Soul
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Ostinato

“For I have known them all already, known them all: 

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; 

I know the voices dying with a dying fall 

Beneath the music from a farther room. 

               So how should I presume?”

– T.S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The stack of purple and blue pill organizers crushed me. Seven doors on seven organizers, each filled with different vitamins and prescriptions. Open the seven doors, drop in the tablets and capsules, close the doors, empty them in little bowls for each person at breakfast. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year. Maybe someday we wouldn’t need to take pills.

Maybe someday would be different. But not today.

I tossed the clothes in the dryer, filled the dishwasher, looked for my wallet, yelled for the kids to get their shoes on, and loaded the car. Maybe someday the kids would empty the dishwasher without breaking anything. Maybe someday my youngest would tie her shoes.

Maybe someday would be different. But not today.

We pulled out of the driveway, squinted under the heavy sun, closed the garage door, went up the street, turned right, turned right at the manatee mailbox, went down the hill, over the lake, up the hill, all the way to the light, and turned left by the Target. Maybe someday we’d have somewhere else to go.

Maybe someday would be different. But not today.

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©Kevin Niu

A guy smiled on the radio, singing (again) that he Can’t Stop the Feeling. That song was always on the radio. I agreed with him. I couldn’t stop the feeling–that hazy despair, empty disappointment, and electric anxiety. That heaviness on my chest, invading my thoughts. Maybe someday there’d be a new song, and the feelings would stop.

Maybe someday would be different. But not today.

I changed the channel. And there actually was a new song — the Jaws theme. We all went silent and waited. The chase and crescendo. The wild strings. The climax. We laughed with relief.

The song was an example of ostinato in the middle of a radio interview with a music professor. He played and discussed the repeated rhythmic patterns of Ravel (Bolero*), Beethoven (Moonlight Sonata), Holst (Mars-Bringer of War), and Williams (Star Wars’ Imperial March). He said ostinato is a “stable foundation and launching point for change on top of it.” He taught that constant repetition is instinctual and unifying, builds suspense and energy, feeds our need for routine and dependability, creates a foundation, and sets the stage for a reveal.

I thought of the pill cases, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and the car route. The unanswered prayers I repeated everyday anyway. The constant repetition.

The song of my days was ostinato.

What foundation was I building? What was the reveal?

I thought of ostinato for months. In the middle of researching other writing projects I’d detour to find more examples of these musical patterns in Led Zeppelin (Black Dog), Donna Summer (Love to Love You Baby), and The Verve (Bittersweet Symphony). I read old articles about music and memory. I filled more pill cases, did more laundry, and tied more shoes.

“Repetitio mater studiorum est.” 

(Repetition is the mother of all learning)

Months later I wrote my pianist friends, asking what it felt like to play and teach ostinato with their dexterous fingers. They said students learn their craft with ostinato, like Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. As professional performers, they don’t question ostinato, or complain. They play the music they are given.

I wondered if my feelings were too much. The composer wrote my music and it was my job to play it. But I didn’t like this song. Was I disobedient? A despairing drama queen? A bad mother?

What foundation were we building? What was the reveal?

I wrote my opera friends and asked what they thought of ostinato, singing the same thing over and over with their mouths, lungs, and diaphragms. They said it’s satisfying to be part of the foundation of a complex song. It’s exciting to build to the climax, like in Orff’s Carmina Burana.

I didn’t think it was exciting to be scared or disappointed. The climax was usually horrible: the shark attack, the marching enemy, or the villain jumping out at the top of the stairs.

My friend gently disagreed. She said ostinato could sound scary and depressing when it was in a minor key. Didn’t I know ostinato could be in a major key, like Pachelbel’s Canon in D? The reveal can be beautiful: love, discovery, reunion, or celebration.

I didn’t know that.

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©Gabriele Diwald

“Hope is the thing with feathers  

That perches in the soul,  

And sings the tune without the words,  

And never stops at all”

Emily Dickinson (254)

I bought more pill cases. The others were worn out from years of use. I laid the paper towels in front of me, ready to pour out all the pills for sorting. I opened all seven doors on all seven cases. Some vitamins and prescriptions were new. Some prescriptions were no longer needed. I cut pills in half. I made notes for refills and doctor calls.

The dishwasher chimed it was done. The dryer stopped tumbling. My daughter started cutting the peppers for dinner. My son started folding towels. My youngest untied her shoes at the back door.

I clicked all seven doors shut on the pill case: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click. Seven times. Forty-nine times. My ostinato.

My daughter laughed at my son’s joke. My youngest zipped up her kitty cat lunch box. I piled the pill cases in the bin and stared at them. Quietly I prayed a brand new prayer, a new song:

“Thank you, God, for all this.

For the vitamins, medicine, and doctors.

And three kids.

And this day.

And the next seven days.

Maybe someday will be different.

But that’s not today.

I guess You are the foundation?

And You are building something on it?

And You know the future, the big reveal?

I believe.

Help my unbelief.”

I put the heavy bin away, joined my kids in the kitchen, and started cooking dinner.

Again.

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©Brigitte Tohm

“Something, something’s coming good.

Something, something’s coming fine.

Something, something’s coming yours.

Something, something’s coming mine.

Maybe it’ll come on wings.

Maybe it’ll come on wheels.

Maybe if it touches you, you’ll find out how it feels.

Maybe it’ll come by day.

Maybe it’ll come by night.

Something, something’s coming right.”

Harrod & Funck – Something

* * *

Your Ostinati:

1. What’s your repetitive pattern these days? Is it an honest slog through the essential and mundane? Is it an angry refrain in a tense and broken relationship? Is the unexpected trust in a season of gratefulness? Does it bring you stability or tension?

2. What do you think your ostinato is building toward? Certain death? A big epiphany? New love? Why do you think that? Do you think God has a hope and future for you?

3. Ostinato means “obstinate.” In fact, if you type “ostinato” into your phone or computer auto-correct will automatically change it to “obstinate.” Try it. Are you stubborn? Is God stubborn? Is the pattern of your days stubborn? What message do you keep hearing over and over and over again?

4. What key are you playing in? Is it a somber minor key? Is it snarky? Is it hauntingly beautiful? Is it hopeful? A consistent looking up? Do you like your song? If not, what would it take to change one note?

5. What is your favorite song? Does it reflect your current ostinato? Is it something you hope will feel authentic someday? Do you need a new theme song?

“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30

*Note: All song titles are linked to iTunes audio files, click on them to hear what different ostinati sound like.

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©Christian Bisbo Johnsen

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©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2017.

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