Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mother of the Muses


I had the strange and somewhat disconcerting experience recently of reading a memoir about people I know. It was written by a woman who was, at one time, romantically involved with a close friend of mine. Both of them are writers, and her memoir details a time in her life after college when she, a young woman from a privileged background, took a poorly-paid entry-level job at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger, and simultaneously moved into a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with my friend (in a building that really should have been condemned; I was there many times). At the end of this time period, according to the memoir, she underwent an awakening that was both literary and spiritual in nature and jettisoned the apartment, the job, and the boyfriend.

The memoir may sound -- and perhaps is -- a trifle slight and self-serving. It's a coming-of-age story very particular to its time and place -- New York City in the 1990s -- but it's written with an appealing clarity and simplicity, and the author gets so many things right, including the changing seasons in the city; my friend (whom she paints in an unflattering, if fairly accurate, light); and, ultimately, the reality of suffering. One of her job duties at the literary agency was answering the voluminous fan mail sent to Salinger with an off-putting standard form letter. After reading some of these letters, however -- many of them from fellow World War II veterans -- and after belatedly reading Salinger's slim oeuvre, she comes to a deeper understanding of the human condition. She notes that Bessie Glass, the mother of Franny and Zooey, of Boo Boo, Buddy, and Seymour (as well as of Walt, lost in the war, and his twin brother Waker, a cloistered Carthusian monk), "is in mourning [for her two dead children]. As is the entire Glass family. A family in mourning, never to recover. A world in mourning, never to recover." The book is worth reading just to get to that moment, which comes near the end.

I didn't know the author that well back in the day, and I don't know whether her heart had always been open to the truth of suffering, or whether that realization was entirely catalyzed by her reading of Salinger. The author's ex-boyfriend has, in private correspondence, cast her compassion somewhat into question, but I suppose it's not really that important. What is important is the truth that art can effectively reveal certain aspects of humanity, including the inescapable fact of its suffering, and can also provide, if not the remedy for that suffering, then at least some assuagement.

This calls into question the purpose of the memoir as a genre. What is it for, really, and who among us has lived in such a way that merits such public retelling? The Salinger memoir appealed to me because I knew what the author meant. She describes with great care the weather, what she wore, and what she ordered at the deli, all of which are things that I like to know about; attention to such details in my own life is something that has always had great, almost talismanic significance for me. And even if she's not telling the truth about everything -- because who, in a memoir, is? -- she is nothing but truthful about the fact that, beneath the surface of things and phenomena, trouble is roiling, suffering exists, and even the best-intentioned of us cause one another unspeakable pain. If the Salinger memoir has merit, it's primarily because it sends out a slim shaft of light into the brokenness of things: the light of shared pain, of recognized suffering. We possess art, as Nietzsche said, lest we perish of the truth, and is not the purpose of art to alleviate suffering? Goethe wrote:

Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
how anguish and joy
change places in the loving heart.
You cannot heal the wounds
that love inflicts;
but comfort comes,
kindly ones, only from you.



And Memory, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the muses.

Perhaps all art is an evocation of Memory, Mother of the Muses; as writers and as readers we summon her so that, as good mothers do, she might comfort us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love and Bullies

I've mentioned here before the semi-well-known Catholic journalist whom I briefly dated after returning to the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I declined his offer of marriage, but we remained friends in a distant sort of way until he wrote me a vicious email a few years ago, apparently after misunderstanding something I'd written here. Like most of the journalist's work, this email was meticulously crafted, and also like most of his work, it was a demonstration of his bravura literary skills in the service of a cause he believed in. As in most of his work, too, that cause was the exposure and denunciation of a perceived enemy. In this case, the enemy was a woman he seemingly once had loved, and his tactical methods included attacking me as a wife (though not his), a mother, and an artist; insulting my family of origin; and -- the tour de force -- reminding me (in case I might have forgotten) that long before he knew me I had committed an "unspeakable crime" against my unborn child. He finished, in a sort of dénouement, by mentioning that I was "bad for" his spiritual well-being, and so he wanted nothing more to do with me.

Not surprisingly, I don't intentionally read this journalist's work anymore, though sometimes I will click on a link to an article a friend has posted and find something written by him at the end of it. While I spent months crying about his email at the time, by now I have other things to cry about. I was thinking about him the other day, though, and I wondered how I had had the presence of mind to turn down his marriage proposal, especially since I had always been prone to impulsivity, and was at the time a divorced woman in my mid-thirties facing statistically-declining odds of ever getting married again. The truth, however, was that, although the journalist was brilliant, witty, and charming, he had a certain quality that truly scared me. I couldn't describe at the time what it was, but after reading his email, I understood it a bit better. There is something corrupt and cruel -- something unmanly -- about deliberately attacking the weak, and I think that most women are instinctively repelled by it.

I should note here that I am by no means the sole target of this journalist's vituperation. He, along with others of his cohort, in his professional work routinely disparages various people and groups with whom he disagrees, including liberals, immigrants, and Catholics who don't practice their faith the way he thinks they should. And I should note, too, that while most women may be repelled by attacks on the weak, not all are. Many women, in fact, are drawn to bullies -- to men who bolster their sense of self by making a show of strength against individuals or groups who are not their equals, against those who are lesser than they in strength, wits, and power. But, though it would be easy to do so, I can't in good conscience condemn these men, nor the women who love them, because we are all grievously wounded in our capacity to love.

