Reflections after a Week of Being Seventy

by L. DavisIt’s my belief that most seventy-year-olds in good health do not consider themselves old. I add the caveat “in good health” only because I have learned, at least for me, that even a day of the stomach flu can make me feel as if I’m on my “last legs.”

I just missed qualifying as a member of the baby-boomer generation, which has made common such statements as “50 is the new 40” and so on. But I believe that there have always been hale, generally hearty seventy-year-olds who do not feel old—at least most of the time.

Indeed, I hunt out such examples wherever I can find them, for I have very few in my personal experience. For me, nothing is as convincing as a good example. All sorts of marvelous things, it is said, move into the realm of possibility if one has seen it done even once.

That’s why such articles as “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” by  Abby Ellin from the Personal Business section of last Saturday’s NYT draw me in. She gives many examples of her premise that “many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.”

She quotes Karl A. Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Cornell University, who found, after interviewing 1500 people age 70 and older, “that a large number. . .said they had achieved a life dream or embarked on a worthwhile endeavor after age 65. ‘There was this feeling of somehow “getting it right” at 50 or 60 or older,’ he said, noting that this sentiment applies to creative efforts, relationships, and work.”

I agree, and am ever grateful to an old friend who, when I was in my 50s and thinking of starting formal piano lessons again, said, “Don’t wait too long.” He gave me that push that sent me on my way.

I also appreciate Pillemer’s connections among creativity, emotional relationships, and spirituality. There seems to be an experimental, unrushed openness that comes in later life--as well as a willingness to surrender absolutes of all kinds—that can free all aspects of life.

David W. Galenson, in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, (2007) speaks of the difference between conceptual and experimental minds. “Conceptual minds tend to be younger and typically better with abstractions. Experimental minds, on the other hand, take longer to gestate, working by trial and error.”

Seymour Bernstein’s memoir, Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music (2002)—see my previous post --narrates his finding his main passion in life—teaching, NOT being a professional musician—when he was in his 50s. He says, “Ask career-minded students what their goals are in their study of music and you receive responses such as ‘I want to win a big contest!’ or ‘I want to perform with a major symphony orchestra!’ or ‘I want to concertize all over the world!’ Rarely do I hear from such students what almost all amateur musicians would say—that they study music for the sheer love of it.”

I taught my first English class when I was 23, and so I have been teaching for a rather long time. Last weekend I completed my first two weeks of part-time teaching for two classes of returning adult students at Marquette University, something I’ve been doing since I “retired” in 2007. I greatly enjoy teaching returning adult students, largely for the reasons Ellin outlines in her article above. The concept of Success shifts meaning as we grow older, and it often takes time to discover our personal, unique definition. Almost always, when students return to school after “stopping out” for awhile,  they have a better sense of what matters most to them than they did in their youth.

I know I do, and I’m still learning about it.





On the Other Hand....

Although I leave many of my lessons happy and inspired, as I described in my last post, there are also those times when I leave thinking, “What am I thinking? I can’t do this! There are so many people who can play these pieces better than I. What is the point? “

But before I whine too long in my corner, the piano beckons and I am off again. There are no such thoughts when I am actually practicing.


Two amazing people have come to my attention this week, and I would like to offer a window into their worlds.  Seymour Bernstein, 87-year-old pianist, composer, teacher, and philosopher, is featured in a film that opened on March13th (though not, to my knowledge, yet in Milwaukee)—a documentary by Ethan Hawke called “Seymour: An Introduction.”  The link is to a trailer for the movie; if you are intrigued, I urge you to look at the longer interview with both Hawke and Bernstein about the making of the film.

Manohla Dargis, in his review of the film, “In Music, as in Life, the Lesson Is Perseverance,” says,  “Among the lessons, musical and otherwise, that Mr. Bernstein offers is that surrender isn’t an option. ‘The struggle is what makes the art form,’ he says. ‘I had to go to war for my art form.’ . . . What Mr. Bernstein reveals through both the example of his life and the many recollections and conversations threaded throughout this documentary, is that struggle—long, brutal, enervating, interminable-must have its due. That this is as much a movie about life as about art is clear from the first few minutes, as is the sense that the terms are inseparable for him.”


