Another Reason to Stay

celloMy Mom played the cello every day, even while enduring chemotherapy. Her last lesson was less than two months before she died. Mom loved the cello, but I never really understood her dedication. Even when I took piano lessons as a kid, I didn’t feel much affection for the act of playing an instrument. I’ve always loved cello music, but not the way Mom did.

After she died, I took up Mom’s cello. I wasn’t confident that my sick body could sustain the effort of playing an instrument. To be honest, I only decided to try lessons because I wasn’t ready for the cello to be sold and leave the family. But through coincidence and good fortune, I found Krysta Fogel, a cello teacher who was perfectly suited to finding a way for me to play without pain. Or at least without pain until my fingers crack and bleed.

Oh yes, my fingers bleed. I bleed because I have fallen in love with the cello, and the only thing that stops me from playing is exhaustion and pain. How could I not love an instrument when “to play it you must embrace it, and its resonating chamber rests upon your heart.” I often find myself resting my left cheek on the tuning pegs as I practice.

I feel deeply connected to Mom when I play her cello. As my arms wrap around the instrument, it is like embracing her again. Sometimes I have actually hugged the cello and pretended it was her. I have all of her sheet music, and I love finding her pencil marks. Sometimes it’s just a check mark or something circled; sometimes it is the date in her handwriting. It is incredible to practice a Suzuki exercise, and know that she played it in December 2003.

But playing the cello has also made me feel her loss more acutely. I want so desperately to talk to her about it that even my teeth hurt. Did she know of Jacqueline du Pre? Why did she prefer Yo-Yo Ma’s version of the Bach Cello Suites to Pablo Casals’s definitive recording? What was her favorite piece to play? How did she learn to play double stops? What would she think about my being the cellist great granddaughter of Gregor Piatagorsky? And what was her own teacher-pupil cellist lineage?

Last week, our brother-from-another-mother asked me if I had ever heard of cellist Zoe Keating. When I said no, he recommended her solo albums. This friend does not recommend things lightly, so I immediately bought her music. I didn’t make it past the second track on her album Into The Trees because I was weeping so hard.

Keating records and loops her music as she plays to create an entire symphony of sound with just her cello. I can’t describe the song “Escape Artist;” you just have to listen to and watch the video. I feel like Keating spun that song from the fibers of my soul. Asking you to listen to it is one of the purest forms of self-expression I have. That song captures an essence of me that I did not know was there.

The last two years have been filled with loss, near misses, worry, conflict, loneliness, anger, and depletion. There have been days when I have wanted to disappear into a blanket fort and never come out, and I discovered the Wall of Nope. Yet these years have also contained strength, connection, forgiveness, love, learning, and perhaps even the beginning of a miracle. For every reason I’ve had to quit, there have been at least two reasons to keep going. I am thoroughly blessed and surrounded by family and friends who  will never let me fall. I may be covered in scratches, bruises, skinned knees, and road rash, but by everything that is sacred I am still here.

In the raw pain of self-discovery as I listened to “Escape Artist,” I realized this is another reason to stay alive. A random recommendation from a friend led to this profound and unexpected experience. There is always something new to learn. One human life is not long enough to discover all that is beautiful and interesting in the world. And the next wonderful thing may be completely unexpected; in fact, it probably will be. I finally understand why Mom played this cello until the final days of her life. Even on my lowest day, there is someone I love, and music I love, and a path into the trees.

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31 Responses to Another Reason to Stay

  1. This is why I write – and there are no writers in my family. Because it sits right on my heart.

    My mother always was the family storyteller – maybe I picked it up from her.

    I wish she had written the stories down.

    I’m glad you’re well enough to enjoy music; I’m not – I can’t listen any more, not for long. But I will try some of your links to get the flavor of what I’m missing.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      I was unable to listen to music for a number of years after getting ME. The gift of Mom’s cello has been to give that back to me.

  2. Sorry I didn’t respond to your question on The Wall of Nope about how to find someone: I called in a flyer to the local community college job board.

    I asked for someone to do EVERYTHING – I pay for what that’s worth. She does some housework and some filing and some photography and can do many more things.

    She has a full-time job, and I am the flexibility and the extra income. It works for both of us. She has a lot of energy.

    She and I have both missed a number of days because one of us was sick over the past two weeks (she had her wisdom teeth out, and caught food poisoning – I’ve had two different horrible viruses with coughs). I hope she’s coming again Thursday!

    I need her for so many things – and I would have been able to do most of the things she can (and some others) when I was her age (21).

  3. Rivka says:

    Very very moving.

