Felix likes snails. A lot.

Felix is my eight-year-old nephew, who lives in San Francisco. Two summers ago, Felix spent three weeks in Albuquerque, and we went swimming every day. As it happens, thirty-some years ago, I taught his mother—my sister, Sarah—to swim, our ten-year age difference making such arrangements not only possible, but rather ideal in lots of ways. The summer Felix was visiting, I didn’t so much teach Felix to swim as I allowed him to cannonball from the side of the pool for hours at a time. I might be a more experienced teacher today, but Sarah was also a more cooperative student. Felix wasn’t so interested in the fine art of form. Mostly he was interested in jumping in deep water and making the biggest splash he could. Over and over and over again.

One afternoon Felix decided we—he and I, team of two—were a swim team called “The Snails.” I suggested that this implied we were slow. “Are we losers?” I asked Felix. He didn’t care about losing. Felix loves snails. We were The Snails.

Last week The Snails were reunited in Colorado. This month marks my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and the entire family gathered in Winter Park to celebrate. Felix graciously invited his many aunts and uncles to join The Snails. Nobody bit except his eight-year-old cousin Asher. And so now The Snails are a happy team of three.

This week back home in New Mexico, I try to get my game face on. Trips/vacations/holidays have a half-life, I am convinced. When you return, it takes approximately half the time you were away to resettle into your routines and practices. I water the garden and fill the hummingbird feeder. I put in a few hours at the piano, returning to music I began working on this summer in anticipation of this season’s recitals and concerts. I wade through a week’s worth of email. I pick up books waiting for me at the library and make grocery lists.

There has been no margin between time away and time back. School began this week here in Albuquerque. No matter what the calendar might say, summer is over. Fall is here. Last Sunday afternoon I started my school-year schedule of lessons, and, I must confess rather reluctantly. It is not the twenty-six lessons a week that give me pause, it is the revolving door of performance classes, recitals and festivals constantly screaming for our attention and time.

Among those twenty-six piano lessons are three new Little Ones. “How are those new kids doing?” Max asked me yesterday, interrupting his chord progressions. He is nine and knows everything.

“Just fine,” I said.

“That’s good,” he said. “It’s hard to learn to play the piano. I remember.”

I’m remembering too. I coach finger numbers and help Little Ones locate all the “Dogs” and “Front Doors” on the piano. I pile an ever-higher stack of books under their small feet. We draw treble and bass clefs in their practice notebooks. I teach simple rote pieces and we practice performing them and bowing afterwards.

It’s hard to learn the piano, although the Little Ones have yet to figure that out. They are enthusiastic and eager, and already wise to the ridiculous nature of my ways. “Are you trying to put me on a daily schedule?” one accuses me when I explain the rules of his practice chart. And with that, another generation of pianists folds into the studio.

As I sharpen pencils and file music, I find myself thinking about The Snails. As always Felix may be onto something. It is not a bad way to live one’s life to simply do what you love, and not care about losing. Major in art history. Or piano performance. Or philosophy and damn the consequences. Love snails.

 

The First Day

Saturday morning the pool fills
with children. Their parents
want them to learn something
preposterous: not just to tread water,
but to move through it as easily as they run
at home from one room to another. Naturally
the miracle of flotation escapes some of them;
however, the believers, buoyant in their faith,
hold their breath and push away from the side.
Face down, arms outstretched, these blessed ones
glide like angels in a fleeting state of grace,
then pop up grinning when they run out of air.
Splashed with success, they hug themselves
happily in the blue-lipped chill.
Meanwhile, the few still clinging to the wall
watch their own number shrink. Small, miserable,
suspicious of their parents for making them
suffer here, they begin to see the arrangement
of things: how easily everyone can turn
away from them when they don’t give in,
how lonely a personal conviction is.

-Joseph Green