When I attended a workshop on the Native American flute (NAF), I didn’t realize that the lesson I would receive was one not only applicable to music but also to grieving. “Play the contour of mountains,” the instructor said. “It will open up your music and let you hear the inherent melody of nature.” The technique involved playing notes as if they were following a mountain ridge: raise the notes as the ridge ascends, lower them as it descends, and adjust the duration of the notes by how long the elevation stays the same: short peak—short note, plateau—long note.
Grieving Our Losses
Since my playing at that time was, at best, mediocre, I limited using the technique to playing a picture in my office of mountains. So when my wife and I scheduled a seven day hiking trip with friends in the Sierras, I thought it was time to try the technique with the real thing. I brought a NAF and a shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) with me.
At sunrise, I took both to the top of a hill and with the NAF began matching the notes to the contours of the mountains that surrounded me. It was a spiritual experience. I thought if this works with the NAF, why not with the shakuhachi? I tried playing my shakuhachi and what came out was awful. I realized there was a mismatch between the instrument and the technique. It was then that I had a Eureka moment.
Choosing the Wrong Instruments
I’ve come to believe that our lives, just as the mountains, have an inherent melody. Most of us spend a vast amount of time trying to discover it. And when we find it, we often believe that the activity or person is indispensable for experiencing the melody. We grieve the death of a partner believing no one can replace him; the loss of a friend with whom we had shared our deepest thoughts, who now no longer speaks to us; the deterioration of an ability that with age is a poor imitation of what we were once capable of doing; or that memorable experience we know can never be recreated.
For me, “it” was solo wilderness backpacking, an activity that gave me more pleasure than anything I ever did. And one, that as I aged caused tremendous anxiety for my family. Instead of the serene feelings I had experienced in the wilderness when I was younger, I began worrying about everything; from why my coffee wasn’t flavorful, to wondering if I would see my family again. I thought the joy I had experienced before becoming ill would never return. I tried playing the melody of my life with the wrong instrument.
Grieving the loss of an ability, activity, or person is often related to believing that with the loss of something so precious, the emotions they generated in us will never again be experienced. In my mind, what I felt in the wilderness and the wilderness itself were synonymous. I has taken me years to realize that I wasn’t grieving the absence of wilderness visits, but rather the emotion the experience created–solitude. When I separated the two, I understood that the search for a direct wilderness replacement was needlessly restrictive. I needed to find something that created the emotion, not the wilderness. I found what I was looking for when I closed my eyes and improvised on my shakuhachi.
The Melody of Our Lives
Just as most melodies are not limited to being played on one instrument, cherished emotions are not inherently related to how they were originally experienced, or even experienced over a lifetime. For example, a lifelong partner may never be replaced, but the emotions she engendered can be, and sometimes as it was in the case of a friend, through a decidedly different type of relationship.
They had been married for forty years, and each was the other’s best friend. They shared everything, and he felt that when she died, he lost half of himself. Following his wife’s death, my friend spent years looking for a new partner. After a number of disappointing encounters with women, he concluded that he would be emotionally unfulfilled for the remainder of his life. Since nobody could replace her, he believed her loss would shape his life until he died. By happenstance, he discovered hospice and found that the relationships he developed with patients gave him the same feelings he thought were gone forever. Same melody, but just a different instrument.
As we age, the skills we have cherished our entire lives may diminish. We may lose the company of those we love. And activities once thought to be crucial for our happiness may now be just a fading memory. If we persist in trying to replicate them, our lives may become a series of failed attempts to play again our life’s melody. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We just need to switch from the accordion to the violin.
I always loved the flute, and the mountains too. Now I am profoundly hard of hearing- almost deaf, and although I can still hike, I think playing that phantom of a flute to the songline of those mountain ridges would be very freeing for me. Thanks for that idea. I will try it out when hiking this season. Parting with my hearing has not been easy, but the music within is what really counts.
I can understand your loss, but I’m sure not at the same level as you. I also have a hearing loss that is more pronounced in the higher frequencies. I found that I was loosing the joy I usually felt listening to most music since everything sounded muddy. Hearing aids that just amplified the higher frequencies helped immensely. But I know with certain types of losses aides are useless.
Usually most hearing losses are greater in the upper frequencies than lower ones. If that’s the case with you, you may want try playing a flute with a lower fundamental frequency. With most end blown flutes that have lower registers it does require a larger finger span, but with a little practice it’s possible. You still may have a problem hearing the notes clearly, but the vibrations can be felt (the lower the fundamental key, the easier it is to feel them). It’s been awhile since I bought a NAF (I make my own) but some of the very low register ones have a little devise (like an external tunnel) that makes them easier to play.
Another suggestion would be to buy one of those cheap “hearing aides” sold on television that aren’t really aides just amplifying devises and place the amplifying part on or close to the flute.
Good luck and remember Beethoven wrote some of his greatest symphonies after he lost his hearing.
Thanks so much for your ongoing insights and for the exquisitely nuanced ways you share them! I also enjoyed reading the responses of some of your other readers and particularly appreciate Steve’s emphasis on – and your concurrence with – the importance of patience. From a more lighthearted perspective, it reminds me of the words on a mug that I bought for a friend decades ago: “Lord, grant me patience – but hurry, please!” Had I been able to know in advance the many challenges that the ensuing years were to bring to me and others, maybe I would have had the foresight to buy the store’s entire supply of those mugs for distribution as needed.
