September 7, 2005


My father's best friend, a wonderful, optimistic, intelligent, inventive and very funny man, Paul Elsey, had esophageal cancer which metastasized to his liver. Against all odds, his chemo and radiation therapy was effective against the esophageal cancer, and hepatic surgery seemed to have done well too. Until recently. His liver has flared up with a vengeance and dear Paul is bravely suffering through more chemotherapy, enduring terrible pain. It makes me very sad to see Paul, his wife Annie, his parents Robin and Carol, my dad and stepmother Neville and Kate, and others have to go through all this.
This week as I copied all my CDs to my iPod, I came across a CD that was one of my favorites nearly ten years ago. It was the Grand Concert of Scottish Piping that I bought in Edinburgh when I was in Scotland/England as a 16 year old (the trip when I first met Paul's parents, actually). The man in the music store brought this CD out of the back room with pride and a sly bit of secrecy. I had asked his recommendation on bagpiping music, and since I was wearing a kilt, he must have thought I was worthy of his particular favorite. It was a good suggestion, and I fell in love with a song played on the small pipes. It was winsome and bittersweet. The small pipes, as opposed to the more familiar highland pipes, have a sweeter, darker, less blaring sensitivity to them and the piper was clearly attuned to this, and was able to milk the air for shudderingly beautiful drones and riffs.
Fast forward to 2002 when I happened upon an amazing CD called Bothy Culture. The artist, Martyn Bennett, hailed originally from Newfoundland, moved to the Isle of Skye at age 6, learned the pipes, studied classical violin and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, mixed dance music at raves on the side, studied scottish culture and jazz in his own time, and then incorporated all of it into a perfect album. For my exit exam of the Gaines Fellowship, I wrote about this album and how it tied together so many wonderful aspects of our world. I talked with my exit interviewers about how marvelously this man, Mr. Bennett, was able to sew together a seamless tapestry of his interests and the myriad cultures from which he hailed. His pots of influence seemed deep and limitless and yet he was able to skim the best off the top and put it all together in these few songs.
As I was going through my CDs this week, I realized that the young piper from the Grand Concert of Scottish Piping was the same Martyn Bennett that I knew and loved through Bothy Culture. It made sense somehow that I was unknowingly as profoundly impressed by the same person twice at very different periods in my life. I decided to check up on what else I might have missed in his creation. I found his website (click the link of the title of this entry), and was greeted with the terribly sad words, "Martyn died on 30th January, 2005 following a long struggle with cancer." Struck dumb, I could barely enter the site to read on. I knew that he had battled testicular cancer successfully, but his bout with Hodgkin's had ended fatally and I hadn't even heard of it yet. I felt I should have known, somehow, since I had been such an unwitting double-fan of his. As upset as I was, I learned that he had created a testiment to human will and passion is his final work, a CD called GRIT. He said of it: "GRIT is a serious artistic attempt to bring my own Scottish heritage forward with integrity. The obscure title means many things to me personally, however it is tied up in my ideas of where Scottish culture lies: GRIT can be seen on road signs anywhere in the world, it is an expression of determination, an onomatopoeic word: it reflects the contrasts found in its music both course and fine." The grittiness of it certainly came not a small amount from his personal grit against the cancer inside him.
I am sad.
And yet joyful that he shared so much courage and creativity with the rest of us.
My love and encouragement to Paul.