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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Lena’s Lessons

February 25, 2022
violin

Lena’s early years were dominated by minimal parental supervision and her weekly violin lessons. Because of that, her performance on the temperamental and difficult instrument far surpassed her performance on the stage of daily human interaction with teachers and classmates or casual encounters as she walked between her high-rise apartment and the world at large. She had always been willful, stubborn, if she was being honest, believing from a very early age that the world was on standby, if not created solely, to provide her with everything she wanted and felt she deserved. Her parents, both successful professionals, had wanted children and had chosen her name to reflect what they hoped their child would become: generous and kind. They’d had a name for a potential second child picked out but once Lena had arrived and they came to fully understand what parenthood meant, experiencing the demands on their time that raising a child required, they decided that an only child was all they could manage. Even then, their busy schedules left Lena to her own devices more often than not. They rationalized this to themselves and their friends by saying their parenting style fostered Lena’s independence. Lena accepted the lack of structure because she knew no other reality. As a younger child, she’d see her parents in the morning before school and at dinner, occasionally, if their work schedules permitted, and a half hour or more after her homework had been completed right before her bedtime. Weekends were filled with day trips and educational as well as “just for fun” activities, leaving her parents satisfied that they were doing a good job in raising her.

Her violin lessons had been a part of her life from the time she was six years old until now, as a sixteen year old, when she was beginning to feel the music in a different way. She felt it more vividly, more intensely and more emotionally than she had in prior years, as if blossoming into the early stages of adulthood had opened an unsuspected portal of endless musical possibilities.

As her musical accomplishments grew and made her parents beam in pride at her skill, her behavior in social situations brought knitted brows and frowns, frustrated shaking heads and, on more than one occasion, bewildered tears from her mother. Lena had developed a sharp, hurtful tongue and a nose for vulnerabilities. She never hesitated to unleash her venom on anyone unlucky enough to stand in the way of what she wanted. Her strikes were lightning swift and left the victim deeply wounded and reluctant to confront the innocent looking young woman again.

Lena took pride in this less than admirable quality, enjoying the power her reputation as the queen of biting sarcasm and insults, marking her as a person to be feared rather than liked or respected. Nevertheless, fear was such a strong motivator that she usually got what she wanted and ruled unchallenged over her classmates and acquaintances, not really able to consider any of them friends.

That was the pattern until “New Girl” arrived during the summer after Lena had turned sixteen. Lena always referred to her as “New Girl,” never deigning to call her by her name,  disparaging her by asking her loyal coterie “Did you get a look at what New Girl was wearing yesterday? Good Lord! You’d think her mother would at least buy her a copy of Elle or Cosmo so she’d stop looking like the before picture of a makeover.” Of course,  they all laughed and agreed, nervously wondering if their wardrobe choices measured up or if they, too, could be mocked, grateful they were safe, for the moment,  from Lena’s scorn.

“New Girl’s” name was Eileen, a fact that Lena hated because she felt, irrationally, that it infringed on her own name in some way and therefore cast an unwelcome shadow on her identity. Eileen was quietly attractive, polite, studious and introverted, spending her after school hours in a corner of the library, content in her solitude. During lunch hour, she sat alone, her books open as she ate an apple or a pear or an occasional orange, napkin in hand, not to mar the page she was reading or the assignment she was working on.

Lena wasn’t sure what bothered her more about Eileen, whether it was her serene complacency or the fact that she made no effort to seek inclusion in Lena’s circle, thereby depriving Lena of the pleasure of rejecting her and crushing her hopes of acceptance into the social hierarchy over which Lena reigned supreme. That Eileen seemed not to care a whit about Lena and her entourage was puzzling. Why wouldn’t a new girl be interested in making friends, even if Lena would insure that friendships would never form and Eileen would be forced to seek friends among the other girls Lena had already banished to the purgatory of the rejected.

