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(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

(Painting by Liza Head)

A one, a two, a one, two, three…

The day begins, unfolding in a geometric progression of regular plans, emails to write, things to do on a flat screen of the computer, everything is two-dimensional.

These are the days when I feel strongly the frailty of other people. That elderly gentleman walking up to the store in slacks and an off-white, starched dress shirt when it’s 98 degrees outside. He is honoring tradition, a sense of decorum, hearkening back to a time and place where you dressed up to go out, even to the nearest mercado. It hurts to see the shirt hang straight down off his spare shoulders.

Every one of us carries a certain burden, a certain doubt. Standing at a light with the windows down, the chain-smoker in the next car over hollers, “Cheer up, kid, it can’t be that bad!” Thanks, lady. I wish you wouldn’t kill yourself slowly with those cigarettes. But really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Then at the next light – “Hungry, every bit helps”. C’om on, guy, why won’t you get a job? He can’t get a job, he has no permanent address, no clean pants to wear for the interview, no toothpaste, no quiet evening at home to get his paperwork together. He is living the permanent vacation. Doesn’t even know what he wants, but every bit helps. I pull out a sock stuffed with soap, deodarent, hygiene items and the other sock, and flag the homeless man. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m wearing a pair of those right now.” And he sure is. “I’m sorry we’ve collectively failed you” I murmer and thank God for the green light.

Some of us – brave and powerful, some – meek and barely looking up. Slinking through life on our bellies, it’s like for a very brief moment I am given insight to all of the hurting.

At the gas station, I pay and cannot help notice her hands: just regular hands but ones that someone has loved, someone has kissed tenderly. These hands that wring out clothes before drying them, that peel potatoes and soak to the elbow in dishwashing detergent. Many years ago, they might have been the tiny baby fingers that a mother gently caressed, or maybe they had perpetual fingernail dirt and no love at all.

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone. I want to pull in and hide inside my shell, but it is transparent and there is no place to shield yourself from all of the faces, the hands, the carefully tucked-in shirts, the buffed shoes, the frailty, the vulnerability. This is what Jim might have felt. They are so painfully familiar, and yet, you feel strange.

And when you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name…

Mother

Inauguration into their ranks
Came in the shape of a good face-to-face
with the toilet.
Ninety days in a row.

Mother, mother, mother.
Like you, there is no other.
You are the bread winners
And bread bakers.
The diaper changers
And soccer-practice takers.
You are the lunch-bag senders,
The love never-enders,
Behind-the-scenes directors,
Always welcome-and-never rejectors.
Most faithful wife and mother –
Like you there is no other.

After a dehumanizing visit to the OBGYN
The doctor wiped her hands
And heading for the door, as if in afterthought, said:
“Well, looks like you’re having a baby!
…Any questions?”
Well yeah….I did have *a couple*…

Mother, mother, mother
I don’t know why you even bother.
You were the fire-keepers
And story-tellers.
Today, you’re professors, doctors,
Real-estate sellers.
But you remain the sacrificers
And dream trappers,
Devoted bandage wrappers,
Hidden talent tappers,
The peaceful fighters,
Profound emotion divers,
The all-odds overcomers,
The survivors, the survivors.
Among your ranks I stand, so unprepared.
Wondering, like any other,
If one day I may also earn the title:
Mother.

Wiping the last sweat off my brow
After the birth, I’m feeling older
Bolder
I glance up lovingly into the eyes
Of my committed spouse – hand holder
And whisper, “Honey, if ‘ere again you feel that yearn
Remember, dearest, next time – it’s your turn!”

To follow up on my first letter, I decided to write a second one to my older self.

Dear Anya-of-the-future,

Just wanted to drop you a line, let you know that I am thinking of you.

It’s hard figuring out priorities, predicting outcomes. I wish you would write me once in a while too, share your insight. But no, you sit there enjoying retirement while I garble my way through life blindly. I am not bitter though, I understand you have other things on your mind, like aching limbs, forgotten spectacles, grandkids. Still, it’d be nice to receive a word of encouragement.

