One of my favorite poets is the Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson who once wrote a poem in which he imagined the world before Bach. While I’m no literary critic I’ll venture the opinion that for millions of people Johann Sebastian Bach is a secret friend, the friend we carry inside ourselves, the one who brings us warmth when we think of him. In this way, Bach is also a venerated ancestor. In the world before Bach there was, the poet tells us, no sound of love, only strong dogs barking, blades of skates on ice, a shell resounding in a child’s ear, but nothing of uplift.
I think about this scenario quite often while walking my guide dog. We love each other. But with Bach, I have this remarkable hidden association filled with kindnesses. I am, as Gustafsson would say, in helpless love twined round.
In these terrible times, a time of racist policing, COVID mismanagement, in these days of fracture, please walk your dog and listen to Bach. If you have no dog, rescue one. If you’ve no Bach, download him. I recommend the Trio Sonata in D.
Now, why is this about disability? For one thing, disability is never what the non-disabled suppose. If you see me riding a bus with my guide dog perhaps you’ll imagine I have a bleached life, a sad existence. Ah but inside I’m thinking about the A Minor Partita with its black hills and its winding river. I’m thinking how on that river float baskets of bread.
Once when I taught at The Ohio State University I climbed aboard a bus fresh from a meeting that included the late Senator and astronaut John Glenn. He has a named institute at the university. We’d been talking about the future of digital technology in research and teaching. It was a superb roundtable. On the bus sitting down with my dog safely tucked under the seat a woman approached me and said loudly, “I’d like to pray for you!”
I engaged in a little bit of street theater. I stood up and exhorted everyone on the bus to help me pray for all of humanity. I was like a carnival barker. I said each of us has a hidden illness, a grief unsharable, sorrows beyond counting and we should all join hands and pray together.
The woman got off the bus at the next stop. Some folks understood what I’d done. Some applauded.
I am not a suffering man unless we admit this is a high gravity world for all of us. So today the sidekick you’ll see is guide dog Caitlyn from Guiding Eyes.
The one you don’t see is the soul behind the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Go get some Bach.
If you can manage it get some noise-canceling headphones.
I recommend the unaccompanied cellos suites as performed by Yo-Yo Ma.