Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Why is my power to choose so resilient and adaptable?
This prompt is all about attachments, and the human tendency to try to cling to the status quo, to things that might have been right and true at one time but maybe not so much today, to friends who have changed or evolved into different people than they were when we first met them (for better or for worse). It’s about the ability to analyze the current situation and to be willing to adapt my reaction to it. And that’s really been the hallmark of my life for at least since my later university years.
When I graduated from high school, I thought I had planned out my life: attending Ohio State in the sciences (biochemistry or genetics), staying close to home to continue my relationship with my high school boyfriend, who was a year behind me, and living at home. But things changed. I fell in love with history. I fell out of love with my boyfriend. And I decided that I was missing something by not living on campus, and so, in my third year I moved into the honours dorm, decided to pursue a dual major, and, about halfway through, broke up with my boyfriend. I spent an extra year at Ohio State to do an honours thesis in what became my sole major in ancient history and classics, and while I had a couple of additional relationships, I did not let them limit my horizons for the future–and so, I eventually made the decision to come to U of T for my graduate work.
Similarly, when I finished up my doctorate, I knew the academic job market was tough. I also knew that I was going to need to work–I did not have a spouse in a lucrative job to support me, or a trust fund. And I was not prepared to hop from job to job, location to location, in pursuit of the elusive tenure track unicorn. And so I did temp work, something I had started in the last couple of years of my graduate school years, and when the opportunity came for a permanent position, I jumped at it, and did not look back. I may sometimes look back and sigh that I did not find a way to pursue my dream of teaching, but overall, there are few regrets. And it’s taught me to be attuned to the shifts of fortune and to be ready to be resilient, to not have a single image of myself in my mind. Curiosity, as I mentioned in a work meeting last week, is my superpower. The more I learn about the world around me, the more I am prepared to respond to the curveballs it throws in an informed manner.
More good vaccine news – the AstraZenica vax now is looking promising as well. This one uses a different technology than the first two, is cheaper, and needs only refrigeration. Canada has ordered 20 million doses of it. Fingers crossed.
And to the south, Joe Biden has started naming members of his cabinet, #45’s lawsuits continue to fail, Michigan just certified their results, and the head of the government agency that would allocate funds and resources for transition has apparently finally initiated the process. But Thanksgiving is this week, and too many people just don’t care. This is going to be tragic. It’s hard enough here in Canada, where our numbers continue to rise, Toronto has gone to lockdown, and the vaunted Atlantic Bubble is no more. Light at the end of the tunnel, yes. Train still coming down the tracks? Also yes.
I’ve promised to tell the complete story of the embroidery work I finished last night. It’s the fourth portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich I’ve completed. The first three all focus on images from his younger years–his 30s, mostly–where he retained a look of boyishness well into his adult years. He’s an attractive man, with his unruly forelock, round glasses, and penchant for double-breasted suits with funky ties. This is the man who wrote both the 4th and 5th Symphonies, who escaped besieged Leningrad to complete the 7th Symphony and then followed that up with the harrowing 8th; the man who liked football matches and laughing with his good friend Ivan Sollertinsky, the man whose love life was complicated but whose obvious devotion as a parent never was. When we’re talking symphonies, all of my favourites are from this period.
But I always have found photos of Shostakovich after about 1960 increasingly hard to look at, knowing that the ailments were starting to pile on. The last nine years of his life, after he suffered his first heart attack, he looks far older than a man in his 60s. He spent a lot of those years in the hospital, suffering from heart problems, cancer, and the mysterious neurological disorder (which I happen to believe is neither polio or ALS) that had first affected his ability to play the piano, and eventually led to difficulties walking and, at the end, even writing. His weight fluctuates. His glasses get thicker and evolve into those square, blocky frames we see on so many older men in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. His now-grey hair is still unruly, but is no longer charmingly boyish. One side of his face is a bit droopy. And he wears ill-fitting late 60s-early 70s “grandpa clothes”. And the works of those last years? A preoccupation with death (and an interest in atonality that seems to be tied to this), introspection, spare orchestration–many of these are not easy works, and they can be difficult for someone not willing to understand them on their own terms to love. Shostakovich was not a religious man. He feared death–did not believe there was anything good to come afterwards. Death had robbed him of those he loved throughout his life, starting with his father when he was just 15. His best friend and his first wife both died fairly young. And now, in these waning years of his own life, the death toll around him was unrelenting. He knew it was coming, and confronted all of those fears in the way he knew best: in music.
