The Music of the Spheres – Part 2

Here is the second part of my reflections

on the nature of music, and the part that it plays in my own life.

I have thought quite a bit about what it is that makes music able to calm us, to stir us up, to cheer us.  All of us seem to respond to at least one type of music – some people enjoy classical music.  Some prefer a country song, others are rooted in the folk music of the sixties.  Certain songs rouse our emotions, call up a particular memory.  We use music to worship, to celebrate, and to mourn.

I was often unhappy as a young person.  When particularly distressed I used to listen to one particular piece, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major (opus 61). As soon as I heard the beginning notes I felt calmed and comforted.  The last movement, with its positive notes, would lift my spirits and I would begin to feel joy.

What is it that happens when we listen to music?  I believe that music stimulates brain patterns.  The progression of notes echoes in the pathways of our brains – the music leads us up or down, but we are always waiting for that final note, that resolution.  Even when the music moves unexpectedly, when notes are deliberately discordant, we still wait for that perfect completeness.

Lately I have seen another aspect of music – music as meditation.  When listening to music we are concentrating on the notes; our head space is not jumbled with thoughts and emotions all competing for our attention.  When we are stressed or upset, music provides us with a neutral space, almost a safe house on the path of our journey.  Our bodies need to rest when we are exhausted and drained, and our minds need to rest as well.





The Music of the Spheres

“This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears,
all Nature sings and round me rings
the music of the spheres.”

Even when I was a child, music was very important in my life.  Some of my earliest memories are of my father’s songs – “You Are My Sunshine”, Lili Marlene”, “In’t Groene Daal” – these still bring back memories when I hear them.  I always looked for ways to make music of my own.  Once, I assembled a collection of empty jam and pickle jars, filled them to different levels with water, and played the notes with a spoon.  I made up my own songs, but had no way to write them down.  It was only later that I learned music theory and harmony.  We had no piano at home, so at first I took singing lessons.  Then, when I began high school I began to use my allowance to pay for piano lessons with Sister Margaret.  My parents bought me a used piano, an oak Grinnell Bros. upright grand.    I also sang in our church choir.  We were all very young – our director was only twelve, and so was our organist.  I loved the Latin hymns and Gregorian chant.  For three summers I was able to attend a Schola Cantorum, St. Michael’s Cathedral Choir School.  Here I learned not only the newest church music, but elaborate motets by Palestrina.  I learned how to write down and direct Gregorian chant – I even had a few lessons on the pipe organ, where I found that it was very challenging to play notes with my feet!

When I started university I kept up my piano lessons.  Finding a place to practice was always a problem, so when I was at the University of Windsor I made a copy of the key to the Music House.  My first boyfriend, Bryan, was a good pianist, and he would play Chopin as I turned the pages for him.  Of course we were found out, and this got us into a lot of trouble.  After I transferred to the University of Toronto I had a very good teacher at the Conservatory, but eventually practicing became too difficult, and I had to give up my lessons.

I also joined the University of Toronto Chorus, under Lloyd Bradshaw.  During my second year with this choir we were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with the Toronto Symphony under Seiji Ozawa.  We had to audition for this performance, and I was very disappointed when my friend Jane was picked but I was not.  Then I realized that the names had not been written down, so I calmly showed up at the next practice, and nothing was said.  That performance was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.  It seems obvious that I was prepared to become a criminal if music was involved.

In the second part of this post, which is to follow at a later date,  I will talk more about the nature of music.

Both Sides Now

Often I suspect that I may be leading a double life.  Just as a person’s Facebook page does not always tell us much truth about them, often the outward appearance of a life does not accurately reflect the reality within.  At other times a life might seem more genuine when seen outside the falseness of “everyday”.  Is the world spiraling outwards, away and away from me?  Am I the kernel at the center?  Or am I the outer shell of existence, where everything I know is turning inwards, drawing down and down into itself?  We might be specks of dust floating in the air of the universe, we drift, and hit against each other now and then.  We are so transitory, and at the same time so eternal.  We are like the seeds within a flower – each one of us contains the essence of “flowerness”.  We are like the tiny treasures hidden by a child – each curious item holds a wonder that we might never guess.

