Friday, December 21, 2012

Farewell to a Righteous Woman

As some of you know, my mother died on December 15. She had asked me to sing the great Negro spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning" at her funeral, which I was able to do in part because of the impressive sangfroid I'd developed over years as a professional singer, and in part because it occurred to me that this was the whole reason I'd become a singer in the first place.

My mother was a righteous woman who loved God, and who was inspired by this love to do good works in her community, especially for the benefit of disadvantaged urban children. In her long suffering I worried sometimes that she was losing her faith, but my worry, I now think, reflects on my own weak faith and understanding of God, for certainly God knows the effects of illness and medication, and, as we know, he did not send His son to condemn, but to redeem.

When I read the Mass readings for today, I imagined that Christ might be speaking these words to my mother (who, incidentally, did have a beautiful speaking voice):

Hark! my lover--here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
"Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
"For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!

"O my dove in the clefts of the rock,

in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Repost: Mother Mo Chroì

My mother is at the point of death. This is a re-post of a little essay I wrote about her exactly two years ago today.
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As some of my readers may know, my mother is very ill with a chronic degenerative disease from which, barring miracles, she will not recover.  One of the reasons I've been so busy this fall is that I've been traveling to see her every few weeks, which has meant mostly standing by helplessly as her condition deteriorates further, and more resources are scrambled for and determined to be out of reach.

My mother is one of the people I admire most in the world, though, until I became an adult, we had a stormy relationship.  She was a lonely girl, neglected by her own mother, who had essentially left her children for her one true love, the Communist Party.  At the age of fourteen, my mother became a Christian; in just a few short years, she also became a teen mother.  She left high school (her principal wept when she told him the news; a gifted student, she was going to be valedictorian) and worked in a factory for several years, later attending night classes and winning a full fellowship to graduate school, where she met my father.  She was a petite, dark-haired beauty who, even as a single mother, had many suitors.  She loved music, and I suspect it is from her side of the family -- musicians for generations, though she herself is not one -- that the musicality of my own generation is derived.  In her factory days, she would buy herself season tickets to the Philharmonic every year -- the cheapest seats available, which were in the top balcony, and which made the experience a mixture of transcendence and penance for her, since she was dreadfully afraid of heights, and the walk up to the top of the house, staggering in high heels and clutching the banister, was always a series of terrors.  She attended the concerts each year alone, since her friends preferred rock.

Later, in a sense, my mother left us too.  When I was a small child, she was hospitalized more than once for severe depression.  I remember my feelings of shock and betrayal when, as a five-year-old, I overheard her telling a friend that her psychiatrist had instructed her not to tell her children about the circumstances relating to her extreme grief.  Even if we found her crying, she said, she was not to tell us why, though she could pick us up and hold us.  As a small child, I was horrified by the implications of this deliberate withholding, although, nonetheless, I now know that there are some things that parents should never tell their children.

My mother taught me to read when I was three, because, she said, I was ready.  As a result, I was writing little books, perfectly punctuated and copiously illustrated, by the age of five.  Every day after school she had a project for us:  making paper, or soap, or butter; trying our hands at the arts of batik or stained glass.  Neighborhood children would come over to make our arts and crafts with us.  She was endlessly creative.  She was also a gourmet cook, which forced my siblings and me to become good cooks ourselves (one of us became a professional cook, and another semi-professional), or risk a lifetime of disappointment at our own tables.  She baked her own bread and made her own pasta, and every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas she made what my father called the Platonic idea of a pumpkin pie.  She ran a food co-op out of her tiny kitchen.

I am not exaggerating when I note that this wonderful mother also made some chilling choices, which harmed and will continue to affect her family for generations to come.  A deeply flawed woman, she made them out of fear and desperation, out of a lack of trust in God, in her children, and in herself.  She was and is, in this respect, what Nietzsche called "human, all too human."

It is one of the great sorrows of my present life to know that she is dying, though no one knows the hour or the day.

This is for her.  You'll have to turn it up.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Things Have Happened

This is without a doubt one of the best poems I've ever read, by the late Canadian poet Alden Nowlan, who suffered a great deal of hardship in his life. The poem is about an experience he shared with his wife and her son, whom he adopted.

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Great Things Have Happened

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, "Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time." But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn't mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I'm sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

"Is that all?" I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you've never visited
before, when the bread doesn't taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

(From What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread. © Nineties Press, 1993.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Henry is Home

During Jude's adoption process, I had the pleasure of getting to know Carla, the giving and generous mother of a large family. Carla fought long and hard to adopt little Henry, a baby in a Ukrainian orphanage with a rare and serious health condition, and then longer and harder to provide him not only with a loving home, but also with the extensive medical care he needed to grow and thrive. Carla was Henry's fierce and untiring advocate from the moment she found out about him.

