Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lent: The Underground River


Lent has been bleak. I suppose that's how it should be: we're supposed to acquaint ourselves well with ashes -- with the taste of ashes, with becoming ashes. I've never been good at keeping up my prescribed penitential practices, especially where food is concerned; I've always felt as if giving up this or that food  was just too simple, too elementary, a mere beginner's step in the spiritual life, and that, since I don't have problems or obsessions or issues with food or drink, I'll just move on to the more advanced exercises, all of which shows, of course, exactly how warped I am by pride.

So this year I've been rigorous about, among other things, not eating between meals, and it's been surprisingly hard.  There's something so consoling about elevenses, or that late-afternoon bite of something -- so much so, in fact, that I've come to understand, this Lent, that turning to food has always been a way I've kept myself from crashing emotionally. This Lent, I've crashed.

I spend a good deal of time each day thinking about food, about certain tastes and textures, about how a bite of lemon pound-cake with a cup of black coffee at four o'clock, or a glass of flinty, ice-cold white wine an hour or so later, or even some peanut butter smeared on a saltine at midday, would make me feel. And I imagine that these things would make me feel resplendent, transformed, and would make life seem bright and gay, full of whispered possibilities. And then I shake myself awake and remind myself that this is food we're talking about -- ballast against hunger, disease, and death for most people in the world, and for most people far from delicious, much less redolent of fantasies and hopes -- and that building castles out of pound-cake is a distinctly First-World concern.

And then I think about the other things that I love, that I rely upon, that without which I would feel as if my life were truly a pile of shit. The main one is music. Slipping the Crooked Jades or one of Beethoven's late string quartets into my car CD player opens up worlds upon worlds for me as I drive through the bleak post-industrial landscape of my town; the music lends a warmth, a sort of hazy sheen to the phenomenal world, making what is often merely indifferent and sometimes hostile seem benevolent, making what's unendurable seem like a bad dream from which one will soon awake. But perhaps the world is not really so beautiful after all, and so I turn off the CD and navigate around the winter-cratered streets in silence.

And then I mourn, because, in these moments, it strikes me that everything I love is gone, or is going, and that everything good is disappearing from the world. The record of our earthly sojourn is one of loss. The annals of recorded sound, the smooth pages of poetry, are cries from beyond the grave, where we, too, are going, who knows when? "The curtain descends, everything ends/Too soon, too soon."


Sometimes I so envy our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They have ecstasy, they have fellowship. We have rubrics, and wandering in the dark, and spiritual dryness. They go from door to door in the ghetto and ask people what they need -- do they need a window fixed, a bag of groceries, maybe someone to pray with them? And then they do those things for and give those things to those complete strangers, those others, those neighbors. My mother used to do this with her church. As for us Catholics, we shun each other at Mass and then have arguments in each others' comboxes.

As I was waking up this morning, I mentioned to God that I'd given up everything I loved for him. My old life, research, singing, travel, pretty clothes, intense friendships, fun, my beloved city, the feeling of being an expert, even an authority, at something. Having only two children means that I also have had to give up the happiness of babies after only a short time, and to move swiftly on to the difficulties of everything else, especially since both my children have medical needs. And adopting means always being aware of a former but unbridgeable pain and loss and wounding, and means praying, as I stumble around in the dark, that I might be able to assuage it, and realizing how impossible that is and how inadequate I am. However, since we don't generally have any of the ecstatic things, the waves of warmth and happiness, the mystical auditions, I got no response to any of this from God.

Lent always seems as if it goes on forever. It seems as if it will go on even after Easter is over. I've always thought that at some point, later on, in the future, everything will be settled and peaceful and good -- that one day the world which is hinted at in the music I so love will become apparent. But perhaps that will never happen, and we are all just headed down, into, as a character in a book I read put it, the underground river, from which there is no return and no going back.

One of Debussy's earliest songs is "Beau soir," with a text by Paul Bourget, which says, in translation:

When streams turn pink in the setting sun
And a slight shudder passes through the wheat fields,
A plea for happiness seems to rise out of all things
And mount up towards the troubled heart,

A plea to savor the charm of life

While one is young and the evening is fair:
For we are going away, like this wave is going away,
The wave to the sea, we to the grave.

I would like to have been able to add something to the annals of beauty, the record of loss, in my brief time here. I don't know if I will, but we must keep doing the work that's assigned to us each day.

Above: Pierre Bonnard, The Breakfast Room, 1930.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lenten Grocery Penances for Bourgeois Outcasts

At the evening Mass on Ash Wednesday I sat in the pew realizing that, for all my pushing away the truth of the matter, I am a failure. The proof could not have been starker -- here I was, sitting in my coat in an unheated church in the ghetto of a once-thriving, now-crumbling Rust Belt town, far away from all the things that, to my mind, had long defined not only my own life, but even life itself -- the things that had nurtured my belief that I was special, out of the ordinary, made for something important.

My older son was with me, half asleep in the pew. I shook him awake to get in line for ashes, and when it was his turn, the priest -- a gruff, stern, socially-awkward west African man with a heavy accent and a hortatory preaching style, who is known to have conflicts with some of his brother priests in the diocese and who has been mostly benignly ignored by our parishioners -- murmured to my son, as he daubed the ashes onto his brow, "Remember that you are dust, my brother. And to dust you shall return." I was struck by this entreaty; after all, Father didn't call me "my sister" -- and I mentioned to my son that Father's words to him were special. And I believe that they were, because Father loves my autistic son, and I heard his words as not only an exhortation, but also a greeting cast out across the chasm of loneliness, from one outcast to another. I recalled Father hearing my confession a couple of years ago, when I was still wallowing in my own sense of exile and loneliness (well, I still am), and I mentioned it to him; he said, "Oh, my sister. I understand." In loneliness, I became his sister. As outcasts, we were next of kin.


Of course, I've mentioned my feelings of isolation in my new hometown too many times to count. They stem from the obvious: I'm far away from home; my friends and family are at a significant remove. I can go through a day hardly seeing another adult except through the glass of my windshield; driving, while making my life incalculably better, has increased my sense of isolation, and also, I fear, my complacency. When I was still walking everywhere, I was forced to confront the poverty of my fellow walkers in the city; now I am safe from them.


Not that this place hasn't also forced me to confront my child-of-the-utopian-seventies notions about poverty, too. I have reached out to a couple of poor mothers here, and found their lives and their children's lives to be hobbled by the kind of disastrous decision-making that right-wing pundits like to rail about. But I have made disastrous decisions too. I think I know something about the fear and despair that drives people to cling to even the most harmful and toxic attachments, and I have seen that the lives of the poor are shot through with a loneliness much worse than my own.


