PIANO MAN

It was a Friday night when I got off the bus in Portland. There was a chill in the air. I was going to a restaurant to meet a pianist.

His name was Art and he had a gig playing jazz at an eatery downtown. I’d rather be composing, he said, and shrugged.

Quite an adventure, going to stay with a person I’d know for just a couple of intense weeks through a personal growth course in Northern California. I wouldn’t be so adventurous now, wouldn’t be so trusting. But Art was a cool dude and one of the smattering of non-therapists doing the training. We hung out a bit during breaks and I was able to stretch my limited knowledge of jazz into something that connected us.

On the final night we performed together, me reciting a poem I’d written a few days earlier while Art extemporised energetically on the careworn upright in the main hall. It was fun, even though his brilliant improvisations didn’t entirely coalesce with the song-like stanzas I’d crafted. Art wanted reading as dramatic as his playing and kept encouraging me to pump up the verses. I’ve always preferred poetry read in a slightly bored monotone—let the words add the energy, not the voice. My writing could use such toning down; too much vibrato sometimes. Still, we did something, Art and me. Something co-created, something new; it forms a bond. As the group disbanded the next day, returning to homes interstate or across the world, a farewell conversation with the venerable teacher revealed that he had not realised the poem was newly written about the journey we’d all taken. You wrote that? Huh! Thought it was from a book.

So I was in an unfamiliar city on a chilly early Autumn evening asking directions for Higgins Restaurant and Bar (or whatever it was called) from the entirely disinterested person behind the office window. And not for the last time, fell into the beginner’s trap of not specifying I was on foot. People just assume you have transport, even if you are carrying a pack and just got off a Greyhound. Just walk straight out the door and turn left, it’s not far.

Trudging up the wrong side of a six lane highway through the Oregon night I saw no-one. Shuttered windows and speeding cars with yellow, jaundiced eyes. Wondered about a cab but had no idea how to action that; no mobiles in those days. A weary ‘eventually’ later, I found the place. Stood on the door-step feeling nervous; sounds of eating and muted conversation from the lit interior. Sounds of piano, too. That gave me courage.

A whispered conversation with the Maître D’ then a small seat near the piano. Another basic instrument, better cared for. A nod from Art but not much else. Focussed on his playing. Diner attention on their meals or companions or conversations. Talking a bit louder when Art played a more energetic passage. I wondered if his frown was concentration or a reaction to the indifference of the audience.

Let’s go to Higgins, they gotta piano man on Friday nights.

Loud isn’t it, in this small space? Don’t worry, I think he’s almost finished. Dessert?

The artist’s life.

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A gift indeed. As was Art’s hospitality.

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OBSTRUCTION

Here, idyll.

Surf in the distance, its soothing pianissimo thunder punctuated by the occasional foreground car.  Ultramarine sky.

But not one idea has done more than hover like a seagull over the shoreline. No stories, insights, flashes of inspiration. A brain made drowsy by a surfeit of summer. Or other things.

I’m a nighttime person, generally. Not that I sleep in. Middle-aged aches and a querulous bladder argue against bedly indulgence. So often the time after the boy and his mum head bedwards is when I imagine writing. Thinking fuzzied by the mealtime libation, ideas fogged by alcohol and the muddy lethargy that comes from watching summer sport on TV. An evening person, perhaps, but self-sabotage arises locally—a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Australian Open tennis evening sessions.

Lack of discipline is the most common get-out clause for writers trapped in a low orbit. As I trek through Irvin Yalom’s recently released memoir—a hero, I hate him—and read about his ‘mornings writing and afternoons exploring’ (Bali, Seychelles, Paris, Lake Como, Holy Homer, what a life) I recognise that under my sneering envy of his privilege lies an uncomfortable truth. I’ve never been willing to claim the keyboard. Really make a commitment and shoulder whatever sacrifice is required. The recent Rearview Mirror series at Vinyl Connection is my first attempt at greater-than-weekly writing in almost five years. Pathetic.

The surge of envy is entirely equal to the slough of self-hatred.

Self-confidence is vital in any endeavour. Somehow the ‘I can’ voice must overcome the stabs of doubt and the whispers of ineffectuality else the child is stillborn. Dead before arrival. Often thoughts and ideas appear on my inner screen like distant fireworks—brief explosions of light and muted cracks, low on the horizon and soon extinguished. Reading how Yalom spends time before sleep pondering and playing with plot and story ideas for the next day’s writing gets me thinking (again) about the ephemeral nature of my own sparks. A proper writer can bottle that lightning and tap it the next day like plugging into a wall socket. It’s not just practice, though that would help (as would a simple way to capture fleeting images). I remember lying outside at midnight in rural Jamieson, many years ago, sharing the rug with a friend as we gazed up at the Milky Way. She always seemed to be looking in the right place to see the meteorite. My sightings were peripheral; by the time my eyes flicked to the silver pencil-trail it was gone.