Last night, following complications from a recent surgery (the last of many), Henry went to his real home. He was two years old.

The writer Andrew Solomon has gotten a lot of adulation from the press lately for his just-released book, Far From the Tree, which explores the confounding -- to him -- ability of parents to love their children who, among other things, were born with severe disabilities. He would have done well to learn from people like Carla, who actively seek out and choose such children to love.

Leila writes movingly:

Carla had big dreams for her Henry -- that he would be free of pain, and that he would walk and dance and run! That he would be a faithful disciple of Christ Jesus, becoming a pure reflection of our Lord to all who encountered him, and that he would become a great saint, enter into Heaven, and dwell in the House of the Lord forever!

All these dreams of his loving mother have been realized tonight.

Henry is with God, in a place where there is no more pain and no more weeping. But his family is devastated. Please pray for them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Artists and the Church: A Jazz Mass


An excellent article about the efforts of the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, above, to have the Masses she composed celebrated, rather than "performed."

(The author notes that there are few "jazz performers in the Pantheon of great Catholic artists," but he neglects to mention Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and the Marsalis brothers, among many others.)

You haven't read it, because it's in Commonweal!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winterreise Smackdown

You know and love this performance.



But this one is better. (It starts at 13:34. Sorry, I couldn't find a video just of this one number.)



It just is.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tear-Water Tea

This may be the most perfect work of literature in the whole history of humanity (I've only recently discovered it).


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Advent Novena 2012

I will be praying the Saint Andrew novena again this Advent season.  If you're not familiar with this practice, it involves saying the following prayer fifteen times a day, from Saint Andrew's feast day, November 30, until December 24: 

Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure Virgin in a stable at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold.  At that hour, vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires (mention your intentions here).  Through Jesus Christ and His Most Blessed Mother.

I have some very pressing and difficult personal intentions that I will be praying for. I also have a tradition of praying for the intentions of others into whose friendship God has led me through the mysterious ties of the interwebs. If you would like me to add your intentions to my novena, please leave a note in the combox.

Also, please pray for our little Jude, who has to have surgery on Saint Andrew's feast day, November 30.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Saint Dorothy Update

The cause for Dorothy Day's canonization is going forward.

Cardinal Dolan, speaking at the canonically-required consultation on her cause, described Day's journey towards conversion as "Augustinian," noting that

she was the first to admit it: [there was] sexual immorality, there was a religious search, there was a pregnancy out of wedlock, and an abortion. Like Saul on the way to Damascus, she was radically changed [and has become] a saint for our time.

(Though he didn't mention it, Day was also divorced.)

Retired Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, a native New Yorker, suggested that "[of] all the people we need to reach out to, all the people that are hard to get at, the street people, the ones who are on drugs, the ones who have had abortions, she was one of them," suggesting Day as a natural advocate and intercessor for these populations, whose members she and her fellows served in the Catholic Worker movement

Nevertheless, although Day was well-known for her dedication to the spiritually backbreaking work of meeting the poor and the marginalized where they were and loving them for who they were, I believe she has a powerful message, too, for others more privileged -- for those whom Elisabeth Leseur (whose cause for canonization is also open) called "[the] carefree ones who live for themselves. They more than the others [more overtly suffering], perhaps, need to be loved."

There has been some lively discussion of Day in the comboxes of this blog, with some commenters wondering whether her past, or some of her non-theological ideas, might disqualify her from sainthood. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know that many saints were reckless, heedless, careless, destructive sinners, not to mention wrong about many things; nevertheless, the Church acknowledges these flawed individuals as sharing the company of the blessed, and we regard them as powerful advocates before God, which strikes me as ample demonstration of the simple mercy of Christ, whose ways are not our ways, and who loves sinners with a love we cannot begin to fathom.

UPDATE, 11/28/12: Lovely commentary here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More Book News (Not My Own)

As some of you may know, our good friend Sally Thomas, in addition to being an essayist, blogger, and homeschooling advocate extraordinaire, is a poet. Her work has been published in the New Yorker and First Things, among other places, and she has just come out with a collection of her poems, Brief Light. Like everything she writes, it is excellent.

If you're not familiar with her poetry, Sally is a master of classical form, uses simple language to powerful effect, sees the world around her with an unflinching eye and writes about it with a beautifully restrained quality of compassion. If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I'm a constant reader of poetry, and I do not exaggerate when I say that Sally is one of the best American poets writing. So go buy her book already.