Putting The Pieces Together

Now that we are well into October I have reached a different stage in my grieving process.  Just as the year is coming to a close, my mother’s life has come to a close.  What strikes me more than anything is the finality, the completeness, of death.  I realize now that once done, nothing can be added to a life.  So I ask myself – is a life whole in itself, or is it like a single piece of a thousand piece puzzle?  I have always seen life’s meaning in its potential, but where can I find the meaning when possibilities are done?  What is the essence of my mother’s life now?  Does it lie in the narrative, the story that has become part of our memories?  Does it find new life in her descendants, in its continuation in ourselves?  Just as the movement of butterflies’ wings, did the small events of one life cause endless ripples in the pond of the universe?  Does a life have its meaning in the sum of emotions, positive and negative?  Was my mother’s life sad, joyful?  Definitely there was some deep sadness – she lost a fiancee, and later a child.  I don’t know as much about my mother’s moments of joy, I can only guess.  I know that she found great happiness in nature.  She loved her home on the Third Line, surrounded by trees.  Here she worked in her garden.  Here she could cross-country ski in the winters, hike with her grandchildren in other seasons.  I am sure all of these things gave her much joy.  I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  But I am certain that each of our lives has a special place in the whole jig-saw puzzle of existence.

A Conversation About Poetry

Since I was very young I have used poetry as a safety valve.  If I can get my emotions and thoughts down on paper not only does it give them value,  but it bleeds off some of the pressure that I hold inside me.  I have always experienced life very intensely – my pain goes very deep, but so does my joy.  I love people fiercely, and I seem to feel their emotions as my own.  Sometimes I feel like a sponge absorbing the currents that ebb and flow around me.  I have always loved words, their sound, their meaning.  My head is full of phrases from the poetry I learned as a child.  Thus writing poetry seems as natural to me as breathing.  Sometimes I have this strange notion that I am not even the writer of these poems, because they seem to appear in my mind almost fully formed.  I only listen, and write them down.  The ability to write, to find the exact word or phrase, is an amazing gift that I have been given.

I have accumulated many, many poems over the years.  When I look back at them they act as a diary of thoughts and feelings that make my past real, and I have protected them as my treasures.  For a long time I have wanted to put these poems into a book, and in the last while I have thought a lot about making this happen.  I certainly have the means to do this, in this era of self-publishing.  But how many people actually pick up a book of poetry to read?  A few poets such as Emily Dickinson or Rumi are widely read and quoted, but many excellent poets only reach a very limited audience.  I am just as guilty of this as anyone else.

I think that social media is our new way of connecting with each other.  This is why I have decided to create a second Facebook page, “Paper Hoop Revisited”.  I will continue this page until I have reached the present moment – the poems and thoughts that I write now appear on my other page, “Breaking Through The Paper Hoop”.  And of course my longer reflections and meanderings have their place here on my blog.  Spread out, certainly, but each serves a specific purpose.

One Thousand Questions

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we feel a need to put labels on people – we name their diseases, their disorders.  A woman could be “the cancer in Room 212”.  Is she not so much more than her cancer? What about the diagnosis “dementia”?  When we see a newborn baby do we think “This child has no muscle control.  He can’t walk, he can’t speak.  This is a very handicapped child.”  Of course not.  But we see an elderly woman who needs a walker, whose hand trembles, and we call her disabled.  Maybe her memory is fading.  Are we seeing someone with dementia, or one of the natural progressions that we all make from birth towards death?  Our quality of humanness throughout our lives is always a matter of degree – some of us are very good at sports, or writing; some of us find dancing awkward, or stutter if we have to speak in public.  There is probably not one of us who does not have difficulty in one area, or many.

When I was about twenty I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Did I have schizophrenia?  Probably not.  Labels change their meaning over the years – they go in and out of fashion.  But what does it mean if one does have schizophrenia?   You could think of schizophrenia as an impediment, or as an unusual perceptiveness.  In some cultures people with visions are revered as specially gifted.  My diagnosis was later changed to bipolar.  Am I bipolar?  Probably not.  But what if I was, what would that mean?  I think it would depend on how I lived bipolarity (?).  Would it set me apart from others or would it enable me to show others a different way of seeing this world?  I could use my creative energy productively, or I could allow it to overwhelm me.  Could I be bipolar some of the time, and “normal” some of the time?  What if some of us were diagnosed with Normality?  In my case, bipolar has now been cast aside to make room for more complicated diagnoses.  But do I have an illness or am I a person who grieved deeply, who feels emotions very deeply?

