Written in 2005, planned as Chapter 1 of that book I haven’t written yet, but have been giving you bits and pieces of here:
Clésinger's marble bust of Chopin, after the death mask
During my freshman year of high school, I had a peculiar experience. It made me pretty peculiar, too, I think. It’s a little embarrassing to remember now, but I suppose one has the right to be a bit silly at the age of 14.
We had an innovative interdisciplinary course of study that linked developments in history, art, music, and literature. Somewhere in the middle of the year we got up to the early 19th century, and there was an emphasis on nationalism and Romanticism. Our music teacher showed us a 1945 movie about Chopin, A Song to Remember, starring Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon. (This movie gave Liberace the idea for his candelabra thing; I wasn’t the only one affected!) It was rather frightful in its WW II era way, but my reaction to it had little to do with the actual quality of the movie itself. I was absolutely incensed by it. I was sure that everything in the story was wrong, and that was what I told everybody, including the music teacher, who did not take kindly to this.
I was so bothered that I started reading everything I could find about Chopin, his friends, and his time. While I didn’t find specific facts about him surfacing as I read, I did feel that a lot of it was more like remembering than like learning something for the first time. And yes, it turned out that I was right; that movie was inaccurate at best.
I became obsessive about this subject, and I suppose people thought I was a little tetched or something. It was good timing, though, because this was the mid-1970s, and there was a spike of interest in George Sand as part of the women’s movement. In fact, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater put yet another film production in front of me, a Sand biography called Notorious Woman (if I remember correctly). It covered Mme Sand’s life overall, not just her time with Chopin. Rosemary Harris made an excellent Sand, and George Chakiris a delicately beautiful Chopin, though with the wrong coloring. There was a lot more truth to that film. At any rate, my friends, who unsurprisingly were writers and musicians, also developed some interest in the people and events that were holding my attention, and Mme Sand became a sort of spiritual grandmother for some of us young female literary types. So I felt that I was just a little bit less strange.
I have to make it clear that until I saw that first movie, I had absolutely no interest in Chopin and almost no awareness of his existence, despite the fact that I had been studying piano for a year or so. My mother had a fairly extensive collection of classical recordings, but Chopin was conspicuously absent, which is hard to explain since she loves his work. I was listening largely to Mozart at the time. If anyone had asked me what Chopin had written, I couldn’t have thought of anything other than the so-called “Minute” Waltz.
There was one little piece of hard evidence, or at least a physical object, tying me with Chopin and his time. I took a lot of art classes in high school, and the people associated with him were recurring subjects in my work. I tried to draw them as they would have appeared going about their daily activities, in whole scenes. That seems now like an odd thing for a teenage girl to be doing; I suppose I was trying to clarify my memories, or whatever they were. One painting, which I never finished, was intended to be a scene at Nohant, George Sand’s estate, although I didn’t know what her home had actually looked like. Later I found a photo of her salon, and a piece of furniture I had painted was right there in the picture. It was the piano stool, and it was sufficiently unusual in design that I felt my painting it could not be a coincidence. In fact, it looked like my painting, but even more like the image I had had in my mind; I had seen a mauve paisley fabric, which showed clearly in the photo, but in the painting I had represented the paisley pattern with simple little crescent lines. I have no idea whether this stool was in the house during the time that Chopin lived there—and it was not there when I visited Nohant in 2002—but I felt that I must have made a real connection of some kind.
There was little else to go on. Sometimes I felt that a revelation was just beyond my grasp, and I would do my best to reach for it. I even sat in the dark at times with my hands on the piano keyboard, feeling that something ought to come through, but unsurprisingly, nothing ever did. I sometimes stared at pictures and willed myself to remember. I gave up, went on to other things, figured that if I was meant to understand, the knowledge would eventually come to me.
I was a classical guitar major in music school, and although I did keep up playing the piano to some extent, Chopin faded somewhat into the background of my life. I concentrated on early music, Renaissance lute repertoire in particular, and disdained Romanticism, as was the fashion in that field.
