Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A brief reprieve in a long week

            In the wake of reading and writing about Amy Chua, I’ve been thinking a good deal about why people have children. I wrote about this before in a post a couple of years ago, and the basic tenor of those thoughts still feel right: in this day and age, raising children is an expensive, time-consuming, and largely irrational project. We don’t need to sustain our tribe. We don’t need laborers to gather wood, pick berries, or feed the livestock. We don’t necessarily need a cadre of children to care for us when we get old (though if Social Security eventually collapses, this might change). And, with the various methods of effective birth control now available, we can fulfill and enjoy our sexual drives without the side effect of producing children.
All of this means that having children is more than ever a choice that people make (sure, in some cases that choice is made through carelessness or indifference, but that’s something of a choice nonetheless) and that this choice is largely not based on any kind of needs-based logic or economically rational thinking. Instead it is a manifestation of a will and irrational desire for experiences that cannot be economically valued. People have children in the hope of taking part in something ineffable, in something magic, as they go about the work of raising – of creating – a person. They have children in the hope that they get to have moments like one that happened for me on Thursday night.
All last week, Polly and Pip were sick. Polly stayed home from school on Monday with a fever and a cough. Pip was sent home on Thursday and spent all day Friday on the couch. We spent the whole week pumping them full of medicine and coaxing them to eat a little something at each meal. It wasn’t a horrible time – they weren’t puking and when the medicine was working they both felt okay - but it did create some extra work for us to keep everything together.
On Thursday evening after dinner, Polly and Ava went upstairs to read together in our bed while I finished up the dishes. Pip, who was feeling a touch better after being fed and medicated, drifted about the dining room and kitchen for a bit before deciding to sit down at the piano. He’s been doing some rudimentary piano lessons at school and with nothing else to do, I thought he was going to run through his practice pieces for a couple of minutes. Instead, he started idly tapping keys and playing around with the damper peddle, striking some notes and listening to them ring for a few moments before shutting them down and doing it again. I turned back toward the sink to wash the soap off some pots, just happy that he wasn’t coughing too much. I got out a towel on which to lay out the frying pan and the big cook pot so they could drip dry then scoured some cooked-on potatoes off a casserole dish.
As I pulled that dish out of the rinse water, I noticed that Pip had started playing something new. Still holding down the damper peddle, he was stringing together a series of notes with a kind of wary, walking rhythm. It was all one-handed playing, one note at a time, but the absence of the damper allowed the echo from his previous notes to build an atmosphere around the notes to come. This gave them a full, rounded, musical quality that sounded much bigger than what he was playing before.
After a few phrases using this walking rhythm, Pip increased both his pace and his volume. He started breaking the rhythm every four to six beats with a nicely timed syncopation. The notes rose and fell harder and harder, stepping up and falling back and stepping up again. Again it was very simple, but it was real. He was not just banging at the keys. He was playing something that he heard in his head and it was running on without a break or a hiccup. He was feeling the music. And it was beautiful to hear.
When he finally tapered off, slipping back down the volume while keeping the rhythm in place until the final note, I put down the last of the dishes and walked around the corner to where he sat.
“That was really nice,” I said, trying not to show too much excitement and scare him off.
He looked over and smiled in a dreamy kind of way.
“What were you imagining as you played,” I asked.
 “That was Harriet Tubman helping people escape,” he said.
“Oh,” I chuckled in surprise. Pip has had a long-running interest in Harriet Tubman and other famous African-Americans, but I had been expecting some vague response about running water or butterflies or ants crawling about.
“Did you hear them walking through the woods?” he said.
“I did.”
“Good. I’m going to play another one now.”
I went back into the kitchen to tidy things up and let him play in peace. This time he again depressed the damper peddle and began playing very softly around middle C. The result was a collection of slow, twinkling sounds, like fairy dust slowly drifting through an enchanted grove. When he finished, I went back in.
“What did you play this time?” I asked.
“That was Martin Luther King dreaming before his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
I had to keep myself from laughing at this. That Pip - tired, slightly feverish, a touch loopy from the fever reducer and cough medicine - had taken a such an idea, constructed the scene in his mind, and used it to build such an incredibly evocative soundscape was far beyond anything I would ever have expected from him at that moment. It was more than I would have really expected at any moment. In the quiet of that evening with the darkness outside barely held at bay by the lamp over the piano, it felt downright mysterious.

Pip played two more pieces before getting tired, one about Rosa Parks and the other about George Washington crossing the Delaware. While he played, I found a chair in a corner and just sat down to listen. It was a very bright spot in what was an otherwise long week. 

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