Across the street from my grandmother's shop there once lived a kind old woman named Nora. During that span of my life (roughly my early years in grade school) my mother worked a second job as a costume designer for a Dallas theatre, so she would often use my grandmother's sewing machines, tables, and supplies of fabric, with me along to spend my time as I desired. There were always books to read, or games to play, or the overgrown plot out back which I never fully explored. Sometimes I would also cross that vast street and knock on Nora's door, because she was always home. We would eat snacks together and talk about things. Only scattered, unclear memories remain of her: the well-stocked, thoroughly organized pantry; the strange old technology, lacking all of the unobtrusive sleekness I knew; the dining room table that stood always ready for guests; the bedroom which was never quite as clean as the rest of the house. Notwithstanding the terrifying loneliness I sensed even then, I respected and wondered at the significance of every item, that each brought with it a series of memories to be invoked with a question. In that house, I behaved with a delicate awe quite unlike my usual heedlessness.
I remember the music boxes most clearly. Nora collected these, and had more than a dozen in her living room. All were purely mechanical, activated by turning some knob or handle. Most had a set of little prongs tuned to specific notes, twanged in sequence by a rotating cylinder. None were ever quite in tune. Whenever I visited Nora, before the snacks or the conversation, I would turn on every single one of those boxes, hunting the room thoroughly to make sure I had not missed any. Both Nora and I would then revel for a little while in the abundance of music. As I remember, it was not a cacophony, but rather the beautiful disharmony of an orchestra warming up. There are various little exercises which I do consistently, like performing estimates in my head before reaching for a calculator, or looking up a new word in the dictionary: these exercises ensure that my mind will always be able to do what I most need it to do. One such exercise is to recall what I felt when I realized that the house across the street from my grandmother's shop had been torn down.
In my fantasies I help my friends in big, decisive ways, by being the right person with the right resources at the right time. These are unrealistic fantasies, because the pivotal moments when a friend needs (and can receive) such help are vanishingly rare: I can think of only two times when I was able to decisively help someone with a single action. More realistic, and frankly more valuable, is the help I can provide in imperceptibly small portions, by providing consistent support, conversation, perspective or even just presence... the help which consists in being a kind gardener to those around me, helping what is worthwhile in them to grow. As one of many rewards for that activity, I may on occasion be invited inside someone else's head, to observe the objects there with a delicate awe, and to set the music there to playing.
It is a strange cord which ties me to my past, because the more strands I cut the stronger it becomes. I do not mean I should not cut at what ties me, but that I should cut wisely. I can be a better person than I have yet been shown.