I see now how we hold ourselves back, apart, and away from people who are not like us, and how I have done this, too. My singing was the thing that I imagined could keep me safe from the misery of broken human promises and relationships, and of stumbling and falling attempts at human love. I had something I could use to put up a wall of protection between me and the lives of utter loss and failure that are common to the poor women I have known: a key, a tool, an instrument, a wedge.


To counter this still-prevalent attitude in myself, I'm doing grocery penance for Lent again this year. I'm going shopping at Aldi's instead of Wegman's, for starters, and putting the price-point difference in our Lenten sacrifice Jar to buy formula for medically-fragile Chinese orphans. This means that I have to forego the smug sense of self-satisfaction that Wegman's lulls me into, the sense of being with other people like myself: clean, bourgeois, well-educated, able to pick out the freshest and most beautiful groceries in a warmly-lit, expansive space. Instead, I must stand out in the cold waiting, along with the gray-faced night-shift workers, the toothless, tubercularly-coughing women, and the lank-haired young mothers of children in dirty coats who ought to be in school, for Aldi's to open its doors and let us in to its boxy cheerlessness, to fill our rented carts with foods in knocked-off packaging (the Benton's graham cracker box looks so much like the Honey-Maid one, but just isn't), with brand names, like Cattlemen's Ranch and Happy Farms, both vaguely euphemistic and reminiscent of Chinese communism. 


And it also means that I have to strive to stop exalting myself, my knowledge, my gifts, and trying to use them to pry open the world to give me the things that I want, and to try instead to accept and desire being forgotten.


In "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," one of the songs he wrote to texts by the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, Mahler succeeded in creating a sense of stilled timelessness, of dying to self and to the world. The text says, in translation:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult
And I rest in a quiet realm.
I live alone in my heaven,
in my love and in my song.

May it be so, eventually, for all of us.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Catholics with ASD Children and the Pro-Life Movement [UPDATED]

I had the unusual experience a few months ago of having a former mentor contact me to ask me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. M. was a remarkable soprano a few years my senior; as a young singer, I assiduously tried to pattern myself after her. But because of a combination of forces -- one of the most intractable of which was a difficult family situation -- her career was not what it might have been. She eventually became the mother of a large family, got an advanced degree, and began working in another field. The graduate program she was applying to, however, was in music, and, though I hadn't heard her in years and wondered what the appeal of a performance degree could possibly be at this stage in her life, I was happy to write on her behalf, and delivered a sincere assessment of her numerous fine qualities as an artist, colleague, and friend.

We had been out of touch for a few years and, while working on the letter, I gradually learned that since we'd last spoken, two of her children had been institutionalized for Heller's Syndrome -- also known as Child Disintegrative Disorder or CDD -- one at the age of six. Once considered a distinct diagnosis, CDD is now, like Asperger's at the other end of the dial, rolled under the rubric of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM-5, the standard diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders. If CDD is indeed a cognitive disorder that falls on the autism spectrum, it seems like a particularly brutal and horrible manifestation one: the child develops perfectly normally until the age of three or four, and then loses not only speech, but every other acquired skill as well. At this age, children have some awareness of what is going on, and the affected ones are reported to have episodes of extreme terror -- perhaps because they are losing the ability to speak, to do, to comprehend -- before they shut down completely.

I don't know how one survives such a thing as a parent.

But it's not as if one can stop getting up in the morning.

I started thinking about what it's like, as a practicing Catholic (which M. is as well), to have a child with autism. My own son with autism is only mildly affected, especially relative to M.'s two CDD children, and living with him, in spite of some painful difficulties presented by his behavior, also brings its own kind of fulfillment and rewards. But I haven't experienced any support -- neither understanding smiles or kind words, nor extensions of friendship -- from my faith community. I've found it extremely hard to make friends with mothers of typical children, including those I meet at church, because my ASD son is so obviously different, and his behavior can be so disruptive, that people with the usual sort of children either withdraw, or simply don't extend themselves. (I've also received this response from progressive types, interestingly; it generally comes about after my son has gone along passing for normal for a time, and then suddenly does something egregious.)

While I've never seen mothers of children with autism embraced in pro-life Catholic (or any other) circles, mothers of children with Down Syndrome are very much celebrated in our community. Perhaps this lionization of DS mothers is based on the fact that, since prenatal testing can reveal the condition, and the law permits a choice of responses to it, in many cases the parents of DS children have consciously chosen life for these children, something that many in the wider culture do not do. So, if there were some kind of prenatal test that revealed autism in utero, and if mothers in these circumstances also "chose life" (which I would wager far fewer in the larger culture would do for autistic unborn children than they do even for DS), would these mothers find more support from Catholic mothers of typical children? I don't think so.

Children with Down Syndrome are generalized to be happy and loving, and even to have unique propensities for holiness; they are sentimentalized as "special" gifts from God for "special" parents. Children with autism are not. Children with Down Syndrome are welcomed, even celebrated, by people of faith; who can forget the near-hagiography surrounding Trig, the DS infant son of Sarah Palin, during the presidential campaign of 2008? Children with autism are not; in fact, when they are murdered by their parents, a chorus of voices generally arises to exonerate their killers. Children with Down Syndrome are viewed as sweet-natured, possessed of a unique sort of hidden wisdom, Holy Fools. Children with autism are . . . not. Even a beloved friend of mine, a faithful Catholic whom I respect and admire, told me that she would be happy to babysit for Jude, but not for my older son. (In her defense, she apologized immediately afterward, but I brooded about it for weeks.)

Even the panic over vaccines, and the increasing rates of vaccine refusal on the misguided ground that they cause autism -- and the vaccine-deniers cut through a cross-section of conservative and liberal -- underlines the point: no one wants a child with autism. Even in what we like to think of as the Catholic subculture -- the counterculture! -- the undergirding of our dominant American materialist-Calvinist culture bleeds through, and I suspect that parents of autistic children, and the children themselves, are seen to a certain degree as cursed by God, with an undercurrent of "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?"

If anyone looks at me, they have plenty of reason to confirm such a belief. I'm an egregious sinner. And my husband was in his forties when our autistic son was conceived, and there's a strong correlation between autism and paternal age. So people in our midst may breathe a sigh of relief if they have avoided our mistakes, or may congratulate themselves for their superior wisdom and virtue. They may even refuse vaccines. Perhaps they will thus be able to avoid both the very real difficulties and the very real loneliness of having children with autism. Or perhaps not. Who knows? But the persistent, underlying narrative, both in the larger world and in the subculture of faithful Catholics, is that autistic lives are less valuable, and far less desired, even than other disabled lives, and that if you get too close, some of it might rub off on you.

