Sunday, September 11, 2011

Music Where It Least (and Most) Belongs

There was a single black roach creeping along the whitewashed concrete walls of my dorm room like a brooding villain. I thought that would be the worst thing that happened that day. I thought wrong. Gulping down coffee, I rushed off to my first class, World Music. A little beacon of beauty and strangeness in the midst of a mundane schedule of chem labs. As I entered the room, the air was somehow different than before. Was it colder? Not temperature-wise, but there was something chilling to the silence. It was somehow frozen – stiller, without the usual murmurings of sleepy students and rustlings of bags and papers. I took my seat, in the front (because that's often where the left-handed desks were to be found), and joined the uneasy stillness. My professor looked at us with a look that could break your heart in one glance, full of oceans of sorrow and waterfalls of confusion, the eyes of a grieving mother.

Slowly, deliberately, with the same measured monotone of words like “She's gone” and “There was an accident...”, she told us that planes had been hijacked and flown into buildings. Two planes, two buildings. The twin towers, in New York City. I struggled to take in this information, like I had just been told the earth was flat or gravity decided to take a break. I couldn't comprehend it. She said that, for the moment, we would have to stay in our classroom, until it was confirmed safe enough to leave. Now the silence took on a forced quality, like we had all forgotten what it was to speak. Wondered if we'd ever spoken before. She said that she didn't know any more details or why it happened. I can't imagine what it would've been like to be in that professor's shoes that day. She had the grueling job of conveying unimaginably terrible news, and then she had to sit with us, and with the living thing that was the uneasy silence, and wait. For what? Wait for the news that it was a hoax? Wait for the news that other places across the nation – even our own – were under attack too? Perhaps that waiting is not unlike waiting for the call from the doctor, or waiting for the loved one who should've been home hours ago to turn the key in the door and shuffle down the hallway. We were forced to wait, together. The days of smalltalk and surface-level conversation left us unprepared for the intimacy of that waiting moment. But my professor, that woman with the grieving eyes, did the only thing that could be done in that moment: she put on music.

She filled the tumultuous silence that was laden with our unspoken questions with the most beautiful music ever composed, with Bach, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky. Suddenly the tears that had been waiting behind all of our eyes were freed. We wept together, silently, and let the music wash over us. It did not answer our questions of why and how and who, but instead called us to lay them aside for a moment and breathe, listen, become one with the music and with one another. Because in the waiting for greater agony or relief, that's all that can be done: breathe, listen for echoes of faint or overwhelming music, become one with each other, with God, with ourselves. 

The music took us from the habitual, impersonal surface-level relationship to the deepest of intimacy in a second. I imagine the grief did that, too. But the music opened us up to our grief and the professor, well, she opened us up to the music. So in that moment, before the television would replay the horrific scene of 9/11 over and over like it was some great football touchdown or viral Youtube video, before the impulse of revenge was indulged and we were all too raw to see another way, before our national grief gave way to the mental-internment of Muslims and those from the Middle East, before we would be shaken to our very core and built up by the stories of bravery and courage of ordinary people, there was the music.

Much worse things happened that September day than a roach crawling on the wall. But I give thanks to God for that professor who, with a heart full of music did only what came naturally, and let it overflow onto all of us. Not even remembering her name, I won't forget her kindness. Her courage. Her watery eyes. Her ability to take the most terrifying events and respond with what she loved most: music.  May God give me the same conviction to respond to the deepest of hatred with the deepest of love.


WomanistR said...

Hi Whitney,

Thanks for your post. Music can so often bring perspective and healing.


Whitney said...

Hi Marcia,

Thanks for reading. Music was exactly what I needed that day (and most days, really). Am so grateful for my time at CTS and your wisdom. I find myself, when saying the Apostles Creed, every now and then phrasing it "for thine is the kin-dom and the power and the glory..." Hope you are well.