Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 13

Après un rêve
I started piano lessons when I was 5 years old, clumsily plunking out the single staff melodies finger by finger on our oak upright Yamaha. I loved opening the hinged wooden cover, finding the keys draped in that elegant red felt. I felt akin to those black and white keys, solid, defined, usable, beautiful, and still, always waiting to be played. I would stroke the keys, the black, the white, bang my palms on the clusters of porcelain, slide the fingernail of my index finger from the highest note to the lowest and back, enthralled by the breadth of sound. I would find songs I knew (Twinkle, Twinkle or Three Blind Mice) and would hold down the Sostenuto pedal through the entirety of the short pieces, listening to the thick, dwindling sound cluster until it was almost silence. The notes on the page were not as appealing: clefs, key signatures, sharps, flats, fingering. Practicing meant playing the same song over and over again until you hated it. It meant those dreaded Hanon scales, ascending arpeggios, up and down, across the keys until you forgot why you loved the instrument in the first place. Except you never really did. And years later realized that because you can read music you can do anything.
I had grown up hearing about my Taita, my dad’s mother, who was a concert pianist. As a boy my dad would stand by her side as her fingers spun across the keys, his eyes wide. He would tell me I looked like her, short and stocky, busty by the time I was ten, which must’ve meant I was going to be play like her too. Although my mom would probably tell you differently, I’m not sure there was ever a time I didn’t want to play the piano. I would take years of lessons, settling in around 16 with a teacher who went to my church and let me play anything and everything I wanted (at one point I was learning Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata side by side with “My heart will go on”).
One of my favorite sounds in the world has always been an orchestra tuning. The A played by the oboe, the winds fluttering, quieting, the A again, the strings entering cacophonously, musically, the chaos anticipating the order to follow, each separate timbre perfectly in sync with its neighbor, like holding two crayons in your hand and tracing a heart. As an elementary school student I wanted nothing more than to play the cello, a privilege only the fourth graders in our school were allowed to enjoy. But we were moving during November of the school year and for two months I had to watch other kids leave class with the instrument I loved and go to the orchestra rehearsal I had dreamed of for so long. To my dismay at my new San Diego elementary school orchestra didn't even start until the 5th grade and the cello wasn't offered. I played the violin unhappily until entering middle school.
The first time I got my rented cello alone in my room, I took it out of its case, undressing it, revealing the scratched, taupe, wood, the chipped, curved f holes, the spun scroll, the smooth black fingerboard, and metallic strings. I tightened the bow and rosined the delicate horse hair stretched taut between the delicate arch. I sat at the kitchen chair I had dragged into my room that morning and tucked the cello between my legs, holding it tight with my knees. I pulled the bow sloppily across the lowest string with my right hand, waiting a moment before using my left middle finger to press the string to the fingerboard close to the scroll. I paused, the edges of my mouth turning up. I almost blushed. Jaws. A movie I had never seen, the soundtrack to which I could now play.
My poor cello teacher, Catherine, never seemed able to keep my attention. A small British woman with perfect pitch, she would frequently get frustrated with my lack of focus and have me lie on the floor under her piano as she plucked out notes I was to name. She would drone the A440 at the beginning of each lesson attempting to instill in me the pitch to which I was to tune my instrument and myself. Catherine had quickly removed the familiar tapes from the fingerboards, leaving me floundering for notes I could read but not play. I would tell her how frustrated I was, beg her to give me back the markers, and she would tell me I simply needed more practice. So I would close myself in my room, and stare at the music. I would try to play, each phrase sounding contrite and abbreviated. I could hear it in my mind, the wave of the vibrato, the crisp tapping of my fingers on the strings, the slick transitions from one position to the next, the clean defined pitches, the smooth pull of my bow across the strings perfectly parallel with the bridge. But I could not realize it.
My freshman year of high school my parents bought me a cello, brand new and chestnut brown. I remember the fade of the stain, the paisley of the grain. By the time I got this instrument I could play Bach, and did, pressing and vibrating the strings with my fingers, sliding my hands up and down the smooth wood of the neck, playing the piece I had now been practicing for a year, the first six measures of which were almost perfect. For that moment, because I could make music for those short six measures on an instrument of such undeniable physical beauty, I knew I would play it forever just as I had promised my parents I would, would practice for hours a day, would practice until the strings’ sound bent to my will.
