Giving up on catching up is the only way I can start writing again. We’ve been in Ciudad Juárez since mid-May. Our trip here, a cross-country road trip punctuated by such Americana-drenched sightseeing as a visit to Graceland, a tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, and a night in a Texas hill country cabin, was itself something I could spend a few entries describing. Crossing the border, discovering our new home and city, a desert summer, new schools, new people, new tastes, new words, new lives altogether in so many ways . . . I’m sure that will all creep in as I try to move forward with this writing, but I’ve missed my chance to catalog it all. Or I should say I’ve realized I need to let go of the sense that I’m obligated to catalog it all at once. Starting small is definitely better than never starting for the bigness of it all.
Saturday evening Andrés and I went to El Paso for a symphony concert, the symphony really being an excuse to see downtown El Paso’s Plaza Theater more than a draw on its own. But during an announcement – just a few seconds’ pause before the second half of the program – my evening took a turn for the surreal, a turn that has led me to thoughts that have led me back here. The announcement was about the death of a musician, Joseph Manig-Sylvan, who had for years been a member of the El Paso Symphony and of many other musical groups along the border. He was, for about a decade, my own violin teacher, not to mention neighbor. For many years I had not seen or been in contact with him, but I have spent hours and hours in his company, and they were crucial hours, formative in so many ways.
Somehow hearing this news, and the long string of unlikely events that led to me being at that concert on that particular night, has left me feeling reflective about the strangeness of being at a foreign service post that’s closer to my hometown than anywhere I’ve lived since I left it half a lifetime ago. It’s not at all an uncommon experience to leave one’s hometown and never come back, or come back only for rare visits. That was what I expected my experience to be. I held no ill will toward Las Cruces, and in fact have always considered it a wonderful place to have grown up, but I had no intention of returning. And I think when that’s the assumption made – I will never be back there – there’s a certain distancing that occurs, not intentional or conscious, but natural and largely unnoticed as it happens. The places, the people, the events tied to that place and time, even those that were truly significant, are archived as they become more distant. Tucked away and rarely considered.
Living here just a quick dash away from my childhood home has done some untucking Some of it is stuff I can just chuckle about, shake my head at the unexpectedness of seeing the man who used to live across the street and whose kids were a fixture of mine and my sister’s childhood days, now president of New Mexico State University, presenting awards at halftime when I go to an Aggie football game. Some of it is purely sentimental – the nostalgic trick-or-treating trip to my old neighborhood with my kids knocking on doors this time around. But then there is a moment like the moment I learned of Dr. Sylvan’s death, and I realized that tucked away in that archive are things I should not have been so casual about leaving behind.
Dr. Sylvan used to impress upon me that learning to play the violin – and really practicing and doing it right, something I was not always enthusiastic about doing – was about more than being ready for my next lesson with him, or for the next symphony concert, or whatever external reasons may have existed for doing it. He would mention the woman whose lesson was immediately after mine, an older woman, retired, not taking violin lessons (as I was at the time) for a few university credits and a grade, but purely for the joy of playing. Learning to play means a lifetime of being able to play, and that, Dr. Sylvan assured me, was what really mattered.
I didn’t like the not-so-fun parts of practicing. The meticulous going over and over of scales and arpeggios and etudes that were not beautiful or dramatic or spectacular. The working over and over of challenging fingerings or tricky rhythms. I loved the part of practicing that involved playing beautiful music as long as I could play it without too much effort. But of course a really good practice session should probably involve more of the former than the latter. Dr. Sylvan was never anything but kind and gracious with me, but he didn’t let me forget why serious practice mattered, and he made sure I knew I was fooling no one when I clearly had not been serious. It was a lesson with implications way beyond the practice room and it was one that was largely lost on my younger self.
Thinking of Dr. Sylvan I took my violin out today. I hadn’t played a single note in at least a year. I haven’t played in an ensemble since I moved to Dallas in 2003, and during the years between then and now I played once or twice with friends and a mere handful of times on my own. Today I started with scales. And arpeggios. I pulled out a piece I’d worked on with Dr. Sylvan and, yes, I played the parts I know well and can play fluidly even after all these years, but I also played through the tricky parts Dr. Sylvan always knew I’d neglected in practice because they were hard for me. I looked at the bowing and fingering marks he had made for me. I played through the hard parts and then went back and played them slowly and deliberately. Then I did it again. I still can’t play them well, but tomorrow I’m going to get my violin out again. I’m going to start with scales. And I’m going to go straight to the tricky parts. I’m going to learn the piece not because I have a lesson and a teacher to appease or a grade to earn but because learning it will mean I can enjoy playing it.
I was disappointed, to be sure, that my first foreign service adventure was – so I thought – not going to be such an adventure after all, but a return to among the most familiar settings of my life. The familiarity is deceptive, though. This is home, and it isn’t. And rediscovering truths left behind and forgotten is an adventure in itself.