The other amazing person of whom I was made aware through the gift of her book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations is Zhu Xiao-Mei. She says in an interview accompanying the liner notes for her 2014 cd The Art of the Fugue,  “'The Art of Fugue' is a work that’s sometimes discouraging to practice. It’s very difficult in terms of notes. The sustained notes are tricky for pianists like me who don’t have big hands….I’ve never suffered so much when practicing a work. And when I say suffered, I’m also talking about physical suffering: I was sore all over, sore hands, sore shoulders.” So what makes you do it? asks the interviewer: “There’s a paradox with this work. To practice it causes you cruel sufferings, but to perform it give you the impression of entering a state of perfect balance. And as you know, for the Chinese, the search for balance—of thought, of the body, of life—is the ultimate goal.”

But then there’s that self-doubt. Both Bernstein and Zhu faced in childhood immense struggles for their music. Bernstein’s musical interests were apparently not supported by his entire family. In fact, Dargis says, “his father said he had two daughters and a pianist…. Bernstein played at the front in the Korean War and in concert halls afterward, winning praise and admirers, only to give up his public career [for teaching] when he was 50.”

Even more dramatically, Zhu spent five years in a work camp in Mongolia as the Cultural Revolution closed all art schools and sent artists away for “re-education.” As a teenager, Zhu struggled with the brainwashing strategies of the Communist party, which turned family member against family member and friend against friend. Since then, she has struggled greatly to reclaim enough self-confidence to play. As she says in her book, “Success in itself is nothing. Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead—mastering yourself.”

Both Bernstein and Zhu insist on the close connection between music and life. Zhu says in her book, “After everything I have experienced, I cannot take an intellectual approach to music. When I play, I try to speak to people, to tell them something, to show them the beauty of a work, to move them. Having an audience is crucial for me. Some of my fellow artists assert that they play for themselves rather than for an audience. I take the exact opposite approach: my goal is to share with others.

“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”

I have no such great ambition as Zhu or Bernstein.  Anxiety has always threatened my playing, as well as other important elements of my life.  And yet I hope, at my recital on June 6, to give back, in some small way, the gift of music that has been given to me. Zhu closes her book with this: “At night I question myself, I am afraid of others, of myself. I have an acute awareness of my impotence, my inability to achieve perfection. But in the morning, I know that it is still there, in the next room, waiting for me. It always keeps its promise of fulfillment. My piano.”

So, on this, my 70th birthday, I raise my glass to all piansts who struggle—indeed, to all who struggle with anything-- as well as to the rather fierce-looking seven-year-old child I was when I began lessons. Here’s to you, kid! You have an amazing ride ahead of you! And I'll be with you every step of the way!



Re-Runs, Re-Reading, and Making Room for Change

Time seems to be flying by. This is good in that spring is only two weeks away; not so good when one is preparing for an audition/recital.

It usually seems to me that things are going well, but then there is the reality check of a weekly lesson. I am always grateful for that, however; the polishing and honing of work already on its way is the part of the process that I enjoy the most, whether it’s practicing a piece or revising a poem. I love how the things I haven’t noticed before gradually step up to the front, seeking attention and possible redress (in the old sense of “putting to rights”).

I guess that’s true of relationships as well—both present and past.  I suppose it’s “normal” to proceed in life assuming that the people around you are staying just the same as always, unless something that we usually consider unfortunate comes about, demanding our attention. It’s probably true that the essence of a person never really changes; however, it also seems true that different aspects or facets of who they are come into play at different points in their lives. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of the changes in everyone around us, not to mention in ourselves.