Oh, and I see she's having a Giveaway-ish Event. You might even win a copy!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Opposite Sides of the Same Cultural Coin

Where hedonism was once a short walk around the block from profound conversion (see Augustine of Hippo, Oscar Wilde, and Ève Lavallière, among many others), it is now, according to Eve Tushnet, a culturally-sanctioned and expected segue to secular bourgeois complacency.

An excerpt:

A woman who has sex with multiple partners (maybe hooking up a lot if she’s at a more elite college), contracepting throughout and having at least one abortion, then cohabits, then marries in her early 30s if at all, might be a hedonist or a relativist. In my experience she’s much more likely to be trying to do everything right, finish her education and start climbing the economic ladder and make good rather than hasty choices in her men. Her mother usually supports or even pressures her in her decision to abort, and many of the decisions I’ve described are made not in the service of personal sexual liberation but as a means to preserve her relationships. A lot of the time it doesn’t work–the marriage or cohabitation she really hoped would be “the one” still breaks up–but she sees all the alternative choices as even riskier, and therefore irresponsible.

Read the rest of Eve's provocative and important piece. It may not square with what you've come to assume if you've been raised in a more traditional environment and have always striven towards a traditional adulthood achieved by means of a traditional morality, but in my experience, and in the experience of so many women I've known, she is absolutely right.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Does Voting Make You Evil?

It's election day, and everyone is an armchair theologian, separating the sheep from the goats. I learned four years ago just how virulently, and even proudly, some self-styled Catholic apologists indulge in slander and hate at this time, and also that they believe it is justified and defensible. Um, no, sorry.

Anyway, vote or don't vote as you wish, and here is another perspective on the matter.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Quick Takes: Playground Procrastination Edition

1. After promising radio silence yesterday, here I am back again. Remembering how I blogged my way through my dissertation calls to mind how tempting distractions are when deadlines loom. So, in the interest both of feeding my procrastination jones and of trying to get some real work done during naptime, this will be dashed off in the form of quick takes.

2. Many of the playgrounds in my new city and its environs are beautiful in the sense that the equipment is new and top-of-the-line, and some are very nicely landscaped into the surrounding parks. Many of these parks, though, are bordered on all sides by expressway overpasses, busy roads, and dive bars, which gives you a jarring feeling when you look up from spotting your toddler and remember where you are.  I've written before about the weird emptiness of the playgrounds here and the metaphysical loneliness they call forth. Sometimes, however, we're not alone when we go to play. It depends on the hour and the weather. There is one park in particular where I often see children who appear to be participating in supervised visitation with a non-custodial parent. You can tell this because there will be a bunch of children with a feckless-looking dad, long sleeves covering his arms even in summer, and a woman who appears to have no relation to the family wearing a name-badge on a lanyard around her neck; she will later take the kids away in a mini-van, while the father rides off on a bicycle too small for him.

3. Sometimes in the playground I'll see a young mother sitting on a bench, her head bent over her hands, which are working rapidly before her. I'll think, "Oh, a knitter!" and have a warm rush of nostalgia for playgrounds in certain neighborhoods of New York, as well as for graduate school, the subway, and other places where women, including me, would knit when we had the chance to sit down. I move closer to see what she's working on, but as I come nearer, I realize that the mom in the playground is actually texting. It's a small reminder of the fact that very few people in our culture make things with their hands now, and that we spend inordinate amounts of time on the fleeting and the evanescent.

4. It's hard not to think of my new city as a troubled place. I don't mean just in the obvious economic sense shared by so many post-industrial cities in the Rust Belt; it also seems to me that people are unhappy here. The other day I drove to CVS to get a jug of milk, and parked my car next to another that was blaring hip-hop through the open windows. Inside were a preschool-aged white girl in a car seat and a dreadlocked black man clearly not her father. When I got into the store, I picked out the mother right away, in fleece pajama pants with her hair pulled back severely. Why is this an emblem of unhappiness to me? Because of the obvious rupture in the little girl's family of origin. Because so many poor women are on a chronic lonely search to find a man who will love them and their children, a man who will stay, and because that search so often proves fruitless. Because their children bounce from school to school as the women move in with boyfriend after boyfriend. Because this happens all the time here.

5. I want to bring something good to this troubled place, but I don't know how. In spite of the fact that the music I spent most of my career performing is intimate, beautiful, even healing, and in spite of the fact that I believe people here truly need that kind of beauty as a tonic for the soul, I'm also quite sure that no one here wants to hear it. So instead I'm writing this book that I've been asked to write, which a few people will read, but not the right ones somehow.

6. Nonetheless, I think about my book contract. I think about my children. I think about my house. I think about the fact that I can drive a car, which is no small feat. I think that, had we remained in New York, these things would all look, and indeed be, very different. We certainly wouldn't have Jude.

