Knowing When to Walk Away

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Out to Pastoral

by John Idol

John IdolHILLSBOROUGH, NC—(Weekly Hubris)—9/13/10—That last infirmity of a noble mind, the keenly felt need for fame, or continuing glory, keeps many performers, athletes, actors, writers, politicians, what have you, clinging to roles they are no longer fit to play. Stepping aside, knowing when to walk away, can be tough. Pride dies hard. Hope lingers long. Renewal is rare.

I’ve suffered vicariously many times, a condition most often brought on by some athlete, actor, politician, writer, in short anyone who hangs around too long and tarnishes his or her glory. I easily slip into the shoes of persons wanting to keep on keeping on when they no longer have the right stuff. And those shoes, in time, truly pinch.

Images of an aging Joe Louis, Hank Aaron in a Milwaukee uniform, Strom Thurmond or Robert Byrd on the Senate floor, Judy Garland on stage, John Wayne on screen, Ernest Hemingway in print flash through my mind when I think of persons who couldn’t walk away.

There are many more I could add.

More painful than any of these images of celebrated persons are recollections of teachers who refused to cast aside their grimy lecture notes and yield their posts to a new generation of professors. I offer a single but telling incident by way of example. In one of my graduate courses, a classmate asked the professor if he had read any stories by Flannery O’Connor. “No,” replied the teacher, “I’ve never read any of his stuff.” The class was embarrassed for their aging mentor. Around the classroom, many hands quickly rose to conceal suppressed guffaws. The inquiring student kindly corrected our prof by saying, “The story I like best by her is ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’”

My decision to retire early, at 63, came partly because some lecture notes showed grime, some names of new authors coming along meant nothing to me because I hadn’t opened any of their works, and the spark and excitement of dealing with young minds had given way to my yearning to write what I wanted to write, read what I wanted to read (not the latest criticism or literary theories), and renew my acquaintance with works I had not revisited for 30 or 40 years.

Walking away from the college classroom left me with few regrets, perhaps because I began, on my own terms, a second teaching career. For Duke University’s program for retirees and for special interest classes at the Chapel Hill Senior Citizens’ Center, I returned to the lectern, experiencing as I did so the most fulfilling times of my teaching career.

The courses I offered let me reacquaint myself with favorite writers, the Metaphysicals, Hawthorne, Wolfe, Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Kate Chopin, and Mark Twain. The physicians, engineers, teachers, lawyers, and other retired professionals in my classes eagerly read, enjoyed discussion, and often pushed beyond assigned readings because they had time to read, think, enjoy, and welcome a new voice among their literary acquaintances. More important, they enrolled out of choice, not requirement. They were fun to teach and, for a dozen years, I shared their excitement and pleasure.

Still, for all that, it was time for me to walk again. The moving hand was moving even faster now as I tallied up what I’d written and compared the total to what I’d envisioned when I left Clemson. Books I’d done, yes, one on Wolfe, one on four generations of my family, Blue Ridge Heritage, an award-winning family history, a compilation of essays on Hawthorne and women, and two as editor of some heretofore unpublished Wolfe pieces.

Time had come, I realized, to walk again. I was running out of time to run away from writing something that might live after me. The walk-away from scholarly writing was brisk.

Not so my walk away from choral singing, something I’d been at far longer than teaching, scholarly writing, and editing. Born into a family of singers, largely lovers and performers of gospel songs and hymns, I began singing as a child at Laurel Springs Baptist Church, moving to the back row of singers to join my grandfather as a bass when my voice changed. From singing in church, I eagerly joined my high school chorus and, after my stint in the USAF, I won a place as a second bass in Appalachian State University’s chorus.

Then came a hiatus when I went off to graduate school. Degrees finally in hand and courses launched at Clemson University, I began singing again, enjoying a run of nearly 25 years with the Foothills Community Chorus. Because of the then non-audition policy of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus, I had a seamless transition to the second bass section. For twelve of my 13-year stint with that group, I felt comfortable as a second bass. No one would have ranked my low notes with those of a Russian bass. Perhaps I should have hit the vodka bottle harder!

But troubling things were now happening to my voice. Though I could hit a low note, I couldn’t sustain it for the full count. Unwanted vibrato became an issue, and flats issuing from my mouth caused basses nearby to cup their ears to shield them from my sourness. I was embarrassing myself and disgusting them.

Time had come to walk again, but with much sadness. At our halftime break in rehearsing a Respighi nativity piece, I told the choir director I was dropping out. Without my having to give reasons, I’m sure she already knew I no longer cut it as a second bass.

Yet, as I walked to my car under a star-lit fall sky, I instantly felt an emptiness mingled with fantasy, a feeling much akin, I venture to say, to that of Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Robert Byrd, or anyone giving up something vital to their being. A loneliness suddenly enfolded me even as I fantasized besting a Russian basso profundo in a singing contest.

A parting lament went from something wordless and soundless to a melancholy solo expressing, in jumbled words and notes, the depth and height of my sadness. Walking away hurt, still hurts. Still, that last infirmity whispered in my ear, “Wouldn’t it be great, as you walk away, if you could hit, if not hold, that low note of Sarastro in The Magic Flute?”

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About John Idol

John Idol grew up in the Blue Ridge, attended Appalachian State University, served as an electronics technician in the United States Air Force, and took his advanced degrees in English at the University of Arkansas. He spent most of his years as a teacher at Clemson University, and held positions as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society (for which he served as editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review), and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. His books include studies of Wolfe, Hawthorne, and a family history, Blue Ridge Heritage. In retirement in Hillsborough, North Carolina, he takes delight in raising daffodils and ferns, and in promoting libraries. Idol hopes one day to awake to find that all parasitic deer and squirrels have wandered off with Dr. Doolittle. Author Photo: Lindsay K. Apple
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