Friday, November 30, 2007

There will your heart be also.

Then there was the night I stopped on Trinity Bridge without anyone. Stopped because there were the geese again, some coming single-file toward others clustered tightly around a floating light raft of willow leaves. And clacking together with their great black beaks, making a sound like balsawood ice cream spoons snapping, like wooden noisemakers making the same noise over and over. It was 4:30 and dark. I flattened myself to the bridge's stone and peered down at the geese, intent on pulling whatever they could out of those floating leaves. Down the river, goose after goose arrived at the bank and falumphed into the water and followed the others to the leaves. The full and finished geese peeled away, paddled upriver.

It is difficult for me to remember how the current flows. I can only grasp it by thinking of places very far away.

An older man who'd fairly trotted out of Trinity came onto the bridge. What is it, he said, trying to see what I was seeing. The geese, I said, I'm listening to the geese. I pointed. What are they doing, he said. I think they're eating out of those willow leaves. How do they see anything in the dark, he said. He watched for a few seconds more, then trotted away down the dark avenue.

I will be having the birds all to myself for quite some time, I think.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Further lessons in readjustment.

Today I discovered that when Skype forwards calls to my mobile phone, I pay not $.02 but £.16 per minute. Whoops. To make this comparison apples and apples, I've been thinking that the charge would be $.02/min., when it's actually more like $.36/min. Thus suggesting, once again, that things that seem too good to be true often are.

On the other hand, on some very special occasions, other things that seem too good to be true might be just that elusive combination of good and true.

The whole day hasn't been this cryptic. Some parts of it were rather silly, others rather lovely. Chief amongst the latter: correctly timing when to do which activities so as to maximize time spent in the sun. Practicing the piano at noon means that I sit in a pool of sunlight. Sitting down to work at my desk at 3 means I sit in a pool of (setting) sunlight once again. Walking between 1 and 2:30 means not only that I can stride through sunlight but also that I increase my chances of catching an orchestra rehearsing (badly out of tune, alas) in Trinity College's chapel, where I almost took pictures of the high gorgeous light despite the fact that often one is meant not to photograph inside chapels. Instead, I just listened.

For those of you keeping score at home, it is entirely true that I have not been writing for a long time--since before Bristol, in fact, and that's nearly a month ago now. I am gearing up for the next prose push, which has me turning back to some texts that I know well and turning through some that I've long wanted to know but have never explored, and lighting upon others of which I'd never heard before I found them in the marketplace or about which I'd forgotten until someone chanced to mention them recently.

Somewhat unexpectedly, this week has brought some seismic shifts in my senses of what I'm doing here, and of what the relationship between here and home is now and will be. These shifts are going to be all-important: they are about knowing and respecting what and where my real life is.

Tonight, I feel mighty--which is good, because tomorrow a couple of serious tasks (not to mention a couple of very trivial ones) have to get done.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Taking one's time.

It would seem that I'll be doing repeated rounds of stock-taking while I'm here, something that should not surprise me--and something that I'm trying to figure out how to keep under close enough control so that I don't let it overwhelm the actual living that I'm here to do.

I love the concept of embracing one's imperfections; I love it enough that when my piano teacher said to me, a couple of weeks ago, that she wanted me to work toward perfection because I'm capable of it, a red flag went up in my head. And yet, toward what else do we strive? I think that what I'm aiming for now is the perfection of the imperfect: the ability to recognize how necessarily partial my aims are always going to be, simply because I can't do every single thing that I want to do. "How is the piano?" my newly-returned Canadian friend asked me when she turned up for formal dinner tonight. "It's wonderful," I replied, "but I think it's cutting into my work time." "Of course it is," she said. "That's what you're here for."

I needed her to come back and say something like that to me, because I've been tipping over into feeling bad about not getting enough done these past few days. My emotions about my work and about my life, and about what constitutes each, and about what I think about when I think about "home"--all of these things have been in vast and varied flux in the three months I've been here. Some days, and today was one of them, when I do my best, it doesn't necessarily seem to yield much: I'm tired from the beginning, there's a conversation I need to have, there's a practice I need to do, there are errands I need to run, and then by the time I'm sitting down to read, I'm even more tired than I was when I launched into it all. And then there's dinner, that institution.

I know that things are slipping out of whack when I feel myself starting to think about skipping dinner--not formal hall, certainly, but the regular weeknight dinners--so that I can try to get some work done. I could hunt back a couple of months and re-read myself extolling the virtues of being on a schedule, getting up early, eating regular meals. But I don't need to re-read myself. I was here; I remember. What I will spend that time doing, instead, is remembering what I tell my students: progress and improvement don't happen in straight lines. Sometimes there's a doubling back. This is even more likely to be the case if one is trying to build a healthier life than if one is trying to learn to write an analytical essay. But sometimes I feel as though I've always been figuring out how to live. And here I bring myself, once again, right to the threshold of this thing about which I want to write but through which I am still feeling my way: the place of waiting in my life, and the function of the not-yet-here. I am still collecting my thoughts. You'll get them soon.

The picture: that's one of the little streets up which I walk to get to and from the grocery store, which was behind me, just over my right shoulder when I took this picture at 4:30.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ends of days.

Nothing so apocalyptic as the End of Days, just ends, piling up. Tomorrow we're at mid-week already. I feel I've stopped having enough to show for these piles of days, a restlessness that suggests to me that tomorrow may be the day I'll have to write about the tension between waiting and making.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Put two grand pianos onstage, perform Bach and Rachmaninov and Bartok until everyone--perfomers and audience alike--turns pink in the cheeks, and at least one person will walk home in the cold dreaming of the day when she too might own a Steinway and sing out through it like that.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No gentle going.

