Solitude

Alone, in Homer, Alaska

I cherished the solitude of the occasional walk on the beach between Anchor Point and Homer—nineteen miles of vertical cliffs overhanging the mysterious rocks, tide pools, beached seaweed, and sixteen-foot tides. I had to time the ten-hour walk carefully to assure there was at least some walkable beach the whole way to Homer.

beach-between-anchor-point-and-homer

I thought the rocks mysterious because I couldn’t fathom how so many of different colors and compositions, and sizes and shapes, and in unlikely combinations, seemed strewn so haphazardly by an agent unseen. I imagined they had been spewed over the eons by the two volcanoes across Cook Inlet that I could see on a clear day, Iliamna to the northwest and Augustine to the southwest. I later learned the movement of glaciers over millions of years had pushed surface debris hundreds of miles from any direction and left them all mixed together here along the shores of Cook Inlet.

beach-alaska

I loved these rocks. My associates at work, I knew, thought me slightly mad, having collected and placed interesting rocks throughout my office as objets d’art. The large black stone which I temporarily placed on the boulder in the above picture was the largest I collected, weighing 90 pounds.

Yes, I was mad—was not quite with the regular world, or, rather, not with the world I left behind in California. The solitude I enjoyed in this sparsely-populated region of Alaska had brought me to a new mental space. One grows both smaller and larger in Alaska. Smaller, because the landscape is beyond a human’s ability to perceive it whole; larger because each person seems to count for something more in such a sparsely-populated place than in the frightful, crowded urbs and suburbs rural Alaskans have left behind. I felt at home in a place in which I was not born, in which I owned only my personal goods, where I had no family (they lived elsewhere then), and where the people were individualistic and private.

I was at home with myself.

To emphasize the value I found in being by myself, especially along this beach, I tell friends a few short stories from my travels along it.

I once saw an eagle dive into the surf to catch a salmon and carry aloft to its aerie on the cliffs above.

I once failed to time the walk properly and had to navigate between the water and the cliff, between successive incoming waves of the rising tide.

I found shapes sculpted by wind and water and unknown powers.

Homer Beach-03.jpg

On my last day along this beach, in 1995, I saw two mature eagles with their young one, who looked larger than they because of its fluffiness, guiding their offspring by flying at her sides, keeping their wings under hers as she wobbled in the air on, perhaps, her first flight.

And, finally, I recount to friends how I never felt alone if I could see another person on the beach, even a mile or more away. I was startled once to suddenly see a distant someone behind me. I hurried forward to get around a bend in the cliff so I could rid that person from my view. It took me a while to recover from the intrusion.

inner voice is quashed
by clamor of others’ thoughts
solitude grows ears

The season is ruled by trees

The season is ruled by trees

Only weeks ago their bare branches
were impediments to the views beyond them

Now their lush leaves invade the parks
and walkways and lakeside paths
completing our view of the landscape

We hear the birds hiding in their branches
and countless leaves brushing against each other
ShShShShSh

They fill our senses
they green our lives

And the great oaks
are sentinels of strength and wisdom

The Martyrdom of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

He was gifted, he suffered, he made great music

His most deeply felt pieces were sad, even tragic

Yet, ironic, for his tormentors were tone deaf

And those who knew could see through the façade

A dangerous game to play

He played the game that Stalin put in place

To control the people through control of the elite

The rules constantly changing, people disappearing

The speeches prepared for him betrayed the people he admired

Until Stalin died, he feared death every day, but as time advanced

He feared life even more than death

But lacked the resolve to end it

Because he had more music to make

He remained alive, suffering, suffering, humiliated

Writing for the Russian people

Giving them a spiritual touchstone

The Church being officially forbidden and suppressed

We need to remember our martyrs

Yes, ours, even those without the suffering Russian soul

We suffer too, without being able to name our suffering

Listen to Shostakovich and recognize it

Music speaks to suffering and redemption

More fully than any words can

He suffered for us, the martyr

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

download

 

