16 February 2014

Playing for the Pioneers

I park the car at the entrance to the lot, and Madeleine and I walk up the incline with her fiddle and mandolin teacher, Doug, to a side entrance of the Pioneer’s Home.  We meet up with another musician, Mick, who also will be playing in today’s gig.  The fourth member of the group, Matt, is already inside with his mandolin.  The four of them are set to play an hour show for the elderly residents of the Home.   A full year before Arizona became a state, the Pioneer Home opened in February 1911.  Perched on a hill overlooking the county court house and heart of Prescott, it is a massive red brick building.  It houses a couple hundred old folks who have been residents of the State of Arizona for at least fifty years.

Madeleine is somewhat nervous, but Doug’s easy-going demeanor lowers her stress.  As we enter, Doug says the gig will be more like jamming in someone’s living room than a concert.  He adds that there will likely be a group of people already seated and waiting.  It’s likely the highlight of the day for many of them who are no longer able to go out.

Doug leads us down a hall, past unoccupied rooms, each with a bed, dresser, and window.  It’s somewhat depressing, but the natural light and real wood furniture assuage the institutional effect.  The residents are not confined to their beds or even their rooms.  Eventually we enter a large room with the occasional loveseat and chairs arranged in rows.  The cafeteria is off to one side and is busy and noisy as lunch service ends for the day.  On the opposite side of the room are large windows that look out on the courthouse plaza.  We are high on the hill and there is a sense, even far from the windows, that we’re on the edge of a precipice.  It doesn’t feel frightening, but more like we’re on top of a mountain with nothing blocking the view.

As Doug predicted, there are at least a dozen people already assembled and seated, ready for the concert.  The musicians gather chairs and prepare to play.  The set begins.  Doug announces each song, sometimes sharing some history or lyrics.  It is all very informal and simple and lovely.  The tunes are traditional and the four musicians easily find their rhythm together.

At some point, an ancient-looking man shuffles in during a song and sits next to me.  When the song is over, Doug nods at him and says, “Hello, Ray.” 

Members of the audience regard him and begin to call out, “Ray, where’s your fiddle?” 

He says, breathless, “Well, it’s upstairs.” 

This is no excuse.  “Well, go get it,” they call, one after another.

He says he will, but it’s a bit difficult to tell if he’s pleased that they want him to play or if he’s exasperated at having to make the trek.  He manages to get his stooped body out of the chair and wanders down the hall.

The group begins another tune, and Ray reappears as it ends, fiddle and folding chair in hand.  He manages, eventually, to get the chair set up and he prepares to join in on the next tune.  His hands shake quite a bit as he brings his violin to his chin and he holds his bow in a very unconventional way.  But when he begins to play, his tremor lessens significantly.  They play quite a few more tunes together, some that Madeleine knows and others she doesn’t.  But she’s poised and comfortable there on the makeshift stage.  During “West Virginia Waltz” one couple gets up and dances around the room.  Eighty years separate Madeleine from Ray, yet while they play, those years make no difference at all.  

When the concert’s over, several of the old ladies fawn over Madeleine.  They want to hold her hand and compliment her.  She beams, glowing in their appreciation.  One asks for a hug and she obliges.  Others call to her, urging her to never stop playing.  I think of the many proverbs across cultures about honoring the elderly.  By the time she reaches me, she is grinning and full of pride.

“I want to do this again,” she says.  “Old people are so cute.” 

Once again my shy, introverted daughter has found her voice in music, bringing light and joy and memory into these lives.  I think of how blessed I am to have two musicians living in my home, and that both of my daughters have found such good matches with their teachers, who seem to challenge and encourage them in such a balanced way.  As Plato said, music is the soul of the universe.

02 February 2014


The forest is dark, dank, humus-perfumed. 
Each footfall cushioned by the spongy floor of
needles-becoming-soil that betrays no clear
path.  You lift your foot and the print is swallowed
up, concealed.  You may as well be traversing
a bog or a swamp.  Has the name of your
destination escaped you, ingested by your
wandering thoughts?  Are you scurrying
from the oven? What happened to Gretel?  Birds
chatter and sing, in greys and browns they
blend into the dark canopy overhead.  You
cannot see them, but they must be there,
like the path you despair to follow, right?
In your pocket, not breadcrumbs, but a stale,
oaty granola bar.  Too hard to bite, too stiff
to break, small chunks rub off, burnishing
the bar that you dare not eat.  Not yet, anyway.
On the log where you pause, gauging
your progress, red ants commute back
and forth, with their miniature groceries, bags
of take-out sally forth, insect provisions,
each with more prudence than you possess.

How is it we decide we are lost?

Slowly, with piercing questions of identity and
self-flagellation, perhaps.  Why
pay attention now, when before you were too
caught up in the intricacies of moss,
say, or hunting for chanterelles.  (Do you
realize what they’re worth?)  Gingerly,
stupidly, you begin to leave your trace, those
crumbs from your pocket.  What is it
you are marking?  Already been down this
path?  You persist, remembering a gripping
story about one who didn’t give up, in whose
tale, the hero was played by that young
what’s-his-name with his forty-eight
hour shadow of a beard.  Later, when you
stumble upon your own breadcrumbs again,
you realize, ah, yes, it’s not a fairy tale, but
some kind of sick joke:  that’s how you’ve
been typecast.  Bumbling, anxious, searching
for grace, you stew, how will this end? 
Would you recognize the hero of your own story?