Thursday, January 30, 2014

There Be Dragons, Continued: It's Not the Weather

"Wait until spring to decide!  You'll feel differently about everything then.  It's been a terrible winter..."

This is what people have been saying when they hear that my spouse and I are planning to move to a retirement community.  And the weather probably does have something to do with precipitating this  decision, but only a very little something.

I was already thinking about it a year ago, when I wrote a post in which I wondered how much longer I would be able to keep up my fantasy of the self-sufficient life.  I thought about it last fall, when I was incapacitated for weeks with shingles, and again in December, when my husband and I both came down with epic colds.  And I first thought about it two years ago, on the January night when  my husband developed severe chest pains.  It wasn't a heart attack--he's fine--but we didn't know that as we waited an hour for the ambulance to reach us, and then raced forty-five-minutes to the hospital.

The fact is, we're isolated on our little hill, and not just from services and stores (I once drove forty-five minutes to buy a spool of brown thread).  When you don't have a job or a child or a church to jump-start your social life, it takes more energy than I have to manufacture one from scratch. The last nine years have offered me a solitude that Thomas Merton would have envied.  But despite my eremitic tendencies, I am no Thomas Merton.

Of course the prospect of disposing of tables and chairs and file cabinets and my beloved old canning jars so that we and the dogs can fit into a two-bedroom cottage makes me groan, but waiting another five years wouldn't make the task more palatable.  And it would be downright awful to have to do it under pressure of illness.  Since it's clear that we cannot remain on our hilltop forever, it makes sense to do it while it's easier than it will ever be.

As for where we'll end up, we'd like it to be in Vermont.  We're far too fond of its fields and woods and calmly grazing cows;  its billboard-free, mostly empty roads;  its herbalists and bee-keepers and philosopher-farmers; its unapologetic granola attitude.

We'd hate to leave all that behind--not to mention the good friends we've made.  And we'd miss the winters.

(To be continued.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

There Be Dragons

There's not been much room in my head for writing lately.  My brain has been occupied with, a) staying warm and, b) envisaging our move away from this particular corner of my green Vermont.

The move will be to an "independent living" cottage in a continuing care retirement community (CCRC).   In a CCRC, cottages huddle, like chicks with a mother hen, around a large central building that houses--in addition to progressively diminishing levels of independent living--dining halls, swimming pools, and a whole slew of "activity" rooms.  The activities in these rooms--and in the pools and trails and tennis courts--are what keeps the sun-tanned, white-haired couples featured in the brochures relentlessly smiling and perennially young.

"What?" people who know us exclaim, "you're way too young for this!"  And those who are closer and bolder predict, "You'll get old faster if you go to one of those places."

And, on the first count, they're partly right.  The average age of entry into independent living is seventy-eight, so at sixty-nine my spouse and I are being somewhat precocious.  But although I may look sixty-nine, thanks to CFS I often feel more like a frail eighty-five.

As to the second objection, I've always believed in the use-it-or-lose-it principle:  milk your goats, hang the laundry out to dry, clean out the chicken house, spread the compost, grow your own veggies, or you're bound to deteriorate.  But the fact is that, despite having done all those things, I have deteriorated.  And now I'm thinking that perhaps a different kind of life--where I don't have to garden  or cook or go to the grocery store unless I'm dying to--might remove some pressure and relieve anxiety.

Believe me, though:  in my darker moments I do worry about that second caveat, and can see myself quite clearly a year from now--stoop-backed, shuffle-gaited, old.

I thought that you would be good company as I prepare to parachute into this exotic landscape, which seen from my present altitude abounds in green pastures and waters where I may rest, but whose woods and caverns may well be crawling with monsters.

I'll be posting on this topic frequently.  You can stay safely inside the plane if you like, but cross your fingers for me as I jump out.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

From My Father's Hand

I found the manuscript of a piano sonata of my father's among some papers a while ago, and today I scanned it and sent it to his editor in Barcelona.  She is hurrying to get his few remaining unpublished compositions out in time for the celebration of the centennial of his birth later this year.