Solitude

I cherished the solitude of the occasional walk on the beach between Anchor Point and Homer—nineteen miles of vertical cliffs overhanging the mysterious rocks, tide pools, beached seaweed, and sixteen-foot tides. I had to time the ten-hour walk carefully to assure there was at least some walkable beach the whole way to Homer.

beach-between-anchor-point-and-homer

I thought the rocks mysterious because I couldn’t fathom how so many of different colors and compositions, and sizes and shapes, and in unlikely combinations, seemed strewn so haphazardly by an agent unseen. I imagined they had been spewed over the eons by the two volcanoes across Cook Inlet that I could see on clear day, Illiamna to the northwest and Augustine to the southwest. I later learned the movement of glaciers over millions of years had pushed surface debris hundreds of miles from any direction and left them all mixed together here along the shores of Cook Inlet.

beach-alaska

I loved these rocks. My associates at work, I knew, thought me slightly mad, having collected and placed interesting rocks throughout my office as objets d’art. The large black stone which I temporarily placed on the boulder in the above picture was the largest I collected, weighing 90 pounds.

Yes, I was mad—was not quite with the regular world, or, rather, not with the world I left behind in California. The solitude I enjoyed in this sparsely-populated region of Alaska had brought me to a new mental space. One grows both smaller and larger in Alaska. Smaller, because the landscape is beyond a human’s ability to perceive it whole; larger, because each person seems to count for something more in such a sparsely-populated place, than in the frightful, crowded urbs and suburbs rural Alaskans have left behind. I felt at home in a place in which I was not born, in which I owned only my personal goods, where I had no family, and where the people were individualistic and private.

I was at home with myself.

To emphasize the value I found in being by myself, especially along this beach, I tell friends a few short stories from my travels along it.

I once saw an eagle dive into the surf to catch a salmon and carry aloft to its aerie on the cliffs above.

I once failed to time the walk properly and had to navigate between the water and the cliff, between successive incoming waves of the rising tide.

I found shapes sculpted by wind and water and unknown powers.

Homer Beach-03.jpg

On my last day along this beach I saw two mature eagles with their young one, who looked larger than they because of its fluffiness, guiding their offspring by flying at her sides, keeping their wings under hers as she wobbled in the air on, perhaps, her first flight.

And, finally, I recount to friends how I never felt alone if I could see another person on the beach, even a mile or more away. I was startled once to suddenly see a distant someone behind me. I hurried forward to get around a bend in the cliff so I could rid that person from my view. It took me a while to recover from the intrusion.

inner voice is quashed
by clamor of others’ thoughts
solitude grows ears

Music as Metaphor

Assertions on the nature of music

…And I would give you the gift of music that you might know your own soul. –Betty Kingsley Hawkins (prefatory quotation in ‘The Nature of Music’ by Maureen McCarthy Draper)

1. Music is an absolute, existing outside of Man, along with all the other abstractions assigned by him to The Great Everything (TGE) which is too vast and impenetrable to be truly known—except, perhaps, by the few who achieve Satori, Nirvana, or “enlightenment” as with a Bodhisattva. (Note: “TGE” is my construction for what others may call God, JHWH, Jehovah, Allah, etc.).

2. Each of us, I assert, is attuned to this element or aspect of TGE in various ways and degrees. I liken each of us as having differently constructed vibrating rods (or sets of rods) that respond to the universal music according to our individual resonances. Hence, some will find, throughout life and consistently, music from the Classical Period, exemplified by Haydn and Mozart, preferable to hip-hop, though the latter may be sometimes appealing.

3. Each of us, I assert, has ability in varying degrees to receive/perceive this universal music and to interpret it first, to oneself and second, to others.

4. A special few have the ability to represent this music in accepted notational form and, therefore, can concretize the music itself by the physical representation of it.

Music flows, from TGE-knows-where and –how, to a receiving human who, with the necessary skills, makes accepted musical notations on paper (or performs to give example) to represent what he perceives, along with written (or spoken) language remarks to more fully communicate it, e.g.: tempo rubato (as with Chopin), glissando, fortissimo, etc.

