When you look at a map of Alabama, you see it has a little tail at the bottom. It is where you find the city of Mobile, and where you find Baldwin County. Mobile is to the west, Baldwin County to the east of the vast Mobile Bay. 

My daughter, Susie, worked for years at the Mobile Register — she is the third generation to become a journalist — but lived across the causeway in the county. 

The two are very different. Mobile is urban, with shipyards and warehouses, high rises and traffic. 

The county is rural, with farms, fishing shacks and at least one high-end bayside resort: the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. 

When we lived in Phoenix, Ariz., we visited Susie and our granddaughters once or twice a year and I managed to circumnavigate the county pretty thoroughly. 

I would sometimes make day-long excursions with my camera. I was a photographer before I became a writer. For six years, I taught photography at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va. 

But that was back in the days of Dektol, D-76 and Kodabromide. Cameras used film and gave us negatives to print. I was trained at a time when for most of us, photography was black and white. 

That tended to govern how we approached our subjects. If color meant nothing, we had to focus on form, on darks and lights. 

As a result, my eye was attuned to shadings rather than hues. 

And so, my first forays into the back of Baldwin County were seen in black and white. 

What I had in mind, more than anything else, were the photographs of Walker Evans, who made some famous Depression-era photographs in Alabama. Old service stations, abandoned farmhouses, agricultural towns with raw main streets. Evans was wonderful. 

When you see a boatload of his work, you can’t help seeing how many times, on the same day, he made multiple images of the same subject, trying to capture it from different angles and distances, later choosing the one image that said what he wanted to say. 

Walker Evans, “Selma, Ala.”

So, as I drove through the backside of Mobile and the county, I sought out similar things, and made multiple angles, too. 

One day, when the womenfolk were out shopping for clothes, or shoes, or whatever it is that the female gender tends to focus on, I took my camera out and drove up and down County Route 13, which runs north to south in the County. 

In a single day, I finished a project that I printed up and displayed under the show title: “Southern Baroque.” 

I found ruins, 

trees,

homes,

cotton fields,

Tractor paths,

and weeds, lots of roadside weeds. 

And at the end, Weeks Bay, an offshoot of Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of pelicans bobbed like decoys in the water and scattered in the air. 

In all, I wound up with about 50 good images to show in the exhibit. 

On an earlier trip, I tried to capture Mobile. 

I found oil tanks,

shipyard derricks,

downtown iron-rail balconies,

and restaurants on stilts along the causeway, safe from storm tides.

But Tri-X and Photo-Flo went the way of the mastodon, and I eventually had to take up digital photography. Turns out, it was a revelation. 

I was never happy with color film. Kodachrome was too garish, Ektachrome too grainy. Some photographers, such as Ernst Haas and Eliot Porter, managed to make stunning color photos, but they had the advantage of dye-transfer, a process way too expensive for a mere teacher. 

So, over the decades, I had worked at training my eye to see in textures, shades and shapes. My sense of color had begun to atrophy.

But using the digital camera, I began to relearn color. I began to see in color. I hope I have been able to blend that with the lessons of shape and light I had already learned. 

And then, when I traveled Baldwin County, I had an eye for color. It screamed out at me. 

And instead of traveling down Route 13, I followed the Fish River, a few miles to the east (and also ending at Weeks Bay.)

I began where the river is not much more than a rivulet. It was crowded with multiple greens, and the rich tawny stream bottom was delicious in contrast. 

It was early fall, and leaves had begun to turn, and those that hadn’t were drying out. 

I wandered down the road by the river, stopping once in a while to catch a patch of grass,

or a tangle of branches,

or a great tree

or a beautiful tangle of old oaks.

But I cannot credit merely the change in technique for this awareness of color. It seems to be something that has come to me with age. 

When I was young, I tended to see the world in starker terms. I was cocksure of myself, and so often wrong. But the black and white coincided with that black-and-white worldview. 

As I got older, I grew softer. I became more attuned to my insides — how I felt, and aware of how others felt.

I imagine this has something to do with a decrease in testosterone — and thank god for that. I am a kinder man than I ever used to be. 

It may also have something to do with having a family made up almost entirely of women: daughter and two granddaughters. I can’t say I learned empathy — that implies a will to do so.

But rather, that an empathy has pupated in me and emerged in my senescence, fully colored. 

Whatever the cause, color now delights me no end. Sometimes when driving, I will choose a color and make an especial notice of it and how often it appears. It’s surprising how much yellow there is in the world. 

And like so much else I’ve learned over the long span of years, it is paying attention that matters. Live slower, notice more, enjoy more. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Forty years ago, when I was heartbroke, uprooted, unemployed and deep in depression, I would regularly ride the ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. It was a cheap ride for a pedestrian and I could go both ways for one fare. There was breakfast to be had onboard and the early morning light, often through mizzle and mist, was the perfect visualization of my inner state. 

Sometimes I would get off on the island and hike through woods just north of Winslow, the town with the ferry slip. I saw goldeneyes and grebes, cormorants and wigeons, mergansers and coots. The Northwest is mostly made up of Douglas fir and western redcedar, but Bainbridge Island had a great stand of maples. Wildflowers bordered the roads. 

I was alone on the crowded ferry, with the constant churn of the motor under the deck, staring out the rain-spattered window at the expanse of water. There is something about water, and about moving across its surface that I found soothing in my loneliness. A band of sunlight  would blast the waves and quickly disappear again. 

Yonkers ferry

I have ridden many ferries over the years. The first I remember was the Yonkers ferry from Alpine, N.J., across the Hudson just north of Manhattan. I went with my uncle to visit his in-laws. I remember very little of the trip — the ferry was discontinued in 1956, so I had to have been less than 8 years old; more likely I was about 5 or 6 — but I do remember the river, the waves, the expanse from one shore to the other and the low skyline of our destination. I have absolutely no recollection of the in-laws. 

