On Silence, Symphony, and Liminality

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes silence is symphony and in-between places are the world.

I’m not sure how I finally decided that I would go to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra instead of saying it’s something I should do, some day. Perhaps it was when I stumbled across the fact that a world-renowned violinist would be playing Henry Ford’s Stradivarius at an upcoming show. Though I’m not a musician, I’ve heard the lore of Stradivarius from a “civilian” perspective and have long been intrigued. Plus, the program also included a selection from West Side Story, which simply seemed like a whole lot of fun.

adult arch art band
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Atmosphere, Music, and Memory

I didn’t pay much attention to the other items on the program until my date and I were seated and I had a moment to flip through the hefty booklet featuring musician bios and programs for the whole series of shows this season. To be honest, I was a little star-struck by the building’s interior, so sophisticated and opulent I could barely focus on the glossy pages in my hand. The pale columns and tasteful Greek-looking embellishments contrasted in just the right way with the red velvet upholstery of the narrow seats. The whole affair seemed both extravagant and restrained. Up in the highest balcony, I felt almost dizzy. This could have been in part because we failed to leave ourselves enough time to eat before the 8 p.m. performance, and the peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich I’d had in my cubicle at 11:30 a.m. had worn off long off long before.

Sitting there, absorbing the atmosphere the same way I take in beach air. I felt taut and eager. I wondered if the musicians felt that way too, waiting to take the stage to tune up.

My children began playing in their school’s orchestra in the fourth grade; my daughter is a violinist, my son, a cellist. I do not play an instrument, I cannot read music. The reasons for this seem largely economic, and therefore, unfair, but much of life works out this way and you can’t really dwell on it too much. When I was very young, my grandmother had begun to teach me the piano. We had a piano in the basement of our home where I practiced. I don’t remember if I loved to practice or hated it. I remember the music books, and how friendly they seemed, eager to teach me how to plunk out the notes to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” My family moved, though, to a smaller place and we did not take the piano with us. Later, in fifth grade, when band started in my middle school, I wanted to try out the instruments, maybe play the saxophone. But the financial difficulties my family was experiencing at the time made it impossible to acquire an instrument. In my adult life, I’ve tried to teach myself the piano again, with an inexpensive keyboard and a beginner’s book. My daughter also showed me some chords on the ukulele. I wanted to learn Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” but I could not figure out the way the chords, and a strumming pattern I was unable to grasp, worked together to create the song. I’ve often thought of taking piano lessons, but the cost combined with my previous failures have intertwined and amplified, creating what I know is only the illusion of an obstacle. But it still feels like an obstacle.

The Thrill of Anticipation

So when the musicians took the stage and began to warm up, the thrill I felt was that of an outsider peering into a secret, coveted world. And at the same time, I was here, with all of these other people, all feeling everything they had brought with them from the outside world into this space. We all waited together, a collective holding of breath that only gathered like a wave as the musicians tuned their instruments.

The combination of the knowledge and skill possessed by the musicians, along with the obvious communion among them, always leaves me feeling a sense of bittersweet love and longing. After a few words from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the first notes sounded, and I sighed. My right hand was taken by my date, a man I was thrilled to be sharing this experience with. I closed my eyes for a moment, to listen, to feel, with focus.

The program opened with a premiere of a new composition, Dune Acres, by Kristin Kuster. That the composer was a woman was something Slatkin observed was still a rarity, though things were changing, he told us hopefully. The piece was stunning. What I remember most was the second movement, where the deep, graceful notes of a harp seemed to form the backbone of the piece.

Sound and Silence

And then Slatkin introduced John Cage’s 4’33”. To this point, I was unfamiliar with the work of this experimental composer. Slatkin described what we were about to hear: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. What? Slatkin didn’t speak extensively about Cage’s intent, but he described Cage’s interest in what happens in the space between the notes, where the reverberation ends and just before the next note sounds. He spoke of the interaction between the musicians and the audience, and he quipped about the sounds we might hear—most notably, from the previous night’s performance, people coughing.

It began without much fanfare, because, well, it’s silence. It is a peculiar thing, sitting in a room filled with hundreds of people doing their best to be completely silent. Well, some of them were. There were the whisperers behind us, who frustrated me. I wanted them to take it seriously. Cage’s piece didn’t have the feel of a colossal, sophisticated joke, although I supposed one could take it that way. But I think Cage was calling us to awareness, he was calling us to participation, to comraderie. In a way, I sensed that Cage perhaps intended with this piece to quietly erase the boundary that I had been feeling when I walked into Orchestra Hall, the boundary between musician and non-musician. We were all in this together. I listened to the gentle, relaxed breathing of the man at my side, felt him caress the inside of my wrist with the warm stroke of his fingers. There were moments where no one coughed or whispered, and traffic noises from outside intruded. The rustling of fabric as people fidgeted carefully seemed unobtrusive, a feathery component of this symphony of ambient noise. We had been offered the arguably rare opportunity to be completely present in this singular time and place, participating as individuals and as community. Slatkin had noted that the piece would seem longer than four and a half minutes, but to me, it went by quickly. It was a peaceful thrill of ebb and flow, this silence.