After listening to my stumbling through the “prestissimo” movement of the Beethoven Sonata, Stefanie pointed out (kindly)—not just the errors, which were the least of it—but the missed opportunities for emphasis and interpretation—phrases and other structural points that had been, quite literally, outside of my awareness.  This is what I love about the work such lessons entail—the opportunity to expand your awareness about something which you thought you had nailed. I guess it is unsettling at first, but the opportunity it provides for new complexity and richness outweighs, usually, for me, the sense of being disconcerted.

It keeps things alive, fresh.  And reminds us that there is usually more to anything than the snapshot we have taken of it at any particular time. But we can become attached to those snapshots, those “stories.”

I watched “Roman Holiday” again last night—because it happened to be on and Steve was watching it. I rarely re-watch movies or re-read books (except for books of poetry). As Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate, writes in today’s NYT’s Bookends, “there’s such an infinite wealth of new titles to discover that slipping back into that well-worn groove of already experienced pleasure can feel like simple regression.”  But she does make some exceptions for those few books that dare her “past self to find new evidence for that old love.”

It’s a cliché that you cannot step into the same river even once, but watching the young Audrey Hepburn change from girl to woman in that enchanting story from 1953 brought me to tears in ways it never had before. She looked so much like what my 16-year-old sister was trying to look like during that time: the shorn hair that was so much in style in the early 50s, the scarf lightly knotted around the neck. It sent me back to photos of her at that time which, enlarged, showed me aspects of her that I had never noticed before: how much she looked like my mother, for instance, as well as the expression I would have found annoying had she been my daughter!

Sharp segue, but I hope you stay with me: another NYT article from Friday, “Astronomers Watch a Supernova and See Reruns” describes a process still only faintly understandable to me despite the journalist’s, Dennis Overbye’s, admirable attempts. Basically, he writes, "astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope say they have been watching the same star blow itself to smithereens in a supernova explosion over and over again, thanks to a trick of Einsteinian optics.”

planetfacts.org“The star exploded more than nine billion years ago on the other side of the universe, too far for even the Hubble to see without special help from the cosmos. In this case, however, light rays from the star have been bent and magnified by the gravity of an intervening cluster of galaxies so that multiple images of it appear.” These images have been seen in 1964, 1995, 2014, and are predicted to be seen again in 2015-2020.

As enamored as I am of the metaphorical possibilities of both quantum and astro physics, it seems clear that our “everyday reality” is not adequately described by the weirdness of the very small or the very large. NEVERTHELESS, the metaphors continue to compel many writers and poets. My poem “Baubo Ponders Questions of Quantum Physics” appears in two of my chapbooks: Ties that Bind and Avatars of Baubo, and was in part inspired by the 1978 book by Robert H. March called Physics for Poets.

Here are two more that I just happened to read again, more or less at random: Ruth Stone’s “The Illusion” from In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon, 2002), and Mary Jo Salter’s “Nora” from Nothing by Design (Knopf, 2013):


The Illusion


I am not genes and the genes are not me.

We are identical twins, separated at birth.

This is my sinew. This is my fertile ovary.

What is worth the universe is also worth me.


I am not me. I am the genes. The double helix.

My future is spelled out. Tool of the universe:

pricks, cunts, genuflections; the orgasm’s curse,

brief span, holy thou: I am the neutron fix.


I am the hole, the dark other, the negative between

I was and I am. Wherefore yes, dense and disperse,

blinded visionary that locks the moon in place;

I am the simple sieve that drinks the universe.




Even in death your radiance follows me.

Or leads me. You’re ahead of me on the sidewalk,

pushing your baby’s pram as I push mine,

and you swing your head to greet someone driving by,

your sheet of black hair the shiniest anyone

has ever seen; you don’t even understand

that nobody in her thirties shines that much,


nobody laughs so musically at jokes

that are not that funny. Whatever it was I said

twenty years ago, whatever anyone said

no longer is heard, or can be, the way you took it

because you’re not here to beam it back, to turn it

funny or beautiful—even the saddest things

you somehow made useful to us who were sad


with those infinite eyes of yours, looking right at us,

that Oh that was all acceptance. Even in death

that swept down upon you, death that locked you shut

and the No that is locked inside your name now, Nora,

I see the Ra for sun god, too, which is silly,

but you’d understand; I take it for your radiance

that even now in the darkness follows me.