It is the flatness of the water, disturbed by the wind into a disruption of skitter that sticks in my mind each time I take the boat. It is both calm and nervous at the same time. The Hindu idea of māyā is immediate: an ideal world brought to motion by the wind on its reflection. The early lines of Genesis also comes to me: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Breath of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In some Native American mythologies, the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, is manifest as wind, which animates the prairie grasses very like sea waves. 

Perhaps in times of distress, the ferry ride puts me on that sea and I can breath the same moving air that animates the waters. It can calm or at least give me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. All of which sounds mighty grandiose when you are considering a boat made of iron and grease that rattles across the Sound so that commuters can get to their jobs. 

At any rate, ferries give me a kind of mythic jolt. Which is why when I was coming home from a visit to my brother at the beach, where he lives at the head of the Outer Banks, I opted to take the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound. The Sound separates the barrier islands from the low-lying and swampy mainland. It is about a five mile trip across the water from slip to slip. It takes about three-quarters of an hour on the water. 

Unlike the huge Puget Sound ferries, the boat across Currituck Sound is puny: It has room for only about a dozen cars. Its main purpose seems to be to carry a schoolbus from Knotts Island to schools on terra firma. 

Knotts Island, for the sake of honesty, isn’t really an island, but a peninsula that hangs down from Virginia into North Carolina, through the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is half water, and full of waterfowl, reeds and water lilies. The island is mostly in North Carolina, but its top bit is still in Virginia. 

In years past, when I taught in Virginia Beach, I would take my photography students down to Mackay Island. There was everything to photograph. I went there on my own many times, sometimes just to soak in the brackish air and watch the stretch of water. There is a yearly “Peach Festival” on Knotts Island, and my wife and I and several of our friends went to the orchards to pick bushels of fruit. We spent days processing the peaches into jams and chutneys. 

So, I have history on the island. And now that my wife is gone, the trip back across the island to take the ferry brings up a whole life, its aftermath, its redolence, its meaning. 

Unlike the Seattle ferry trips, this one is sunny. The waters are calm, shivered by only a small breeze, although that is enough to provide the flat waters with texture. The channel markers are home for bird nests. There is an osprey on one, and cormorants spread their wings to dry on others. The ferry chugs past them, some to the right, some to the left. 

The water is wide enough that the far shores are a horizon line, and toward the south, and the spread of water around the curve of the earth, there is no far shore to be seen. The flatness of the day erases the line between water and sky, between life and death, between now and then. You can still make it out, but barely. Waters are deep, and so is the sky. In revery, like Ishmael hypnotized by the sea, I fall into fascination with the obscurity of horizon, of border, of things that have names, but whose names are merely tags to hide the essential sameness, the unity. 

There is a startling beauty to this state, I gaze at the line, horizontal, that seems to exist, then doesn’t, then exists only because I know it’s there. Am I inventing it? Māyā. 

The sky circles the top half of heaven, the water, the bottom. It is a circuit. The sun arcs from east to west then continues west to east underneath our feet, underneath the boat. I am laughing at myself for my seriousness. But I am put in mind of circles and spend the rest of the trip finding circles everywhere on the boat. Can a circle be the primary form of the cosmos? Can it be the crown of a hat? The ridiculous and the mythic are comically the same, same as the sky and bay, water and air. 

Well, I am an idiot. I am alive, still, and what does any of this mean other than I can breathe, inhale and exhale and feel the swelling of my lungs and the beat of my heart: “Close on its wave soothes the wave behind.”

All is lost; nothing is lost. The breath of the gods moves upon the waters. They shiver.

I can hardly pass a public aquarium without going in. I love them. But when I watch those finny torpedoes bolting about in the water, it raises in me two very different reactions. 

First, those creatures are delicious. Paired with garlic and butter, you have shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, trout. Is it any wonder when I visit the aquarium, I get hungry? 

I see them swimming around or crawling on the bottom, and I am like a hungry Mack Swain in The Gold Rush looking at Charlie Chaplin and seeing a great chicken, ready to pan fry. Those salmon, flashing silver in the watery sunlight — I see them pink on a plate, with some roasted potatoes and asparagus. And perhaps a nice chilled Gerwürtztraminer.  

When I lived in Seattle, I had a membership in the aquarium on Pier 59, and often when leaving, I would wander down to Pier 54 to Ivar’s Acres of Clams to satisfy the anticipation I had built up watching the wee beasties behind glass. Alder-smoked salmon was the perfect completion for a visit to see the silver-sided fish, catching the light like the shiny metallic jets built just north of town by Boeing. 

But the second reason to visit aquariums is for the meditation. Watching the beasties gliding through the aqueous brine lets the mind float as well. I sit against the wall before the large, main tank, and watch, hypnotized with the same fascination one has before a campfire — fish for chispas.

Monterey kelp forest

I am considering modern aquariums here. It used to be that — much as zoos used to be cages with iron bars — aquaria were ranks of small fishtanks along a wall and you would move from one to the next to see which individual species was featured there. But now, like zoos having built “natural habitats,” modern city aquariums are immersive experiences: huge tanks with either a plate glass window the size of an Imax screen, or a transparent underwater tunnel that lets you watch the underside of sharks as they waggle over your head.

The grandaddy of them all is the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, with its giant kelp forest. The Seattle Aquarium is my second favorite. There are notable aquaria in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa, and Charleston, S.C. There are even aquariums in the desert or up in the mountains: The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev.; the Denver Downtown Aquarium in Colo.; and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The biggest of all, with 10 million gallons, is 1000 feet above sea level in Atlanta. 

A week ago, I spent a day at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. It has grown fourfold since I lived in the Tidewater region 30 years ago. It is a vast complex, mixing mega-tanks of fish with smaller educational exhibits and hands-on stuff for kids. And there were lots of kids. Yelling, screaming, running, falling, crying, laughing. I could find a seat along the back wall in one room or another and watch the fish. The children seemed to cluster at the shark tank, leaving the other, smaller exhibit to me and a few adults. I could sit for hours and watch the piscean floorshow. 

There are smaller tanks, like the one with the horseshoe crabs. Another has ancient deepsea fossils, and you see how, across time, life changes, and stays the same. The trilobite and the horseshoe crab are clearly cousins. 

