Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 10: Oh People of My Land

My new town appears to be home to a high number of mentally unstable citizens, the result of the mandated deinstitutionalization of the residents of the area's large, now-defunct state hospital in the 1970s.  Since I still don't have my driver's license, I often come upon these citizens when I take the bus or walk around in the near-deserted downtown.  Today I felt my old and my new worlds colliding when an apparently-mentally-unstable woman on the bus asked me if I was a teacher, the question I was often asked on the bus, in cabs, on the subway, and on the street back in New York (I'm not sure why, but this bus rider added what my former fellow citizens in New York used to say:  "You just look like a teacher").  I told her that I used to teach music, and she segued into a monologue about her boyfriend's concert-level skill at playing Chopin, and then asked me if I knew every word in the dictionary; she claimed acquaintance with several people who did.

Then a Mexican man got on the bus, and my heart leapt.  I almost never see Mexicans here, a sign of the area's extreme joblessness.  Likewise, I want to dance on the rare occasions that I come across an Orthodox Jewish couple, or a pair of frum women with their children in the park; it's a reminder to me of home, of the world outside of this place, the world of color, of music, of warmth.

Speaking of color, music, and warmth, I got a catalogue in the mail the other day listing the scholarly books on music published by Ashgate, the English academic publisher.  One of their new releases is a book called Fado and The Place of Longing:  Loss, Memory, and the City.  According to the catalogue blurb: 

Fado, often described as 'urban folk music', emerged from the streets of Lisbon in the mid-nineteenth century and went on to become Portugal's 'national' music during the twentieth. It is known for its strong emphasis on loss, memory and nostalgia within its song texts, which often refer to absent people and places. One of the main lyrical themes of fado is the city itself.

Reading the book description, in addition to making me think that fado should be the official musical genre of this blog, brought to mind a memory of my old home.

For a long time back in New York, my across-the-hall neighbor was a single, middle-aged woman who shared my first name, and who was herself apparently mentally unstable.  She was an artist whose work was exhibited, but in her day-to-day life she seemed anxious to the point of being severely troubled and not entirely functional.  I was surprised one day to meet a beautiful young woman coming out of her apartment, who, as it turned out, was my neighbor's only daughter, D., come to live with her for a while.  D. seemed like someone I wanted to know:  she was sophisticated and smart, and was a former writer for the Village Voice whose music criticism I had read.  But one night, as I was coming home late, I saw her moving all of her stuff out of her mother's apartment.  They had had a huge fight, and D. was moving to Staten Island by taxicab to live with a man she'd recently met.  I assumed I'd never see her again, and I was chagrined.

But D. came back.  In fact, she came back more than once.  At one point, she moved to Italy to try to make it work with a different man, but returned with a diagnosis of breast cancer.  After treatment, the cancer went into remission, and D. was unsure where to go next.  She was trying to restart her life, and she had a book contract from a major publisher to write about cancer from the perspective of a woman like herself, a hip young New Yorker, who would refute all the bullshit New-Age cancer platitudes -- you caused your cancer with your own self-hatred, you can heal through visualization, but only if you want to badly enough, etc.  She came across the hall to tell me about it one day in the fall of 2002, when I had just come back to the Catholic faith and had just started graduate school.  And the reason she had knocked on my door that day was that she had heard the notes of this fado song leaking out through the doorjamb, a song she had first heard on a recent trip to Portugal.

The wonderful singer is the part-Mozambiquean, part-Portuguese Mariza, who even looks strikingly like the biracial D.  According to a fan-written translation, this is the meaning of the text, sic in its entirety:

Is both mine and yours this fado
destiny that tides us (together)
no matter how much it is denied
by the strings of a guitar
whenever one hears a lament
of a guitar singing
one is instantly lost
With a desire to weep
Oh people of my land
Now I've understand
This sadness which I carry on
Was from you that I received
and it would seem tenderness
If I let myself be soothed
my anguish would be greater
my singing (would be) less sadder
Oh people of my land

This time, or so it appeared, D. had come home for good.  She was broke.  But we never did hang out much; our schedules didn't mesh.  She went to a nearby café to write during the day, while I was traveling between the university and my office job; and she stayed on at the café at night when it became a bar, while I was too busy and tired to go out (and was also experimenting with not going to bars or drinking at all, in what I saw, perhaps misguidedly, as solidarity with my then-boyfriend, who was recently sober in A.A.).  Our paths continued to diverge, and, right around the time I moved out of my long-time and beloved home to get married in 2005, I was shocked to learn that D. had died at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, the cancer having returned and metastasized to her bones.  I wrote to her mother from my new home in the Bronx, but never heard back.