The Talmud suggests a prayer to be recited upon seeing a person who is disabled; perhaps it can be applied to people with autism as well, although they often do not appear different:

One who sees… an albino, or a giant, or a dwarf, or a person with dropsy, says ‘Blessed is He who made his creations different from one another.’ One who sees a person with missing limbs, or a blind person, or one with a flattened head, or a lame person, or one who suffers from boils or a person with a whitening skin complaint says, ‘Blessed is the true Judge.’ (Talmud Bavli Berachot 58b)

I do not expect to be celebrated by my co-religionists or anyone else for having an autistic child, but I would like not to be shunned. And I think that a real challenge at the heart of the pro-life movement is to formulate a loving response to the lives of those with disabilities, including the disabilities that are not immediately apparent, are not cuddly and inviting, and may not make you feel like a Good Person for embracing. For God is present in even the most disastrous of lives.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The South Wind

In spite of the fact that the cold of this winter seems to have etched itself into my bones, now that I can drive, I go all around in my own solipsistic, climate-controlled little realm, creating my own atmosphere with recorded music. Nonetheless, I have to be careful what I play, because there's a lot of music across genres that can make me cry, even bawl, which makes for unsafe driving. I had to pull over last week while listening to Sam Cooke singing "A Change is Gonna Come." 
But these past few days, I've been playing the same song over and over again as I drive: the eighteenth-century Irish song "The South Wind," sung by Jean Redpath, for which, sadly, there is no Youtube video, though this is a very nice instrumental rendition. 
The Jean Redpath version is on her album A Fine Song for Singing, and is accompanied by guitar, cello, and violin in a chamber-music-like setting. And it is transcendentally beautiful. The four parts evoke a conversation by turns charming, witty, and haunting, trading off the melody between them, with the violin in particular articulating a wide and subtle range of emotions. In the heart of a hard winter, hearing this song reconciles me to the possibility of a coming lightness, a kind of hope.
 
But I also hear the song, in these last few days, as a kind of accidental-but-apt encomium for the husband of a friend of mine who died suddenly last week. He was a beloved public school teacher, many of whose former students have said that he changed -- even saved -- their lives. His funeral was at an orthodox Jewish synagogue, and during it I found myself longing for the kind of warmth and community I've often noted among observant Jews, which seems so absent from Catholic life as I've known it (they have joy, mysticism, fellow-feeing, and an ethos of life in its fullness; and we have, it often seems, sourness, primness, division, and an ethos of life in its meanness. Why should this be? I've heard that it's the result of the Jansenism imported by the Irish clergy, and also that it's a Northern thing. But it's enough to make me sometimes feel like the Inuit seal-hunter who supposedly asked the missionary priest if he would go to hell if he didn't know about the truth of Christ. No, said the priest; the risk of hell was only for those who knew the truth, but chose to reject it. To which the hunter replied, Then why did you tell me?) 

Tonight I'm going to sit shiva with his family, including the adolescent daughter who has been an occasional voice student of mine. I've never been to a shiva before, but my understanding is that one goes to keep the mourners company, to be with them in their grief, to let them know that they are not alone (I wish we had a tradition like this!). I will bring them a platter of cookies, and also a copy of the Jean Redpath CD. The words of the song go, in part:

South wind of the gentle rain,
You banish winter weather,
Bring salmon to the pool again,
The bees among the heather.
If northward now you mean to blow
As you rustle soft above me,
Godspeed be with you as you go,
And a kiss for those that love me.

From south I come with velvet breeze;
My word all nature blesses;
I melt the snow and strew the leaves
With flowers and warm caresses.
I'll help you to dispel your woes,
With joy I'll take your greeting
And bear it to your loved Mayo
Upon my wings so fleeting.


I will pray that God will send solace to this family, and that, like the south wind, He will, some day in the future, coax the grief of this long winter slowly from their hearts.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Music and Memory, Part 31: In Defense of the Folk Mass

When I came back to the Catholic Church a little more than ten years ago, I discovered something I'd been ignorant of as a child of the aggiornamento: that is, the division, fragmentation, and opposition among the multifarious branches of the faithful. In my few childhood years in the church, the idea of disunion was not on my mind, of course, and I loved everything about going to Mass and Sunday school. I loved the colorful vestments, I loved the felt banners, and most of all, I loved the music.

As a returning adult woman, however, I discovered that there was, in fact, some division within the Mystical Body. I discovered orthodoxy, and, not long after, the New York orthodox Catholic subculture, which included not a few cape-wearing, pipe-smoking, Chesterton-quoting, never-marrying-though-apparently-uncalled-to-religious-life-albeit-heterosexual Traditionalist men (there wasn't any female equivalent of this type that I could see; perhaps the young women of the cohort were all married with children, and thus didn't have time to spend cultivating a countercultural image). And I learned that I was supposed to scorn and deride the aesthetic trappings of the New Mass, while not entirely rejecting the Mass itself:  I was supposed to hate the vestments, the banners, and most of all, the music.

The young orthodox Catholics I was now encountering, though they were too young to have experienced the old rite, claimed to have discerned from early childhood that these aesthetic trappings were almost entirely lacking in merit. And their scorn was reserved in a special way for postconciliar liturgical music. It went without saying that Gregorian chant was the mode of sung worship par excellence; even polyphony was viewed with a soupçon of moral suspicion (as it had been, too, in the 1590s by a group of Italian composers and men of letters who wanted to be able to understand the words, and who, as a result, succeeded in inventing opera).

This surprised me, because -- perhaps very much unlike you, dear reader -- I loved that music.  My babysitter used to play her guitar in the sanctuary, her long braids hanging down over the body of the instrument, and sing liturgical folksongs, some of which I suspect were of her own composition. I loved her. I loved her long hair. I loved her singing, and I loved what she sang. In fact, it was in order to emulate her that I first wanted to become a singer myself (she also taught me how to say the rosary, and told me about the many miracles of healing at the Church of Saint Anne de Beaupré in Quebec. Maryann McCarthy, where are you now?).

I'm no chant specialist. Even among musicologists, the real chant specialists are few and far between. Chant is a whole musicological world unto itself, and the work of the vast majority of music scholars is focused not on chant, but on the music of the common practice period. And the fact that there are few chant authorities even among musicologists and musicians with doctorates, makes it safe to assume that that guy in the Tyrolean hat who took you out for coffee after Mass and, after reminiscing about the Habsburg dynasty, trashed the priest from southeast Asia who came out to help distribute Communion because he bowed before the tabernacle instead of genuflecting, is not one, either. This doesn't mean that I don't love Gregorian chant, of course. And I would venture to say that I actually do know more about it than that guy, though it wasn't the focus of my doctoral studies.