7. But still, I would like to give something beautiful to this place.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book News

I've been quiet here lately because of the big project that I mentioned a while back. That project was a book proposal, and the result (hoped-for, of course) has been that I've been offered a book contract, which is naturally an even bigger project. It's not the sort of book contract that some people maintain blogs in the hopes of landing (those people, of course, don't generally blog anonymously); it's a scholarly book on an obscure theoretical topic in music and cultural studies. It will be published in 2014 by a well-respected academic press, but it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever see any profits from it. In fact, I would be very surprised if, after its publication, more than a hundred people ever read my book, though I hope some scholars might find it useful.

Anyway, all this to say that I will be maintaining some kind of intermittent blogging routine over the next several months, since I will be working against a deadline, have a lot of research to do, and have limited windows of time in which to do it. There are lots of things I would like to write about here -- quietly, anonymously -- but for the most part I'll have to make use of my free time to work quietly and virtually anonymously on this other project.

Love to all in the meantime.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

True Success

As I've mentioned, I'm mostly too busy to blog these days. But I wanted to share this, from an occasional column published in the Guardian by Wayne Gooderham, who posts the handwritten dedications he finds in secondhand books:

To my darling Rose,
I once read this in a novel about Chinese life: "Success. What is it? A bubble that breaks at the touch. A shallow dream that too often ends in bitterness and despair. . . .


Do read the rest; you won't fail to be moved.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Map of Mercy

The monk must learn how to sin, to be broken, to stand in need, so as to taste the mercy of God. His heart must be shattered and then mended. It thus becomes a map of Christ's mercy. Scars remain deeply engraved on it, making the heart of the monk a testament to the unrestricted forgiveness of God still on offer to every human being.

-- Michael Downey, 
Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire


H/T: Dark Speech Upon the Harp

Friday, September 28, 2012

Poetry Friday: To Ninety

A city sparrow
touches down
on a bare branch

in the fork of a tree
through whose arms
the snow is sifting —

swipes his beak
against wood, this side
then that,

and flies away:
what sight
could be more common?

Yet I think
for such sights alone
I would live to ninety.

-- Robyn Sarah, from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 29: Pavane for a Dead Soprano

One early-summer day fifteen years ago I saw, while walking around my old neighborhood, a flier for an apartment sale -- one that promised opera scores, costumes, and gowns. Being not only a struggling young opera singer but also an inveterate apartment- and stoop-sale junkie, I made my way over to the address listed, a couple blocks from my own building. There I saw a middle-aged singer I knew by sight from the neighborhood, the friend of friends of mine, presiding over the sale of the contents of a pre-war tenement apartment, the kind whose walls have been painted so many times without being scraped first that they look wavy, with a bearded middle-aged man. I pieced together that the things for sale had belonged to the man's sister, a soprano. This woman, whom I did not know, had died suddenly of an aneurysm in the middle of a Thursday-night rehearsal for one of her bread gigs, a church job at the lovely little Dutch Reformed church just down the street, whose choir was blessed by an abundance of local talent in the form of struggling opera singers from the neighborhood (there were a lot of us). She was in her mid-forties.

The soprano must been a lyric coloratura. The ghoulishness of the situation notwithstanding, I made off with the Schirmer scores of Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor, along with a pile of sheet music, some costume jewelry, and a couple of recital gowns. In fact, I bought so much of her stuff that her grieving brother, seeing me eyeing a tea-strainer -- the kind that looks like a little colander on a stick -- tucked it into the pocket of the big old man's shirt I was wearing. It appeared that he and the singer who I recognized from the neighborhood (she had sung with the dead woman in the church choir) had started some sort of romance, and I was glad for them.  On the way out, I saw a pile of the deceased woman's promotional postcards, no doubt ready to be mailed out to booking agents. They showed her in a variety of comedic poses, and I realized that the soprano, no longer young and easily cast-able as Lucia or Violetta, was attempting to move into character-actress work.

These memories came rushing back to me the other day when I saw Jude playing with the tea strainer, which has remained in my possession over the intervening years and four subsequent moves. I wondered if, like Babette, she was now delighting the angels in heaven, where she had become "the great artist that God meant [her] to be." I thought of some other middle-aged artists I had known from bread gigs of various kinds, some of them with prominent pasts: the former director of a theater program at a Midwestern university; the former award-winning fashion designer whose management company fired her for being too old when her long-time agent died; the tenor whose childhood of sexual abuse caught up with him just as he was achieving a stable degree of success, causing an undiagnosable psychosomatic condition that robbed him of the ability to walk; and many others. I thought about the untimely death from metastatic breast cancer of the luminous Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who worked steadily and quietly for many years before achieving the international fame she merited, and then died at 52, and of the charismatic voice teacher with whom I'd studied briefly, who'd worked with Bernstein and been friends with Jacqueline du Pré and her widower Daniel Barenboim, and who opined that great musicians seemed to be canaries in some sort of global-spiritual-crisis of a coal mine; since so many of them died in their primes, there must be a cosmic plan to it.