My Junior year I quit the orchestra and joined the chorus. While singing at church or around the house, my parents and friends had always told me I had a lovely voice, and by now, despite being the first chair cellist in my high school's orchestra, my perceived pitch problems had overtaken any joy I had in the instrument. I knew deep in my gut that no matter what Catherine or my mom told me, it did not sound right. Months before, my parents had taken me to see a famous cellist whose name I cannot quite remember. After a breathtaking concert, for his encore he played Fauré’s art song “Après un rêve.” The cello wept, the cellist swaying side to side with the bow, as though rocking the instrument and himself back to sleep after that beautiful, terrible dream. The audience burst open as the piece ended, standing and shouting. At that time I had no idea there was text to this piece, I only understood the title due to my limited French, only knew the dream was everything he had ever wanted, and his waking world only darkness. I cried myself to sleep that night and dreamt I was on that stage, except my cello was out of tune, and the strings wouldn’t tighten. I spun the pegs endlessly but the sound didn’t change, and I could never play in front of people like that.
I moved into the chorus seamlessly, my loud, irreverent personality deeply appreciated amongst more artistic types and even got cast in our high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. After a few voice lessons I told my choir director I wanted to be an opera singer, and she—a failed opera singer herself who had never let go of the stage as indicated by blush whipped so high on her cheeks that even though we worshipped her we called her a clown—told me she didn't think I was cut out for it. I’m sure she thought this a kindness, but I would tell this story triumphantly while attending the conservatory, as though I had already made it just by nature of paying my scholarship-less tuition by way of student loans and being cast in a small lead my second year.
In college and in grad school I finally did learn to practice. I spent time at the piano learning notes, translated foreign languages, and memorized sounds I didn't understand. I rehearsed when and how to gesture (which I would sadly forget the moment I stood in front of an audience). I could sing in tune, usually anyhow, but my stage fright was debilitating. Before standing up even in a classroom, my heart would beat so fast I would feel on the brink of death. I would stand at the piano, my prep simply an attempt to still the shaking of my hands. It was worse if I wore high heels, my feet unable to ground, my calves shortened, my knees trembling. In a session with my coach and pianist, a small, swarthy, sensitive, South African man, just weeks before my graduate recital, I excused myself to cry in the bathroom for 15 minutes. When I came back, he had closed the piano cover and was leaning on it, looking at me intensely across the wide expanse of the piano’s grand back. I apologized for crying, and finally looked him in the eye. “There is a small part of you that is not afraid,” he said. “You have to access that part, and then, if only for an hour, you have to try to live there.”
I took a break from music after grad school and got a job. My parents had given my cello to an inner city school in Washington, DC my freshman year of college, since my dreams were more focused on the Met stage than in the pit. When my parents sold their house to travel around the country in their RV for a year, they gave my piano to my brother Jeffrey so my niece, Alysha, could learn to play. She's is in nursing school now, and Jeffrey recently sold the piano for a thousand dollars on craigslist, an act that against my will felt as though a part my self was no longer mine, as though with the piano he had given away all of the wonder surrounding a seemingly random combination of sounds somehow changing the space in a room, prying open your heart, uncovering a joy, a safety you thought long gone.
My one year break turned to two turned to three turned to ten. “Where’d you go to school?” “The Boston Conservatory.” “Oh, what do you play?” “I sing. Sang. I have a Master’s degree in voice.” “You're an Opera Singer!” I smile, “No. Not anymore.”
Sometimes I will hear a Bach suite or a Beethoven concerto or the opening lilt of the violin signaling the beginning of “Donde lieta” and my chest will swell, and I'll think maybe I could do it again, maybe I can practice harder, be better, play in tune, stand solidly in that pin prick of a place where there is no fear. I close my eyes and let the sound of possibility settle warmly on my chest.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