As for me, I am thinking of you, trying to save up for your medicare, make some investments, raise children that will take care of you in your old age and share their own children with you. Funny how I get all the work, and you get all the play. I wrote Anya-of-the-past recently too, and it seems I am paying for her play as well.

I don’t have much to tell you that you don’t already know….(although you might have forgotten it). Mostly I just have questions: is it scary being close to death? You probably have come up with some zen philosophical view on it that makes it tolerable. I, being still far off, am scared stiff. What really happens to your body as you age? How do you feel inside? How do we end up handling menopause? Do you go crazy? Just tell me, I’d rather know.

What do we end up doing with the rest of our life? Is there something I should change right now? Do you want me to write a will and pick out a plot to be buried in? I actually like those biodegradable tree bark caskets – what do you think? Or will you take care of that yourself? I am pretty open to suggestions, like I said – you can drop me a line from time to time. Just keep in mind that I am trying to live here as well, to make all the work that Anya-of-the-past put into me worth her while, and to make all the aching, broken bones and white hairs that you have worth it for you too. Bet you have lots of good memories. No need to thank me – it way my pleasure.

Hang in there, the end is in sight.

– Anya

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She replied too:

Dear Anya-of-the-present,

I do thank you for your ever-so-tactful approach to my senility. Your sensitivity is to be lauded.

I haven’t written in the past because I thought you should figure life out on your own, and for the most part I still hold to that. However, there are a few minor things I can’t resist to mention.

First, about life: 90% of what you’re doing won’t matter thirty years from now. You suspect that already, don’t you? You have an inkling, a gut feeling, but stubbornly you prod ahead. I tell you: listen to that gut feeling, and stop everything else.

Secondly, about my health: I have not lost my senses, I still have our memories, but I should warn you – many of the ones that come later are difficult ones. Still I cherish them. My body, our body (you may as well get used to thinking about it as such) is not what it used to be. And I have you and that younger self of yours to thank. Now I carry in me all the scars of your adventuring, your carelessness, your conviction that you will live forever. You should have spent less time worrying about death and more time doing stretches before climbing trees. Yoga is your friend. Donuts are not.

And finally, since we’re on it, death: I don’t think about it much nowadays. I’ll tell you one thing: I have to get dentures soon, and tomorrow I am going to the dentist to get my last real teeth pulled. Our last teeth. Now that is terrifying. I am scared stiff. You really should have flossed more, woman.

Okay, go live your life now. Oh, and spend more time on the beach.

I love you,

Anya-of-the-future

Lately I’ve been thinking of the relationship between my various selves: who I am now, what I owe to my younger self, what I should do for my older self. So I decided to write them both a letter. Here is the first one:

Dear Anya-of-the-past,

First of all, don’t worry. I’m not going to spend this whole letter scolding you. Okay, maybe just a little. But I want to say the good things first.

I really appreciate that you paid attention in school. This might sound trite, but it actually made a huge difference. The things you learned there proved the most useful in my life – like fractions, and elementary statistics, and geometry. It was great that you paid attention in your honors history and literature classes, because the man that you, I mean I, am with now, just happens to be a philosopher, and you – I wouldn’t be able to even feign understanding if we didn’t know some basic concepts or names.

Also, thank you for sticking with orchestra all through high-school, and for piano. You don’t know how much joy I am still reaping from the experience and knowledge gained there. And in case you’re wondering, neither you nor I will ever really regret not going to parties or getting drunk or wasting away our teenagehood. But for that I guess you or I should thank our parents and friends – that lifestyle was never even a temptation.

Now about you-know-what. Those student loans of yours – ouch. I understand you were not very well informed. And I understand your situation perfectly. I’ve been there…. I know. But you should have thought of me. YOU took them out, and I am left paying them, only now they are much larger, and now I have children to support. And unlike you, I am actually thinking about Anya-Future: she’s gonna be old and feeble, and won’t be able to support herself, so I have to put some money away for her too. If you had gone to community college your first two years, you would have saved me, and us all, a lot of grief. But alas, you were consumed by your present self, which is typical.

