You could say…

You could say I’m feeling bad about the state of the world.

For Yemeni children, starving to death, collateral damage in a war with Saudi Arabia. In large format photos, their bones jut through their skin, their eyes dare you to scroll by and move on with your life. Their parents are helpless to save them. Meanwhile, we count the money we make off of bombs sold to Saudi Arabia, and we shrug as they block money and supplies that could prevent famine.

For the two people murdered at a grocery store in Kentucky this week because they were black. Surviving a traffic stop seems to be a privilege you earn with submissiveness or whiteness. Meanwhile, endless think pieces ponder whether our culture shows enough respect to working class white people.

For Matthew Shepard, whose remains were interred today at the National Cathedral, twenty years after he was beaten and murdered. The Washington Post covered it in 1998, and republished the story today, where friends were careful to say–and the Post was careful to include–details that indicated that while he was gay, he wasn’t offensively gay, as if there were a version of the story where he would have deserved to be lured to a field to be beaten and left to die. Meanwhile kids still insult each other with “that’s so gay” on the playground, and our government tries to write trans people out of existence.

Brokenness so deep, my imagination is not up to the task of envisioning a way out. I give up, for a minute. Or maybe for the rest of the afternoon.

Then I’ll do the Anne Lamott thing, and remember that I can not feed Yemeni babies, but I will bring food to the pantry at the local elementary school and vote. I can not be a human shield in Kentucky but I will talk about whiteness and privilege at the dinner table. I can not bring Matthew Shepard back but I will weep for him now and send money to the Trevor Project.

I will practice radical hope despite the evidence, and trust in some invisible economy where the tears of those who mourn are precious, and mercy isn’t weakness, and weakness isn’t even weakness, really. It makes no sense but it is insanely beautiful, and so I’ll say yes to it again tonight.

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Nathaniel sends you peace, from 2012.
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A theory of knowing

In graduate school, I learned a little bit about a lot of different theories that have been in fashion over the last century or so of literary criticism. But these days, I keep returning to two ideas that I’m sure I have misunderstood, rewritten, and misapplied a million times over in order to make mine.

The first, from psychoanalytic theory, is that the essence of human consciousness is lack and desire. To exist means to sense that you are incomplete–something is missing. For the psychoanalysts in the mold of Freud and Lacan, lack begins for girls when they realize they don’t have a penis. In 2018, in the middle of an outpouring of stories of the casual destruction of women’s lives that men leave in their wake, the notion of penis envy strikes me as absolutely hilarious. The most massively influential movement of the 20th century, one that has had profound impact on the way we understand human behavior and consciousness, is predicated on the idea that there would be nothing worse–nothing more existentially traumatizing–than not having a penis. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it were satire. But penis envy aside, the gist of it is that we feel we are lacking something, and yearn for fullness; completeness; plenitude.

The second theoretical thread, from semiotics, is that language is both gift and curse. Language allows us to try to share our experiences with others. But mediated through language, what we actually get is a crude approximation of experience. Language–no matter how precise, no matter how descriptive, abstracts reality.

I write the word “tree.” But “tree” is shorthand for a whole bunch of things. Did you imagine a quaking aspen, a tall oak, a Japanese maple? I can narrow it down–I am thinking of a specific birch tree in the woods in Maine, by the edge of Lake Maranacook.  I can tell you about the way the silver bark reflects the light while everything else in the wood seems to absorb it; the way the rings of bark loosen and peel off like snakeskin. The way the trunk crooks and curves like a frail old man’s back as it stretches up to the sky. I can tell you how the pale green leaves show their underside as the wind picks up and a storm approaches. But no matter how evocative my description, it will never capture the truth of the tree itself; the words will always just be symbols that stand in for the thing itself. Language tries–oh, how it tries to share with you the truth of the tree!–but ultimately it is not up to the task.

Were you to travel to the lake and see it, you might pick out the one I’ve described and think, “Ah! That is the one she meant!”

And you will notice the details I couldn’t capture, or you will think, “I don’t see a crooked spine but a silver lightning bolt, frozen in place.” But neither the spine nor the lightning bolt are the tree itself. They are metaphors, symbols, signifiers–always imprecise. The tree IS, beyond description. The moment I begin to put it into words, something is lost.

Is that not lack? Is that not the heart of our loneliness?  Continue reading “A theory of knowing”

Oh baby?

A colleague is planning an office shower for a co-worker who is expecting a baby soon. She asked me for help figuring out what to do, so I just finished some online shopping for party supplies. I am compelled to share what I have found. I am dealing ONLY WITH BANNERS. Forget the centerpieces, the favors, the pompoms.  Forget the games. Just banners.

Here’s a little window into the baby shower banner aisle at Target.com. I’ve broken it out into three categories for you.

The Informational

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These seem to be designed for the occasion when your guests are confused about just what kind of a party they’ve been invited to. Is this a wedding? A graduation? A birthday party?

Nope! It’s a:

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The Psychological

Many dissertations must be underway on what the new obsession with the gender reveal party says about us as a society and our anxiety around gender identity and fluidity.

