dear hilary: the bass notes

Dear Hilary,

I know that my life is littered with problems only a privileged few could complain about. I know that I’m not really complaining about what is worth complaining – and I tell myself as I peel the parsnips and chop onions for some vegetarian thing I am convinced I should eat because it would be good for me, that I shouldn’t be feeling so confused and lonely and irritated as I do. But I want to know – I’m hungry to know – what is the point of the sadness? Is it okay to feel sad, even if there isn’t a good reason?

Peeling the parsnips

Dear Peeling,

Hey there, hon. Before we go any further down this road, I need to tell you first just a yes. A yes as you chop and peel and worry and scream to loud or soft music or kiss random strangers in a subway car or wish you were kissing them or eat vegetarian or Five Guys burgers. Yes. It is okay to feel what you feel.

Permission is not a thing we should seek for our emotions. That’s a lie that we’ve been taught – that we need to ask first before we allow our hearts to keel over with the things they’re already carrying. They are what they carry; permission is irrelevant. So you, rich in love or money or college degrees, poor in clarity or money or college degrees, mixed up between them all, you must give yourself more breathing room. Chuck permission – the question of “is it okay to feel…” right out the window.

Let’s start where you are: you feel sad.

You peel the parsnips – a beautiful sounding phrase, love – and you are lonely. And it simply does not matter one bit if I tell you that I am peeling potatoes, another person is chopping lettuce, and three other people are eating ice cream straight from the carton – and that we are all, in our own ways, feeling the pull and dip and gravity of sadness. That we, too, wonder about what is ahead, or what we have just emerged from, or what we are sitting in right now. When you feel loneliness, I do not think that you can comfort yourself out of it. No amount of “solidarity!” or “we’re in it with you!” or “buck up it’s not that bad!” will help.

What will help is to keep peeling the parsnips.

What will help is to ask your lonely, your confusion, your unidentified emotions, to pull up a chair as you work. Don’t ask them to say everything – just allow them to accompany you in the midst of your daily life. Invite them to sit with you in a coffee shop or gaze at a sunset on your drive home. Ask them to play Switchfoot’s “Where I Belong” on repeat. Wander up and down the grocery store aisles with them. They are not against you.

They are, instead, the bass notes. 

In good music, we listen first for the melody – for the soaring notes, for the lingering treble. We pick out the main theme and wait for it as it darts between other notes. We think of the song, and we hum that line.

But in most music, love, there are the bass notes. These are sometimes sweet and soft, sometimes insistent, sometimes fiery, sometimes desperate, sometimes lonely. The bass notes hold the melody. They deepen it and give it a new shape.

I think that this is what your sadness, the things that you complain about but wish you didn’t – is, at its root. It is the bass line of your song. It is deepening work, these nights of peeling parsnips and sitting with loneliness. It makes your melody a fuller story, in a way that nothing else could.

That is the miracle of the bass notes: though they go often unnoticed, they do remarkable things. 

So I urge you – wherever your days take you, remind yourself: some days I will sing the bass notes. Some days I will build the song of my life in the deep and difficult things. Peel the parsnips, and love the bass notes.

The song could not be so good without them. 



2 thoughts on “dear hilary: the bass notes

  1. “Peeling the parsnips” is, indeed, a wonderful phrase.
    I like your analogy, of sadness being the bass notes. I would ask: what is the alto line? And, if I follow your analogy, then I look for and notice and remember the sadness. I LOVE the bass line, and have for a long time. I listen for it. I hum it, an octave or two too high. I make one up if it’s not there. I’ve often said that a choir doesn’t sound right without the basses. No music quite does. If I apply that to your lovely analogy, what does that say about me, I wonder?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s