Exercise in Relaxation

You shut the car door with shaking hands and stuff your keys in your pocket. The tension is high and you can feel your anxiety, which coils itself around your body like a large, oily black snake, twisting itself around your shoulders and neck and ever tightening, whispering in your ear that nothing is fine, no one you love is safe. With great effort, you turn on your heel and begin walking up a gravel path, eyes fixed straight ahead and shoulders slightly hunched. The snake whispers again – Go back. You cannot rid yourself of me.

Dark evergreens loom in the distance, growing ever taller with each step that you take towards them.

Go back. This is futile. This changes nothing.

A deep, shaking sigh. A trembling hand reaches out and touches, ever so lightly, the trunk of the first tree. The bark is rough, cool. The snake hisses.

You continue walking through the woods, moving away from the edge and going deeper, admiring the patches of sunlight that filter through the canopy and how it glitters when you look up through the leaves. You breathe deeply, smelling the pines and the earth, and the snake slips off of your neck, spitting venom, but its whispering is weaker now, tinged with fear and desperation, though you find yourself still listening – You should go back… This will not help. It cannot help.. No one is safe…

A sharp cry breaks you from the snake’s spell and you look up through the canopy, catching a glimpse of a hawk gliding in circles, a small dot in a bright sky. A smile twitches at the corner of your mouth and your neck releases some of its tension. You breathe deeply again, looking back ahead, and continue walking. The woods are still but for a rushing in the distance and you head towards it. The snake is quiet.

The rushing becomes a roar as you approach it, and you arrive at the edge of a small pool, a great waterfall plunging into its depths. The water in the pool is clear, and you crouch down next to it, gazing, taking in the greens and browns and blues of the rocks below. You reach out and trail your fingers along the surface, tentatively at first, for the snake still has hold of your shoulders, and the water is cold, but you dip your hand in further anyway. The snake reels and lets go of your torso, coiling on your shoulders and spitting angrily in your ear. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? THIS IS FUTILE. THIS WILL NOT —

A cool mist floats in the air, catching rainbows as it dances toward you from the waterfall. You stand, snake still screaming, and open your arms as it comes closer, breathing deeply and cocking your ear away from the snake, turning your head in its direction.

“Shut up.” You say, as the mist washes over you.

The snake writhes, it shrieks. It lets go and falls to the ground, ever thrashing, and retreats, back out of the woods. Your shoulders loosen, you close your eyes, sit back down, and the mist caresses you, cleanses you. You stretch your legs and arms, feeling their freeness, and a real smile returns to your face, which is now wet with mist as well as tears of relief. There is no noise but that of the waterfall, which fills your ears with bright white swirls and sends tendrils through your brain that clear all thought. The shaking has long since stopped and you remain still, relaxed, for a long time, breathing in the rainbows from the mist, losing the anxious, black mud from your lungs.

After what seems like an eternity, a lifetime, you open your eyes again, your vision clear, taking in all of the beauty around you. You don’t want to leave, but you know you must. With a sigh, you stand and turn back towards where you came from. You know the snake waits for you by your car and you bite your lip, but the mist caresses your shoulders, whispers.

Do not be afraid, the snake is a sad and tortured creature. You are safe. The people you love are safe.

You smile, the waterfall sings.

Come here again, you are always welcome. We will heal you.

You look once again at the pool, nodding at the waterfall. Then, after this last glance, you turn and begin the walk back to your car, calm, rejuvenated, filled with courage. Until next time. You think, thank you.

At your car, the snake is nowhere to be seen, at least for now. There is only a light mist on the windshield.

-MC

On Tea: Cake Time


The Tea: Organic Red Velvet Caffeine Free Tea, Brew La La Tea.
Caffeinated: No 
Water Temperature: 212° (boiling)
Steep Time: 5-7 minutes
Milk/Sugar: I put in neither.
Ingredients: Organic Rooibos, organic hibiscus, organic rose petals, natural cherry flavor, natural vanilla flavor
Aroma: Almost sugary scent with essence of vanilla.  A delicious smell.
Taste: Sweet, followed by the earthy flavor of the rooibos.  It is a smooth and rich cup that reminds one of a high end tea party.
Would I venture to buy a whole box?: Yes. I am not a big rooibos drinker, but this tea was very pleasant and I quite enjoyed the cup that I had.
Overall score: 4/5 stars

-MC

On Tea: Beethoven’s Best

The Tea: Beethoven Melange®, TeeGeschwendner.
Caffeinated: Yes
Water Temperature: 212° (boiling)
Steep Time: 2 minutes
Milk/Sugar: I put in milk, but you can feel free to add sugar as well or neither!
Ingredients: Black tea, green tea, flavor, rose petals, jasmine petals, sunflower petals, vanilla
Aroma: A sweet, floral smell, backed with black tea bitterness.
Taste: Floral with a slightly tangy bite. There is a sweetness that comes through due to the many types of flower petals. A lovely and fragrant tea.
Would I venture to buy a whole box?: I would – this is one of my favorite teas. It is smooth, not overly bitter, and has such a unique and wonderful floral component. I always enjoy a cup of Beethoven Melange®.
Overall score: 5/5 enthusiastic stars