    There is so much loss and depletion and crisis and desperation when living with ME. And then the losses of a normal life don’t stop just because we are so sick that sometimes we are barely alive. So there is that double whammy thing going on for us.

    Glad you have something you can still do physically that makes it all a little more bearable emotionally.

  4. Veronique says:

    You said, “Even on my lowest day, there is someone I love, and music I love, and a path into the trees.” I am so very very happy for you. What an unexpected gift that you have discovered. I watched the video too – she’s brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing. Keep plucking away! :0)

  5. Betsy says:

    Wonderful that you’ve picked up your mother’s passion Jennie – wherever she is I’m sure she’s so pleased. 🙂 I have a friend who says, “You never know when something wonderful is going to happen.”

  6. Pat says:

    Jennie, When this email came today, I was just talking about reasons to stay and keep moving forward (figuratively…lol) and for me it is that I paint. Not because I’m an amazing artist, but because my parents, especially my father, thought that about me. Even though they are no longer with me, I feel a special connection to the past and a hopefulness for the future. I try to do a little everyday and somedays it just doesn’t happen, but there is always tomorrow : )

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      I am coming to believe that humble acts of creativity are essential. Knitting and music are essential for me, anyway.

  7. Claudia Goodell says:

    This is a beautifully written piece and I am deeply touched by it. Thank you for sharing this personal experience, but also the links to the inspiring music.

  8. Laurie P says:

    I just got up this afternoon (my sleep cycle rotates) and turned on my computer, got your email and started reading your blog. When my tears made it difficult to read, I clicked on your link to Zoe Keating and cried more. Tears of joy, grief, beauty, LIFE! Gasps. Sighs. I absolutely love her, and you and your mom, and your love for your mom, without whom I may never have found this.

    I haven’t listened to very much classical music in years. I used to listen to a lot of Kronos Quartet, Arvo Part, the amazing deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie…. I did listen to Gorecki’s Sym. No. 3 recently. That was only because I finally; about a year and a half ago, was able to get high speed internet and therefore access to YouTube. The journey to the living room to find the CD was too much work. I like to listen to Gorecki at Christmastime when I can.

    Listening to Zoe Keating brings me back to the me that I was discovering 20 some odd years ago when I was listening to the music I just mentioned. I was still young, passionate, hopeful. I thought that I had my whole life in front of me and that my health would improve or at the worst stay the same. I would have done everything differently if we had been told the truth about our conditions three decades ago. I would have listened to my body more. I would have gotten alimony! I would have done everything I could have done to keep my house. I would have invested in the now, instead of a future that never came, struggling to work and struggling through college for 12 years for a B.A. and leaving graduate school never to return.

    This is a video that I’ve found that breaks my soul and saves it at the same time. It crashes me if I watch it too often as it evokes too much emotion in me and the lyrics stay in my brain; which is a huge problem for me with lyrics. But I love it. Every time I watch this, I feel my body as hers, and the rain upon my skin. “Young and Beautiful” DANCING IN THE RAIN (Lana Del Rey tribute – starring Sarah Smac McCreanor). I miss being able to use my body so much and I’m terribly overusing what’s left of my brain. It’s so hard to not live so that we can keep on living.

    My best friend, who also has ME, was a sculptor who can’t sculpt anymore and who aspired to learn the cello, but is now unable. My friend will also love Zoe Keating. Thank you so much, Jennie, for this beautifully written, heartfelt blog and for sharing Zoe Keating with us.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Watching dance is also wonderful! I took ballet from about age 5 to age 8. I have always regretted my childish reasons for giving it up. Since I have so little dance experience, I never think of it as an accessible form of self-expression for me. But I do love to watch it. And the great thing about YouTube is the way it serves up new videos for you. I found this one, several clicks from the one you sent:


  9. Amy says:

    Beautiful post Jennie. So happy to know about zoe keating too–i listened to escape artist and thats…amazing. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

  10. Linda Sleffel says:

    Very moving. I’m glad you have found these reasons to live, and I’m blessed to know about them.

    I remember the first time I heard the Elgar cello concerto; I was deeply moved by its beauty, and I ran out and bought a recording. (This was in the days when you could go to a store and buy a CD.) They didn’t have the Yo Yo Ma version, so I bought the one they had, by a Russian cellist I had never heard of and whose name I can’t remember. Then I got the Yo Yo Ma recording. Later I read about Du Pre and bought a recording she had made. And then I read that the Barbarolli version was considered the best, so I got that one too. I like them all. I love the sound of the orchestra joining in to repeat the opening phrases. I’m not a musician, so the only way I can describe the orchestra’s sound is “heavy” or “solid.” Very powerful. I decided I like the Du Pre recordings better, because she and the conductor didn’t allow the orchestra to drown out the cello.

