Mr. Bishop’s Opus

mr bishop and kristinI became acquainted with the smallest of the orchestral string instruments as a matter of surprise. My parents took quiet stock of my interest in the violin and tucked one away within a box, within another, and another, wrapped it in paper within paper, then placed it beneath our Christmas tree. The package bore little resemblance to its contents, foreshadowing my disbelief, and my wonder.

A few months later, I began the process of transferring from the small private school I’d attended since childhood to a local public school that boasted a competitive music program. While the violin and I were still learning each other, I’d already been playing the piano for eleven years, and recently, I’d told my parents that I wanted to begin serious study in preparation for pursuing a music degree in college. The guidance counsellor facilitating my admission urged me to register for orchestra in the upcoming semester. “I’m probably not good enough,” I told her. “I’ve only started playing the violin. Maybe I should wait a year, practice more, then join.” But she dismissed my hesitation: “Nope, you’re exactly the type Mr. Bishop wants—students who come to learn.”

As we all began to tune our instruments to the first violinist’s A440 on the inaugural day of rehearsals, I felt a soft place in my center sink down in the best possible surrender, to a sea of perfect fifths. Over the course of the next few weeks, I began to learn the basics of group performance and underwent my first orchestral audition, in which I found out I wasn’t as bad as I thought after all and placed far from last chair.

I also quickly learned about Mr. Bishop’s penchant for assigning his students music far beyond their skill level, and he’d tell us as much. For him, it was simply a reason to learn more, practice harder. On days when we’d first receive a new piece of music, he’d give us a few minutes to look it over, and then we’d launch in. Woe unto the students who played the first note with the center of their bow held to the string. He’d drop his baton and stop the whole orchestra: “Start at the frog. That passage should use the length of the bow. Dig the hairs into the string.” Not knowing the piece wasn’t an excuse because getting it right the first time, or even the second or third times, wasn’t the point; playing like you meant it was. 

So, too, was taking music seriously, always. One day I was passing time in the music theory classroom by playing a selection of Mozart but grew bored and pulled my hands from the piano keys abruptly. “Put some phrasing on that passage,” he admonished, and hummed the rest of the melody as he’d see it interpreted. I hadn’t even known he was listening.

It is a tired cliche to use passionate to describe those in whom profession and vocation reach symbiosis, but it would be an apt way to portray Mr. Bishop. That passion coupled with his approachability made him beloved by students. He was a master of puns so bad they were good and full of anecdotes whose humor stemmed first from the stories themselves and later from his forgetful retelling of them. We’d roll our eyes, but mostly found him endearing. There was the story of the overweight German opera singer who’d knock over music stands during her entrance on stage, to which she’d always reply to the disgruntled violinists that, with her, “der is no sidevays.” And there was the story about the students, early in his career, who stapled a centerfold into one of his scores on the evening of a public performance. And there is still my memory of embarrassing myself by asking aloud: “What’s a centerfold?”

Mr. Bishop was full of devices for remembering tricky musical concepts—like how to play a dotted-eighth note followed by a sixteenth (by saying “day-today”) or a quintuplet (by saying “university”). And he laughed when, in music theory, I shared that one could remember the three steps in making a Neapolitan sixth chord (find the lowered second, build a major chord, put it in first inversion) by remembering that Neapolitan ice cream has three flavors. Later, when I taught piano classes at a local music store, I took his memorable pedagogical techniques to heart. Donning a furry dog mask, I introduced my young child students to a canine named “Dot”—a musical note’s best friend and, thus, worth half its value—and in so doing, taught them how to calculate the value of dotted notes, how to count their beats. They’d giggle their way through class.

