Saturday, February 19, 2011

Time out of mind

When you listen to music, do you hear harmonies in your head? And if you do, can you remember a time when you weren't able to hear them?

In one of the precious moments of very early spring with which north Florida blesses us most years, I walked along the beach at Guana today with a two delighted dogs and a dear old person. This is the time I dedicate to reflection, to contemplation, to what is called prayer in some spiritual languages. Today my internal reflections were framed by the drama of the high and low tide marks, defined by the fullness of the moon. And those reflections turned again and again to memory; specifically, to conditions of my own memory for which I have no fallback recollection. What existed before a given memory?

Until she died about four years ago, neither of my sons could remember a time in their lives when we didn't have a well-loved nursemaid of a dog named Sheba. She came to us when Mac was a little more than three years old. When he searches his memories there are no conscious flashes of images in which Sheba isn't at least a peripheral presence. Likewise, I don't believe either of my sons remember the ocean being introduced to their consciousness. Like their dad, they remember it as always having been there. In contrast I have a mental image, undimmed after all these years, of the first time I stepped into the shifting sand and surf of St. Augustine Beach. I was seven years old, had been born and raised among the hills and mountains of east Tennessee, and I had never seen anything so dazzling. My sons, like their dad, were carted to the beach most days, weather permitting, as babies in diapers, and set down into warm tide pools to sift sand and turn brown as acorns. Like Sheba, the beach was Always There.

Music and vocal harmony feels this way for me. My ear was tuned by my genetics - both my mother and my father were fine singers, and it might be argued that my father was actually quite a gifted singer whose sweet light baritone was relatively untrained but undeniably lovely. My mother fed me close harmonies with breast milk. I absorbed melody, nakedly gorgeous vocal ability and preservation of musical history through the voice of Joan Baez before I could talk. It would be many years before my dear teacher Sister Patricia would introduce me to formal bel canto singing, but when she did I recognized it right away. I'd been able to harmonize with "Barbara Allen" as a toddler; the duet of Palestrina's Stabat Mater was a challenge I'll have to tell you about later but as difficult as it would be to sing (and I'm proud to tell you I did selections from it with Miss Judy, one Lenten season long ago), it sounded like the most natural thing in the world to me. My mother poured the folk music of her time into my open ears and heart but she also believed in its roots, which were most easily to be heard in those days in the Grand Ole Opry. This, too, she poured out like baptismal waters. By the time I was invited to sing in a choir when I was eight years old, finding an alto line a third below the soprano was as comfortable to me as an old quilt. And though I already knew I didn't have the top range to voice them, those upper harmonies a third or a fourth or a fifth above the melody were just as familiar and comforting in my inner ear as that same faded old quilt.

What, my dears, do you recall in this way? Is there something you know you must have learned but cannot remember the learning of it, so that it seems something you were born with? Is there a person to whom you must have been introduced who nevertheless seems to have been with you from the moment of your birth? Are there other like tricks of memory and learning?

Or is it just me?

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