In music, though often referred to as embellishment or ornament, the grace note is a pause between notes that is important, even key to pacing the rest of the piece. It is like the pause for breath in a recitation, or the words you choose not to say, or those that get edited out. For me as a writer, the silence has always mattered as much as the words. Rather than a searching for words to fill the blank page, writing for me feels more like sculpting, where from a big block of language, I chip and shape.
This post actually was begun, and nearly finished, back in June. In a first ever with WordPress, what was as I recall a pretty lovely version disappeared, completely. Gone, poof. And I looked. Celt that I am, if that’s not a sign I don’t know what is. Writing about the grace note of love, and that itself is put on pause. It was strange timing, uncanny even as as much as was going on at the time, so much more was about to happen: it would have been a very different piece then than now.
Time constrained and a little shaken as well as plain pissed off by the disappearance, I put it aside. But it has been calling out to be written since, and so now three months down the road, in this post-Labor Day week, the sweet reckoning with my grace note is here. The summer that produced Black & Blue Preserve for les collines (think: the pie names in the adorable, allegorical film Waitress) has been one full of growth opportunities in the landscape of my heart.
In May, weeding the boulder garden– an elegant title for a charming hodgepodge that I have attempted to hand clear since moving into this house seven (7!) years ago last week, and which most self-respecting gardeners might sneer at while I am extremely proud to have freed peonies and a few others (many unknown, may be weeds) to bloom again– I found one of my running ped socks. The effect was a startle, as you might expect finding an unexpected object in a familiar place. It was there, a moment’s pause allowed me to remember, because Clarence had been wearing it on an injured paw, and of course at some point it came off.
But the moment was an uncanny one, the strangely familiar in an unfamiliar setting, something that picks you up and plops you down a half space further, or back, or elsewhere.
It made me think of one of my favorite graduate school courses, with Diana Fuss at Princeton. I was the only person from French, or all of Romance Languages for that matter, in an interdisciplinary seminar with lots of architecture and English students. Part of our professor’s preparation for a book related to the topic (it would become The Sense of an Interior: Four Rooms and the Writers that Shaped Them), we were working on architectural interiors, every week moving through the different rooms of a house and reading pieces with themes like the architectural uncanny. It was the kind of seminar that made you see everything differently, especially the most mundane. There was a good bit of Freud and the unheimlich.
It must have been the week we were in the bathroom that Dr. Fuss recounted an anecdote that became one of my favorites about Princeton, for it is so telling. In the women’s faculty restroom, she told us, the men’s urinals had been left in place– Princeton like so many other universities only became co-ed in the late 60’s– and she joked they were left there in the hope that the women would just, eventually, leave.
So there I was in the boulder garden with the little sock, startled then not, in a most familiar place with a most familiar object that didn’t quite belong together. Like the out of body experience of falling in love, where you recognize yourself in the other in sometimes slightly uncanny ways that can be both a little unsettling and fully irresistible and that ultimately, ideally I guess, take you deeper into an understanding of yourself, and the other, and your connection to the world. There may be grace there, and redemption.
That has been in part my experience this summer. It has been a season full of lessons of patience, many yet to learn. While operating at uber full tilt on the work side of the equation, a large swath of my heart remained on pause. Throwing myself into work, like the Junot Díaz line, because in the midst of everything else out of my control (that would be just about everything) and unknown (same), it feels like hope, it feels like grace.
Just when we think we have a handle on something, or someone, the rug can come out. The light shifts, the door blows open, the phone chirps, and it all changes. Sometimes the song ends, sometimes we have a grace note to catch our breath and figure out how to move into the next part.
Pulling up to the house this Labor Day, one of my favorite Prince songs, and favorite songs period, came on the radio, “Kiss.” Link to it from my Prince post in April. Dare you to hear it and Not. Have. To. Dance. I realized it was 30 years nearly to the day since that Labor Day weekend just before I went to Paris, and that drive in my so cool way old orange Opel with my crush in shotgun, with that engine that really should have not been pushed beyond 45 but we were doing north of 60 on a late summer evening country road with Prince on the radio, and it was a piece of heaven.
I could not possibly have imagined the next 30 years. I’ve said it here before, I feel like somewhere along the way I must have had a choice between interesting but complicated and easier but less interesting and I chose the former without hesitation. And probably without thinking. It has been one interesting ride this far, for sure. A windows down, two-lane road, pushing the engine further than I know I should ride, not knowing where the next gas station is but trusting there is one and I will make it there in time. One time I may not make it and then we’ll see.
In her tribute to Prince the day he died, Anna Petrusich wrote in the New Yorker that the paradox of love– “how it’s both the kindest and the cruelest thing a person can inflict on someone else”– is present in much of Prince’s work. In “Pink Cashmere,” written for his love of the time, a British model for whom he had the pink cashmere, fur-trimmed coat made, she writes that it was the upside the head, knock you out kind. “Maybe you were doing all right yesterday—maybe you had yourself together—but now? Someone’s got you fully in his or her grip. When love hits like that, it can feel brutal, violent, like getting grabbed from behind on a street corner. Then, on the other side of that terror: bliss, wonder. Something like happiness.” And maybe even, grace.
And redemption. A grace note, short or extended.
Anna sent me this lovely piece back in July:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
And grace before the play and the pantomine,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
G.K. Chesterton, “A Grace,” Collected Poetry
Anna added, “I’d have to add jelly making to the list….” Grazie mille, Anna. I miss our hummus (Saba pine nut only, of course) breaks!! But, we’ll always have rosé in adorable globe jars…bon courage avec la rentrée et à bientôt, j’espère.
A pause of grace, of stillness and gratitude, presence and humility in the moment. Of being fully in the task at hand, whether mundane or extraordinary. Stirring the pot, or gazing at the person you love.
My own extended grace note this summer has been, like all the rest and despite a pretty outsize imagination as far as that goes, again something I just could not have imagined. An enlarged prism of light, as if the spectrum of the rainbow had been expanded to include new colors, something like those new elements they just added to the Periodic Table. It has been searing at moments, transformative at others. Never dull. There have been times I wanted to run away from it, or molt and leave it behind. But that, would be too easy.
Our sense of time is so much more pliable than we realize. One way to enlarge it, I believe, is by being fully present in the moment. It is the human way to get lost in our thoughts, in plans, in regrets, in worries. But we can train ourselves. That thing where people say, “I don’t know where the time goes!” Or, “Can you believe it is already September? (or March or July or…), I don’t feel anymore, though I nod and agree to be conversational sometimes. Partly due to the intense nature of my life experiences the past few years, but also I think to practicing meditation, almost the opposite is true. Time seems to stretch out, and not in a negative way– well not always anyways– so that what happened six months ago may feel like a few years. Or more.
The other night there was an outbreak of gnat-like insects around the exterior doorways of the house where the lights were on. They were everywhere, and when you opened the door they swarmed in. Non-biting, they were noisome nonetheless. The next morning, they were gone, just a few bodies here and there. Their life expectancy, whoever they are, is maybe what, a few hours? Something like that makes me wonder if there are creatures, or beings, somewhere out there who would look at us Earth dwellers with our earthly lives of seven, eight, nine decades and all the inherent woes and joys as I was seeing those short-lived mystery flyers: maybe it is all just that quick.
So as I live this grace note, not knowing its duration doesn’t matter as much as it once might have. The next note will come, whatever the pause. It is enough to be present to the moment, this one, right now. Pain, pleasure, joy, sadness, contentment, live it, don’t run away. Be in it. It is amazing, it is grace.