When I was a sophomore in college, I became obsessed with the vanity of human existence. As with extremists and polemicists before me, the Bible became the sword I would wield to prove my point. I would quote the Preacher from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” I asked my music professor Elizabeth Blettner to advise an annual thesis paper I wanted to write on the subject. She worked with me over the course of the spring on the paper. An essay that would have otherwise taken the darkest view on the human condition and the futility of human action became, instead, under her influence, a thoughtful meditation on the balance in life. In our conversations, she was terribly enthusiastic about Ecclesiastes’ other well known maxim, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” and pointed to how things in the world were seemly and related to the whole, when perceived with Wisdom, and were, for that reason, beautiful. She pointed out that Vanity in Ecclesiastes could be weighed against the value of Wisdom, “the Tree of Life,” in Proverbs. With her guidance, I wrote an essay that made clear that the Preacher was right that the risk of vanity and folly in life were overwhelming but that by turning life into a struggle to achieve Wisdom and Truth we can stay out of the “shadows of vanity” and “choose life over death.”
Ms. Blettner, with whom I had not spoken since leaving college more than a decade ago and who died earlier this year, appeared to my nineteen year old eyes to be living the proposition that she convinced me of and which concluded my paper. I got to know her – though only as a teacher – over a year of the most intense and sublime hours of my life sitting in her music tutorial, listening to Mozart, Bach, and Schubert. She was odd and old fashioned, with long elaborate dresses, thick grey hair worn in long braids under a kerchief, and frequently wearing either a nervous or troubled expression. But that look was sometimes quickly replaced by a smile that hinted at both mischief and ecstasy when things, a note of music or a comment from a student, came at the right time, showed that the stars were aligned and that the world (at least of her classroom) reflected some greater order. For my part, I was a high school dropout who had only a year or so earlier opted for drug rehab to avoid juvenile prison, whose admission to this college, the only one that would have him, shocked his parents and reflected the moral commitment of the college to accept anyone who applied and to use books and ideas to transform them into better people. Given our contrast, and the fact that she appeared to me to be some kind of mystic or angel, the attention that she gave to me, both on my paper and in class, felt more like spiritual guidance than education. We would listen to a Mozart piano sonata, two or three times, and she would point things out but would be coy about what she saw as most significant, and you would speak up, point out the repeating patterns, that it began and ended in the same place, how some small part of it related to the whole, or how it all related to some other bigger whole, and she became bright like the sun with joy because she loved so dearly small things that reflected the whole, things that begin and end in similar places. When you are a lost teenager, when the world of music, art, and beauty offer salvation, you grow towards that light, you hope it shines on you, and you bask in it when it does.
In my time with Ms. Blettner, she would say little things about her life, about studying philosophy in the mountains at Penn State, about her niece – her “namesake,” and she would be unable to repress certain views – like her shock when I was taking notes in margins of my Bible as though it were any other book. But every minute she spent with me, whether she was talking about Mozart, the Bible, or political squabbles in the music department, made me believe that maybe I was a good person, something that I seriously doubted (even more than I doubted the goodness of the bigger world), and that I could follow truth and beauty and avoid the snares of ignorance and vanity. She seemed so good, so full of truth, and she seemed invested in me and my thoughts. So I must not be all that bad, I hoped.
Though Ms. Blettner has not been in my life for a long while, her influence had deep marks on my daily life. Many of the things that I enjoy most, that cast away vice and vanity and make life worth living, are things that I learned from her. For me, works like Mozart’s Magic Flute or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion remain powerful responses to the Preacher inside me.
I have heard that the last month of Ms. Blettner’s life was filled with music and singing from her guests – former students and colleagues – who visited her at her hospice. I suspect many of the pieces that she taught us were played, as they have been in my home. In memorial, I resolved to someday teach these same pieces to my daughter, now one year old, and look forward to smiling excitedly when she finds something special or beautiful for herself in an opera or a piano sonata that I first heard with Ms. Blettner. And if she could see it, I am sure that she too would smile at how her end was a beginning for another and how all these little parts of life relate seamlessly to some glorious and beautiful whole.