The Pittsburgh Symphony

Last Friday night, under the threat of snow and ice, D.J. and I drove Downtown to attend the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird, along with a flute concerto by Jacques Ibert.

I don’t know music. I know the names of instruments (most of them, most of the time), and I can recognize the names of the most famous classical composers. I could once read the notes floating across rows of parallel straight lines, interpret them in my own crude, slow way. I appreciate how music sounds, and I know when something displeases my ears. But I can’t listen to Mozart and Bach and tell you which is which. It’s been years (decades, really) since I’ve held an instrument, years since I attempted to make sense of those black dots with little flags.

So when we go to the Symphony, I find other ways of understanding.

First, there is the richness of Heinz hall, the crystal light scones sparkling with light. Then the sea of black-clad bodies on the stage warming up with their instruments, their notes discordant and scattered. When the lights dim and the conductor takes the stage, the chaos settles into harmony. The musicians sit, and the uniform blackness of their formal wear resolves into textures and shapes: a violinist in a crushed velvet skirt, another in a long dress with flowing sheer sleeves. Some dresses are a deeper black than others, some hang heavy on the wearer, some light and airy. Even the men’s tuxedos are different cuts and styles, some more traditional, some sharply modern.

The conductor, Juanjo Mena, holds up his baton, and everyone in the hall takes a breath, waiting. The music begins, and suddenly dozens of bodies move together. It’s easy to forget how physical music is when you only listen to recordings. The musicians lean in to their violins and clarinets and trombones, using their breath and their arms and their cores to coax that exact sound, at that exact pitch and tone, from their instruments. Together they weave a dream out of sound, something completely intangible but still distinctly felt in my body.

When flute soloist Lorna McGhee enters the stage, she creates sounds with the flute I did not know were possible. She takes the music high, low, soft, softer still, then rushing and tumbling. Her breath is audible, a powerful inhalation transformed into music that races around the hall, as if the notes are chasing each other. We aren’t close to the stage, but even from a distance I can see the muscles in her arms contract as she moves her fingers up and down the flute. Her body sways, setting her purple grown rippling. It is clear she feels the music deep in her soul, and although I don’t have a language to describe what I hear, she makes me feel it, too.

This is what flying must feel like to birds.

At the end of the concert, when the ordinary shuffle of shoes on carpet overtakes the last lingering musical vibrations, we rise from our seats, renewed. The world is ugly, yes, but it is also beautiful and surprising. I don’t know music, but I know art, and art exists beyond language. That, at least, I understand.

 

Sunset walk in the rain

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. A version of this post appeared first on July 76, 2012, on my blog of the same name.

The city always seems quieter in the rain, except for the cars splashing down the streets. Everything is hushed, subdued, like the rain is pushing it down, dampening it.

Last night we had no choice but to walk in a steady, post-thunderstorm shower. Our dogs needed to go out and we have no yard. Normally on our evening walks my husband, D.J., and I talk about our days, our plans, books we’re reading, New Yorker articles. Last night we walked in a comfortable silence. After a rough week migraine-wise for both of us, being together was enough; we didn’t have to say anything.

I listened to the soft, erratic plat, plat, plat, of heavy rain drops on the hood of my jacket. Through breaks in the clouds I could see the sky, still glowing with the last bits of sunlight, a smokey blue. Reflected light from downtown skyscrapers and street lamps illuminated the low-hanging clouds in a golden yellow. As we entered the park, I caught a glimpse of the sunset in the distance: deep orange and red on the western horizon, beyond the rain.

My 18-month-old German shepherd puppy bounded along the path, pouncing on a stick and carrying it proudly for awhile before abandoning it for another one. My Welsh corgi scampered in a straight line ahead of me, intent on walking, smelling, and marking her territory as much as possible.

Here was beauty — in the rain, the sunset, lights reflected in puddles — and here was love — my husband and dogs beside me. My head hurt, yes, but it didn’t matter. Like the city, the rain made my headache seem quieter, subdued. So I let the rain soak into me, pick up my worries and my fears, and carry them away.

 

On home and being homesick

Pittsburgh has been my adopted city for more than a decade now—for basically my entire adult life. I love the city’s geography, the number and quality of parks and cultural attractions, my job at the library, and the comfort that comes with extreme familiarity.

But I still get homesick.

My family is from Coatesville, a little steel town across the state from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Coatesville shares many similarities with Pittsburgh, and that’s probably why I’m so comfortable here. Both are steel towns that suffered greatly when the steel industry crashed. Both have pockets of poverty that stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas. Both have a working class feel, even though Pittsburgh’s economy has moved to healthcare and tech.

A Wawa coffee mug

Nothing says “home” to me like Wawa.

Pittsburgh, however, doesn’t have an operating steel mill, though there’s one nearby in Braddock (I know it’s strange to feel nostalgic for a mill–and yet, I do). Pittsburgh does not have cream chipped beef or shoo-fly pie or Philly cheese steaks (don’t be fooled by the poor imitations you find at otherwise very good hoagie shops). Until fairly recently you couldn’t get Tasty Kakes in Pittsburgh food stores. Pittsburgh still doesn’t have a Wawa—think Sheetz, but so, so much better.

When I was kid, my family did a lot of day trips to air shows, NASCAR races, and gun ranges. Each of those trips began with a stop at Wawa, where we’d stock up on Gatorade, foot-long hoagies, and various kinds of Tasty Kakes for the day. My mom would often pick up Wawa hoagies on her way home from work if she didn’t feel like cooking or there just wasn’t time. (As I type this I’m drinking coffee from a Wawa mug in a bagel shop near my work.)

And while there are a few Dairy Queens around, they aren’t the old-fashioned kind where you order ice cream through a window and eat it on a picnic table outside. You have to go inside to order, and the only seating is also indoors. That always feels strange to me—eating ice cream in a heavily air-conditioned room instead of outside, where you have to eat fast, before it melts all over your hand.

In the summer we’d ride our bikes to DQ, get ice cream, and ride home. That same DQ was where my grandparents would take us after dinner when were little, and we’d sit by the train tracks to watch the SEPTA trains fly by.

Coatesville is right next to Lancaster, which has a large Amish population. My family itself is part Pennsylvania Dutch, and those foods are a large part of what home means to me: shoo-fly pie, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for luck, and creamed chipped beef over toast. Recently I’ve discovered a source of shoo-fly pie at a local farmer’s market, but it’s not quite the same.

But even if Pittsburgh did have all these things, it wouldn’t matter, because the biggest thing Pittsburgh is missing is my family. Lukens Steel, Wawa, Dairy Queen, Tasty Kakes—these all have meaning to me because I shared them with people I love, and who love me.

I love Pittsburgh and my life here, but I will always think of Coatesville as home.