4 Movements, 2 Crescendos & 1 Climax
A Year of Living, Listening & Writing It Down
It’s been quite a year. Sitting at Tanglewood this weekend, tearing up listening to Brahms’ First Symphony, I reflected how well music mirrors the ebb and flow of lives and years. Back in the 1870s, everyone was pressuring the fast-ageing Brahms to finally cough up a symphony. A reviewer of the day wrote that “seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such tense anticipation.” No pressure. What was Brahms’ problem? One word. Beethoven. He was slowed, like so many of us, by benchmarking to others. I felt for him. It takes guts to tread in the footsteps of Beethoven – how do you follow that? He finally delivered at the ripe old age of 43.
The answer, or at least his, was to integrate it, and then innovate. So he references Ode to Joy, quotes it as any writer might, and then pens something entirely new. Four movements that reflect my 4-Quarter thinking about life. The program notes say the first movement “seems to begin mid-struggle… and that the middle movements of the symphony are at an emotional remove from the outer ones.”
It was the perfect summation of a vacation week spent with three generations of family – and preparing to say goodbye to the fourth. My new granddaughter erupts into her First Quarter with all the drive and determination of Brahms’ Allegro. She is as miraculous as everyone says grandchildren are – but better. A global mash-up of the world, she (still unknowingly and quite effortlessly) combines nationalities, religions, races and cultures. She is Muslim/ Jewish/ Christian/ atheist, black/ white, English/French/ Wolof, North/ South. She seems born mid-struggle. The world hasn’t yet sorted out its familial differences. She is a good representative of Q1 – all beginning. A tune in the making, with melodies drawn from different traditions and canons.
My kids, lunching with us by the lake, are in Q2, while I am firmly ensconced in Q3 – the middle movements of the symphony. They are, indeed, very different from the outer ones. They are neither beginning, nor climax, but a more complicated, questioning wandering through the roller coaster of the lengthening middle. Every day this holiday, I spent some time circling the garden with granddaughter in her stroller, coaxing her through her very powerful resistance to sleep. As I turned around and around, bouncing over pleasingly bumpy tree roots, I couldn’t help thinking of the goodbye letter I am penning for my mother. Of these two women framing my own life and symphony. They are separated by two big middle movements but united by big characters, both struggling to let their eyes close. One for an hour, one for eternity.
Elderberries - Squeezing the Juice
All year, I’ve been writing about the middle music. Of growth and ambitions and projects to come. This newsletter was born on a birthday heralding a year I thought would be devoted to myself. I laugh ruefully now remembering my generational naivete. “I need new ideas, fresh questions and a community of thoughtful midlife transitionists. Instead of resting on my laurels or registering for golf lessons, I’ll go re-invest in learnability,” I wrote in my introductory blog, freshly accepted to Harvard and packing my bags for a year in the US. It started with a bang and a lesson in drawing toast – heady and mind-blowingly full of everything I had dreamt of. As war launched in Europe in the spring, my new community tightened its bonds in Boston. We dove deep, with some of the best minds in the world, into big global issues – climate change, AI and human rights, mental health and I peddled madly to keep up and write it all down. My cohort friends love that I’m doing all the note-taking for them. They just short-hand missives home by sending my blogs to their kids.
But that’s when the celestial composer threw in a few additional melodies. A plaintive oboe, a mother’s accident, the loss of independence. A steady drumbeat towards a Fourth Quarter climax that kept running through my main melody. A reminder of beginnings and mothers and ends. Stuff you can’t ignore, that hits you to your core, no matter what the hell the world is up to, or what you plan to do with - or for - it. I told my friend Gilly I felt like a fractal – seesawing wildly across a range of emotions, many not my own. The final movement and the climax sweep all before it, creating stormy, asynchronous impacts across the huge orchestra’s many players. The climax is a’coming, I can hear it in my fall – the drums are beating, the trumpets lifting their golden orbs heavenward, the conductor breaks a sweat in graceful gesticulation.
Friend Gilly just smiled and, coach extraordinaire that I am blessed she is, suggested I was learning exactly what I had gone seeking. A deeper understanding of life’s 4 Quarters and how they play out. I’m living it, learning it, watching others struggle through it, and trying to compose it into some kind of comprehensible harmony.