Nevertheless, I found myself mostly teaching piano, not guitar, for a living (not much of a living, I’m afraid). Through the years I often felt that I must have once been a much better pianist than I was able to be in this life. It seemed like I was blocking myself from playing as well as my training and experience should have allowed. I remember a breakthrough at a lesson in 1989, which seemed to confirm this theory. The week before, I had been playing one of the mazurkas, or rather totally failing to play it. My teacher, Jane, agreed with me that there was nothing in this piece that I couldn’t handle, that I must be stopping myself for some reason from playing the way we both knew I could. To my great surprise, I found myself pouring out the story about the movie and the piano stool and all. Jane, God love her, took me seriously, and I felt much better. At my next lesson, I sat down at her Steinway and became a different person, just for a few minutes. For the first time in my life I knew what it actually felt like to be a pianist. Where I had stumbled, I flew. Jane and I stared at each other and asked, “What happened?” It was obviously something big. “Maybe I was one of his students,” I joked—a reasonable guess, as it turned out. Unfortunately, those magical few minutes were not to be repeated.
I thought that might be a good thing, in a way. If I were to let myself loose at the piano, I thought, I wouldn’t have much interest in anything else, and I wouldn’t do whatever it was that I was supposed to accomplish in my present life. If I had been a keyboard player before, well, I had been there and done that. Still, the suggestion that I could become something far greater as a musician rather haunted me.
I should point out that, despite my strong interest in Chopin, I never felt that I loved him during those years. I didn’t see him as a great human being. I bought into the view of him as an eternal victim, not really able or willing to take care of himself or make his own decisions. I wasn’t crazy about the conservatism and social prejudices that were attributed to him (which I now know were not so true). I did have a certain fondness for him, and identified somewhat with him because of our mutual hypersensitivity, tendency to work in small forms, concern with detail, that sort of thing. I saw him as a sort of cousin or uncle, related to me but a bit distant, whereas it was George Sand for whom I felt actual love.
In February 1993, everything changed. Everything.
It happened quite suddenly and in a most unexpected way. I hate to say this, but it was triggered by another movie. Our local PBS station ran the 1991 film Impromptu, which concerned Chopin, George Sand, Liszt, and various of their friends and lovers, concentrating on Sand’s courtship of Chopin. I hadn’t really planned to watch it. I’d been on very much a left-brain sort of path the past couple of years, and I wasn’t particularly interested in neurotic artists anymore. I felt I was above that sort of thing. However, one of my guitar students, who had gone through a Sand phase in college (and even married a pianist), strongly recommended the movie, and curiosity got the better of me. I taped it and watched it late at night by myself.
The movie was silly—intentionally so – and not at all factual, but true of those people in much the way that Amadeus might be said to be true of Mozart (yes, I know that is arguable). So I was sitting there chuckling at the movie, when all of a sudden I found myself curled in a ball on the couch, screaming uncontrollably (or rather, quite controllably, because I managed to be extremely quiet—I just couldn’t stop).
The thing that set off the screaming was George saying to Fryderyk, “Who has taught you to be afraid? No wonder you’re choking to death! Someone’s got to show you how to breathe!”
This actually made a certain kind of sense, but I’ll have to back up a bit to show why that’s so. The short version of the story, though, is that the next day I was able to play the piano at a completely different level from the day before. This continued, and there were a number of other more or less bizarre effects. I wasn’t playing really well, but I seemed no longer to stop myself from using what ability I had. And suddenly I was having a lot more fun.
While the movie apparently acted as a trigger, it seems that I had been leading up to this change without realizing it. For one thing, I was quite literally trying to stop choking and learn to breathe. I was doing that as a project for my anatomy and physiology class. I conducted a little study of the effect of playing a wind instrument on respiratory health, knowing that music lessons are often prescribed for people with asthma. Partly I took this up because the teacher required a project, partly to try to clear up the case of bronchitis I had developed over Christmas break and couldn’t seem to shake off. I had been coughing for weeks, and knew from experience that playing the flute would help me to clear out the goo that was still clogging my chest.
As I practiced each day on the flute, I found that I had to consciously force myself to open my chest and really breathe deeply. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear clutching at the muscles of my chest wall, and I had to constantly fight myself to push my way through it. It soon became easier, though, and through the month of my study I cleared out a lot of phlegm and much of the emotional blockage. My lung capacity increased by almost 50% (as measured in the school lab), and I felt more energetic and relaxed. My teacher loved the project, too, and gave me an A. It was near the beginning of this period of flute practice that, as I said, everything changed, and breathing was a major theme at the time.
