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Musings

Maybe it’s time I wrote about grief

At the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference earlier this month (February 2024), I attended a panel entitled Grief: What Is It Good For? As I listened to the panelists' excellent conversation, one of the things I scribbled in my notebook was: "Maybe it's time I wrote about grief."

 

As if I haven't been writing about grief for decades. Unequal Temperament, after all, is in large part a story of a woman's grief over not just the loss of her father, but the loss of an ambition, and the loss of a life-changing opportunity.

 

Going back even further, my first novel (Our Trespasses, still unpublished) featured in one of its narrative threads the protagonist's unresolved grief over the loss of a relationship. For me, the breakup of a friendship, most especially one with a romantic attachment, is an ambiguous loss: the relationship is gone, but the person is still there, the connection feels like it's still there (and sometimes it is, albeit in different form). The grief is sticky, and I have never found the solvent that will dissolve it and let me wash it away. It erodes with time and the soft abrasion of other relationships. But the remnants are still there, still causing an irritation if not an outright ache.

 

I've written about and around my heartaches before, sometimes in essays but many times more in fiction. Writing is no cure for grief, but it's one way to contend with it. I was covered in terribly sticky grief throughout my 30s and well into my 40s, but I nevertheless achieved a lot during that time. I wrote Our Trespasses, for one thing, and though grief underlies one thread, there are several others that have nothing to do with loss. And my own life in that time was not about grieving. I was simply living with grief and, maybe, very slowly healing the burn that loss had made and that ambiguity kept refreshing. Or maybe it's more that I allowed ambiguity to keep refreshing it.

 

Before the AWP panel on grief got underway, the moderator asked all of us in the audience to turn to someone nearby and briefly name a person for whom we were grieving. Did I name my mother, who had died only a few weeks before? No, what popped out of my mouth was the name of my husband, who is very much alive.

 

Bru has dementia. He can talk, but more and more he can't find the words he wants. He can follow simple directions, but problem-solving is almost always out of his reach. He can read, but he can no longer read books, because he can't remember enough from one page to the next to make sense of them. He can dress himself, but I can tell he is becoming confused about the order in which he needs to put his clothes on. Bru is losing his cognitive abilities frighteningly fast.

 

And yet, Bru and I still laugh a lot together. He is still my Bru, even though he may not recognize me at times and lacks the confidence to do things that used to be second nature. His personality hasn't changed (yet), but he is no longer the man I fell in love with, that I married, that I built a life with. I can no longer have those stimulating, clarifying, problem-solving conversations we used to have, and I can't remember when they no longer became possible.

 

I am covered in a very sticky ambiguous grief. There are fresh coats being laid down all the time.

 

I need to stop trying to wipe it off and instead write about it. Or around it, or through it.

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Allow Me to Introduce My Mother

Diane Hatlestad Walsh

Co-published with the Debutante Ball Substack.

 

In honor of Mothers Day and the 2023 National Women's History Theme of "Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories," I would like to introduce you to my mom, Diane Hatlestad Walsh.

 

Mom is 94 years old. She had a long career as a medical transcriptionist and has been retired now for over 25 years. She lives independently in her own condo, drives her own car, and does her own shopping and cooking.

 

Not long ago, she took a memory class at the local senior center where one of the exercises was to make up a simple story that linked together particular things that needed to be remembered. She reported, with not a little pride, that everyone was astounded at how quickly and easily she came up with those little stories. I imagine she was better at it than anyone in the room, including the instructors, because, as she explained to them, she makes up stories like that all the time, has always done so. And if you do anything for 90 years, you get pretty good at it.

 

I would not say that Mom is an exceptional storyteller. She can sometimes spin a good yarn, but she can also forget the punchline to a needlessly shaggy shaggy dog story. However, she is a phenomenal storymaker. She can look at a stranger in a restaurant, observe how they are dressed, or what they are eating, or how they treat the wait staff, and come up with an outline of what they did that morning, or what happened to them on the drive to the restaurant, or what they are planning to do the rest of the day. Another time, she might decide what their childhood was like, or what kind of relationship they had with their physician.

 

This is entertainment for her, though not necessarily for those she chooses to tell these stories to. It used to drive me crazy when I was growing up, most especially when the subject of her storymaking was not a stranger, and she seemed convinced that her story was accurate. As someone who was making up stories about those same people myself, I knew hers wasn't the only option. I learned very young that if you don't have all the facts, there is always more than one explanation for whatever you're trying to explain.