Harvard Term #2 – And The Heat is On
I have so many plans I’d love to share with you. And I will, I promise, as soon as all these other tunes calm down. The second half of my Harvard Advanced Leadership Program begins next week. It will focus on getting all our projects off the page and into the world. To inspire and encourage us (although I think its impact might be more Beethoven to my Brahms), our preparatory back-to-school homework was to watch a video of Harvard Law grad Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson was born in Alabama and has devoted his life to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative and has been largely responsible for reversals or reduced sentences in over 65 death penalty cases. This is how Harvard sets the bar: high. We’re definitively talking Beethoven. His talk proposes 4 suggestions for impactful service (4 is becoming my magic number in everything from music to the seasons to life). And here are the lessons I pulled for my own ‘project:’
1. Proximity – work with communities you come from, are close to, or have connections with. Don’t parachute in. For example, my interest in ageing comes at a time I can credibly engage with the subject.
2. Change The Narrative – much work involves a complete reframing of the subject. So, for example, I avoid the ‘ageism’ frame, and prefer to think of the ‘longevity opportunity.’ I did much the same thing for decades with gender.
3. Stay Hopeful – death and loss and ageing are things many people fear and avoid. But I find they bring a lot of extra colour to the life that remains. I have never been so grateful for my health. I treasure yoga classes as Odes to Health.
4. Choose the Uncomfortable – it is so easy to continue doing something you master, but it’s so much more invigorating to venture forth into something new and matterful. I haven’t really a clue where I’m headed, but I’m excited exploring.
So dear elderberries reader, what will I be promising for Year 2 of this experiment in writing my own symphonic project? Promising you. But perhaps more importantly, promising myself.
Another 52 essays that will likely cover…
PROJECTS: ALI projects, and how my astonishing cohort is planning to save the world
COURSES: Snippets from courses on The Meaning of Life, Stages of Adulthood and a Good Death
PERSONAL: Ongoing mulling on family, childing, parenting through death, dogs and occasional despair streaked with joy. While transitioning oneself.
GOING HOME: the particular challenges of returning to normalcy after such a heady year - and its longer term impact.
GEOGRAPHY: A 2023 project: Where in the world will I live next? On how to design geography into your 3rd and 4th Quarters.
A New elderberries Section - Collaborations
A new section on my Substack home page called Collaborations, where I will write and co-author pieces with writers of other lands, generations and persuasions. I’ll be starting this week with a piece co-authored with 25-year-old Substack author and portfolio-career-creator Charlie Rogers. He is as ambitious about getting his 2nd Quarter right and sharing how he did it, as I am about the 3rd and 4th Quarters.
A New Podcast: 4-Quarter Lives
A new podcast that will launch October 5th, called 4-Quarter Lives. Where two kinds of interviews will weave their melodies:
ROLE MODELS: All summer, I’ve been interviewing my Harvard ALI and Stanford DCI colleagues who are re-inventing their 3rd Quarters with inspiring projects and renewed purposes.
EXPERTS: Discussions with a range of experts in all things ageing, longevity, careers – and disaggregating it all by gender.
And over the next year, probably a few more things that I haven’t dreamt up yet. Am open to all ideas and suggestions!
Skipping School for the Climax
There is lots, as you can see, brewing in Boston. But next week, I’ll be skipping the start of classes to accompany my son to Toronto. Not a great way to start the school year, you may be thinking. But the Final Movement of my symphony is calling – and it speaks to the heart of my project on ageing, genders and generations. We’ll be presenting the new granddaughter (aka Ode to Joy) to her great-grandmother. And the circle will circle, the continents will meet and the climax will sound (the church bells next door just started ringing, I kid you not!). Life’s most discordant notes will join together in a climax full of (I hope) love and legacy. No pressure.
“A chorale in the trombones, silent until this movement, brings a canonic build-up of the horn motto and then the Allegro with its two main ideas: the broad C-major tune suggestive of Beethoven’s Ninth, and a powerful chain of falling intervals, which crystallize along the way into a chain of falling thirds, Brahms’s musical hallmark. The movement drives to a climax for full orchestra on the trombone chorale heard earlier and ends with a final affirmation of C major – Brahms has won his struggle.” (Tanglewood concert notes, by Marc Mandel)
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