The score is signed and dated spring, 1966, two years before his death.  The paper has yellowed with age, but the familiar blue ink has kept its color, and it called up for me the memory of my father sitting at the dining room table, copying out scores by hand.

He composed at the piano, alternately holding a pencil and a cigarette between his right index and middle fingers, squinting against the smoke and trying out chords one after another.  When a piece was finished he orchestrated it.  And when that was done he copied out all the parts, by hand.

Like most professional musicians, my father cobbled a living playing the violin in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and teaching college classes and private students.  While he was alive, his compositions brought him recognition but no significant income.  So the copying out of scores had to be sandwiched in between endless rounds of classes and rehearsals and his own violin practice, not to mention driving my mother to the grocery store and all of us to church on Sundays.

In the evenings, after the last private student had packed up his violin and left, he would sit at the dining room table with his ash tray and his cigarette and his fountain pen with the blue ink and copy out the music he had written, note by note, stopping every once in a while to push his glasses up on  his nose.  And when I showed up with the plates and silverware to set the table for dinner he would blow on the ink to dry it and stub out his cigarette and put everything away without a word.  Then we would eat and when that was over he would leave for orchestra rehearsal.

I wonder what he thought about during those endless hours of copying music?  Did he hear it in his head?  Did he resent having to do this mechanical task when he would much rather be at the piano creating new work?

I never saw him rush.  He never seemed frustrated.  He sat there for however long he had, peacefully making marks that I found, and still find, beautiful in themselves--the verticals perfectly vertical, the bars on the sixteenth notes parallel with each other, and the tempo and mood indications in his  sweeping, old-fashioned hand--allegro ma non tanto, moderato cantabile, molto espressivo.

My father's handwriting was famous in the family.  He was said to have inherited this talent from his father, a silent, obsessively orderly man whose hand was even more perfect than my father's.  It was considered unfortunate that the calligraphy gene had passed me by, though at least the musical one, for better or worse, had not.

It struck me, as I scanned the score and with one click sent it flying over the Atlantic and across the width of the Iberian peninsula all the way to Barcelona, that my father had copied out that piece using the same basic technology as Bach--a pen, some ink, and his own hand. Or, in the case of Bach, someone's hand, since Bach's twenty children, I am sure, were put to copying scores as soon as they could hold a pen, or their father's could never have managed his enormous output.

I'll never know how much more music my father might have composed if he had had either twenty children or a computer and a printer.  But those blue ink lines on yellowing paper contain far more than potential melody--they hold the very presence of my father in the dining room at dusk, bent over his task, while my mother sautes garlic on the stove and I put away my geometry problem set and get out the knives and forks, the napkins, and the dinner plates.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

When the Days Begin to Lengthen...

"When the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen," Laura Ingalls' Pa used to say, and this year is proving him right.  We're having the kind of winter that I moved to Vermont to experience--a no-nonsense season of deep snow, sub-zero days, and clear light glinting off red barns.

Every year, the day after the solstice I insist that I can already tell a difference--the days are getting longer.  Spring is just around the corner.  The holidays are past, the Christmas flu is but a fading memory, and peace descends upon the earth.  The garden is asleep under its white frozen duvet.  The freezer is full of veggies that I planted and weeded and watered and harvested all summer long.  The dogs, when it's below zero and the wind is blowing, are content with just a short walk.

There's really not that much to do, other than talk to the houseplants as I mist them and refill their humidifier, and work on the long-neglected piece of needlepoint that I bought a year ago.  The snow plow cleared our driveway before dawn today, but the north wind has playfully drifted the snow back onto it, so the long-postponed trip to the dump will have to be re-postponed.  And shoveling the front walk can wait until the temperature climbs into the 20s.  In the chilly sun porch the goldfish are in semi-hibernation, and take their own sweet time coming to the surface at feeding time.

It's a lovely, slow, empty time of year.  The hens, who feel about the solstice the way I do, have started laying again.  But if I wait until the evening to collect the eggs, I find them cracked and frozen in the nest.  Eggs are wondrous things, however, with amazing powers of survival.  After I bring them into the warm house, the cracks seal themselves again somehow, and disappear without a trace.