I so want to write about the ten white hairs I just tweezed from around my ears, and about my knowledge that there are even more where those came from, not to mention all the ones on parts of my head I can't see. Honestly, tonight, for the first time, this seemingly immediate proliferation of white hair freaks me out just a little: it is my body's surest sign (and in this I know I am blest) that time isn't ever going to go backward, and that realization brings a lot of other, older ones back up in its train. But this is as it is, even if it does seem to be happening a little earlier than I'd imagined.

I'm doing a lot of meditating on life's funny constitution out of simultaneous presentness and anticipation. But doing these thoughts justice is going to take more brainpower than I have left at the end of this day.

Lunch? Gorgeous and gracious. My hosts got a piece of breakfast pie out of the deal, and I, meanwhile, still have three-quarters of an ovoid pie on my kitchen counter. "Gott in himmel," my friend said as I sliced into this one this evening. "Look at that."

I find myself no longer satisfied with being clumsy because I'm trying to move too quickly. I'm trying to slow down even more, to give myself time to change direction as necessary, to accommodate people who flail in my vicinity. (When I started writing this paragraph, I was thinking of literal, physical movement. See how figures of speech get started?)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Baking for famous women.

Tomorrow afternoon, I will head out across town to have lunch with one of the most famous people I've ever met. At her house. Now, when faced with an unexpected and generous invitation to dine at a luminously eminent person's house, one inevitably asks, "What should I contribute to this event?" When I posed this question to my friend, he replied, without hesitation, "Chocolates." But that idea seemed nothing short of prosaic to me.

And anyhow, I had my instincts to guide me. I just had to pay attention to them.

So, when I head across town, I'll be carrying an apple pie with me.

I still haven't figured out British pastry ingredients, and that's also the edge of an oval pie you see there: though I have finally located ceramic pie dishes, the affordable one (mysteriously! because people like pie!) has sold out at the new cookshop in town, and the extravagant one, while red and gorgeous, raises the uncomfortable prospect of having to say tomorrow, "Um, can I have my dish back?" Whereas if this one gets left behind and never returned, it's no great loss.

One of my favorite nights in graduate school came the last time I baked desserts for a famous woman in my field: my dissertation director, who was retiring. I volunteered to bake pies for a massive conference-weekend-ending supper that was taking place at her house, being led to believe that I would bake a few pies and then my department would be kicking in a cake or something as a central dessert. A couple of days before the weekend's conference got underway, the administrative assistant planning the event called me up and said that they (I never found out who made up this "they") had decided it would be nicer if I made all the desserts, so that they could take center-stage. Because I love my dissertation director, I agreed to this ridiculousness.

But then the fun began.

Thursday evening or Friday morning--I don't remember which, now, though I think I was a grader that semester, so it probably wasn't in the morning, when my discussion session met--I bought the ingredients for a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis, a blueberry pie, an apple pie, a cherry pie. And some other pie I can't remember. Perhaps there were two apple pies, or two blueberry ones. Perhaps I made a mixed berry pie. In any case, there were many pies.

I attended the afternoon's portion of the conference, then headed home with some friends and got to work. Occasionally, they found ways to make me let them help: someone else followed the instructions for the fresh raspberry sauce, for instance. The chocolate cake went first, because it was terra incognita. But The Joy of Cooking has almost never led me astray (though I find it nearly impossible to make their molten lava chocolate cakes come out of the oven with molten centers, alas). Within a couple of hours, there was almost literally unbelievably rich and dense chocolate cake cooling in my kitchen, and a pie was underway.

At 10 p.m., three of us took a break and took another famous Victorianist (i.e., not my dissertation director) bowling at the local lanes. We tried to convince him to come to my house and go for a ride on the Sit 'n Spin, but he (wisely) demurred.

I arrived home around, oh, 1--and promptly got back to work on the baking. While we were bowling, several people had stayed behind in my house, drinking cosmopolitans and, in one very talented person's case, wielding my old utilty knife to create, from a regular old sheet of paper, a fantastically gorgeous stencil with which we could powder sugar the top of the cake to proclaim that the party's honoree rocked (because she did, and does). I know that the blueberry pie came next. I know that I made at least one apple pie after the blueberry pie and before I went to bed, sometime around 5 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., I was back on campus for the morning start-up of the conference.

After a day of papers and discussions, I decamped for home with the friend who'd come into town for the conference and was staying in my living room. After we executed some fancy stencilling work, we packed the car full of all these desserts I'd somehow produced in the space of 24 hours.

And it was a terrific event, full of strange moments (like watching the son of two famous literary critics playing the harpsichord). The food was delicious. The desserts were acclaimed. The whole evening lasted only a few hours, and yet they were the thickest party hours I'd ever known. They were dense like that flourless chocolate cake.

I remain proud of that baking marathon, and of having had both the chance and the skills to do a thing like that for the small formidable woman who helped me figure out how to go about being myself.

The pie I baked tonight has a different significance, of course. This one is more like a gesture of hope than one of gratitude--or perhaps I should say that it's also a gesture of gratitude, but mostly in a broad and impersonal way, recognizing what this woman has done for my field and for the college where I'm living.

Mostly, I'm hoping she'll like it.

* * *

I went out for pie supplies just before 4:30. Now, the Clare College clock is spotlit.

And now it's possible, even before evensong begins, to walk alongside King's College Chapel and observe its strange windows as they're illuminated from within. I am not schooled enough in stained glass to know whether it's common to build fragments of old windows into new ones. I will go out sometime this week with the monopod and try to get some better images of the disembodied heads and severed architectural details that punctuate the glass along the whole south side of the chapel. Handheld isn't going to get this job done.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Further thanks.