This is a Memoir Week 12


My first trip to New Orleans lasted about 12 hours. During my Junior year of college in 2003 our university choir toured the deep south, singing the Vespers at different episcopal churches and trying out our white person chops on a few spirituals. We made stops in Nashville, Graceland, Apalachicola, and on the last night, before returning to California early the next morning, ended up miles away from the French Quarter the night before Mardi Gras. Once we arrived at the hotel, we quickly split off, each small group jumping into cabs to take the $45 ride to Bourbon Street. From the moment we entered the quarter, the streets were swarmed and everything moved in slow motion. The crowd shouted, its voices, eyes, and hems of shirts directed upwards at balconies so packed with people I swear they neared collapse, suffering under the weight—all tall windows, elongated shutters, scrolled, swirling ironwork, and colorful architecture obscured by the condensed debauchery. The stagnant air smelled like sick and sex. I kept my eyes down, trying to ignore the genetalia flashing in my periphery until my friends picked a gift shop, purchased a few feathered, bedazzled masks, and we were, thankfully, on our way.

I recently spent a week in New Orleans over the Thanksgiving Holiday visiting my dear friend Dahlia who had recently enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. After taking an almost 6 year break from school, everything felt new to her. She hadn’t had to write an academic paper, or be in writing workshops, hadn’t had to worry about money (at least not in this way) or carve out time to actually do her own writing in quite some time. When we would chat on the phone during her first months there she would say she was “learning to be alone” and would talk about the city as though it was the only part of her new life she understood. “The city is grieving,” she would say. And so was she.

Dahlia lives in a diverse Mid-City neighborhood. The dilapidated houses with trash strewn backyards inhabited by incessantly barking dogs adjacent to newly renovated duplexes, floor to ceiling windows lining front porches opening into brightly lit kitchens presents a checkerboard of economic status. We rarely saw a white person walking down her rainbow-ed street lined with colored houses in varying states of newness and decay. On one porch sat a Latina woman, a three-year-old child playing at her feet. Stuck to one of the porch beams was a large sign that said, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.  –God,” and as we went by I wondered about past acts of violence that would necessitate such a sign.

For the two days she had to go to class I drove Dahlia to and from school, and each time passed one of New Orleans’ famous above ground cemeteries, what Mark Twain called, “the Cities of the Dead.” New Orleans’ water table is so high, you cannot dig more than a few feet down into the earth without the grave filling with water. And if you try to bury a body the earth will simply spit it out after a season of heavy rain. We walked the cemetery the day before Thanksgiving, meandering down the long, grassy aisles and crossing between the tombs when there was room. I wondered aloud what happens to the bodies inside these miniature stone mansions. I kept imagining the decay building behind the flower vases and tiny bolted doors, until, when it was opened, death spun out into the air, not just above ground, but saturating the ether.

One day while Dahlia was in class, I parked the car in the French Quarter and went off in search of beignets. The weather was icy and grey, the open air markets chilled and empty, the bars only half open, the streets full of tourists and their children. I arrived at Café du Monde and walked under the green and white striped circus tent. I looked around for the “to go” window but had temporarily lost my ability to focus in the haze of people pooling around green tables and powdered sugar. The waiters, all rushing about with mountains of steaming white powder, passed by, and I thought about asking. But instead I sighed, and left.

Two days prior Dahlia and I decided to drive through the French Quarter and ended up in stand still traffic on Bourbon Street. Every face on the sidewalk was indistinguishable from the next in the cool sunlight: pale skin, straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, boot cut jeans, colored fleece, and sneakers (the Midwestern tourist’s uniform). We stopped by a bike tied to a street sign, old, dirty, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the handlebars as if in homage to the last time I had paid this street a visit. The scents of partiers past wafted through the windows, a hint of alcohol and old vomit at 1:30pm even months after Fat Tuesday. We passed shop windows full of I heart NOLA Tshirts, bars with neon signs and Day of the Dead decorations, through Jackson Square. “Slaves were sold here,” Dahlia said quietly. Today, on the curved stairs sat an audience of white faces gazing down at a group of black men breakdancing on the sidewalk. I hoped they did not feel sold.

A few nights later we had dessert and drinks at a French Restaurant a few miles from Dahlia’s apartment. While eating our Lemon Icebox Pie, the middle-aged couple at the table next to us asked where we are from. We exchanged pleasantries about Boston and Uptown, the ritzy, predominantly white part of New Orleans where the woman, Paula, had been born and raised, and listened to stories of the multi-million dollar home they were currently selling, in addition to Terry and Paula’s enthusiastic drinking habits.

