Today I took a vacation day. In order to give structure and purpose to my afternoon hours, I resolved to go to the nearby reservoir area and walk in the woods. (I admit to lack of ambition in my leisure pursuits. Other men might use a vacation day to learn skydiving or fly fishing. For me, the day is a success if I can motivate myself to shave, dress, and get out of the house.)
As I walked through the forest of leafless cottonwood trees south of the reservoir, a memory from the mid-1970s came to mind.
I had visited a renaissance faire held in the piney woods north of Houston, Texas. There were the usual jousts, strolling minstrels, and bawdy skits (Captain: "Abandon ship, men! Into the lifeboats and grab the oars." Passenger: "They hain't 'ores, gov'nor! They's me wife and daughter.") There was a grand food court where uproarious women hawked mead, turkey legs, and more modern fare rechristened for the occasion (e.g., mesquite-grilled Elizabethan ribs). These brazen tavern wenches put themselves in character, more or less, by means of unstrung bodices and broad cockney accents -- "Come here, ducky, and take a look at me wares."
As I made my way through the food court, I noticed an unmarked path leading back into a thick stand of pines. In hopes of finding a quiet respite from all the commotion, I took the path and went deeper and deeper into the shadowy woods. As the noise of the food court receded, my ears caught the faint sound of music ahead, notes softly plucked amid the stillness of the pines. I went on. The path opened into a small, sunlit meadow. Alone in the center of the meadow a young woman was playing a full-sized harp. She was a fairy tale princess in a flowing gown of light blue and a matching conical hat with a white veil trailing from the apex. The veil brushed her shoulders when she leaned forward to pluck the lowest harp strings.
I stood still, admiring her and her music. She showed the depth of concentration that was the hallmark of a true musician. I was fascinated. It seemed to me that wondrous possibilities might await me. In my youthful susceptibility to the romantic impulse, it was easy for me to imagine that this could be a turning point in my life. (During these years as an aimless young engineer, I was greatly in need of a turning point or any kind of direction whatsoever.) She finished her melody, noticed me standing at the meadow's edge, and gave me a smile.
It was time for me to speak. I needed to say something appreciative but not effusive, something witty but not glib, something in the spirit of the renaissance period without being overly precious -- in short, I needed to say the fairy tale words that a commoner of worthy character must say to pique the interest of a princess. As I opened my mouth to speak, people walked past me into the meadow. They circled the harp and asked the princess to play requests.
My moment was ruined. I stepped forward to throw a five dollar bill into the porcelain tip bowl beside the harp and then left the meadow feeling diminished and somehow defeated.
Today as I walked through the woods, I listened for harp music. Sometimes you get a second chance.