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Dances with the Piano

She walks in glorious, head held high, a shimmering gown with a slit to the thigh even though it’s noon.She looks the part of the diva. And my god, she is. Her name is Rosinna Grieco and I’m here for the noontime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre. On the program is a Bach Toccata and a Liszt Sonata and this young woman immediately takes charge. Usually I will close my eyes, removing myself to a personal reverie , my own mindfulness where the music overtakes my head and I am transported somewhere beyond sight and touch. But I cannot take my eyes off Rosinna. She commands and is a commanding presence.  
Immediately I am astounded by the space around her that becomes charged as if she is an extension of the piano, or the other way around. The surrounding negative space, the backdrop to her presence becomes alive, the air that encloses her vibrant as her fingers prancing on the keyboard create precise shapes moving up and down the piano. I do not want to close my eyes because I am witnessing a performance of music in which the pianist is deepening and extending understanding , echoing Yeats’ poem of the impossibility of separating the dancer from the dance in “Among School Children.” And in taking in this moment, I cannot look away, mesmerized. As audience, we are is all fixated.

When the Liszt is preformed, I become even more aware of the relationship between player and played. She seems to be singing or talking to her instrument, her face radiating reaction to the music. In the quiet moments, she seems to coo, to encourage her fingers gliding, coaxing the tones to the shades and diversity of the lightness of the piece, but equally, she practically jumps off her stool during the passionate chords that resound darkly, ravenously, thundering sections where ominous clouds gather. The contrasts between light and dark, gentle and intrusive are made explicit as the performer herself is the vehicle uniting music and emotion. We are breathless, happily depleted at the conclusion, no one wanting to move and disturb the enchantment.

I think too of earlier in my week when Cathy Tile presented her lecture on Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Here the music of Shostakovich is the subject  that frames the story, a three part concerto. Barnes’ narrator reflects that a soul can be betrayed three ways: what others do to us; what others make us do to ourselves; and what we voluntarily do .His narrative presents the musician at the beck and call of Power, as directed by Stalin.Fearing for his life and his family’s , Shostakovich regretfully composes nostalgic, comforting, sentimental works for “ the common man.”

I think of Madeleine Thein’s book Do Not Tell Us That We Have Nothing , and her take on two musicians in China and their conflict between party loyalty and the need to create original music…and the betrayal that accompanies being made to conform to the dictates of megalomania in oppressive regimes. Hitler too, like Mao and Stalin, rejected innovative music, the first inmates in Dachau being those dissident musicians who dared to transgress by performing jazz.

At first I can empathize with Shostakovich, his guilt, neuroses, and his fear and consider that the average person has no choice but to lower their eyes to the ground, shuffle on , but my moral meter, my husband reminds me that Shostakovich wasn’t the “ordinary man” and DO remember Nureyev and Baryshnikov and Solzhenitsyn who did leave, people so openly recognized as brilliant and talented that they could control and continue their artistic lives away from Mother Russia. At Tile’s lecture, someone suggested that Shostakovich was too Russian to defect and so he stayed, worked, suffered tremendous guilt and produced art that conformed to the dictator’s taste.
So our judgment, at the very edge of our sensibility, is held just there, not condemning him. Barnes writes perhaps rationalizing ,” …to be a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change- which made it, in a way, a kind of courage….” To endure is in deed courage, to bear witness, to continue on when there is no or little hope – yes, for the common person. However when one is outstanding, one with options, and a recognized artist who bends to power, we have to question. For if a great composer, one granted amnesty in his transgressions , allowed the perks of his position and even sent off to the United States on tour, is unable to speak out, how can there be hope for the common person? 

Today, the passion of Rosinna Grieco inspired me, changing my grey day to one full of possibility. And it made me think of all the brave souls , small souls, speaking out, protesting against Donald Trump and his restrictive measures that tighten the noose for women, minorities, immigrants… How can one not be impressed by them, these tiny Davids willing to take on the Goliaths of the swamp. As great as Shostakovich was and his music, perhaps he might have been broken musical barriers and instead of betraying his colleagues, Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Khachaturian , encouraged lesser lights to sway to their own music.

Reminder to son: Get those piano keys fixed!



Time and Nao

Yesterday Cathy Tile’s presentation concerned a book by Ruth Ozeki called For the Time Being about a Japanese-American girl named ironically enough Nao ( Now???!). There are actually two stories, one concerning Nao who is a bullied, depressed adolescent who contemplates suicide; and, Ruth living on an island in B.C, the other narrator who happens upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox by the water and is desperate in trying to discover if she can alter/ save/ prevent Nao’s plans. The time lines of Nao and Ruth do not coalesce as Ruth attempts to find out when Nao packed up her lunchbox and how it might have arrived on the shores of BC from Japan.

It is a troubling tale that raises many issues: bullying, displacement, suicide, loneliness, personal and professional success and failure in life. The disorienting factor, however, is time lie and how Ozeki manipulates the reader to believe that Ruth might actually be able to find and save Nao. Time loses its meaning in a linear fashion, expanding and contracting, shaped by our, Ruth’s and Nao’s emotions, pulling all of us into a tangle or a large soup within which we float.

