And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up in her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” ― Toni Morrison, Sula
I love teaching. I’m a decent instructor and a good guide. And, any success I have had as a teacher, I attribute to two things: 1.) I like and am interested in people, and, 2.) I enjoy figuring things out and sharing what I know. With both literature and art, I delight in the inner workings and the larger implications of “the text”, and I sincerely believe that “the text” can — must — come to bear in significant ways in our daily lives. Which is a little sad, come to think of it, as it has been years since I’ve read or seen something that I’ve enjoyed without pulling at it even a little bit. Alas.
Maybe I was born this way, but I don’t think so. See? Even now I’m tugging at the edges of my being (navel-gazing, I think they call this). I think it happened at the piano. Me now at this keyboard is me then, alone, supposed to be practicing but instead playing a high note over and over and over again listening for something. My piano teacher, Ms. Harriet, she was a great teacher: she told me stories about the composers until I started to dream of them (Beethoven and Bach and Mozart came to me in a nightmare once), she would replay what I asked her to soft and then loud and then fast and then slow to let me try out my ideas, she would listen to what I was doing when I tried something new with a piece. She was very present. And then she moved to Scotland. My other piano teachers were interesting in and of themselves, but Ms. Harriet did a great job of listening along with me. Maybe, at times, I emulate her. No… it’s not emulation. It is an echo.
I don’t know how to do through the computer what is best done one-on-one with a pencil and a whiteboard and digressions and smiles and a dictionary and a quick internet search or a library… It’s hard. I try. I know that my father has great respect for independent thinking and that my mother does not tolerate anything half-assed. I know that Mrs. Stroup laughed at naive Billy Budd and that my Shakespeare professor in college said, with body shaking enthusiasm, that Invisible Man is the Great American Novel (taking British Lit. from Black professors is a superior experience).
All of this circles my mind because I’ve been listening to Glenn Gould play Beethoven and compared two of his interpretations to the “more faithful” less “self-important” versions that I find too sentimental, too much of this world and too little of what is and can be. I don’t play piano anymore, so I can only listen as an artist who has an artist’s memory of the piano. It occurred to me last night that Gould was — in particular — interested in the piano as an instrument and in music as a phenomenon as connected to that instrument. I can imagine being terribly annoyed with someone who comes in to do one thing and then does his own thing that is a semblance of the one thing but is ultimately an experiment. This world doesn’t tolerate too much of that sort of thing. Oh, well, I enjoy listening for what he adjusted between those two versions of his. There’s an aching in the one that I prefer…
Variations on a theme isn’t always about winning, though. This week, coincidentally, or not, given the pandemic, my friend and I read three essays on grief by Black women writers. Each essay is a _ vantage point on void. What is the “_”? “Essential”? “Honest”? “Raw”. Immaculately polished because that is their work and raw. Each essay is a raw vantage point on void. Not “the void” left in the wake of the loss of a loved one, not “the void” that is there waiting, gaping until we turn to face it. Void. We hurtle through space.