Muscle Memory in Springtime

May 2, 2014

That’s me … trying – ugh, so thunkingly – trying to remember how beauty works.  I used to be able to play Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 72, Number 1 in C minor as if it were second nature – easily, beautifully.  I’ve felt hungry for its sadness and sweetness in my fingers these days, so I’ve cracked open my old music book.  Muscle memory is carrying me part of the way back to the song, but it takes more effort than I expected.  My muscles dimly remember, but my fingers are stiff, and a decades-old injury from a delicatessen meat-slicer has left my middle finger numb at the tip and fumbling, lost on once-familiar keys. 

I’m feeling that way about this strangely delayed springtime, too – as if it’s an effort to remember how spring’s melody is supposed to go.  Here are the daffodils. But are the dandelions really next, before the grape hyacinths fully bloom? Our tulips haven’t yet relaxed open, and we’re into May. It’s as if nature -- perhaps like you and me, is still stunned that this brutal winter -- Narnian in its scope – is finally over, and spring is fumbling its way forward. The winter was terrible for so many of us. I’m not just talking about the polar vortex and snowfall.  I can’t remember another season in which so many beloveds suffered so many deep losses.  Our own family and friendship circle are amputated. Four people we loved, ate with, laughed with, breathed next to – gone.  On some days, springtime’s gaudy return just feels … wrong. 

Like my humbled self on the piano bench, forced to slow down, to pay attention to accidentals, intervals, trills that used to be second-nature, I’m trying to attend to this not-quite-familiar season. It seems both natural and strange for the purple-green asparagus to arrow out of the soil in their protean way, or for the magnolias to unfold so much later than usual, curled against this week’s chill. The forsythias seem truly lost; no show-girl plumes of canary yellow this year.  Our bush, like others in town, only bloomed moodily around its base, as if its joy, too, has been amputated. Three of our rose bushes, scoured by polar winds, didn’t make it, even though I banked them carefully with leaves. Improbably, our clematis, in an exposed Western-facing spot, survived.  That, too, seems strange. Is this how nature is supposed to work?

[April's playing fades and Arthur Rubinstein's commences.]

I’m back in the community garden this year, but I had to work to get into the mood to get out there on a recent Sunday, when I had a stack of papers to slog through. (For teachers, Sunday afternoon is really just Monday Eve).  I’d promised to plant some peas, though, so I walked to the garden, seed packets rattling, trying to ignore the chilly gusts that competed with the weak sun.  Once I was kneeling in my plot, though, it felt right to push my fingers back into the soil after so many months away, to return to the basic, repetitive work of hoeing the weeds, folding compost into the soil, securing the wire fencing that will support the vining plants. As I began to peel open the sturdy seed envelopes, I felt warm breath near my side.  I turned to find the wide, smiling, white-whiskered face of a new dog in the garden – a schnauzer-poodle mix, upholstered and sturdy as a living footstool.  He simply sat there, panting next to me, as I finger-measured the distance between seeds, poking them into the softened soil:  lilac-colored Shiraz snow peas, bright green Sugar Sprint snaps, sunflower-yellow Golden Sweets.  Repeat, repeat.  Breathe, and breathe.  I laid my cold hand on the dog’s wide, curly chest, felt his heartbeat …  and felt my own.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as poet Dylan Thomas put it, feels less inevitable this spring – more hesitant, less secure.  But this strangeness can remind us that beauty isn’t a given.  It is both found and made.  Muscle-memory isn’t enough to carry us through difficult seasons. Beauty, I’m still learning, takes practice.