"What do you guys do?" I asked.

"Well, Terry's a contractor, but I get mailbox money." She wiggled her hips in her chair and rubbed her thumbs against her index and middle fingers.

“I’m confused. Is that a thing?"

"Oh, honey, yes. I open my mailbox and there’s a check! And I say, 'I didn't know I owned that land!'" We all laughed for no reason.

We were looking for a place to eat on Thanksgiving, so Paula listed off several restaurants with women’s first names before mentioning Crescent City Steaks in Mid-City.

"I live right by there!” Dahlia said, “On St. Philip!”

They both leaned towards her. "You have to be careful there,” Terry states.

“You're gonna get shot!" Paula shouted. They both laugh again.

“You need to move!” Terry was gleeful. “But seriously how long’s your lease?”

"Six months. And you aren't the first people to say that." Dahlia smiled, ”But I did my research. I walked around. I met all my neighbors. They’re mostly homeowners.“

Terry leaned even further across the space between our two tables, “You might think they’re your friends, but they’re not.” He said quietly. “They’re not your friends.”

“Oh, hush, Terry.” Paula widened her eyes at him. “They’re gonna think we’re prejudice.”

After dessert we are driving onto the freeway, on our way to meet some of Dahlia’s classmates at a bar by Tulane, when we encounter the Northern Lights, visible from New Orleans by an act of God. We witness part of the night sky alight with the most incredible absinthe green light, flashing and swelling between the stars. “What is that?” I say out loud. “It’s like a wall of light.” I was sure it was no less than a miracle. As we neared our exit, the Superdome came into view, green lights flashing onto the mammoth, endless, blank, rounded surface, achingly reflected into the heavens beyond.

This is where I felt it, the history of that place, of that storm. Here human beings waited for help that they knew would never come, drowning, living in filth, wondering who is alive, who is dead, tiptoeing their way between human waste and what remained of human treasure, to find their way to outside where they would keep on waiting, perpetually losing. Perhaps the city tried to put all their grief into the ground, tried to bury it in the leveled 9th ward underneath all of the growing green and Brad Pitt’s architectural jewels, but the collective mind of New Orleans is as saturated as the earth that makes it.

The day before, while Dahlia napped, I discovered every book on her night table was poetry by Robert Hass. Picking up the slim volume with the most appealing title (Human Wishes), I came across a question:  “On the corner a blind man with one leg was selling pencils… Would the good Christ of Manhattan have restored his sight and two thirds of his left leg? Or would he have healed his heart and left him there in a mutilated body? And what would that peace feel like?”

We were sitting in the third row of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church’s small brick building in New Orleans’ Tremé. The organist, a robust black man dressed in white and brown oxford loafers  and a white suit (starched collared shirt, vest, suspenders, loose legged perfectly hemmed pants, and a knee length suit jacket that cascaded over the back of the piano bench almost touching the floor like the train of a bridal gown) held the room. His fingers jumped quickly from keys to switches, his feet dancing across the bass pedals, the music building, in volume, in intensity. We were close enough to hear the clicking of the keys, to see the beaded sweat on his forehead, to feel the heat of joy. The women of the congregation all wore ornate colorful hats, complete with feathers, flowers, and other sparkled garnishes, boxy, shiny satin suit jackets with jeweled beading, matching calf length pencil skirts, pantyhose, and practical heels. When they would raise their hands in the air, the clean white beds of their fingernails seemed to shine against the wizened black skin, and they would shout, “Have mercy!” “Hallelujah!” “Yes, Lord!” The song climaxed on a long, held note, the organist’s finger quivering like a cellist’s vibrato, as though the organ, this organ, was equally under his spell and he could vibrate the sound with his touch (a fact I, and everyone else in the room, would never have argued). As he held the note, people shouted and clapped, wagging their hands in the air, standing up, sitting down, shaking their heads, visceral movements, subtle, and joyous, until the drummer joined in as the organist played the final notes, and a frenzy of appreciation, of worship, took over the entire congregation.