Friday, August 20, 2010

Music and Memory, part 13: By the Waters of Babylon

"Sing to us," they said, "one of Zion's songs."  O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

I hope to have my driver's license by the end of the year, but I need to practice a lot more than I have been, and practicing has proven logistically hard to arrange.  This month I've been taking my son, who I anticipate will be diagnosed with a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, to an agency that provides occupational therapy to help him develop his fine motor skills and find creative ways to address his sensory-seeking behaviors.  This agency, while lovely, is located in a post-industrial ghetto, surrounded by abandoned factory buildings and bordered by a defunct railroad track with tall weeds growing up through the ties.  We can take the bus within a half-mile of the agency, but then we have to get off, walk down a struggling neighborhood block, and plunge through the desolation.  The first time we did it, I was more scared than I've ever been anywhere in New Yor City, but made it seem like a fun adventure to my son.  Then I got used to it, and started to become interested in our surroundings.  Sometimes we see a solitary figure walking on the tracks.

Yesterday we were running late for various reasons, and I called a cab to take us to my son's appointment.  The cab driver was a young woman whose beauty was unmarred by her multiple tattoos and piercings.  The agency my son goes to has the words "handicapped" and "children" in its name, and she asked me about it and what they did. Her son, it turned out, received services for a high-functioning spectrum disorder from another agency, one that I've heard is located in an environ slightly scarier than ours (there is a high number of spectrum disorders among boys in my new city, but that's a different story).  My cab driver's hands on the wheel were slender and long-fingered, unencumbered by any jewelry, including a wedding ring.  For some reason that I can't explain, my heart went out to her.  While I waited for my son in the waiting room, tears came to my eyes and I prayed for her.  I kept thinking of how we are all in Babylon, in exile from what is good and beautiful.  And it seemed to me that those of us who strive to bring heaven down to earth, to create small utopias of goodness where there appears to be none, are perhaps in the most desolate kind of exile of all.  Of those people who order their lives according to daily mass and prayer practices, I know of few who have any real sort of peace in their hearts.  Just as I cling to the cross out of desperation, knowing that there is no salvation without it, the people I know who engage in orderly devout practices sometimes appear to be white-knuckling it.  And I stress that there is nothing wrong or untoward about that; it's simply the way it is.

I thought about the wide social gap between my cab driver and myself, and about the fact that disability is the great leveler.  And I thought about all the beautiful things I've always wanted to do, here and elsewhere:  there must, I've always thought, be something I can do to help other people with the skills that I have.  But the skills I have are so specialized, and there's so little concrete, applicable need or place for them.  Going to sing beautiful music for the pierced and tattooed is not going to save them.  Bringing beautiful music into the schools is not going to save their children, whether spectrum-disordered or otherwise.  I remember doing a small concert tour in rural Wisconsin about ten years ago, and, before one performance, speaking to a high-school chorus.  I observed their rehearsal, and noted that the best soprano was about six months pregnant.  During question-and-answer, a boy raised his hand and asked, "What are you doing here?"  I scrambled for a sincere answer that wouldn't further widen the gulf between us -- something in between the cynical "It's a gig," and the idealistic "I'm here to show you something beautiful that will uplift your soul and help you make a deeper connection with our shared humanity."  I don't remember now what I said.

I consider myself lucky to have been brought up in what may have been one of the last homes of my generation whose inhabitants listened to classical music.  There's no doubt that this family pursuit formed the basis of my life as a musician.  As a result, however, I have spent my entire adult life practicing a craft that has little-to-no value or perceived benefit in our culture, and for which there is a tremendous dearth of opportunities to make back the copious amounts of money invested in advancing to the level of professionalism.  There's been talk recently about the necessity for classical musicians to become "teaching artists," doing outreach in the schools, but with education budgets cut to the bone, and with -- The Mozart Effect notwithstanding -- unquantifiable outcomes for the students expected to benefit from this exposure -- this might just be another pipe dream (my trip to Wisconsin ten years ago was funded by local educators influenced by the ambiguous Mozart-effect research).

There are varying degrees of exile.  I remember well the existential friction I felt practicing my profession as a singer and dissertation-writing musicologist once I had gotten married and moved to the Bronx -- an existential friction I would give much to struggle against now.  There was an old man in our neighborhood, a successful retired plumber from the County Roscommon, who had bought an old house a block away -- a house where a bishop had been born, grown up, and come back to live in his retirement and finally die -- and was renting it to an Irish music school.  The plumber from Roscommon knew my singing (it would have been hard not to if you walked past the corner where we lived on a summer day), and he came over on the very day I was home having a miscarriage to offer me unlimited access to the house for my practicing.  I was in no emotional state, and I politely rebuffed his kind and neighborly offer, because it wasn't really space I needed to practice my craft; it was child care.  But soon thereafter, we moved here.  And I realize now that I wasn't in exile in the Bronx anywhere near to the extent that I romantically believed.

Where we live now, I see an exile much more severe all around me.  My heart's longing is to comfort that exile, but I am currently stymied as to how.


marie therese 1 said...

But those, dear Pentimento, who sing of the true 'affairs of the heart' are rare, gentle, dear and bless with love all those whom they touch. My father and grandmother played four-handed piano in the evenings. There many exiles of the heart out there and yours is truly 'soul music.' And you have helped my heart today.

BettyDuffy said...

Have you read this post? Very similar theme on there being unrest among he faithful.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, you have such a unique way of looking at the world that every time I read a post like this, I have to pause to let it all sink in. "Exile" is not a theme I usually see in my own life (which might sound funny coming from me, given some of my "Igor" thoughts), but it is true that I don't feel that I belong where I am. I'd definitely be a kinder person if I reflected that others must feel the same way.

You might remember that one of my tutees is handicapped with Tourette syndrome and ADHD. His mother, his teachers and I do our darndest to help him function in this world, but I don't think I've ever stopped to think what his world--the world he would feel most at home and happy in--is actually like.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, friends, for your kind words. Marie Therese 1, I started when I read your comment, wondering if we knew each other in real life and if you've been to any of my concerts, because you describe so beautifully what I've always striven to do.

Betty, thanks for the link. I hadn't read that post. Perhaps the unrest among the faithful is simply fallout from the fact that we really are all in exile on this earth.

Enbrethiliel, I did not know about your student. One thing I've read recently is that children with autism spectrum disorders are delayed in the development of what's called "theory of mind," which is the understanding that not everyone thinks, knows, and feels as they do. I think I'm quite delayed in that myself.

Rodak said...

As they often have, your words have provided water to that place within me that constantly threatens to become desert. Thank you.

Pentimento said...

Watered by tears, Rodak.

Anonymous said...

I thank God for those like you who have been given the gift of a beautiful voice.

Oh, how I wish that God had given me one. How I wish that could sing the hymns in full voice at Mass...I always sing quietly so that my voice will get lost in the swell of those who will carry mine with theirs in the melodic prayer lifted up to the Heavens.

Once, I dreamed I had a beautiful voice; I could actually hear myself singing, and I was so happy...but I was made to be a dandelion in God's earthly choirgarden... although perhaps if I make it to Heaven, He has a voice waiting for me there, to sing an eternity of Holies. :)

Pentimento said...

That is beautiful, Anonymous. I believe He does have such a voice for you. As one of the characters in "Babette's Feast" says, in heaven we will be the artists that God meant us to be.

Amy said...

I've never thought of people regulatng their days by prayer and Mass as being in exhile, but I can see it. If your focus is not of this world, it makes perfect sense. Wonderful post.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Amy.