There comes a time in every girl's life when she has to stop playing the piano and start photographing the moon.

For me, that time came at 4:30 this afternoon.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Crossover event.

To get to my piano lesson, I have to walk over an enormous suspension bridge that crosses over the train tracks just beside the Cambridge rail station. It's a bridge just for pedestrians and bicycles (and sometimes dogs). It's my favorite part of the walk. Especially when many of us walk in step and make the bridge bounce (but not fall down).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A day early.

Last week, my excellent parents asked me what I would do for Thanksgiving. "I'll have my piano lesson in the afternoon, and then I'll go to my Thursday evening concert," I told them. "Will you take a turkey sandwich?" they asked. And the answer is no, I won't have turkey; I won't really celebrate Thanskgiving in any formal way. I'll (deo volante) put on a skirt and my boots and walk across town to hear beautiful music in a beautiful venue, and when it's over, I'll walk home and climb into bed with my mug of hot milk and read until I sleep.

Which is not to say that I don't have a lovely invitation to a Thanksgiving feast. I do, and the fact that I do is probably a large part of why I don't feel ugly pangs of loneliness about my plan to follow my usual Thursday plan of spending a lot of time with music and a lot of time alone.

I'm sitting tonight at the end of a simply gorgeous day, a day so picture-perfectly gorgeous that once I was outside, on my way to meet my new friend (provider of the dinner invitation) and her excellent baby daughter, I knew that I would be staying outside for as much of the day as possible. In a sense, I think that today turned out to be my Thanksgiving. I worked while I was waking up, and then I went to town and walked in the sun with a cappuccino in my hand and then (such fortune!) with a baby in my arms. We talked to the guy who pulled our coffees; we visited an organic foodstore; we stopped for a few dance steps in front of an accordion player; we soaked in the sun at the foot of the fountain at Trinity. After we parted, I bought groceries and then a new piece of music. I stopped on Trinity Bridge, facing the low-slung midday sun, and sent a text message to my friend to see whether he wanted to join in the long walk that that sun had just made me decide I would be taking for the rest of the day.

Literally moments later, the phone buzzed, and he said, "I was just checking my e-mail to see if you'd written back to my proposal that we go for a ramble." We made a plan. I went back to what I had been getting ready to do on the bridge: playing a short Schumann piece on the lichen-speckled stone, singing along to myself, imagining how my fingers would work once I was back at a piano. I faced into the sun some more. I headed for home and squeezed in a tiny practice, just enough time to try the Schumann out, and then I had just enough time to get a invitation to lunch at an eminent scholar's house on the weekend.

And then off we went, off again into the sun. By this point in the afternoon, it felt like the first day of spring on a college campus: everyone, it seemed, was out and about in Cambridge; everyone, it seemed, was getting a little giddy with all the light; we ran into my new friend's parents-in-law (new friends in their own right) before we'd even left our part of town. We were all wearing our college scarves. We stood and talked in the sun, and then we went our separate ways, still in the sun. Today there was enough sun to go around, and then some.

We rambled to parts of Cambridge I hadn't yet seen--colleges I hadn't visited, with Victorian stained glass windows and strange architectural details and unexpected sculpture. We walked blithely past signs warning away visitors; we prowled into balconies from which we could spy on other colleges' halls; we stood in chapels while organists practiced. We searched for Milton's mulberry tree; we found the deep pond into which young children might fall in one Fellows' Garden; we did not find the other danger referred to at the end of the sign warning about the deep pond: "Also there are hives and flying bees." "They should be glad they still have bees," I said.

We saw the oldest plane tree I've ever seen. We passed through courtyards and buildings that far pre-date the Mayflower's sailing. We heard birds I can't yet identify from their rippling chittery sounds. We saw waterfowl I've never seen before (I guessed grebe, again, but as with the moorhens back in September, I was wrong--these were tufted ducks; I should probably stop guessing grebe).

Though, of course, it was fully dark by the time we turned homeward around 4:30 (by way of the Mathematical Bridge at Queens'), nightfall felt less dire than it has for the past few days. Returning to the flat, I realized that what I wanted to do more than anything was to keep doing whatever I wanted to do more than anything--which at that moment was to indulge in a longer piano practice than the tiny one I'd shoehorned in earlier. And so I headed off to play for a good 90 minutes, by which point it was time to get ready for formal dinner.

Now the day is all but over, and I find myself exorbitantly grateful on this eve of a day for giving thanks--grateful for the fact that I've gotten to perch within these foreign shores for another year; for the fact that, as today reminded me (as if I were in danger of forgetting), taking up this perch has meant meeting a whole new world of people, some of whom lead me right back to some of my most beloved people in the world; for the fact that I finally learned, somewhere along the line, that it's more than acceptable to knock off working for awhile when a day like this gets gifted to me--that the world does not end when I leave my desk for an afternoon, that the work gets better and fuller when I am better and fuller.

And somehow, the intensity of today's quiet, content pleasures--of walking and talking, of meetings up both planned and spontaneous, of falling into step with someone for the first time in many weeks, of dining with people who are no longer complete strangers--has me appreciating more fully than I did at the beginning of the day the pleasures that I won't be having tomorrow: the funny combination of labor and laziness that Thanksgiving brings (the alternation (for instance) of pie-baking and television-watching), the chance to eat deliciously with the three most important people in my world (plus the deaf but ravenous dog). The chance to be in that other familiar rhythm.

Perhaps most importantly, it occurs to me as I type, the chance to celebrate just by being with people I love, being with the people in my life with whom, for instance, I actually get to be physically affectionate. This week, telling my friend about watching video of the littlest Lexingtonian eating her first bites of food, I found myself saying aloud, for the first time, that while I'm still not homesick, I miss my people. I miss the babies, who are growing so swiftly and (thank God) healthily. I miss the people who really know me. You're the ones I'm most thankful for, even when I have a stupid (read: often all too silent) way of showing it. I won't be missing Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. I'll be missing you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Oh, rain.