The most oneiric tank is the one with jellyfish. Those slow, meandering medusas, pulling tight, then relaxing to propel themselves aimlessly through the fluid universe are a kind of mantra, inducing that state of mushin no shin (mind without mind) that Zen philosophers aim for. It is a state where you clear your thoughts of all idea, and only feel the slow rhythm of the jelly — the rhythm of the cosmos before words were invented to sidetrack us. 

It is a state without ideology, without past or future, without expectation, without regrets. It is a state closest to the Biblical name of the deity: “I am that I am.” And for the minutes you stand in front of that backlit tank, with your mind detached from your body and floating along with the jellies, you are one with Creation. Then, of course, a gaggle of children shunts you aside and giggles as they watch the caps and tentacles before moving on to the next tank, or to the sharks — and the connection with the All is snapped. You may try to reconnect, but the mood is broken.

So, you move on to the next exhibit. For me, that is the large tank with the bony fish, which dart this way and that in seeming random patterns. But you watch over a span of time, and you begin noticing choreography. The fish form groups, the groups connect, disjoin, and then connect in new ways. 

It is very like the group movements of a Balanchine ballet, where several groups of three shift into groups of four before redefining themselves as a line, then opening into two circles and then into pairs twirling away in groups of three again. The counterpoint of movement is what makes Balanchine so distinctive, and so profoundly moving. 

And these hatchetfish do the same in the water, three this way, four that, a shoal becomes broken into individuals. They dart from this side of the stage to that with such grace, that tears come to my eyes. 

I’m afraid the normal aquarium-goer, like the visitors to art museum, spend little time with each exhibit. Mostly they pour in, point at the sharks or the mantas, perhaps look at the labels beside the glass to name which kind of shark they see, then move on to the next tank. To reach the Zen state I am after requires patience: sitting still for quarter- or half-hours at least, trying to empty your head of thoughts, just becoming one of the fish in the watery universe, until the water no longer exists and it is all universe. 

Others attend church to feel this, or take up yoga classes, or go driving aimlessly on rainy nights. Without occasionally refreshing your life by entering this state, I don’t know how anyone could bear the weight of the world.

I am writing this for myself; you needn’t read it. Usually, if I include myself in a piece I write, it is only to provide a personal angle on a wider, more general point that is the purpose of the text. I try not to intrude on your patience. But here, I really am writing for myself: If you continue reading, you will be eavesdropping on thoughts not aimed at you. 

One of my granddaughters is currently on an archeological dig in Peru, part of her university studies. I wrote her saying this could be a life-defining experience for her. And that began my thinking: What have been those life-defining moments for me? I don’t simply mean chronologically, such as we all encounter as we age through our existence, such milestones as going off to school, turning 21, getting married and divorced, suffering job interviews and eventually retiring. No, I mean those episodes that bend the twig so the tree is inclined: Those things that turn us into ourselves rather than into someone else. 

I could start, like David Copperfield, with “Chapter 1: I am born.” Not for the mere fact, which is universal, but for the inheritance I was given in the womb of the random pairings of genes that govern a good deal of my personality, abilities, and inclinations. I began not ab ovo a blank slate, but with bits of genetic material that came through my parents from their parents before them and so on, tracking back, if I had the means, first to Africa, and then beyond to single-cell beasties in the pond water, and before that to the prokaryotes and lithotrophs, the bacteria and the original amino acids, some semblance of which are still floating in my chromosomes, like genetic homeopathy. This ancestry is still there in every cell of my body, and they all have a “life-defining” push and pull. 

Beyond that, the first experience I had that altered my life was going to school, and not just the school, but the going. From kindergarten on, I walked to school every day and home again. It was a mile from home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School, and I soon began to take “short cuts” home each day, which were new routes often so far out of the way, I actually went through neighboring towns on my nostoi. These routes served two functions: first, that I avoided the routine and the boredom that ensues; second, to explore the wider world and see what else was out there. I have continued to explore and to avoid routine for the rest of my life. 

Then there was the moment I learned to read, although I cannot remember a time I couldn’t. But there was the discovery of the school library, which was also the town library, in the basement of the Charles deWolf Elementary School (we had moved). I read every book I could find there, subject by subject. Third grade was devoted to dinosaurs. 

After that, the next turning point, I believe was in third grade, when in art class we were asked to draw Christmas trees for the holiday. I earnestly built my tree up with a trunk and branches, which curved upward, as they do on a fir tree. My teacher told me I was wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how a Christmas tree really looked, making the familiar diagrammatic greeting-card or cookie-cutter shape.

I was outraged, because I had looked at Christmas trees and I knew I was right and the teacher was wrong. So much for any trust in authority. I took from this a trust in my own observation. This would also later lead me to mistrust many mere conventions that were widely taken to be iron-clad  truths. 

As much as I loved grammar school, I hated high school. Most likely, it was just a victim of my adolescence. I studied and learned the things that piqued my interest, and ignored subjects that bored me. Concomitant grades. I got many an A in hard subjects and too many a C or D in subjects I found boring, badly taught, or otherwise had little interest in. 

But two events aimed my life in new directions. First, I worked on the student newspaper, expecting to be its photographer. But I wrote two stories for it, and both won state-wide awards. I didn’t know then I would become a writer.

The second was finding a girlfriend, who, it turned out, would go on to become a professional bassoonist, and while we were courting, we listened to classical music. I remember fondly sitting on her parents’ couch with her, spooning to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My homelife was oddly devoid of music. I was insufficiently stimulated by the popular music of my time and my own parents seldom listened to any music, except what turned up on TV variety shows, and so, becoming exposed to serious music was a revelation. I became not just a writer, but eventually a classical music critic for my newspaper. 