-MC

On Books: A View of America

The Book: American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Some books are in the back of your mind for a long time, telling you you should read them, telling you to look for them, to find them, and snatch them up when you do. American Gods was such a book for me. I didn’t go out on a specific mission to find it, but in every used bookstore and thrift shop I went to, my eye was searching.  Finally, I bought it new from a bookstore down the street, having remembered I wanted it while I was searching for a friend’s birthday gift.

American Gods follows Shadow Moon, a man who has just been released from prison only to find that his wife has died in a car accident and that he is now being recruited by the mysterious ‘Mr. Wednesday’. What follows is a journey that goes through an America filled with gods and goddesses and leads up to a war between the new gods and the old.

Now, the novel takes a while to get off to its plot. Gaiman is a world builder, so it might seem at first that the story is disjointed or episodic in nature. However, once the reader gets past this, he/she is thrown into an epic display of imagination. The story is gritty, dark, and tinged with humor. It takes a good hard look at America and displays an essence of it that many people do not see or want to see.

Gaiman’s writing is at times a bit clunky in the novel, but for the most part his prose is well put together, and there are a few passages that are simply beautiful. I personally enjoyed the interludes (or “Coming to America” stories) that were interspersed throughout the book and described how different gods and goddesses arrived in the United States. It really showed how the US is a conglomeration of many different and ever-changing peoples and beliefs, and that, though they may not get along, they can work together when it is necessary.

The book definitely dealt with a lot of heavy topics that are not easy to read about – loss, death, religion. Because of this, it was start and stop for me at the beginning due to my own personal anxieties. However, working through them with the book (and with Shadow) was worth it in the end. American Gods now has a place of honor amongst​ my favorite novels.

Overall score: 5/5 stars

-MC

Tranquility

Sitting on the balcony, you stare into the distance, over the rooftops behind your apartment and into the sky, which is turning pink as the sun sets, and you watch the planes go by.  One by one they pass, going higher and higher, off to their destinations.  You wish each of them a safe flight.  You wonder where they’re going, and you wonder if it’s better than where you are now.

It’s warm. Warmer than it has been in a long time, and you relax in the metal chair you’re sitting in, comfortable because of the cushion you brought out, comfortable because it’s not cold.  Your gaze falls from the sky to the plant on the table in front of you, and you talk to it, low, soft tones.  Maybe you sing to it too, don’t plants like music?

A helicopter passes overhead and you look up, squinting to see if it has wheels or if it doesn’t, but you can’t tell.  You wish it a safe flight as well, and go back to staring beyond the rooftops into the pink horizon.  It’s calm.  You’re calm.  You let the moment last as long as you can.

-MC

On Books: Music Heals

The Book: The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Continuing with my musical theme, I picked this book up off the shelf to be my next read.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is inspired by the true story of Vedran Smailović, a cellist who played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor during the siege of Sarajevo in various areas of the city. The book, however, is much fictionalized (which Smailović was [understandably​] displeased about).

Galloway’s novel features four different characters, each with different stories. It opens with an unnamed cellist who witnesses a shell attack that kills 22 people, and thus decides that he will play Albinoni’s Adagio at the same time every day for 22 days in honor of each victim. This is the only time we see from his perspective – the rest of the novel switches between the other characters; a female soldier who calls herself “Arrow”, a father, Kenan, who is living with his family, and Dragan, an older man who works in a bakery.

These three characters’ stories are twined together as the book goes on, each chapter swapping between them. Though they never meet, it is clear that each one of them is similar in that their lives have been destroyed by the war, and that they are no longer who they once were and can only dream of how life was in the past. It is only through hearing the cellist play that they are able to regain hope and the belief that peace will one day return to Sarajevo.

In terms of writing style, I thoroughly enjoyed Galloway’s. It flowed seamlessly between characters and time frames, and I felt as if I were in the novel myself. Each individual was dynamic and their stories were moving, and I felt I could connect with them and was rooting for them. I also enjoyed that the cellist’s playing truly was a medicine for the pain and suffering each citizen of Sarajevo was going through – by listening to him, they could imagine life as it should be – the city would rebuild itself, years would shed off friends and family, those lost would be found again. For me this was a true connection – there has been many a time when I myself have found solace in the notes or lyrics of a song. Music is powerful – it has indeed saved lives. Why should it not also help people cope with war?

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in the influence of music on a population, or for people who are interested in historical fiction. Or for anyone who just wants to read a beautifully written and sad, but, in the end, hopeful story.