On a day like this, when it feels as though the sun just forgot to come up, the best thing to do is just to keep reading. Take a break and play the piano. Then read some more. Before you know it, it will be time to go have dinner, and you'll realize that the day passed fairly pleasantly after all, weather (and skipped walk) notwithstanding.

Monday, November 19, 2007


When I was six (or so), my piano teacher was Sue Vasquez, then living in Amherst, New York, in a little house on a corner a little ways from where my family lived. Sue had cats, or at least one cat, and one day as I played during my lesson, one of her cats, or her one cat, jumped onto the piano bench and walked back and forth behind me, rubbing against my back. I kept playing as though nothing were happening. She praised me for my concentration when I'd finished the piece. (I wonder whether it was at about this time that I filled in my first grade teacher's little "About Me" questionnaire, filling in the blank after "What I'd most like is" with "more concentration.") (I know that it was about this time that I read my Scholastic Books biography of Marie Curie and fell in love with the story of her siblings' stacking chairs behind her, one by one by one, while she read in complete unawareness of their presence--only to knock down a mad pile of every dining room chair when she pushed back from the table later on. If only I could be so focused, I thought. If only I could shut the world out that way.) (I suppose that one could consider that a time when I should have been careful about what I was wishing for.)

I keep thinking about concentration while I'm practicing, because it's been surprisingly difficult to adjust my mind so that non-musical matters quiet down for awhile. Today, after a string of good practices, I suddenly went all fumble-fingered, hitting notes that have no place in my sonata at all. There's never, ever been a B-flat in this sonata. Not ever. So why did my ring finger persist in hitting it during that scale? The fingering in that one passage? It's been fine all along. Why is it falling apart now?

I realized that I was eating myself alive, magnifying each mistake by being frustrated, and I was about to play one last time and then call it a night when two members of my college walked into the room where I was playing because they needed to set up an event I was planning to skip. An audience wasn't really what I needed at the tail end of this particular practice, but I made it through, took some ribbing about my plans not to stay for the whiskey tasting (I know, I know, I said: all the cool kids will be here), and headed for home.

My impatience knows no bounds, but I have a plan: tomorrow, in addition to doing my four-octave scales, I will warm up by putting everything else in my brain to sleep for a little while--everything that doesn't have anything specifically and directly to do with my fingers and those keys and that music passing through me: it all goes to rest for awhile. I know that part of today's problem was that I rushed into it as a refuge from a silly meeting through which I'd just sat for fully 90 minutes--when in fact I wasn't needed there for more than about two. It was a good reminder of what an unspeakable blessing this year's time, normally unpocked by such things, is.

When I reached the gates into King's early this afternoon, I met up with fully 100 schoolchildren and walked over the bridge and into the college right along with them, listening to their conversation. One ten-year-old explained to another how and why it is that one attends university. Two others exclaimed, "Duckies!"

A woman stood under the massive arch of the Porter's Lodge, waiting for this small horde of small people, holding a sign that read, "Meet the Orchestra This Way!" Tempting though it was, I headed to the music store instead, while they filed up an alleyway toward the theatre.

Have you read Mrs. Dalloway? You should. Swim in it like a silver fish. Don't be intimidated. Follow along from one mind to the next. It is a thing of enormous, flashing beauty.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

This secret deposit of exquisite moments.

I walked to town in the wind and the bells, over the small river, through the leaves gusted and gone. I looked for fish sleeping in the cold streams but could not see them for the leaves. When I reached closed doors, I pushed them open and walked through as though I belonged there. Even tucked into my hat I could hear the bells clamor me all the way home.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

In the market.

Now, in the market, we shop by lamplight. I wandered through the bookstall, still figuring out whether all the booksellers are connected or whether the Tuesday-paperback/Thursday-hardback man's stock is separate from the Saturday man's. I smelled the fishmonger's wares, watched the man point at the Union Jack boxer shorts, the Union Jack thongs. I saw the halved citrus under incandescence.

Begrudgingly, I bought a black beret in the department store: the sheepskin fur cap was too dear, though perfect. (I lingered near the smart hats, grinning at the other women enticed by enormous feathers and wide brims, pulling faces, wanting whatever adventure the store could help conjure.) By the time I reached home, I had come to love the beret already. May all my necessities be so sweet.

Three weeks from tomorrow, I perform in my first recital in nineteen years. Today I tried the correct tempo--set the metronome and let it go, and oh could I fly, and oh was I tired when it was over.

Sometimes, when I watch West Side Story, I want to be Rita Moreno when I grow up.

Enlarge. Check the clock. I haven't been exaggerating. I don't kid about the dark.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Love goes right; love goes wrong.

After lunch with new friends who know some of my most beloved friends--proving once again, as if we didn't already know this, that the world can be very small indeed--I decided that the day was too gorgeous to waste on the electric piano. I checked out the key to the room that houses the baby grand. I played it with the top down until I felt good and ready--all the way through my C major scales (parallel and contrary motion), my A minor harmonic and melodic scales (ditto), my C major and A minor arpeggios, and my own special super-speed full-keyboard C scales (through which I'm just trying to get back my deftness); then, several times through the sonata. And then I propped the top up and really let myself go, filling the empty room with what I can do. By the time I was finished, the sun had gone down.

