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Musings inspired by Philip Kennicott's Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning


I knew I had to read Philip Kennicott's book Counterpoint when I read the subtitle: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. The subtitle of my book Unequal Temperament could be "a novel of Bach and mourning." Of course, it's about more than Bach and mourning, just as Kennicott's memoir touches on much more, but the overlap struck a chord that has many lingering sympathetic vibrations.


Kennicott's memoir is a book to learn from. And I did learn a lot about Bach, and specifically the Goldberg Variations, but what was most thought-provoking to me was a pattern woven into the fabric of the book: practice, meaning not only a way of perfecting performance, but also a discipline, or even a vocation.


I have always been good at practice in the former sense—finding efficient ways to learn skills. In music, it came naturally to me—I didn't need to be taught how to practice in the way that Kennicott did. I suspect that his lack of skills in the art of practicing piano resulted from his natural talent for music. As a child, if I wanted to learn any piece of music on the piano, even the easiest, I had to practice hard. Whereas Kennicott could play piano passably and enjoyably without all that hard work, at least when he was starting out. For me, the work of practice made play possible, and indeed, work transformed seamlessly into play as I practiced, so that, phrase by phrase, I was rewarded immediately with play once I'd done the work. For Kennicott, it seems, play stopped when practice started. Practice didn't have the immediate payoff of allowing him to play—he could already play, so he just played and didn't put in the work to achieve a deep knowledge of the music. Real practice was a distraction from play.


This is how I make sense of Kennicott's astounding statement, "I'm … not sure I love music at all." It's more complicated. "Music is not a pleasure in any simple sense of the word. It is an obligation, a duty, an obsession, an ineradicable part of my life." I would use the word vocation for this kind of dedication, which implies to me a more profound understanding of one's object of devotion.


Kennicott's sense of obligation is more like what I feel for writing than what I feel for music. When I came to the point of deciding how much of my life I could devote to music, I turned away from it, knowing I could never practice enough to play at a level that would satisfy me or do justice to the music. I turned away from making music seriously about the time I turned to writing. In my life, with my level of talent, there is not enough time for music and for writing.


Reading Counterpoint got me thinking about Unequal Temperament's protagonist, Morgan, and her relationship to practice. She is more accomplished—and I daresay more talented—than Kennicott and far more than I am. There is no doubt in my mind that she could learn the Goldberg Variations at a deep and meaningful level. And she would probably play them on her harpsichord rather than her piano, though she might choose to learn on the piano a few variations that could benefit from the dynamic qualities of that instrument.


But when her father dies, Morgan turns away from playing the music she loves and leans into music that requires practice, discipline, work. In that way she has some similarities with Kennicott, who in mourning his mother turns to the work and practice of learning the Goldberg Variations. Morgan's grief is complicated by regrets that she doesn't want to look at, that in the first throes of grief she doesn't have the strength to look at.


Morgan and her father were close, and in her grief she turns away from what reminds her of him: the Baroque music they both loved, his paintings, and even memories of growing up. Kennicott and his mother had a much more fraught relationship, which I imagine contributed to the fraught aspects of his relationship with music. In learning the Goldberg Variations while mourning his mother, he deepens his understanding of his mother's influence on his life and his personality.


I'm talking about Kennicott as if he were a character, and Morgan as if she were a real person. I'm not convinced that's fair, but for a reader who values literature as a practice in empathy, such comparisons become second nature. I can't help but feel the better for it.

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What if God comes instead?

An appreciation of Victoria Chang's poetry collection Obit.


"My father's brain has died before him. It was surrounded by his beloved skull. What if the hinges on his skull break and his brain falls out? Do I give it back or toss it? What if we call the waiter over and God comes instead? Do we offer him a seat and a brandy or do we cover our eyes and hope He doesn't see us?"

~ Victoria Chang


I was starstruck by Victoria Chang's brilliant line, "What if we call the waiter over and God comes instead?" from the prose poem "The Obituary Writer" in her superb book Obit. Here are some of my musings on why.


It has been the basis of my most moving religious experiences that God is with us here and now in one another—one of us, and all of us. But there's something else going on in this line.


God comes not as an inherent part of the waiter's humanity, but instead. There's a sense of panic in coming face to face with God, and a sense of shame that we would rather avoid something that should be a great honor. Is it because I'm not ready for it? Because I'm embarrassed that I don't know what the protocol is? Because what I've ordered, or wanted to order, is something God would not or should not give? Or am I afraid He will bring exactly what I ordered?


Maybe God will tell me he has opened up my husband's head, pulled out his shrinking brain, and tossed it.


No, God wouldn't tell me that. Would He? (Would She?) Please don't tell me that was a "secret supplication of the heart" tracked by the Recording Angel.


Caring for, and grieving for, someone who is suffering from increasing dementia is not only heart-wrenching, it's exhausting. Sometimes I just want it to be over.


But of course I don't want it to be over. Though we've lost a great deal, there's so much left to experience and discover.


If only I had the time, energy, patience, and love to do this right, to appreciate everything Bru can still do and treasure every aspect of life we still have together. If only I could be, if not the perfect partner, at least a competent caregiver.


This is how I feel: conflicted, ashamed, disloyal, confused, beaten down, and embarrassed by it all. A failure at love and at care. And of course I know that my feelings do not define reality, real though they are. I know that I'm managing, that I'm doing much that is right, and that failing in the moment at a particular task does not make me a failure.


But still, do I really want to know what God might think of me? Will He give me what I ordered (which order?), or give me what I deserve?


Victoria Chang's poetry collection Obit largely comprises prose poems in the format of obituaries. It examines the extended and fractured grief that comes with the slow death of a loved one, as well the ambiguous loss created by dementia. In this book, many things die before anyone breathes their last: the father's frontal lobe, the mother's lungs, the poet (many times), language (many times), voice mail, the future, civility, privacy, and on and on.


I have my own list of things that merit a private obituary. The surreality in many of Chang's obituaries dovetails my experience of the way grief can distort and disorient as I deal with Bru's disorientation and declining abilities. In Chang's hands, the clarity of grief's distortion can be redemptive, and I'm grateful for her showing me that sometimes moments of beauty can be made of heartache, frustration, and anger. Obit is an important book, and I'm glad to have it on my shelf.

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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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