My husband, recently turned 80, spent almost his entire professional life following his calling of being a highly knowledgeable, passionate teacher in a Jewish day school in suburban Philadelphia. He reluctantly retired only when his energy level was waning. While he has found occasional outlets for himself and continued to teach – mainly adults in informal, short-term settings – the latter have not satisfied him the way that working with enthusiastic adolescents did. He would tell me that he really missed those teenagers and wistfully mention a desire to go back, either part-time or as a volunteer, even as he recognized that his diminishing physical capacities made such a possibility rather unrealistic. Then, a couple of years ago he decided to volunteer for Read Aloud Delaware, reading individually to very young children as they wait for outpatient medical appointments in the hospital (where I was trained as a chaplain and am myself now a volunteer chaplain). His Read Aloud activity has become the highlight of his week, bringing him much joy along with a renewed sense of purpose. I am so delighted that he had the courage to pick up a more appropriate instrument to continue to play his melody! I plan to share your article with him when he comes home.
I, too, am considering trying one (or more?) different instruments for myself. Nearly six years ago, after retiring from my job of more than twenty-one years as a medical library assistant, I followed my deferred dream of becoming a chaplain. Although I anticipated seeking part-time employment as a chaplain once I completed my training, various life circumstances intervened. Now that I am approaching my 72nd birthday in August, I have come to enjoy life at a slower pace, along with my husband of almost fifty years. I am fairly confident that as my dreams change, my melody will as well. “… Grant me patience.”
Thank you for your kind words. It’s great hearing from a fellow Pennylvanian. I’m originally from Allentown. I’m delighted that you and your husband understood that there are many ways of feeling the same emotion. What I think is difficult for those of us who are getting older is that the options we have may be becoming limited. After being a bedside hospice volunteer for 8 years, I’ve stopped because illness and medications makes it difficult to consistently be present for patients. I still haven’t found a new instrument for what I felt being with patients, but I’m still looking.
You know, Stan, that what has become my melody in life is the research and study of our cancer that has lead to my mentoring men and their caregivers all over the world. My laptop computer is my instrument and my melody is the information I learn and am able to pass on to others to ease their burden of concern. I would be lost in life after a busy 27 year career in the Navy if I had just rested and slid into retirement. I have rather jumped into retirement with our cancer my calling. So many musical notes to put together in order to enjoy my melody.
It’s wonderful that you not only found your “melody,” but also the instrument you’re playing on has been so helpful to me and countless men who struggle living with prostate cancer. Keep playing.
Interesting commitment, Chuck. Since I’m not sure how you are fulling this commitment of yours, I’d simply like to mention that it is in the face of our mortality that I have found an opportunity to do some well deserved reflecting on our lives and the meaning we give to them. Those last days, having worked with terminally ill men and women, that offers us an opportunity to let go and find out what surrendering to the natural flow of life can be like for us. The very best to you.
You are blessed with the “gift of words.” Thank you for sharing that gift with us.
Thank you Patricia,
Sometimes I think what I’m told is good comes from somewhere else. I accept the responsibility for the really terrible stuff.
So insightful — yet again. There is one aspect I might note. My mother lost her life-long partner/love and so in the spirit you mentioned, went to meeting after meeting, ready to take up playing the violun instead of the piano. But guess what? She would come home and declare it “A Big Zero,” It is as if she picked up the alternative — the violin — but alas, it did not play any music. Similarly, my son reported, “I have been here at college now for 6 weeks and have not made any life-long friends as I did in high school.” So he left. In short, when we turn to another mode to experience the same emotion, we need the patience to give that modality a chance to provide the alternative means to the prior ends. Alas, the older we get, the harder for some to have patience and tenacity. Both are needed if we wish to have a chance at realizing an alternate pathway to the same destination — or so it seems to me.
Thanks for the kind words. And I agree about patience. I’ve found that the greater the loss, the less the patience. I think it’s understandable, since the more intense the pain one experiences, the quicker they want it to end. As for your son, give him time to see the wisdom of his father’s ways–and then hope.
I think this post is brilliant, Stan. Through the metaphor of melody and musical instrument, you’ve helped me think about how I’ve been able to recover some cherished emotions in my own life.
Thank you for your kind words Mary Ann. I’m always grateful and humbled when what I write is helpful.
How wonderfully helpful on a personal level.
Thank you Ronee.
Thanks for this beautiful essay, Stan! As I am aging, I’m finding many of my perspectives shifting as well as my body gradually waning. As my emotional bonding with other men has expanded, I do appreciate ever more deeply that I am not my body, but I do live within and through my body. My mind is not simply in my brain, but in every cell of my body, so far more expansive, as is my imagination. My values have shifted as well becoming less rigid as my muscle ache and my bone creek. My libido may not be as it used to be, flowing with little needing to prompt it, but my sensuality has deepened immensely. So many changes, and time is flying by, like a soaring red-tailed hawk. My wings have never been more spread out in the winds now! What a ride and what a view!
Thank you for your kind words Ken,
I think you have arrived at a place that most people seek–coming to terms with the inevitable changes associated with aging while appreciating all the life has to offer regardless of age or ability. As for the creaking, I’m there also.