Ruth, herself, does not really draw us in; she is the stooped woman we see wearing a cardigan in a checkout line, eyes focused on the ground to avoid interaction. Nao is the changeling, part Californian- part Japanese searching for friendship but isolated and taunted for her difference and inability to succeed in school and fit in. Her solace comes from her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun who leads by example, espouses peace and provides Nao with a summer of escape from the abuse of her schoolmates. We learn of Nao’s kamikaze uncle who preferred suicide rather than participate in war, her father who suffers because he will not permit his software to be used for killing : all junctures of great stress . And we have Ruth- the writer- who incorporates these lives, these times into her own time, making them part of her own story and altering the course of their trajectories to suggest different resolutions to the endings of these narratives. ( As we perhaps we wish we could, too).

My friend Anne corelated connections with Ian McEwan’s Atonement where time shifts to alter the story: making me think, if only we, too could unwind the narratives of our days and, like old video tapes, slice off parts we did not like, re jumble and change the outcomes of events. I recall watching the plane crashing of 9/11 and thinking for a second, this is only a show on tape. Let’s rewind it and erase it; it’s not real. Cathy Tile briefly referred to Atkinson’s Life after Life, also a play on “what if” the character’s life followed one path then shifted to a second to reveal diverse outcomes. I reflect too on Robert Frost’s Roads Not Taken and how important the choice made a crucial moments is.

I too thought of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton I ,“Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present.

And as we read Ruth’s thoughts, all of the past does become our present. It is for me, a deeply disturbing book, not one easily read. There is much dislocation as both Ruth and Nao grapple with their own stories, trying to establish identities and find places for themselves .It makes one aware of how difficult, even day to day existence can be for ordinary people like Ruth the writer and Nao the school girl.

Jiko the grandmother stands outside of time, calm, unjudging, beaming with a kind of truth that encompasses a godlike understanding and acceptance. I suppose Ruth’s manipulation of the story suggests we can take stories into our own hands and make them better, providing more positive outcomes. This is of course the role of imagination: to light the way out of the darkness of life, yet what is saddening is the back drop of others, the people who make war, make life hideous for little girls, and pilots who would prefer to soar not be forced to shoot. Instead of being able to go about our daily life, smell the flowers and smile openly, our refuge must be in the darkness of our heads where we can choose to write and improve the tale, concocting a better kinder story.

Time especially as we age is a topic we ruminate on. Have we wasted time? What time is remaining and how we can stretch the time that remains into satisfying vignettes to assuage the notion that our time in time may dissipate at any moment. Maybe it is the cool of fall, the twist of the last leaf on the tree, the drooping flowers that remind us of this eternal fact.


I could say it was the unexpected Christmas ice storm that provoked my behavior: but that would be a lie. I think we recognize aspects of our behavior, aspects that we control or control us, depending on circumstances.

But last night after minus 26 degree weather and comfortably tucked into my sofa under a chenille afghan, I had to admit that every aspect of my evening existence screamed : binger.

Binging Behaviour One:
I love anything chocolate and although I had purchased chocolate popcorn to share with my husband that night, the bag was being steadily emptied from noon onward. I rationalized that the 2 second walk to the kitchen was burning some calories. Did I really believe that closing the bag with the chip sealer would somehow deter me from finishing them?

Funny how we can delude ourselves when we want to: imagining, bargaining, making deals, whatever. I admit the delectable savouring, the prolonged sucking of the chocolate bits off the popcorn, very slowly to sustain the moment when the hardness softens and then melts dreamily on the tongue- is tantalizing.

So being drawn back to the kitchen over and over again to scavenge for- just a few more handfuls is like a siren’s call to hit the rocks no matter what. Interestingly, I did not feel guilty in the slightest, each grabby searching handful re-establishing the lure of my addiction. So much better than just regular popcorn, or whole chocolate bars, although Cadbury’s fruit and nut hits the right note sometimes; however, this popcorn satisfies me. It has the crunch, the velvet texture, the crispness, the nubbly feel on the tongue and the noise I love that usually comes from stomping on chips- to my family’s annoyance, but fulfills my aesthetic need. I think as well it’s the uneven textures of chocolate on popcorn as I hold it in my mouth. It invites me to continue on until the bag is empty, even turning it over to seek for crumbs.