Because Eileen was the new girl and such a solitary figure, no one knew very much about her. Where did she come from? Where did she live? Who were her parents? Was she an only child? No one had any answers to those questions, so, inevitably, speculation gave rise to outrageous stories, chronicling Eileen’s history, tales lacking only a fairy godmother and a wicked witch. She was the daughter of a Mafia informant and was in the witness protection program. She was the sole heiress to a massive family fortune and was being educated in their small town to escape fortune hunters and kidnappers. She was the sole survivor of a horrible fire in which she lost everything and was heroically struggling to make it on her own.  None of it was true but if Eileen had heard any of these theories,  she chose not to address or correct them. Instead, she continued to go quietly about the business of getting an education.

Lena’s frustration grew with every day that Eileen remained aloof, not reacting to Lena’s taunting label of “New Girl” that she couldn’t help overhearing. The final straw seemed to come when Lena walked into the orchestra room and discovered Eileen, violin tucked under her chin, drawing her bow across the strings to create a hauntingly beautiful sound. The notes were so true and effortless that they stopped Lena in her tracks, finding the place in her heart that recognized beauty and, against her will, she found herself closing her eyes and letting the music carry her to a place of joyful surrender. She recognized the piece immediately as one of her favorites. It was the aching beauty of “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs, a piece that never failed to move her. It was a demanding piece, written for a demanding instrument that had been the bane of many who tried to tame it, whose frustration grew when they were unable to coax the notes from the vibrating strings. Some few, however, like Lena herself and Eileen, could elicit the most beautiful clarity. Lena watched as Eileen positioned her fingers across the frets and angled the bow against the strings, moving her upper body in an elegant, intimate duet with the instrument nestled under her chin. When Eileen had let the last note fade and dropped her bow arm and removed the violin from under her chin, she noticed Lena. She gave Lena a timid smile and said, “Hi. I was just practicing. Do you play in the orchestra?”

“I do,” said Lena, “Violin, like you.”

Eileen’s smile brightened. “That’s great! Most people are intimidated by it but if you play,  it means you’re fearless.”  Extending her bow d violin toward Lena, she said “I’d love to hear you play. Would you?”

Lena was momentarily caught off balance, flattered by the invitation, but then she reverted to Lena vs New Girl mode. “Not today. I just came by to pick up the music for my solo and then I’m meeting some friends.”

Eileen’s smile dimmed as she nodded her understanding and opened her case to carefully lay the violin inside. “Maybe another time,” she said, without looking up as Lena scooped up the pages of her sheet music and turned to go. “Maybe,” she tossed over her shoulder as she left, although her tone made it clear that finding another time would be as likely as finding Leprechaun gold after the next storm. Still, as she left, she could hear the music that Eileen had created echo in her head and wondered which of the two emotions she was feeling was stronger: envy or admiration.

Normally, Lena would seek to crush any rival in any corner of her world; yet, the simple, pure openness of the girl who produced such a glorious sound from the violin left Lena at war with herself, not a position she had ever encountered before. Because of that, her mood was sour when she met up with her friends and she took little interest in their conversation, the haunting melody of Eileen’s violin swirling in her mind, a musical backdrop at odds with the insipid chattering of high pitched female voices. The result was a cacophonous dissonance that gave her a headache. And it didn’t stop there. As the weeks unfolded, she found herself less and less interested in spending time with the girls as more and more of her time was in the orchestra practice rooms, working on the Sibelius violin concerto. In fact, the only refuge from her emotional crisis was the time she spent with her violin. Her teacher noticed her more serious approach to her lessons.  Whereas before she had demonstrated skill, almost a natural affinity for the violin, now she was more focused and more disciplined, listening to corrections with earnestness instead of eye rolling, eager to replay a section with better phrasing and actually smiled when she knew she’d captured an elusive note perfectly.

“I’m really impressed by Lena’s attitude and progress,” her teacher told her mother after one of their sessions. “She’s taking her lessons much more seriously and she must be practicing more, no?”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Lena’s mother.  “Instead of watching TV or talking on her phone,  she takes out her violin and fills the house with music. I couldn’t be happier.  Not only for the music, which is really beautiful, but because it seems to make her happy and when she’s happy, she’s less, oh, you know.” Her mother gave what was recognizable as an embarrassing admission of Lena’s sharp edges.

