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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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