Meanwhile, I was working with physical therapy and yoga to loosen up my body, while stretching and contorting my brain with the science classes. I was practicing Reiki and opening up my perceptions.
Back to the main thread of the story. After my episode of screaming, I felt a bit shell-shocked, but finally was able to go to sleep. The next day, when I went to the piano, there were little flashes, just a few seconds at a time, of a level of playing far beyond what I could normally produce. If I held a certain sort of concentration, it would come through more easily, but I couldn’t sustain it. At the same time, I felt like I was picking up little suggestions, rather like getting a lesson from an attentive and caring teacher. And I felt like he was around, just out of reach. It was an intriguing sensation. Nothing very definite, just a sense of presence.
I buzzed with this for a day or two. My thoughts ran to physics, which had been part of my recent studies. Bell’s theorem in particular, the one that shows in a mathematically rigorous way that reality must be non-local, in other words, that everything affects everything and that action at a distance is not only possible, but is necessary to any coherent model of the universe. “If he can affect me,” I mused, “can I affect him?” After all, for the past 19 or so years I had felt some connection there, gotten some tantalizing little bits of information now and then, and always hoped that something would someday break through, but I had never had any power to make that happen. I came to the conclusion that, reality being non-local and time being non-linear, I had to be able to reach him. And I was determined to try.
Although I had never had the slightest success with experiments in astral projection, and had shown little talent for telepathy, I had some hope of accomplishing my goal. I had a new tool to work with, the Reiki technique for treatment at a distance, which allows one to reach across both space and time. I had a hard time even believing this could be done, even though I had received such a treatment myself a couple of months earlier, and it had worked beautifully. I began with the thought that it couldn’t hurt to try, and with the intention simply to communicate in whatever way might be possible. I aimed mentally for Paris, 1838, and went through the prescribed procedure. I was planning to look for him in his Earth life; it didn’t occur to me to try to find him in present time. The image in my mind was of walking up to him, putting my hands on the back of his head.
The first thing I noticed was a strong pull on my left palm, whereas I was used to feeling the right hand working harder during a distance treatment. Then it seemed that the Qi was flowing three or four inches out from my hands and disappearing suddenly, as if into a black hole. That was new. I suddenly thought that I ought to be trying to say something, but I had no idea what. We didn’t even have a language in common, as far as I knew—did it matter? Feeling a bit awkward, I tried to convey general pleasantries like, “We appreciate you, we love your work, we’re so glad you exist. Take heart, because your efforts will not go to waste.” Silly me, I was thinking in terms of treating him, helping him, maybe somehow saving him, as if he needed saving and needed me to do it for him.
I remember a sense of him bounding toward me, delighted, bowling me over like a huge puppy. I assumed that he was pleased and relieved that I had finally figured out how to get in touch after so many years.
I drifted off to sleep without breaking the contact. The next morning, I awoke feeling absolutely wonderful—and realized that, as far as I could remember, I had never felt that way before. “Well,” I said to myself, “I may not have done anything for him, but I sure did something for me.” The only thing that felt other than perfect was a sense that my body just wasn’t right somehow; I felt like I should be taller and much thinner, and my pelvic bones felt all wrong.
I spent the next few days in a kind of Zen flow state. Everything to which I turned my hand came out exactly as intended, without effort. The bright moments in my piano practice lasted longer. My daughter, age five, hung around in the doorway and applauded, or went off to dance while I played.
I coughed horrendously for about two days, cleared out a lot of gunk, and then seemed to be finished with that.
I suddenly felt that my wardrobe was all wrong and went shopping for pastel florals.
I noticed that I was showing all the classic symptoms of being in love.