Though Mr. Bishop never formally served as a piano teacher for me, he never failed to be a source of musical and moral support when I began, during my senior year, to audition for piano performance programs. And he celebrated with me when I learned I had been accepted to my dream school: the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Financial considerations ultimately prevented me from attending; though I’d received a partial scholarship, it was far from enough to cover the institution’s tuition as well as the cost of living for an out-of-state student in Boston. So I planned to attend a university in Georgia to complete my core classes then transfer, but I ended up taking courses on English literature in which I rekindled an old love of words and decided to devote my life to a different art—or rather a different medium, as I’ve since come to think of it. Each has informed my perception of the other, made my expression of the other richer. And both, at their most beautiful, leave me utterly undone, surrendered to the sublime sea of helplessness beyond the shore of art that carries us closest to life’s inexpressible essence.

My dad earned his third-degree black belt under the tutelage of Mr. Bishop’s daughter, who owns a karate school in my hometown, so Mr. Bishop and my father frequently ran into each other after I graduated high school. Long after I’d embarked on a different life path, Mr. Bishop continued to take an interest in my pursuits, always asking my father about me. “How’s my girl?” my dad says he would say. Once Mr. Bishop expressed his admiration for my being a person who didn’t wait around for teachers who could impart the knowledge I desired. If I had no teacher, he told my dad, I’d just find a way to teach myself. Mr. Bishop was one of the teachers against whom I set my standards.

My dad was also the one who told me, a few weeks ago, that Mr. Bishop was sick. Beyond cancer caught late in its progression, I don’t know many of the details. What I do know is that I cried when my friend and former orchestra classmate Sarah messaged me on Facebook last Thursday to ask if I’d heard the news. “Are you sure?” I asked her. I’d known his health was deteriorating and that he’d been moved to hospice, but I didn’t know, to use the euphemism, that things had taken a turn for the worst. “I’m really sorry to tell you,” she said.

We reminisced about our time in orchestra for a while. “I’m kinda sad that I didn’t keep up with my music,” she admitted, adding that she hadn’t played her viola in ten years. It’d been a long time for me, too, I said. The hairs are falling from my bow; the strings are falling out of her pegbox. Yes, it’s too bad, we both agreed, that we haven’t practiced more. One of us proposed playing really rusty songs with bad intonation on our falling-apart instruments in his honor. It seemed as fitting an homage as any.

Mr. Bishop, if you don’t mind, I’ll let my song be a little more metaphorical than literal. But I will play as you played, always—bow hairs digging into the strings—and I will mean it.

In Midtown, an Unexpected Encounter

Grand Central Station and Chrysler Building in Midtown ManhattanAhead, a man slowed the pedestrian traffic exiting Grand Central toward Lexington. One suitcase in front and another behind, he inched his way through the acute angle the heavy door formed with its jamb. A nudge with the foot, a push with the hip to make the angle wider. Another inch.

With the exception of potential delay, New Yorkers tend to make their way toward doors already in use, one after another going through until the final someone twists her body to slip through just before it closes. 

On either side of the man, the people before me took to the unused doors; to open one, to struggle with its weight was quicker than to pause before passing through. 

As I entered the door to his right, I noticed the luggage I’d first seen from afar piled high in my periphery. I looked over: two small push carts, laden with large, plastic bags—a balancing act from the sum of his belongings. 

When the door at last closed behind him, he paused in the vestibule. I opened the second door and held it from the other side while two people took the opportunity to pass through and the man pondered a solution to yet another exit. 

I was awaiting a companion who remained behind him, he seemed to assume. Unmoving, he peered blankly through the opening to the bustling sidewalk—a way made but not for the taking. 

Whether from shock or relief, his eyes grew wide when I motioned for him to come through. 

“You saved the day,” he said, his voice carrying a small laugh through the white of his beard. 

His face was inches from mine as he pulled the second cart through the door. I smiled. 

“Take care of yourself,” I replied, knowing how little that means—and, hopefully, how much.

