Musical note, part one

Across the street from  your house is a small apartment building. Every so often, at the end of the month, someone will move out and someone else will move in. You sit in your upstairs office, the one with the green walls and the fuchsia and orange curtains –be not afraid of color– and glance out as you work.

Cars and vans, sometimes a U-Haul, the sweating friends and family: in and out they go, tromping up and down the steps, lugging the bureau and couch and chairs and television. It’s all so familiar. You yourself have moved quite a few times in just such a manner.

About a month ago, someone new moved in. You have no idea if this someone new is a man or a woman, but you do know that the someone new is a musician.

You know this because it’s spring –finally, it’s spring– and you took out the storms and put in the screens, and the spring breeze blows the curtains and your hair while you work. And while you work, classical violin music wafts from an upstairs window from the apartment building across the street.

At first you thought it was a fluke. You had managed to catch a child at practice. Maybe she goes to MacPhail School for Music, as does one of your own children, you thought, and she’s been avoiding her practicing all week, but today is lesson day. Quick, better get in a few minutes of practice so you won’t have to lie to the teacher.

But a few minutes later you knew you were wrong. This was no child desperately trying to dodge a stern teacher bullet. For one thing, it was the middle of the day on a school day, long after all the backpack-dragging children on the block had trudged to their bus stops. For another, this was serious music played by someone who had put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice.

That first day he (she? Some days you picture a woman, other days a man in a black suit) played for more than and hour and then stopped.

Oh. You were surprised at how sad this made you. That music was so beautiful. You, who are forever embarrassed at your un-knowledge about classical music, yet who love it anyway, in your naive way, didn’t want that music to end.

Your phone rang and you plucked it up.

“Did you hear that?” said your next-door neighbor. “That gorgeous music?”

She too works at home, in an upstairs room that faces the street exactly as yours does. She too likes to look out on the street life as she works.

“It’s amazing,” you said. “Who is it?”

“No idea,” she said. “But maybe we should go throw flowers up at their window. Do you think that would encourage them to keep going?”

But no flowers were necessary. Within an hour, the music had begun again, and on it went, for another hour. And on and off throughout the day, and the days, and the weeks, and now more than a month. Music is the center of the violinist’s life.

Is there anything like that in your life? Any kind of gift you yourself can give the world, or your block, right here and right now, merely by trying to be better at something?

You can’t delight the neighbors with the sound of your fingers clicking away on the keyboard, trying to be better at writing. You can’t delight them with your singing, or your own preschooler piano playing. Maybe you can delight a few with the smell of baking cookies. Come the end of June through September, you might delight some with the hundreds of flowers which by then will be open and waving in the boulevard and front yard gardens.

But that violinist, all he has to do is stand before an open window and try to get better at what he already excels at, and the air around him fills with beauty.

Poem of the Week, by Naomi Shihab Nye


– Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

For more information on Naomi Nye, please click here.

Something you would think but never say

Every other day or so, you drive up Irving Avenue and back again, a drive so familiar that most of the houses barely register. A few exceptions, notably the green one with the clerestory windows you’ve always admired.

Once, when this green house was for sale and you were walking by, you pulled one of the realtor sheets from the realtor mailbox and studied it carefully. It is a house designed by an architect with special attention paid to natural cooling. This intrigued you. You never could have afforded the house, then or now, but you still love it and gaze at it fondly every time you drive by.

If your older daughter is in the car with you, she will glance out the window toward a certain white house on a certain block of Irving Avenue. If you’re alert, and you cut your eyes over her way, you will see her hand lift in the tiniest of waves and her lips move soundlessly.

If she catches you looking at her during this little ritual, she will smile. You will smile back. One of her friends lives in that house, and for years now, ever since she found out that he lived there, she has waved at his house and said “Hi, T.”

At first her waves were open and big and she freely spoke the words aloud. These days, as the years pass on, no one who hadn’t been there in the beginning would know about the ritual.

Maybe next year, when this daughter returns from college for the holidays, and you and she are once again driving up Irving Avenue, the “Hi, T.” will be something she only thinks but no longer says.

A few weeks ago this daughter turned to you in the car and said, “I bet that fifty years from now, if I’m still living in Minneapolis, I will still be saying hello to T.’s house.”

That thought made you happy.

Fifty years from now, if you are still living –which isn’t likely– maybe you will still be saying “Rabbit rabbit” on the first day of every new month, the same way you do now. You wake in the middle of the night, usually in the 3 o’clock hour, and if it’s the dawn of a new month, you speak those words aloud, for luck.

Some people say Rabbits Rabbits, but you have always preferred the singular.

You taught your friend Peter B. to say Rabbit Rabbit way back when, when you were both still in college. Years later you received a letter from him cursing the day he learned to say it, because, as he put it, “I’ll be saying Rabbit f——- Rabbit till the day I die, and all because of you, McGhee.”

That thought made you happy.

Many years ago you had a friend who taught you to say “11:11. God will appear,” every time the digital clock showed 11:11. Every day since, twice a day if you’re still awake for it, you say those words. Neither you nor your friend were, or are, religious in a God-like way, but still, you say the words.

Years ago your younger daughter heard you muttering the ritualistic words and inquired what you were saying. So you told her the story and taught her the words, and now she, too, is an 11:11 aficionado.

This thought makes you happy.