In college, the single most important thing was a class in English Romantic poetry, not so much for the poetry, but for the hard kick in the pants I got from the professor. I was always a smart kid, and was used to knowing how to get good grades, i.e., how to give the teacher what he or she wanted. I knew all the usual tricks. But somehow this professor didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. My first paper came back with a D-minus on it. What is this, I thought. I gave him back what he said in class. But what he wanted was not some rote lesson, but rather he wanted me to engage with the material. It would not have mattered if I was completely wrongheaded, if the wrongheadedness evolved from a genuine dive into the poetry, paying attention to what was actually there. The D-minus was like the slap a doctor gives a newborn to begin life. 

In a way, this was simply a reinforcement of the Christmas tree lesson: Trust yourself. Not arrogantly or stubbornly, but as the starting point. What the book says, or the teacher, must at least at the beginning correspond to my own experience. I may later learn more, and expand my horizon and discover my own ignorance, but the start is myself and my serious engagement with the material. Lesson: Pay attention. 

This has been the first of the two greatest lessons of my life. No: three. 

One other thing happened at college: A friend who had a horrible family turned out not to have a horrible family, and the ruin they had planned for him turned out to have been the psychiatric help I didn’t know he needed. It was another sort of kick in the pants: Things are not always as they seem; there is always more context and backstory than you have access to. This lesson was reinforced a few years later when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which hit home like a ton of bricks. I had been Darley, I had been Balthazar, and the omniscient view of Mountolive does not exist in the world outside fiction. I was suitably chastened and forever after not so cocksure of myself or anything else. 

I skip over my first marriage and the birth of my son, because I was too young, ignorant and callow to understand any of it at the time. The marriage lasted just three years. Suffice it to say that I was repaid karmically in my next relationship for my callousness and unrecognized cruelty. 

I then lived with an exceptional young woman for seven years. I was settled into that relationship for the duration. My life was mapped. That is, until she told me she had decided to marry someone else, a shock that blindsided me and knocked me off kilter for at least five years, during which I left the state, moved to Seattle and tried to find another life to lead. I was a lost soul. 

I shared a house there with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. It was across the street from the zoo, where I found work at the snack counter. The WMOM, who had written several pornographic novels (the first, Sixty-Nine In-Laws, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), was already a published author, and I learned from him a thing or two about writing. I had been so immersed in literature, that when I wrote anything, it was like I was trying to be part of a university curriculum. I wasn’t writing for readers, but for libraries. The WMOM instead wrote quickly, facilely and more like he spoke than like Strunk and White instructed. I learned not to take my words so seriously, but to have fun with them. 

I read constantly, and among the formative books were virtually everything Henry Miller ever wrote. He reinforced the lessons I learned from the WMOM and taught me the importance of flow — that the writing could pour out like spring water. It’s a lesson maybe I’ve learned too well. 

Incidentally, the WMOM has cleaned up his act and is now one of the literary lights of Seattle. Unfortunately, his writing has become so literary as to be almost unreadable. It’s like we exchanged places. 

I practiced writing through letters. I wrote everyone and frequently. I kept carbons of them all. In March of 1978, I pumped out 500 pages on my aqua-colored portable typewriter. The nozzle has been wide open ever since. 

I had a brief romance in Seattle with a zookeeper. The relationship ran hot and cold, and made no sense to me: Did she like me, or did she not?  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to move back East. Only years later did I discover the tragic situation that she was in, and the trauma she had suffered and never told me of. It once again underlined the truth that we never know the whole story, and we should never judge, for we are ignorant. 

This was the second most significant lesson, which I was given reinforcement any number of humbling times. I hope I have learned to wear my nescience gracefully. 

Back in North Carolina, I was close to homeless, and my best college friend and his wife took me in. I lived with them for a year and a half, at their sufferance. They saved my life. But I then found my real wife. We were together for more than 35 years until her death two years ago. 

That encounter was the single biggest thing that happened in my life. In an echo of the English Romantics professor, she forced me to take seriously the fundamental questions of living and to give up any lingering glibness I wore.

Ignorance is about the only thing I had no knowledge of when I was young. I had an answer to pretty much everything. Now, I realize that if I knew a lot of facts, it wasn’t because I was smart, but because the facts stuck on account of my brain being gummy. A collection of facts is not only meaningless, it also prevents learning. When I was a young man, I must have been insufferable. 

I did manage to make some spare change in bar bets. But what I learned from my wife was not so much how to think outside the box, but rather to remain ignorant that such a box even existed. She was the single most intelligent person I ever knew, although that fact might not be immediately apparent when you first met her. She was likely to say the most incomprehensible things, and only if you argued with her — sometimes for two days at a stretch — did you come to understand exactly how brilliant and insightful — how comprehensible — those odd things really were. 

She admitted that she had once been intimidated by my command of facts, but, the longer we lived together, the more I came to value my own ignorance, and the more freely I came to answer, “I don’t know.” She once told me her disappointment. “You used to know everything,” she said. Well, now I don’t. 

She also made me live up to my ideals, and she made me aware, not immediately, but over the long haul, the vital importance of family, and being constantly concerned for someone else’s welfare. The lesson came into profound use as she became increasingly ill and I had to care for her. What she gave to me by her slow decline is inestimable. The greatest hours of my life were those I was able to give to her. I would have given every hour I had, past and future, if she could have lived. 

Her death was the last — or at least the most recent — life-defining point, as I watched her go and came to realize, not something so stale as that life is short. We all know that, especially the closer we come to the end. But that there is little but breath and metabolism behind all that we love and care for. Take that away, and we stare at the void. 

And I can never be vain about my abilities or accomplishments, because not only will my breath and metabolism fail, but that the entire Earth has a sell-by date, the sun, the stars and the universe all sing the lines from Brahms’ German Requiem: “dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.” 

What I could not have imagined coming out of college is that there is nothing distressing or mournful about this, but rather that I have a small, an infinitesimal part in a vast cosmic dance. 

The value is not in the result, but in the engagement. Gratia Rudy. 

“What gives you joy?” asked Stuart. “I don’t mean what do you EN-joy, but truly fills you up with an uncontrollable emotion, maybe brings you to tears?” 

I thought about this for a moment. It seems different things at different times set off the buzzer. 