A performing musician reads these notations and transforms them through her nervous system to the instrument of her choice, for her own experience and that of others.

To summarize: music from God, to composer, to paper, to player, to audience.

Playing the Piano, in General, and Chopin’s Music in Particular

As to how much one needs to practice one’s instrument in order to remain fluent in it, the necessary amount and frequency varies, depending on one’s natural talents and physiology. Practice is not only playing compositions in one’s repertoire, but also exercises to keep the “drive train” of the pianist in harmony: eyes, brain, nervous system from brain to arms to hands to fingers, and a feedback system for instantaneous self-correction and adjustment. Ideally, these are not conscious efforts by the pianist. She develops these as a unity.

There are standard, two-handed exercises I have done in my younger life:

1. Scales for each of the twelve keys in an octave, running at least one octave
2. Single thirds, similarly, usually for two or more octaves
3. Double thirds, similarly
4. Arpeggios, similarly
5. Exercises developed by musicians through the centuries: Carl Czerny (one of Beethoven’s teachers), Charles-Louis Hanon, and John Thompson, among others.

Chopin is a special case: he “untied the octave”. His chords and other movements of the hand often reach beyond the octave. One needs a large and supple hand for those of Chopin’s pieces written in this manner. “Chopin invented many new harmonic devices; he untied the chord that was restrained within the octave leading it into the dangerous but delectable land of extended harmonies (NB: i.e., beyond the octave—R.P.). And how he chromaticized the prudish, rigid garden of German harmony, how he moistened it with flashing changeful waters until it grew bold and brilliant with promise (sic)” (Chopin: The Man and His Music, by James Huneker).

Absolute and Program Music

Haydn’s music is, for the most part, absolute music. Mozart did compose a greater proportion of program music than did Haydn, by my reckoning. Chopin continued the trend toward program music that generally occurred in the Romantic Period during which Chopin lived.

The performer, and the listener, will experience different emotions and sensations  when listening to absolute vs. program music.

Here is how I respond to these two types:

Absolute music (take any Brahms symphony) will cause my chest to swell and tears to form for no definable reason, except that the music strums my “vibrating rods” (see above) in ways that render me helpless to do otherwise. It’s very much like the sensations I have had upon observing the births of two of my children and of one of my grandchildren.

Program music, on the other hand, will invoke more definable feelings: patriotism (Chopin’s Polonaises, any good march, Sibelius’s Finlandia), pastoral and nature visions (Beethoven’s sixth symphony, almost all of Ralph Vaughn Williams, much of Frederick Delius), the sweet melancholy of imagining the ending of a long and good life (The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams), etc.

Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude is a solid example of program music. It’s about the soft beginning, tumultuous middle and fading ending of a storm, with an incessant note reminding us of the raindrops on a window sill, or on whatever is in the imagination of the listener. Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, Op 28 No 15, in D Flat Major.

Your character’s Mozart and Haydn pieces will be, unless marches or waltzes, absolute music, eliciting from her (or developing in her) the broadest, most eternal, let us say ‘religious’ feelings.

In imagining a pianist’s feelings, overall, while she is performing, I imagine she is in the “zone” or in the “flow” that athletes and other performers achieve when all physical and other attributes are in synchronization during a well-rehearsed and challenging event.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The above is an attempt to capture, in words, the ineffable nature of music and its affect on and in humans.

Before the Honeymoon

“Driver, aren’t you going to stop those children from making all that noise in the back? They are destroying the bus!”

Alice couldn’t contain herself any more. This was happening more frequently on her daily ride to and from work. Not only was it wrong for these children to behave so poorly in public, it was getting almost frightening.

Ralph had often seen this plain, thirtyish woman on his bus, and had a nodding acquaintance with her. “It’s not my business, lady. I ain’t an airline captain and this ain’t an airplane. ”

Ralph had been driving bus for 16 years, and he silently agreed with her it was getting worse. He used to try to act the role of responsible captain of his ship, but the rules governing actions toward passengers were getting stricter, especially toward “children.” “Hell,” he said to himself, “these aren’t children, they’re wild animals and God knows how management would react if I went back there and spoke harshly to those delicate little souls. Shit! And if I did, the company would just give me crap and nothing good would happen, anywhere.”