It was tough to study for that week’s anatomy and physiology exam; I was mooning about like a sixteen-year-old, listening to music, reading poetry, drifting toward Paris. I had a strong sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it was a peculiar sort of stretched feeling, as if one arm were reaching into some other dimension, with the rest of me here. It was not especially uncomfortable, but it certainly was distracting. It was the week before Valentine’s Day, and I was feeling hearts-and-flowery as never before. Probably everyone appreciated the extra affection. They just wondered why I was so cheery all of a sudden. People started to tell me things like, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something so different about you.”
Things took a negative turn on the night of February 13. One way to reach a person who is far away is to concentrate on a photograph, and I decided to look up a copy of the only extant photo of Chopin, the one taken not long before his death. I had no thought of actually trying to contact him right then; in fact, I was in medical mode, wondering exactly what had caused the severe facial edema and trying to remember details about right-sided heart failure. I wondered what he was feeling like at the time. Suddenly, without warning, I fell headlong into the picture—at least that is the best way I can describe it. There was no time to get my shields up. It was like drowning. I could hardly get a breath past the crushing pain in my chest. My stomach twisted with nausea. The worst, though, was a feeling of absolute, unending despair, and I sank to the floor of my music studio, sobbing, under the weight of it.
I remember offering to give any healing that might be available, but that part is vague. Mostly I remember trying to break the contact and failing repeatedly. None of the ways I had learned to protect myself worked. I ended up beating my hands into the carpet as hard as I could, and gradually the sensations faded away.
I felt ill through the next day and was in an altered state in which everything seemed dark and sinister. Nothing like this has ever happened again, thank God, and I still have no explanation for it. It was not a communication from Chopin or anyone else, just a species of direct experience. I learned one thing with certainty: never ask a question unless you are ready to accept the answer.
It was an interesting time, those first few weeks, trying to stay in balance through all the changes. Most of the time I felt a warmth at my sacrum, sometimes running up my spine; that, along with the extra energy and general good spirits, made me feel wildly sexual. My husband was nonplussed but didn’t seem to mind. What neither of us knew till months later was that I was developing cervical cancer. My assumption now is that all that energy pouring into my root chakra was meant at least in part to help with that situation. However, there was definitely an erotic aspect to it as well.
In the midst of one of these warm, pleasant experiences, I thought with all the force I could muster, “I wish I could see your face.” I never did get a visual image, but my own face suddenly seemed to be changing. It felt as if someone were molding my bones like clay. This scared me too much, and I broke away. But that effect began to stay with me most of the time, a feeling of having someone else’s face, but only on the right side. It was just as if a perfectly straight line had been drawn smack down the center of my face, and completely different things would happen on each side. If a particularly strong contact was taking place, this was even visible. The muscles realigned themselves so that the shape of my face actually changed subtly on the right side and I wore two different expressions. There was a certain amount of discomfort at first, because that shape didn’t fit my bone structure too well. For example, my jaw thrust forward too much and started to ache. My nose sometimes felt twisted under the opposing forces—in addition to feeling overly large. It was amazing. I could touch my face with my fingers and convince myself that the structure was exactly what it had always been, but my internal perception was totally at odds with what my fingers told me.
This was severely weird but very useful. It provided me with a means of communication, because the affected side of my face could change expression without my having anything to do with it. I particularly remember one time that I asked him a question about something that upset him terribly, and the right side of my face twisted in a grimace of absolute agony, while the left side remained absolutely relaxed. There was no way I could have done that on purpose, no matter how hard I tried. Most of the time (fortunately) it was much less dramatic, like a smile with only half of my mouth. Eventually I concluded that this form of communication was not good for me, and I was able to put a stop to it.
So what was it like, this face that I lived with but never saw with my eyes? A broad, high, rather flat forehead; flat cheekbones; very prominent, narrow, aquiline nose, with a tight, “nose in the air” feeling; pointed chin with the jaw pushed forward. A tense face overall, pulled back strongly at the temples, with a tightness around the pursed mouth that verged on a constant expression of disapproval. Yet a face that smiled easily. A face that was entirely consistent with that of my favorite Romantic-period composer.
I made no official statements at that time, or in fact for years after, putting a name to that face. Although my family and friends understood that I was in contact with someone who appeared to be Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, I did not speak of him that way. I referred to him coyly as “my invisible friend,” “my guy,” “my spirit guide,” that sort of thing. I had no proof and was not ready to commit to being quite that crazy.