At the same time, I recently finished a new memoir of bohemian New York, a literary genre of which I'm particularly fond, but this one did not call forth the bittersweet elegiac sense that the best of them do. In fact, this one -- ironically, written by a friend of mine -- I found depressing. The book chronicles the author's debauched young adulthood simultaneously with the transformation of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from shunned ghetto to chic arrondissement. I've never lived in Williamsburg and was not part of the circle he describes, but I felt a strange, unpleasant sense of voyeurism while reading about other people's drug-and-sex-addled days and nights, which took place during roughly the same time I was pillaging the dead soprano's apartment and my first marriage, along with my own opera career, was slowly unraveling.

I spoke recently on the phone with an old colleague from those days, a wonderful lyric tenor and devout Catholic who has sung in many of the world's major houses, including the Met, and, after the initial years of struggle, was having an important career. His wife has been battling a debilitating illness for the past few years, and he's cancelled some very important gigs in order to stay home and care for her. "I'm back to where I was fifteen years ago," he told me. He has a church job and is teaching for a foundation that offers free music classes to adults with disabilities. "And," he added, "I'm totally at peace with it." He left his wife at home for years with their children while he was out on the road; backing out of his major career now, he said -- a career that requires ten months a year away from home -- is the least he can do.

"And you," he said, "Look how far you've come." I didn't know what he was talking about. I hadn't had a major career. I'd left everything and moved to the middle of nowhere, where no one knows "who I am," or even, for that matter, who I am. I expend a great deal of my daily strength managing my autistic son's difficult behavior. I barely sing anymore.

But he explained that he meant how far I'd come spiritually. He knew me back in the day -- the young singer who bought the dead soprano's scores and gowns, the young singer who sacrificed everything sacred on the altar of ambition -- and I supposed that he might, in some way, be right.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flying High


Yes, I know she's not a real nun. So?

Happy Feast of Saint Joseph of Cupertino.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Restless for Good Art"

If this is the dynamic of art—reaching into reality, being changed by it, and revealing that transformative truth to others—then we can understand why books, films, or paintings that only serve as a vehicle for spreading an idea fail as art. Formally speaking, they are more akin to propaganda, even if they use the material of art. . . . Making a movie because I want more people to acknowledge St. Augustine as the greatest doctor of the Latin Church may be laudable catechesis, but it won’t turn into art. 

A pithy analysis of why self-consciously Catholic art is so often bad.


Friday, September 7, 2012

"How is it that those girls get married, and we don't?"

And you thought it was just because you were a faithful Catholic!

A lovely little essay here. An excerpt:

There we are. Me, in a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse, knee-length pencil skirt, in the midst of a heat wave . . . while the city’s bright-eyed interns run about with bare shoulders and flip-flops.

Oh, and if you liked the essay, then you have to see the lovely little chick flick Arranged.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 28: Don't Look Back

About four years ago, my husband was offered his current job. He said at the time that if I didn't want to leave New York, he'd turn it down, but I told him I thought he should take it. The job represented real career advancement, came with a substantial pay raise, and was located in an area blessed with natural beauty and in which one could live on much less than in New York. In addition, he was extremely frustrated with the job he had then, and I was just coming off my third miscarriage in a row and might have been secretly yearning a little for what they call in A.A. " the geographical cure."

I thought of these things this morning as I drove from Mass through our decrepit downtown (the downtown which, every time I pass through it, I tell myself could be great, cool, and charming, when in fact it's pockmarked with abandoned storefronts, its roads continually under construction). Where would we be now, I wondered, if I had decided four years ago that I simply couldn't leave New York? If you're from there, you know that this type of person actually exists; there are members of my own family who have predicated their professional and family lives upon the axiom that they must never, ever move away from New York (and I have other friends and family members who once held to this position, but allowed it to relax over time when they found that they just couldn't get a job in their fields).

I feel especially nostalgic at this time of year, generally a beautiful time in New York, when the light has softened over even the most ramshackle auto-body shops in the Bronx, and the late-summer cicadas sing from every weed growing up from a sidewalk crack. I travel back in my mind, seeking after certain sense memories, trying to recall fragrances and sights: the smell of strong coffee wafting through the open doors of Puerto Rican lunch counters, the faint tang of smoke in the salty city air, the refraction of the mellow light through the trees, the plums and figs piled up under the awnings outside the Korean fruit-sellers'. But I know that there is no good reason to do this. If I strive, as I say the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, to surrender my memory and my will to the direction of Christ, then I know that I will at some point have to stop chasing the lovely ghosts of memory.