Binging Behaviour Two:
Frustrated as I await two shipments of wool from the UK, I needed something to do with my hands. I finished the wonderful Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, appreciating her thought that we seek beautiful things because it leads us on to bigger beauties, and her understanding that art is a midpoint between reality and illusion, perhaps a hiding place when life becomes really too hard to bear. The book recalled for me the rapscallions from Dickens’ streets, the Oliver Twists in the memorable abused character of Boris. I thought The Goldfinch a good example of the picaresque, a genre that depicts realistic episodes as the protagonist travels through multilevels of society: from New York to Vegas to Europe, scams and relationships and lost boys in search of identities. Throw in art work and I am happy. Binging again as I cannot move from being ensconced in my couch unable to tear my eyes from the page, except perhaps to snatch popcorn from the near empty bag.:-)

Cathy Tile’s book group’s next book, The Watch about an Iraqi woman with no legs coming to bury her brother’s body in Iraq is a pretty grim read, echoes of Agamemnon. As antidote, I take out the yarn to knit my grandson a new sweater to distance myself from the ugliness I know that pervades the world, particularly war stories. Thus, calling a hiatus from my binge behavior.

Binging Behaviour Three:
Most people knit a bit, leave a bit, resume whenever. Not I. I am so obsessive that I do not stir for hours until the garment is almost finished. No matter tearing eyes, I am driven to complete, breathlessly pursuing a sleeve, a design, a cable pattern to its end.

Last night I completed an entire back. To put it down is so difficult as I almost hear it entreating me, to complete me, make me whole, scream the elves locked inside the garment, get on with it., win the race and scream success. In my closet there are umpteen knitted projects in a variety of colours. I fantasize that I am problem-solving by following a pattern, making it look as it does in the patternbook picture.

Yet quite often, I concoct solutions to puzzles that are not really there , for I do not read ( former English teacher that I am!) properly, quickly scanning the instruction and then having to tear back because there is a hole where no hole should be. My addiction is balanced by a belief that my fingers are being kept supple as they race back and forth over the lines of craft . Yet for me, there is much that fascinates me because of the interweaving of colours and textures, thick and thin, variegated and soft, that sets my mind on fire, satisfying that aesthetic call.

Binging Behaviour Four
We were even binge watching. This new term we recently discovered in the newspaper this holiday describes exactly our- at least my viewing habits. Netflix runs great stuff: from House of Cards to Orange is the New Black, Hannibal and now Weeds. Weeds is old stuff but this holiday, we have been truly watching show after show, often 2-4 a night of the 25 minute variety.

The characters as discussed in previous blogs are immoral. In this case, Nancy in Weeds is a widowed mother selling pot- to the destruction of her two sons, Silas and Shane. She momentarily feels compunction, but not enough to get an ordinary job as most of the population must, to survive. The people she interacts with and that includes her creepy brother-in-law should never be around children.

I imagine we are supposed to think this plucky skinny woman who always has a plastic drink container complete with straw in her scrawny hands ( “This woman has balls,” says a biker pot dealer) is impressive and the equal of any guy. And so she may be, but she pushes her family over and over again to the edge of danger, involving herself in crimes beyond drug dealing.

I know it’s only a show and yes, I binge on watching it. Maybe like the knitting and popcorn to get to the other side of it; the end ( ironically to start all over again), but the show presents a morality that has become more and more acceptable to kids because it is constantly dramatized, de-sensitizing the issues that provoke outrage not acceptance. As in the humanization of the mom who goes to great lengths to provide for her family, just as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, maintains his bilking people of hard earned funds to make money is justifiable,we are shown the tough resilience of keeping the course, fighting off bigger fish so these anti-heroes can be successful in their quests and triumph over difficult odds. Even some softening of their characters is included : “ as your mom” in “Weeds”, the horrible mother murmurs, as she kisses Silas’ head. Feh.

It’s true that there would be no story if Nancy kept her pants on and went to church and chose to sell purses at the Bay. The anti-hero, the trickster gets the space and like the Perils of Pauline, we are transfixed by her penchant to survive at all costs.
Yet, our society has lauded so many bad heroes that we become junkies in our need to watch and cheer them on. From video games to reality shows, these examples cannot be good for teaching values, and instructing good from bad.

Although Orange is the New Black presents a plethora of humanizing narratives, the protagonist Pyper on furlong for her grandmother’s funeral is shown wrapped around a bottle of booze, at least admitting she is a changed person to the one she was when she entered incarceration. She boldly informs those who have maintained her image that she is no different from the other inmates, white colour crime or not, and that she has succumbed to doing bad things and she understands how similar she is to the rest of the inmates.

Someone, also a former jailed inmate, wrote to say that although the show brings attention to incarceration, the show is glamorized and unlike Oz ( strong revulsion on my part as I used to say, “ It’s like being inside a toilet bowl) it does not reveal the reality of jail.

Yes, I am a luddite, grown up in other times and I know that life will continue as it does shaped by the contexts that continue to change and reflect the mores, advancements?, sadly technological advances in society.

Do I enjoy my binging?

Yes, I do.

Fortunately I have learned that I must not keep the house stocked with chocolate, especially chocolate popcorn. My husband has become the gatekeeper of addictive shows. But unfortunately the store of sweaters continues to tumble from my cupboard and as long as there are beautiful wools with great textures, fabulous colours or pattern books that call for me, I will respond, lead by the lure of their song.

Well, what to do while the husband falls asleep in his chair?

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