“That’s a fuzzy question,” I said. “Joy is one of those words that covers a whole basket of things. Like ‘love.’ Everyone means something different by it.”

“In this case, I guess, I mean something that fills you up, as if emotion will burst you open. This is very different from pleasure or happiness. Originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you.”

“That’s a tall order,” I said. “How often does it even happen?”

“Maybe I’ve made it sound too grand,” Stuart said. “Sure, there is the big transcendent blast, but it can happen in smaller doses, too. The big ones are life changing, but the smaller ones carry you through an hour or two of rising above the ordinary.”

“As long as we leave love out of it, and theology, too, then I guess I get most joy from the arts: Music, dance, painting. Odd moments when I’m reading poetry and a line or idea takes off and I become emotional. It can make me weep uncontrollably.”

“Billy Blake said, ‘Excess of joy weeps.’”

“Of course, only when the performance is good — or not just good, but exceptional. Other times, I enjoy them, but those times that are transcendent are rare, but necessary.”

“Necessary?” 

“Yes. Just going to the symphony every week is fine, or to a play, or the ballet. But if once in a blue moon a performance doesn’t reach beyond that and pierce the essential innards of my psyche or soul or emotions — I don’t know what you call it — then it’s hard to justify the expense of buying the tickets. It’s that nearly-never performance that makes all the others worthwhile.”

“Anything else?” he asked. “I mean being an esthete is fine, but what about non-artistic things?”

“Certainly. Love has elevated me like that, although more often when I was young and an idiot. Now, it is seeing someone I love feel joy that raises my heart. When I was young and with the woman I was nuts over, seeing a breeze blow the hem of her skirt or the wrinkles of her eyes, or even the ridges of her knuckles would send shivers through my being. That was transcendent.

“Now the thrill comes from cooking for someone I care for and seeing them enjoy what I have prepared. That actually gives me something of the same feeling.”

“Interesting,” said Stuart. “Because I have this theory…”

Here we go, I thought. Buckle up. 

“… this theory that people are roughly divided into those who are what I might call ‘sensualists’ and those we might call ‘activists.’ There are other classes, too: There are the depressives who never feel that elation we call joy.

“This came to me when I asked Genevieve this question. Although playing viola with the orchestra is her job, nothing gives her greater pleasure in her off-hour time than playing quartets with friends, or accompanying on the piano as another friend sight-reads a sonata. Sitting in and playing music with others is for her the ultimate in joyfulness.”

“I recognize that,” I said. “Carole felt the same way about playing four-hand piano. The two players meld into a single entity in the music. It gave her deep pleasure. She often asked me to play recorder while she played piano. I usually declined: I did not get the same thrill she did, perhaps because I had no real talent for it. I did once sing Gutte Nacht from Winterreise as she accompanied. You would not have wanted to hear me, but it made her happy and that made me happy.”

“Yes, well, that is the activist, the one who gets joy from doing. But I thought of you, on the other hand. You observe. You watch. Your joy comes from seeing a well-performed ballet, or the rich gray-purple in the background of a Renaissance painting. It is the sensual side of things that fills your sails.”

“I never thought of myself as a sensualist,” I said. “I’m too dull and academic. But I see your point. It is through my senses that I apprehend the transcendent. Looking, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling: These are all real portals into the reality of the cosmos. And it is seeing them, like the stars and Milky Way in a truly dark night sky, that gives me a sense of something bigger and beyond myself.”

Stuart smiled. “That is exactly what I mean by ‘joy.’ It can be found in the sense of how you are connected to things outside your self. What I call activists, in this sense, are those who find that experience in caregiving, or hiking in nature, or playing music with others — something outside, bigger and more important. The sensualists are seeking the same, but find it in metaphor, in what they see and hear. The Beethoven symphony that is a metaphor for the struggle of life, or the Balanchine choreography that does the same for the dance of the cosmos.”

“When I see a great dance performance,” I said, “I feel in my own muscles the twisting and flexing of the dancers’ muscles. Hell, in a particularly good and athletic performance, I can feel it in my own body so much that I need liniment the next day.”

“Iris Murdoch once said we always seek out ways to ‘unself.’ Usually, we are stuck in our egos, which is a boring place to be, claustrophobic, anxious and lonely. We want to know there is a bigger place to be, in which we are a puzzle piece that fits a waiting empty spot. What is more, that puzzle is vast, extending to the ends of the cosmos. It what we feel when we magnify, like Mary in the Magnificat — ‘Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est’ — and extend our being out to the night sky and the bright pin pricks there.”

Aldous Huxley wrote that humans have “a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence. I know what Stuart was talking about. I have often felt it, even in an unguided universe.  

“Yet, there are those who don’t feel joy, or at least, when I ask, they seem puzzled, not sure what I mean by the word. These are people, I think, who either don’t have the gene for joy, or who are depressed and squeezed flat, or who have not yet found their capacity. Surely they had it when they were children: Kids seem to drink directly from a fountain of joy. Joy requires a certain lack of self-consciousness, an openness, even to make yourself goofy or admit to emotions that others may not feel. 

“Depression flattens the world out — talk about the flat-earth people — and the …”

“Well,” I interrupted, “what does it for you? You always have these theories, but they are never directly about you. What gives you the giddies?”

Stuart talks a lot, but seldom about himself. There is always something held back, as if his jibber-jabber were a way of shielding himself.  

“I dunno. Let me think. I’ve gotten old — we’ve both gotten old — and can look back on a long history of sorrows and joys, both those I’ve caused and those I’ve been dealt. I have to say that the sources of joy have changed radically over those years. It used to be I felt most awake and alive when I found a new lady love to dazzle me, but after three mangled marriages and …” 

Here, he looked toward the sky and sort of bit his lip as he used his fingers to count.

“Seven, yes, seven significant other relationships, the blush of that first encounter has gone. Now I’ve been with Genevieve for eight years and I feel I’ve finally settled in, and I have found that I sometimes can watch her sleep next to me and feel that sense of magnification, expansiveness, joy, just in seeing her, and feeling that we are joined as co-puzzle pieces.”