In his song "She Belongs to Me," Bob Dylan describes a woman who has "everything she needs":

She's an artist, she don't look back

I would like to be like this woman, who also "never stumbles;/She's got no place to fall," a line that, for some reason, makes me think of Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," especially the breathtaking last line about the heaviest nuns "keeping their difficult balance." 

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

I am striving against memory to keep my difficult balance in the world in which I now find myself. As my cousin said once, "Don't look back. You're not going that way."

 


 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Poetry Friday: Zimmer in Grade School


In grade school I wondered
Why I had been born
To wrestle in the ashy puddles
With my square nose
Streaming mucus and blood,
My knuckles puffed from combat
And the old nun's ruler.
I feared everything: God,
Learning, and my schoolmates.
I could not count, spell, or read.
My report card proclaimed
These scarlet failures.
My parents wrung their loving hands.
My guardian angel wept constantly.

But I could never hide anything.
If I peed my pants in class
The puddle was always quickly evident,
My worst mistakes were at
The blackboard for Jesus and all
The saints to see.
        Even now,
When I hide behind elaborate mask,
It is always known that I am Zimmer,
The one who does the messy papers
And fractures all his crayons,
Who spits upon the radiators
And sits all day in shame
Outside the office of the principal.

-- Paul Zimmer

More Poetry Friday at Poetry for Children.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

I.e., Not the Same Thing as Voting Republican

Ed Mechmann works for the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, and is a member of my former parish. This is from the blog he writes for the Archdiocese:

Being “pro-life” — as opposed to merely taking “pro-life” positions — has a much broader and deeper meaning [than winning elections].  It involves a recognition of the sacredness of life, its inherent dignity, that views each individual human being as having inestimable value because he or she is made in the image and likeness of God.  It rejects a reductionist or utilitarian view of humanity, where lives are disposable if they are inconvenient, not “useful”, or if they came into being in a way that we disapprove.   It entails a commitment to defending each and every life against abuse, from whatever source.  It calls people to acts of direct service to the poor, the vulnerable, and the frail.  It is an attitude of reverence in the divine presence, seen in every human person [emphasis added].

Read the rest here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"He ate at Outback. Of course you had to abort." [UPDATED]

"Believe me when I tell you that I'm not superficial."

Not sure where the love story is in this, unless it's on the part of the author towards herself.

The best part of this sad and disturbing article is the comments (though tread cautiously if you're sensitive or easily offended); my title quote is one of these in its entirety.

UPDATE: Seraphic provides an excellent analysis of the article.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and the Sense of the Tragic

I'm sure most of you read the Darwins' excellent blog, but just in case you haven't seen Darwin's post on Todd Akin's indefensible remarks about "legitimate rape" and conception yet, here is a link to it.  As Darwin notes:

My own thought is that we as Americans find these kinds of moral issues very difficult because we have no tragic sense: we labor under the illusion that doing the right things means that bad things won't happen to you, or that if misfortune comes doing the right thing will necessarily lessen our suffering right away. Often it doesn't. 

I would add to this the fact that our culture is falsely predicated upon the notion that we deserve happiness, which was, perhaps, the basis of Sharron Angle's offensive suggestion that conception by rape should be regarded by the victim as a "lemonade situation." Surely it's not cooperating with evil to acknowledge that every rape victim would not welcome her rapist's child.

I would suggest further that conservatives study and learn from liberals' sense that some things are incredibly difficult and that there's simply no remedy for it. If Todd Akin and Sharron Angle had not tried to find happy little hedges for their difficult and painful beliefs --  because, while I agree that abortion is not the answer to these tragedies, this is a difficult and painful belief -- I would not regard them with ridicule, which I do.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tanning While Rome Burns

My family and I recently went on a beach vacation at a spot we’ve been going for several years, having started this yearly sojourn when we still lived in New York.  In fact, it’s not a particularly arduous place to get to from New York, but from where we live now the trip seems counterintuitive at best. It’s full of Italians from the Bronx, so it’s an easy place to slip back into, even for my non-Italian-American husband, who has nevertheless lived among Italian-Americans for a good part of his life. I suppose we keep going back because not only the place, but also its ethos, are so familiar to us, but we can’t help viewing it, now, from something of a critical distance. Or maybe I should say, in my case, from something of a heightened critical distance, because I’ve never been a great one for the beach, and I’m starting to realize that I’m not a great one either for that elusive pursuit of that intangible essence that people know as having fun.

