in the studio. i apologized that it was a little messy in there. d said rob cried. despite the dust and remnants of previous work piled around.
by sheer coincidence, today is the anniversary of that first album – 27 years ago. lots of flipflops ago.
today is a good day for a dustcloth, some garbage bags and a storage bin or two.
it’s not a thongophone in the park. it’s my piano.
the threads are stretching, stretching…but not ripping.
barney stretches and yawns, still a piano, always a piano. his soul – tenacious and flexible and resilient – centering back to itself, despite weather, despite weathering. it’s late day and the shadows are long. there are small mounds of birdseed, assorted fallen leaves, bits of white at the leading edge of the keyboard. no matter. his aging exterior belies the zeal inside of him, the sorting of memories being played, sustain pedal lifting notes into the air and holding them there. barney has come to knowing that all the notes are still there – stretched across the atmosphere, lingering. he is not fearful of this process in the sun and the rain, snow and blustering winds.
“if you let your fears control your actions, then you are not going 100 mph through it, enjoying it.” (sue aikens)
barney does little these days. he is home for wildlife, the birds, the chippies, the squirrels – they know him well. but he is still going 100 mph through it, whirling and dancing in his beautiful body in our backyard. one day he will look even less like an upright.
but the chickadees and house finches, the cardinals and robins will glance over at him and think, “there’s that sweet piano.” for they, too, will still recognize him.