The Glass Piano

I was inspired to write the following poem while Philip Glass performed an etude from The Complete Piano Etudes, performed as part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival.  In fact, I felt an urge to start a poetry project based on my observations of art and the world outside of myself, as in ekphrasis, to aid my internal compass as I navigate through the hours of my life.  I hope these poems will resonate with you.  The Glass Piano is the first one.

The Glass Piano
by Rebecca Danos

notes in life blur
rhythms in thoughts repeat
rhythms in hours repeat
rhythms in years repeat

until an Accent
a singular note resonates
in breath — steady — regular

and melody rises above
technique — the
Theme
by which we know
the next note
to play

Advertisements

Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions: A Hilarious Glimpse into New York Prep School Admissions

Amy Poeppel’s debut novel, Small Admissions, should not be read while eating or drinking. Because you’ll likely choke as you laugh throughout this hilarious story. As the parental figures say at the end of the book, some people are flat, and some are bubbly. This goes for books too. And Small Admissions definitely fits in the sparkling variety.

Young Wellesley alum Kate Pearson ditches her anthropology graduate school plans to follow her sexy almost-fiancé, Robert, to Paris. Where he promptly dumps her. What follows is her return to her bosom (and meddling) friends and sister in New York City and her subsequent downward spiral spent mostly on the couch in her fifth floor walk-up sublet. She works as a disastrously ill-equipped dog walker, seemingly dragged through her depression as much by the dogs as by her heartbreak. Her drunken evenings and inability to function last until Kate’s sister, Angela, fortuitously meets Henry Bigley, the desperate admissions director at the elite private institution, Hudson Day School. The ensuing novel is a comedic patchwork of interwoven plot lines from multiple character perspectives that all converge beautifully. The novel offers glimpses into the bizarre worlds of New York City admissions, academic culture, unconventional families, close-knit friends, socialites, online dating for friends, and one very charming Parisian playboy.

Small Admissions abounds in laugh-out-loud scenarios, wisdom issuing from unlikely sources, a commentary on contemporary friendships and family, and likeable characters. In fact, the novel is so comedic, I could barely contain myself during many of the scenes. For example, during Kate’s job interview, she rambles at great length about many inappropriate topics – including nudity – in response to Henry Bigley’s prompt, “So tell me about yourself.”

After she lands the job, Kate exemplifies an independent woman who doesn’t need her friends for a makeover (despite their best efforts) but does it herself in keeping with a Wellesley graduate fashion – by doing her homework. In fact, her ascent out of her depression is practically an instructional self-help guide for anyone who might be stagnated in a funk. Kate’s viral energy inspires the reader as she transforms herself from a pajama-wearing depressive on the couch to a young organized professional entering the workforce for her new job. Although she soon discovers she’s overwhelmed, she veers into unknown duties and situations and grows to overcome her impostor syndrome with the support of her boss.

Kate is surrounded by a supportive family and well-meaning friends, but, as a psychiatrist character in the novel brilliantly points out, their efforts to help her as their project might very well result from their own egotism and personalities. Who among us is guiltless from trying to fix someone who might not desire our aid or wish us to meddle in their romantic affairs? Wisdom emanates from such quirky places as the liquor lady (who advises Kate to turn herself into the kind of person her job requires quickly) and her interviewees (with whom she discusses her relationship problems as hypothetical problems for the children to solve). Even the French playboy, Robert, has an uncannily insightful perspective. For example, in one instance he suggests that what we all need is a nice dinner with friends to defuse a tense or difficult situation, a simple, yet likely solution to most problems. And then at another time he says, “Life happens ze way life happens,” echoing not only European laid-back sensibilities but wisdom worthy of a philosopher. Poeppel portrays her characters as so likeable, she even manages to pull off making Robert lovable.