From what I understand, D.'s mother is somehow keeping on, God knows how.  But in writing this, I have realized that it's been a long time since I've remembered to pray for D. or for her mother.  Dear readers, if you have it in your heart to do so, please say a prayer for this them.


Anonymous said...

Consider it done.

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about fado, besides that the word is portuguese for fate. This music always makes me sad, but in a good way. There's a portuguese word, saudade, it's kind of a sweet longing for something lost or far away. Most fados are about saudade of a place or a person.
You should try Antonio Zambujo, or Amalia Rofrigues, she's incomparable.
And I'll keep her in my prayers.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Anonymous and Anonymous.

I have heard Amalia Rodrigues, but not Antonio Zambujo. I will check him out.

Honeybee said...

I will remember both of them (and you, of course) this morning during my morning prayers.

How are you doing these days?

Tante Leonie said...

The 15th anniversary of the death of my aunt (and godmother) is on Friday.

I was planning to say the Office of the Dead for her on that day; I will include D. in my offering.

Pentimento said...

Thank you and may God reward you for your prayers.

(Honeybee, I'm as ever, thanks.)

Rodak said...

That is a sad tale. Having lost an old friend with whom I had only recently reconnected to cancer about three years ago now, I empathize with your feeling of loss.
When I was in Portugal with my first wife's dance company, we were informed that one thing we must do while in Lisbon was go to the Fado clubs. We were told that Fado was "Portuguese blues." That sad, powerful music is probably more appropriate to the state of my soul now than it was back then, alas.
I have one Fado anthology on CD, to which I haven't listened for years. I must dig out.
Please pray for my lost friend, as I pray for yours.

Pentimento said...

I will, Rodak.

Rodak said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Praying for them both tonight.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, I try never to promise, "I'll pray for them," because prayer requests on the internet often get tossed over my shoulder, as Betty Duffy has said, like so many socks. But there are times when, in the middle of prayer, I remember these requests and manage to fulfill them. I remembered you and your friend at Mass and adoration tonight; I hope this is some consolation.

PS--Word verification: coono! I really like my new profile pic. =)

Pentimento said...

A priest I know told me once about a woman who came to see Mother Angelica and asked her to pray for her son, who was in some serious sort of trouble. Mother Angelica was overburdened with lots of other things, but she said, when the woman left, "Dear God, please get that man out of the deep sh-- [well, she probably used some euphemism] that he's in." The mother came back to her with tears of gratitude. So just tossing a casual prayer over your shoulder like an abandoned sock is sure to matter. :)

Clare Krishan said...

Hubbi and I are keen Madredeus fans after we discovered them in a zany WimWenders flick (I hanker after people and places of what was then West Germany, my saudade sehnsucht is as leidende as your NewYork leidenshaft and I've lived as long away -- 15 yrs -- as I did there)
Here's their tribute to the seafarer boats on Lisbon's main waterway Faluas do Tejo
and all the loved ones left behind during the centuries of discovery & navigation ... Brazil has Fado too of course.

Praying in PA for left-behind loved ones everywhere - that they can trust in the hope of Dante's metaphorical Lethe, washing away those searching longings that we may be made whole on the Last Day!

Clare Krishan said...

Lead singer TERESITA SALGUEIRO has that arresting serene frum look too, no?

let this be a sock-over-the-shoulder prayer before I do my Cinderella act (I fast from online socializing when the clock strikes 12, our ISP router turns into a pumpkin !)

Vontade - voluntary will, tenacity
Misterio - Mystery
Verdade - Truth
Ajuda - aid assistance support help

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Clare -- really beautiful.

I do love that serene-frum dress, too -- and the idea of saudade sehnsucht . . . :)

maria horvath said...

Right now I am listening to Mariza's Fado Curvo album for the first time. I have no idea what she's singing about but it doesn't matter. Time enough for me to read the English translation later. For now, the beauty and emotion take me to another place, another time.

Thank you for the introduction.

Pentimento said...

I'm so glad you like Mariza, Maria.

I was confirmed in the RC Church in 2003, and I had a house party afterwards; I just recalled that Mariza featured heavily on the soundtrack. Not sure what that means, but it's probably something good.