(Of course, with a five-year-old in the house, there was nothing especially odd about invisible friends. We were inundated with assorted little girls, bears, puppies, kittens, parrots, other animals that I couldn’t keep track of, even a Vulcan. You couldn’t walk through our house without tripping over “somebody.” My daughter didn’t notice my own somebody, which was fine with me.)
I might have expected that this masculine influence would bring out my own masculine side, but just the opposite happened. I started feeling hyper-feminine, and went in for floral prints, flowing skirts, and hair bows. It was as if I had become another person. It was only much later that I found out who it might be.
While I did not find myself suddenly writing in fluent Polish or playing amazing new original melodies, there were some events that lent weight to the idea that I was indeed hearing from Chopin. Early on, there was the Mozart episode. My husband made his debut as a symphonic percussionist with the largely-amateur Albuquerque Philharmonic, which needed an extra pair of hands for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, a piece which (I admit sheepishly) was entirely unfamiliar to me at that time. The strings were frightfully out of tune, and I wasn’t a great fan of Mozart then anyway, so I was wincing at the first few measures and wishing I could go home early. But at the same time, there were shivers of pleasure going up my spine, as if someone was awfully happy to hear that piece. “Oh, come on,” I thought, “it’s so out of tune!” “Yes, but it’s Mozart!” seemed to be the reply. It felt as if he were actually jumping up and down with joy and excitement. “Oh, yeah, you love Mozart. Okay, so tell me what’s so good about it.” There was a rush of sensations in my chest, like a computer file downloaded too fast to be read.
It was the first time that I was absolutely sure someone else’s thoughts were in my head, someone with entirely different opinions and reactions. Later I read that Chopin considered Don Giovanni to be the pinnacle of musical achievement. Frankly, I still disagree, but my opinion cannot carry nearly so much weight as his; he was a rabid opera fan and immersed in Mozart’s work throughout his life. I have taken every opportunity to attend performances of Mozart operas, though, in an attempt to fill in this gap in my education and to get a better understanding of something that was (and is) so important to Fryderyk.
The identity of my friend was less important to me than the relationship itself—though I often thought that if I were to find out that I was wrong about him, I would feel unutterably stupid and wouldn’t know how to go on. Something absolutely central to my life, a support I relied upon, would have been pulled out from under me if had I found out I was being deceived. Now, as I write about this 15 years later, I can say with confidence that I have never been deceived, and I have gained more and more evidence that my friend is who and what he appears to be.
Near the beginning of these experiences, Jane told me, “What you are really trying to find out with all this is who you are.”
Around the same time, I heard from my friend Maggie in Ohio. “There’s a lot that I’m not sure of,” she wrote. Amen to that, I thought. Maggie had been in and out of the local mental hospital a number of times in the past couple of years. She was living in her own reality, like the rest of us, but her reality was a bit farther removed from the average than most people’s. There was a certain celebrity she had been in love with for much of her life, and from time to time she became convinced that he was actually with her and even that they were married. She had all sorts of strategies to make her delusions fit in with the inescapable facts of her daily life. “David isn’t here because he’s filming in L.A.,” she might say. So was there a provable difference between Maggie and me, I wondered? Sure there was. I hadn’t landed in a hospital.
I couldn’t entirely blame Maggie for attempting to make something better out of her genuinely dismal life. I think what made her escape so much further into fantasy at that time was the fact of her biological clock inexorably running down, with no hope of getting what she wanted most, a husband and children. But her maladaptive behavior made the things she wanted that much more remote. Seeing her situation, I tried to analyze my own needs and motives to see if I might be inventing some sort of similar wish-fulfillment for myself. When I first encountered Fryderyk, I was coming off a severe blow to my self-esteem and my plans for the future. However, I had already made other plans. Certainly I felt a need to be loved and cared for, a need to be needed, a need to feel that I was special to someone. But my marriage was in excellent condition, my daughter was doing well, I had close friends, and I was finding opportunities to serve others. I didn’t think that these experiences found me at a point of unusual weakness or vulnerability. I remained open to the idea that I might possibly be delusional, but I was pretty sure that it was all for real, and I longed for clearer understanding.