Thursday, December 2, 2010

The importance of music

Alice Herz-Sommer, pianist and oldest living Holocaust survivor, turned 107 last month.

Herz-Sommer swam daily until the age of 97. At 104, she published a bestselling book A Garden of Eden in Hell recalling the events of the concentration camps.  She claims to have been a close friend of Franz Kafka.  She has an active social life and continues playing the piano.


"I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times - including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate." [For more on her life, click here].

"The worst thing in life, in my opinion--is boredom."

A friend of a friend, many years ago, at the age of 95, decided to study Italian.  "Whatever for?" someone asked her.  She wasn't planning to go to Italy or anything.  It was just something she wanted to do:  Learn to read and speak Italian.   For some reason, hearing about Alice Herz-Sommer and her very active older years, suddenly made me remember that. A former elderly neighbor, after a minor traffic accident, was told he could no longer drive and his family took the car away from him. For weeks he moped about the house or stood outside at the fence, not knowing what to do. His health went downhill rapidly after that, and he ended up in a nursing home, from which one night he tried to escape. "He simply cannot live without that car," his wife told us. It represented independence, being in control of something, taking charge of things.

It seems when you get old, the first thing to go is your health; and then your patience, and then your sense of humor--and finally your sanity.  The complaint I most hear, and see, however, from visiting elderly friends or relatives over the years, is that of overwhelming, excruciating Boredom.  All the days are the same. You're continually reminded of all the things you can no longer do, the places you can no longer go, the life you no longer have.   Not everyone is fortunate enough to still have a great talent or be blessed with an ingrained positive outlook on life.  But is it ever really too late to learn something?  Even on one's deathbed, one can learn compassion, forgiveness, or how to laugh again.  Exiting life with a laugh, rather than a curse. But this post today is really about music--the importance of music in our lives.  Music for some, is like being with God.  (In another, 12-minute video that has since been removed from YouTube, Alice Herz-Sommer says that, to her, "Music is God."  As in, the highest thing.)

When she talks about the beautiful music certain composers have given us, and its effect on us, I cannot in the depths of my soul imagine what a world without music would be. I have, however met people whose worlds are like that for them--reaching for but not being able to see beauty in anything, the radio music of life drowning out the remembered joy of long lost rapture, so that death is now welcomed, one's place in life no longer known or felt.  I don't know if we can, years before the fact, determine that that won't be our plight, that we won't succumb to the ravages of time and illness or crippling debilitation, that we'll be able to face those years with grace and dignity and still find joy in life.

But things change us.  Pain and failure and loneliness and disease ... change us.  And we're given drugs to cope, or numb our consciousness. Music, I think, would be the only panacea left that would hold me together.  Music has "saved" me more times than I can remember; pulled me out of the deepest depression, consoled me, uplifted me, made me dance with complete abandon, gave me a hundred million happy memories, re-enacted on each hearing.  I think I know what Herz-Sommer means when she says Music ... is God. (Silence, too, is music, of a different sort, one without notes or a melody, but one hears it all the same.)

At any rate, what an inspiration.  People turn fifty and think it's all downhere from there on in.  Maybe it needn't be.  Maybe that's the wrong approach.  As long as the gray cells are still functioning ... Maybe, if I ever master French, I can take on a few more languages in my lifetime.  Publish a book at 95!  Wouldn't that be something!! Never say never; you just never know.

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