We were brought out of this trance with a few words from Slatkin. The violinist, Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy, took the stage with the famed Stradivarius. I don’t have the technical music vocabulary to describe her performance, only ordinary words poorly employed and applied to the sublime—breathtaking, exquisite, magnificent. Following this performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, was a brief intermission and a romp through the “symphonic dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

In the aftermath of the evening though, I kept turning back to Cage’s piece, this hushed orchestration of the sounds around us. I thought about what Slatkin had noted about the spaces between the notes. I’ve considered this notion in the past in terms of spoken and written words, in terms of all that is implied within that liminal space, that expanse between syllables. We find ourselves often in such liminal spaces – the places in-between observed phases of our lives, of our relationships – and we often feel compelled to take note of them exclusively within the context of what came before, what was to follow, or what might come next. We see them as the end of beginnings, as the beginnings of ends.

How luxurious to be allowed the space to see them for what they are, symphonies in their own right.

Love, Cath

 

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

pathway between tomato fruits
Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath

On Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I sat in a coffee and pastry shop on Saturday afternoon with my sister. Though we don’t live far from each other, it had been some time since we had seen each other. Outside the window, the street glowed with yellow and orange maple leaves, clouds of them still clinging to the trees, and somehow, an equal amount blanketing the sidewalks. It wasn’t one of those moments where you feel as though, even though you haven’t seen someone in a long while, no time had passed. Time had indeed passed. But still, though the contours of our connection had evolved, there is a constancy about that connection that my sister and I both cherish. I was glad that we both made time to spend together.

 IMG_4476

Time is on my mind these days, as daylight savings comes to an end, and darkness swallows up our evenings. It’s easy to see what feels like the swift passage of time as an enemy. I saw a post recently on social media that said something about “The trouble is, you think you have time,” (wrongfully attributed to Buddha), as if to say, our time here is short. It’s in line with carpe diem messages. We are told we should seize the day because we aren’t guaranteed anything. We have the present, and that’s all we can truly lay claim to.

Time and Identity

We also think of our identity in time-bound ways. Who we are today may be very different from who we were as children, and who we might become as our experiences shape us. And time itself, or the passage of it, shapes us. Try as we may, we are powerless to evade the changes to our biology that occur as we age.

The beauty of it all is the power of our own mind to conceptualize such ephemeral notions as time and past and future. We may only truly have the present, we may only truly bea collection of cells and experiences, but we get to create ourselves everyday. How much do I want the experiences of the past to dictate who I am today and where I’m headed? Our past only controls our future as much as we grant it permission to. And we may grant it a lot of leeway. Acknowledging all the good woven through even a rocky history is a worthwhile endeavor.

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

One of the reasons time, or the passage of it, is often regarded as an enemy is that shame is becomes intertwined with time. Shame that we “wasted” time, shame about what time has done to us. We are told that our time in this world, or in the lives of our loved ones, is a gift, that the act of not spending that time well is something we should feel ashamed of. But our actions have little to do with time. Treating the people in our lives well is not something we should do because our time with them is precious. It is something we should do because people are precious. This may be splitting hairs to some, but I think the distinction is important. If we focus on the people in our lives, our actions are focused on them, on treating well the people we love because we love them. If we focus on the idea that our time with them is some sort of a gift, our actions are focused on ourselves, on behaving in a certain way because of what we get out of it. A subtle shift in perspective can privilege the action of loving over the reward of not wasting time.

I didn’t have coffee with my sister thinking that my time with my sister is a gift. I don’t want to waste it. I want to make the most of it. Time is not the gift. Time just is. My sister is the gift. We wanted to share love and friendship and laughter and conversation so we decided to dedicate a portion of our time that day to each other. I think we should be clear about what we value. In this way our actions are more focused, and we elevate one another in this revaluation.

Time Is What You Believe It Is

The thing about time is that it functions independently, objectively, dispassionately—ticking away with each sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t care about us. Yet it remains very personal in the way it is recognized and attended to in our own lives. My time is mine. Yours is yours. Our relationship with time is almost spiritual in this way. If you believe you must make the most out of each and every moment because tomorrow is not promised and you live your life accordingly, so be it. Let it fill you up and give you joy. But avoid the trap of shame for not doing enough, for not seizing enough. Recognize what you value—the people you are seizing the day with, or the sunlight, or the trail, or the road. If I believe my future is filled with great things, and I’m making little plans every day to inch my way to where I want to be, so be it. I may regard the moments of today not as seconds to be seized but as a place to pause and catch my breath. A place to be, with my own thoughts, with my loved ones. And tomorrow, instead, I will seize each moment with gusto. But I will leave any shame behind, and place value where it belongs.

This is all to say, know your worth. Know the worth of those you love. Known the worth of your life. No one gets to tell you what is wasted.

Love, Cath