The truth is, I go to the beach, and I see the crowds evidently enjoying themselves as they tan or read or drink or body-surf, and it unsettles me.  I always want to leave before everyone else, because I hate the feeling of having stayed too long, and having to leave as the sun is setting, and you’re hungry and a little dazed from the sunshine and covered with sand, and you have to schlep your chairs, umbrella, and cooler back to where you’re staying. Anyone, I’m sure, would want to collapse under these circumstances, but I also want to cry.  There’s something so brittle about it – all the forced merriment in the bright sun, the making the most of the last days of summer – and it makes me sad. I had the same feeling recently at one of the big events I’m occasionally constrained to attend with my husband for his work.  Having to wear a cocktail dress and attempt something sophisticated with my still-graduate-student-looking hair, to drink and dine with prominent citizens of my new town, and to dance to the same band that plays the same music at every single one of these events (and I actually happen to think this band is very good) sent me halfway toward despair and rushing to the confessional the next day. I told the priest, who knows me, and who had, incidentally, also been in attendance the previous night, that I felt as though I'd been watching everyone dancing before a yawning chasm into which Death was pushing them unawares, and was this normal, or did he think that maybe I needed some antidepressants?

He didn’t address this last question directly, but I sometimes wonder if my relationship with God is just not meant to be one of those joyful ones that I’ve heard about all my life.  I truly believe that not everyone is meant to know that kind of joy in a place that is, after all, known officially in some quarters as “this vale of tears,” and so sometimes I wonder why everyone is trying so hard; after all, the "ego" in "et in Arcadia ego" is commonly understood to be death. But some people are surely meant to struggle more, to swim more arduously upstream, than others, and I am either one of them or else am hopelessly neurotic.  Nonetheless, I pray St. Ignatius’s Suscipe each morning upon waking, because I can’t help but feel that I am so steeped in my difficult past that its color has seeped into my very bones and tinted them the darkest of blues.

Here is a mélodie by Debussy, “Chevaux de bois,” number 4 of his song-cycle Ariettes Oubliées, a setting of a poem by Paul Verlaine about a fairground carousel which in some ways echoes my feelings about the beach and summer vacation in general.

Turn, turn, good little wooden horses,
turn a hundred times, turn a thousand times,
turn often and turn always,
turn, turn to the sound of the oboes.

The child in red and his mother in white,
the boy in black and the girl in pink,
One in pursuit, and the other striking a pose,
each of them pays his Sunday penny.

Turn, turn, horses of their hearts,
while all around your turning
the sly pickpocket is watching --
turn to the sound of the victorious cornet.

It is astonishing the way it intoxicates you
to keep turning around in this stupid circle,
empty stomach, aching head,
feeling sick and yet having loads of fun.

Turn, wooden horses, with no need
of spurs
to command you to gallop;
turn, turn, without any hope of hay.

And hurry, horses of their souls--
Already night is falling, calling to supper
the troops of jolly drinkers, made hungry by their thirst.

Turn, turn! The velvet sky slowly begins
to clothe itself in golden stars.
The church bell tolls sadly.
Turn to the happy sound of the drums.

(Above: Detail from Guyhot Marchant’s Danse Macabre des Femmes, 1491.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Autism and Gender-Fluidity

I found this article in the New York Times Magazine, and the accompanying comments, fascinating. As the mother of a child with autism, I've often found myself feeling similar to how I imagine the parents of Alex -- the "gender-fluid" little boy -- felt when they sent an email to his classmates' parents, advising them to take it in stride when Alex wore a dress to preschool. But beyond what I imagine to be our shared emotions, the similarities end. Alex's parents can smooth their son's way by alerting the other children and adults in his path to his differences, and encouraging them to accept them. In a society that is becoming increasingly conscious of behavior that transcends gender norms, and increasingly open to experimenting in the gray area outside of those norms, Alex is sure to find his own milieu of open-minded friends and teachers who will write off his non-normative behavior as quirky.

As the mother of a child with autism, however, it has never occurred to me to send around a note about the possibility of my son being unusually difficult and disruptive if his expectations are thwarted in some way, if a slight change has been made to the day's anticipated plans, or if he makes a mistake in something he's writing, drawing, or playing on the violin. That's because children on the autism spectrum are expected to conform to certain norms of behavior. If a child has a diagnosis and an I.E.P., chances are that he will be assisted as he strives to meet those norms. But there's no equivalent, for autistic children, of "gender-variant" camp, where gray-area-gendered children are encouraged to dress up and play as the opposite sex. Certainly there are autism camps, but they tend to be of the intensive-training-to-enable-you-to-pass-for-neurotypical-and-thus-minimize-the-odds-of-having-a-miserable-life variety -- that is, not places where "neurologically-variant" children are encouraged to let all their autistic traits hang out, so to speak, in all the chaotic -- and disturbing -- glory such a thing would entail.

