In music, a grace note is a small addition, unnecessary, an embellishment. I’m struck by what might be a larger meaning of the phrase – a note, word, or action that is graceful, in this sense, full of grace. It isn’t easy to pin down what we mean by grace, unless we’re speaking specifically of gifts from the divine, or of physical finesse, but we intuit that something about grace is freely given, that it arrives without conditions or limitations.
I have to back into the reflection on what I think is the act of grace that inspired Barbara and Jenna Bush, sisters who grew up in the White House, to write to Malia and Sasha Obama. I’ll come back to the Bushes and Obamas, but, given the complexity of grace, I have to retreat to an experience I can describe in order to find language that is useful in responding to the sisters. Not surprisingly, I found it at the movies.
I watched Swing Time (1936) for the eleventh time last night. It’s viewing comfort food for me; no matter what else is clumsy in my day, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bounce me back with their first number. Astaire has fallen for Rogers after a chance meeting, signs up for lessons at the dance studio in which she is an instructor, and pretends to be an awkward beginning student. Rogers encourages her dance-disabled pupil, singing a lovely tune which Astaire would later record. Written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, “Pick Yourself Up”is a charming description of resilience and grit.
“Nothing’s impossible I have found.
When my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
And start all over again.”
Their duet is more than enough to mend any fissures in my character I might have discovered in the course of the day, but it is followed by a remarkable sequence in which Astaire reveals himself as a dancer. He’s breathtakingly adept, of course, moving with easy energy and all the elements of style that made him the model of gentlemanly elegance. In this number, as in his best numbers, he’s also playful. Shot in a single take, as Astaire insisted his dancing be filmed, the scene is suffused with joy. These two dancers may not necessarily be in love with each other, but they are in love with dancing, and they let us in on that romance.
I used the word, clumsy, earlier to describe a day with rough edges, slightly frayed, and awkward. I’m often clumsy as well, not only physically but my interaction with the world and the humans who inhabit it. I can’t find a description of Fred Astaire that does not include the word grace or graceful, and without going into every dance number the man performed, I’m going to argue that in watching Astaire, I have come to believe that grace derives, at least in part, from joy and generosity of spirit.
That’s the detour I had to take in order to write about Barbara, Jenna, Malia, and Sasha. For all the talk of finding the center, mending the political fabric, coming together, as a nation we remain partisan, self-protective, clumsy.We seem to be short on both joy and generosity of spirit at the moment; I’m determined to celebrate grace when it comes around.
The Bush presidency and the Obama presidency could not be more dissimilar, in substance and in style, but the experience of being the children in the White House is an experience that these Bushes and Obamas share; we can only guess that their years as presidential children were in equal measure glamorous and terrifying.
There are some lovely moments in the Bushes’ letter. They remind Malia and Sasha of sliding down the bannister to the solarium, remembering their own laughter as they slid with the younger girls, and they remind the girls of the services done for them by people who, as the Bushes put it, “…put their lives on hold for us.”
We on the outside have heard a bit about the challenges of raising kids in a bizarre and entirely public setting, intensely scrutinized and ever aware of danger. A school day begins as a convoy of armed security forces travel to a first period class; no public appearance is free of the memory of the Kennedy family in Dallas. How a parent manages anything like a normal life in these circumstances is beyond me, and yet, both sets of parents managed somehow.
The distance between an ordinary childhood and that which both sets of sisters have seen is clear in the final paragraph:
You have lived through the unbelievable pressure of the White House. You have listened to harsh criticism of your parents by people who had never even met them. You stood by as your precious parents were reduced to headlines. Your parents, who put you first and who not only showed you but gave you the world. As always, they will be rooting for you as you begin your next chapter. And so will we.
Washington is chock full of speech writers and spin doctors; most of what we read is crafted and massaged so as to avoid giving offense. I hear real people in this letter, authentic people who know what it is to have parents reduced to headlines. Spin doctors don’t use phrases such as “people who has never even met them” or “precious parents”; these are not elegant phrases, but they are graceful because their intention is to freely give Malia and Sasha a gift.
The time for trading boastful slogans had passed, and I have never been one for slogans in any case. What I think we need are grace notes, a few unnecessary lovely acts of generosity; this graceful letter, sisters-to-sisters, is exactly what I needed to push-off into a complicated world again.
OK, there’s work to be done and promises to keep; time to start humming: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”