Entries in Deep Thoughts (45)
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Karen, Melissa, and I had carpooled to Book Group over at Camilla's house in Golden’s Bridge, chatting the entire time. On the way home, after I dropped off my two friends, I turned on the radio. I had for company someone playing the piano. I half-recognized the piece, but there was something so different about what I was hearing that I didn’t make the connection for a minute or two. Then it hit me with a flash: it was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And played on the piano, not the harpsichord—but it didn’t sound like Glenn Gould.
I find it particularly appropriate to listen to this piece of music when the rest of the world is asleep. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a Count who struggled with insomnia; the Count had asked Bach to write some clavier exercises to be played in the middle of the night, something to soothe and cheer him through long, sleepless hours. The Variations are named after the Count’s talented young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; I imagine the poor young man being roused from slumber on any given night to play for his patron, because the Count apparently never tired of hearing them.
The Variations were published in Bach’s lifetime, but for many years afterward were regarded as dry, rather difficult pieces to be played on the harpsichord. In the middle of the 20th century, however, a brilliant young pianist changed popular opinion of Bach’s piece forever.
I know Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations as well as I know any piece of music. I’ve listened to it hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It has been a great friend to me, as the Variations were for the Count who commissioned them. But what I was hearing Friday night was so alien: haunting, personal, almost painful in its execution, where the version I know—lively, technically flawless—evokes a detached, peaceful mood.
Puzzled, I drove on and thought about our meeting earlier. We had had a intelligent and compassionate dicussion of a modern classic: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Its main character, Susan Burling Ward, has chronic myopia when it comes to the life she has chosen; throughout her life, she compares her situation unfavorably to that of her best friend, Augusta. She doesn’t realize that she has within her grasp all the ingredients for a wonderful existence. Her interpretation of herself, the reader easily sees, is faulty. She has, in fact, married the better man; her life of ‘exile,’ as she terms it, has defined and refined her work as an artist, not limited it.
One woman in our group raised a question: How do you know when to be content? In other words, when you are in the middle of living one of life’s countless challenges, how do you stop looking over the fence at seemingly greener grass? It’s a good question, and an old one, one that has given philosophers pause for centuries. After a lot of thought on the topic myself, I think the secret lies in our interpretation of what we’ve been given.
Happiness is a choice; for some it’s a harder choice than for others, but it is there all the same. One need look no further than Victor Frankl for proof of this truth. I myself have been given all the components for a perfect life: good health, every temporal comfort, lovely friends and children, meaningful work, and a dear man who loves me.
But if I’m not careful, I can take the route Stegner’s heroine takes. I can focus exclusively on what I see as being wrong: my weight; brain chemistry that defaults to a baseline level of melancholia; the current state of our yard; the child who is misbehaving on any given day: the list could go on for quite a while, if I let it. But that interpretation of my life is a sure path to misery; I believe this is one of the points Stegner is making in his beautiful book.
Once home, I sat in my dark car in the driveway for few minutes so that I could discover the identity of my mystery musician. At the stroke of midnight, after the last few notes of the Aria died away, Bill McGlaughlin came on the air and informed me that it was, indeed, Glenn Gould playing the Variations—but that this was a performance recorded shortly before Gould’s death in 1982.
This was the same music played by the same artist I thought I knew so well. But the interpretation was so different that it changed the piece completely. Older, wiser, at the end of his life, Gould let his life inform his art and transform it; he put himself wholly into his work, and both were changed thereby.
Stop looking over the fence and start doing all you can to green up what you’ve got. Take plenty of time to rejoice in its verdure, and take plenty of time pay respects to the Source of all that is good and green. It is simpler to write than it is to live, but the secret to happiness is in the interpretation.
If you look up ‘consume’ in the dictionary, you’ll find that most of its definitions are negative ones—besides ‘to eat or ingest’ there is ‘to waste or squander; to absorb or engross; to ravage or totally destroy.’ (The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition) However, we are named ‘consumers’ by the media so often these days that the word no longer holds a negative connotation for us. I find this desensitization to be a dangerous one, because I believe our society has led itself into an unhealthy imbalance as it has increasingly focused on the act of consuming. We are here on the earth to begin to learn how to become creators, not consumers. The survival instinct of consuming requires no further honing or development on our part. Yet we seem to spend more time consuming or finding ways to be able to consume more. It is vital to our mental, emotional, spiritual—and perhaps economic—health that we find a way to balance the act of consuming with the act of creating in our daily lives.
Almost any type of work, from gardening to lawyering, can be a creative activity if we choose to make it so. When we clean the house, we create order. When we read a book, we recreate for ourselves the world the author has already created. When we exercise, we create new muscles and blood vessels. When we take care of children or parents or neighbors, we create bonds of love. For me, creativity is part of the process of living a rich life.
Hugh Nibley wrote, “Who then is to judge what is good, true, and beautiful? You are. Plato says it is...by anamnesis, the act of recalling what we have seen somewhere before...We recognize what is lovely because we have seen it somewhere else, and as we walk through the world, we are constantly on the watch for it with a kind of nostalgia, so that when we see an object or a person that pleases us, it is like recognizing an old friend; it hits us in the solar plexus, and we need no measuring or lecturing to tell us that it is indeed quite perfect. It is something we have long been looking for, something we have seen in another world, a memory of how things should be." (Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion)
Mark Helprin wrote, “One lives for a very short time, and life is incomparably precious. To live has much less to do with the senses or with ambition than with the asking of questions that never have been surely answered. To ask and then to answer these questions as far as one can, one needs above all a priceless and taxing involvement with truth and beauty. These are uncommonly plentiful in music and painting, in nature itself, in the sciences, in history, and in one's life as it unfolds—if one labors and dares to see them.” (Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege”)
Our minds are like muscles, which atrophy and become flabby if not used. Exercise will have holistic benefits, which will flow to other areas of our lives. As we begin to flex our creativity, we will find ourselves more able to deal with challenges which confront us, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving; better equipped to make informed decisions; increasingly able to form our own opinions; more disciplined. We will spend less of our time in idle consumption.