Arts & Leisure

John Elder rediscovers his life in new audiobook

ACCLAIMED AUTHOR JOHN Elder takes on a journey of rediscovery in his recently published audiobook. The format allows readers to listen to his playing of the Irish flute. 
INDEPENDENT PHOTO/CAROLINE JIAO

An educator, environmentalist, service-based teacher, acclaimed writer, former professor, ever-evolving musician and, as he believes he is and strives to be, a beginner. If you have been around Addison County for as long as he has, you’re probably familiar with his name — John Elder.

In a newly published audiobook version of his book “Picking Up the Flute: A Memoir Through Music” we can listen to snippets of Elder’s musical performance when he was just starting to learn the Irish flute along with spoken narratives about his retirement from a career as a Middlebury College professor and his almost-54-year marriage to his wife, Rita Elder. Through it all, 77-year-old John Elder lets himself tell the story of “beginning.”

“I was always a beginner, and that’s what I liked,” he said. “The ways I’ve taught and the books I’ve written have always related to areas of strong interest in which I’m not an expert.”

The same internal yearning for new knowledge and experiences as a beginner had, in the past, drawn Elder to Japanese culture: calligraphy, the game of Go, and its deep roots in and appreciation for the natural world. 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts, there are few,” he quotes from Shynryu Suzuki, the author of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” “And the point is, not so bad to be a beginner, because you can think about what interests you. Maybe it’s a funny angle you’re taking, but it’s your angle.”

What, you may ask, is his unique angle? 

Elder believes in a notion of time and place, deeply intertwined with each other, that constitutes memory and eventually cumulates into the wholeness of life. 

“A passage from Wordsworth, from ‘The Prelude,’ Book 12, ‘There are in our existence spots of time.’ It’s an interesting phrase,” said Elder. “It combines the spatial and the temporal.”  

“For Wordsworth, to remember something, is to be taken back to the place you experienced it,” said Elder. “And to go back to the place where you experienced something vivid is to return to the time when you experienced it.”

His book explores ways that new endeavors or new connections in life tie everything and everywhere before. 

Each chapter of the book is embedded with a tune that Elder played with his flute. “They were associated in some ways with an aspect of our lives,” he said. 

“The logic of this book is that, to learn a new tune, you have to play it over and over and over again before you really have it. And the place where you lived when you were learning that tune and the part of your life when you were learning it become inseparable from the tune. It becomes the soundtrack.” Elder said. “These tunes are like spots of time. My little pun is they are spots of tune. The tune captures the time and the spot.”

A paper version of the book came out in 2016, though the audiobook was published just last month. “I did not intend to write this book,” Elder said. “I was doing a little blog because I wanted to write essays about Ireland and about our lives at this point, and also to let people hear the tunes, which were the leitmotifs.”

Elder had expressed this wish to his editor at Green Writer’s Press. “They say, ‘You record it and we’ll get it out,’” Elder recalled.

With the help of Lincoln musician Michael Chorney, Elder recorded the audio of him reading and playing in Chorney’s studio. 

The non-traditional format brought the music to life. “I was pleased when the publisher let me know last month that all the final arrangements had been made and the audiobook was available,” Elder said. “This had been one of our goals from the start, and I was happy when it became a reality.”

Just for fun John and Rita Elder picked up different instruments in 2008 after Rita retired from being a special educator at Lincoln Community School. “She bought a concertina, and I got a wooden flute,” Elder said. “The fun thing about them was, not only were they portable, but rather than learning from sheet music, you learn by ear, and that’s the tradition.”

The journey into Irish music manifested into many more journeys to the place. “We began to go to Ireland,” Elder said. “I got to know a community of writers who were interested in nature writing in Ireland, in Connemara, which is a peninsula west of Galway. Through them we got to know a part of Ireland where we could go and play music with people and experience music in a place where it originated.

Communities newly fostered have brought Elder to reminisce many circles of deep connections that came before. “A word I’d use to describe my attitude toward this book is ‘discovery,’” he said. In his past teaching experiences, a community of learners worked together to discover “aspects of literature that no one could’ve had come to.” 

“It feels that way in writing for me too,” Elder said. “I drew some connections in this book I never expected to draw.” From the many communities he is part of, he discovered a deeper agreement—the love of land and the love of each other. 

The trips and experiences in a tight-knit community in Ireland are commemorated with a sense of loss since the couple let go of traveling once and for all due to Rita’s health conditions. “For about six or seven years we went to Ireland constantly,” Elder said. “We’ll never go there again, and we will not see those people anymore. But we write to them, and we play tunes that make us think of them.” 

Elder speaks of loss as a pathway that returns to a “grateful presentness,” as a response to retirement and aging.  “Elegiac in a literary sense is, everything that you’ve experienced, and everything meaningful to you, is related simultaneously to loss and discovery,” he said. “To move through time is to lose things. I find that very meaningful.”

“I do think the wholeness of a life is like the wholeness of a tree. The (outer) circles enclose (inner circles) in tree rings. Everything I do now, even if it’s new, is related to everything I’ve experienced before. And even if some aspect of life is lost, it endures in memory and can be shaped into relation to what’s happening now.”

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