“Well, somebody needs to do something,” said Alice furiously, feeling herself on the edge and fearful of losing her temper. “If someone doesn’t stop these children, someone could get hurt. And they’re destroying public property!”

“Lady, if I go back there, which I dearly would love to do,” Ralph said while carefully maneuvering the bus in the driving rain around a double-parked car, forcing oncoming traffic to skid and halt abruptly, “I would bark at them and they would snarl at me and things would get worse and I could get fired. I ain’t Captain America, you know. I’m just a tired, overweight bus driver.”

“Well there aren’t any rules any more, not in the schools, not in public places, not in the homes. What’s to become of us?”  Alice was shaking, her fury increasing, her sense of right and wrong taking another brutal assault by these uncontrolled, uncontrollable young louts.

Without conscious intention, Alice abruptly rose from her seat near the driver, grasping her umbrella from under her arm, and ran to the rear of the bus, a demonic light in her eyes.

“Stop it, stop it, do you hear?” She raised her umbrella and inexpertly smashed it on the seat next to one of the gum-chewing girls who were giggling at the antics of the boys. Alice’s words were contained in a shriek, not unlike the tone and vibrancy of a police whistle.

“Yeow,” cried the girl, and the several boys near her leaped back, startled and astonished at this display. The other few passengers swiveled their heads to the rear of the bus in response to the noise, having already begun their rotation as Alice sped up the aisle.

“You have no consideration for the other passengers, you are destroying the bus so it must be repaired with the tax money your parents pay, and you are disgracing yourselves by your public behavior. You should be ashamed of yourselves, and if your parents could see you they would be ashamed of you too!”

Alice, of course, suspected that their parents didn’t pay taxes and wouldn’t care, but she had in mind her own parents and her own family’s values.

The bus, at this point, had reached a regular stop. Ralph, despite his bulk, rose swiftly from his seat to defend Alice from the attack he was sure would happen upon her from the “wild animals.” Now looming behind her, as she raised her umbrella for another smash on something or someone, Ralph barked,” get off now, all you kids, or I’ll call the cops.”

Stunned, unable to comprehend what they were facing in these two odd-looking people, they stumbled off the open rear exit in a rush, some muttering epithets over their shoulders.

Ralph and Alice, and all the passengers, felt as if a great breath had sucked all the sound from the bus. They were now able to hear the rain on the roof. A few long seconds passed while the sound of the rain, the unusual peacefulness of the bus and the memory of Alice’s passion settled pleasantly into their bones.

Slowly, Alice turned to Ralph and, despite her still remaining and righteous anger, managed a slight smile and said “well done, captain.”

They married two months later.

The Holy Zygote

I have been appreciating Stockholm’s  new crop of seemingly highly fertile youngsters emerging from the cocoon of winter into this glorious summer. Nature has a plan for them, despite what each rational mind, shaped by culture and family, importunes.

Males and females, each in their peculiar way, dress, decorate, perfume, preen, position and display their charms for attention. Some will seem to dress to avoid attention, but we know they want attention from others who appreciate the subtle and understated ways.

It is, of course, all part of the pre-mating ritual organized by the double-helix that rules our lives, no matter how earnestly some opinionators will argue that “nurture” is at least as important to an individual’s development and motivations as is Nature.

Nature is telling us to go forth and multiply.

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” — Genesis 1.

Everything else is just to support this multiplication. The oldest structure in the brain of vertebrates, other than the brain stem, is the limbic system where the reproductive impulse originates:

The limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brainstem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex. (Source).

Here’s my punch line: our bodies are the living support systems and vehicles for the gametes which will, for some, unite with the gametes of another or others to create The Holy Zygote.

There are some who will say that humans are a scourge upon the earth and should die out to save the planet. I am not one of these. Such people are implicitly positioning the human cerebrum, where human rationality is located (a recent evolutionary development), against the ancient limbic system.