Bar Island Sandbar

I wanted to walk the length of the expanse before me, held back only by the water itself, so I pinched and pulled at the map on my iPhone in search of the nearest spot where brown met blue, uninhibited by docks or harbors. We parked our rental car and made our way down a road that dead-ended at our destination. We got more than we bargained for: a beach of stones and swooping swathes of water divided by a sandbar that reached outward to an indeterminable end. And thus, nearly by accident, we discovered Bar Island Sandbar while visiting Maine this summer. In hindsight we learned that place was as serendipitous as time: the sandbar, which connects Bar Island to the town of Bar Harbor, is exposed only for a few hours each day, during low tide. With one move in either direction we might have seen a different sight entirely. Coincidences, I’ve come to believe, are no small thing.

Bar Island Sandbar, Maine

You knelt as you marveled,
your finger sliding unscathed and unstopped across one’s surface.
We slid it in your pocket
to bear the weight of the whole.

From afar, they are one beach,
the thousands of stones.
The water has closed in and retreated until they lay
with their callouses softened,
edges curved.

Only my feet touched the water.
It lapped and pooled at my ankles,
where I thought I left it behind,

When we returned to the city,
I knew otherwise:
I let the soft tide close in to remind me
how to bend and listen and know,
how to give mercy.

We placed the stone on a window sill
overlooking an expanse of building bricks
and an alley, overgrown.
It has been patient with us—as if to say
it knows we did the best we could,
the sunlight the closest we could return it
to its natural habitat.


With OllieAt first and from afar I could not identify the foreign shape—too large for fuzz, too small for something spilled. So I walked over to touch it, to retrieve the unwanted object, until my index finger slipped through and touched the soft blanket underneath. And then I knew: a hole lay in the centre of the new grey quilt atop my bed. A small hole, edges uneven, it had been punctured with the teeth and nibbling of a pup who had grown to perceive the world as a place for his play and pleasure, its trinkets his toys. “Ollie just chewed a hole in the new comforter,” I texted Teo, my husband. “I’m so upset. I just bought it a few days ago. Maybe I should just make him sleep on the floor.”

It was among several bed coverings I’d replaced since finding Oliver, at least one for every year since he appeared on my grandmother’s porch as a stray dog—small, emaciated, and abused, in need of food and a home and the ability to once again trust a human. But normally he’d wait longer, let me enjoy my new purchase before sinking his teeth into the softness. And then for months afterward my bed would bear its battle wounds: a down comforter suddenly emitting a new puff of feathers called for my mom’s latest round of patchwork until one day I stuffed the whole unsightly thing into a duvet cover. It wore its newness well until holes also began to appear in the cover, and I pulled the comforter from it for more patching with a sea of feathers gathering at my feet. Repaired once more, the comforter sat in its cover on the bed, and I closed the new holes with oversized safety pins then hid them beneath a quilt that came to bear its own holes. Then one day I finally decided that the battle for newness wasn’t one worth fighting, at least not so vigilantly. And I let the holes gather. Holes upon holes upon holes that seemed to appear from nowhere—I’ve never caught Oliver in the act of making even one.

When Teo and I moved from Georgia to New York, the holes weren’t so easy to mend. The tailor across the street from our first apartment was not as accommodating as my mother and came to bemoan our appearance at the front door, our arms full of a comforter with perforations held together precariously with chip clips. During our first visit, the tailor ensured we knew our makeshift tactic had failed as she made a scene of sweeping the feathers from her shop’s front counter. It was returned to us a few days later in a large, black trash bag, tied as though to be quarantined, with jagged thread lines closing the holes, the chip clips nowhere to be found. And we came to dread the journey to the tailor more than the discovery of new holes in need of tailoring, a puff of feathers foreshadowing the uneasy encounter. Not surprisingly, the tailor across from our current apartment is also not too fond of us and has intimated that a bed may not be the most ideal location for a dog. Many others—family and friends who have seen me pick out yet another bed covering—have asked more directly: “Why don’t you just make him sleep on the floor?”