I have come to love those works. It started with the 13th quartet, then expanded to the 15th, pulling the 14th along with it. Hearing the Cello Concerto #2 performed live made me come to rank it ahead of the more-popular Concerto #1. The 15th Symphony–that quirky, fascinating work that is at times actually playful and youthful, but ends with the sounds of clockwork ticking–was always a favourite, but the 14th Symphony, with its texts about all kinds of untimely death–that took time for me to understand; I think it took the pandemic to get me there. There is the antepenultimate work–the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo–where we hear, in the last song, a theme he wrote when he was just a boy (a tune that was not identified until after his death). And then, the transcendent Viola Sonata – whose middle movement recalls a work he wrote in his 40s, and is fun and bouncy, before the Beethoven-quoting finale, where the piano–not the viola–has the last word. Every one of these works is very different. And that’s why they speak to me. I’ve been afraid of death since I was a child. I used to recite prayers with lists of diseases I prayed that God would not inflict on me. I was always aware that my parents were older than those of most of my friends; I’ve been 20 years without my mother and 12 without my father, which, because I was an only and because I have not chosen to have children, left me without close biological family. I am in my early 50s–about the same age Shostakovich was when his serious difficulties began to manifest, although he’d already had his share of illnesses over the years.
So. Looking at photos of the older Shostakovich forced me to confront my own mortality. I could compartmentalize the music so long as I could keep it all about him–loving it, but keeping it at arm’s length. Poor Shostakovich. Such a hard life. If I was going to spend time working on an embroidered portrait, I wanted to remember what he was like in those early days, before the weight of an oppressive regime landed on his shoulders, before he’d lost so many friends. And the three pieces I did first were of the younger man.
And then, suddenly, we had a pandemic. I lost a friend a few years older than me. I had friends in front-line healthcare jobs, friends who are teachers or childcare workers I had immunocompromised friends. And death was suddenly less of an abstract future I could put from my mind, and more of a present reality.
The Stoics are fond of the concept of memento mori–“remember that you will die.” The same concept is behind the medieval depictions of dancing skeletons that became so popular during the years of the Black Death. But the idea of memento mori is to understand that death awaits us all; but the present is what we have today, and we are wasting it if we fail to live.
And that’s why I finally decided that I needed to make peace with–even love–the images of Shostakovich in his later years. Because he did not fail to live–to the contrary; holy cats, the tenacity of that man! His body may have been broken, but you listen to those last works and you realize he never, ever stopped. He was composing masterpieces right to the very end and engaging with what he knew was his own imminent demise not by recoiling, but by facing it head on, by keeping going as long as he possibly could, and writing music that, far from escaping into a realm where the inevitable was denied, confronted it. And he was laughing, too, as late as the final year of his life. We have photographs. And he wrote his penultimate work in 1975, the sarcastic song collection Four Verses of Captain Lebyadkin. Black humour, for sure, but he also laughed in the face of death even as he feared it.
I began the initial work on the embroidery on November 1, working with GNU to come up with a pattern from one of the last photos ever taken of Shostakovich, in June, 1975. I had originally intended to do a much more stylized version, but I wasn’t really happy with anything I came up with, so I ended up using the manipulated photo to make a line drawing directly onto my fabric using my light table. I used my favourite Spendor silk thread (and realized in doing so how much more lovely it is to work with than the DMC cotton I used for the previous two projects) in five different shades of grey, as well as white, and black. As typically happens with my embroidery work, at a certain point I became hyperfocused on completing it, with the bulk of the effort coming between November 16 and 21. I listened to all of the works I’ve mentioned in this account in the last two days.