The way Poeppel unfolds the novel by allowing the reader to discover the bread crumbs of the characters and story is an exact demonstration of masterful writing and “showing” and not “telling.” One critique is the narrative was a little disjointed with the multiple character perspective and different plot lines leading me to some confusion in the beginning. However, the novel quickly becomes a page turner, and the narratives meld together in a brilliantly planned storyline. All of the players populating the book stay in character throughout. For example, Kate continually writes wickedly sarcastic notes on the interviewees, mirroring her spunky personality. Kate’s sister Angela seems to be on a mission to transform Kate into who Angela envisions Kate should be. Kate’s friends’ agendas remain true to their characters as well. My only wish for the book was that the characters’ alternate imaginary scenarios and inner fantasy worlds in early chapters continued throughout the novel.

If you need to get out of a reading rut and interact with flawed yet lovable characters who will take you to a world of young New York City professionals or just need some comic relief from a smart, engaging book, I highly recommend Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions. The continual laughs the novel engenders seal the deal for me that we should all have more fun in life and not take everything (or ourselves) so seriously. Reading Small Admissions is definitely one step in that direction.

I think we all need to go to Athens…or have a thirty second dance party with Galliard Syndrome

I’ve been reflecting and reading over some of my writing. It’s heavy. Sometimes it takes me days to recover after writing a chapter of a new project I’m working on. I thought my last two projects were dark. Not like this one.

Life is too short.

I sat on the bus and mentioned to my husband the other day all of my nevers. I’ll probably never read War and Peace or Les Miserables, especially in the original languages. I’ll probably never be fluent in German or French or learn Italian, Russian, or Greek. It was a little sad to think about all the things I’ll never do.

People do say, never say never.

Someone also once told me, as I wrote in a previous blog, that “Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

I just wrote my cousin who is in the band Galliard Syndrome. I told him how sane and happy everyone looks in the music video of Velvet Rings. They’re skipping through Athens with an adorable beagle and drinking beer outdoors. Who can resist the Athens architecture and sapphire-enameled sky? I realize how peculiar this sentiment is. Yet look at the drama around us in the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. Maybe we just need to chillax (as my officemate at McGill would oft tell me, which is really embarrassing and telling since she was an immigrant from the Lebanese war-zone).

Yes, I realize I’m very privileged which is why I’m so at odds with my daily struggles. My husband tells me that my feelings are valid as I’ve encountered nontrivial challenges since birth. But as I wrote my cousin, in the video they really look like they’re living life, really living it. How many of us do this? How many of us just try to survive each day, even if we might be privileged and our problems less blatant?

“Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

Never say never. I got out my Greek course and started to study it. I think maybe we should all go to Greece and have a καφες. Or at the very least spend an evening listening to Galliard Syndrome and have a Grey’s Anatomy thirty second dance party.

And it’s time to write that romcom novel that’s been bouncing around in my mind.

Meditations from Manitoba Opera’s Madama Butterfly

There is nothing like attending a live musical performance. You can sit at home and listen to the music over and over for years, yet do you really hear it? Last night I think I heard Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the first time. Sitting in a theatre, your concentration is entirely on the music, on the performance, stirring and touching you, stimulating a meditation on how the performance connects to you and your life.

The story of Madama Butterfly is simple. Military officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton marries Japanese geisha Butterfly with the preconceived plan of deserting her once he tires of the marriage. And he does. He dissolves his marriage without ceremony or even her notification. He leaves Japan with her under the impression he will return. She patiently awaits his return, and, when he does three years later, it’s with a new wife in tow and the intent of removing their child to the US. Pinkerton betrays his faithful wife. The Manitoba Opera, as well as the singer David Pomeroy who portrayed Pinkerton, encouraged us to boo him after our ovation for his dramatically compelling performance.

The composer, Puccini, weaves the American national anthem into his score to accompany Pinkterton’s appearances. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Star-Spangled Banner, though it accompanied my childhood attending (and even singing in a choir at) sports events in Philadelphia. Although my personal anthem is more aligned with Bruce Springsteen, the melody played in this context moved me. Pinkerton followed the stereotype of the American taking what he wants without regard to others. A parallel occurs in the role of the US president in the film Love Actually (played by Billy Bob Thornton) opposite the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant. We must strive to evade the fate of becoming this stereotype by being faithful and kind to our family and friends, upholding principles, being generous, and not stereotyping others based on their origins.