Whenever I'm told by orthodox, Traditionalist, or even serious-and-faithful Catholics who are not necessarily culture warriors, however, that postconciliar liturgical music is heretical or a desecration, I imagine that they're waiting for me, with my doctorate in music, to nod my head vigorously and offer some kind of musicological proof of their point. But I don't, because I love that music, and not just out of sentimentality or nostalgia for lost childhood. Some of that music is good and effective qua liturgical music, and I think that it's probably crappy execution of it that makes educated listeners think the repertoire itself is crap. This hymn is a particular favorite of mine; I love the coda in the chorus: "We will find an open door THERE; we will find an open door," where the word "there" lingers between doubt and hope on the fourth degree of the scale before resolving, consolingly, to the tonic. I'm not being ironic here. I couldn't find a decent performance of it on Youtube, which underlines my point -- though church music is not really performance. But I do not think the liturgical music of the 1970s and 1980s is monolithic crap; not at all. I've disappointed many people by saying so, but those many probably also don't love Michael Jackson or the music of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (composed by Fred Rogers himself) the way that I do, either. And they should. At the risk of sounding hopelessly middlebrow, I will assert here that some of the music of aggiornamento is both beautiful and consoling. As Duke Ellington said, "If it sounds good . . . it is good."

I know I'm supposed to love music that is beautiful and reverent and old and serious and could be suitably transferred from the organ loft to the concert hall. And I do. But what's wrong with worshipping God with the simplicity of musical expression which is the extent to which most people are capable of producing musical sound and meaning? Our hearts and our tongues don't customarily address God in the language of the psalms, after all. The liturgical music of the 1970s that you think you're supposed to hate, or at least to laugh at, can be as much an ancillary or an inducement to worship, I believe, as can chant and Palestrina. We approach God in the Holy of Holies, yes. But we also have an everyday relationship with Him in which we accept and embrace His presence in the least dignified and the most mundane parts of our lives. There is a place, I would argue, for the hymns you hate: "for God is the simplest of all."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tear-Water Tea is Always Good, or Why I Write


This is a Catholic blog. But it's not a Catholic apologetics blog, or a Catholic-mommy blog, or even the kind of blog in which a charmingly self-deprecating, adorably-bumbling Catholic woman candidly reveals her missteps and foibles, only to show how, in the end, they reveal profound lessons of God's wisdom. I was chided once in the combox here (by a non-post-abortive woman, one of more than a few who have taken the opportunity, in the comboxes, to assure me that they would never do what I had done all those years ago) for setting a destructive example, with this blog, for other post-abortive women, presumably by not making it one of the blogs described above. And I've been advised by a respected friend that more people would read here if this blog didn't have its ethos of quietly-pervasive melancholy.

But that's okay with me. Unlike, I presume, most bloggers, I don't like to think that too many people are reading here; it makes me feel exposed. After one of my posts went bizarrely viral a couple of years ago, I canceled my occasional participation in a much more widely-read blog, because the attention was uncomfortable. I'm not interested in things like getting a book contract out of my writing here, which seems to be the logical next step for many of the Catholic bloggers I admire. I already have a book contract in real life, for a work based on my musicological research. But not only will few people who read this blog read that book (most of my readers don't know me by the name under which it will be published), but it's also likely that few people in the real world will read it. Again, that's okay with me. I want to finish writing the book in order to honor my commitment to the publisher, and also because I believe I have something original to say in my field that might be of use to other scholars. But there's more.

While I have neither any authority nor any ability as a theologian or apologist, nor as a mommy- or cute-hapless-chick-blogger, I'm an observer, a witness to the mundane life, a diarist of memory, and a noticer of beauty in unusual places. This blog is where I attempt to chronicle those things. My life has been, and is, very different from those of most of my blogger cohort, including those whom I consider my friends. Because of my background, my temperament, and in some measure my circumstances, I experience psychic pain, both chronic and acute, every day, and I don't really believe in neatly-tied-up endings, which makes this blog not only an anti-blogger-book-contract-getting kind of blog, but even, in some ways, exactly the kind of blog you don't want your search engine to turn up when you're looking for answers in the lonely middle of the night.

In Barbara Kingsolver's compelling novel The Lacuna, Harrison Shepherd, an aspiring writer working as a cook in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1930s Mexico, states his greatest wish: "To make something beautiful, that people would find very moving." I share that wish. I suppose that the reason I continue to write here when I have time is that I want to make sense of things, of my life, and of the world around me, and to pull some beauty out of it in the hope of moving some anonymous reader's heart.

This is why I love the story "Tear-Water Tea" in the easy-reader book Owl at Home, by the legendary Arnold Lobel.  In fact, it may be the perfect work of literature, because it describes what I think must be the true purpose of literature, and indeed of all the arts: to take what is mundane, sad, or even unbearable, and to make something consoling and useful out of it, if not something transcendent.

In the story, the childlike and solitary Owl, in his bathrobe and slippers, decides that it's the right sort of night for making tear-water tea. Aided by sad thoughts ("Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again . . . . pencils that are too short to use"), he proceeds to weep into his tea-kettle. When the kettle is full, he boils it for tea, saying, "It tastes a little bit salty . . . but tear-water tea is always good."

There's something reminiscent of a sacrament, I think, in the idea of tear-water tea, which uses the commonest, plainest, most mundane and intimate substance -- a substance whose association with suffering is inescapable -- to make something else, something comforting and curative. All true works of art, I suppose, are reflections, however pale, of that divine confection, the sacrament of God's mercy, made from materials which are worked by human hands. In my own small, particular, faltering, and anonymous way, I would like to reflect God's mercy here, in the hopes that it might be useful to someone else. That's why I write.

Merry Christmas to all of you, dear readers. I wish you a very happy new year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beauty: Let it Kill You

Heather King has linked to a very good essay by English pianist James Rhodes, published a few months ago in the Guardian, about the sacrifices, existential and ethical as well as physical and material, that Rhodes has made in order to be a musician. Rhodes writes (quite accurately, as any working classical musician or singer can tell you):

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching) . . . And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary.

The "and yet" part is one of the great, secret pleasures, I think, of any classical musician's life. There is a quiet but profound elation at opening a fresh piece of music and settling in to work. A young musician, to paraphrase Stanislavsky, practices his art because he loves to hear himself in it; but as you advance in that art, you begin to fall in love with practice itself. You come to love the protecting walls of even of the most moldy practice rooms, the ones with the broken piano benches, the missing ceiling tiles, and the garbage cans stuffed with half-full cups of deli coffee; such places become your kingdom of solitude, your secret laboratory, the place where you shuck off the shell of the mundane world and become better than you are. And you also come to love the methods, the process of taking apart a piece: phrase by phrase, working those phrases backwards, forwards, in triplets, in dotted rhythm, in reverse dotted rhythm, using different vowel sounds, in different keys, etc. Maybe the dawn of this very particular kind of love is one of the reasons classical musicians appear to exhibit more autistic traits than the general population.    

Using Rhodes's essay as a starting point, Heather suggests that the necessary sacrifices an artist makes -- the eschewing, or the loss, of love, financial security, success, and emotional stability -- can be a unique imitation of Christ:

If you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped apart...to let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting. . . . There is nothing more Catholic than letting ourselves be killed by love. 

