“THE MUSIC OF GOOD RELATIONSHIPS”

(From Part I: The Longing for Harmony, Chapter 1 of my book-in-progress. See the “Behind the Scenes of My Book-in-Progress” page for more.)

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Notes towards the writing of “the music of good relationships” (Naomi Rose)

Notes towards the writing of “the music of good relationships” (Naomi Rose)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“THE GARDEN OF HEART’S DESIRE”

(Excerpt from Intimacy, a novel written in the early 1990s)

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The Music of Good Relationships

My early childhood memories, a long time ago now, took place in light and a sweetness of sound. In my mind’s eye I can still see myself as a young child with my parents in the living room of our New York City apartment, my heart wide open and shining through my eyes while my parents sat on the floral sofa and looked at me with pride and joy. There is sunlight pouring through the venetian blinds, making stripes of light on the wooden floor. And there are the sounds of pleasure (though these, I may be inserting with hindsight): the “aaahs” and “ohhhs” that come spontaneously in the presence of love, where every little movement of the child causes raptures of amazement in the parent.

So perhaps I was twirling along with the dust motes illuminated by the light, turning round in little circles in the living room, while my parents — young and beautiful, and still in love with each other — fondly looked on. Perhaps they clapped, rhythmically, to applaud my exploration, to cheer me on. Perhaps they said my name aloud, and its three syllables turned into song in their mouths, when spoken from that early depth of love.

I am inserting these possibilities and these aural “memories” because they fit with the visual memories still remaining with me. We tend to remember words that are said to us that have a strong emotional charge, whether of anger or intense love; but in this case, the soundtrack for these memories was not so much about what words were used, if any, but about the likely sounds that issued from my parents in a time when love was still the language of their land. Those early sounds — early in the life of a loved child, and early in the life of astonished parents, astonished that such sophisticated and perhaps world-weary adults such as themselves could have spawned such a bright, happy, innocent being as a child: how could such a being come from them? — formed a world for me, a place to stand. So the sounds that I would insert for myself in retrospect, as I twirled with the dust motes dancing in the bright sun squeezing through the slats of the blinds, would have been the sounds of utter contentment: giggles, sighs, a fine, illuminated breathing.

When such moments of pure being, pure happiness, take place in childhood, I believe that they are noted, absorbed, but not necessarily treasured in the way that we might treasure them as adults. Because at that point, they feel simply natural, an external confirmation of how life feels inside. The livingness of life, prior to mental constructs, requires a natural bowing to all that is, an acknowledgment of its preciousness in the spirit of “Goodnight, Moon,” where a child says goodnight to the moon, the dresser, the doorknob, everything in her world, with full conviction that it all has life and feeling, and will return the acknowledgment. And so this scene of twirling in the light as my parents looked on besotted with love for me — which has lived (though sketchily) in my memory for all these years and which I have filled in a bit, visually, and wholly imagined, aurally — may lack a remembered soundtrack simply because it was so harmonious. When you are young and all the pieces fit together seamlessly, you may feel so part of it all that the details merge into an inseparable whole. Only later, when the pieces become the foreground and the whole recedes into the background — perhaps to be retrieved through a journey of seeking or perhaps never to be even believed — does distinct memory arise, those sharp edges and clangs that gain our attention and hold it hostage as trauma, as the pinned-down parameters of our story, the story we proceed to tell ourselves over and over again as the years pass and our lives take on a fixedness absent from our beginnings.

So it was with me. In time, the early, sunlit pictures faded. And what came into focus were the times of clanging discord; the endless fights between my parents, their wills and helplessness colliding in mid-air as they shouted curses and imprecations at each other. And to live in a room where these words had been flung over and over was to live in a tangle of unkind sounds, sounds that hovered in the air well after they had been shouted; sounds that made of the once-neutral space in the rooms a war-zone.