“So,” I asked, “is that activist or sensualist?”

“Maybe I need to rethink this,” he said. “There is something passive, not active in this sort of joy, but neither is it sensual. There is joy I find in simply its ‘is-ness,’ the fact of it, the actuality and not theoretical. The ‘is-ness.’ That’s the best term for it.”

“God tells Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ But you don’t need a deity for that to be true. The cosmos is that it is.”

Stuart looked at me. “I remember Joseph Campbell talking about a newborn bawling, and that it is its way of proclaiming a joy that says, ‘I exist,’ or, as you have it, ‘I am that I am.’ Perhaps we’re finally getting to the bottom of this.”

The great tree in the backyard has died, leaving a wide-branched skeleton over the shrubbery underneath. 

The house sits on the side of a small hill in a middle-class neighborhood and the ancient red oak grew at the crest, with a regal view of the mountains surrounding Asheville, N.C., the Swannanoas to the south, the Black Mountains to the north.  

Soon after moving here in 2012, I wrote a blog (link here) about that tree, seeing it as a kind of mythological presence. It was lord of the hilltop and a kind of noblesse oblige permitted it to shade our yard in the summer. But now the king is dead. 

I know dead. It is different. 

Winter trees mimic death, no doubt. But the mere lack of leaves is not the same thing. In fact, all winter long, you can see the tree progress, from leaf loss to slow bud expansion. There is vitality under the thin brown and greenish skin of the twigs. They fairly pulsate. Yes, from a distance, the tree seems lifeless, a network of empty branchings against the sky. But look close, and you can see the constant change over the winter season and the slow building up to the explosion of spring. 

Many years ago, I was living in the Piedmont of North Carolina and had a line of red maples across the yard along the street. That yard was my Eden; it had more than a hundred species of plants, from trees to shrubs to weeds. I knew every one intimately. There was the great black walnut just off the porch, the hundred foot pecan in the back, the chinaberry and sweetgum on the side and an ancient apple tree to the south with a line of wild roses at the border of the property. But my favorites were the maples. They showed me that the trees were well named, for they were not simply red in the fall when their leaves turned, but red all year long, with red twigs tipped with buds that spread their bud scales in February to show a blush hidden underneath, to the ignition of red flowers to the red “polynose” seeds. Finally, the first leaves unfurled a florid red before gaining their green. 

When I left that Eden to live in Seattle, I didn’t know how much I left behind. Seattle certainly had its attractions, but I couldn’t help but notice that all the trees I saw in those vast forests were either Douglas firs or western red cedars. I came back to North Carolina in large part because I missed the infinite variety of its nature. Helas, I never regained my Eden. 

Eventually my new wife and I moved to the Sonoran Desert and found mesquite and palo verde. They were gnarly and dense, and so much of the foliage there only threw out leaves when the weather gods managed to squeeze out a bit of moisture from the sky. For most of the year, they looked dead. When we both retired, we moved back to the Blue Ridge and the trees that were our psychic comfort food. 

And that red oak, at the top of the hill was a reminder that Eden is still possible, even if it remains merely a spark. And now it is dead. 

There are a lot of adolescent and romantic ideas about death. Popular culture is filled with them. Death head tattoos, zombie movies, goth pallor and Chatterton’s death. Whether it is the grim reaper or Kali, the goddess, the pale horseman, the Dance of Death or little devils running around with pitchforks. There are coffins and graves, tombstones and crosses. But these are merely symbols, and far removed from the real thing. Death is not a going someplace, death is cessation, an emptiness, a nullity. 

A dead tree is simply defunct. It has passed from a thou to an it. It has been hollowed out and left an unchanging corpse. Not unchanged — it is being decomposed by saprophytes and brown rot, but unchanging in that it no longer produces the life that pushes leaves out of their leaf-tip capsules, no longer stretches new growth from the fingertips of twigs and branches. 

I remember driving through Yellowstone National Park after the great wildfire of 1988 and seeing into the distance miles of blackened trunks. It was a kind of moonscape, with not a living thing to see. 

Life is not something invested in a body, but something the body generates, as the tree produces leaves and fruit. So, when the red oak dies, it isn’t as if an élan vital has left the corpus of the tree, but as if the wood itself has given up, ceased production, closed the shop. It stops. Life is not invested, it is generated. 

The tree looks different. There is an absence in its woody bones. 

I know dead. I saw it when my wife died. She was ill over several years, slowly declining. Then, at 7:28 a.m. I saw her stop breathing. Then another gasp, and then nothing. Her body ceased generating the life that had worked the gears and levers of her muscles and psyche, her organs and mind, for 75 years. When a light bulb had burned out, one doesn’t ask where the light has gone; the light simply has ceased being generated. And one cannot worry where life has fled; the body has stopped manufacturing it. The factory has shut down. The body begins immediately to grow cold, the flesh becomes like damp clay. 

One paragraph in my original story of this tree stands out for me: “This is not a tree of beginnings, not a tree of new fruit, but the kind of tree that functions as a ‘witness.’ It sees all that happens. It cannot change what happens; it cannot interact. But it knows. What it knows, we mere humans can never fully know, but myth tells us over and over, it is not necessarily a happy knowledge. The Garden of Eden may have contained the tree of immortality, but my tree tells me of a longer time, when everything passes. It is a tree of the knowledge of death.”

Chamber music is naked music.

Unlike the big orchestral showpieces, dressed out in brass and percussion, with a hundred musicians tickling your ears, the small combos playing string quartets or piano trios have only their unadorned music to seduce you with. No tam-tam, no shimmer, no tuttis and tooting trumpets.

Symphonies are public; they are oratory. They are campaign speeches for C-major or B-flat-minor. Quartets are personal; they whisper in your ear. They are composers thinking before they speak.

When you listen to Beethoven’s late quartets, you come to that point where the deepest emotions and the most profound thoughts can no longer be separated. They are the same thing.

At its simplest, chamber music is a variety of classical music in which a small number of musicians play together, one to a part, with no conductor. Chamber music is a matter of numbers. Primarily, the number 1.