 

That is generally the purpose of Mom's storymaking—not to remember something, as it was in her senior center class, but to make sense of something. Usually that something is why people do the things they do.

 

I don't know whether my own preoccupation with exploring motives comes to me through genes or through constant example, but I definitely got it from my mother. The stories Mom makes embody her values and her assumptions about human behavior, and whether I have gone along with or pushed against her beliefs, her continual storymaking has shaped my interpretation of the world. It has had a more profound influence on my writing than anything else I can think of.

 

So thank you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day.

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October Thoughts

Bru picks crabapples.

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers." — L. M. Montgomery

 

I saw that quote on the National Park Service's Facebook page a few days back, paired with a lovely image of a glowing aspen grove with the Tetons in the background. I have always loved October.

 

Besides the jaw-dropping beauty of this time of year in my native Michigan, October has always meant Halloween—one of my favorite days of the year when I was growing up. I loved exploring the neighborhood after dark while pretending to be someone other than who I was.

 

My husband, however, doesn't like Halloween, didn't grow up with it in Australia, and doesn't understand it. I tease him that it's because it steals the thunder from his birthday just a few days before. But really, I think it's because he has always felt comfortable being who he is, and he doesn't get why people would feel such joy in pretending to be someone else. One of his favorite conversational refrains has always been, "I know who I am."

 

I haven't heard that for a while, though. Bru will turn 86 next week, and while his physical health is amazingly robust, his cognitive abilities have really taken a beating in the social isolation of the past few pandemic years. While we are getting out more often now and seeing friends and acquaintances, he is not the same conversationalist he used to be. He is not the same confident photographer and teacher he once was. And this is confusing and frightening to him. More and more, rather than engaging with the present, Bru prefers to revisit the stories of his adventurous youth and the accomplishments of his long and vibrant middle age--all great material, I don't mind adding.

 

Two nights ago, we had our first hard frost in Iowa City. The growing season has ended, and I feel winter barreling in, as well it should this time of year when all is right with the world.

 

Many years ago, when I was in Iowa for the first time ever, I had a conversation about the seasons with an older gentleman. (This older gentleman was probably not much older than I am now.) It was springtime, the weather was warm, and the rural landscape was turning green all around us. Spring was his favorite time of year, he said, and I replied that I liked the fall best. He smiled and said, in that voice wise old people use when talking to young folks, "I used to like the fall, too. But now I know what's coming."

 

Having experienced the Upper Midwest's mid-continental winters for over twenty years now, I know exactly what he was talking about.

 

Still, I love the glory of fall, the last beautiful gasp of the deciduous, the heavy red fruit of the crabapple and hawthorn trees in our back yard. I love the asters purpling the meadows and ditches of Iowa. I love the stories Bru tells me of delivering milk with a draft horse and cart in the western suburbs of Sydney, seeing Bud Powell play at the Jazzhus in Copenhagen, and having his photographs hanging in the lobbies of London's brand new National Theatre. It's autumn, and I do know what's coming, and I try to love what is here and now all the more for it.

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Looking for Peter Grimes

CD cover for Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes

Sometimes something spooky happens when you're writing a story, especially a long story, that tells you it was destined to come into being. I'm not talking about how the pieces of the story fit just right when they fall into place—delightful though that may be, when you have control of the world you're creating, you can make that happen through your own planning and diligence. I'm talking about when something from outside your story's world falls into it and fits just right. That's spooky. For my novel Unequal Temperament, one of those spooky pieces was the opera Peter Grimes.

 

Of course, I did go looking for Peter Grimes, without knowing what I was looking for. I needed an opera for my characters to rehearse, and opera was not a form of music that I was well schooled in. I'd sung in many choirs, taken voice lessons, and enjoyed hearing soloists sing arias, but I had never had much interest in seeing a full-blown opera production unless I knew one or more of the performers. So my experience of opera and knowledge of the opera repertoire were scant.

 

Since my protagonist, Morgan, has a day job as a meteorologist, I went looking for an opera with weather. And I wanted it to be a relatively modern opera, so that it would be distant from the baroque music that Morgan loved and from the harpsichord she was avoiding.