Yearning to decorate the sky, yet so muddily earthbound.

Brainbound, more accurately.
How to interrogate this process, despite its crushing familiarity.

An idea comes.

A writing idea, ‘cos that’s my thing.

Then something shuts down. Like a clamp, like a blanket. Like the night of an impenetrably empty space. As Piglet put it so eloquently, ‘A great big… Nothing’.

Invoking Pooh’s timorous wee friend is no accident. For all my ability to channel Owl-like pomposity and nihilistic Eeyore pessimism, it is the ever-fearful Piglet who is my enduring talisman.

An aside. I’m recalling the story where Piglet gets a bath—much against his wishes—and is highly uncomfortable until he has escaped and rolled himself in sufficient dirt to recover his familiar grubby persona. That feels a bit like me and therapy, to be honest.

Back to the brain. The shutting down syndrome. It’s a cerebral trauma response, where overload leads to stasis. Nothing revelatory there; the process is one I’ve been working through myself and with clients for decades. (Three ironic cheers for The Wounded Healer!). But we are not veering off into a psychological paper for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not remotely well-read enough on emerging research in neuropsychology to offer anything helpful, and secondly, I don’t want to. Correction: I am not able to. Even this level of disclosure has a part of me quivering with terror.

What’s to be done? Is this brain plaque capable of being dissolved by therapy and (or?) other healing processes?

Or writing? Around twenty years ago I purchased a book called Journalling For Joy. Ten years ago I took it out of the paper carry-bag. Still haven’t opened it though.

It feels like a race against time. Enough healing to write—really write, according to the desire of my crumpled heart—before the natural and unavoidable ageing process dusts away vocabulary from the mind’s blackboard, leaving only vague smears of regret… that’s the goal, I guess. Avoid regret.

Unless, of course, there’s a future in writing about not writing?

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CHRISTMAS EVE

It’s early on Christmas Eve, just after seven. Still and overcast outside; mild but it will warm up later. Not too much though, the high thirties days are promised for later in the week. This year we get a temperate Christmas.

The house is quiet. Lulled by the low cloud, birds have slept in; their morning chatter drifts through open windows. Inside it’s silent. The boy is still abed and Cal has gone shopping for Christmas supplies. I’m going early, she said, it’ll be nuts by nine o’clock.

Silhouetted against the window is the tree, dark against the grey-blue sky. Even in the semi-dark I can see the drooping fronds. If there was more light I could see the tree’s sagging shoulders and wilted waist.

Cal ordered an Oxfam Christmas tree. It’s well covered with decorations and tinsel, but they don’t hide the desiccated limbs and browning pine needles. The tree arrived on a stinker of a day—a hundred degrees in the old currency—and never recovered. Always striving for perfection, Cal wanted to buy another one and start again but I couldn’t face the dismantle-rebuild, the floor covered with scented hypodermics, so I said no. As each day has passed I’ve felt more mean.

In the afternoons when the summer sun slams through the window she looks sadly at our dying tree but it’s too late to do anything now. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the boy transitioning to adolescence. He’s holding tenaciously onto ‘believing’ and we’re going along because we’re no more ready to surrender the innocence of childhood than he is. A part of me, a hard-nosed bit, wants to announce to all and sundry that this will be the last year of  Santa. Never liked the materialistic old bastard anyway. But I won’t, and even as I write I’m working out how to stop the boy reading this, because he is entitled to his naivety, to his participation in this December ritual. Shit, his Daddy has even played Father Christmas and got paid for it!

Decorating the tree is a Mother and child thing in our house. My contribution is to hang a couple of Christmas LP covers on the wall and a string of lights in the front window.

When I hung the lights this year, there was the usual awkwardness of tangled wires and the nervous tinkle of the glass globes knocking together. As I hooked them around the edge of the frame, they tapped against the glass, a rhythm evoking memories. We used to be on your family Christmas tree, they whisper. A spindly fake pine made magic by the deep, vivid colour of the decorative candlelights. These lights are as old as I am, still intact and still willing to cast their fifties glow into a different suburban street.

When I turned them on this year, they flickered then went dark. I carefully went around the perimeter, pinching the globes into their sockets. After all, they’ve been sitting in an old suitcase in the garage all year. Touching each candle seems a way of re-connecting with them, bringing them to life. When I get to the last globe, a red one (they are the best—deep scarlet with a glowing heart) it breaks into my hand. I’ve squeezed too hard and the glass, a half-century old and more, has fractured. Oh. There’s some anguish in my voice. Cal comes in to check I’m all right.

It’s OK, I say, but there’s a tightness in my throat. She hears it and says nothing. I hold out my hand with the crimson shards. The family Christmas lights, I just broke one. She nods. You OK? I nod back. We’re both thinking of my mother’s death, in April but so long ago. That’s quite all right in one way, but the death of the lights somehow hurts.