I don’t remember exactly when Oliver moved from sleeping on the floor to sleeping in the bed. But it did not take him long to begin using my shoulder as his pillow or the arc of my legs when I lay on my side as a place to nestle. It did not take him long to begin moving from the foot of the bed to where I slept so he could lie with his belly next to mine. I also don’t remember exactly when Oliver changed from the timid dog I found to one who knew it was safe to love and be loved. But it did not take him long to trust me, to know that I would protect him whether awake or in that uniquely vulnerable state of slumber. And I cannot help but think that redefining human contact as a source of comfort rather than physical pain underpinned that transformation.

Shortly after discovering the most recent hole, I calmed myself and sent another text. “People have asked why I don’t, but I just can’t do it,” I told Teo. “One day when he is gone, am I going to look back on his life and wish I’d put him on the floor more often to save my comforters? Or am I going to be happier that each night he snuggled next to us and knew that he lived, for the time he was with us, a very loved life?” In fact, if there’s any relationship in life that we shouldn’t view this way—with full consideration of what we may one day come to regret, of the love we can give while we still have the opportunity—I’ve yet to find it. It’s among the many things that a once timid dog has taught me with shredded fabric and a mended heart.

Big Brat, Little Brat: Saying Goodbye to Aunt Judy

Aunt Judy and me

Some hours ago, my Aunt Judy passed away. On March 27, she entered the hospital for a routine procedure and was later discharged, only to return with complications a few days after. Her condition continued to worsen as intervention after intervention failed. In the end, it was only life support that sustained her, and it was her own wishes not to be resuscitated that meant we had to let her go.

When I was a child, Judy lovingly and jokingly began calling me “Little Brat.” I suppose this is because I often derived attention from (usually literal) poking and prodding of the people to whom I showed affection. Or because, in an extended family with few children and none my age, embodying the trickster was another guaranteed way to earn attention. Being surrounded by adults was the norm in my childhood, so I engaged them in the ways I knew how, and they in return, me. The latter meant I grew up precocious, with an expanded vocabulary, with more self-awareness than a child should possess, and a sense that I was no different from the older people around me. But Judy was one of the few who approached me as a child and not only played my games but who, childlike, also made me play hers. When I finally began calling her “Big Brat,” having conjured the obvious retort to the nickname she had given me, she seemed both shocked at my self-assuredness and pleased that we were both participants in what ultimately became a decades-long bout of light-hearted repartee.

As I grew older, we retained our nicknames, even when, in adolescence, I surpassed her in height. I joked as I hugged her, my arms then wrapping around her shoulders rather than her waist, that she should be “Little Brat” now. But with one of her characteristic quick retorts, she said that she would always be “Big Brat” because she would always be the oldest, and plus, she was bigger this way, she added, and held her hands at her waist, pulling them outward in an expanding motion. The names necessarily became less literal, more ironic, but they also became an homage to who we were as aunt and niece at the moment that relationship became a friendship. And throughout her life, the names remained as they were at that point of origin. In every Christmas card, birthday card, and later every Facebook post, she would sign as “Big Brat.” When I became old enough to fall in love, to marry, she accepted Matt with open arms as both a nephew and new member of the family, drew him into our game of repartee, and cleverly christened him “Matt Brat.” He, too, loves her dearly.

Judy was too cool for cool; endured far too much; maintained an intense strength, despite all odds; and she continued to love—fiercely—against which the odds were even greater. Mostly Judy was taken from us far too soon. But I have always thought about her less as “Judy” and more as “my really awesome aunt who always let me call her ‘Big Brat.'” Because I love her, and despite already missing her, or perhaps especially so, “Big Brat” she shall remain.