And I have the following quotation from Lee Smith's novel Oral History taped above my desk: "Nothing is ever over, nothing is ever ended, and worlds open up within the world we know."

So Mote it Be.






“Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

This week we saw ISIL smashing centuries-old art because the irreplaceable statues were actually “idols” made by the godless.

This week our state governer has cut funding for the arts to the bone while saying that he can “handle” ISIS, given his experience with those (teachers and firefighters, mainly) who have opposed him in recent times.

During such times (and there have always been such times), there is, for many, a temptation to question the value of making art. What does it matter?

However, this week’s news has also brought us articles confirming the value of the arts: “A Refuge of Beauty in Gaza” in which the artist Nidaa Badwan has created a small universe of art in her small home, “seeking a refuge from Gaza’s restrictive religious atmosphere.”

And Pat, from Colorado, calls attention to this week’s NYT’s “Modern Love” column, in which writer Betsy MacWhinney recalls a time when she used any means possible to solace her teenage daughter’s depression over the state of the world.  Fresh out of ideas, she ”started leaving poems in her [daughter’s] shoes in the morning. [Her daughter] had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest [she stopped wearing shoes completely when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004], so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well.

“What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe, the same shoe you didn’t wear for four months because of your despair.

“Before she went to school in the morning, I wanted her to read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver that talks about not having to be good and not having to walk on your knees for miles, repenting. As Ms. Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Or this, from Mr. Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

I would also recommend Jorie Graham’s "The Violinist in the Window-1918"—after Matisse—in her book Sea Change (2008)--first published in Poetry, March 2008:

"The Violinist at the Window--1918"--Matisse


Well, maybe all that wouldn't fit in a shoe. But worth reading, anyway.

You can't tell a teenager this, but sometimes we take our pain/our vision too seriously, and in so doing cut off the existence of possibility—that indefinable essence from which, after all, art springs.  One of the blessings of having lived to nearly 70 years of age is that one has seen the impossible happen, more than once. Things CAN get better, and usually DO, although if one measures progress by what happens on any one day (or month or year or even decade), progress is not always visible. I take heart from the Taoist belief that, if left alone, evil will wither: that it takes its energy mainly from those who fear it and fight it. It is my belief that the restrictive beliefs behind ISIL will eventually be its own downfall, although those who do not “fight back” are often criticzed for condoning evil. The temptation to put “boots on the ground”  instead of reacting with hope and compassion and the expansion of human rights. On Feb. 19, as cited on CNN, “ President Barack Obama called for a global effort to combat violent extremism and urged countries around the world to address the root causes that fuel groups like ISIS and al Qaeda….Obama urged countries to ‘break the cycles of conflict, especially sectarian conflict’ and called on governments to ‘address the grievances that terrorists exploit,’ both political and economic.” He went on to say,

"The link is undeniable. When people are oppressed and human rights are denied -- particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines -- when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”

Thanks to my newly-appointed recital page-turner, Mark, who, this week,  reintroduced me to Victor Borge (1909-2000), child prodigy at the piano,  a Danish Jew who, because he was playing a concert in Sweden, was able to escape Hitler-occupied Denmark by traveling to Finland and then to America, where he eventually became a citizen.  In the following YouTube video, Borge is having fun with his page-turner, showing us that, even though making art is a serious thing, it is never so serious that one cannot poke a bit of fun at it—a good lesson for me this week. Thank you Mark. And thanks, Victor.