    I’m an opera junkie; I’d listen to opera 18 hours a day if I could. But after I got sick, I couldn’t listen to the operas I liked best, because anything familiar would stick in my head and drive me crazy. Then I couldn’t listen to opera at all; I collected Renaissance masses. I discovered the choral music that is such a tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church. I love the sound of Russian, and I only understand a couple of words, so it didn’t stick in my head.

    Now my nervous system has reached the point where I can’t even listen to the calmest relaxation CD. I do have one called “Tintinnabulation.” It’s just randomly sounding gongs and bells. I can’t put it in the CD player because it has some bass tones that will blow your speakers out if you play it too loud. But I have a tape I made of it, and I’m able to listen to that on days when I wake up with something unbearable playing over and over in my head.

    Jenny, I’m very happy that you have found the blessing of cello music, and I hope it will continue to make your life more meaningful.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      I have the Du Pre Barbirolli version, which is what I listen to incessantly. I also have a Yo-Yo Ma/Andre Previn recording of it, and I should listen for comparison. The staccato at the beginning of the second movement is INSANE! I’ve watched the video to try and figure out how she moves the bow so fast, and I still don’t know.

      I love opera too, but stopped learning about it when I met my husband because he HATES it. Can you recommend any Russian choral music?

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I love this.

  12. Sam Pearce says:

    You are a beacon Jennie. Keep shining for us xxxxxxxxxx

  13. Jennie – This is such a beautifully written piece. When you said you’ve hugged the cello at times and pretended it was your Mom, tears came to my eyes.

    “The Escape Artist” took my breath away. She’s such a superb cellist. I love both Jacqueline du Pre and Yo Yo Ma, even though their styles are so different. Du Pre always makes me feel as if her heart is bleeding into the instrument. Yo Yo Ma is full of life and joy.

    Oh, and it’s funny that you mention double stops because when my husband practices the viola, playing them is the sure way to get our dog to howl.

    Thank you again for this wonderful post.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Double stops are haaaaaaaaaard. I read one of the biographies about Du Pre and yes, she was basically playing with her heart instead of the bow. Love you!

  14. Lisa Myers says:

    This. Is. Just. Beautiful.

    Yes, there are many reasons to stay. And you are one of those reasons for so many people. Thank you, Jennie.

  15. Cheryl Boese says:

    Thank you, Jennie. I needed this today, my second anniversary of being disabled by ME. The music was haunting and yet exhilarating. I know I must stay through the dark times and keep my eyes open for the sparks of light.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Oh Cheryl, yes, watch for the sparks of light. There are many. Sending you strength for your sickaversary. It can be a really hard day.

  16. kathy d. says:

    That is absolutely lovely. So glad that you found the cello and the music of cellists. I know the Bach Cello pieces, but haven’t listened to others. Will listen to your suggestions.
    Yes, music is a reason to stay.
    I rarely listen to it as it gives me headaches often, but I will try to hear the cello pieces you suggest.
    For me, reading is a great pleasure. If I’m reading a good book and resting, then I’m content.
    And Jacqueline du Pre was an amazing cellist. I remember hearing her name and knowing about her illness years ago. So glad you found her music. (There is a movie about her.)

  17. Tina Smith says:

    “I am still here,” says it all. I needed to hear this today; really everyday. Very moving, beautiful story.

    From my heart I thank you.

  18. Christian Godbout says:

    There is an aspect of musical experience which is quite unique: Music is not an object “before” you, like a painting or a sculpture, nor is it mediated by intellectual activity, like reading a poem. Instead, music surrounds you, there is no distance, it impacts you in an im-mediate way, you “bathe” in it.
    It’s a fusional experience.
    This happens to be the way we first experience the world – an immediate sensorial experience, made of beats (heartbeats..) and sounds.
    I like to think that music has such a powerful impact on so many of us because of its affinities with our primordial experience of – to give her a name – the “archaic mother”, the one whose words had not yet meaning to us, they were just comforting sounds. A mother which we then loose, when discovering she is actually a separate entity (I don’t remember but it must of been a real shock..) and then re-find in the fusional experience of music, metaphorically speaking.
    And then when you loose your mother for real this time, later on in life, and if on top of it she had an intimate rapport to music, passing it on to you, I imagine this must make for such an overload of, and overlapping, experiences of loss and painful yet sublime refindings.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      This is beautiful. I love how you linked it back to my mom and these overlapping layers of loss and connection. Thank you.

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