“She’s definitely making a place in her life for her violin. It’s becoming part of her and I hear it in the notes and see it in the way she moves her body as she plays. She’s making her violin an extension of herself rather than a separate or foreign thing. That’s an encouraging sign.”

Over dinner that evening, Lena’s mother related the conversation to Lena’s father and Lena found herself happy to bask in her teacher’s praise and her parents’ approval as her father winked at her and said, “So we didn’t waste our money after all,” before raising his wine glass in a toast.

“Daddy,” she said “I’ve been thinking…about next year…and I know I said I wanted a gap year before making any life plans but…now…I’ve been thinking that I might want to do something now…with my music.”

Her parents exchanged a look that suggested that they weren’t quite sure what they were hearing since Lena had scowled and rolled her eyes and sighed with boredom every time they tried to bring up the subject of Lena making plans for the future. Her father nodded his head. “Sure. That’s something we can look into. Were you thinking a summer music camp or a music school for next year or”

Lena interrupted,  suddenly afraid that if she didn’t say what was on her mind immediately, she might never say it.

“Juilliard. I’m thinking Juilliard.”

And there it was, suddenly taking on shape as more than a random thought that was a possibility, but now a pathway, devoid of petty adolescent concerns and paved with soaring notes in major and minor keys joining together to lead her to the place she realized she belonged. Her father smiled. “Then let’s make it happen.”

That was the first of a series of surprises Lena’s family and friends experienced. At school,  instead of the Sibelius solo, the orchestra director told Lena he had something else planned. He’d decided to have Lena and Eileen, his two most talented students, perform a duet for NYSMA, he told them. He handed them the sheet music for Sonata in G minor, Opus 2, Number 8, First and Second Movements. “You’ve got the talent to pull this off, but you’re going to have to work really hard because,” he said peering at them over his glasses, “a duet is much harder than a solo. You have to be completely in tune with one another and that will mean lots and lots of practice. Are you up to it?” He ll looked from one girl to the other but they were looking only at one another. Eileen’s face held a hopeful question and Lena’s was a firm yes. Lena answered for both of them. “You bet we are. We can do it, right Eileen?”

Smiling in gratitude, Eileen turned to the director. “We sure can. When do we start?”

From that day on, Lena’s entire focus was on the duet. She and Eileen practiced as often as they could and spent whatever free time they had without their violins going over the sheet music or listening to other performers interpreting the piece. The more time they spent together, the more Lena came to appreciate the depth of the person she no longer thought of as New Girl but began to think of her as kindred spirit and friend. Eileen understood, as none of her previous friends had, the world that music opened for her. Eventually, Lena felt comfortable enough to finally share her plans to audition for Juilliard. Eileen clapped her hands excitedly, telling Lena she’d “most definitely” be accepted and asked which pieces she would play for her audition. “Definitely the Sibelius. I’ve been working on that for a while. Then I’m trying to decide between the Mozart Violin Sonata 18 in G Major and the Bach Sonata #2 in A Minor.”

Eileen’s judgment was swift. “You’ve got to play the Bach. It’s sophisticated enough to showcase your talent. Yes. I like the Bach.”

“Then Bach it is.”

The night of the Winter Concert was fast approaching and the pair would perform their NYSMA duet as a dry run for spring. Lena had sent off her audition tape and was waiting for a decision, maybe an invitation to perform in person. She asked Eileen what her plans for the following year were and whether she’d consider applying to Juilliard, too. Eileen managed a weak smile. “Oh, I don’t know about that. It would be wonderful but…I guess I’ll go wherever my family takes me. And wherever that turns out to be, I’m sure they’ll be opportunities but it’s just too soon to know. I’m just going to have to go with the flow, as they say.” Eileen tried to sound nonchalant but Lena could hear the sadness in her voice. As Lena began to speak,  wanting to ask questions, Eileen said “Please don’t ask. Let’s just live in the moment, enjoy performing and our chance to make the audience experience the beauty the music  creates, okay?”

Realizing that Eileen was trusting her to act like a real friend would, respecting her desire for privacy, Lena nodded. “Sure. We can do that.”  Years later, Lena would remember this conversation as a turning point in her life. She had put someone else’s wishes above her own.