And surely it's what we all want most: to be loved not in spite of our woundedness and our egregious faults, but, somehow, because of them.  Everyone wants to feel as though there is someone who sees him as he is, and who loves him anyway. Even the journalist -- who makes a show of deprecating those who have none of his intellect or understanding, including those Catholics who were not fortunate, as he was, to receive a sound teaching of the faith -- would occasionally reveal to me, in private conversation, his innermost fears and doubts. The vulnerability we show to one another can be endearing, certainly; but, as demonstrated by the journalist's gratuitous and deliberately hurtful reference to my long-ago abortion, it can also be used against us by those in whom we've put our trust.

I would like to be able to call a man who deliberately hurts a woman a sadist or a misogynist, but perhaps that's unfair. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze into the abyss, it gazes into you. When we make it our life's work, even our identity, to upbraid and revile, how do we keep ourselves from becoming something worthy of revilement?

I suppose that women who are attracted to bullies see their vulnerability and want to protect it, to heal it. Some women no doubt nobly and self-sacrificially live out Longfellow's aphorism: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." I know that this is true -- that both the journalist and the targets of his writerly contempt have suffered enough misery that we are constrained to love them without exception. Nonetheless, in the absence of severe neurosis, it seems to me that it is not unrealistic for women to expect men to protect them, rather than the other way around, and for men to want to protect women, rather than to harm them.

I pray that we may all learn to forgive one another for the wrongs we so blithely and carelessly commit against each other, and, also, that we may truly learn what it is to love. God knows I pray this for myself every day.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

C'est Son Métier


Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go . . .

. . . . Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- From "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

There was a man I loved desperately when I was quite young. R. was witty, well-read, and almost impossibly good-looking. He was also louche, something of a hedonist.  He spent a great deal of money on clothes and a lot of time in nightclubs, and he regarded himself as being on the cutting edge of cultural expression. I was a teenager from an unhappy home, and he became the first in a series of men about whom I believed that if I attached myself to them, I could escape and, in some essential way, save my life.

Predictably, this relationship didn’t work out. I became suicidally depressed in the wake of its breakup, but recovered, and some years later R. and I were friends. We didn’t see each other that often, but back in New York, in one of the lovely ways that New York can seem like a small town, we would often run into each other unexpectedly on the street. R. was a freelance journalist and didn't have a nine-to-five, and if I had the day off from whatever my bread gig was at the time – waitressing, or secretarial temping, or working as a cosmetics girl at Bloomingdales (my brother happened into the store one day and said of me and my colleagues, "You look like a bunch of Nazi nurses") – we would walk around the city and drink coffee and have conversations that were shimmering, transcendent, incantatory. I still have dreams sometimes about those walks.

As happens, however, our lives went in different directions, and I had not seen R. for many years when I heard the shocking news last year that he had died -- in his forties, and by his own hand. He had achieved some success, and had even written a best-seller nonfiction book, but some controversy had arisen around it, and I assume, though I can’t know for certain, that the minor scandal that ensued had contributed to the deep depression which apparently led to his suicide. R. was childless, but he left his widow behind.

His death, which I learned about around the time my mother also died, was crazy and unacceptable to me. As a young man, R. had been remarkably handsome, as well as generous, funny, and adventurous; but somehow he had become one of those tragic ones, those few who, as A.E. Housman wrote, would "carry their looks [and] their truth to the grave."  He was not a Catholic; I don’t know what, if anything, he had come to believe, though, on one of the occasions I ran into him on the street, he had recently returned from a trip to Nepal, and on that occasion he urged me to read Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, a luminous travel memoir about the author’s encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. And during much of the time I had known R., he was something of an obvious sinner. I couldn’t help wondering if, with this checkered history, and lacking both baptism and any formal sort of repentance, it was sensible or even seemly to pray for his soul. But because I profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, I knew I must pray for him, and do so with great abandon, 

One hears occasionally from Traditionalist types the maxim “extra ecclesia nulla salus” – there is no salvation outside of the (Roman Catholic) Church. This is the teaching of the Church, but what does it really mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church asks:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.

Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation [emphasis added]. 

It seems to me that the main problem with defining “extra ecclesia” is knowing each unbaptized man’s “fault,” which is, of course, impossible. There are all kinds of mysterious baptisms, including that of desire, about which we know little or nothing. "Betwixt the stirrup and the ground/Mercy I asked, mercy I found": there is forgiveness of which we know nothing. 

In fact, God is a fountain of mercy. God is love. God did not create His children in order to damn them. If He did, He would not be God.  As Heinrich Heine, the great poet of German Romanticism and a convert from Judaism, said on his deathbed, “Of course God will forgive me; c’est son métier.”