I scrabble around in the box, so old it is a collection of bits of cardboard rather than a container, and find a couple of loose globes from another, long defunct set. I screw one into the string and flick the power point. The lights burst into life, except for the odd one. It remains dark, but completes the circuit.

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*

THE LONG FAREWELL

When your child starts school, one of the biggest changes is the use of the refrigerator. Not the inside—the essential foodliness of the contents remains the same—no, I’m referring to the outside.

Where once a clean brushed-aluminium surface gleamed in the morning sunlight, perhaps adorned with a socially aware sticker or a novelty magnet, now sprouts a wilderness of notes, notices, essential phone numbers and lists. It’s like the chaotic desk of a harried admin officer has been flipped to the vertical plane and had a handful of advertising magnets flung willy-nilly at the mess.

When the boy was young, we had a couple of non-matching sets of letters and numbers on the fridge door as an encouragement for him to forever associate words with food. Just joking. They were for play, and for announcing special timelines or events.

“Four weeks to Xmas!”

“Cats for the premiership!”

“8th Birthday party on Saturday!”

The exclamation mark was one of the most used tiles.

As he became a little more sophisticated, sometimes I’d put up a phrase relating to current affairs and see how long it took him to notice the covert communication. In the lead-up to the last election, for instance, I mounted a political message:

“Darth Vader for President”

Usually it took the youngster mere seconds to notice the change on the fridge door, but he’d only comment when he thought the line was worthy of notice. Our fault. We’ve trained him to be a critical consumer of media, even fridge-memes.

Change is constant. Every phase of childhood is more complicated than the previous one; the new version overlays the old so effectively you can sometimes forget what the little fella was like. Browsing old photos or mini-films can mist you up quicker than you can say “The long farewell”.

Because that’s what it is, being a parent. A series of lettings go coupled with moments of holding close. When he’s sick he still needs us for comfort and re-assurance, but other times he’s immersed in a world for which we have no key, no entry pass, no real training. It’s how it should be, and doesn’t change one jot the immense love I feel, but often I notice a twinge of sadness, a stab of pre-emptive grief. Childhood, endless when we traverse it ourselves, passes in a blur of days for a parent—especially when there is you and a single child.

In our home, we are fast approaching the end of Primary School. Six years of elementary education have been completed; the new year will usher in a new adventure. Not sure if we are ready, but the boy is. He is tall and twelve and up for the next challenge. Deep into the endless Wheel of Time fantasy novels, downloading complicated sheet music for Undertale tunes, using language I was grappling with in senior high school. I hope I can keep up.

Yet in the rush of daily routines and weekly cycles, some things stand out.

Recently the lad was unwell. Just a cold, but a nasty one that laid him low for the best part of a week. Mum re-arranged things so someone was at home, offering paracetamol and comfort as required. He lay on the couch and read or watched old DVDs. It’s funny, that. When he’s unwell he reverts to entertainment from long ago, like Thomas the Tank Engine or re-reading Captain Underpants.

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A.A. Milne’s classic books were featured one sick-day. As I departed for work he was well into Winnie-The-Pooh and when I returned around supper time he had just finished The House At Pooh Corner.

I sat next to him on the couch. And after checking on his recovery, I made an observation.

You look a little sad, I said.

He fiddled with the sash on his Star Wars dressing gown and nodded. The books sat next to him on the other side. The same volumes that had entranced and entertained me as a child.

Not quite knowing how to proceed, I waited (a skill still needing considerable practice on my part).

It’s the ending, he said.

Of the books?

Yes, he said. The second one especially. Christopher Robin is leaving. He’s going to school. It doesn’t say exactly, but that’s what’s happening.

There was a very slight quaver in his voice.

It’s a long time since I’ve read The House At Pooh Corner, I said. Maybe I better refresh my memory.

He reached for the book and carefully opened it.

CHAPTER X

IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN AND POOH COME TO AN ENCHANTED PLACE, AND WE LEAVE THEM THERE

The boy sat quietly as I read the chapter, easing a little closer as he detected the occasional sniffle.

Eeyore’s poem provides an eloquent summary.

Christopher Robin is going.

At least I think he is.

Where?

Nobody knows.

But he is going—

I mean he goes

(To rhyme with “knows”)

Do we care?

(To rhyme with “where”)

We do

Very much.

Yes, we care very much.

And when Pooh and Christopher Robin are at The Enchanted Place, and Christopher Robin knights Pooh and Pooh worries about being a bear of little brain and how he’ll live up to being a knight if he doesn’t understand Christopher Robin’s world, and when he wonders if “being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” it was all the boy’s daddy could do to contain his love and grief and overflowing heart. So he reached his arm out for a hug and the boy nestled in and they held each other and who’s to say whether there were tears or who was comforting whom but it felt good.

A few days later I noticed a new message on the fridge door.

Time g0 to

colLge and

make U prouDs!

Eeyore would complain about the grammar, but Pooh would understand.

It’s the long farewell, you see.

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