So I am wandering a bit in this post, about Big Ears and not. Please have patience. I'm not asking for anything but patience.
After I exhausted myself on Friday, the rest of Big Ears seemed something like a blur. That even though I intentionally planned a rather light day on Saturday, and lucky for me I did. I started off with a performance by trumpet virtuoso Peter Evans, which was certainly mind-bending. I can't really say that I would classify what I heard as music, but he pushed the trumpet to produce effects and waves of sound, tone, and tempo that I certainly never imagined; there were times where the sound was loud and crashing, a tornado in the room, and there were other periods of soft, gentle, melodies, a gentleness I had never really imagined from a trumpet. So although I personally didn't hear music, I was fascinated, and I could easily imagine music being written to incorporate what I was hearing, I could imagine the sounds I heard as part of greater works. I would say that the concert was difficult but also exciting.
Then I had a short break and a dilemma. At 2PM there were three concerts I was interested in: Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Jon Gibson, and Rushes Ensemble, with Cyro Baptista also performing again at 2:30. I had already decided not to go to Bela Fleck, not because I wouldn't love it, but because I had heard Fleck and Washburn perform together before, and felt I should push myself to explore something new. Given that reasoning, I also opted out of Baptista, even though I had been entranced by his concert the day before. Torn between Gibson and Rushes, I opted for Rushes Ensemble, only because of the bassoons. It may not have been the best choice, but I am a woman who loves the bassoon, a woman who will, and did, go out of her way for bassoon music. The work being performed, a piece written for 7 bassoons, was very interesting, with rotating waves of sound. It most certainly was not Telemann or Mozart, but I did not expect that it would be, and it was beautiful nonetheless. Or at least the first half hour was beautiful; then I got bored. Perhaps I just got hungry, and I realized that I had a walk of several blocks before I could eat. I probably should have eaten between concerts. I had had an hour. But I played with Tikka instead, thinking I could wait until after the bassoon concert. I had forgotten that, although I had a decent breakfast of hard boiled eggs and hot smoked salmon on salad, I had not eaten much the day before -- a felafel salad plate and a small bucket of popcorn even though I had gone to concerts all day long, walked 13 miles, and my smart watch told me I had burned 800 calories more than my usual. Not smart. So I left and had a leisurely lunch, and spent some time with Tikka.
If my 2 PM concert was not my favorite, the next concert I attended, the 5 PM performance by Jason Moran and Milford Graves was one of the high points of a weekend that, in retrospect seems filled with high points. The music was fabulous, and incredibly inspiring. I felt as if the music flowed in such a way that it encapsulated the breath and pulse of the room, audience and musicians as one, drawing us in and transforming us, at times slow and centered, at others rising up. Amazing.
The next concert on my agenda was billed as Roscoe Mitchell Trios at the Bijou, performing Bells for the South Side, among other works, and although there were more than three musicians on the stage, they did in fact play in trios. The music was very different from what I had heard Roscoe Mitchell playing the day before. That music had been warm and full of heart. This was fascinating, minimalist, and far more purely intellectual. I enjoyed it, and my brain was hopping along all sparkly and intrigued, but I wanted something more, so I didn't stay, opting instead to wander back to the cathedral to hear Johnny Gandelsman playing Bach. Gandelsman is technically very proficient and he played the Bach well, but he also brought a warmth and a humanity to the music. The performance was incredibly heart-warming, and intellectually thrilling as well. Sometimes the Bach solo violin pieces become a showcase for technical virtuosity and the soul of the music is lost; not in this case. I sat entranced.
By the time that concert ended, it was pouring and I was tired and hungry. I had hoped to eat at Kaizen, hoped it was late enough that I would luck into a table because I had forgotten to make a reservation. Alas a few people arrived just ahead of me and snagged the last table and last seat at the bar. I didn't want to wait so I walked over to Emilia where they managed to work me in and I was very happy. I settled in for a good meal and a glass of wine, a symphony of food and drink, along with some people watching and reflecting. The evening ended with a lovely dessert, not on the menu, of a small bit of rich and satisfying vegan dark chocolate mousse, with Amaro soaked citrus and luxardo cherries. It reminded me of music, of Roscoe Mitchell's minimalist compositions, but it was far more satisfying.
I noted that Big Ears was turning out to be both better than I had expected and yet also more frustrating. My frustrations however stemmed more from my own patience, or lack of it, with myself. Perhaps my expectations had been too high: My first big ears, I still couldn't stand long, even though it was nearly a year after my back surgery. But this year I stayed downtown so I could go to more concerts. I walked 8-11 miles a day the weekend in Paris and again in New York in February with no ill effects. I routinely walk between 6 and 7 miles a day. I thought Big Ears would be a piece of cake.