Indeed, though one often hears platitudinous reassurances from teachers and mentors that you don't HAVE to to be unhappy to be an artist, one sometimes suspects that these mentors are just trying to stave off the ruining of their students' lives. Who are these happy artists our teachers allege exist? And do we admire them? Edvard Munch said, "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. . . .My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Conversely, Gustave Flaubert wrote:  "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

Beethoven is known to have been a difficult and not very nice guy who was at times wildly unhappy, unhappy to the point of suicide when he realized that his hearing loss would eventually be profound deafness. He wrote in 1802, in a letter found after his death which has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:


Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. . . . With joy I hasten towards death [but]  if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead.

To echo Heather's point, the sacrifice that Beethoven made in his terrible unhappiness -- the decision to forestall his own longed-for death and to continue living a life of suffering until he had brought out of himself all the beauty that he wanted to give to humanity -- is Christ-like. 

I'm not sure that great art and happiness are compatible, and, for the selfish reason that I get to be wrenched open by the  profound understanding of the human spirit that is evident in his playing, I'm rather glad that James Rhodes does not live a bourgeois life of comfort and forced good cheer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Consolations of Appalachia

The literary critic George Lukács defined the novel as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." I wonder sometimes whether, in my own small way, I am living in such a world. The winter has set in for good in my aging Rust Belt town, and the sky overhead, like the blighted landscape below, is every day an unrelentingly gray: an oppressive gray, a dull, gun-metal gray; not the kind of gray that's illuminated from behind by the sun, or the gray that seems redolent with mystery, or the gray that you know will blow away with the next strong breeze; or the gray that, even if it lingers, is mitigated by the hum and buzz of industry, endeavor, and human interaction. There were gray winters in New York, too, of course, but Petula Clark wasn't lying when she suggested that "When you're alone and life is making you lonely/You can always go downtown," because, there, you're liable to meet "someone who is just like you."


In spite of the fact that I've been here for five -- five! -- years already, I still feel that lack, that inability to meet who Anne of Green Gables would have called a kindred spirit -- that dearth, in fact, of someones who are just like me. Maybe they exist, but I would never know where to find them here. In New York, of course, you don't have to look far. You're bound, by the sheer volume of people, to meet many semblables. But I need to keep reminding myself that your friends don't have to be just like you.

Nonetheless, even though I've been here for five years already, my heart still leaps into my throat sometimes when I speak or hear the name of the city where I now live. How can it be that I live here? I think to myself. It sometimes seems like everything has conspired to humble me, even to chide me, for imagining that I could ever do important things. Will I die here? I wonder. Will the fire that burns in my heart be extinguished here, in total obscurity, in a forgotten backwater full of people who are sad, sick, and poor?  Will I never be able to bring forth anything beautiful?

And, my own loneliness and yearning notwithstanding, every day young single mothers from my old city and my old borough climb off the Greyhound bus here, their little children and a few shopping bags of belongings in tow. And some of them, I know for a fact, weep tears of relief when they arrive in this place about which I try very hard to remain neutral, grateful for the chance to leave behind the danger and despair of their lives in New York and to do right by their children. And with very good reason.

A few weeks ago I was actually back in New York for a semi-important gig. Remarkably, these still come my way once in a while, and I usually take them if the pay is reasonable and they don't disrupt my life or the lives of my family members too much, although they usually involve a lot of driving in the dark to get home as soon as possible afterwards. Doing school drop-off the morning after a concert on scanty sleep, my professionally-styled gig hair and traces of stage make-up are the only evidence that I've just come from a "real" place, doing what I think I "really" do, living for a day or two what I used to think of as my "real" life. And the fact is that my real life in that real place is no longer real. When I try to remember everything -- the years and years of memory accreted like layers of sediment, the smells and the sounds, the way the light looked -- it's almost as if a wall of smoke, of fog, stands between me and the person I was and the place in which I felt myself to be so deeply and intrinsically rooted.

I spend a lot of time in my car now, which is a very strange experience -- the sense of ploughing forcefully through a world that's hostile or at least indifferent, observing everything and yet removed, encased in the protective shell of my own atmosphere, is so different from the multi-sensory engagement, and the vulnerability, of being out on the street in a scrum of your fellow men. I have to say that it's cool to drive -- and even that I love my new used car, a Subaru Outback -- but I don't like the way that it's supplanted being in the greater world, and I find it hard to accept that this ethos of driving around is one of the defining aspects of middle-class American life.

One of the few random amazing things about this place though, is the libraries. There are four contiguous municipalities here that bleed into each other, but have their own separate governments, and each has its own library, and each of these libraries is a wonderful place, a haven, in a different way. I drive around to all of them, usually hitting two or more in a week. I love to go to the various children's rooms by myself, because I love to read children's books, and each library's children's room is bigger and better-stocked than my entire old branch library in the Bronx. And each library has discard tables that are veritable treasure troves, mainly for the kind of out-of-print children's books that I love. Some of the many books I've bought for a quarter have not been out-of-print, just inexplicably neglected and thrown away, like a new-looking copy of Maira Kalman's Fireboat, and a whole stack of books by Tana Hoban, which are among my favorites. My breath catches in my throat when I look at her photographs, so full of mystery, and suggestive of the strangeness and beauty hidden in the most mundane things (a picture from her book So Many Circles, So Many Squares, a library-discard-table glean, is above). Just the other day, for the combined price of forty cents, I picked up the following: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt; 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 1-12; a beautifully-illustrated children's biography of J.S. Bach from the 1960s; the January 2011 edition of the PMLA journal; and the "brief edition" (still four-hundred-plus pages) of the standard college music textbook Listen!

So, while haunting the public libraries here is one of my favorite things to do, it's an activity carried out in solitude (I shun the children's story hours, because they're way too noisy and frenetic for me, let alone for my children), and it reinforces my own solitude. But while I drive to the libraries, I often listen to Beethoven's Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, whose first movement never fails to astonish me and fill me with delight, as it coalesces out of a tentative, fearful darkness and into triumphant joy. I wish I knew a way to bring that joy out of my car and onto these gray streets.

(If you play the clip below, do pay special attention to the ABSOLUTE GLORIOUS WONDER of Beethoven's writing for woodwinds, specifically for the solo woodwind quintet -- the way that he lifts it out of the structure of the symphony for a few measures, and allows each of the wind instruments' voices to come forward as they twine together in their finely-woven texture. I think that Beethoven, in all his large-scale works, gave the music of consolation to the woodwinds).

