Many of you know my “thing” about using music to get to the core of something I’m writing. It’s been part of everything I’ve ever published, from Dylan, Nat King Cole, and Beethoven for scenes in Boot Language – to Janis Joplin and Madame Butterfly for my short essays that found homes in literary journals.
Usually, the music I choose is the result of a well-planned effort. Today I’d be working on a scene about my grandmother, the feisty ballerina. So, I’ll immerse myself in the dramatic ballet score, Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov.
As I pulled onto the road heading to The Abbey to write, I flipped on the radio, expecting a little ‘Mozart-in-the-Morning’ to start the day. Instead, I gasped. I was enveloped in the boisterous drama of the “Toreador Song” from the opera, Carmen. Dad’s favorite. It was going to be one of “those” drives.
“Hi Dad,” I offered, eyeing the car next to me, wondering if anyone else speaks to their dead parents.
As the music played, I was transported to the last time I’d last heard Dad sing that piece. It was Mom’s birthday, and we were celebrating in what Dad would call “a classy Mexican joint.” Soon after we arrived, Dad pushed himself up to a standing position, his legs wobbly as he began to sing the aria, gesticulating as if on stage.
As he entertained the other diners, I remember scooching along the red vinyl booth seat in my bell bottoms, attempting to escape. Mom softly shook her head, “Don’t.” Why hadn’t she given that signal to Dad instead of to me? But the 65-year-old-me wonders: How can I still be feeling this humiliation? Hadn’t I already forgiven him? I breathed deep, remembering my own words: It’s never over. It’s a part of me. Forever.
Suddenly the music changed. The radio was now playing “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess. This was Mom’s favorite, a lullaby first sung by a motherto her baby, and then after the mother dies, it’s sung to the orphaned child. All at once Dad faded and it was as if I could almost touch Mom as she stood next to the grand piano, caught in the heaven of the music. I pulled the car over, swiping at tears. What is this desire to sit with my memories? To feel the pain of loss?
I had no answer. All I knew was I needed to hear every bit of it –especially the final notes, when the soprano’s voice falls from the sky, a mournful wail of beauty. When the glorious descending notes fell upon me, I crumbled forward to the steering wheel, grateful to Mom and Dad for their passion for music, and for instilling that love in me…no matter what else had happened.
1: Look! While perusing the stacks at my personal mecca, Powell’s Books in Portland, I found Boot Language! I did the happy dance all the way down the aisle. (Sorry for the repeated news for those of you who saw this on Instagram and FB this week. I couldn’t contain myself.)
2: OMG, I made my deadline. I just sent off the edits/revisions for Driven to my editor. Now the wait…
3: I’m working on two speeches and a speaking page for my website. Both talks address the female legacy of trauma:
i. Transcend Your “F-ing” Trauma (a talk informing others of the commonality of trauma, and the self-care needed to deal with it)
ii. Be as resourceful as a Suffragette (about the shadow of suffrage that’s with us today)
What’s on my bedside table?
It’s no surprise that my reading time is taken up with titles that informmy historical novel. This is the volumeI turn to time and again to gain insight into my character Paul, who joins the French Foreign Legion as an American. (This was a popular idea, especially for ivy league fraternity brothers.)
1915: Jean Dartemont heads off to the Great War, an eager conscript. The only thing he fears is missing the action. Soon, however, the “war to end all wars” seems like a war that will never end. Whether mired in the trenches or going over the top, Jean finds himself caught amid an unimaginable, unceasing slaughter. After he is wounded, he returns from the front to discover a world where no one knows or wants to know any of this. Both the public and the authorities go on talking about heroes—and sending more men to their graves. But Jean refuses to keep silent and will speak the forbidden word. He will tell them about fear.
Vanya is the award-winning author of Boot Language. She’s spent decades teaching writing as well as mentoring educators in the oldest, continuously used schoolhouse in California. Her essays have appeared in a dozen literary journals and anthologies.