Back in March, we knew it would be a little while. Night clubs shuttered along with gyms, studios, and all the rest of public life. No contra dancing at the Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom on Friday nights. No proximity to my absolutely favorite Zumba teacher at the rec center on Saturday mornings. We’d have to figure something out. For this old gal, keeping the spirit intact means movement. Dance is as much a necessity as toilet paper and reliable wifi.
The irony was clear from the beginning: the businesses keeping their doors open were not ones I wanted to support. A few of my more savvy Zumba instructors went virtual, offering Zoom workouts at no cost a couple days a week. It was oddly comforting to catch a glimpse into the kitchens and living rooms of people I’d only seen at the gym. I felt less alone in my own mess, swinging my hips in the tiny rectangle of space carved out in a condo which absorbed schoolroom, office, and the entire universe of entertainment options on two days notice last March.
That little while stretched into weeks. Then months.
The food in New Orleans, they say, is reason enough to go. Try telling a person you’re heading that way. “Oh my God, Cajun cooking.” They’ll put their hands to their face. They’ll touch their belly. You’ll hear a little moan.
Nine states in eleven days, and somehow we managed to have the worst food of our trip in New Orleans.
Not just mediocre bad. Not Applebee’s bad or hotel happy hour bad. But epically, comically, stupendously bad.
In the story we tell of our family, the Fall 2019 chapter will be entitled “Haunted by Tragedy.” Three people close to us died unexpectedly in the span of four weeks. The past few months have been consumed with sorting belongings, planning memorials, and dealing with the aftermath of loss.
This weekend, we held a joyous and moving celebration for my friend Eric Dixon at one of the pubs where he played many winning games of trivia. This marks the last of the tangible tasks left to the living. The heart carries on with the intangibles. Here is what I shared at Eric’s service.
It is the music that finally does it. Sylvan Esso, “Funeral Singers.” It’s not the song’s particular connection that splits me open. It’s the fact of the music. That I can hear so much better, that I have learned to taste, appreciate and eventually love music that would have never existed for me if not for Eric. I’m guessing this is true for many of us here. How many of us can say — show of hands — that it’s because of Eric that we know King Crimson? I bet we all have lists of things we call our own now because Eric’s enthusiasm infected us. For me? It’s Galactic. Janelle Monáe. The author Katherine Dunn. The mathematician Martin Gardner… and that’s just the start of my list.
She scrapes bow across strings whose low moan rises to a shriek. Her elbow a piston, it turns the wrist in a blurred ellipse that frees a cry, a frenzy. Two boys appear from behind the stage, leaping sideways across the brush that separates this place from the garden plots where an old woman in a headscarf shambles between rows watering broad petals of cabbage. One of the children waves a stick like a flag. His face is a wide grin that says, see me, see me.
Another boy in a man’s body perches on the edge of a chair on this portable stage. Shaggy hair falls across his forehead as he leans into the music. He is from Ireland and lives in Portland where he has his pick of women. He does to the accordion what Kobe Bryant does to a ball. We call this thing “playing,” this version of play unlike anything the rest of us will ever experience.
Bent at the waist ever so slightly, he gazes far off towards what must be the west where a weary August sun peels back the day’s skin and exposes the pink, swollen flesh of dusk. The grown boy’s fingers are dervishes in harmonious riot, balletic and blind, somehow whirling an unbroken ensemble piece on that tiny stage of keys. I look where he is looking — in the direction at least because what he sees is all his own. I want to imagine his eyes fixed on a montage of hills, rain, soil-scarred hands lifting open a latch and reaching for him. Just as likely, behind his eyes growls a gauntlet of fractured traffic between the airport and the next gig. Or a dim wash of notes. When I look that way, I see only the deep outline of trees against a sky now a garnet throb.
