by Ashley P. Taylor
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” – Joan Didion
I’m beginning to see the ends of things. I don’t mean the end of youth, the wrinkling, thickening, graying. The endings I’m talking about are more insidious: things you put on hold that might, in fact, be over; people you hope to reconcile with who might actually be lost; doors you view as open that, gaping or shut, you aren’t going to walk through. I’m beginning to realize that you can’t do—and redo and undo—everything, and that what happens the first time actually matters.
This kind of wisdom traditionally comes with age, and yes, I do have crow’s feet now. But the idea that everything counts is not news to me in my “mature” state—that of a twenty-nine-year-old, basically unpublished writer—but a return to something I knew when I was twelve years old, taking violin lessons.
The other day after a run around the park, I was melting into the couch wondering which of a million things to do next when I clicked my iPod to a Dvořák piano trio. The strings began a mysterious phrase like a secret that I had to shush my mind to hear, and I passed from Brooklyn, New York, 2013, to Bar Harbor, Maine, 1996, formerly known simply as sixth grade. I am standing in our dark sewing room holding my violin and crying because I don’t sound like the recording.
I used to listen to Pinchas Zukerman play Vivaldi, then play it myself and stop, disappointed, after a page. I would try again and try again, each time more agitated, until I couldn’t play for sobbing. It mattered. I couldn’t bear to fall short of the way I knew the music should sound. Tape recorder on, I would play my part of the Bach double concerto, and on the second page, if I hadn’t made a mistake yet, I would be on edge for the rest of the piece, hoping to finish perfectly. The concerto was like a balloon that I could pop with a sour note. I don’t think my attitude toward practicing was healthy or laudable, but it exemplifies what it means to believe that life matters, not just generally but right now.
When I listen to music (or play it, as I still do sometimes), I am hyperaware of every beat, and because music filled my childhood, the attitude spread. Playing or not playing, there was no escaping the metronome. I also did ballet, so half my brain was devoted to posture in those days. Sitting or standing, I thought of my back, and in the absence of a mirror, would run the back of my hand over it, causing my seventh-grade English teacher, to my embarrassment, to offer me her comfortable chair “for my back,” which I had been monitoring, not massaging, as I sat on the classroom’s wooden bench. Though I didn’t think about death—and I actually had some reason to do so—I already knew the value of time. And then something shifted.
Point CounterPoint chamber music camp is named for a pine-studded spot of land protruding into Lake Dunmore where, in my memory’s brochures, a lone violinist adds a musical silhouette to jagged arboreal outlines and where, in 2001, the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I sat reading No Exit in French and gazing out at the end of my violin period. I’d played Mozart for the audition that year and had improved since the previous summer, but I no longer spent my spare minutes in the practice hut; I was making yellow highlights in my Sartre with its rough pages that smelled so strongly of ink. As a senior in high school, I played the same Mozart concerto as a soloist for my youth orchestra concert, but I was just going through the motions, playing the piece as I’d learned it two years earlier. “I don’t understand, Ashley,” my mother told me, standing in the doorway to my room. “You haven’t practiced at all, and you have a concert tonight.” My mother hardly ever made critical comments about my practicing, or about anything I did. That’s why that comment, on the day I seemed to be winging the performance of my life, stuck with me. Onstage, in the blue-beaded sheath of a prom gown bought for the occasion, I called up the memory of the concerto as I’d played it before, and it was fine. But the time for practicing had passed, had passed two years earlier. I longed for something unspecified.
At the lunch table, I asked a petite blonde what she was doing after school.
“Oh nothing, just hanging out with my friends,” she said. The implication that I wasn’t one of those friends was no slight; I didn’t know this person, or anyone at my new school in Kentucky, where we’d moved from Bar Harbor after my parents retired from the laboratory where they had worked, particularly well. After school, I would practice or feel guilty about not practicing, do my homework, and go to bed.
So one day, clear vistas of “hanging out” before my eyes, I went downstairs and told my parents I wanted to stop my violin lessons. They said okay. By the time I made the announcement, I was sure about the decision. I didn’t want to practice, and if I stopped taking lessons, I reasoned, I would remove the obligation and concomitant guilt.
Suffice it to say that I failed at hanging out. Given the freedom to come home after school and do whatever I wanted, I simply directed my solitary intensity in new directions. I read the first volume of Proust, learned Latin, looked for names of scientists I knew in my dad’s genetics books, started running. I delighted in teaching myself things, preferring this autodidactic approach to school, where information was meted out and ordinary.