 

I no longer remember the specifics of how I went about this search. I may have found a resource that summarized opera plots, or I may have done online searches with the term opera paired with various weather-related terms, like storm, ice, snow, wind, or rain. However I conducted the search, I soon stumbled upon Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

 

Whether fair or foul, weather is omnipresent in Peter Grimes, which takes place in a fishing village. And the unpredictability of weather—the very problem that a meteorologist is charged with solving—plays a significant role in the precariousness of life for the eponymous 19th-century fisherman. And for his apprentices.

 

It was the apprentices that first made finding Peter Grimes feel spooky. The title character had a habit of losing his young apprentices. Whether it was murder or bad luck, the issues of responsibility and child neglect fit beautifully with one of Unequal Temperament's subplots and resonated strongly with Morgan's fears about parenthood. It felt like a perfect fit.

 

And then I listened to the music. I fell in love with it at first hearing, particularly the sublime orchestral interludes that were just made for Morgan's appreciation.

 

As I incorporated Peter Grimes into the novel, it inspired a number of scenes that were integral to story's preoccupations. It was like pulling a tailor-made suit off the rack. Likewise, bits of the libretto floated through my mind as I was writing and dropped down into Morgan's thoughts and dreams, propelling the plot forward to the very destination that I had always had in mind.

 

That is the way imagination works, I know. But it felt to me like divine intervention. Spooky.

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All Half Steps Are Not Created Equal

Growing up in the twentieth century playing piano and modern wind instruments, I took it on faith that every pitch had a correct frequency. I remember a machine in our high school band room, very scientific and objective, that could tell you how far out of tune a pitch was. That there were set distances between pitches went without saying. A half step was exactly half of a whole step, and an octave was made up of twelve half steps. Our ears were trained to hear correct pitches in combination with one another as in-tune intervals and chords.

 

It wasn't until I began to write what became my novel Unequal Temperament that I learned how wrong we were—not wrong to tune our modern instruments as we did, but wrong to assume there were "correct" pitches in some absolute sense. Perhaps I shouldn't assume my fellow musicians shared my unquestioning faith in our tuning standards. It was hardly a subject of doctrinal conversations. But judging by the pushback I received from readers of early drafts who happened to be musicians, I was not alone in feeling deeply attached to my musical frame of reference.

 

Unequal Temperament had its beginnings many years ago in a short story I wrote about a girl who has to come to grips with how her musical talent can't carry her as far as she wants. The emotional crisis was resolved in the story ("Two-Part Inventions," published in Cicada in 2005), but I couldn't help wondering where the girl's second choice would lead her, and eventually that led me to jump ahead eighteen years and see where someone like her might land. The character evolved to become Unequal Temperament's Morgan, whose back story includes the situation and emotional dilemma of the girl at the heart of "Two-Part Inventions," who with the support of her artist father used her love of baroque music to heal her disappointment.

 

As I was exploring Morgan's character, with her passion for precision and order amid complexity, I imagined that a talented pianist who loved the music of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries would want to play that music on the instrument for which it was composed: the harpsichord. Never having played the harpsichord myself, I had no idea that instrument needed to be tuned differently from a piano. The beauty and resonance of a harpsichord's sound rely on sympathetic vibrations among the instrument's many strings. For sympathetic vibrations to occur, the strings need to be tuned so that their frequencies are fairly close to being in sync. Equal temperament (tuning so that all half steps are equal) doesn't allow for any interval to be closely in sync, producing a thin and tinny sound on a harpsichord.

 

Once you accept that half steps don't have to be equal, the possibilities for tuning multiply. The thing is, you can't have all intervals sounding in sync at once. Physics just doesn't allow for that. (If you want a good explanation of this phenomenon, known as the Great Flaw, I recommend Ann Bond's wonderful book, A Guide to the Harpsichord, particularly her chapter "Simple Facts About Pitch, Tuning, and Temperament.") The challenge is to decide where in the scale you want to put the imperfections, and how great an imperfection you can tolerate. Those choices define the temperament, and that becomes the foundation for further creative choices—a complicating ripple in the precision and order of musical expression.

 

The concept of unequal temperament fit Morgan's character so well that it was spooky. It became the central metaphor for the novel, in which it is impossible to give every aspect of life a perfection of attention, and the ways Morgan chooses to balance the imperfections will determine the sound and shape of her life.

 

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