That this took place well before I was old enough to understand the words, much less the helpless feelings in these gods, my parents, that loosed the curses, meant that the tonalities of these sounds were what entered my skin, my nervous system, my increasingly frightened heart. Later, growing up in that atmosphere of colliding sounds, I would come to understand the words, and they would settle into my mind like books I did not want to read but eventually would read over and over. And only much later — searching for an understanding of how the early Eden in which I had lived with these very same people had devolved into war, searching for a way to get that Eden back — did I come to understand what may have been going on inside those unhappy people whose misery caused them to bring such sounds into the room as to fill its atmosphere with dark, furious scribbles of sound, with no “Ohhh” or “Ahhh” – no parental-love music — to be heard.

# # #

The connection between human harmony, or its absence, and musical harmony may not be something we normally think about, but its roots are as personal and intimate, and ubiquitous, as this. When the music of our real being, which young children still are attuned to until a certain point, is overridden by the conflicts and traumas of adult life — whether in the larger culture or, especially, within the family — we lose track of that music. The influence of the sounds we take in when young becomes largely the soundtrack of our lives, and the rhythms that accompany those sounds entrain our nervous systems to operate in those same rhythms.

We may know, these days, much about the “Fight, freeze, or flight” reaction of trauma that’s a living relic of our reptilian brain and the hallmark of the overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. But we may not know that there was once a more musical rhythm underlying our very breathing, onto which the world has superimposed its ways, which we have taken on as our own, as a child whose adoption is a secret gives full, uninformed allegiance to the people who stand in as family. It’s not that they aren’t family; it’s that they let the child believe that they are the truth of his or her origin, when they are not. There is a truer legacy hidden away.

The connection between human harmony and musical harmony is a real one. It’s in this “hidden-away legacy” that the clues to our innate musicality and harmony are to be found. Human relationships, including with ourselves, have become in modern times so very complex — we proceed in the absence of awareness of the intrinsic musicality and belonging that shows up when we are in a state of wholeness (the Tower of Babel comes to mind to describe our attempts to communicate with one another from this place). And so trying to unravel what is off about our ways of relating may be more complex, relative, and ineffective than seeking to understand how musical harmony, the nature of the universe of which we are part and that is part and parcel of us, can help us regain our natural tone and our tune.

— Naomi Rose, copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.


The Garden of Heart’s Desire

So, begin with longing. Longing is the key. 

Without it, the tall thick blue door will not open, will not allow entrance through the arched dark corridor whose end admits a small semi-oval of light, giving just enough illumination so you don’t have to crawl on hands and knees, guided only by the feel of cool bumpy plaster as you make your way to this strange, familiar place. The scent of a perfumed garden precedes your arrival. Your cells quicken with pleasure as your nostrils take the message:

“Oh do not run but be still, my heart, for we are approaching the secret garden of heart’s desire.”

With each step the allure grows greater. Even if, from the middle of the corridor, you can only see the shapes of things — a purple clump that might be irises, a red grouping that might be roses ~ you no longer require exact details in order to situate yourself. You have never seen this garden, and you have dreamed of it forever. It was created by brilliant gardeners who know the secrets of the universe, in whose hands all seeds take root, all shoots are tended, all soil composted with the useful dregs of what you do not need, what is superfluous to your well-being. These gardeners’ ways are light years ahead of anything you could fathom. Yet these gardeners have been brought here to tend this plot for you. This is, after all, your garden.

It has awaited you all your life. You knew it as a child. You lived there when your eyes were closed, coming back to the noisy world with a startled jerking of the head. Later, you learned to  keep your eyes open, to look outside and outside only. The garden was still being tended. But without you there, it lacked a crucial ingredient — a nourishment of mineral in the clear spring water, a special note the local birds could not sing. Your garden has thrived in your absence, well-tended and well-loved from the moment you left it, awaiting your return like the most majestic of fair-minded rulers. And it will continue to be tended without you there, and will continue to thrive, and the gardeners will work their horticultural magic not only for you but for themselves, for the love of creating, of tending, of developing a soul.

