Friday, May 04, 2007


Catherine and I stand close together in her narrow studio. She is barefoot, dressed in comfortable soft cotton, her rounded arms bare, her cheeks also rounded and plump. She shows me a new exercise she wants me to try and as I begin her attention shifts to how I am holding the bow, the tightness of my wrist, the rigidity of my pinky finger. Immediately, she wants me to try moving my arm up – “I think of it like I’m in an elevator,” she says, “and the doors are closing and I have to squeeze into –“ She demonstrates. I try it. And then she takes a quarter and places it on the back of her hand and plays without the quarter falling. And then she puts the quarter on the back of my hand, cupping her hand underneath to catch it if it falls, which it does immediately, but I try again, slowly and I become aware of each increment of change in the position of my hand – it’s as if she has slowed the movie down so I can see it frame by frame – it’s miraculous.

For forty-five minutes it’s like this, Catherine suggesting tiny adjustments in movement and position of my hands, fingers, arm. I feel like blotting paper, soaking it up.

At one point she says, “I don’t know whether to add something else, or just leave it.”

“No, tell me,” I say and add, “I’m very patient with this.” It’s true. I am patient with this. Me, who isn’t patient with anything.

Catherine says, “You’ve learned to play in a particular way that works more or less for you and I hesitate how much of that to change. You know, it’s like a tapestry – you look at it and it looks okay but there’s some things in the middle that kind of isn’t right and you have to find your way in and just pull out one or two threads without ruining the whole thing.”

I don’t mind at all that we are not getting to my pieces today. I want to learn how to hold and move correctly with the violin. I love the complexity. “You’re a natural,” Catherine said today, and it sounded like she meant it, though I don’t know exactly what she meant and didn’t ask, not wanting to unravel the tapestry of that sentence that looked so beautiful to me. It’s not that I’m very good yet at creating beautiful or even bearable sound. But I love just holding the instrument. I love to see my fingers curled over the strings. I love the rasp of the bow against the strings. And I love Catherine’s endless observations and suggestions and creations of little exercises designed to teach my right arm how to bow across the E-string or my second and third fingers to stay together as they move across the strings.

She asked me to play a simple exercise – this was right at the beginning of our lesson and is what led into the avalanche of unplanned suggestions that came to an end too quickly for both of us with the arrival of the next student with whom, I like to think, Catherine does not have nearly as much fun, but she asked me to play something simple, a warm-up, adding what she called “traction,” digging into the strings more with the bow rather than just sliding across them and then she asked me something about how I felt about the E-string, which is the highest string on the violin and I found myself saying how I hold back from that string – it’s too high, I never feel as comfortable on that string as on the others. I’ve always felt like E was a universe unto itself and that it’s harder to make something sound good up there. All this was true, but I’d never consciously thought about it before. And I just enjoyed that she’d noticed and drawn this out of me.

I come into the city twice a week these days. On Wednesdays to meet with Martin my new shrink and on Thursdays for the workshop of course, but also for my violin lesson with Catherine. both short intense appointments during which I feel very alive – both expensive in terms of time, effort and money, but both so stimulating and exciting.

I remember the year or two in the late nineties when I would come into Manhattan from the ashram every Wednesday. I’d be in New York by 9am and I had until 7 that evening before I had to get back on the ashram shuttle to return to the Catskills. Those Wednesdays had the very same feeling to them – something precious and rich, every moment of which seemed to count.

When I am talking to Martin the shrink I don’t waste a moment on small talk. He is very strict with his 45-minute appointment and I am hyper-aware when I am with him that this is my time, it is all for me, and I am paying for it and I don’t hold back. I voice the thoughts that come though it’s not always so easy – like yesterday when my mind kept hitting up against high black walls it couldn’t find a way through.

Always when I leave Martin or Catherine part of me is already turning around to return and continue.

When I left Martin yesterday I felt chopped up inside. I walked to the phone booth at the end of the block and left Fred a little voice mail that I hoped didn’t sound too awful and then I walked downtown to the little cafĂ© I recently discovered, run by an ashram devotee. Gurumayi’s and Baba’s and Bade Baba’s pictures all hang there, discretely, and familiar chanting tapes play. My voice might even be one of the voices in the crowds of chanters recorded. I go there because I like the food and it’s close.

I sat at the counter – so full of feeling I could not define. I better write, I thought. And I did. Just a few sentences and there the word is I’ve been hunting for. Shame. That’s what it is. That’s what Esther’s letter complaining about my blog elicits.

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