On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate At The Stairs’ And An Implausible Grieving

There is much to like in Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate At The Stairs: there is Moore’s trademark dry humor, her dazzling vocabulary and eye for natural and urban detail, her exploration of weighty issues–race, adoption, gender, families, parenting–with a writerly touch that is deft and light in equal measure. But there is a crucial implausibility in the story, which when encountered by a reader like me, is liable to ripple out and weaken the hold of the novel. And reduce in significant measure its emotional impact.

[Spoilers ahead; turn back or hold your peace forever.]

At the heart–or at least, somewhere vital in the novel’s body–is a terrible tragedy, the worst of all: the death of a young child. It is the black hole in the universe of Sarah Brink, who has now found a nanny–the central character, Tassie Keltjin–to look after her adopted bi-racial child, ostensibly representing the start of a new family.

But Sarah and her husband, Edward, lost their son in no ordinary manner. Instead, his death came about quite directly as a result of actions taken by his father. While driving on a highway, their son had repeatedly engaged in loud, disruptive, and disobedient behavior; his father, finally losing his patience, had snapped and forced the boy out at a highway rest stop; once the lesson had been learned, the boy would be let back in to the car. Thanks to a series of confusing interactions with the traffic behind them, the Brinks are forced off the rest stop and back onto the highway and as they frantically try to turn around and retrieve the boy, he wanders on to the highway and is struck and killed by oncoming traffic.

Lorrie Moore now expects the reader to believe that after such an accident, involving the death of their only son, one caused by the inappropriately angry actions of the father, that the mother–who had protested the father’s actions throughout the incident–stays on in the relationship, and that the couple somehow endures and carries on with their lives. Now scarred, of course, but they do endure.

This, I’m afraid, is entirely implausible. Forgiveness in this matter will not be easily forthcoming, if not impossible. The death of a young child very often tears the relationship of the parents’ apart; this is because haunted and grieving parents, looking for some explanation of this most inexplicable of events, will, quite understandably, blame and indict any entity, material or otherwise, for it. All too often, the love for, and the relationship with, a romantic partner and co-parent, will not survive such a lashing out. It will especially not survive when one of the parents is so clearly to blame.

Parents understand the rage that children can provoke in their parents; some might even–from a distance–empathize with Edward. But very few, and I’m one of them, will be able to comprehend how a grieving mother could ever ‘get over’ the knowledge that her co-parent’s impatience and anger had caused the death of her child. To err is human, to forgive is divine; but gods do not walk this earth. Only flawed humans do.

A Stranger’s Death, Made Familiar

On Monday, as I walked to campus to begin a full day of teaching, I came across–outside a high school that abuts our campus–one of those dreaded memorials to the too-young-dead: black and white and color photographs, flickering candles, bouquets of flowers, notes of affection and remembrance and disbelief, some printed, some handwritten, and lastly, most poignantly, sobbing,disconsolate girls, resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally grief-stricken friends. I stopped and read some of the notes; I looked at the photographs. There she was, a young teen-aged girl, gleefully, artlessly, posing with friends and family, sometimes in a bus, sometimes in a park, sometimes hugging girlfriends, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes caught off-guard, sometimes preening, sometimes shy, sometimes dressed to the gills, sometimes lazily casual. It was all there, the bare reminders of a life now over. Around me, some students stopped and stared and read; some  stayed, some moved on quickly. There were uneasy glances cast backward at this reminder of the mortality of one of their cohort.

I read her name; the first name was common enough, but she was still a stranger.  But not utterly so. She had a name, she had a face; her presence in this world was visible through the reactions of her friends, through this public memorial that had confronted me and made my weekday extraordinary. I felt a prickliness in my eyes; some irritation had manifested itself and forced, in response, from my ever sensitive optical apparatus, a secretion of moisture to provide instant relief.

This morning, as I walked to campus again, a block or so away from the high school crossing, my pace slowed. I wondered if I would see the same memorial again. I remembered the girl’s name–incompletely, the spelling half-forgotten. I searched for it on the internet. My first try was unsuccessful; on the second, I added ‘Brooklyn’ and tried again. I found her: she had been fifteen years old, killed in an accident on a New Jersey highway while traveling with her parents. The family car had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Her parents and her sibling were grievously injured; she had been ‘pronounced dead on the scene.’ The picture of devastation was now complete. A family ruined, left to grieve, to mourn the premature ending of their nearest and dearest.

The news article that had come up on my search was utterly nondescript; the kind I see on a daily basis, listing the dead somewhere, killed somehow. Perhaps by murder, perhaps by war, perhaps by natural disaster. But that memorial, those pictures, those notes, those sobbing students, those candles, those flowers, they had made this death–of a complete stranger–that much more familiar.

I walked on. There it was again, the altar of remembrance, now moved to the entrance of the school, next to a legend that spoke of how she would never be forgotten. I stopped again, looked at more pictures, read some more notes. Then, I felt that same irritation in my eyes and I moved on.