Overall score: 5/5 stars

-MC

Chosen

Waiting to go home yesterday was a shy looking, tan, labrador-esque dog. Her owner stroked her soothingly and she sat quietly as the trains came and went.

Another woman cooed at her and made kissing noises, and the dog made no move of acknowledgement other than looking warily at her. After a few minutes, the dog stood and turned towards where I was standing. We made eye contact; I smiled softly, mouthed “hi puppy”, and stopped staring.

The dog wagged her tail, slowly came over. I looked back, put my hand out softly – she sniffed it, looked up, wagged her tail again, went back to her owner.

My train came and I got on, blessed.

-MC

Trouble on the Tracks

I took the train back Boston with some friends, for it is generally a much more pleasant and short trip. This time, however, it took four hours to get back, not including the fact that it was already 40 minutes late.

First, we stopped to let an express train pass. Second, we stopped to let another train go the opposite direction. Then, as we trundled along, a splintering noise sounded beneath the wheels.

“What was that?” My friend asked.

“Sounded like sticks.” I replied.

The train stopped. People, seething, mumbled amongst themselves.

“What’s going on?” An irate passenger asked of the conductor.

“We hit a deer and need to check for damage.” Came the reply.

It was not sticks, we all realized. The crunching and scraping under the wheels was flesh and bone and sinew.  It was the tearing and snapping of something warm and once very much alive.

“Attention passengers, sorry for the delay. We had a deer strike…”

I can still hear it.

Ripping and popping and then utter silence.

It was sticks. It was sticks. It was sticks.

-MC

On Books: A Violin’s Life

The Book: Antonietta – John Hersey

“Read me,” said the book, “for I have been waiting on the shelf for a very long time.”

And so I did.

Antonietta follows the life of a very special Stradivari violin from its creation to modern times.  The book takes form in five acts, with “Intermezzi” in between each, which allow the reader to follow the instrument as she encounters such famous entities as Mozart (and all who know me know why this book was rescued from a tag sale), Berlioz, and Stravinsky before finally ending up with a businessman named Spenser.

What really intrigued me about the novel was the fact that each act was a different writing style:  when the instrument is being built in the home of Antonio Stradivari, it is that of a regular novel; in Mozart’s presence, the story continues on in the form of letters.  With Berlioz, the story is written in a series of movements (as would be found in a symphony).  With Stravinsky, the point of view changes between a trio of characters.  When Antonietta finally reaches Spenser, the tale is in the form of a screenplay.  Each different ​style adds a fresh perspective to the violin’s life.

I found that the three “Acts” in the middle of the novel (Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky) were the strongest.  The chapter with Stradivari was very technical due to the fact that it surrounds Antonietta’s creation, and at times I found myself skimming the more tedious details of her construction.  While this did not make the chapter unenjoyable per say, I did feel a bit bogged down by minute bits of information.  Mozart’s chapter I found to be the strongest – and most entertaining, as I laughed out loud at a lot of the letters – but this could be due to bias.  That aside, the back and forth was at times heartbreaking as well as funny, and I felt that Hersey had done Mozart quite well.  Berlioz and Stravinsky were also moving as characters – their chapters were well written and dynamic.  However, the final chapter with Spenser was by far the weakest.  Perhaps that was the point, as Spenser claims to be tone-deaf, and because Antonietta had changed drastically between its previous and current owner, but there was a lack of passion and respect for the instrument that had been at the forefront of the other chapters.  The characters also seemed flat and stubborn, which was also probably intentional, but it left a sense of dismay by the end of the novel.

That being said, I did enjoy the book overall.  Hersey was able to bring Antonietta to life, and her story was quite compelling.

I also found myself wanting to look up some music by those composers in the novel who are not as familiar to me (Schoenberg anyone?). Thank God for YouTube.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

-MC

The Library: Part 1

An old man sits at a desk in the middle of a room filled with thousands of books.  They are his life–he never could connect with anything more than them.  He thought he did, once, with his wife, but she’s been dead now, ten years.

His son appears at the door and lingers outside.  He’s tall, wan, with a thick head of blond hair.  He leans against the frame and glowers at the person inside.

The father makes no move, no indication that he is aware of the boy’s presence. It’s been like this forever.  The son hates it.  He’s seen his other friends as they’ve grown up around him – they all with their fathers, learning trades, about women, about life – and he, alone. At seven his mother gone, his other parent absent-though right down the hall-inaccessible, unwilling, always with his books.  His precious tomes, which he smiled at, acknowledged, as if they were his offspring.  And he, the real one, left to fend for himself.  Only the maids would interact with him, pityingly.  Poor little one, they always said, Poor child.

The old man looks up, finally, at the figure in the doorway.  “What is it, boy?”