For all its academic inclinations, this way of afterschool really was a sea change. I was experimenting with the idea that maybe it didn’t matter what I did. Instead of practicing like a maniac and auditioning for the Oberlin Conservatory, I put down my violin and enrolled in Oberlin College to study biology. A career in science, which had worked out for my parents, seemed sensible and straightforward: bachelor’s, Ph.D., post-doc, own lab. (Plus trips to foreign countries for scientific meetings, with kids—like the kid I had been—along for the vacation.) While others tried to decide what to be, I would become a biologist.
I saw science not just as a straightforward path but as a field in which there was hope of permanence. Playing violin was like living on a treadmill, with accomplishments constantly slipping away. Passages I had mastered with the metronome one day were troublesome again the next; nothing was every really done. In biology, on the other hand, I could do an experiment, skip a day, and the data would still be there, in my notebook, when I got back. With every page, I moved forward. Writing later replaced science as a way to leave a mark.
At Oberlin, I continued my campaign against over-seriousness. I would allot a certain amount of time to an assignment for school and turn it when it was due, or even before, not because it was perfect in my eyes but because I had given up. Contra dances were a higher priority than most academic matters, particularly when, as in the case of organic chemistry, the extra hour of studying would not really have changed the ”poor” (as students say euphemistically) outcome. Notions of greatness I dismissed as childish and conceited. A bit of wisdom dispensed to me by my eighth-grade teacher came to mind: “Ashley’s parents taught her that she was the center of the universe.” Maybe they had, for reasons I didn’t understand then. I took the comment as a sign that I was too self-absorbed and tried to veer in the other direction.
In my new stance, I scoffed at the memory of my high-school self trying to read Le Monde while we watched Crocodile Dundee in geography class, so indignant at this waste of my schooling. Academics were not the point of high school, I decided. (The point was unspecified.) You learn it all again in the first year of college anyway. Most things could be revised and done over. In one sense, I was letting go, but I also thought I was correcting the error of my self-centered ways. Gone was this feeling that what I was doing right now—this note, this word, this pirouette—was worth crying about.
The timing of my turn from seriousness vis-à-vis outside expectations was not so good. After graduating from college in 2007, I got a job in a biology lab and moved to Boston. Though my experiments often failed and my boss didn’t say much to me, I took it all in stride. I heard on the radio that many employees my age, coddled by parents at home, needed constant praise and reassurance at work. Not I; my boss hardly ever praised me, and I was doing fine. Until I got fired because my experiments weren’t working.
Denial and posturing are key components of being laid-back. “A B is a good grade,” you say to comfort someone else, but that doesn’t mean that you aim for Bs or are satisfied with them. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, experiments fail,” the boss says to comfort the lab tech for whom the trope is true, but in fact, when he fires her, he points out that he expects the reverse. Telling someone in the cafeteria that you are doing “nothing much, just hanging out” after school is also a pose, a trendy package for your afternoon hours.
Denial: a way to cope with endings that would be painful if acknowledged. I never officially quit the violin. I could never deny that music mattered. What I could deny was that stopping lessons was a real ending. I was “taking a break.” I told my teacher that I planned to come for intermittent lessons when I felt ready and had practiced a lot. Of course, I never returned to that teacher, but I half-think that I will take lessons again, later.
And I did pick the violin back up for a while after college, taking the subway to lessons on chilly, leafy days, learning new violin études and studying the Bruch concerto, the first in the sequence of romantic violin concertos that students typically learn. I made fast progress and thought the Renaissance had arrived. But after a few truly enjoyable months, having decided to apply to graduate school, I broke off lessons again.
It’s in part out of fear of quitting again that I find it hard to go back to the violin. I don’t want to rekindle something only to end it (And what do I know about that metaphor? I’ve dated disciplines more than people.). But when it comes to people with whom I’ve had some kind of falling out, the thought of death sobers me quickly; I want to rekindle everything while I can. In the same way, when I listen to music sometimes, as happened that day with the Dvořák piano trio (“The other day after a run” was two years ago now. I’m thirty-one, and published.), I feel some dread at the possibility of dying without playing Bruch, and Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, the one I really love. Listen; this matters; this is it.
I always knew things counted. I realized they didn’t. I realized they did after all. The metronome ticks on. But why do I hear it so loudly now?
There is another, more literal reason that I think about mortality, a question not of existentialism but of existence. In the year before I went to graduate school, I had two emergency surgeries ten months apart. I remember thinking in the ambulance, oxygen tubes in my nose, that this was the end of life as I knew it: I wasn’t going to NYU; this, a series of medical emergencies, was my real life and I had to face it. What had I been thinking, expecting to live like everyone else? (In my repertoire of gut feelings, “real life” and “like everyone else” persist, though my mind knows that they aren’t precise or true.) When I got to New York to start school, I immediately asked the head of my master’s program what would happen if a student had a medical emergency and had to leave midway through the course, because I was pretty sure something would go wrong. I did not feel like myself. I would “crash,” as I had in the lead-up to the previous episodes, losing all my energy, feeling hot, then cold, prone to tears, and as if everything, from taking off a sweater to picking something up off the floor, was too much effort. I looked for alternative explanations, cutting carbs and adding iron and thyroid hormones; was my period coming? But I didn’t really expect these efforts to change anything. I was waiting for a shoe to drop.