The night of the Winter Concert was crisp and cold with the small town gilded with a layer of snow. Backstage was abuzz with excitement and then it was time for the orchestra to file on and take their seats. After each piece, the audience rewarded them with applause. Then it was time. Eileen and Lena stood and walked to the front of the stage as the orchestra director described the piece they would play. The director raised his baton, the friends looked at one another and drew their bows across the strings, unleashing the notes that soared in perfect unity.

When the last note left their instruments, climbing and lingering in the auditorium, Eileen and Lena smiled at one another, while the audience rewarded them with thunderous applause. The conductor beamed. They took their bows, then briefly hugged before resuming their seats to perform the final piece. Lena had never before felt so elated. Her world had shifted. She’d embraced the power of the music and the new girl with whom she had found friendship.

Kathleen Chamberlin is a retired educator living in Albany, New York with my husband and two rescue dogs. Her poetry has appeared in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Open Door Magazine and The World of Myth magazine.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, Tribe, Truth

The Something-Else

January 17, 2018
something

By Jennifer Rieger

There are some things that will never just feel like a coincidence.
~ A-Dack[1] Quote of the Day, May 31, 2016

The first day of school, she looked like she wanted to die. She chose the seat front and center, the perfect position for me to genuinely appreciate her major case of RBF[2]. There were moments during my entertaining first day multimedia extravaganza when she thought about smiling. I know she did. With a slight smirk, she’d look out the corner of her eye to her best friend, Dante, but then the seriousness would resume. It was, after all, AP Literature and Composition, and maybe I was particularly frightening that day with all the happiness and love.

However, it didn’t take long for me to win over Anna. The further we delved into the curriculum, the more she enjoyed literature, class discussion, and quietly contemplating life. She was in quite a state when she showed up for her college essay conference, bright red and full of angst. “Ms. Rieger… These people aren’t going to want me. Ms. Rieger… Nothing about me comes out coherently. Ms. Rieger… Maybe I’ll walk into traffic, or just stay here with you.” How I would have loved a world in which the latter was true. It didn’t take long to realize that I never wanted to let go of that RBF hot mess. Continue Reading…

Awe & Wonder, Guest Posts, Holidays

Living—No, Thriving—in America

December 1, 2017
lessons

By Barbara Solomon Josselsohn

How do I know if I should say Merry Christmas? Do I ask people about their religion so I can buy the right wrapping paper? What do I give my building’s super? My daughter’s swim coach? My son’s piano teacher?

It’s Thursday morning in early December and I’m seated with two other volunteers in a small classroom in a church, fielding holiday questions from young Asian moms who are new to this country. Their husbands have blended into their new surroundings easily, their professional positions offering plenty of opportunities to perfect their English and engage with American co-workers and clients. The same goes for their children, who pick up English quickly and bond seamlessly with schoolmates, the way young kids often do. It’s different, though, for my students, whose chances to connect with their American counterparts are limited to fast-paced PTA meetings and brief, spontaneous encounters at the supermarket. Learning English is hard, but even more difficult is mastering the labyrinth of customs, routines and traditions that American moms navigate daily with ease. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Past Imperfect

November 1, 2016
year

By Hazel Donovan

Every year it’s the same. I walk into the school conference room carrying a binder and a single question. Teachers and administrators group in a defensive formation, a single chair waiting across the table. Like a criminal facing the parole board, I take my designated seat, eyes on the neat white stapled pages arranged like place settings.

A quick glance at the ring of faces — tight smiles, dropped eyes — and I have my answer. In spite of everything, nothing has changed. Hope flutters out the window with the spring breeze.

I blink back tears. Crying in an IEP meeting was expected in Kindergarten, the tissue box at the ready. They tolerated it in elementary school, disapproved of it in Junior High. My son’s a freshman now, and the faces at the table are blank. There’s a quarter moon mark where my nail digs deep into my finger, the pain a necessary reminder to focus. The faces start speaking, and the words are familiar but like a pair of dress shoes, never quite comfortable.

Your son is too loud, distractible, annoying to the other students.

The buzzing starts in the back of my head. The build-up to a scream. Continue Reading…