Your long-ago next door neighbor’s mother, leaving the house after a visit, came upon you pale and exhausted in your front yard, trying to calm your firstborn, He Who Did Not Stop Crying.

“This too shall pass,” she said, reaching through the picket fence to touch his head.

And it did.

Now you’re thinking of your mother, who in times of stress tells you that All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

You have passed that one on to others, speaking it aloud or writing it down or merely sending it through time and space via thought waves. Some things are equally powerful whether spoken aloud or silently.

Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

The Boy
– Marie Howe

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer:
white T-shirt, blue jeans — to the field at the end of the street.

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He’s running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him — you know
where he is — and talk to him: No reprisals.  He promised.  A small parade
of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next
month, not a word, not *pass the milk*, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,
calling and calling his name.

For more information about Marie Howe, please click here.

And paced upon the mountains overhead

You get a reminder of it sometimes, when you walk by a house being built. Or when you’re tearing out a wall damaged by one of last winter’s ferocious ice dams. Or when your electrician friend comes to put in a new outlet in the room that has only one.

Touring a factory can do it too. A brewery, for example. The cavernous rooms, the grind and hum of machinery, the rattle of conveyor belts, the machines that fill the bottles, the giant vats of beer, the sour smell of fermentation.

Followed by the sight of perfectly packaged six-packs: brown bottles in their bright boxes, silently stacked on shelves. You see them in the store and, unless you consciously remind yourself, you forget where they came from. You don’t think about the mess, the grind, the chaos of their beginning.

When the wall of the house is torn open, it’s impossible to forget. Rough lathe and crumbled old plaster, newspapers from 1945 stuffed inside for insulation. Electrical cords writhing their way in twisted bundles up and down between floors.

If you hover in the room when the electrician is working on the outlet, watching and waiting, you will see sparks fly, the tiniest of fires.

This too will remind you of what is beneath the surface. All these reminders, all the time, should you choose to notice them: there is another life alongside this life.

Now you’re thinking of when writing is the easiest, which is when you’re not thinking. Your fingers are just tap-tapping away, and words appear on the screen and you look at them with interest, as if they were written by someone else.

Were they?

An image appears in your mind: a little bracelet made of red plastic beads next to a blue child’s ring. These were the treasures that you and some of your friends in fifth grade played King of the Mountain with one brief winter week. The snow piles at the elementary school were so high that year that you dug snow caves into them, made snow roads on top of them.

You buried the jewelry and searched for it. Why this game was so entrancing you don’t know, but all of you were entranced. Then came the day when the jewelry couldn’t be found, and the game ended.

The thing is, though, it’s still there. That red plastic bracelet, that little blue ring: they are still out there. Probably feet under the ground in the grass by the side of the red brick elementary school, but there.

All these years –almost your whole life, at this point– you have thought about them. The red bracelet. The blue ring.

Nothing goes entirely away. Some part of it stays.

Look at that small, square brown pillow with a pattern of leaves needlepointed on top. It was the first thing that caught your eye just now when you looked up. It’s carefully placed by the armrest of the couch in this room. Your grandmother made that pillow.

You look at it and she immediately fills your mind. You can hear her voice. You can see her hand, arthritic fingers and ropy veins. Now she’s laughing. Now she’s urging more raspberry popover and ice cream on you.

Doesn’t this mean that she’s still here? That some part of her is still with you, like the silent, unseen electricity running its way up and down every wall of this house?

Yesterday, a lovely day when the outdoors was made indolent by the sun, you passed two girls and a boy, late teens all, sitting on a stone bench by the lake. Laughing. Tugging down the shoulders of their tanks, flexing their biceps, each insisting their muscles were the biggest.

You wanted to stop and watch them, they were so beautiful. Smooth, smooth brown skin, white teeth, dark hair tied back. You walked away from them, listening to their easy talk. You tried to picture them fifty years hence, what they would be like then, if they would still know each other, still be together.

Then you imagined the bones and blood and ligaments and arteries just under the surface of that silken skin, how it is there right now. Hidden. Invisible. Doing its silent work.That shadow world, indivisible from the outer one in which we move.

Sometimes you sense another world, a shadow world happening alongside this one. An unseen world of spirits and memories, things you once held. The world where the stories begin.

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it. The torn-open wall, a presence on the stairs, a long-lost voice come whispering into a dream. Your grandmother, and that one line in that one letter: “What a beautiful life we had.”

Sometimes, falling asleep or waking up, there is the sensation of something just out of reach. A familiar stranger with you, hiding his face amidst a crowd of stars.

Poem of the Week

Signing My Name
– Alison Townsend

An artist always signs her name,
my mother said when I brought her my picture,
a puddled blur of scarlet tempera
I thought resembled a horse.

She dipped the brush for me
and watched while I stroked my name,
each letter drying, ruddy,
permanent as blood.

Later, she found an old gilt frame
for me at an auction.
We repainted it pink,
encasing the wobble-headed horse
I’d conjured as carefully
as if it were by da Vinci,
whose notebooks on art
she was reading that summer.

Even when I was six, my mother
believed in my powers, her own unsigned
pencil sketches of oaks and sugar maples
flying off the pad and disappearing,
while her French pastels hardened,
brittle as bone in their box.

Which is why, when I sign my name,
I think of my mother, all she couldn’t
say, burning, in primary colors –
the great, red horse I painted
still watching over us
from the smoke-scrimmed cave of the mind,
the way it did those first years
from the sunlit wall in her kitchen.