Of course, that meant that it was nearly 4, so I turned in the key and headed off to town to find a winter hat, a fruitless search. (Tomorrow I will succeed, if only because it's getting too cold here for me not to.) On the way there, though, I found the King's College cows grouped on a hillock in their pasture, all four together. One of the adults was tending the other one, licking her shoulder. As I rounded the corner and walked through the gates into King's, I could see all four shifting slightly, reconfiguring; one of the young ones followed one of the older; the other adult went backwards down the hillock.

Just after I crossed King's Bridge, I watched a woman pick up her three-year-old son, who laughed and laughed to be so held, so carried.

But as we all know, when it goes wrong, love can get ugly.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sun alone.

When you have successfully delivered an illustrated lecture about research you did a week ago, and when someone tremendously famous in your field has attended it and responded enthusiastically, you will take the rest of the afternoon off, wander around, buy unexciting needful things, enjoy the fact that the town has hushed itself softly in the first real cold. You will carry your calm all around you. You will watch the geese dropping one by one into the river, swimming one by one in a line, heading upstream.

When you walk out again, it will be dark and colder, frost on the cars, frost on the lawns, stars high and clear like the first thread of violin that will sound over the top of the crowd before the concert begins, strong and thrilling like the sounds that move you even more now that you're making them again yourself.

Coming home, you will see the river steaming. You will see Orion rising huge above the spires you love.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sun and rain.

On Wednesday nights, we have formal dinners, which means we eat an hour later, and we all dress up. So: 7:15 found me closing the powerpoint presentation I'm building for a talk I give at lunchtime tomorrow, slipping on my new satin minidress, putting on heels and mascara, and heading out the door to grab my friend and stride off to our main hall, where we were served various smoked fishes and tiny shrimps before a gorgeous and strange tower of black pudding, pork, and creme fraiche topped with apple arrived before us. Somehow no one noticed that I'd not gotten my wine topped up; I watched two rounds of others' getting topped up, of carafes emptying, and knew that in at least a couple of crucial ways, I have once again become such a presence as to go completely unnoticed.

And yet somehow, by the end of the night, I'd still eaten and drunk more than I'd meant to. Wednesdays are like this. They're also like this: at every formal hall, there's at least one moment when I can't hear a word of a conversation to which I seem to be listening intently. Tonight, I held myself carefully in a posture of amusement and interest while someone two people away, someone whose voice's cadence I could hear even though there were no meanings attached to the sounds he made, told a story about someone he once knew. It's not my favorite way to be near a conversation. But the concomitant lesson I've learned is how to listen carefully to the conversation I can hear, even if it's not one in which I can participate.

This afternoon, though it was bright and sunny, it was also raining. I should be used to this kind of contrast by now; it is so much like so much of life itself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


It was a drear night, followed by a drear morning and an early afternoon that threatened to become dire indeed. But then, lo and behold, some figures who didn't care about King's College's requests that they stay off the grass. And things looked up from there.

Some days I don't know how to name my own loneliness, and that's when things get tough, because I don't know how to ask to have it lifted. What I do know: neither jealousy nor envy is a particularly generous response to anything. Gratitude and hope, on the other hand, are. Consider me reoriented. Sometimes I picture myself as a five-and-a-half-foot-tall Weeble: I wobble, but I don't fall down.

By the end of the day, I'd bought my first above-the-knee dress in more years than I can recall. I'm not sure whether it qualifies as a mini-dress. I do know that it qualifies as awesome.

(Can I get a hell yeah about Weebles, by the way? Did anyone else have the Tub Sub? or the Romper Room playground set? I have a very clear memory of receiving the playground set and having to put it away for awhile for some reason--I'm guessing that it was probably a gift to my brother when he was a baby, too young to be putting Weebles down slides or in merry-go-rounds. But I remember when we got it out and played with it in the blue living room in the old house in Buffalo. Damn, those Weebles were something else. They never did fall over.)

Monday, November 12, 2007


I require a constant interior dialogue in order to keep myself patient, to keep from becoming self-censorious, to keep my flagrant wishing in check. Even talking to myself all the time doesn't stop it. I think of compulsive friends I've known--generally men--the ones who can't keep from straightening a thing put awry in their vicinity. I am not compulsive that way; for the most part I could care less where the things around me are. But my mind does get hold of ideas and hold them tight, keep them obsessively, turn them over and over and around, trying to keep them valid even when they're clearly not, and it's this tendency that my interior dialogues have been trying to override of late. Only: to work so hard at stopping them means that I still have those wrong ideas in play, and it's incredibly, incredibly difficult just to set them aside.

I walked around town today in a fog of my own creation, hearing only the low wrong note that had sounded in me during a conversation I'd just had, hearing it over and over and over, parsing every word of that quiet missing of beats that's happening where harmony should be. I realize now that I carried on this way for a good hour, maybe more--all the time it took me to make my way through back lanes to the big and shiny new John Lewis, all the time it took me to find their gloves and pick a pair to replace the ones I absently left in the cab home from the train station Friday night, all the time I fingered the purple silk dress from the Hobbs window, there for sale on the department store floor, all the time I chose a pillow and pillow cover for my reading chair.

It quieted a little by the time I reached the music store, picked out a book of scales and a book of manuscript paper, made my way out into the darkening side road, tried to figure out from the falling light just what time it was.

But it didn't stop altogether until I heard the man on Clare Bridge, the ripple of bass notes running up from his silhouette. It was dark enough by then--though it was only, I could see by the Clare clock, 4:40--that at first all I knew was sourceless sound. I had heard the notes while I was still in the college's court; I slowed down as I emerged between the court and the bridge, pausing in hopes that they'd sound again. And they did, and I followed them and found him. From where I was, he was ageless, maybe an undergraduate, maybe not, and rather than walk further and risk his stopping, I stayed in shadow where I was, took pictures of the tree, another tree I've come to love, pretended to be looking out toward the river

when actually I was rapt and reaching for a wordless note to leave with him, one I didn't find, didn't need because someone he knew walked up, stopped his evening song by greeting him, brought him back to the speech of familiars. And so it was that as I passed I didn't even smile.