Then the breath, the snared half-second of surprise when bow and key and string and drum, all stop —
it’s only a pulse of the heart yet it stretches, stretches like the still air across embouchure, its reverberation through a valley of brass. It stretches like a quantum measure that is neither real nor measurable. Swelling up into that pause (which may be the end of all history and also may not contain a single new beginning) surges the cry of cicadas thick in the shadowed branches. Through the crack too flaps the leather wing of one bat dipping for a moth then careening off, this also in the direction our accordion boy looks but doesn’t see. Not what I see see anyway, and certainly not what the bat sees, though his vision may be closer to that of his chiropteran brother, a sightless echoing that delineates a terrain through sound, through a chorus of shape and motion. Maybe he draws a whole universe like this, one round, rapid beat after another firing across a field of night.
Unlike the other members of the band who splice the set together with self-deprecating anecdotes, the dude on piano and bodhran is a potty white-haired fellow who never speaks or cracks a joke. I have him pegged as the invisible base that holds up on 4/4 solid legs the tone and flourish that the fiddlers and singers — the real artists — splash across score.
The last song swells to its finish, the crowd cheers, the other musicians walk off. They leave him there lost in something as he messes with his drum. He looks up and glances around like he just noticed everyone else is gone. After a few confused and awkward seconds, he starts to tap a stick against the skin of the drum. It takes a few seconds for the audience to realize that something entirely new is happening.
The next 6 minutes are this with 6 years of mastery added:
The 2015 Martin O’Neill plays on stage alone, handling the drum with such precision that he’s making a melody from it. It’s skittering over scales, almost singing on top of its own rip-cracking beat. Then it shushes down, down before curving around what feels like a moan.
My heart is galloping but can’t keep up.
The beat topples all my assumptions.
A little skin stretched over a frame, balanced on one knee and worked with two expert hands, somehow produces how many thousand tones?
It’s humbling to find out yet again what a poor guide my judgment can be, how very little I know about anything at all.
It’s exhilarating to let this new flavor fill my blood, to know how much more is waiting to split wide my husk of certainty.
The remarkable sifter and curator, DMF, over at SyntheticZero posted a comment to Everything is Music with a link to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon playing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes.
On the eve of an unwelcome anniversary and bracing for another night fighting off the devils that eat sleep, here I am in bed now, singing and dancing — yes, dancing alone in bed! — with the warmest thrill from smile to toes.
Now this word from Ernie & Bert:
Thank you for the most buoyant lullaby a girl could hope for, DMF. (And thank you, lambies.)
He points to Sting and Bob Marley,
his eyes hopscotching sideways
over walls of worn bright album covers
all the way to the ceiling, lighting
up for the first time
as salsa music and hissing milk
steam the room and warp
corners that squeeze
us into the proximity
and nexts. Shots
in hot mugs clank against laughing teeth.
He slides forward in his seat
back again. When India Arie
escorted Stevie Wonder to the stage
he tells me, she kissed him on the cheek. Continue reading “Everything is Music”→
Last night, I danced at my cousin’s wedding. Danced like a toddler does, right up front.
I’m guessing everyone else out there enjoyed Sara Bareilles’ music video for “Brave” at some point in the past two years. I just today discovered it on About Face, a website promoting positive body image.
Just as she intends, Bareilles’ video shivers open a smile that leaks tears.
Remember the game you used to play in the doorway? You stand facing out and press the backs of your hands hard against the doorjamb. You push there, muscles working, and count. Twenty, thirty, one hundred. Then you step out, and after a breath, marvel as they rise.
As if invisible threads.
As if a secret deal to suspend the laws of physics.
For most of the hours in most of the days, I push hard against something. The clock, a hunger, my doubts, someone’s needs.
The deadline breathing fierce at the base of my skull.
The flashing cursor, the buzzing phone.
It seems a whole life becomes this pressed angle, wedged here in a narrow doorway. I barely recall the name for air.
Until song calls me out, and shows me again the secret to tricking gravity.
Even on a day that saps breath, beat
Night, home, a high whine
sears the deep ear. When veering toward bed
or bread or any
the last throb of momentum, habit
is the last hope.
Calabria, thud and sway
already in motion,
churn flesh inside
out. Turn up
here like sleepwalking
to Messina, like emerging
at the first dawn.