Gail Needleman: We Are Not Monads

Second in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Gail Needleman came to Mesa Refuge to sort through years of notes.

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

A pianist and university professor, Gail was working on a book based on her musings and observations about music. Music not as some optional add-on, or the product of a professional, but absolutely essential to our souls. She sequestered herself in the upper room and got to it.

I have to say I was itching to be a mouse in her pocket, because I love sorting through tidbits and insights.

Her advice to writers: Do not make notes in tiny notebooks; you will regret it later. (She teasingly scolded me for my habit of scribbling in a little notebook, but I love my wee notebooks!)

An interview she gave to Works and Conversations magazine is called Music is Something You Do. In it she mourns the trend toward music as performance instead of communal expression—effectively cutting us off from the healing power of our own voices.

She says it’s quite a modern idea to experience the self as a “monad,” a self-contained unit, separate from others. “And music, the most communal of human activities or arts, becomes those billboards with the person with the iPod dancing to music that no one else can hear.”

Photo by Thomas Neilsen, via flickr Commons

Photo by Thomas Nielsen, via flickr Commons

I love her story of the children’s game “Lemonade,” a call and response song-game. It includes the line “Give us some—don’t be afraid” before the child in the middle pretends to pour lemonade, and the others gather around and hold up their cups. Gail thinks this is about breaking the barrier between individual and group.

“It was just a very simple example of how in making music together, the barriers between people go down…We’re armored most of the time, even to ourselves, but certainly to others.”

Gail brought a dry wit and down-to-earth sensibility to our dinner table conversations. Her warmth and wisdom made me treasure her presence. One evening she advised us younger women, all prone to burnout from taking on too much, that “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you must.” She told of a time when she was in charge of an event and had many demands on her. The line she used, which I intend to borrow, was “Is this a question only I can answer?”

One night when we gathered by the woodstove, she sang a beautiful song that had us all mesmerized, especially her smitten husband.

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

It’s almost impossible to write about Gail without mentioning husband Jerry (philosophy professor Jacob Needleman, also in residence), and vice versa. The two are so clearly and completely meant for each other. It’s beautiful to see the love and trust between them—not to mention their lively sense of fun. Each seems to be the other’s biggest fan.

On the last evening she read from her work in progress, which she had been so reticent about discussing, and again held us spellbound. Her handwritten pages were pure poetry. I can’t wait for her book.

To a Young Cicada

I looked for you today. There on the trunk of the maple tree, surrounded by the carapaces of your siblings, you’d been left behind. You were still unzipping your old skin and squeezing out. I saw your convulsive twitch, your jointed limbs, your staring eyes. Your struggle to be born. Your excruciating vulnerability in the moment of leaving your armor.

top viewI know you from your song, the vibrating sine wave soundtrack of every August of my life. Your evening crescendo drowns out human words spoken under the trees.

cicada shell

I know you from your shell, the source of childhood torment. Yesterday I picked one off a raspberry with shivering fingers, reliving the horror of such husks left by a prankster brother: on my pillow, my bookshelf, my lightswitch.

I know you from your rare jittering bounce on the ground, a curiosity for the dog, an opportunity for the cat. And once you turned up at my back door after I wrote a poem in which you starred. You looked at me as if to say, You rang?

cicadaBut I’ve never seen you like this, in the act of slow-motion vaulting into your new shape.

for blogDoes it hurt, this freeze-frame backflip into airborne freedom? It looks like it would hurt.

Maybe it hurts like a numbed limb awakening, the flow of blood returning. A rightness in the pain. A sensing that what comes next is flight.

Do you look back at that exoskeleton that used to house you, once you’ve finally juddered free? That hull too small to contain you? No. The buzzing symphony pulls you up to the treetops. You ready your instrument.