Louis VierneLately I have been thinking about how hard things can be. In my own life: conflict at work, trouble at home, the opacity of romance. The tendency to stare at a bunch of asparagus and be baffled, overwhelmed, by the prospect of putting them together in some kind of meal in which the reedy old rods are made edible. This after a long day of being told to “shut the fuck up” and “highly ineffective” and “many reminders” and “per union regulations”.

I have been thinking about what it takes, what it could take, for two people to agree—against all odds—to come together amid all this and to spend time if not their lives together: to make that promise and to live by it, to love and support each other and to laugh at the jokes, both good and bad, and to swear when things are bad that they will get better and to not get upset, or too upset, when all the dishes are left in the sink or something strange goes on in the bathroom.


It is a kind of bravery.

Today I went to a bookstore and a man and a woman stood in the bargain aisle, a baby strapped to the man’s chest and the woman asking if he had ever read The Shipping News, which he had. The baby mewed as if joining in on the conversation, confirming that he or she (the wondrous de-gendered state of the young!) had also read The Shipping News and had, all things considered, found it to be a less than extraordinary work, now deservingly found in the bargain aisle.


The sounds of the child and his or her (again, who knows!) interjections and gentle brewings just about brought me to my knees. Things in the world or just in our own lonely lives can come to appear so bleak, and then you encounter a young family and the enormous courage they display simply by standing in the bargain book aisle with proof that they believe so much in the good of life as to start a new one of their own.


I tried to write a poem about all this. It’s called Hard. Here it is so far:

Hard—what is hard?
It’s all hard.
As stone and metal and wood
Are hard, all hards.
Just different hards.
What is this building you are building?
Select your materials.
Apply pressure.
Hard, too, can accommodate.
It will yield.
Hard bends your will.
And you will build a house of good intentions
That you will live inside.
And from inside peer out your window
And sigh when you see a deer reaching with soft lips to the fruit tree.
She is dappled in light and the mush of ripe repair.
While the ground, pliant with apple bulbs,
Yields support.
She will look at you and sigh and say,

But I don’t know how to end this. I don’t know what the deer would say. I sort of like the ending with no ending—the last line with that expectant (pregnant, ha ha) comma, and the leap into the void of nothingness beyond. But that also feels a little cheap to me. I mean, that deer probably would have an excellent perspective on all this and, barring the “fact” that deers can’t “say” anything, I’d like to imagine a deer that looks up from its happy apple eating and says, “Hang in there. There are always more apple trees. There are always more apples. You can walk into another orchard anytime and find another version of what you are looking for. There are thousands of strains of apples in the world. But they are all apples. There are a thousand ways to say it is impossible. But it is all, also, possible.”

I don’t know. Something like that. I’m still working on it.

I hope you are not having too bad of a day, whatever you have been doing.

One thing that makes my days and nights and all-around life so good and secretly happy (secret because it is a language not everyone understands even though everyone can hear it, if they want, and speak it, if they choose to, making it the most diplomatic and democratic language on earth) is classical music.

I am always happy to have WQXR toddling around in the background, whatever else I am trying to saw away at (today: taxes, side editing work, sorting out a transit discount I am partially signed up for and am currently hanging in the chad of bureaucratic effort and discontent, planning and grading for the coming week of teaching, the transformation of 8 pounds of beets into something I can put into my system without too much displeasure before it all rots…)

About a week ago I was listening to the transmission of the national show, Pipe Dreams, a Sunday night special of organ music, often liturgical. Organs are massive, the blue whale of instruments, but they grace the airwaves far too infrequently. So I lend an eager Sunday ear to whatever host Michael Barone has on offer.

On this particular show I was listening to, he introduced the “wonderfully nasty” music of Louis Vierne. I had never heard of this composer and organ player of the late 19th and early 20th Century. And “wonderfully nasty” is a most compelling introduction. As the dark, heavy notes of this long-gone French composer came over the airwaves, I looked him up. Maybe someday someone will remember me as wonderfully nasty! I want to learn first from the master to best ensure this outcome.

Vierne showed, as all these guys pretty much did, exceptional musical talent from a ridiculously young age. He was nearly blind at the time of his birth, and struggled with his sight his whole life, yet immediately began picking out the notes of a Schubert lullaby by ear before he could even speak. The man was trained at the esteemed Paris Conservatory and, for nearly 40 years, served as the principal organist at Notre-Dame de Paris until he died, suddenly and mid-performance, on the cathedral’s own organ bench, the notes of his composition still ringing through its stone archways and flying buttresses.

Vierne lost both his son, Jacques, and brother Rene to the battlefields of World War I. He got hit by a speeding moped on a Paris street, leading to an injury that nearly took his leg and required, at a minimum, that he re-learn his entire pedal technique. And his wife left him for his best friend, a break from which many believe he never fully recovered and, honestly, who would?

While giving his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame on the evening of 2 June, 1937, Vierne suffered either a stroke or a heart attack (jury still out). He had completed his main concert, which members of the audience said showed him at his full powers—”as well as he has ever played.” Directly after he finished performing his “Stele pour un enfant defunt” from his ‘Triptyque’ Op. 58, the closing section was to be two improvisations on submitted themes.

He read the first theme in Braille, then selected the stops he would use for the improvisation. Then he pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low “E” pedal of the organ. As the single note echoed throughout the cathedral, Vierne lost consciousness and died at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame.

Hard—what is hard?

It’s all hard.