When we profess to believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are simply acknowledging, with Heine, that forgiving sins is God’s métier, His business. With this statement, we categorically accept that God can forgive all sins, including the ones (always, it seems, committed by others) that we may not entirely want him to forgive. What we talk about when we talk about forgiveness is actually the possibility of redemption for our enemies, of the complete falling away of what made them our enemies in the first place, of what made them hurt us and of what made us hate them -- nothing less than the belief that anyone can become good in the Platonic sense; that anyone can become holy.

Therefore, I'm constrained to believe in the possibility of R.’s radical spiritual transformation, and of his total moral regeneration. In the end, what we profess when we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, is that we believe that God loves everyone else, including those annoying ones in apparent darkness, equally as well as He loves those of us to whom he has given the great and wholly-unmerited gift of faith.

R.'s last book was published after his death. It's a nonfiction work about a morally-suspect character who became a quiet humanitarian, a narrative which parallels the trajectory of R.'s own too-brief life. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mother vs. Happiness

Where does it start, our downhill slide -- a slide into serious sin for the most damaged; for the rest. at best, into lukewarmth and mediocrity?

I suppose it begins with our desire to be happy, which is quickly corrupted by our belief that we deserve to be happy. I've known few people who don't secretly harbor this belief, including the very best of men. Our self-regard, our amour-propre, is so deep and intractable that even those of us who strive for holiness find it hard to escape the notion that this holiness, once attained, will curry favor with God and loosen up all kinds of neat stuff for us. It's hard to escape the thinking that if f I, say, pray and work for a sincere conversion, or go to daily Mass, or give lots of money to the poor, or pray for the people that I hate, then God, noticing with approval, will send me a really nice guy, or put in a word with my boss about a raise, or at least make my life just a little less painful and difficult. 

This belief is reinforced by a popular narrative in Catholic writing, which features the protagonist's turning or returning to God, after which everything falls neatly into place. This narrative is (no doubt unintentionally) deceptive, because it implies cause and effect, actions and consequences. It doesn't acknowledge the untold numbers of people who turn or return to God -- who turn or return to Him daily, in fact -- and who strive to orient their lives and wills completely in the direction of His own, but who nevertheless suffer, who continue to suffer, and whose sufferings persist and even get worse. 

We all want the shiny stuff, and to shore up our uncertain futures with the goods which, in a logical and just world, might be purchased by our holiness. But I doubt it really works that way, and am more inclined to believe that, at best, we have our brief moments of triumph and delight, before we're kicked right back down to the curb again, which is, essentially, where we belong: for, as Hamlet said, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" 

And why should it be otherwise? I used to know a sedevacantist mother of many children, whom I once overheard telling one of them about Jesus cursing the fig tree. She finished by explaining that the Lord would condemn those who squandered their gifts, adding (smugly, as it seemed to me), "So I had ten fruits." Nevertheless, I think we should probably ponder, and should perhaps shudder, before we assume that anything we've done is actually good, since we're no more than unprofitable servants doing our duty.

When I was a child and later a teen, I would often propose certain activities or situations to my mother, explaining that doing or having something, or becoming something, or going somewhere in particular, would make me happy. I bitterly resented her standard response, which was the sobering "You're not here to be happy. You're here to make the world a better place." But I know now that she was right. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the only reason we're actually here.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

I believe that, when Hopkins says that the world is "charged" with God's grandeur, he means two things: that God's grandeur is immanent in all things, that the created world is imbued and shot through with it; but, also, that it is the duty of creatures to bear, to maintain, and to reveal that grandeur: that revealing it is, in fact, our charge. It is our duty, as unprofitable servants, as my mother would say, to make the world a better place.

A friend of mine who follows an eastern religion told me his guru compared enlightenment to one's mother being home all the time. I loved that analogy, but it made me wonder whether enlightenment is or is not synonymous with happiness. Is having mother home happiness? Is mother happiness? One would think so; but as the German Romantic poet Klaus Groth put it in his poem "Heimweh II" -- Heimweh meaning, essentially, grief over the lost home, which is not just a house, but is a whole universe: 

O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück,
Den lieben Weg zum Kinderland!
O warum sucht' ich nach dem Glück
Und liess der Mutter Hand?

In translation:

Oh, if I only knew the way back,
the dear way back to childhood's land!
Oh why did I seek happiness
and let go of my mother's hand?

That image of letting go of mother's hand to seek happiness is so wrenchingly poignant, and it seems not only to suggest that happiness is not a worthy goal, but also to assert that happiness is not mother. Mother is something else, something different -- something more than happiness. In fact, in my own mother's formula, mother, while not happiness, makes the world a better place.

I don't believe that being a mother makes one happy, nor should it. I don't even believe that mother, or children, or anyone else deserves to be happy. But the ethos of having mother -- of having mother home all the time -- is better, somehow, than happiness, is beyond happiness, and I suppose it's what heaven must be like.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In Memory of the Dead

A. E. Housman wrote his poem cycle A Shropshire Lad in 1896, so this excerpt is not really about World War I; but I can't hear George Butterworth's bittersweet setting of it without thinking of it as prophetic of the composer's own death in the Battle of the Somme, and the deaths of so many others in the flower of their youth. 

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair, 
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will neve
r be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

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).