Tenderly is one of my favorite words and not only because it rhymes with Pemberley.
Tend; tender; tenderness: the word and its variants, in keeping with one of its many meanings, is pliant. Even if we restrict ourselves to the adjective tender, leaving aside the noun and verb forms relating to payment, we find a wide range of different usages. Tender can refer to a subject’s judgment of an object’s softness (the meat is tender), and also to a subject’s judgment of her own sensitivity (the wound is tender). The word helps us characterize, in other words, our phenomenological experience of the world both from the outside in, and from the inside out, as it were. So too, of course, can the word tender refer to the orientation with which a subject encounters an object (tender feelings). But that is too cold a way of putting it. To have tender feelings towards an object is to draw it close.
The word has been playing in my mind today only because I listened to Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” this morning. I played it several times, in fact. It’s a song I find difficult to listen to only once.
My heart was full and I knew the song would give relief. I got into the car, turned on the engine, played the song, and sobbed heaving sobs.
The Redding version of the song triggers a very particular memory for me. Unusually, for me (because I am a reluctant theatre-goer except in the case of dance performances), it is a memory of watching a play. In 1994 I saw Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play “Road” at the Royal Court Theatre in London. “Road” is a dark, funny, devastatingly sad play in which a character called Scullery guides us in and out of various houses on the titular road, described simply as a road in a small Lancashire town. Over the course of the play, he introduces us to various characters, all of whom are trying to just make it through the night, aided by booze, sex, and storytelling, among other panaceas. It was staged, as I recall, very intimately, with the audience moving around as the action shifted between different locales.
It remains to this day perhaps the most affecting theatrical experience I’ve ever had. But, oddly, given this fact, I remember barely anything about the plot or the characters. Instead I remember mostly a mood … of aching longing, of grief, of disillusionment, of loss, of weariness, tempered by the succor of sharing those pangs with others … both the characters and the assembled audience.
The mood intensifies at the play’s climax, in which one of the characters plays a record for the rest as they are sitting around drinking. I just looked up the stage directions, and they describe exactly what I remember occurring:
“Silence. In the silence begins the slow crackling you always get with old records. The record is Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding. The volume is up very loud.”
The song plays in its entirety while the characters onstage, who are a bit drunk, listen. The play ends shortly afterwards.
It’s difficult to explain why it’s so poignant. Obviously, the song, in Redding’s version, is already poignant. But it works so strikingly in the context of the play that now, bizarrely, Cartwright’s bleak vision of Northern England in the 1980s forever inflects the way I hear the song.
This morning, after listening to the song and then driving home, I wanted soothing. If I had a cat, I would have picked it up and snuggled it. If my children had been home I would buried my face in their warm necks.
Lacking small creatures to draw close to me, I instead went to a hair salon to get my bangs trimmed. I recommend this highly as a cheap alternative to getting a massage if you need, yes, tending to. To stroke another’s hair is perhaps the most tender gesture I know. Being ministered to by a professional is not the same, of course, as a loved one stroking your hair, but it does, interestingly enough, confer some of the same feeling of being cared for.
It’s such a distinct and pleasing sensory experience: the snip snip of the scissors and the tickle of cut hair falling on one’s cheeks; the gush of warm air on closed eyelids as the hairdryer blows the fringe straight; and then, finally, the gentle tugging as the hairdresser fluffs and arranges the hair just so, surveys the view in the mirror and then runs her fingers through the hair one more time.
“There, now,” she says, softly.