Too often I find myself just trying to get through another day while searching for the elusive purpose and meaning to this existence I share with others on earth. Often I get cranky, I’ll admit, as I saw on a recent blog post I made, since I work and have worked very hard in my life without any or much compensation. Maybe this is in part how I conform to the stereotype of the culture I was born to. I do feel immensely grateful for everything I have, and I mean everything, including being able to walk and to type right now and for any moment not in some kind of severe discomfort. But perhaps there is still a selfishness to my attitude. Even in just wanting to feel satisfied there is meaning to existence. Because, as I learned from the Gita, it’s not about what we want to do with our life. It’s about pursuing our duty. And not enjoying the fruits of our labour. There is honour in serving our duty. I admit I don’t entirely know the full breadth and depth of my duty, but I have a sense of it. And in serving our duty we have honour.

Madama Butterfly, sung by Hiromi Omura, was a woman of honour. Omura portrayed Butterfly with grace, honesty, authenticity, and honour. Her aria, Un bel di vedremo, was powerful. I saw in Omura’s Butterfly more puissance and strength than fragility, yet it suited the character’s sense of honour. I briefly discussed the opera with a Japanese woman this morning who, like me, also enjoyed Manitoba Opera’s production, this her inaugural experience as a member of an opera audience. I can only hope that in my novels where I portray characters of backgrounds different from my own, with the intent of honouring these cultures I so admire, my readers will respond positively to my treatment, like this woman did to the Manitoba Opera’s portrayal of her culture. I struggle greatly with concerns of accidental cultural appropriation, as opposed to cultural appreciation, so I do my homework, consult with others, and ask their permission. Yet do I succeed in my goal?

With every breath we might aim to follow our duty and to live a life of authenticity and honour. To give to others rather than to follow the stereotype of greed that might plague us from our origins. I remember a piano teacher telling me that music is about giving. Every time we sit at the piano to practice we must give to the music and to the piano, even if no one is listening. I’m learning that music is part of my duty, even if others are more talented than I am or more skilled. Because through the practice of music we develop both as practitioners, as audience members, and as people. It’s the local Winnipeg arts organizations like the Manitoba Opera that give so much to us; they give us high calibre music, an experience, a spectacle even, and a moment of reflection about our place in our communities and the world.

 

 

WSO Concert: Transformative. Enlightening. Redemptive. Awakening

Last night I attended the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert featuring pianist Natasha Paremski, soprano Nathalie Paulin, and conductor Daniel Raiskin.

The concert opened with Nimrod by Edward Elgar in memory of a symphony violist who had passed away.  A yellow rose was placed on the chair where she would have played, and the piece was meant to express with music what words cannot, as she would have desired.  The tribute and moment of silence moved me to tears, as did the music, ethereal and somber, sensitive and sweet.  The violist’s symphonic family expressed their love for her through music and silence, through a rose.

Beethoven’s Overture for The Creatures of Prometheus followed in the program.  The string instruments hummed, reminiscent to me of insect wings.  This piece, new to me, was lively and invigorating.  Despite a comprehensive collection of CD’s at home, I am always delighted by the WSO program which introduces work unknown to me.

Natasha Paremski played the piano in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor next.  The opening bars transported the audience in time to another era.  The orchestra and Paremski conjured Romanticism and Chopin, as the music rang through the auditorium.  Paremski’s performance leaves me at a loss for words, the experience indescribable; Chopin lived through Paremski’s conjuring of his music, his presence palpable.  It captivated.  It enchanted.  It enthralled.  Paremski channelled the very essence of Chopin in a transformative way.

The final piece was Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 Op 36, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” featuring soprano Nathalie Paulin.  The inspiration for the symphony was Gorecki’s experience of witnessing the horrors of Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  The music captured the horrors of the unthinkable as well as the fragile hope and beauty which might be humanity’s only redemption.  Conductor Daniel Raiskin delivered a pre-concert discussion before the symphony.  He conveyed Gorecki’s belief in spiritual beginnings and the human innocence at birth before corruption. Raiskin urged the audience to use the piece as a means of self-reflection and meditation.  He discussed the present situation where people don’t know where to go and keep running and Dostoevsky’s quote about how “beauty will save the world.”  The music was relevant both for the world stage and its players as well as for the individual, for the macrocosm as well as the microcosm.  I think as individuals we are often running as well.  Running away from the inevitable pain of being human and not knowing where to find solace.