Yet you have dreamed, in quick glimpses, of this garden all your life. You have longed for its comfort, you have yearned for its beauty, you have craved its life-giving nourishment for the eye and the ear and the mouth and the heart. You fear, during those rare glimpses, that you are but a trespasser, that you will be turned away if you encroach over the property line — or worse yet, punished: jailed, or flogged, or publicly humiliated. You want so much what is inside that wondrous garden, what is out of reach. You have no idea on earth that you are the rightful owner.

What makes you walk through the dark corridor, this time? What causes you to come so close that you can tell this gorgeous garden is not a dream, that no savage dogs are being set upon you? Why, this time, can you see the door that opens to the corridor that opens to the garden?

Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened. Ask, and it shall be given. Readiness is all.

— Naomi Rose, © 1993. All rights reserved.


“LIKE SMOKE”

(Excerpt from The Blessings Ledger, a memoir about money written in the early 2000s)

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Like Smoke

My mother and I had been downtown walking, walking for hours, it seemed. When we found ourselves in a part of town way beyond home, with the sun starting to go down, I said, “I’m tired. Let’s take a bus home.”

 My mother looked down at the pavement and growled, “We don’t have the money for it.” There it was, again—my family’s sudden, inexplicable poverty.

Pink light streaked the sky, the only thing with color.  This part of town had no green of trees, had nothing at all that grew. Everything was paved. Even the brick-smokestack buildings of the projects down the street were grimed into grayness.  Suddenly, something about these projects looked familiar.

“I think that’s where Carole Schreiber lives,” I said, pointing.  Carole had recently been my counselor in day camp, sixteen years old to my twelve, vivacious and pretty, with thick curly black hair.  She was worlds apart from me: she wore makeup and smoked cigarettes, and joked familiarly with boys.  Yet she was kind to me, she smiled at me often, I grew inches from the look in her eyes when I was with her.

My mother straightened up, hearing this, and her eyes brightened.  “We’ll borrow a dollar for the bus from her,” she declared, pleased with this inspiration, and tugged me forward with finality.

My mother strode before me on the way to Carole’s building, plowing the air on her four-inch high heels as if she were squaring back her shoulders to approach a bank for a loan.  I dragged my heels behind hers reluctantly.  “Do we have to?” I muttered.  “I don’t mind walking home.”  This reversal suddenly seemed preferable to showing up at Carole’s door and having to endure my mother’s asking for a dollar.  It would be better to walk home in the dark, exhausted, than to present ourselves in such an abject way.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother retorted, gathering speed.  “We’re almost there.”

I saw “Schreiber” listed by the doorbell when we reached the project’s front door.  Now there was no excuse.  We rode up in the elevator not talking, my stomach clenched into a fist.  “Here it is,” my mother whispered, tracking the apartment number.  And then we were standing together in the hall right in front of Carole’s apartment, my heart pounding wildly as my mother reached for the bell.

I wanted so much not to be there that I could scarcely breathe.  At least if my mother did all the talking, maybe I could acquit myself silently, could convey with my eyes or a tilt of my head that I was sorry, I’d been dragged here, this was not my idea….

And then, at the crucial moment—when the door opened up a crack and there was Carole looking out at me with an expression of surprise but welcome, with pink curlers in her wound-up dark hair—my mother ducked behind the corridor wall so that I was left alone.

“Yes?” Carole asked quite sweetly, because it was obvious that I would not have rung the doorbell if I had not wanted something.

I stood open-mouthed and mute, suddenly betrayed in front of my idol. Yet I could not fail to ask for the money, since my mother was in earshot behind the wall. 

“We, I, walked all the way here,” I fumbled lamely.  “I didn’t mean to. . . . It got late. . . .  I didn’t expect to get so tired.  Could I borrow . . . ?”  The “I” tasted sour in my mouth.

Carole smiled with kindness and ease, and went back inside to get her wallet.  She held out a dollar when she returned.  “No rush in paying it back,” she said, looking beautiful.  “Good luck.  I hope the bus comes soon.” 

