For our fourth post of nonfiction november, we are pleased to feature an essay on the symphonics and sorrow by Megan Kimble. Please enjoy!
sor⋅row (särō), n. 1. distress caused by loss, affliction, disappointment, etc.; grief sadness or regret. 2. a cause or occasion of grief or regret, as an affliction, a misfortune, or trouble: His first sorrow was the book failure. 3. the expression of grief, sadness, disappointment, or the like: muffled sorrow. –v.i. 4. to feel sorrow; grieve.
At 7:25 p.m., Cory and I slide past the elderly couple occupying L9 and L10, respectively, and sink into L11 and L12. As we settle in, I realize: not only are we the last to arrive, we are also, it seems, the youngest—the only heads of brown in a sea of white and grey.
We have donned our finest and come to the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concert to see the Vienna Piano Trio because Cory’s landlord, a board member of Friends, had offered Cory free tickets when he expressed interest. Why not? An excuse to dress up—a cultural outing rare for a Wednesday.
We settled in; we stopped our shuffling; I took one picture with my iPhone before folding under the consternated gaze of the woman to my right.
Bows on strings; arms askance, necks askew. A pounding piano, a scattering of keys. When the first movement ends, the musicians bow and leave the stage. Cory and I look at each other, confused; the rest of the audience, trained for this moment, claps. Thus beckoned, the musicians return to the stage and settled in for the second movement.
And with the second movement comes sorrow—it is unmistakable. When piano punctuates violin, when E flat major modulates C major, when the melody waits. The word likely wouldn’t have popped into my mind, save for this assignment. I would have simply thought, or said, or hovered on a thing called sadness.
In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an elderly couple travels on a train together. They are sad because they will soon die; they are happy because they are together. “The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.”
Of course, sorrow and sadness are not the same. Sorrow is that thing, whole—it is content and form. Sorrow depends on the two, the two in concert—a violin’s strings, plucked low; a piano’s key, hit high—wound together.
In Google Book’s Ngram Viewer—a searchable word frequency database—incidences of the word “sorrow” have fallen by nearly 75 percent since the early 1800s. Ngram has collected the “data” (words) from 5.2 million digitized books into a collective cultural archive of 500 billion words: the dictionary to end all dictionaries. (Although, it too, peaked in popularity, with a short burst of exuberantly analytical fame in late 2010.)
Perhaps it is because sorrow “implies a long term state,” writes Anna Wierzbicka in Emotions across Languages and Cultures. “Sorrow—but not unhappiness—suggests a degree of resignation…which lends sorrow its peculiar air of dignity.” Sorrow is sadness dressed in cocktail attire, waiting to be driven home after the piano concert. Resignation is a quality that ages well—that arrives with age—and so, perhaps, too, is sorrow. Sorrow is sadness without youth’s fight—without belief in difference, change, movement (a quality we sometimes call “naïve.”)
When violin punctures cello, when C major repeats, when the melody repeats, we are offered a glimpse of lightness, a way out from under the weight. Youth believes the glimpse will widen. Sorrow suggests lightness as the anomaly.
After the second movement, after the musicians repeat the inexplicable bow, exit, and return, the third movement ends in intermission. After intermission, the musicians settle in—they don’t leave the stage again.
I begin to think of age. Of what it might feel like when I am contained in a slower, older, greyer body. Sorrow sounds—looks, even—old. It leans forward, o lilting into w which leans into an echo. (Sorrow-o-o-o.) When I think of sorrow, I think of morrow—parting is such sweet. A soul laden with.
When we leave, Cory and I compare notes. How we are and how we were, then, submerged in sound. After intermission, we’d both leaned forward in our seats, chin in hand—the only ones in the room reaching towards the stage in such a stance. My body relaxed, forgot itself, and my mind had meandered from memory to memory, each tumble of notes pushing it in a different direction—up and down, dark into light, water wearing on smooth stones, questions of past, uncertainty of future.
If sorrow has gone out of style—in our culture, happiness is expected to exist without sadness’s bound—then perhaps for the same reason, the symphony has, too. I don’t think you are supposed to lean forward in your seat—to press against the low-pitched darkness, to believe—to hope—that when C major modulates E major that the higher of the two pitches will prevail.
Megan Kimble lives in Tucson, where she works as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local foods magazine serving Tucson and the borderlands. She is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, and her articles and essays have appeared in High Country News, The Bellevue Literary Review, Sage Magazine, and Gulf Coast. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing nonfiction from the University of Arizona and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.