Today was like that. When I finally had the chance to practice my own music, it was all I could do to quiet my head enough to be with what I was playing. There's so much I continue not to understand, so much that seems likely to remain utterly beyond comprehensibility, that sometimes I can't stand it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Just when you least expect it...

Just what you least expect.

C'est vrai, non?

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Yes, this one is pretty good:
You're going throughd an emotional slowdown at the moment, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy life. It's just one of those days that calls attention to your deeper needs, so pay attention and play along.
And really: this never gets old. Not for me, anyway.

Tonight, I've discovered an unexpected (and dubious) benefit of living under the worst dollar-to-pound exchange rate in history: when I click over to J.Crew to gaze at their lovely party dresses and imagine what it would be like to get danced off my feet in one of them, I don't think, "Sheesh, that's expensive." Instead, I see a dress that costs $180 and think, "Hunh! Only £90? What a steal!" Which is not to say, by any means, that I've been over here buying £90 party dresses. Though I've found an excellent one, in red, that I would own in a second if I had a place to go fancying about in it.

Oh. Hell. Yes. The Atari 2600, staple of my young life (how many evenings did I sit on my father's lap while we played Space Invaders? I can't count them), just made the Toy Hall of Fame. If I had a 2600 here, I would play many celebratory games of Pong, or maybe Bowling. Also, I suspect that if I had known about the Strong Museum of Play, my life in Rochester might have been a lot more fun. I always did sense that it would be a much more fun city if one had a partner and children with whom to cavort.

That's what I want: a fellow cavorter.

You see how my head is today.

Friday, November 09, 2007


I tell you: you have to read your tickets and read them carefully.

Otherwise, you may find yourself, at 19:25, staring at a departures monitor that shows no 20:01 to London--only a late 19:30. And when you ask a First Great Western representative whether there
is a 20:01 that just hasn't come on the monitor yet, he will at first say, "Yes," and then correct himself--by telling you that the 20:01 leaves from the city's other train station. When you ask whether you can just board the train that will arrive on your platform in five minutes, his partner will tell you that you'll likely be penalized if you do so, since you have a specific kind of ticket. But fortunately the first representative will realize that if you hurry back underground and hop on the currently overdue train headed toward Preston, you'll be able to get to the other train station in time to catch your London train.

Momentarily, train travel will not seem very romantic, especially when (on board the Preston-bound train) you have a seven-minute breathing space to devote to two lines of thought: whether you'll be asked for a ticket you didn't have time to buy before boarding this train, and why on earth a return journey clearly headed BRISTOL TEMPLE MEADS to CAMBRIDGE (the route you believed you were purchasing) actually departs from Bristol Parkway--which, of course, you now see that you should have seen all along.

Fortunately, all will be well, leaving you to wonder whether people ride the Virgin Trains between Temple Meads and Parkway for free all the time. And by the time you've caught the next train, then caught one Underground, then caught another, then made your way right onto the train waiting at King's Cross's platform 8 to take you back to Cambridge, you'll start to wonder whether your own ticket will ever get checked. Which it won't. Which will make you wonder whether you could just have boarded the wrong train in Bristol after all.

All told, though, the return journey will be surprisingly quick. You will only know your own exhaustion when you manage to lose your briefcase in your flat within a minute of arriving home.

But: remember the moral: to minimize the chances of absurdity, read all travel documents with care. Put another way: know better. Take nothing for granted.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The archive innocent was back today. Just before he left with a digital camera full of images for his project, he exclaimed, "This is brilliant! I think I'm going crazy!" I know how he feels. Archives will do that to a person.

I'm not getting enough exercise here, so I took a walk this morning to find the childhood home of the person I'm researching. It was a bit arduous, but I found it. And then it was a bit arduous to figure out how to get onto its grounds, but I found that too and then did my very best "if you look like you know where you're going, no one will stop you" confident walk about the property.

In the afternoon, one of the special collections librarians stopped to talk to me (after several days of barely registering my presence--which brings up a story that I don't have sufficient battery life to tell but will, if someone reminds me, offer another time). When I mentioned I'd ventured out to the house this morning, he asked whether I'd looked around inside it. Within a few minutes, he had decided to call the warden of the house to ask her whether she'd show me around tomorrow. It now looks as though I have a plan for the afternoon.

On my way back to the hotel, I stumbled upon a terrific example of one of my favorite kinds of English domestic architecture: the crescent. Royal York Crescent, to be exact.

I found my way to its pedestrian terrace and was able to catch excellent vistas of Bristol--at long last. (We don't really have vistas in Cambridge, because we don't really have hills.) As I walked along the terrace, I also found the plaque that offered me some explanation of where I was. In the window beside the plaque stood a stuffed dog.

Only a good 30 seconds after I'd taken this picture did the dog shake himself and turn to look at me. I didn't fully understand why the dog was acting as he was until I realized that a white-haired, white-bearded man approaching me on the terrace (you can see him in the picture below--I passed him both coming and going on the Crescent) was the dog's owner. Fortunately he didn't seem to mind that I'd just taken a picture of his home.

Just before I reached my hotel, I passed another white-bearded man; he was talking to a younger man. The younger man said, "What's your name again?"

"Santa," said the white-bearded man.