And only when the door had closed audibly with a click did my mother stick her head out, scouting to see if the coast was clear.  And when her whole body came into view, I saw that her shoulders were more erect than before, as if during her time behind the wall she had been addressing her own embarrassment with some internal military drill.

The bus came quickly, along with the night.  I paid for our fare with the dollar “we” had borrowed.  We were silent the whole ride home.

— Naomi Rose, copyright © 2004. All rights reserved.



“POSTCARDS FROM THE LOST WORLD”

(Full text of a short book published in 2001, reissued in 2007)

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Postcards from the Lost World

All through my childhood, I had experiences of what I later came to read of as "rips in the veil," the parting of a filmy inner curtain that revealed the other world, the world later described by poets and saints and mystics as "Paradise," or "the lost world." Perhaps because my own parents were dreamers, and for a long time fed me on their dreams, I felt more comfortable in the dream world than in the strange, often barbaric and competitive tussle of what was called "real life."

While I was young, and my heart quite open, these rips came as great gifts, like friends from long ago who lived closer in the heart than anyone I knew in person. I could never tell what would occasion these remembrances; only that when they came, there was a great swelling of joy, a recall of something very important, more important than whatever I was caught up in at the moment, and then, when they mysteriously faded away, I felt an enormous loss, a panic to be suddenly stranded here, in this body, in this bright, football-playing world where I was somehow to toughen myself that I too might, in my own way, bash my padded shoulders, my helmeted head against the world that would call me out onto some barren playing field and blow a piercing whistle and I would have to enter the fray.

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No heroic event, no stirring human drama, no recitation of the course of history stirred me more than these glimpses through the veil. When they came, they dimmed the human strivings as so much noise.

One recurrent scene came to me in the crib, and then again later in life, in the midst of an ordinary conversation or during a hard and despairing time. And this scene flooded me with a great golden hope beyond questioning, let loose unbridled certain joy and cellular knowledge of what I was and what for and why. It was simply this: a great cliff seen in sunlight, in the afternoon’s golden light, its massive outcrops copper in the light, the light the gold of just turning, just moving into sunset. And above the copper-glinting cliff a sky of turquoise blue. In my crib I lay looking at this old friend, this call to home, this landscape that moored me to something I could not ever name, but which I knew with my heart’s beat and life’s blood, and had always.

Although this scene came and went, always at its own bidding, never mine, its golden light followed me, invisible, through the gloom of later years. And something of its echo, as a felt sense rather than a vision, would be behind me or within me during precious or trying moments: walking barefoot, as a young child, on moist grass, wearing a sundress of yellow, with the yellow morning sun warm on my bare shoulders, bending down to smell a Black-eyed Susan, its deep dark center cupped by bright yellow petals. The cliff’s untold story stayed with me, invisibly, bringing the natural world into delicious, trustworthy focus, making it possible for me to yield myself to whatever, whoever of love was there: a flower, a grasshopper, Marais and Miranda singing deeply and sweetly from my record player, my velvet-soft mother’s grained, perfumed arms, my oversober father’s freshly shaven face. I was visitor, then, to this world, but one with unexpected postcards from home.

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My father, himself, was a rip through the veil, when I was young. He was stranger to me, and in some ways frightened me with his withdrawn presence, his silent, martyred loneliness. He played the role of Other so well, as men did and were supposed to do. So he left for the day, leaving me with my pincurled writer-mother, and returned at night, walking through the door with the evening cold still hanging on his topcoat. While he was doing well in the World Out There, the place to which he went when he was not in that door frame, returning, he treated us to all the wealth he was capable of. He brought me books and records, and jewelry, and summers in the country, and stories that he had gathered over the course of studying a secular human history, and stories he wrote himself, which was his business as well.