Playing with Cursive

As I understand it,  the word “blog” is short for web log.  Other kinds of logs, or journals, have, of course, been written for years before there was the Internet. I myself have kept a journal—off and on—since I was in my teens. More private than the public blog, the journal has been a place where I could explore what was happening in my life and reflect on its meaning. It has been, and remains, a great comfort.

My first journal ca. 1961

I have been reading one of my favorite authors’, Gail Godwin’s, new “writer’s memoir” about her publishing life, called, perhaps somewhat predictably, Publishing.  In part of it, she reflects on how her methods and attitudes toward her writing have changed in her mid-seventies.  For one thing, she found herself writing Flora (her most recent novel—2013) by hand, after having used only a typewriter or computer for all of her previous work. Why?  Aside from the sensuousness of cursive writing, she says, “Covering the lines [of her notebook] with black, slanted letters wet from the pen connected me with the flow of my whole life.”  Yes.  I would add that, for years, I wrote my journals only in pencil, wanting to be sure that I could erase and change what I had written. I rarely did, but having that option, even when there was no reader but myself, felt right.  And I loved the smell and feel of a sharpened #2 pencil—the pre-sharpened Ticonderogas remaining my favorites.  Yes, on a computer, one may more quickly “revise” a page, but the previous version is usually lost, whereas crossings-out and erasures leave behind a few faint hints about its evolution.

I have been told that cursive writing is no longer taught in the schools, for the assumed reason that people today write only on computers and will continue to do so. It would be interesting to study whether the content of writing changes, depending upon whether or not it is hand-written or typed. My guess is that it does, if for no other reason than it takes more time (and thought?) to write out a sentence by hand than it does to type it (assuming you can type at least 50 wpm—the goal of my high school typing class).  Writing something out by hand grounds it in a way that the “qwerty” keyboard can never do. 

Neuroscience tends to agree:  In an article by Brian Braiker of World News, according to associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger's Reading Centre, “those who learn to write by hand learn better.

“Mangen points to an experiment involving two groups of adults in which participants were taught a new, foreign alphabet. One group learned the characters by hand, the other learned only to recognize them on a screen and with a keyboard.

“Weeks after the experiment, the group that learned the letters by hand consistently scored better on recognition tests than those who learned with a keyboard. Brain scans of the hands-on group also showed greater activity in the part of the brain that controls language comprehension, motor-related processes and speech-associated gestures. “

Those parts of the brain also have to do with visual art. And art is a form of play.

There seems to be more “play” in the way hand-written, cursive letters are formed. Even though the computer allows us to choose from dozens of “fonts,” none will ever match the idiosyncracy of one's own handwriting on any particular day, which can speak volumes about one’s state of mind. They used to say that one’s personality revealed itself in one’s handwriting: e.g. whether the loops were high or low, whether the letters were spaced out or clumped closely together, etc.

The idea of “play” appeals.  Godwin quotes Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, who said, “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”  Of course, “progress” never falls so neatly or chronologically into those four categories; and if one hasn’t learned to “play” before the age of 70, it’s likely not to happen at all.

In fact, “play” to me connotes a kind of looseness that I associate with youth.  For instance, because of age and injury, my left shoulder has lost its “play” and I am now involved in a rather labored attempt to regain at least some “play” in that tight shoulder so that I can more easily “play” the piano.

But I think Casals (and Godwin) are correct when they suggest that age (like childhood) provides an opportunity to “play”—in many ways--without worrying too much about the consequences. Whenever Godwin still finds herself too caught up in what the world thinks of her work, she recalls a classmate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 who was criticized by her classmates for going “too far” with experimental writing.  Godwin has never forgotten her reply, which was simply, “So? What do I risk? Obscurity?”


According to my old Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, “obscure” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning to “shield” or to “cover.”   Sometimes “risks” have to be taken in obscurity,  without public scrutiny. And so, despite this “blog,” I still sometimes take my college-ruled notebook, go sit in my favorite restaurant, and risk seeing what unfolds when I take the time to put pen to paper.