Sunday, March 24, 2013


The discovery in the 1990’s of mirror neurons in the brain and the subsequent research and books about them in the 2000’s gave me a basis to understand a phenomenon that had puzzled me: why do some people give their lives for others. The new theory is that when you see someone in pain, pain neurons in your brain light up, not your actual pain neurons, but mirror neurons that echo the pain. This is, it is posited, one of the reasons we can have empathy. When we see someone enjoying an ice cream cone, our brains light up as if we were enjoying it too. When my children were sick, I would feel their same symptoms, but in a way that I knew was only in my imagination because I wouldn’t vomit or have a temperature. Bill discovered that if we put the sick child in bed with me, they would feel better, their temperature would go down. Bill would stay up late to check on us so I could relax. We explained this phenomenon by thinking that maybe my body temperature would somehow regulate theirs, or that maybe they too would relax and sleep more deeply because they knew they were being cared for. But could it be that my brain knew that I was healthy and this affected their mirror neurons?

My family had many examples of what we came to call “oooeeeoooeee,” chanted in the singsong tone of a creepy movie. When my oldest son has a problem, I feel it viscerally. One night I was reading in bed when I thought of my daughter visiting her new love. My body began to create the same mixture of joy and nervousness she must have been feeling, the joy of being with the man, and nervousness that this romance wasn’t going to work out. It was a strange feeling, one I hadn’t felt for 57 years.  My aunt and I marvel that our letters often cross in the mail. We would discover that they had been written the same day.  Now when I phone her, she will often say, with surprise, that she was going to phone me.

I know that my giving money to the man who had once lived in our neighborhood wasn’t because of my moral superiority. It was a visceral empathy, as if my own home were going to be taken away from me or the home of one of my children. Economist Jeremy Rifkin credits empathy brought about by mirror neurons for people’s rapid charitable response to the earthquake in Haiti.

I wrote an Easter column about mirror neurons in conjunction with the Stabat Mater, a 13th century poem picturing Mary standing at the cross, feeling the pain her son was feeling. The poem has been set to music many times; it obviously resonates.

My calling has not been as a mystic or an eremite. I have been in the midst of family, society and the artistic community. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being in the world--family, society, community--is where I am meant to be even though I am often tempted to get out of it, having fantasies of selling all my possessions and presenting myself to the Rogersville Cistercian convent.

I’m indeed fortunate to have been surrounded by love my entire life. My father once said, “I have always loved extravagantly.” I have my mother’s passionate love letters to him.  After she died, he said, “She thought I could do anything, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.” Near the end of his life, he would get up at seven and start drinking. Later the doctors told us that this was self-medication to alleviate the effects, mostly anger, of the strokes that no one knew he had been having. On a visit I would sit with him at the kitchen table all day, day after day. He disliked my leaving, even to go upstairs to the bathroom. Bill said that he would have another drink in the interlude, so I tried not to leave too often. After he went into the nursing home, I would stay there with him all day. I couldn’t bear to go home. I am weeping as I write this.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shortly after Bill died, I wrote in my column about my experiment with a meditation on music. “Next Wednesday, July 7, Gustav Mahler and I will celebrate our birthdays, his 150th, my 76th.  To commemorate the occasion I’m listening to all ten of his symphonies. I sit in the cozy corner of my lovely study, looking out on trees and birds through the large windows, my Crimmins coffee mug at hand, and begin the morning with music. On the table beside me are two articles about the symphonies, with photos of Mahler--who looks very like my father-in-law and a little like Bill.  

I dislike music as background. It disturbs me at parties, in restaurants—makes my poor brain go all jittery. This opportunity to be alone and concentrate completely on the symphonies is unprecedented in my life.

Listening to classical music makes time slow down.  I’m surprised when I see that the second movement of Symphony One took only nine minutes--it contained so much. While I was sitting in the hospital with Bill, time also moved slowly. It didn’t “drag”; it just slowed down. When you watch a movie or read a page-turner novel, time flies by.  The iTunes software suggested two seconds between movements, but that was not long enough, so after I had downloaded two symphonies, I upped the seconds to five, surprised that I could hear the difference of three seconds.

Several commentators write that each of the ten symphonies is a chapter in Mahler’s whole “novel”, a contemplation of nature, life, death and resurrection.  Mariss Jansons writes that each is a stage in a “big journey.” One of the articles is titled “A Mahlerian Odyssey.”

I read that there is a “twittering of birds” in Symphony One. When I heard birdsong, I thought, Oh there it is. But then I realized it was a white-throated sparrow singing in the dying poplar.

A German chorus entered near the end of number two, the “Resurrection Symphony.” I was completely absorbed. The words that came into my head were “Forgive me, forgive me.”  I then said the words out loud to Bill. I wept: an authentic catharsis. I did know what they were singing at the very end because a commentator translated it: “Rise again.”

The third symphony is the longest one ever created.  Mahler wrote, “…a symphony must be like the world—it must embrace everything.”  He did indeed cram:  funeral marches, sprightly walking, a posthorn solo, a night bird cry, folksong-like choruses, mournful mezzo soprano solos. He composed it while imagining himself in his coffin. The last movement is tender, excruciatingly painful and sorrowful. I read that this movement would change at the end from the lugubrious D Minor to the more hopeful D Major. Even I could tell when the change occurred. The symphony does end triumphantly with trumpets and incredible tympani wallops.

Mahler regarded the fourth symphony as the closing work of a quartet. It’s a much quieter piece, only four movements, a smaller orchestra. The second movement is about death. David Zinman writes, “…Death fiddling very wildly on an out-of-tune violin.” How does a violinist tune his instrument so it’s correctly out-of-tune? The third movement is breathtakingly lovely. Mahler wrote in the score, “Heaven Opens.”

On the hot evening of July 7th, I sat on the front porch, catching a breeze. The roar of motorcycles off in the distance would occasionally break into my consciousness but that seemed fitting for such bleak music. The whole tenth symphony feels like a cry from the heart, nothing comforting about it, no hopeful resolution. Daniel Harding wrote that a “famous dissonant orchestral scream” punctuates the first movement and that the scherzo is “full of screaming and real angst.” The third movement is titled, “Purgatorio.” The finale has “desolate, isolated music--a last person alive on the earth kind of feeling.” At the end of  the manuscript; Mahler wrote, “leb wol/ leb wol/ leb wol”—farewell. When I turned off my CD player, up flashed “Goodbye”; kind of spooky, a heck of a way to start my new year and my new life.