With an orchestra, you can have 20 violins playing together, or six horns in unison. In chamber music, you normally have one musician to a part. Each plays a separate line of music.

But it’s much more than that.

It is, for most serious lovers of classical music, the purest form of their love; it is music divested of all the frivolous froufrou — the orchestral effects, the grand textures and timbrel mixtures that are the sleight-of-hand of such composers as Berlioz or Strauss.

As cellist Ellen Bial used to say, “The less noise, the more music.”

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In chamber music, there is nothing but the notes, spread across some few instruments, like the outlines of the music, before it is colored over by paint. No yelling, just a word in your ear.

Arnold Steinhardt of the former Guarneri Quartet once called chamber music a “heart-to-heart talk we just had with an audience of strangers.”

It is, perhaps this sense of music as a conversation that is at the heart of chamber music. The sharing is not only between musician and audience, but among the musicians themselves.

“When you play a trio together, or a quartet, you are bonding with your fellow musicians on a very intense level, you are literally breathing together for 30 minutes, trying to be in tune with each other on a millisecond level,” violinist Gil Shaham says. “There is something very intimate about it.”

Intimate and naked: With little variety in sonority or texture, listeners are forced to concentrate on the musical lines. When you listen to an orchestra playing Pictures at an Exhibition, you can float back in the warm sudsy water of a saxophone pretending to be an old castle or trombones and tubas pretending to be an oxcart.

But when listening to a string quartet, you pay attention not to the sound of the music, but to its line. A symphony is a painting; a quartet is a drawing.

You follow a tune in the first violin and hear it repeated and varied in the cello, bounced back and forth between the players. The viola comments and the second violin chatters away.

The four lines of a quartet are racing along, and the fiddlers toss the tunes back and forth, like rugby players running to the goal.

You could draw the musical lines on paper, seeing where the lines intersect and where they stand alone. Theoretically, no one player is more important than another.

I so love chamber music, that I want to share it with everyone — no, not share, proselytize. This is real music for the real music lover — the kind of person who cannot live without music. 

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Chamber music was originally music performed in a small room (chambre in French), or with no audience at all, but for the sheer pleasure of the musicians.

In the 18th century, when most of the forms of chamber music we know were developed, its audience was almost always aristocratic and educated. Often, the noblemen played music themselves. Joseph Haydn wrote 175 works for baryton, an obscure instrument, half cello, half sitar, that happened to be played by his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy.

Suffice it to say, in an era when music served as the prime entertainment form, audiences were as well-versed in the quartet as young people today are in the intricacies of Guitar Hero. They looked for the best in their quartets and trios.

And many amateurs played instruments themselves. Composers made their living supplying the music that was published for people to play in their homes, where Papa might play the violin, Mama the cello and son and daughter second violin and viola.

In the 19th century, many homes had a piano, and bourgeois daughters played four-hand piano reductions of Beethoven symphonies or the latest ballet score. Publishers had to keep up with the demand for sheet music, the way iTunes keeps up today with new MP3s.

Luigi Boccherini wrote 91 string quartets and 110 cello quintets. Giuseppe Maria Cambini wrote 149 quartets. The demand was inexhaustible.

Even today, chamber music is essential for amateur musicians.

Maryellen Gleason was president of the Phoenix Symphony, but she also is an amateur viola player. Each summer she spends a week in Blue Hill, Maine, at the Adult Chamber Music Institute at Kneisel Hall, where she gets to play her viola in quartets of other amateurs.

“It’s something to balance my life,” she says. “I get to play music of composers that I love, and I learn more about the composers that I didn’t know, and I’m just swept up by the vastness of the chamber-music repertory.

“The biggest lesson I learn there is just how difficult it is to be a musician. It’s a very humbling experience.”

Even among professional musicians, the music often was played for their own enjoyment without any audience.

Symphony musicians play it to recapture their love of music, which, for some of them, has turned from their passion into their job.

And, instead of having a single leader governing how to play the music, you haggle it out with the other members of the group in rehearsal, coming to a consensus about tempo, balance, tone.

“It’s a democracy that actually works,” violinist Ida Kavafian said. “For the most part.”

The Guarneri is famous for its discussions — read “fights” — about the music. You can see this in the 1989 film that was made about the group, High Fidelity, directed by Allan Miller. One wants more vibrato and a romantic phrasing, but another objects, demanding a drier phrasing. Eventually, they come to an understanding, but the tension continues into performance, where they pick up on little things the others do.

“There is a constant give and take,” says violist Nancy Buck, who teaches at Arizona State University and plays with the Phoenix Piano Quartet.

“Being able to pick up on the cues the others give — it could be the way someone breathes, the gesture — these are intimate cues, like looking at body language or eyes when you’re talking to someone.”

It is music as intelligent, engaging conversation.

“When I was in college,” says pianist Walter Cosand, “they told us, ‘You might have to starve to be a musician, but you’ll have a lot of fun playing chamber music.’ “

 

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There is an arithmetic of chamber music, almost a numerology.

Four is best, three almost as good. Above nine, things get crowded.

Chamber music comes in many combinations of instruments. The biggest divider is music with piano and music without. Add a piano to a string quartet and you have a piano quintet. Here’s a list of some of the most familiar, and some famous compositions you might consider to enjoy the ensembles.

Solo — Unless he or she’s playing a piano, you don’t find too many cases of a lone performer onstage. It can be tough to hold an audience for an hour if all you have is a cello, unless, of course, you are Yo-Yo Ma. But there are exceptions. Composers have written works for flute, clarinet, even bassoon. But the acme of all such are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, the ne plus ultra of serious music. As an old teacher of mine once said, “They seem to me to be the only truly serious music ever written.” You can lose yourself in that vibrating string, for instance, the opening allemande from the Partita in d minor.

Or consider Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute.

Duo — Things open up when you have two people to engage in conversation. Most often, this will be a piano accompanying a solo instrument. There are hundreds of such sonatas, for violin, for flute, for tuba. By far, the largest number of such sonatas are for violin and piano, and were written by composers from Bach to Philip Glass. 