Perhaps the answer is in the spirituality and beauty of music, a language more universal and more comprehensible than the feeble words we use to try to capture an emotion.  The night was unexpected.  It transported us not to the moon or to Mars, but to our own spiritual beginnings.  It awakened in us a hope that we, too, might be able to find the music to comfort our wounds, enlighten us, and fill us with the spirituality and meaning without which we might be empty.

Thank you to the WSO and all the performers.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy: A Light Still in the City

Maggie Hope is a special agent for World War II Britain dropped in France in Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy. Her mission is twofold: 1) to unravel the mystery of a potentially compromised fellow agent and 2) to uncover her sister’s whereabouts and to bring her safely home. As I read the book I noted the themes of Sleeping Beauty and clocks, the pressure of time, threading throughout. Danger and threat hover ominously from even the beginning pages, leading the reader on a tense, heightened journey that the word page turner does not do full justice; it is a novel meant to be binge read.

Superficially perhaps the novel is about revealing a double agent, finding a sister, and completing a mission. The novel is really about courage. Most obviously, it’s about the strength and the lengths people will go and what they will sacrifice to fight against those who don’t value religious minorities and the mentally or physically disabled. The courage to fight against fascism and those who don’t value everyone’s right to exist and with equal rights. I championed Maggie and her friends for fighting for their principles and all of those resisting the oppressive, censoring, intolerant, horrific, and truly inhumane Nazi culture. I relished the line in which “Resistance comes in all forms,” referencing how art can be a form of resistance, even the ballet and the colours worn on the dancers’ costumes. Resistance to immoral forces can be subtle or overt, just as strength can be. Very timely motifs.

I enjoyed Maggie’s realistic use of mathematical games, such as reciting the digits of Pi or calculating the Fibonacci sequence to calm herself. Like Maggie, I find math to be comforting, a safe place to go in my mind. For me I use the game 24 to relax. 24 is where you use the four basic operations of arithmetic to form the number twenty-four from four numbers between 1 and 13 (for example, if your numbers are 3,5,7,11 you can take 7 minus 3 to get 4, then take 11 minus 5 to get 6, and then multiply 6 times 4 to get 24; it’s extremely soothing and addictive). I loved how Maggie described the meditative nature of math, how almost prayer-like it is, an experience of divine proportions. Even with math we can quiet our minds to defeat the foes who try to suppress us. In a sense, math can be a form of resistance as a way not to allow others to trample our minds and spirits.

But what I think The Paris Spy is really about is Sleeping Beauty and love. Like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Maggie and her friends wake up to what’s really important, which is love. Again and again through the Maggie Hope series, Maggie and her friends learn the depth of a love of country, love of freedom from fascism and extreme intolerance, love of peace, and a love for the bonds that connect her coterie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Maggie where she wakes up to who she and her sister are meant to be, even if she might despise the moral dilemmas she encounters. In the book, circumstances push her and her friends to their limits which test their characters, and Maggie, in particular, wakes up to the most fundamental meaning of duty and learns where hers lies. I cannot help but be reminded of the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching us to follow our duty, what we are meant to do in our lives. Through the course of The Paris Spy, Maggie learns who are her allies, who are not, and she grows up to witness the horrors of a game which is not as black and white as chess.

There is a line in the book, “Love is what matters.” As I journey through reading the Maggie Hope books, I see that they really form an unconventional epic love story. It’s not the romances that occasionally pepper the books that form the love story, but a more encompassing love, one of true fidelity to friendship and sisterhood and one to the very purity of mathematics that governs our world. As I myself age, I realize how I wish all of life could be as simple as math. I think Maggie must agree with me.

