SLIDING SEAMLESSLY PAST ESSENTIAL TRUTHS*
Updated: Nov 29
Image taken in March while camping in Death Valley.
Somehow this picture reminds me of "essential truths."
My very first class and first day of law school in 1970, was contracts. Women then composed 12% of the first year class at Hastings College of the Law, up from 2 or 3% the year before, so it was a year of "turn" moving up from there; now across the nation, women often exceed 50% of law school enrollees.
My professor began class by introducing himself and his policy regarding attendance. While there was to be no penalty if we skipped a class or two, the consequence might be that we miss something that might be on an exam. So, how to solve that problem?
"If you have to miss class, be sure you send your wife to take notes" he said.
My hand instinctively shot up; I was recognized and responded:
"But professor, what shall I do? I don't have a wife!" -- to which all the boys in the class sniggered or guffawed as one might expect. The professor emitted a polite but uncomfortable chuckle, and went on.
But he clearly did not "get" my foundational point.
My response was apropos for the times, but gratefully would no longer be valid to make my point: same-sex relationships are obvious and socially accepted these days, at least in the Bay Area, so, of course, my friends could send their husband or wife to sit in (but the law prof's comment would still be a sexist comment if uttered today).
Of course there is a poem formulating in my mind and heart about how it is -- and how sad it is -- that so many people don't listen carefully to metacommunication (though it can be quite obvious to the cognoscente). Better said, they don't hear the foundational intention, motivation, and meaning behind words -- or they ignore them.
These foundational matters comprise the "essential truths" of anything someone says. They are one thing that must be "dug for" in reading, understanding, and expressing ourselves in poetry, as my poetry professor Alyse Knorr, advises.
I've experienced this failure to understand a number of times in my life, and personally felt its painful results. I'm also sure I've done it to others. It reminds me of the first two lines of Jack Gilbert's marvelous poem, "Forgotten Dialect of the Heart":
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite.
For me when "not quite" happens, it lands an "essential hurt" somewhere deep in my soul, especially if I revere, respect, or want to more closely attach to the other person who doesn't really "hear" me.
When retired poetry professor Hank Gutman was a young man interning with Senator Bernie Sanders, one day to make a point he read a Wordsworth poem to the legislators who were revising testing to demonstrate progress in education. Gutman reports that:
"Everyone paid attention, though it would be too much to say that the poem mattered. The room turned back to testing as the means of determining how education is working and slid seamlessly past what Wordsworth has to tell us."
"Do I sound angry and embittered? On some level, I was, even though
as I just noted I truly liked my Democratic staff colleagues. But in two years
of discussion of education and how it worked, no one, no one, ever mentioned the word ‘joy.’"
Not responding means either someone didn't hear or understand us, or did hear and understand us and disagrees, or just doesn't care to respond. Any one of those cases means that we don't much matter. At least that's how I feel.
But responding to something other than my essential foundational message, hurts just as much.
One of my long-time girlfriends discouraged me two years ago when, quite excitedly, I first told her I was going on a search to purchase a small grand piano. She didn't hear my great joy in rediscovering music and the piano. Instead of encouraging and celebrating with me, she sternly warned me multiple times about spending too much money and endangering my resources during retirement. I was puzzled, and finally stopped discussing my quest and growing love of music, and move forward with my goal.
Recently she had the opportunity to meet The Duchess, but without advance notice from me. When we were discussing my search process and why I had not told her, I explained the above and that I had been chagrined by her lack of support or confidence in my ability to evaluate and manage my own financial resources -- at age 76!
Her immediate response was to interrupt, object, protest, and say she was "only looking out for my well-being." In fact, originally she had hurt me deeply, because at the time I had not "gotten" her foundational message! She cares about me and her mothering instinct took over, even if the results were the opposite of what she intended. Sadly, regarding the matter of music, it distanced us for a number of years until recently.
Most fortunately for our long friendship, we had the chance via an hour-long phone call after my recent birthday dinner party that she helped me to host, to express our deep affection for each other and to make amends. She apologized for having missed something important in my life that had hurt me. I apologized for not trusting that she truly cared for me. And because we did so, we kept talking and next made an amazing discovery: her unrelenting concern for my financial well being was because she had misheard me! She thought that I said I intended to spend five times the amount of the maximum budget I had set for my piano purchase!
What I had mentioned to her was the significant value of a gorgeous Fazioli concert grand piano I had played on a showroom floor -- but just for the experience of it! (In these facts of mis-communication lies the possibility of an instructive poem or short story, but gratefully, one with a happy ending!) Thus, she became overly concerned for me!
Sometimes we don't get a chance to create a happy ending, although I would always hope for the chance for an honest discussion as with my bff above. Once I sent a musical friend a video demonstration by a well-known senior concertizing piano teacher. The teacher was showing how a phrase in a particular Brahm's composition should be played as compared to another famous pianist's phrasing. While the comparison pianist left me cold, the teacher's interpretation caused me to finally "hear" and appreciate this composer.
I had never before liked Brahms and so became excited, really thrilled by the gorgeous piece that I suspected might open up a whole new world to me. (This is not the video I sent my friend, but please listen to one of my very favorite pianists ever, Radu Lupu, play the gorgeous Brahm's piece under discussion, Intermezzo from Op. 117 No. 1) .
What transpired for me on that day regarding Brahms, is well expressed by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist writing on black and white space holes.** Rovelli says that science and art reorganize meaning, and they take "us out of our habitual sleep-walking, reconnecting us with the joy of seeing something anew."
Not only is sharing joy a key desire motivating me to share music, but it is also the expressing and sharing of astonishment. This came clear for me the morning I discovered a poem by William Carlos William, "Pastoral." The poem ends "These things astonish me beyond words!"
But the response I received from my friend was an objective, no-holds-barred academic analysis of the teacher's out-of-tune piano and other specific elements of interpretation or pianism that were found lacking. There was not one word recognizing, or at least for a moment, sharing my immense joy, and astonishment, in the discovery of Brahms. I later tried to explain myself better, but it was not recognized or acknowledged, or perhaps I just failed miserably with my words.
Poet Marianne Moore wrote "When I Buy Pictures" and said of fine art (of course in poetic structure): "Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality of that, detracts from one's enjoyment; it must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored -- that which is great because something else is small."
Sadly, my friend overlooked my essential truth and it was murder on that day, as I'm sure Gutman felt his long-ago day in the legislature.
Here is part of the Wordsworth poem that Gutman read to the legislature:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Since now and in the New Year I will delve more into poetry and read a wider range of poets in continuing online classes, I think I'll read and like Wordsworth, Moore, and Williams a lot more than I remember from college days!
*Title is with credit to Professor Huck Gutman and his essay where I read the phrase; https://www.huckgutman.com/blog-1/intro
**"The Secret to Unlocking One of the Universe's Great Mysteries" by Carolo Rovelli, New York Times Opinion Section, 10.22.23.
* * *
WHAT I DESIRE**
One composes me above all others.*
I pause a moment, wandering off into the seductive tendrils of his melodies, having just then lived enough in this place and time, no forward movement needed or expecting more, no looking backward, no need to regret.
Nothing exists but the deepest space, the softest place and solace for all that is and could have been.
I wish you agreed with me-- but failing that, what I desire is that you feel the way I do and disappear the way I do into whatever music composes you.
*Adagios by Sergei Rachmaninoff,
**Nailed it in the end when I finally articulated my "essential truth."
* * *
(If you resonate to this blog, kindly consider signing our mailing list for future publication notices.)
# # #