A Sudden Blow

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                   Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
—W. B. Yeats, from “Leda and the Swan”

Thus, the most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.
—Judith Herman, from
Trauma and Recovery

The night he came in, I nearly died. Everything after that has been an image of him—the merciless aftermath of coming to understand what he meant when he said, “One day you’ll wish I’d just killed you.” Then he left. I’ll never know if he was there fifteen minutes or five hours. They say the mind does funny things in times like those, in times when some stranger has entered your house to enter you. I never pressed charges, too afraid he might come back and undo his words, finish me off anyway. But lately, I’m beginning to wonder if that might have been an easier way to go. Quicker. A single gunshot. Like the feel of his loins firing inside me.

Sometimes I think it’s all his tiny sperm that later became the cancer—like maybe they sat in me until they started to eat me away, organ by organ, breath by breath. At night I lie in my bed, the same bed where he held the gun to my head and told me to take off my clothes, and wonder how many minutes I have left. Then I see him on top of me again, and I think the countdown must be something like staring above you trying to count those damn sheetrock drops that look like zits on the ceiling or trying to count the number of times the fan buzzes round and round—anything but the number of seconds he has been shoving himself between your legs.

I still replay that moment when I suddenly woke up, and there he was, standing over me like the feeling of guilt before confession. They always say the woman wants it—like somewhere in me I had enough power to will the stars of the universe to align so that he could rattle my doorknob on the exact night I forgot to turn the deadbolt latch and fell into bed after working a sixteen-hour shift at the restaurant. And after a while, you begin to believe them. Not that I’d know who “them” is. No. Because I’ve never told anybody. But I still hear their voices. The ones who speak on the 6:00 news, barely audible. But they’re still there, whispering to some other victim that she wanted it, blaming her and blaming me all in the same breath. They speak in that split-second flinch before they voice that awful word—that shameful word that tries so hard in four letters to get at what some man did to her, did to me. Then they shove her story away in the time it takes the fan to buzz round twice. They let the dead victims of murder live longer in the dull light of the flickering screen. But I remember them, the others who are like me. I keep their stories in a shoebox beneath my bed, right between the folder that contains my positive cancer screening and a box of my mother’s old knickknacks.

The doctors keep telling me I only have six months left. It’s so funny—not haha funny, but ironic funny—to think that cancer cells are killing you where new life is supposed to grow. I mean, they could have been pulling a baby out of me, rather than tearing out my insides—letting an infant cry with his first taste of air, rather than letting that putrid, malignant sack of uterus sit on a sterile tray in the corner of the operating room. They took my chance at the baby boy I always wanted and the cancer all at the same time. Or so they thought. Three months later, they said the cancer had continued to spread. And now my life has become has become the loss of one dispensable organ after another, has become measured in chemo treatments and the number of victims I can save from the newspaper before the cancer takes me. But no one, not even God, can save me.

I lost him that night, too—God, that is. Not all at once, though. First it was in the moments when I couldn’t love my neighbor as myself. Because maybe the faceless man from that night was my neighbor. Because maybe I drove by his house everyday, and he was watching me suffer, laughing over his victory. Then it was in the moments when I couldn’t forgive. Because how do you forgive someone who takes that much from you? And then it was in the moments when God had—or rather, didn’t have, as I know now—a master plan and that somewhere in the middle of it, that man smothering me with all his heavy weight would work out for the greater good. Then it was in the moments when the watery blood started pouring from me and the jabbing pains of an invisible knife came closer and closer to where he shoved himself inside. And now God lives somewhere between the second I felt the cold gun barrel against my temple and the second I finally heard the front door latch with him on the other side, deadbolt still unturned. After God, the things I lost became as uncountable as the zits on the ceiling.

I often pull out the shoebox, trying to see if the others lost those things, too—what it feels like to think you’re safe, that your body is your own, that your voice will be heard, that anything can be explained with words. But you never really have any of those things. No, the difference between who you were and who you become is the difference between believing those things exist and knowing they don’t—because this is what he takes from you: The moment before disillusionment. The moment before you realize you left the door unlocked, before the doctor breaks the news, before you wish he’d just killed you. Quicker. A single gunshot. Like the feel of his loins firing inside.