A teen-aged girl might be labelled “a cutter”.  Because we don’t understand, we judge her as somehow failing.  But could we see a young person deeply in pain, who cuts herself to help her escape that pain for a short while?  And why does a label define a whole person?  I know a woman with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety who injured her hand in a workplace accident.  The doctor and nurse were talking near her bed in the emergency department.  “Oh, that’s only so-and-so.  No hurry there.”  Not only do we label people but we give their labels a value.  A person with cancer has a high value, a heroic value.  A person with fibromyalgia might be given a low value, perhaps these mystery disorders are labelled as bogus, as “all in her head”.  But many illnesses are all in our heads.  Are some legitimate, some not?  If we refer to a person as handicapped are we not saying that somehow they have less value, because they are not perfect?  What if that “handicapped” person has special gifts that most of us do not?  I have seen persons diagnosed with dementia who are eager to learn new things, even with difficulty, who are skilled musicians, who care for other people in a special way.  What if we took everyone’s label, put all the labels into a box, shook them up, redistributed them.  What would that mean?  Would everyone be the same person, or a different person?  Except for the label, did anything change?

Edony’s Story

When I described how my family immigrated to Canada in 1953, I received an amazing comment from my cousin, Edony.  Edony came to Canada in 1957, and what she doesn’t mention is that she was only sixteen years old.  I was eight or nine then, and I remember going to meet Edony at the Thessalon railway station, which seemed little more than a platform surrounded by fields.  She must have thought that she had arrived at the end of the world!  With Edony’s permission, I am letting her tell her story in her own words:

I remember arriving in Canada on March 7th, 1957, and getting off the train in Thessalon, Ontario.  It was a very long journey for me. I left London, England on the 5th of March, flying on a Pan American Airlines Super Constellation aeroplane. I left London and arrived in Shannon, Ireland, where there were many Hungarian refugees waiting to go to countries that would accept them.  None got on my flight, I remember.  We got back onto the plane and flew to Gander, Newfoundland.  It was in the middle of the night and swirling snow as we walked towards a low building.  I didn’t get off with all the other passengers as I hadn’t had some sort of vaccination.  A nurse came on the plane and inoculated me, and then I got off the plane.  I remember the building, a long low one with lights in every window. It seemed very isolated in the huge expanse of the airport as much as I wanted to see.  There were clocks around the room with the time of every city around the world that was pertinent to the airport.  I found out later that this was the RCAF (Royal Canadian Airforce) airport.

From Gander we flew to New York.  I landed there in the morning at some time and had to take my stuff out of my suitcases as there was something that was causing a Geiger counter to click.  It was a compass I had found on the beach in England that had come off a ship or submarine that had sunk during the war.  It was a beautiful compass with a brass cover.  They let me keep it.  I had a five hour wait for the plane to Montreal, Quebec, so I went out and got into a taxi.  I asked the taxi driver to just drive around and show me the most exciting parts of New York City, since I would probably never have another chance.  He drove around and showed me the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations Building, the Empire State Building, which was so very impressive. I didn’t get out of the taxi at all and he drove back to the airport through the traffic and the time spent, I missed the flight to Montreal. I was taken into a secure area and “grilled” by airport security as to where I had gone, what I had seen, whom I had spoken to.  I told them I had only been in a taxi, looking at the sights  of New York, and I had pictures in my camera to prove it.  I was in tears and very upset as I was told that since I had no visa or pass I had no right to leave the airport for any reason.  They wanted the name of the taxi driver but I couldn’t give them that as I didn’t know it.

I got on the plane to Montreal which was an Air Canada DC9 and arrived there in the evening.  I then had to get on a train to Sudbury, Ontario and wasn’t sure where to go.  I got to the station, and having not had much to eat for two days  I was very hungry, so went into a restaurant in the train station and had something to eat.   I gave the cashier all the money I had changed and she took what I owed and put all the rest in a purse and said I shouldn’t take it all out next time.  I left the restaurant and the train I was to take was leaving at 8pm.  It was 5.30 pm and I had no idea where to go.  I was very tired and very lonely.  I suddenly realized that no one in the world knew who I was or where I was.  It was very upsetting so I sat down and cried.  Two ladies from Travellers’ Aid stopped by me and took over.  They got me a sleeper bunk on the train and told the porter that I wanted to get out at Sudbury, Ontario.  This train would arrive at Sudbury at 4am. so they asked the porter to make sure that I was awake and got off the train.  I had to get another train at 8am. to Thessalon, Ontario, where my Aunt Eunice and Uncle Philip would meet me. I got off the train in the dark, waited in the Sudbury Station for four hours to get on the train to Thessalon.  I was so relieved to see my Aunt Eunice at the stop, I jumped off the train, without waiting for the porter to put out the steps, into about three feet of snow.  I was so happy to have finally arrived in Canada, and from there have been so happy to be a Canadian Citizen.  I have many more adventures in Canada to share.  I have been lucky to have the opportunity to be from Canada.