I was looking for alternatives to “shunt failure.” I was born with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. The fluid that normally cushions the brain and spinal cord had built up in my skull, squeezing my new neurons. To drain off the extra fluid, a shunt, a tube with a valve that opens under pressure, was installed at birth, and it’s thanks to this shunt that I lead a mostly normal life. When the tube gets clogged, though, I run down like a wind-up toy and need brain surgery to replace the shunt. I’ve had roughly four different shunt revisions in my three decades, and considering that one out of two new shunts fails in under two years, I’ve been lucky not to have had more. Though we all face the risk of death all the time, I know that some time from now, could be years, could be months, I will be knocked flat again by a shunt failure. The crashing will get worse: Nausea will rise in my throat, and I’ll start breathing heavily through my mouth. Small headaches will grow. I’ll go to bed early, in tears, part pain, part worry, hoping to feel better the next day. When the symptoms finally keep me awake all night, I will go to the emergency room. My parents will meet me there. The shunt will be replaced.
I didn’t think about the shunt much when I was twelve. My medical condition wasn’t a conscious part of how I saw the world. When I was well, I didn’t have to worry about it, and when I was having an emergency—that was outside the story. I saw shunt failures as aberrations, grim bloopers in the movie of my life.
The denial was possible because I’ve been well a lot of the time—I lasted about fifteen years, from fifth grade through high school and college, without surgery—and so came to see health as the default. Most of the time, I deal with the icing on the cake: polishing my writing, trying to go to ballet class more often. It’s what I call a normal life, though my left eye veers to one side and I have a scar on my neck and a somewhat unusual voice. But there’s another side to my life in which I’m just trying to survive and in which eating half a tuna sandwich on the hospital couch feels like some kind of miracle. That first semester at NYU, I started to take that other life, of crashing and fragility, for granted.
My mother says that I “know my mortality.” She knows it better than I do. When I was born, it was unclear whether those first few days were a beginning or an end. This baby is in distress. C-section. Hydrocephalus. Shunting. Cranial nerve functions haven’t recovered. That Taylor baby isn’t gonna make it. Enjoy her while you can.
It was a while before any doctor mentioned the idea of me going home.
My mom once told me that she didn’t need me to love her; that she needed me to be there for her to love. I found it somewhat embarrassing: I thought that more should be expected of a child. But behind her unconditional love, I think, is the fear that I might not always be there. My parents could never take my existence for granted.
When she says that I know my mortality, I think she means that the constant possibility of shunt failure gives me gravitas. She may be partially right. Now when I think about the future, I see periods of health punctuated by surgeries and recoveries. I can already imagine that my first surgery without my parents will be my ultimate coming of age. I see the ends.
But perhaps I always saw them. The solitary girl with the violin never quite forgot her shunt. I worried every time I had a headache. “Does your head hurt? When did it start? How bad is it, on a scale of 1 to 10?” Maybe the constant gauging of what was going on inside my head, medically speaking, was the root of my self-awareness and perfectionism after all.
At the same time, though, knowing that life can be interrupted at any point inclines me to be reckless and to think short term. Go for a run, now, while it’s light outside, then study for the test. Meet a friend for dinner whether or not the paper is done. Write what I want to write, now. I wonder if my tendency to take up things in bursts of intense activity—whether it’s learning a new language or cooking or dancing—then drop them is a response to the way my shunt divides my life up into periods of unknown length, a response to the idea that life is a short-term thing.
Nihilism—the belief that nothing matters because we’re just going to die—and mysticism—seeking transcendence in the everyday—are two responses to the same knowledge. I know them both. It’s hard for me to say that one makes more sense than the other because the ultimate outcome is the same no matter how you look at it. I can choose to believe that small things matter, but my conviction is weak.
It’s hard to see the ends of things because they are connected to and often disguised as middles and beginnings. To make the connection is to recognize mortality. At thirty-one, I still consider myself in the middle of everything. I may have quit violin lessons, but who says I won’t start again? I may have rediscovered the notion that things matter, as I knew in sixth grade, but who says that I won’t discover some other notion in five years, or fifty? These could also be my last words on the subject. It’s hard to tell.
Ashley P. Taylor is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays have previously appeared in LUMINA Online Journal and The Brooklyn Rail. Find more of her work at www.ashleyptaylor.com.