Friday, November 22, 2013

For Saint Cecilia's Day: The Secret Lives of Singers

The fact is, the business has changed a lot in the past few years. Singers with A-house credits take roles at regional companies to fill in their schedule gaps; instead of hiring established professionals for smaller roles, companies will often use students or locals who may be less experienced in order to save money; seasons and runs are both shorter; very few companies doublecast anymore. Many of my colleagues who sing leading roles and have many major credits have expressed nervousness over the fact that opera companies aren't hiring as far in advance as they have been used to. It's scary when you have a family to support and bills coming due, and your engagement calendar looms empty six months down the road.

"The past few years" is really since September 11, 2001.

I'm too busy to post. I have lots of things I want to write about here, but no time. I have to have the first draft of my research-intensive scholarly book in to the publisher on a short deadline, and I have lots more research to do, and very little time in which to do it. Also, I've been hired to teach a class in the music department of the local community college in the spring semester, and I have to prepare, because it's a subject in music that I've never taught before. 

Still, I feel moved to share this for the one or two people who might remotely be interested, because it made me nod my head vigorously up and down. I've been condemned in the combox here in the past by apparent would-be music critics, who suggested that I was failure as an artist because I haven't performed on the world's leading stages (although I think these readers, who don't know me and have never heard me sing, actually may have objected to me on other counts, and allowed their objections to shape their opinions of everything I do). Because I've spent most of my adult life as a working (i.e. paid) professional classical musician, have earned a doctorate in music, and still go out on semi-important gigs once or twice a year, I feel as if it's semi-important to set the record straight about my sort-of profession.

For the record, I had a friend, also a singer, who is friends with soprano Lauren Flanigan and used to bread-gig with her, and told me that Lauren in fact went to her temp job the day after she subbed in at the Met in the telecast performance opposite Pavarotti in Verdi's I Lombardi. Like so many singers, she was in debt.

Happy Feast Day!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Non-homeschooling and Education into Beauty

Although I occasionally consider it wistfully, I'm not a homeschooling mother. My school-age son has special needs, and public school has been a great place for him thus far. He has supports in the classroom, and he has the necessary-for-him-for-now friction and pressure of being with his peers. He loves school, and academically he's at the top of his class. All the schools in our high-poverty city are Title I, meaning that a critical mass of their students live in poverty, which entitles the schools to receive a certain level of federal aid. Nevertheless, although this would seem to contradict common wisdom -- at least the faulty common wisdom based solely on student performance on standardized tests -- these schools are not bad, but, on the contrary, are extremely good. The teachers are excellent, and the curriculum is far more enriched than what's offered in most urban and even some suburban public-school settings. The district is known not only for its commitment to inclusion, but also its emphasis on the arts. Every elementary school in the city has its own choir, band, and orchestra, which students can join in the third grade, instruction provided; and the high school has, in addition to those conventional forces, all kinds of chamber ensembles, a string quartet, a jazz band, a concert band, etc. Because of ubiquitous budget cuts, elementary music instruction (though not band, choir, or orchestra) was cut in the district this year from two sessions per week to one, and, in response, a number of parents, myself included, are working with local arts organizations to try to find low-cost ways to do meaningful arts-education outreach into the schools.

In the meantime, although I'm a non-homeschooler, I spent the summer, as I did last year, devising and teaching a home-study curriculum to my rising second-grader. While last year our work comprised a general introduction to aesthetics and their place in the human person and community using picture books, this summer's focus was on Henry David Thoreau. I was led to this topic by way of a new and wonderful children's book about how Charles Ives composed his Orchestral Set No. 2. On the face of it, this may seem a dull subject for a picture book, but it's anything but. The third movement of Ives's piece, called "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose," commemorates the day the Lusitania was sunk in 1915; the crowd waiting on the subway platform at the end of the workday began to spontaneously sing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."

Because Charles Ives also wrote a musical portrait of Thoreau in the fourth movement of his Piano Sonata no. 2, "Concord," I went, in figuring out what our summer course would be, from Ives onward to Thoreau. Ives wrote that the Concord Sonata was meant to give an "impression  of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect . . .  Hawthorne," and I thought Thoreau would hold more appeal to a seven-year-old than his erstwhile Concord colleagues.

I also thought that my autism-spectrum little boy would understand in a particular way Thoreau's single-minded obsession with the natural world, an obsession that led him to eschew society for two years -- a society that regarded him as warily as he it -- which is altogether a sort-of spectrum-ish situation in itself, when you think about it.

I was delighted to find many children's books about Thoreau, some of them excellent. I didn't warm up to the D.B Johnson series at first, because it seemed a little precious to depict Henry David Thoreau as a bear; but then I opened one of the books and saw how wonderful they were. The illustrations suggest cubism, and some of the books veer into the dreamlike and transcendent, like Henry Climbs a Mountain, which begins with the real-life event of Thoreau's arrest for tax evasion -- enacted in protest of the legal institution of slavery -- and the resulting night he spent in jail. In the book, the bear-Henry enters into a synaesthetic vision in which he meets an escaped slave and helps him to freedom.

So, over the summer, we read about a dozen children's books about Thoreau; my son wrote about them in his journal; and we started going into nature ourselves -- a state park about ten miles away -- and observing it closely. This has proven to be an unexpected boon for my son: in nature, his near-constant anxiety seems to completely lift away, and he is quiet and observant, seeing things the rest of us miss. He brings a journal with him, and he writes poetry containing quite lovely images, and, like Thoreau, makes little sketches of the flora and fauna he encounters.

School is in session now, and we've started another home-study unit. Somehow this one branched out from my son's love of the music of Antonín Dvořák, which, frankly, has a lot of things in it for a child to love. My son first encountered Dvořák's music in a violin transcription of the famous English horn theme ("Going home")  from the second movement of his Symphony no. 9 (From the New World), which Dvořák composed in America when he was director of the short-lived National Conservatory in New York.



My son had also become familiar with Dvořák's American String Quartet last year, after we read a lovely picture book about its composition called Two Scarlet Songbirds (in a sort of "Anecdote of the Jar" scenario, Dvořák attempted to imitate the song of the scarlet tanager, which he first heard in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, in the quartet's third movement).

So I am envisioning an interdisciplinary home-study taking place over this fall and winter, which, like the Thoreau unit, begins with the great music of a great composer. There are many directions one can take starting out from Dvořák: folk music and culture, the encounter of the old world with the new, African-American and Native American musics, of which Dvořák was a great admirer (he told a reporter from the New York Herald that "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . .There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source"), and from an age-appropriate study of these musics on toward a study of the cultures from which they arose. 


I love doing this. Introducing my children to the beauty of the world is a great concern of mine. Sometimes I think I'd like to homeschool just in order to devise and implement such aesthetically-derived curricula. But my abilities to do all of this also raise questions for me. An aesthetic education is a given for me, a sine qua non, but what about all the other children -- most American children, in fact -- whose parents are not in a position to enrich their educations like this? It may be an accident of birth that my children have access to these things, but I feel strongly that I have a responsibility also to children who have not suffered such an accident. Public education has traditionally been supposed to remediate these accidents, and theoretically to supply all children with the same access to resources and means in order to give them all the same opportunities. But, as we know, neither resources, means, nor opportunities are evenly distributed in our society, which makes me feel even more strongly that it's incumbent on me to use my own in the service of those who lack them.


