Friday, November 15, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 15

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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Cloudy days in November are the worst. I've always complained about that, even when I was a child, not that Mother could ever do anything about that: it was one of those early disappointments in my life when I realized my own mother was unable to change things to make me feel better. "Make the clouds go away, Mommy," I had cried, tired from the weight of them, bearing down on me like a suffocating blanket. Exasperated, she would stand at the window and wave her arms in wizardly fashion, then look out, expectantly. Cocking her head, she would turn back to me and say with a frown, "Doesn't look like they're going to listen to me today, either. Sorry." And then she'd walk out of the room, leaving me on my own, shrinking back in fear from the glowering greyness of the all-absorbing clouds.

When I woke up this morning and saw the intensity of the clouds – sleeping in until almost 9 o'clock, it looked like the sun had barely started to rise: how can it be this late? – it brought back those distant days and old fears. What did I possibly have to do as a boy that young that I would feel the leaden burden of such a day, that overwhelming anxiety of energy already wasted and drained? For that matter, sitting here in my kitchen today, retired from the world, what do I possibly have to do now? Even the cats are sluggish this morning.

Yesterday had been beautifully, delightfully sunny, despite Sybil's protracted agony, yet before I was even aware the day would be a loss after I hung up the phone, I knew it wouldn't matter. I had gone for a walk – it was surprisingly mild (again) – and as I wandered down the lane and out to the main road, wondering whether I should risk walking all the way up to Mount Agamemnon or not, I felt that I didn't have the strength to risk it with no place along the way to stop and rest without calling attention to an old man possibly having a heart attack and alarming my neighbors, if anyone noticed me. So I turned back down my lane, gathered up some snacks – chocolate cookies I'd loved as a child, comfort food on the sinful side of my diet – and sat instead in my back yard, pulling an old chair out into the sun. Its warmth should be invigorating as I sat staring seaward hoping to find strength and consolation in this landscape's infinite sameness. But all I could think of was how Sybil would not allow herself to enjoy this before realizing, because of her, now neither could I.

The great ocean before us, I would think as I had walked along the stony beaches around Cape Edmund, is constantly changing – look at the waves on a windy day, or the different colors on a sunny day or a cloudy one – and yet its seemingly invariable presence can be comforting despite its mood changes – happy, sad, angry, mischievous – hiding things we cannot know.

In the woods, the leaves now gone, we'd see (if we bothered to look) a whole new world of experience revealed to us whether we comprehend it or not. There, along the main street, would be a house with four apartments in it: in one room a boy is happy because he's gotten good grades on a challenging test at school and in another room, a woman's heart is breaking.

There were times like this I would wonder how Madeleine would have enjoyed this, sitting here with me, and the thought of that I'd find comforting, settling back with a smile. She often tried waving away my anxieties by calling me an "old coot," doing a not bad impersonation of Kathryn Hepburn chiding Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. She would complain I had reached my curmudgeonly cootness prematurely and should wait until we'd retire before giving in to my "inner coot." Since I moved here, I have seen quite a few coots, but only a small number of them birds.

This morning, the brilliant warming sun had disappeared behind clouds that grew thicker, more menacing through the day. Though rain would only make it worse, I wished it would just rain and get it over with, but that turned out not to be the plan. Again, I heard my mother's distant voice, how they weren't going to listen to me today, either. Thwarted, as always. I didn't bother with coffee on the porch or walking down the lane, knowing it would be useless. It hadn't worked yesterday but for different reasons. I found myself instead puttering around the house looking for something to listen to, something that might take my mind off the clouds, help me escape from my cantankerous mood.

Naturally, the piece that came to mind I couldn't find, no matter how organized or disorganized my collection of recordings was. And the more I couldn't locate it, the more I felt that was the only piece that would help me, today. Schubert always worked better for me and I wanted one of those unfinished symphonies of his – not the Famous One, one of the four or five other symphonies he'd left, for whatever reasons, incomplete.

Instead, I ended up with his Arpeggione Sonata. Its wistful nature seemed to match my mood and the fact he had written it for a newly invented instrument that never caught on made it doomed to a failure that was not his doing. And that, too, frankly, matched my mood.

