Lake Effect, Volume 25: "Variations on a Theme"

Variations on a Theme

By Nancy Naomi Carlson


The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart housed all thought—a cardiocentric point of view. Pythagoras, Plato, and Hippocrates were all proponents of cephalocentrism, believing that thought resided in the brain. Most modern-day psychologists agree that intelligence arises from the brain, and comes in many different forms, including fluid intelligence (the ability to think in logical ways to solve never-before-seen problems, with no prerequisite acquired knowledge) and crystallized intelligence (the ability to draw on experience, skills, and knowledge acquired over the years). The bad news is that fluid intelligence peaks in adolescence and decreases with age. The good news is that crystallized intelligence, folded into regions of the brain that store long-term memories, increases with age. It’s heartening to know that some things actually improve with age, like the tonal quality of a Stradivarius violin. Or a restored piano. The ability to play that Stradivarius or piano may decline as we grow older, due to physical changes, such as arthritis in the hands and fingers, or cataracts clouding our ability to read crumb-sized notes on a musical staff. However, we’ve probably all seen films where the dementia-stricken protagonist—like Allie in The Notebook—can flawlessly play a Chopin prelude by heart, as if musical memory could literally be held in our hands.


My mother used to play Chopin nocturnes to help my sister and me fall asleep. She was the one who taught me how to play the piano when I was six years old, and at one point in my life I was thinking about a career in music. By the time my musical prowess had advanced to the point of tackling Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, I realized that my technique would never be up to the task, even if I spent hours practicing at the keyboard. Besides, my fingers had a tendency to freeze before every performance, due to stage fright. Running hot water over my knuckles seemed to relax me enough to get started, and the music did the rest. Although I stopped taking piano lessons after graduate school, I still kept up with my music, accompanying musicals for the shows produced by the schools where I worked as a counselor, and accompanying my daughter’s vocal recitals and college auditions. Although my musical repertoire never advanced past a certain point, I find that now, decades after poetry pushed my music into the wings, I can still find my way back into a favorite Mozart sonata with the help of the reminders and circled markings I’d written directly onto the score when I’d first learned the piece. It doesn’t take long for my fingers to remember what they need to do, and while I know I will never be able to play the piece better than ever before, there’s a chance I can make it sound almost as good as before. Not true for learning new pieces, which require an inordinate amount of effort and time to reach the level of “mediocre.” Truthfully, I’d rather be writing.


Glenn Gould was one of the most gifted pianists of the twentieth century. His career as a world-famous pianist was launched by his recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in 1955. Despite rarely recording the same piece twice, Gould re-recorded these variations twenty-six years later, though he died the following year. Some critics hail this second recording as a “revelation” in Bach interpretation—a more mature and measured performance imbued with dramatic changes in tempi and intention. Gould at his best.


James A. Garfield, the twentieth president of the United States, is credited with saying, “If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should never grow old.”  We’ll never know if this statement held true for him, as he was assassinated at age forty-nine. My cousin in Albuquerque agrees with this concept, observing “The spirit will get wiser but never age.” She shared this insight with me after I described what led up to a recent breakthrough in my writing process. I told her about my weekly struggle with the blank page, and how it didn’t help when I brought to mind the late poet Stanley Plumly’s assertion that there was no such thing as writer’s block. One night, I started leafing through some old notebooks from the mid-nineties for ideas the then-me had found interesting at the time but had never incorporated into a finished poem. I was delighted to come across a few lines about translation I’d hurriedly jotted down at a time when translation, something I’d occasionally made use of while majoring in French language and literature in graduate school, was not something I’d ever envisioned doing myself. These notes about translation turned out to be a match for the poem that had been swirling in my now-me’s mind for several weeks. I told my cousin it was almost as if I had left breadcrumbs for my future self to find the way back in time to retrieve these thoughts.


I’ve heard it said that writers are lucky if they get one or two topics over the course of a lifetime to which they can obsessively return. I don’t know if writing about the same thing over and over necessarily results in better writing or just becomes “more of the same.” For years I wrote about Matthew, my baby who never survived past the day he was born, due to a rare birth defect. I wrote about the birth, the one time I saw him before he was whisked away to be hooked up to breathing machines, the guilt I felt for not having held him, the clumsy attempts of well-meaning people to comfort me, the heart-wrenching decision to “try again,” the grief when that next attempt failed, and the reprise of this theme to mark each decade of his passing. Six years ago, I branched out to a new topic—breast cancer. I wrote about the diagnosis, the decision-making process regarding treatment options which led me to myriad research studies in the medical literature and consultations with six medical oncologists, two radiation oncologists, and six therapists, the four rounds of chemotherapy and its side effects, including losing my hair and permanently blowing out the vein in the crook of my right arm so no one can ever draw blood from it, the nineteen days in a row of radiation while I lay in a prone position and held my breath, and the annual mammograms, metaphorically holding my breath before the “all clear” was sounded. This year’s mammogram poem took on an unexpected twist—venturing out into the pandemic world of lockdown for the first time in six months, at a moment when the abundant rains had produced a surfeit of giant hydrangea blooms and the daily virus death counts had temporarily ebbed.  Although sometimes I will myself to write about other subjects, such as music or love or translation, my writing eventually reverts back to a variation on the theme of how our cells can run amok. Fortunately, each new poem seems to find an unexpected discovery, as I draw on what’s happening around me at that moment in time, like a tornado gathering up anything in its path. And now that I’ve found a way to incorporate earlier ideas into my new work, who knows if what I’m writing today will be helpful down the road. I wonder if my best poems are still to come: a re-recording, enhanced by acquired knowledge and lived experiences—perhaps discovering some heretofore unknown facet of a well-worn crystal that still can cut deeply into the skin.