Unfortunately things were not proving to be that easy. One of the reasons I stayed for the entire Medeski, Martin and Wood concert Friday night was that I was having a lot of pain walking. I had mentioned that I was having leg and hip pain in previous blog posts over the previous two weeks, and that I had concerns about being able to handle the amount of walking required, as my movement had been severely curtailed. In fact I had just worked my way up to 4 miles a day before Big Ears started, and that only by taking many short walks. By Friday night, my right leg was dragging and I was in considerable pain but I was going to be damned if I missed that concert. I arrived, got a bourbon and the aforementioned popcorn and settled in. I didn't plan to stay for the entire concert, but I was entranced enough that I did. Two hours later I was comfortable enough but able to walk back to my hotel room, but further concert-going was out of the question.
Even so I was up half the night with leg pain. And the pain was worse on Saturday. I was beginning to realize what should have been apparent all along, that this wasn't a leg injury but back pain, sciatic pain. The sciatic nerve was so inflamed that other muscles were being inflamed as well. I've experienced this before, but it had been a long time. The back surgery I had 4 years ago was for a disk at L4. That was causing pain and numbness in my left leg, and in my back, but I had experienced intermittent sciatic problems for 30 years in my right leg, at times so severe I could barely function or walk. That particular pains stems from some changes at L5-S1, but they are not changes that would or could be improved by surgery. I'd have one or two "spells" a year and then move on. I wondered why it had stopped, but apparently it never did. The L4 disk, which had been bad, had just overpowered the other, and it took me long enough to recover, to stop perhaps being overly cautious, for small accidents to happen. A simple unexpected step Into a dip, a small twist, and there I was again.
Before you jump all over me, I am not looking for sympathy. I intended to take it easier on Saturday and I did. I intended to walk only 5 miles or so, but it ended up being over 8. But I also know that the only way to overcome back pain is to keep moving. Once I realized what was going on, I knew I needed to move as much as I could, stop when I needed to, but also not let myself freeze in place. Sunday was hard. And I missed some concerts because I couldn't walk to them. I got to one end of Gay street and stayed there. I could walk and stand but getting up a hill would do me in. Once I couldn't walk any more I went back to my hotel and rested. At that point I was fine as long as I was standing and walking; walking slowly perhaps, but still walking. Sitting was a problem, but that could be addressed in time, so I went out again.
I heard and did more than at any prior Big Ears. I had fun. I also pushed myself, perhaps more than I should have, but I wouldn't do anything differently, and I would have hated to have missed the festival. I'm not inclined to let a little inconvenience get in the way of music and fun. I also had fun. I spoke to more people I didn't know than I have at any previous Big Ears Weekend. I got out of my head and into the social aspect of the place. Once I knew what the problem was I could actually manage better. And yet, despite pushing myself, or because of it, I am actually better now and am functioning well with only minor nerve issues.
Aside from learning that I was simply more comfortable in my skin than I had been for a while, I learned a couple of other things about myself. I had forgotten what it was like to be so wrapped up in something I love that everything else becomes unimportant, and I had also forgotten that, once I get wrapped up in something I love, I need to remember to take time for self-care, like food perhaps. I also reconnected with another one of my gifts, one I had forgotten, namely stick-to-itiveness or stamina. I'll never be the fastest, or the strongest or the smartest, but damn-it I've got stamina. When I played tennis, my success at doubles was not because I had great shots, although I did have a strong backhand, but because, if you couldn't knock me out with a killer serve or super shot, I could wear you out. The longer the match the stronger I got, the more sheer determination would kick in. I thought nothing of a 3 hour plus match. I would wear the opponent down, and the more tired everyone got, including myself, the more focused I became. I'm still that way. That came in handy this past weekend. There is a point in any journey, through pain, fear, discomfort, anything really, where you either say "I quit" or you push on. I can push on, and once you push on, the rest of it becomes secondary, well until it doesn't, but that is another story.
Most of my back was fused when I was 16 years old. Before that I wore a brace for five years. I was always determined that I could do anything anyone else did, if I wanted, and my parents encouraged that attitude. I have no regrets. I've had a fabulous life thet would have been very different had I not had that surgery, if I would even be here at all. And I still have a fabulous life ahead of me. I have only two disks that are not fused, and they are both well on the way to self-fusing themselves. The simple truth is that I will probably have intermittent periods of difficulty for most of my life, a simple mis-step with a little twist can cause weeks of pain, but it is not the end of the world. And the only thing that helps is moving, specifically walking. If I can only walk 100 feet now, I need to walk 110 feet the next time, and so forth until I can do more. So here is the thing: I don't want setbacks to hamper my life more than they need to. But I also no longer want to pretend like they don't happen. Life is what it is, things always happen, and I am who I am, good and bad, all rolled into one.
Would I rather have been pain-free for Big Ears? Of course. Do I regret anything? No. The fun outweighed the discomfort, and working through it probably did me more good that staying home ever would have. I heard things I might never have heard otherwise. I spoke to people I would otherwise never have met. In fact, the difficulties may have focused my attention more; I took nothing for granted. I had a blast. And now that is all out of the way, I can tell you about the fun stuff on Sunday at another time.
Next year will be even better. It probably won't be perfect, but if you are looking for perfection you are just looking for an excuse to fail.