I understand that many in my cohort don't feel with me. While I greatly admire Sally Thomas as a writer, teacher, and mother, I disagree with her here, at least where it comes to my own situation.  I cannot presume to know what's best for anyone's children at any given time, and that includes my own more often than not, but my feelings about sending my children out into the world diverge from Sally's. Perhaps it's naive, but I believe that the world needs their light, and that we need to bring that light into the dark places. Every day before school I tell my son to look for opportunities to do kindnesses to people in his midst, because each kindness goes a little way towards the healing of the world, a world which, as we know, Jesus Christ is even now restoring unto himself. "Do something to make the world a better place," I tell him, an exhortation that I heard more times than I can remember at my own mother's knee. There are, of course, many ways of doing this, as many ways as there are people. For myself, while I wish to educate my children in beauty, I also would like to carry that beauty to the many children in my older son's school who have no access to it, which is why, to make a long story short, I'm working on the committee that I mentioned above. If it's unjust that my children should love the music of Ives and Dvořák and should take long walks in the woods while some children in my son's class don't have beds to sleep in or meals between school lunch on Friday and school breakfast on Monday, I believe I should do something about it, and that the best way that I can do it is through music-educational outreach, because spirits need to be fed as surely as bodies.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Listening to Classical Music: A Moral Imperative?

I'm still too busy to post much, but I thought this provocative essay by a composer who's also on the theology factulty at Wyoming Catholic College was worth sharing.

If one knows that Palestrina or Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven wrote superior music, then choosing consistently to listen to less excellent music would be a moral fault. It could even be a mortal sin . . . for example, listening for pleasure to songs about sexual perversion or [to] Satanic heavy metal would be mortally sinful. However, since we must strive to flee even venial sins lest they prepare the way for mortal sin, it is always better to assume that today’s popular music, produced mostly by hedonists who are generally singing about sins, is a slippery slope leading to some kind of intellectual pollution and consent.

. . . . For a person attracted by the goodness inherent in art, there can be no divide between entertainment and profundity or worthiness. We should only want to listen to that which is beautiful; to settle consciously for something less is a lessening of our humanity, of our rationality. It would be like saying that only a church needs to be holy, while a home can be profane. No, the home itself must be made holy, it must be a “domestic church,” a sort of monastic enclosure for the bringing up of saints. The divide between entertainment and fine art is a form of dualism. . . we should elevate our souls to the point where what is intrinsically best or most beautiful is what gives us the greatest pleasure and restfulness. In other words, we should aim at a condition where anything we choose to do—whether for relaxation, leisure, or work—is equally noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. When I am in a serious mood, I should sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer; when I am in a light mood or in need of relaxation, I should also sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer.

While I would defend with my dying breath the superiority of anything Beethoven ever wrote to practically anything else created across genres in the history of humanity, I'm not sure I agree with Kwasniewski. He works from the assumption that the classics of the western art-music canon are morally superior to other music (or "musics," as we say in the embarrassingly-desperate-to-be-hip world of musicology), but his definition of that which is musically "intrinsically best or most beautiful" is, at best, a tautology.
In the realm of Kwasniewski's aesthetics, could John Coltrane and John Cage be elevated into the moral pantheon along with Beethoven and Bach? And what about John Prine? They would be in mine. Kwasniewski anathematizes the musics that stir up ache and longing, but what does he say to the musics that assuage them, like this?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Music and Memory, Part 30: The Slovenly Wilderness


There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Gustav Mahler going on a walking tour of the Austrian Alps with his protégé, the great conductor Bruno Walter. Walter, no doubt like most visitors to the Alps, was in ecstasy when he beheld the mountains' grandeur, and he waved his hands around excitedly. "Look, Gustav!" he cried, to which Mahler, walking on quickly with his head down, replied, "No need; I have composed them already."

As a child, I had all kinds of fantasies about what the unmediated, unadulterated natural world might be like, but my experience was mostly confined to yearly hikes at Bear Mountain, which my father, paraphrasing Marx, called a "Lumpenwilderness."  And anyway, it can seem Herculean at times to leave New York City and go into nature, or anywhere else for that matter. If you don't have a car, which is many if not most people, you have to rent one. For my set, that meant walking across the George Washington Bridge to the Rent-A-Wreck in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Then you had to actually drive out of the city, which could literally take hours, because, since you'd walked to New Jersey, you had to drive back across the bridge to get your stuff. And then there would be traffic and getting lost, which could not be avoided if your path took you through the Bronx at all. And then, if you weren't some sort of wilderness expert, what exactly were you supposed to do when you get there? You could luxuriate in the grass while trying to wipe the fear of Lyme ticks from your consciousness, or marvel at the unobstructed views of sky. But if you're like me, by dark you would be sweating in your bed because of the sonic emptiness, terrorized by the absence of the reassuring all-hours city din. As Woody Allen said, "I am two with nature."

It's much easier driving into nature from here, though. We're surrounded by state parks, all of them spectacular, the closest about twenty miles away (Bear Mountain was only a little further than that, but it could take two and a half hours to get there). This summer, trying to quell my fear of Lyme disease, I started to take my son with high-functioning autism into the woods on hikes. (Incidentally, though I fear ticks, I have no fear of mosquitos. I'm the carrier of a rare Mediterranean disease which, like sickle-cell anemia, is linked to malaria resistance, and mosquitos have no interest in me.) In the past few months, my son has had tremendous difficulty controlling his emotions. We've started him on medication -- and, pace the nostalgic authorities on boyhood who glibly insist that boys are being medicated for being boys, my son is being medicated to try to help him with his towering rages that keep building up over the course of a day, that cause him to scream bloodcurdlingly and prolongedly when something happens to go awry in the little ways in which things go awry every day, and that are making our family's attempts to live in peace extremely difficult. But when he's in the woods, he's better. I don't mean that he's not autistic, but that in the woods, his autism shines forth as a kind of intense and beautiful adaptation. He's calm; he writes poetry in his nature journal; he's a delightful companion. I haven't read Last Child in the Woods, but I'm starting to believe in the healing propensities of the natural world.

In the state park, my son tells me that he misses New York. He often says this, and he says he wants to move back. He was not yet three when we left, but he has an uncanny memory, and he's also been to visit many times. I think about a trip I took to coastal Maine with M. fifteen years ago, and how beautiful it was, and then, stuck in traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway after driving many hours, with the windows of the rental car rolled down in the heat and the tinny sound of a frenetic merengue played on a thousand radios pouring in along with the damp, sour smell of the hot summer pavement mixed with the odors of piss, stale beer, and the dank Harlem River far below us, how my heart leapt and thrilled to be home.