The other thing I’d like you to think about is this: why do you do the things you do. Now I know what you’re gonna say, so don’t bother. Just think about it. Some of your undertakings will prove long-lasting, others will prove a waste of time. It would be nice if we could tilt the scale in favor of the former.

Overall, though, you’re doing good. Take care of yourself and spend more time at the beach.

– Anya

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Surprisingly, a few days later I got a response in the mail. In a hurried, scribbled chicken-scratch is said:

Dear Anya,

Thanks for dropping me a line – I appreciate the sentiment, although it is kind of weird hearing from you. I’m glad the stuff I learned ends up being useful. Don’t take it personally, but I was doing it more for me, the process of learning was enjoyable.

As for the loans, I had to do what I had to do. You’re reaping the benefits of my education now, and so it’s only fair that you should pay now. I will try to take it easy once in a while, but life is so short, you know? And there is so much for me to accomplish, to try, to experience. I have to run.

Catch ya later,

Anya-of-the-past

Recently I read an enlightening article about the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and his understanding of music performance, creation and interpretation. While I cannot recount the many lucid, insightful ideas and anecdotes described and quoted there, (for that you should read the article), one idea particularly struck me. At some point Tetzlaff was describing the way Alban Berg incorporated many nuances from his personal biography into his scores. He went on to say that “the secrets embedded in Berg’s score were not intended for the listeners in the hall. They were there for the performer, whom Berg was addressing as a confidant…Interpretation should ultimately be an act of compassion.” This concept touched me deeply, and I have been ruminating on it since.

Within the fine arts, music is unique in that its generation, performance and reception involves three parties rather than two. In painting and sculpture, there is one person who comes up with the idea and executes it (the artist), and another who receives and processes it (the audience). The same can be said of writing. But in music there are three mandatory components: the composer who generates the piece, the musician who interprets it, and the audience who perceives and digests it. In a way, the audience interprets the interpretation. If you compare music-making and painting, the role of the musician in music gets broken down into various aspects, some of which are taken on by the artist, and some – by the beholder. For example, the act of interpretation or of “understanding” the intent, which falls squarely on the shoulders of the musician, is typically given to the artist who, ideally, is able to represent through the art media his or her own intention. From this breakdown many revelatory questions follow: what is the reason for creating a piece of art? Is the musician responsible for simply transmitting that reason or intent to the audience, or can he add his own flavor to the mix? Is the audience obligated to appreciate or at least to seek out the initial idea, or is it allowed to assign its own meaning to what it perceives?

If you think about the composer-musician tandem, you begin to see how intimately dependent on each other they are. It’s as if the composer has the words, but no voice to express them with, while the musician has a voice but needs the words. The composer has profound things he wants to share, but they are so personal, so complex, that only a highly skilled and attentive musician will appreciate all of the nuances. This is why his interpretation is an act of compassion. With his performance he can express to the composer his own understanding of the messages embedded in the bars of music. He can offer empathy and give voice to what has been hidden. The audience also offers a listening ear while the performer, and through him, the composer, share deeply personal things.

Poignantly then comes the realization that compassion flows both ways. An artist, a poet, a sculptor, a novelist are able to provide organization and structure to amorphous feelings and intimations of thought, both vague and transparent notions. They validate one’s experience and reveal how vastly similar and connected we are. As a poet, how many times have I met the eye of grateful listeners who finally heard, coming out of my mouth, words they themselves felt but could not adequately express? As an appreciator of music and art, have I not been flooded by relief, overwhelmed with joy, when I heard or saw something that I also felt within? Were not the pieces of art which evoked gratitude and resonance in others created with love? With immense compassion? The circle is closed then, and the creating, performing, and appreciating of art becomes one comprehensive communal experience.

Christian Tetzlaff points to this as he describes his personal encounters with music. “..That’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I am sitting in the hall and also when I am playing myself. It’s about communication – I almost want to say “communion”. As a player, you don’t really interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience.”

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