Thunder, Songbirds and the Music That Remains

Attempting creative work after a brain injury is like setting up your desk in the middle of a rushing river, just above the falls. Any accomplishments will take place amidst ever-present commotion and the fear of washing away.

In 2015, I collapsed suddenly on the platform of a Connecticut train station, felled by a (deep breath) acute trans-hemispheric subdural hematoma with herniation and a two-centimeter midline shift. Translated, that means my brain took such a brutal beating that I “should” be dead or disabled by now. Instead, even with some obvious and permanent damage, I’ve enjoyed some of the best years of my life – pacing myself carefully, seeing people when I can, teaching once more and even writing a bit, however slowly. As Gustav Mahler put it in a famous letter, I find the habit of life sweeter than ever.

…technically “simple” works that I knew by heart might bring pleasure but didn’t furrow the neural paths that I sensed from more extended challenges.

Indeed, Mahler was one of the guides who brought me back. When I was still very sick – confused and frightened, with no sure prognosis and the possibility of another seizure looming – I determined to try to rebuild my thought processes with music. And so I spent much of every day listening to complicated pieces which were already familiar but not too familiar – Bach cantatas, Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” Wagner operas and long symphonies by Bruckner and Mahler.

I listened mostly with my eyes shut, often with headphones, always concentrating intently, without interruption. Elaborately intricate music that I’d never heard before was impossible for me then, and technically “simple” works that I knew by heart might bring pleasure but didn’t furrow the neural paths that I sensed from more extended challenges. Making sense of these larger pieces was hard work, but it was increasingly a fascinated, sportive work that I could take on for longer and longer periods of time. And eventually, my brain began to bloom once more.

No surprise that music should have been my mooring, for it had always helped make sense of the world to me. I was born autistic during a time when the condition would never have been recognized in a friendly, monomaniacal little chatterbox overflowing with data. But I was oblivious to most of the deeper currents of the world. I could not understand human feelings, mine or those of other people, until they had been, in effect, “explained” to me in sound. From the age of four, I was exhilarated by the reiterations and seemingly inevitable construction processes in Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” and Ravel’s “Boléro,” and I loved the “Gayne” ballet suite, enormously popular in the late 1950s, which would inspire wild dances for hours – but these were purely internal pleasures. Tenderness toward others, on the other hand, was not in my natural language. I think it was defined for me in the Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” and I remember weeping the first time I heard it played, a melting snow-child. “So this is what it’s like!” I thought in my wonderment and tried to absorb the sweet compassion of the music into my personality.  

I could not understand human feelings, mine or those of other people, until they had been, in effect, “explained” to me in sound.

Very few autistic people will ever be “well-rounded,” try as we might. The constant hope is that our elusive virtues will be recognized and valued, despite the obvious challenges that never stop bedeviling us. But as we grow, if we are lucky, we find a way to fit in. By the time I was 11 or 12, it was obvious that I was never going to be good at kickball or understand most of the things that were demanded of me in school. But I was good at going to the library and inhaling information about music, old recordings and when and how they were made. This satisfied and warmed me and pointed in a direction where a life might be made.

I’d love to spend some time talking with doctors and scientists about my autism, as I think that their take would be much more helpful than what I got from the Freudians and post-Freudians I worked with as a child. Moreover, I think I might be able tell them some things, for I know what it is like on the other side of the glass. For example, it may seem impossible to overvalue dogs, but I think they have special value for autistic kids and I don’t know what I would have done without them. They were such a contrast to human beings: I loved their unguarded affection and comfortable predictability and they were always pretty much the same as they were the day before – eager, happy to see me, willing to make up silly games with me and play them out, natural companions who did nothing bizarre. And I wonder whether massage therapy, introduced early on, might be helpful in softening sharply autistic kids. It would have to be done very carefully, though – slowly and gently and almost from infancy. I would have had a panic meltdown if somebody had suggested anything of the sort to me by the time I was three or four and already clenched like a fist, but if I’d grown up with it, my life might have been very different.  

And now I am old and injured, and my brain has taken on some of the characteristics of a double reed instrument. In my younger days it worked on force and magnitude of expression, like a trumpet or saxophone. Now I am overwhelmed unless I am working with the tiniest exhalation, in the manner of an oboe or bassoon, and I take new care with every utterance. 

It’s especially strange to be old in New York, city of my youth and early successes and deep late-night conversations in the pubs of upper Broadway. These days I hobble slowly to the building lobby down the same stairs I invariably took two at a time. I have trained myself out of volunteering my services immediately – to help out! to join in! to stay late! – as I am quickly reminded that I am no longer who I was. Aging is so terribly personal: I have known people who were old in their 30s and others who were mostly young into their 80s. In 2014, I was a middle-aged man in what turned out to be very poor health. Now I am in many ways happier, certainly thinner and probably stronger, and steadier in my self-understanding, at least on those days when I am rested and my memory is working properly. I am both much less afraid of death and more eager for life.  

Another poet, Wallace Stevens, said that “music is feeling, then, not sound,” and I agree with him.

Still, old is old, and 64, to counter the exasperating cliché, is not at all the “new 40” but barely qualifies as the “new 63.” As such, I’m tired of assurances that I will soon be “better than ever.” I’m sure that such recoveries happen occasionally, but what is the matter with the much more realistic prospect of simply holding on, savoring what I can and being grateful for it all, even in a diminished state?  

We discover our bodies when we are about 13 years old. My body discovered me when I was 60, at that stage in life when psychological problems give way to physical ones. Much as I love Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” it now strikes me as a very young man’s idea of what growing older is like. When my own time comes, I will be delighted to go gently. But not right away, please. Another poet, Wallace Stevens, said that “music is feeling, then, not sound,” and I agree with him. And there’s still so much music left to feel – not just concerts and recordings but laughter, songbirds and the distant thunder. 

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Tim Page

Tim Page is a professor at the University of Southern California and the author of “Parallel Play.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1997. …more 

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2 Responses

  1. Eugene Gaub says:

    That was absolutely beautiful, Mr. Page. Thank you, and Godspeed.

  2. Lynne Frost says:

    Dear Tim Page, thank you for this most thoughtful, insightful and humbling essay. I am much moved by your description of the illness which almost destroyed you, and the ensuing struggle you endured to bring you to the physical and emotional place you now inhabit. It has evidently proved a true “life-changer” for you and, with any luck, will engender just that for those who listen to and heed your life affirming message. With heartfelt thanks and warm wishes for many good years ahead.

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