I mention instead to my son that in New York, it's hard to find a place as beautiful as the place where we are now. Places as beautiful as this are far away and hard to get to, and, besides that, there's so much traffic and noise there.

I remember staring in bewilderment when my my longtime recital accompanist declared that nature was more beautiful and more important than music. I'm still not sure I believe it. My kind of nature is the still life, the natura morta, as it's called in Italian -- the nature that is mixed, and even wrecked, by its contact with the human, or the nature that is furtive, appearing a little at a time to slowly and imperceptibly redeem the urban spaces that have ruined it, like the weeds that grow out of the sidewalk cracks or the iridescent pigeons -- all so different, all so lovely, though their detractors call them rats with wings -- that peck at the refuse carelessly strewn on the street. Perhaps, like Mahler, I believe that music is better than nature, that art enhances, ennobles, and supersedes nature. Indeed, Wallace Stevens wrote about this in his 1919 poem "The Anecdote of the Jar":

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Above: Corenlis de Heem, Still Life with Fruit, 17th century.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Holy Ground

Ten years or so ago around this time of year, I met a woman in the grocery store in my old neighborhood. I had been admiring her t-shirt, which was silk-screened with beautiful, brightly-colored playbill images from various Sondheim musicals. We got to talking, and she told me that she had worked as a lighting designer in A-level regional theaters, but had settled in the neighborhood and was the mother of a five-year-old daughter. She was active in my parish, where I had only recently started regularly attending mass after many years away. Her daughter, whom I had seen around the church and the neighborhood, had, she told me, been born with severe, life-threatening birth defects, but, because of the prayers of our fellow parishioners, was now healthy and thriving. "This," said my new friend, referring to our neighborhood, "is holy ground."

I'm sure she was right. How could it not have been holy ground? The body of a great saint was in residence there. The prayers of the faithful evidently rose up to heaven with great success from there. Untold thousands of people had suffered there in all kinds of unimaginable ways in their working-class apartments there, including me. Maria Callas had grown up there. Okay, that last was a joke, though Callas, born in Astoria, Queens, really did grow up on the same street where I used to live, a few blocks from my building, until she moved to Greece in her teens. But that penultimate was not a joke. We have it on good authority that suffering sanctifies -- makes holy -- the sufferer, so why would it not also sanctify the place of his suffering? We honor the dirt where a saint has walked, the very fibers of the clothes that his body has touched, assuming that the saint's holiness confers spiritual power upon these things. If we ask the dead to pray for us, including those who may not (yet) be in heaven, it seems logical that we should consider holy the ground where those who suffered walked in life. And many saints have walked the ground of New York City, and many perhaps walk there still.

I still miss New York terribly. I miss my life there, which was not just my life but felt to me as though it were a piece of a whole, one part of a vital community that I thought was fairly stable. But that community itself has dispersed more and more; more of my near and dear ones have left. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his voluminous journal: "Methinks my present experience is nothing my past experience is all in all. . . 'Our life is a forgetting' &c."

But I wonder if where I'm standing now might also be holy ground. I've found that, as dull and benighted as this area is, there are some bizarrely wonderful things here, things that don't reveal themselves readily at first glance. Our pastor is one. The church we finally settled on, after a few initial months of parish-hopping, is what passes here for an urban one; it's a largely Italian parish in the midst of what is now a slum, and, not unlike the well-known Our Lady of Mount Carmel not far from where I used to live in the Bronx, it's attended on Sundays mainly by Italian-Americans who have moved up and out of the neighborhood, and you can still hear Italian spoken out on the pavement after Mass. This is by no means a friendly crowd; if you're "from there," as they say, you will know that even proverbially close-knit Italian-American communities harbor a not-insignificant amount of suspicion, even hostility, towards outsiders. So it's not what I would call a "friendly" place, but our pastor -- young, smart, orthodox, beautifully well-spoken, and passionate about the faith -- is like a beacon shining in the gray decrepitude of the parish's neighborhood. Friends who came here from New York and Boston for Jude's baptism last year noted how lucky we are to have such a priest, and it's true.

Another bright spot is my son's violin teacher, one of the greatest musicians I've ever met, who ended up in this backwater through a complicated chain of events (I've written about him here).  There are other good classical musicians here, too, if none on his level, but the best of them suffer from a kind of self-consciousness that is probably endemic to aesthetic strivers far-removed from artistic capitols -- a self-consciousness that comes, I think, from a kind of uncertainty and insecurity about the choice not to go to one of those capitols, but to stay in a small place in which each year the audience for the arts grows smaller and smaller. V. is not like this, because he is the real thing; and musicians on the highest level usually don't care about these things, though this not-caring is benign rather than bitter. Musicians who are the real thing also tend, in my experience, to have some balance in their lives, and to put things both musical and non- into a right-seeming perspective. (I'm not saying that I'm one of them, because, in spite of the fact that I'm a skilled musical crafstman, my relationship to music is virtually entirely neurotic.)

And then it's so beautiful here in the summer, in certain places at least. The sky is so blue; there are so many trees. The heart of city itself is not beautiful; in fact, it looks exhausted and defeated, a victim of 1970s-era urban renewal and several generations of residents fleeing and decamping for the nearby suburbs, which are, in some ways, even worse. I laughed out loud when I saw postcards of the downtown for sale at a local shop, because they were probably the least-picturesque postcards I'd ever seen. But the wonderful library is downtown, as is the great independent coffee roaster who moved here on purpose after doing a demographic study and calculating that most of his trade was mail-order anyway. There is a farmer's market downtown, too, and the farms are just a ten-minute drive away; some are even in the city itself: there's a movement to establish a culture of urban agriculture here, which has a certain symmetry when you consider the generations of people and corporations that have left this place and so many places like it, leaving the buildings to crumble back into the earth.

The other day I was driving around on the slummy outskirts of my middle-class neighborhood, outskirts that are truly more impoverished than any place I ever lived or lived near in New York City, and I saw a patch of queen-anne's lace and chicory blossoms that had pushed up through the cracked sidewalk and grown so thick and tall that they looked as if they were about to overtake the lamppost they surrounded. For a second, I felt ecstatic. Thoreau also said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads, and I could see, as I witnessed this square foot of urban wilderness, that it was true -- this ragged little street-corner prairie was as beautiful, in its way, as anything I'd ever seen. If the combination of suffering and beauty can make a place holy ground -- or if suffering actually engenders beauty, which I believe it can do --  then even this decaying city might be, in its own way, holy.

Above: Moses taking off his sandals at the command of the Lord, who speaks to him from the burning bush (Michiel van der Borch, 14th century).