The performance I wanted was always a favorite, with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten (one of my favorite composers) at the piano, no matter how quirky it might seem to others. This also managed to help a bit: there are so many ways music can be interpreted, and this one spoke to me more than other, more traditional ones did.

All in all, it's a gentle work and one I always enjoyed playing – the piano part is not particularly difficult, mostly supportive, purely accompanimental, no serious "heavy lifting." Of course, it's been years since I've played the piano seriously and even "light lifting" would be a challenge these days. I live out here alone with nobody to hear me: why should I be concerned what other people think of my playing, anyway? Bach would be good to play, today – the B-flat Minor Prelude and Fugue from Book Two – but that is such a sad work and I'm not sure I'm up for catharsis at the moment.

Instead, I let the Schubert waft over me as I sit there petting one of the cats who immediately came over to cuddle with me on the chair, perhaps as much therapy as the music would be. I've closed the drapes to block out the dreary sky: if my mother could never make it go away, I can at least hide from it, myself.

When I'm sitting in a concert, I can watch the players (or, rarely, the audience) and find myself engaged with something visual at the same time I'm listening to the music. But if the visual detracts from the audible, I more often find myself closing my eyes and then having someone nudge me because they think (how rude) I've fallen asleep. As a musician, I might listen to music differently than someone who isn't: if I know the piece, how well the performers are interpreting the music and trying to separate my interpretation from theirs; whether or not I know the piece – at least well – I listen for things they bring out in the music that perhaps I hadn't heard before, a nuance here or a line being brought forward there, how a particular harmony is approached that makes sense of the underlying structure – technical stuff, in other words, that only another musician would care about but which a listener might respond to unknowingly.

But there are times when I'm just listening to music, doing nothing more than sitting here in the peace of my home with a recording or the radio (though how long has it been since I've listened to any decent music on the radio?), I fall into the trap that many people do: the music becomes a pleasant backdrop to my thoughts, a soundtrack in the mind that blocks out other sounds or thoughts that may otherwise distract me. After all, friends of mine argue (and too recently I end up giving into it as well), what else is there to do while listening to music?

I lean back into the chair, my eyes closed, trying to imagine nothing but no sooner consciously trying to block the visual than my mind is flooded with images – the first time I played this with my best friend Charles in college; listening to a faculty recital at Selwyn-Morgan with Madeleine beside me. At first she didn't like the piece (too simplistic) but ended up enjoying it as "a soothing balm." Perhaps that's why the piece came into my mind when I felt like listening to something (no, actually, it had been something else by Schubert, first; this was the consolation prize, what I found at hand).

There's something about the slow movement I find extra soothing this morning, though I don't know why. I'm not sure it's really helping me but I wonder if Sybil would listen to it and sense the tension draining from her mind? I would doubt that: she's never been particularly fond of classical music beyond the most popular pieces she could recognize. She loves Ravel's Bolero, for instance, an enthusiasm that made me cringe the time we met.

There are times when I wonder about my friends – what made us friends in the first place, why some have endured and others haven't. Meeting them in my thoughts on a day like this can often add to the dejection. I tend to dwell on past friends on such occasions and the loss of them does not often compensate for the nostalgia they bring me, warm memories for old, almost forgotten times. Am I even remembering things correctly? Does it matter if I'm not?

There are times I will combine two memories in one, only to remind myself this couldn't have happened this way because one took place in this location and the other at some other time and location, perhaps a year later. But I remember them as if it had only happened last week, not decades ago.

As I sit there, lying back, scratching the cat's neck while he purrs, I realize the music has slipped into the cheerful final movement, cheerful in its understated way, like a sunny day when one is only conscious of how right everything feels, lacking the details of sun and temperature, setting and context.

There are episodes of contrasts like passing clouds, a doubt, some question left unanswered, and the sunshine quietly resumes. The final chords come quietly in this performance, perhaps one reason I treasure it: affirmative but gentle, a consolation and a benediction.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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