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Playing It By Ear

New Paltz, NY  in Winter © copyright Carol Bergman 2023


Playing It By Ear


  But to tolerate uncertainty is to  become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.


Lydia Polgreen, NY Tines Opinion, 10/26/22



It's a strange idiom, one I rarely use—playing it by ear—but today, as I write, it is my birthday and I have been looking forward to driving up the mountain to have dinner with my daughter. She called last night when I was in the midst of a Zoom meeting. I excused myself and took the call; I always answer my daughter's calls. And we compared our weather apps. Snow is predicted on all of them, how much, whether the temperature will go up or down is all unpredictable, despite modern technology. Driving home would be all downhill, so best be cautious, we decided. We postponed our get-together until tomorrow after the dig out, plowing and sanding. But we'll still have to "play it by ear," just in case there's a shift in the wind, or the roads are still too slippery to travel.


That idiom—playing it by ear—has  stayed with me all morning.  I find it difficult to change plans and bob with the waves, to improvise, ad-lib or extemporize, which is strange because all writing—all  creative endeavor—is a form of improvisation. The page or canvas is blank, and we fill it with words or images that surface within us, often mysteriously.


I didn't know what I was going to write about this week, which is unusual for me, until my daughter said, "let's play it by ear." That set me to bobbing all day in the waves of life's exigencies.  I'm about to begin  another Young Adult novel, so I'm reading a lot and taking notes. I've written one page I think is viable, but I am not certain. And I'm slow-reading a biography of Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie, every sentence of which is fascinating and enjoyable to contemplate. The seeds of today's horrific war in Ukraine are in 17th century Russia. I will continue to write about that conflict until it ends, and we don't know how it will end. Uncertainty once again.


Slow-reading nonfiction big books began for me during lockdown. I'd always been a fast reader, goal-oriented, reading less for pleasure than information and as a writer studying what makes a book work, or not. But as life's activities suspended and there were more hours in each day to read, write, and think, I became more attentive to my eyes moving across the page, as though they were vehicles. The sensation of being transported into another time and place was almost surreal; it took me away from the sad reality of the pandemic. I have continued the practice. Massie's book is 800 pages, and it is the first of four in his Romanov series. Catherine the Great is already on the TBR stack.


Once a month I meet with what I have started calling my very special, advanced city writing workshop—Sherry, Ed, Betty Leigh, Eric and Max.  Much has transpired for all of us since we shifted to Zoom, and adapted to it, in the spring of 2020, including the tragic death from Covid of Ed's partner, Jody.  Yet, even after this terrible event, our get togethers remained focused, engaged, and supportive, full of warmth, humor, and improvised conversation. I dedicate this blog post to all of these particular, wonderful students, with gratitude.

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