All three of us laughed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


One of my favorite things about working in an archive is watching other people using the archive. It's been especially good in this one for the past couple of days because some professor at Bristol has obviously given his or her students a rare books room reading assignment: a small parade of undergraduates has filtered through, one by one, to consult the same two sets of books. Today, two of them coincided beside me for a few minutes and decided to take a few minutes to discuss an essay that they have to write about psychoanalysis and art. I did my best to shoot them a glance that would at least make them whisper instead of talking in low voice. Then again, I was banging away on my laptop, so it's not as though I was being so very quiet.

Later, a young man came in to work on a project about someone who once painted the Avon Gorge. When he came through the door, he said something akin to, "Whoa! Cool!" He had obviously never been in a rare books room before: when he passed through to the office where he needed to sign in, he said, "You have some really old books here!" He sat down beside me at the table, and the librarian handed him a form for ordering books and asked him if he knew the title of the work he needed. Terrifically, he proclaimed, "I don't know anything! I don't even know today's date, to be honest!"

Today the table was full of readers: a man reading huge ledgers, women researching garden architecture, students reading about good women. For the most part, we sat in silence. Every once in awhile, someone would laugh out loud at something only he or she could see. A woman stood on a kick-stool under the fluorescent photo lights with her Pentax, photographing folio volumes full of engraved gardens. Her shutter made an impossibly slow sound.

The things I have come here seeking seem not to exist, something that makes more sense to me as I read more and more letters that talk about how many letters and papers were burned after this particular subject's death. But I've found all manner of other things, and as usual the archive has given me its own kind of direction. Tonight, as I walked home with my box of butter cookies and my tiny wedge of French sheep's milk cheese, I wondered at what point I would know myself to have wandered too far from the track of what is important, what matters: archives have a strange, narrowing, focusing power about them: they make it possible, sometimes all too possible, for me to forget bigger contexts as I go in pursuit of the next piece of whatever puzzle presents itself. But I have a new story to tell, and that, as you know I am fond of saying, is no small thing.

I'm not seeing much of Bristol, though; by the time I leave work, the sun is well down. Today, because the rare books reading room was so crowded, I was forced to sit where I could see a window and watch the light go and go and go.

Here, I have heard three wolf whistles, after years of not hearing any. At least one was for me. It's strange in the West.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Four more eight-hour days buried in a basement seem likely to yield me knowledge that no one else has. My first day saw me finding my feet, remembering how not to be overwhelmed by masses of raw data--by the catalog that tells me what raw data might even be available, even before I encounter the data itself. My brain re-learns handwritings I have known well. There's an art to being in the archive.

By the end of the afternoon, I have slips and order forms in spades, ready to be dealt out to the archivists who have a surprisingly chaotic pair of rooms, a reading space more crowded and less rulebound than any I've ever used. "If you have a digital camera and want to use it," the woman who helps me says, "go ahead. And feel free to use our lights!" I come away from my first day with images of letters that have been crucial to arguments I have already made, and with hopes of even finer things as the week goes on.

Monday, November 05, 2007


The sun in Bristol.

Also, I find myself wanting to say: I realize that it's a big deal that Guy Fawkes was not able to blow up the Houses of Parliament back in the seventeenth century. But so many days of fireworks in a row, they start to seem excessive.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Up, up, and away!

Or, as the case may be, over, down, down some more, over, and over. Yes!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

On the eve of leaving.

I have never had to leave the Cabinet behind for more than a day, but it's possible that I will not be able to write for you from Monday through Thursday, when I will be happily ensconced in an archive in what is referred to (on motorway signs here) as The West. It's not slightly clear to me whether my hotel has any sort of internet access, nor whether I'll be able to cadge a corner of bandwith from the library at the university where I'll work. But we'll all know soon enough.

Tonight was one of those nights when I gleefully jettisoned my vague plans to work as soon as one of my friends here said, "Do you want to get a beer after dinner?" When we finally decided on which pub to visit, it turned out that neither of us had actually had dinner, and so we stayed there for a good two hours of eating and drinking and telling stories. I gave her a copy of Middlemarch this afternoon. She's a scientist. It will do her good to read it, though she professes to be daunted by its length.

"Is Middlemarch really worth it?" someone asked at dinner the other night.

You can imagine where we went from there. I believe that almost no matter what you imagine as the antecedent of "it" in that question, its correct answer is yes.

Ooo! My Chicagoan friend (whom you all know as Poking-Stick Man, a joke I could explain but won't) will be happy to know that today he became the Cabinet's 20,000th visitor. He has been wanting to be one of the importantly numbered visitors for a long time, and we've hit no more important number than 20,000 yet. Congratulations, my friend.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A workout of some kind.

I sat at the college's electric piano (which feels remarkably like a "real" piano, with dynamics and everything--who knew?) and warmed up with scales. C major, G major. Go, go, keep trying until you do it right several times in a row. Don't forget where to cross over; don't forget when the thumb crosses under. What comes after G? Think about sharps. If F is the first sharp and G is the second scale, and C is the second sharp, then D will be the next scale. Indeed. C major, G major, D major. Do them all. Run three octaves. Run two octaves and then split apart for two octaves and then come back together and run back down. Run three octaves on each. Run two, faster. Two sharps are harder than one. Keep going until it's in there. Tomorrow, it will be in there all the more.

After twenty minutes of scales, I cracked open the Beethoven, worked hard on the first page, then went ahead and played the whole thing, just to see how it sounded, just to see how it was. Played it again. Played it again. Oh, that run of notes there? It's just a D major scale. Use that moment to look ahead to the next thing coming; your fingers know what to do already, and you don't need to pay attention to them. Feel how good it feels? Feel that?

Near the end of the piece comes a point where my nails revealed themselves to be too long--so long that they clicked on the keys--and I remembered another thing I've forgotten: I always had close-cropped nails not just because I picked at them but also, and more, because when you play you don't have anything extra on your hands: no jewelry, no long nails, no polish, no bracelets, no watch. Nothing that gets in the way.