I have no say in the matter. The old brain will rule.

However, for those who do not reproduce, by choice or any other reason, they still can assist The Holy Zygote in preserving and advancing the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens and its successors.

I wrote this list in a moment of reflection on this notion:

The purpose of any individual is to contribute to the survival of its species. This purpose can be achieved in any one or more of these ways:

  • Create and nurture progeny
  • Protect the progeny of all or any member of the species (until each can or should be able to protect itself?)
  • Provide nourishment/sustenance to members of the species
  • Provide for the widest possible dispersion of gametes throughout the general population to enhance the possibility of favorable genetic combinations and, thereby, enhance the opportunity for adaptability of the species to changing external conditions
  • Aid and comfort the diseased and injured
  • Teach others in the ways of the above and below
  • Honor the force(s) that have created the resources to fulfill these contributions to one’s species
  • Preserve information about exemplars and their successes in these contributions, and recount them in stories

I ask readers to please add to this list.

Echoes

Written by Contributor Martha Gale

Le wiped the counter as the last lunch customer left. He turned the radio from easy listening to the Vietnamese station and walked from table to table, straightening the baskets that held soy sauce, fish sauce, toothpicks and salt and pepper. That’s when he noticed the man sitting at the back of the restaurant. He’d come in early, ordered the lunch special and a pot of green tea. He looked familiar, but Le still found it hard to recognize customers. They all looked so alike.

“More tea, sir?”

The man pushed the pot across the table without looking up.

Le took the pot behind the counter and began to prepare fresh tea. While waiting for the water to boil, he took a good look at the man. He was big—like most American men. Clumsy in their bigness, they never seemed to know exactly where their limbs were. His skin was pale, chalky even, showing the blue shadows of veins underneath. He slumped over the table, the teacup in front of him. And those big, knotty hands. The man seemed intent on studying them, staring at his palms as if to read between their lines.

Strange, Le thought as he poured water over the leaves, he’d asked for green tea specifically. Americans usually ordered coffee with their meal. Le was good at making coffee: even before learning English he’d had to learn to flip burgers and make the watery coffee Americans liked. He was glad to be working now in a real Vietnamese restaurant. It had only been open a month, and business was good. By summer, Le figured, he’d have saved enough to propose to his girlfriend.

“Yow!” Le shrieked as the pot slid off the damp counter and landed with a crash on the floor, splattering hot water and tea leaves. He looked guiltily toward the kitchen door, but the cook must have been having his afternoon smoke on the back stoop. Then he heard a chair fall on the floor. Le looked over the counter and saw the man huddled under the table, his chair on its side in the aisle.

Le rushed over to the table and leaned over. “Alright, sir?”

The man looked up at him, his pale eyes showing too much white. With something between a grunt and a growl, he crouched against the wall, shielding his head with his arms.

“Sir?” Le wondered if he should get the cook. He’d been in this country longer and understood the sometimes bizarre behavior of the natives. But Le didn’t want the cook to see the mess on the floor.

The radio played a soft melody, a young woman singing a love song. Slowly the man got out from under the table, picked up the chair, and sat down, wiping his face with a napkin. His skin was bright red now, glistening with sweat.

“I’m very sorry, I dropped the teapot. I can make more,” Le started back behind the counter, relieved that whatever had just happened seemed to be over.

“No, don’t bother.” The man stood up and put on his leather jacket. He pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and placed it under the teacup. He headed for the door but stopped by the cash register. Looking directly at Le for the first time since coming into the restaurant, he asked, “Do you have kids?”

“Me? Oh, no. ” Le blushed slightly as he thought of his girlfriend, “I hope to some day.”

The man gazed down at Le, but his eyes seemed to focus on something far away. He nodded, “I hope so, too.”

Empty Time

Here we are in Gällivare, awaiting the train from Narvik, Norway, just over the northwestern corner of Sweden. We need to get from Gällivare to Luleå by train, thence to Piteå by bus where we will stay at a traveler’s hostel for the night so we can, on Sunday, visit Eva’s son Max, a junior physician, who has a summer job in this remote lumber and paper mill town on Sweden’s northeast coast.

