Friday, May 29, 2009
"Beautiful city, we must part"
This post's title is taken from Heinrich Heine's poem "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden."
I returned to New York this week in order to receive my doctorate. I wept copiously on the train the day before commencement, as I headed down to the university to pick up my cap (the poofy, medieval, doctoral kind), gown, and hood. My tears on the train, shed at the very end of my doctoral studies, were a sort of inverse mirror of the tears I shed at the very beginnimg, when I sat for entrance exams, seven years ago. I had passed the voice audition, and the next requirement for admission was a written exam in music history, theory, and analysis. The test was extremely difficult; I knew more than one excellent singer who, unable to pass it, had been denied admission. I nevertheless believed I was doing a competent job until it came time to write a harmonic analyis of one of Schumann's Klavierstücke, chock-full of his typical deceptive cadences and briefly-tonicized key areas. At that point, I put down my pencil (word to the wise: always use a pencil, not a pen, for harmonic analysis), put my head in my hands, and wept. I had a non-near-death moment of seeing my whole life pass before me -- all the folly, pettiness, and misjudgements, as well as all the discipline, dedication, and hard work -- leading up to the present moment. In the end, I did not know why I was sitting there, taking the test that would, if I passed, admit me to the doctoral program in music. Was it the wrong choice, just another in a long chain of them? Was it random, or was it arbitrary? In that moment, it seemed as though my life entered a narrow tunnel, on a track upon which it had been guided without my noticing it by an unseen hand or by fate. I saw the smallness and futility of everything I had done, and it seemed to me that there was nothing else I could do but carry out the probably futile task at hand and attempt to complete the exam. In the midst of this existential crisis, the exam proctor came into the room to tell me I was out of time. I hadn't finished with the Schumann, but evidently I'd done enough well enough, for I was admitted.
I started out in my doctoral program as a student with a lot of promise. I had already garnered a small reputation as a performer of and researcher in some specialized musical repertoires, and in my first two years of doctoral study I read papers and gave recitals at some important international conferences, and published an excerpt from what would become my dissertation in a prominent scholarly journal. In the next two years, however, I got married and had a baby. I had to stop going to international conferences. I was asked to chair a panel at a scholarly conference when my son was seven months old, and, in spite of having made it clear that I would need to bring him with me, I was shocked by the open scorn with which we were received by some of the women attendees (this was not, interestingly, the case with the men, who were quite welcoming of me and my baby). I couldn't maintain my singing at a high level because I could no longer practice every day (still can't). For the first year of my baby's life I mostly just held him, and then, when he was one, I started teaching as an adjunct professor at my university (I had previously taught as a graduate teaching assistant), and picked up my dissertation again.
My life would probably have gone on as it was indefinitely even after I finished the dissertation during this academic year, but we left New York when a job opportunity came up for my husband. Being back, and witnessing the happy years of my doctoral work officially come to an end, was exquisitely painful for me. I miss my beautiful city terribly. I miss feeling deeply connected to and engaged with my work, my confrères, my surroundings. I miss my family and friends, especially Really Rosie, with whom I spent the day yesterday with our children; I pushed my stroller through Harlem crying when we had to part. I was reminded of the Elvis Costello song "New Amsterdam," in which he notes:
Back in London they'll take you to heart after a little while
Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile . . .
Here in New Amsterdam, I feel the same.