When I'd been there for an hour, I realized that I only had a half-hour left before dinner, and so I stayed, stayed until my fingers were a little sore, stayed until I could feel how much more familiar everything felt. Now I know how to practice; now I know how to hold myself to what I'm doing, why not to mess up the fingerings, how to set up good muscle memory. I may well make 5:30-6:30 my practice time--so that I'll go to dinner feeling high every night.

Now that I'm back from dinner, my horoscope has arrived:
Your body is yearning for a workout of some kind and now is a great time to run, swim, or otherwise burn off a few calories. You'll feel great and it should certainly pay dividends in days to come.
For real. I don't mess around.

Everyone here is asking when I'm going to play a concert. It's a little early for that, I think. But I'll tell you what I'm looking forward to: getting back enough skills to feel excellent about playing on one of the college's grand pianos.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The teacher retaught.

At 2:23 p.m., I was standing outside her house, uncertain of what to do. "The street is shaped like an L," she'd written, "and my house is the white one in the corner, with the hedge." I had imagined it would be in the opposite part of the corner; I had forgotten that houses here are almost never detached and that I thus would not be looking for a single white building. There was only one white building with a hedge. I walked up the block, trying to kill another few minutes and my nervousness.

It was low-level nervousness, I'm glad to say. I kept reminding myself: you are a student. You are not here to perform. You are here to learn. And if you don't like her, you don't have to come back. As I turned around and began walking toward her house again, I realized that finding a piano teacher might be like finding a therapist: I might not match up with the first person I tried. I might have to gather more recommendations, try more people.

As I stepped into the hedge, I could hear the sound of a piano. I was in the right place after all. I stepped to the door and stood for another couple of minutes. At 2:29, I rang.

The woman who will be teaching me piano until August came to the door, showed me into her living room, invited me to sit at her beautiful grand, fetched out the two pieces of music I'd told her I could probably still play, even after eighteen years. But before we began, she asked about my history with the instrument, about my motives for coming back to it. She wondered aloud whether guilt at having quit was part of my return. I told her no, filled her in on the things I've already told you. We talked about sight-reading, particularly, and I realized all the more forcefully how much different it is to learn when you know how to ask the right questions. I will think about this issue more before I return to Gambier: how do we help students learn to ask the right questions about what they do not know? How do we teach them to ask for a piece of knowledge or a skill that will fill in a gap? First one has to be able to see the gap. I was able to explain how frustrating it is not to know how to make my way through an unfamiliar piece of music.

She had me play a scale. I played with both hands, my fingers falling right back to the correct fingerings, the ways to add a second octave, where the beat falls, how the fingers curl and push and rest. As soon as I was finished, I knew I was with a teacher. "I can see so much about your history just in that scale," she said, just the way I might read and respond to a student's diagnostic writing. "You have strong fingers, and none of them is particularly longer than the others: these are good fingers for the piano. Your form is excellent. You're putting the beat at exactly the right place. You obviously remember your fingering. I can tell that you must have been quite accomplished when you were younger." None of this sounded like flattery as she said it aloud. It sounded like frank appraisal, and a statement of confidence that, in fact, I have the potential to learn and to develop again under her tutelage. "Now play it again," she said, "and be more aggressive with the instrument. You're being timid, and I know why. But give it some volume." And I did, and it was wonderful. It was better than returning to something that I used to love. It was being told not to criticize, not to be afraid to trip up.

When she asked me to play a C minor scale, I couldn't do it. Now I look it up; now I see what it should have been. Even on the walk home, I was figuring it out. But this: this is what slipped away in those 18 years.

When she put Beethoven in front of me and asked me to start playing, I was more careful than I've ever been not to let my memory do my work for me. And what I found was that I could pay attention to more than I thought I could: I could watch the fingerings and follow them, rather than just doing what I remembered from long ago. At the first stopping point, she stopped me and began disassembling the piece--not just separating my hands, but peeling back the measures so that I could see the harmonic structures under lines I've known more than half my life. "Play it again," she'd say. We talked about dynamics, emotion, where a crescendo should come, how a decrescendo should start.

Her next pupil rang the doorbell.

We made a plan: regenerate this piece that I used to know and love so well, but regenerate it from the inside out, looking for the structures Beethoven uses. In all my years of lessons, I don't remember ever having close-read my music, ever having learned how to do the equivalent of formal analysis.

And the best of all, better even than being told that the amount I've retained after nearly two decades is impressive, was to be encouraged to think about the pieces I'd love to learn to play. This, too, was never the way when I was young. I played from a set book; we went piece by piece, building up and up and up. When it came time to leave the set book behind, my teacher chose my music; for the last two years before I bailed altogether, none of the things she suggested were suited to my taste or to my pre-teen fingers. But when I told my teacher that I want to learn the Goldberg Variations eventually, she didn't tell me I was crazy. When I told her that I want to work on this Beethoven piece again, she told me which edition of the music to buy: the Urtext. "We don't want editorial interference," she explained. "We want to get as close as possible to the author's intent."

Editorial theory at the piano. My heart sang all over again, sang as it had been singing from the moment I touched the keys, even when I made mistakes and flinched as if I'd been scorched. ("Don't worry," she said. "Don't worry. Play it again.")

When I returned home, having walked, it seems, all over Cambridge today--for my teacher lives nearly three miles away--the Verlag edition of the Urtext of Beethoven's Sonatas (volume 2) was in the crook of my arm, and I was still smiling.

It seemed only fitting that in both my coming and my going, graffitoed figures sang heartsongs, too.