Friday, March 18, 2011


Their bows rose and fell like cabaret legs, shadows stabbing against the east wall of the concert hall, thrown there by spotlights, pumping rhythmically like the massive arms of oil wells lined up on the horizon in the crimson light of the setting sun on a midsummer Kansas night. Music flowed from their instruments, trilling harmoniously, fluttering and hovering aural hummingbirds.
The tones intertwined like ribbons on a maypole; but the violin bows rose and fell in unison to a rhythm unaffected by the music. I don't know the violin, so I can't say why it happens like that; don't know if there are markings on the paper sitting flat and lifeless against cold black music stands, or if the conductor has anything to do with it; or if each musician just looks out of the corners of their eyes at the concertmaster, following her lead, making the motion of their bows match hers. I am moved, always, by the way a section of strings moves in unison, often to the point of distraction, the image overpowering the music itself.

I am not a trained musician; not trained in any classical sense -- Don't read music, though my primitive understanding of some of the basics helps me hobble along with some of the company I keep. My cryptic understandings may have come down with me those years ago when I first inhaled mortality there in Grandma Eaton's Home for Birthing Mothers. I wonder sometimes if there are more complex and refined compositions stuck in the deeper folds of my brain and gut, tucked in tight, unable to get out because I know so little. Sadly, I am left to feel the music and not understand why I am feeling what I feel, like so many other commoners. Those infant emotions are peaked when a piece of music, having moved through beautiful harmony and counterpoint, the complexity touching so many different places, comes together in powerful unison. A whisper of a single note, rising in a fluttering staccato and diving like a melodic flock of sparrows is a stunning contrast from broad orchestration. Unison can be so powerful.
The thing about unison is that it can never happen alone. Maybe that is part of the power of it. Solo is so overrated. We pay so much attention to the solo, and the soloist, that we tend to weaken some solo performances just by our over-attention to it. Such distorted adoration makes for egos like Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan, so much in the entertainment news these days. It's not that I am saying there is no place for the individual voice sounding its own unique melody. We must all account for our lives in one final solo appearance. But to rise or fall in unison requires there to be more than one participant, and that is beautiful to me.
The other thing about unison is that it requires focus. Focus on something, of some sort: either a note, or a word, or phrase, or beat, or motion. The focus must be mutually understood, without ego interfering. Like the tines in a loom, opening and closing uniformly, weaving an emotional fabric much stronger than any single thread.
Sunday I taught my 16-18 year old sisters-in-the-gospel a lesson about creating unity in the family. I handed each of them a string, about 8 inches long.
"Break this in half," I said. "However you can, without cutting it."
I watched as they wrapped each end around their fingers, tugging and pulling, to no avail.
Then, one by one, I watched them unravel their pieces of string, dividing the strands. The string was made of 8 or 10 strands twisted together. Once separated, they were easy to break.
Hopefully the girls understood the point of that exercise.

When I think of my own family as if it were a suite of some orchestral form, there is such diverse music. Indeed, like the variety inherent in symphonic movements, we ebb and flow, rising and falling from light lilting tunes in major keys, to heavy sorrowful portions steeped in minor tones. We harmonize fairly well with each other, taking turns with leading lines, and backing each other up when it's not our moment to lead out. But there have been times when there is a pause, when our lives converge on a cause, and we lift our voices in unison.

Nearly three years ago Libby and I sat in the Emergency Room at LDS Hospital, our mom on a table before us, curled in a heap of pain. We leaned into her, Libby's hand on her back, my hand in her hand. Doctors and nurses and technicians took turns entering the room. Finally, the surgeon on call entered and shut the door behind him. He lowered his clipboard, pressed on mom’s belly, asked her some questions, and then looked straight at my sister and me. Our eyes opened wide with our rising eyebrows, looking hopefully into his.
"You understand, don't you, that your mother is not likely to make it through this surgery."
We nodded our heads. But truth is we did not understand. It had not entered our minds as a possibility. Libby’s shaking hand took his pen and signed some papers, then he left, the heavy hospital door compressing the air behind him, inching the light of the hallway out of our space. Lib and I looked into each others' faces, speechless, then embraced, trembling. Then almost on cue, in unison, we let go; put our shoulders back and wiped our tears. Instinctively we stepped in toward our mom, reached over her, hand in hand, and prayed. I have this sense that faith is believing in our innermost parts that something is necessary, like it is meant to happen with no hint of doubt. It is something more than a sincere wish. This was given to us, and we took it -- this solid belief. We took it gratefully.
We prayed with faith, feeling, quite sincerely, that this was not going to be her time, in spite of the doctor’s words. Our three sisters in California drove through the night, while she was in surgery. Our brothers drove from Idaho and Midway. Our pseudo siblings sat with us there in the waiting room, trying to divert our attention with magazines and news reports; pulling our consciences back to the position of prayer. Finally, around sunup, the surgeon entered the room, stopping our conversations, stopping our motion, stopping our hearts.
He shook his head, almost in disbelief.
"She must be some sort of stubborn lady. She made it through. There was a perforation in her duodenum, which we repaired. This doesn't mean she is out of the water, but by all estimates she should never have made it this far."
From then on we sang in unison. Our bows rose and fell together, even if the music that rose the following week from her hospital room was full of different chords and gospel choir like harmonies, our love and faith and hope and prayers rose in unison, up through the hospital room ceiling, clear past the rooms above us, clear up to the heavens.
We have relaxed into harmony once again.

I imagine the choir of angels on that holy night two millennia ago. I imagine them hovering over that hillside with shepherds, a celestial orchestra straddling them, the flowy white arms of their director keeping time, and endless stars twinkling to the rhythm. I imagine divine arrangements, astounding and intricate melodic swirls and dips, fully padded chords in voice and string and the finest woods and silver and gold brass. I hear the music in my head, swelling with full SATB harmony, each voice singing his own unique part until the final fortissimo crescendo; climaxing in a full bodied single note, where all voices and all instruments combine in unison; one pure, divine, single note, sung to one glorious word:


  1. how do you do this night after night? after each read i say to myself "oh that was the best one!" you take a word and weave a tale of magic and force our minds and souls to remember. thank you!

  2. the "cabaret legs"...a perfect description. a great opener, you sure grabbed my attention. Love your writing. Love you!

  3. I think that the movement of the bows is necessitated by the positioning of the strings. To play the correct notes, you go from a low placed string on the inner outside of the neck to a higher string, perhaps the one next to the next to that first lower string. So you have to make a new angle. And the music's rhythm flows differently because you can make so many notes with your fingers while you are on the same bow pass. It's all in understanding how things work.

    And then you add the passion and the instinct for the meaning of the sounds.

    And so, when there is a moment of great difficulty, you two, trained as you have been in the technical aspects of navigating the almost overwhelming variegation of life, raised your bows to the right position, and pushed them forward - then came the passion. And the meaning.