Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman, subject of the award-winning fantastic movie “The Pianist”, was playing live on the radio on September 23, 1939… when the Germans opened fire on the studio, causing him to flee — and run for his life. The piece of music he was playing was Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor – a hauntingly beautiful piece of music, one that I’ve been trying to master for better part of this pandemic. I so wish I’d latched onto it 30 years ago… it would’ve been far easier to learn it… and then, playing it once a month or more, I’d know it for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, neuroplasticity degrades as we age. The ability for the brain to change and rewire fades. Neurogenesis, the ability to create new neurons and connections also suffers. To put all of the fancy words into colloquial language… you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Or maybe you can, but it’s a lot more difficult.
Szpilman was 27 when he was so rudely interrupted, but his young brain, like any of a brilliant musician, managed to retain all of what he knew, and I don’t think I’m giving much away when I tell you he survived the war (he died in 2000, aged 88), and his ability to play the piano was not an irrelevant side-note of that survival… notwithstanding the slow descent from studio musician to holocaust survivor; it’s a hellish story and, again, if you haven’t seen the movie, you must. The first bit of music you’ll hear is the aforementioned piece.
After 6 years of surviving hell, the war ended, and life slowly returned to normal. And Szpilman returned to playing piano, and returned to the same, rebuilt studio… where he resumed playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor. Imagine the emotions he must have been feeling at that moment… bridging that gap. Everything that happened in those 6 years. The inward-facing question of “What was the point of all of that, if we’re right back to where we were?”
That’s the sort of question we often find ourselves asking when the universe seems to throw something negative and unexpected in our way… and after you muddle through it, you’re right back to where you started. Why? To what end?
This is the best explanation I have for what I’m feeling, watching CNN the last two days. I will stop after today because it’s somewhat intoxicating and I’m not getting much else done. I’m writing this while watching this 24-hour White House coverage, and I can’t turn it off. It’s just so freaking… normal. There have been two White House press briefings in as many days. They will continue on a daily basis. Reporters ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers. Dr. Fauci offers his untethered, unbridled, uncensored opinion. Facts. Science. Forget policy, recent changes, and how of course there will be disagreement… above all that, there is now transparency and normalcy. An actual functioning government.
The unfortunate part of it is figuring out and dealing with the mess that was left behind… with the top of that list being no cohesive vaccination plan from the previous administration; lots of mixed messages and confusion. But… they’ll figure it out. And they’ll announce what they’re doing.
I’m switching it off after today, and will try to leave it off. But in the back of my mind, I know that if I turn it back on, it’ll be a lot like today and yesterday. And four years ago. And decades before that. There’s a lot of comfort in that, to be honest… and I’m certainly not equating Szpilman’s 6 years of hell to the last four years of… whatever you want to call it… but once you come out on the other side, there are certainly similarities. A giant exhale, and a giant, collective thought… like… ok, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?
I know, nothing gets fixed overnight… but state of mind, even with my degraded ability to learn piano, counts for a lot. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. Whew. Onward.
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