Wednesday, August 15, 2012


It comes on me -- like a thief in the night, no not really -- this tightness in my chest, these hot unbidden tears, maybe it's the weight of my mortality as I approach my sixth decade of life. All the things still to be done. And the diminishing ability to get to them.

This morning my effin limbs are heavy and my eyes sting. I can barely see the passing landscape. "Shake Sugaree" runs through my mind, somebody playing the acoustic guitar, everything I got is in pawn.

Riding down Route 131 from Petoskey in a rented Toyota, Jan-Philipp leaning back in the passenger seat, squinting at the hazy morning sun. A couple of great blue herons flying alongside the road off to the right. The unspooling road in front of us as straight as the crow flies. Off to the left beyond the potato fields with their big irrigation rigs going, endless woods. Every so often a truck passes carrying logs. We're supposed to pick up Route 72 in Kalkaska and head back to Traverse City. This song is running through my head. I'm supposed to be happy but I'm sad. I look over at Jan-Philipp.

"You know, I could live without literature, but I couldn't live without music."

"I agree. I feel the same way." This from a successful novelist who's wanted to write since he was a kid.

Then he tells me about a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony he'd witnessed in Vienna -- the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann. He and his wife had decided to go at the last moment. Of course, it was sold out. So he had to buy tickets from scalpers in the street. He bought one ticket, then another. But he wanted two seats together, so he kept at it, buying and selling, cajoling and trading. Finally, after many minutes of wheeling and dealing, he had gotten two adjoining seats. And the performance? It was "monumental." Magical. After the last note, the audience sat silent. Not a sound. The hall was absolutely silent. Tears were streaming down peoples' cheeks. The orchestra sat there. We were suspended in time. Stupefied. Then, after three or four minutes of utter quietude, the audience, as if awakened from a dream, roused itself and began to applaud. The applause lasted for more than forty-five minutes.

"That is the power of music. It touches something so deep in the heart. I know that however people respond to my novel, it can never be that primal, that all-consuming. That night was so special. My wife and I will never forget it."

I told him about a Sunday afternoon years ago up in Tanglewood, lying on the lawn under a bright blue expanse of sky, listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's then-assistant conductor Robert Spano lead the ensemble in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The picnic hampers were put away, the wine glasses left empty. The music enveloped us. And then, suddenly, we were filled with a sense of wholeness, able to comprehend that the world was a gift, fashioned out of a gracious plenitude of being -- even the sparrows sensed it, singing along with the flutes in the third movement. We might not live up to Beethoven's genius in our daily lives, but on a given afternoon in July, we could partake of its incarnation and be cleansed, if only for a few hours.

Jan-Phillip leaned back and closed his eyes. He was listening with his inner ear. Surely music is a kind of sleep, to enter it bodily is to dream. It restores us to our senses. We opened the windows and breathed in the northern Michigan air. It was true. It didn't matter where we'd come from or where we were heading.

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