Beethoven wrote his “Spring” sonata in 1801. The opening movement is tuneful and vernal. Prokofiev wrote his Sonata No. 2 in 1943. The finale is a blast. 

Trio — The piano trio is second only to the string quartet in frequency in the chamber-music repertoire. Piano, violin and cello is the normal lineup, although there are trios with clarinet or horn instead (Brahms wrote one of each of those). One of the most moving is Dimitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-minor, op. 67. The fourth movement features a Jewish-inflected “Dance of Death. More graceful is the fourth movement of Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio; watch on the YouTube video as the musicians watch each other and pay attention. 

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The string quartet needs a section all its own. 

The quartet is the quintessence of chamber music: Four voices ranged as the human voice — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. First violin, second violin, viola and cello.

Or as the old joke has it: A guy who plays the violin really well; a guy who plays the violin less well; a guy who used to play the violin; and a guy who hates the violin.

The fiddle family is flexible, capable of the same microtonal inflections the voice has, and can be just as expressive. Put four of them together in four-part harmony and you have the rock-solid core of the repertoire, from Joseph Haydn to Philip Glass.

“It combines the highest aspect of performance skills, the soloistic qualities you need but also the ensemble skills, knowing how to blend,” violist and quartet-member Nancy Buck says.

It’s that counterpoise that defines a successful quartet: the individual blending with the group. Always maintaining separateness but making a beautiful sound together.

But it isn’t just the instruments: The quartet literature is the highest and best thoughts of the greatest composers. Many, including Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bartok, used the medium for their most personal music. Their symphonies spoke their public thoughts; their quartets, their private musings.

Often very private: Beethoven asked the question, “Must it be?” — he even wrote it in the score — for the last movement of his final quartet, and answers “It must be;” Bedrich Smetana had the first violin in his First Quartet play a high harmonic “E” midway through the finale that mimicked the whine of the tinnitus that plagued him as he slid into deafness; Alban Berg hid the name of his adulterous lover in the Allegro Misterioso of his Lyric Suite; and Dimitri Shostakovich put his own name into the notes of his Eighth Quartet, an almost nihilistic introspection on the devastation of World War II. This is the second movement. 

These are all just movements in larger works. Here are two of the monuments of the quartet literature complete. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A-minor, op. 132 and Bela Bartok’s Fifth Quartet. 

A quartet doesn’t have to be all strings. There are many written for piano, violin, viola and cello. Mozart did it, Schumann did it. But the best are the three by Johannes Brahms. Try his Piano Quartet No. 2 in A, op. 26. Here is the finale. 

The practice of quartet writing continues. Here is the finale of Philip Glass’ Quartet No. 3, which served as the score for Paul Schrader’s film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. 

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Taking up the arithmetic again: 

Quintet — Take a string quartet and add a cello and you have a cello quintet. Add a viola and you have a viola quintet. Mozart wrote six of them. But add Franz Schubert and you have the “Trout” Quintet, the single most perfect, bubbly, tuneful work in the whole chamber-music repertoire. 

On the opposite expressive end, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music in the whole repertoire, if you let Schubert add a second cello, you get the profound Quintet in C. You can hardly get more innigkeit than the second movement adagio

Sextet — The more instruments you add, the further you get from the basic quartet. And with great sextets by Brahms and Dvorak, we’re still recommending Arnold Schoenberg’s powerfully rich and romantic Transfigured Night.

There is also Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34, written for clarinet, string quartet and piano.

Septet — Believe it or not, during Beethoven’s life his most popular composition was not his great Ninth Symphony or his Emperor Concerto, but rather his more modest Septet, for the eclectic group of clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and double bass. It’s still fun.

The Septet in E-flat major, Op. 65, for trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass by Camille Saint-Saens — often considered the most major of all the minor composers — is one of his greatest pieces.

Octet — Put two string quartets together and you have an octet. The one Felix Mendelssohn wrote when he was just 16 has never been beat. It is chamber music of the highest order. No greater music was ever written by someone as young. And there is little music less effervescent than its scherzo

But for sheer cleverness, consider Darius Milhaud’s Octet, Op. 291, which isn’t just an octet. It is his quartets number 14 and 15 performed at the same time. Neat trick. 

Igor Stravinsky said (he is notably unreliable) that the idea for his Wind Octet came to him in a dream.

Nonet — Getting to the high end of chamber music — any more and you start to look for a conductor. One of the only nonets to make it into the standard repertoire is the one by Louis Spohr, a contemporary of Beethoven. There aren’t very many nonets, but Ludwig Spohr’s is the most frequently performed, as long as you don’t count PDQ Bach’s No-No, Nonette for assorted winds and toys.

7 The high end

10 — Georges Enescu wrote his Decet for Winds in D, Op. 14, in 1906 for double wind quintet, with two flutes, oboes, horns, clarinets and bassoons; one oboist doubled on English horn.

11 — In 1918, Igor Stravinsky wrote a Ragtime for 11 Instruments, a prime example of “Uncle Igor’s Asymmetry Machine.”

12 — Milton Babbitt wrote 12-tone music, so it is hardly surprising that he wrote one of those ear-busting pieces, 1948’s Composition for 12 Instruments, a duodecet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, celesta, violin, viola, cello and double bass.

13 — One of Mozart’s greatest masterworks is his Serenade No. 10 for 12 Winds and Double Bass, in B-flat major, K. 361, also called the “Gran Partita.” This is one you shouldn’t miss. The third movement adagio is beautifully appreciated by Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus:

“On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

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And beyond — As we climb up the number ladder, the works become more and more orchestral sounding, even if there is one player per part.

Where can it end?

Richard Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo string instruments, but it is as lush as any Strauss orchestral piece.

Clearly, we’re out of the range of chamber music, but still in the “one voice per part” mode. In 1540, Thomas Tallis wrote his famous Spem in Alium (“Hope in any other”), a religious motet for eight choirs of five voices each, for a total of 40 individual solo lines. That may hold the record.