Music Appreciation Lesson
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” ~Herman Melville
“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”– Henry David Thoreau
As the sun rises, I take my oldest child Alex to school for marching band practice. Listening to Yo Yo Ma playing Ennio Morricone’s music, we ride over yellow rural roads, yellow with the sun rising, yellow with the golden rod in bloom, yellow with the reflection of dried corn. Driving with my son, we listen to this piercing cello, Yo Yo’s bow shreds the ordinary and makes this golden moment extraordinary.
Alex plays the clarinet. He also plays bass clarinet, tenor sax, piano, and drums. He’s a gifted musician, and after only months of playing the sax, he was doing improv solos. He doesn’t talk about this, he talks about sports: the ones he plays, the one he wishes he was playing (football), the ones he watches on TV. In sixth grade, after a month of playing violin, the orchestra teacher told me it would be “a waste of time” for me to continue, but that did not squelch my love of music.
Alex reaches to turn off Yo Yo for something else and I stop him, “Leave it. Listen,” I say.
He looks out the window.
“I can feel music,” he says.
“I know you can,” I say. “How does someone come up with this?” I ask, “How do you have this music in your head?”
Alex is fifteen, his friends are all driving now, and he will get his license soon. One of his friends is already notorious for not stopping at stop signs. Alex has grown eight inches in two years. I look up to him through that double vision parents possess, which sees both the curls on the adoring toddler and the man-child before me.
I wanted children more than I wanted air. When I became pregnant with Alex, I remember I drank iced tea one lunch, a wild move for me, as if to say, “See, I’d never drink caffeine if I really was pregnant.” We’d had too many false starts. I didn’t think it could be real. I felt too good. I told myself I was going to ace this motherhood thing. It was what I wanted most, and by God, I was going to do it well.
But, nobody told me about the grief inherent in this parenting gig. Or, maybe it’s like people saying, “With infants, you get no sleep,” and it seems spoken in another language until you actually have a newborn in your arms, and you can translate those words because you have gone so many nights without continuous sleep. Suddenly, I looked around, and my sons were emptying their rooms of all toys, and we had become serfs in the land of Electronica, where Technology rules, and everything has a charger. My ruling days were clearly over.
With Alex as my oldest, I search for things to bond over. It’s mostly music and food. I made him listen to Kings of Leon before they were popular, and told him for years about the genius of Andre Benjamin. Since Alex is hungry all the time, I buy or make mountains of food, he eats, and we are briefly, euphorically happy.
Since we live on the outskirts of town, there is only a Freedom gas station within biking distance, which, much to my chagrin, supplies my older two kids with caffeinated drinks, junk food, and God only knows what else. When Alex bikes over there, with his friends, he yells out the door, “I’m going to Freedom.” I have always found that shout out funny, until now. Now it feels poignant.
“Wear your helmet. Be careful. Home before dark,” I call out, in short, imperative sentences, as if teenagers remember these things, when racing toward Freedom.
I keep the poet Rilke close, always. I read this opening stanza:
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
My own childhood’s dark abysses left me vigilant about my childrens’ childhoods. I do not want them left bereft. Traversing those abysses, forged in me courage, and sensitivity to art, many things can bring me to tears, like this cello music as the sun is rising. My heart is full. My children are part of that great arch in my life, they themselves have been unimagined bridges.
As I drive, Alex looks at the cup holder and gear shift that separate us. It contains my coffee cup, a brown half-eaten banana, an empty pop bottle, some cd cases, and a protein bar wrapper.
“Good thing your car is so clean. I hope I keep the car as clean as you do,” he says.
As he exits, I’ve been coached what I can say. I cannot embarrass him or sound too perky, so I simply say, “Have a good day.” It doesn’t begin to cover what I want to say to him. I want to tell him he and his siblings are the most beautiful people I have ever seen, how I have memorized the looks in his eyes and know the emotions they carry, how I know the way the back of his head looks as he turns away, how I memorized him as a baby in my arms, and how since he’s a moving target these days, I work to memorize him now.
Driving back home alone, I continue listening to Yo Yo Ma. I feel the music. His slow bow across the strings chokes me up. I remember when Alex learned Carl P. E. Bach’s Solfeggietto. His piano teacher, Robert Nakea, told me he’d never had a student learn the piece so quickly, as Alex’s fingers went racing through the arpeggios. Robert told me, “It’s a piece that takes time to learn, it’s slow going at first, and then, voilà, it’s learned, and if played well, it’s a lot of work, but it’s beautiful, and it speeds by.” Just like parenthood.