The son opens his mouth, pauses, shuts it again.  He wants to ask something, anything, but the gray eyes that glare at him from under thick brows scare him.  They always have.  He hates this too.  “I–”

“If you’ve nothing to say, stop wasting my time.”

Bitter, silenced, the youth turns and stalks out of the doorway and down the hall. Seventeen years of this, he thinks, Seventeen years of disdain, of being looked at like I am worthless.  And yet those books… a slight chuckle here, a choke, a change of thought …Those books are all the man loves.

In his room, he lies on his bed, facing the ceiling, thoughts racing through his mind. He feels a heat rising in his chest, burning and growing with every breath.  He closes his eyes, squeezes them shut, and clenches his fists.  How he hates his father, how he hates those books.  Why should he be invisible?  What had he ever done to deserve this?

And then he remembers his mother.

She had coddled him; given him toys, kisses, chocolates.  He’d found it smothering sometimes, found it embarrassing to be hanging around with her at six years old, when his friends would brag about learning to fish or catch a ball…. He asked his mother, once, if his father would perhaps teach him–?

“Just leave him to his books.” She had answered. “Just leave him to his books.”

He had toddled into his father’s library at three years old with a cup of milk and dropped it on the floor, just close enough to the shelves.  It splashed, ran into the crevices of the wood floor, and speckled a large novel with white froth.

How his father had screamed, how he’d leapt from his chair, how he’d fumbled for his pocket square, grabbed the book, wiped it off, and cradled it.  The son began to cry – his mother appeared out of nowhere, scooped him up, swept him out of the room.  He’d not been allowed back until he was ten.

His chest hurt more.  Tears burned his eyes, and he opened them again and stared at blurred nothingness.  Teeth clenched, the boy resolved he would do something.  He would hurt the old man the way he’d been​ hurt, year after year, day after day.

He awaited midnight.  Once the clock struck, he knew his father would finally retire from the library.  He would shut the door, put his hand on it, pausing, thinking how he didn’t want to leave, and then turn and slowly walk to his room and be sleeping within an hour.

As soon as he was sure his father was asleep, the boy crept from his room and down the hall. Slowly, carefully, he turned the knob on the door and slipped into the library. It was dark within, and the boy fumbled in his pocket for a flashlight. He clicked it on and headed straight to his father’s desk, where he turned on a dim lamp.

By the hazy light coming from the fixture, the boy was able to make out some of his surroundings. Up and down the walls were books, each leather bound and old, filed carefully away on their shelves. Turning, the boy faced the tall windows, covered by thick red velvet drapes. He smiled – his mother had made these curtains long ago, when he was five. Sighing, he turned again to his father’s desk, made from burnished oak–a solid, elegant piece. The chair was black leather, well worn. He sat down, shut off his flashlight, returned it to his pocket, and looked out to the doorway.

At two years old he had sat on the ground in front of the desk, playing with trains. He wheeled them across the floor, making chugga chugga sounds, and his father had watched silently.

“You like trains, do you?” His voice, deep and quiet, had asked.

“Yes, sir!” The boy had looked up then and smiled.

His father had nodded and, without a word, walked to the side of the room and pulled a large book from one of the shelves. He weighed it in his hands for a bit, as if questioning his motives, then turned and brought it over to his son.

The boy remembered snippets of what followed. His father, sitting on the floor, his suit wrinkling – his lips twitched a frown at this… The book, opened, filled with huge pictures of trains for the boy to see. Gazing at the intricate details, at the colors… His mouth agape… Looking up at his father after he’d asked which was his favorite….. “The red one!”…. The gray eyes, intense and unreadable, narrowing ever so slightly at his answer… The thing that ended the moment, when he reached to touch the page….. His father had slammed the book shut and stood up quickly…. The boy, surprised and scared, began to cry.

The rest of that day was a blur. His mother had come immediately and whisked him into the nursery.

Shaking his head to clear himself of the memory, the young man looked at the shelf that the train book was on. He’d found it once more, at ten, when he was no longer banned, but had never asked his father to look again. The spine glared out at him now – a dark navy blue, the words​ “STEAM ENGINES” embossed in gold across it. He bit his lip.

A sudden clang came from behind and the youth jumped and turned, eyes wide. The sound came again and he relaxed, realizing it was only an ebony grandfather clock. Two strikes – he’d been in the library an hour now. He turned back to the train book – it still glared at him with its lettering, and he felt his anger rising. Quickly, he stood and marched over to it, then ripped it off the shelf. It was lighter than he imagined it would be, and he grinned at its lack of heft. It is weak, he thought, and I always believed these things to be so much more.

Chuckling quietly, the youth opened the tome. The pictures were still colorful; he remembered them well. After flipping through a few pages, he found the red train he had chosen as his favorite. He grimaced, and in one deft movement, tore the page from the book.

-MC