The sign showing scheduled departure and arrival times for trains through Gällivare tells us the 3:26 PM train is delayed because of problems on “the Norwegian side,” thus allowing us Swedes to absolve the railroad people on the Sweden side.

The pleasantly clear female voice from the overhead speakers informs us that we cannot reasonably expect the 3:26 P.M. train until arton, null, null, or 18.00 (6:00 PM).

I have finished reading the two books I brought for the overnight train trip from Stockholm to Saltoluokta Mountain Station where we stayed five days. Gällivare is the point of transition between train and bus, both ways.

I now have nothing to read except Swedish newspapers, but I am illiterate in Svenska. Eva has her daily Sudoku number puzzle, but this exercise in mental torture is not for me.

I have already taken a 20-minute walk around town and passed by almost all the stores and boutiques.

I have watched the others waiting inside and outside the station’s waiting room. I feel I have known them for a lifetime.

The waiting room is hot and muggy. It smells of stale humans and their detritus. The temporarily stranded passengers are moving, sitting, aimlessly moving again, dull-looking specks in slow Brownian motion.Despite the pesky mosquitoes I sit outside the train station, sheltered from the scattered rain showers by the overhanging roof. The sun on its shallowly slanting path glares at me through pauses in the gray and white clouds on the vast horizon. We are well above the Arctic Circle here.

The nearby low hills covering one-third of the view to my left are plain and uninteresting. The shifting mountains of cumulus clouds above the remainder of the horizon are too distant to dwell upon. They are there for the occasional glance when I need to rest my eyes from this writing.

I move to the unsheltered side of the station to avoid the relentless sun and sit on a damp bench facing the “Grand Hotel Lapland,” an unremarkable edifice of four stories. The area outside this part of the train station serves as a bus terminal for connections to northern regions.

Eva comes to me from the waiting room and tells me the train has been delayed yet another hour. We notice a bus leaving the area showing the  legend “Luleå-Kiruna.” We check the posted bus schedules outside the train station only to learn this was the last bus to Luleå today. We, and the others, had not thought to check the bus schedules as alternatives to the late train. The train company is silent on such matter

So we wait until at least 6:53 PM for the 3:28 PM train. It is now 4:53 PM, providing two hours, at least, to do… what?

I remain in writing mode, waiting for the next random impulse to translate itself through my fingers and this pen.

perhaps I will find
while waiting hours for the train
my buddha nature

Regarding Belief, in the Realm of the Religious or Spiritual

I do not disbelieve in anything. To believe in anything is to shut out all the things that are not within the belief system. I have a notion that Jesus, the Buddha, and others, had glimpses of “The Great Everything” as I like to say. These two may have dwelt in that infinitude in some manner not available to most of us and saw the greatness of this “everything.” In any case, all these words and ideas and structures are man-made in his attempt to understand the mystery of it all.  Man is part of the everything and cannot stand outside of it, and outside of himself, to see it. It will always remain a mystery. I accept this mystery, and delight in whatever little glimpses of it I may occasionally have, typically while hiking alone.

I am not concerned about conversion by others who have approached me with this in mind because there is nothing to convert from. I live, mostly, in an open system with no philosophical boundaries. I have practical boundaries, however, for purposes of living with honor—within my own values—and effectively in the practical world.

It is one’s choice to be in a closed (defined) system or an open (evolving) one. There is no one system better than another, objectively (that is, from the standpoint of a disinterested observer, whoever she may be, and if she may be). Some people do not choose either way and merely drift, unconsciously—and who is to say this is not a Way, also? (G.I. Gurdjieff fought against this Way).

I think it fruitless, however, to try to apply rational thought and processes to a subject which is primarily of a non-rational (not irrational) nature. Belief and feeling are neither measurable nor manageable as things. Therefore, there is no disputing another’s beliefs.

Which brings to mind the question of the proper use of the verb ‘to believe’ and its derivatives: when is it acceptable for a scientist to use the verb ‘believe?’