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We demand certainty and we demand it now.

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Pretty sure it’s a BABY. But let’s ask it.

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“Well,” says the fetus, “I think that you might be a little preoccupied with my genitalia, but what do I know? I’m just a fetus.”

The Inexplicable

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For the Austin Powers-themed baby shower (“Baby: the other, other white meat”).

BaByQ Baby Shower BBQ Mason Jars Hot Sauce Whimsy Wise (14)

Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Sempiternam

In a few days, I’ll provide the “special music” at church. The choir is off for the summer, so their usual slot is filled by smaller groups or soloists. I picked this Sunday based on my schedule, then realized it was Father’s Day, and then still later realized it would be the week of the anniversary of my dad’s death. So it was either a great deal of chance or a whole lot of subconscious nudging that led me to choose to sing “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Continue reading “Sempiternam”

Practically Perfect

The best class I took in college was Professor Micklus’s upper level English elective, “Evaluating Literature.” I learned to vivisect a text to see how it worked, to pull back the skin to see its beating heart, how the blood moved through its veins, where its muscles connected to its bones. I learned that my impressions of the text were starting points to be probed for their origins; my opinions were not really mine and not really opinions at all–they were reactions the author constructed with similes, with caesurae, with motifs, with word choice. A different word here, an adjusted theme there, and you’d have something new.

This mode of interrogation has become part of how I move through the world. I don’t see finished products so much as I see the tiny choices and processes that make them up.  It’s not much of leap from there to see how you could make better tiny choices and create more elegant processes to end up with a better final product. My professional life has revolved around that kind of problem solving. I’ve built a reputation for having good, constructive suggestions on how to improve things.

In a large meeting this morning, my colleague Camilo held a post-mortem on a cool event we held last month. He walked us through feedback we’d received from external participants, then opened the floor for our ideas and comments. He walked across the room with a handheld microphone; “Now I want to hear from you all about what you thought worked well, and what could we improve. And I’m going to start with Kerry Grannis.”

I protested that I hadn’t raised my hand, but Camilo said, “Yes, but I know you always have suggestions.”

And I did. I took the mic.

Continue reading “Practically Perfect”

Duets

My family–all musical, except for dad–played together a lot. I played Gesu Bambino on the clarinet and my mom played piano accompaniment.  I taught myself to play the piano part to “On My Own” when I was nine years old so I could sing Eponine’s pain. Later, I would practice the accompaniment to “I Still Believe” from Miss Saigon and and tell my sister which part she had to sing (Kim, duh). We worked on the Chess duet, too. I asked my mom to learn the piano accompaniment to Andrew Loyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu,” then made my brother learn the boy soprano part so I could do the really high Sarah Brightman notes.

Even away from home, I found partners. I learned a few songs from “24 Italian Songs and Arias” well enough to accompany singers at NYSSMA competition in high school. I learned the left hand of songs I studied in college so I could hear the whole thing better when I practiced the vocals.

A few years after college, when David and I bought our first house, I found myself at a piano sale at George Mason, yearning to play again. We bought a digital piano–smaller, never needs tuning–and I took out all my old piano music and relearned it, finding it was easy to shake off the dust on the old songs I’d practiced a million times. Muscle memory kicked in. I relearned Chopin. I sang old songs. I learned the left hand to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” musical episode songs.

But no one played with me. No one sang with me. My husband has a lovely baritone, but not much practice with harmony. In more recent years, I worked on my children. Owen plays guitar and occasionally will sing along with himself, but isn’t much for vocals. Amelia sang a few rounds of “Castle on a Cloud” in second grade but probably sensed how much I wanted it and begged off quickly. I had temporary success when I downloaded the sheet music to “Let It Go” a few years ago, and led a neighborhood singalong, but it was short-lived.

BUT TODAY, ALL IS FORGIVEN.

Nathaniel, now in 5th grade, is learning the clarinet. He’s picked it up nicely, and is taking private lessons from a high school girl in addition to his weekly school lessons. There’s a festival coming up where they can play solos, but accompaniment is required. His teacher loaned us a solo book and said she could probably find the CD with accompaniment, but if I have learned anything from Hamilton it is that I am not throwing away my shot, and so Amazon Prime to the rescue and three days later I’ve got the piano accompaniment book in my hands.

My youngest child, light of my life, tracked that sucker via UPS and when it finally arrived today, ripped it open and suggested we try the piece together with a metronome. We played it (at 80, but we’ll work up to 108!) a few times through and just when I thought I couldn’t be happier, he said “let’s try another one” and we found another song in the book and sight read it together and IT WAS GLORIOUS.

I told him about playing all the time, with my family. He smiled, and said, “Except granddad. He was probably busy outside, knocking down hornets’ nests or something.” And I thought, O Lord, this is the what life is made of: music and grief and songs and tears and dorky joy that sneaks up on you so that your heart could burst.

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Warning: duets attempted using the saxoflute will drive your family mad.