Canada Day 2017: Happy 150th

As a Canadian, I have a number of rights and responsibilities which I could rattle off to you if you wanted. One of them is to work to the best of my ability and to take care of my family as best as I can. My plans for today were to honour these responsibilities by doing work on revising my book and relaxing with a movie and maybe some games with Andrew, my family. But this morning I awoke with more energy (or extra coffee) and decided to clean as well, which feels important in taking care of my family. I seem to do a lot of thinking while I clean.

It was a conscious decision to concentrate more on my career, writing novels, than writing without compensation. Too often in my life I’ve been solicited to do research work or other work without monetary compensation. Would we expect the same of others whose work we consume? So why am I writing this? Writing is isolating, and I find it rewarding to write blogs for feedback and for the feeling that I’m making a contribution, no matter how small it might be. Maybe I promote a novel I love or a musical performance that has transformed me. One of my responsibilities as a Canadian is to volunteer. I think of my pro bono writing as a way of contributing to my country and the arts organizations that I find so critical in a world that can seem bankrupt of valuing beauty, poetry, creativity, and art. How much value do we place on art? Is something’s value only commensurate with how profitable it is? Of course not. Society seems to place importance on financially lucrative pursuits, but there are so many significant entities that come unattached to price tags. Like the invitation my friend extended to coffee when I told him I’ve been down. Or a free concert I recently saw featuring the sensitive soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, and incomparable pianist and maestro, Alexander Mickelthwate. Value is inherent in art that moves us, the music that sustains us, and the books which teach us about other cultures, experiences, and relationships.

I went to Paris in May for a change of scene and to give myself a fresh start and rebirth myself from the stagnant quagmire in which I was mired. It worked for a little after my return, but on occasion I reverted to old ways and old thoughts, old patterns. This process of becoming and growing seems to occur in fits and starts, plateaus, and ascents. An occasional descent. And it’s not without its surprises. It’s a process, continuous like the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than discrete as in something quantized.

I am gradually changing. Emerging from my cocoon and truly understanding who I am and how I wish to contribute not just to Canada but to my family, friends, and beyond. I take each day one day at a time and squeeze in my novel writing or writing research, physics, and music whenever I can, letting it buoy my mood by being immersed in endeavours I find valuable. Everything we do which raises us from the quicksand we can so often revert saves our lives. Writing does this for me and also the feeling as though my writing resonates with others. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an ambivalent relationship with exposing my vulnerabilities and innards through sharing my writing, but somehow I’ve been training myself to do so and feel gratified when I can connect to my audience, that it touches people.

While cleaning, I meditated on how I don’t have a schedule any more. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I try instead to just do whatever I can each day to feel like I’m making my contribution to my work and my family and my family which is Canada. To do the best I can. I don’t take a single day for granted nor a single moment with my loved ones. I’m discovering new friends who reach out to me and offer their friendship which I return with love. I’m discovering there are pockets I haven’t explored yet and still more lessons to learn. This is another reason why I write, to learn from my characters. They all have something to teach me. My aunt always says everything is a learning experience, and it is.

Today is a historic day. I will finish my cleaning quickly and then celebrate at the zoo and a concert a friend invited me to. I’ll watch a movie and work on my novel.

My gift to you is these words. Don’t take a single moment or your loved ones for granted. Find honour in your rights and responsibilities and work every day to do your best to fill your life with meaning and joy and following your principles. Live a life and value the music and poetry that surround you. And when your mind is shrouded by darkness, hold on to the thoughts, memories, people, places, and experiences that can get you through until a beam of light can shine through. Life is short. And perhaps meaningless. So distill meaning from the little things. Even if it’s just improving your immediate surroundings.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: My celebration of Canada Day was even more memorable than I had anticipated.  Instead of going to the zoo, my friends and I stayed after the concert among the politicians gathered for the occasion.  First we proudly sang O Canada as a united group gathered outside all in red and white to be followed by the inspiring words of her Honour the Honourable Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon.  She urged us all to use our voices, a major theme in my fiction.  If memory serves correct, the Honourable Premier Brian Pallister welcomed the diversity which makes Canada Canada.  But what resonated the most was His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to action for all of us to think of three things we can do to contribute to our country this year.  What are you going to do to add to Canada’s story?