One day when I was in the bathroom and he was helping me wash my hands, he took a box out of his pocket and gave it to me. Inside was a ring with three turquoise stones, set horizontally in silver, As my father fit the ring on my finger, while the morning sun slanted gold-white through the bathroom window, a full sense of recognition came to me, without words or direct memory. It was the same feeling as watching the cliff. It opened an entire level of turquoiseness, and all that that meant, whatever it was: turquoise and silver jewelry, turquoise sky, my father’s wonderful hooked nose that he so hated and that I so loved. With this ring came the remembrance, not ever in words and barely in pictures, of all the many times I had been here before, just not as quite “me”; of all the many times I had stood open-hearted in a circle of light (this time in a bathroom, by the sink), all the many landscapes and city scenes I had known, from sunlit massive cliffs to cobblestone towns, all brought back in this moment of accepting the gift of the ring. This ring, which I received in full delight, married me to this turquoise world, whose threads would fade and almost sever, until, after many a far journey, they returned again.

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But until my heart broke, as a child, and therefore while I still could trust the world, it actually didn’t take much to bring postcards from the lost world through to me. I received the postcard while watching “The Howdy Doody Show,” sitting in my friend Marsha’s living room and eating sandwiches on TV trays in front of this new, strange box that showed black-and-white pictures.

I was entranced by the medium. I hated “Howdy Doody,” he and Buffalo Bob were insufferable and treated kids like morons; I hated the mean circus of its pranks, its loudness and stupidity. But I enjoyed one pompous marionette, Phineas T. Bluster, and I fell quite in love with a beautiful young maiden called Princess SummerFallWinterSpring. In her name, in her gracefulness, in her sweet poised walk, I felt my anchor, my innocence held and buttressed in a sunlight-cliff way. When they chased her with seltzer bottles, or tumbled her, unsuspecting, off heights onto a trampoline, when they made fun of her in any way, my stomach went into a terrified tumble of its own, and I felt physically sick. It was more than compassion, it was more than empathy, it was more than remembrance; it was a gut-level terror that the turquoise world would be somehow beaten down, mocked into nonexistence, and that no one would be there to anchor me to it. I would have to run away, or to join the mockers, to toughen my skin and laugh as though nothing hurt, nothing was wrong, when in fact, by this simple seltzer-attack on Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, the entire world was in grave danger.

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One day, during Assembly Period in perhaps third grade, I sat among hundreds of children fidgeting in hard wooden chairs, wearing the requisite white shirts and blouses of Assembly. I went through the ritual as usual: rising from the hard seat, singing the awkward “Oh Say Can You See,” obediently putting my right hand over my left heart — but not saying the Pledge of Allegiance, merely lip-synching along with the crowd so that I might walk that fine line between not standing out or being punished, yet not promising fidelity to something I did not understand or, in its obligatory nature, come to freely. Its sing-song over, I sat down with the others and waited for another boring speech to come from some teacher or the principal or a guest speaker, a speech that would make me dizzy with boredom and make the vertical folds of the curtains on the stage begin to shimmer and dance.

But this day, something different. A family of Indians, dressed up in nature costume: feather and buckskin, and beaded wondrous designs and colors. The Turquoise World had come to me, here in this ritual prison! A man and a woman and children spoke softly, then did a dance on the stage, and sang a chant in syllables that I seemed to know better than I knew my own language. Vowels, long and full: Heya, ho, heya, ho.

And the sunlight came not so much on them, in this dreary huge public school auditorium, not so much on them from the high, small windows, as from them, from within them. Gold light filled me, hearing them, watching them. I felt known, and rescued, and scooped up with kindness, and loved — more loved than I had known in this life so far.

How strange to feel this. How strange, when I knew full well, at the age of eight, my own name, my English/Yiddish-language history, the family stories, my address, my phone number, my middle name, the capital of France, the inventor of the sewing machine, how strange to want to leap up and out of my hard wooden seat and spring down the aisle and run up into the soft gold-streaming arms of these strangers dancing on the stage, to rejoin the circle of their musical light, to take them back and be taken back.

— Naomi Rose, copyright © 2001, 2007. All rights reserved.