Thea Kronborg, Willa Cather’s opera diva in the novel The Song of the Lark travels the world from her small Colorado town to Chicago, New York, Dresden. At one point, Thea finds herself in the desert of the American Southwest where she is recuperating from illness, and isolated, she walks among ancient ruins, meditating, ruminating.
The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—the life hurrying past us and running away, too sweet to lose? The Indian woman had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream…
The novel is a love song to the artist.
Many years ago, a fellow musician and dear friend of mine Pat Crumpley placed this book in my hands as we browsed the shelves of a midtown Manhattan bookstore. I read Thea’s journey, followed by Beryl Markhams’s in West with the Night, and layered these readings with all I understood up to then about music making, art, creativity—as I had been shepherded by Jan DeGaetani, my voice teacher at the Eastman School of Music. In one brief period, as an undergraduate at Eastman and the several unclear, tumultuous years following, I met these women of art and integrity and grit who sojourned, created, lived fully. Who wrote. As Jan did.
These particular words—the stream and the broken pottery—returned to me in the original typed pages of book quotes I found among Jan’s papers in the attic of her beloved Phil West’s home. I found them again last winter when I embarked on (for the second time) this book project: a literary nonfiction telling of Jan’s art and life and legacy. She read Cather. She found these words important enough to type out and keep close. She chose these particular lines. Because they meant something to her. Because she understood. She meditated. Ruminated.
I lived in the desert once for nearly 6 years. I birthed myself as writer there and mother when Sam came barreling into our lives; he’s 20 now. After all these years, I am still writing. Everything I’ve done since my days with Jan at Eastman, I’ve done because of her teachings, her influence. Today, as I re-read Cather’s words, I know, yes, this is what I’m trying to do: catch Jan in my own words, make a vessel.
And I am journeying. Three days ago, I landed here at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont where I will live for one month and work on this book. (Thank you, VSC). Then, I take to the road, driving from coast to coast and back again. To finish my research, to connect with family and friends. To meditate, ruminate. Know.
This is a challenging yet hopeful moment in my life. After 29 years of marriage, Brian and I have separated for what will come to a year by the time I return to our home in southern New Hampshire next spring. I’ve never written a blog. But I realized recently, I want to. I want to share where I go, what happens, what more I discover about Jan, about myself.
Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School.
Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.