It is difficult for my son, as it is for all spectrum children, to conform to those norms. Like the parents of the gender-fluid kids, I worry about his future, and pray that he will have friends. But I know that it's not up to me, no matter how much I wish it were, to try to persuade other people to accept him as he is. I know, instead, that there is a balance that he will have to learn to strike for himself between conforming to the world's standards and being himself a standard bearer for neuro-atypicality and the very real gifts that it conveys. There is no autistic equivalent of a boy in a dress, nor even a "We're here, we're autistic, get used to it" t-shirt. While some of the people in Alex's world will find him adorable for wearing a dress in public, no one will find my truly adorable six-year-old so for having an atomic-level tantrum in public because McDonald's was all out of the mix for their vanilla shakes and he was compelled to choose something else.

So, on the one hand, I think, go on with yourselves, Alex and your parents. No one should care what you do; I certainly don't. But on the other hand, I'm not convinced that any attempts should be made to establish gender-fluid behavior as normative. Alex's parents should, rather, make it clear to their son that the world is not going to cut him slack as he gets older, and that, if he chooses to flout gender-normative behavior, things will be difficult for him. This is not cause for despair; it's acceptance of the way things are, and if Alex chooses to continue to cross-dress in public, he will undoubtedly develop an admirably strong character. After all, the world doesn't cut autistic kids -- or adults -- much slack, and it's up to us as parents to let our children know that they will have to control their impulses or pay the price. I don't see why the parents of gender-fluid children shouldn't do the same.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Yesterday is Not Today

I haven't been posting much here, in part because I don't have as much free time for musing, let alone writing, with a new two-year-old around, and in part because the demands of quotidian life have been more pressing lately than this blog. I've noticed something similar with the other blogs I still manage to read, which number far fewer than they used to for the same reasons.

There are also other vaguer and more existential reasons I've been blogging less. One is something that gradually occurred to me on one of my now-daily drives through the place that I live. I don't enjoy driving much yet; in fact, I keep myself up some nights thinking about the places that I have to get to the next day and planning routes to them that will not involve having to make a lot of left-hand turns. I've also found, curiously, that though I'm inclined to profanity in my non-driving life, I've been uncharacteristically restrained in the car: I find myself uttering "Please get off my tail already" under my breath rather often, and, if someone cuts me off, which is frequent, I might let loose with a mild epithet like "Oh, man!" I think that swearing is usually inspired by a kind of self-righteous indignation, and I just don't have the confidence as a driver to assume that I'm right in any driving situation.

But anyway, it dawned on me as I was driving my kids somewhere how much driving changes a former New Yorker's life. I don't mean the obvious facts of greatly-increased mobility and independence, but the fact that, in a car, you become a sort of secret agent. In New York, your agency is out there on the street.  In New York, I was accustomed to being looked at -- not because I'm particularly stunning, but because everyone there is looked at. There's much more of a sense, there, that one's life is lived openly in the public square. In New York, after all, to get to where you're going you have to ride on a subway or bus with many other people, and then walk down a crowded street with many other people. There are many daily functions, including eating and making phone calls, that you're constrained to do in public each day (in my opinion, clipping one's nails, applying full-face makeup, and shaving do not fall into that category, though I've seen people do all of these and worse on the subway). if you're an extrovert, you thrive on this sense of shared purpose, even if it's shared only by virtue of circumstance or necessity, and if you're an introvert, you develop a coping strategy, a game face. I suppose I was a little of both, but I never went to the bodega without lipstick on, I dated a couple of men I met on the subway, and I went to and from my bread gig in high heels, no matter how painful they were by the end of the day (though I stopped wearing high heels after 9/11, just in case I ever had to run away from someplace really fast; one of my friends who lived in my building did, in fact, have to limp eight miles home in stilettos on that day, since the subways and buses had shut down).

This is a different place, though, and in a car, no one sees you. For a former New Yorker, it conveys a tree-falling-in-the-forest sort of feeling. It doesn't matter how my hair looks, and it matters even less what I am thinking about. Most people are just trying to pass me illegally, which is fine with me. I put on the classical-music FM radio station and play guess-the-composer, a game I've always enjoyed, and I have the sense that I'm creating my own little pod which keeps at bay the pervasive sense of lassitude and purposelessness that I see in the jobless men and the women in their pajamas and the boarded-up buildings that I drive past each day. Since my car has no air-conditioning, I sometimes wonder what effect the music that escapes through my open windows might have upon the denizens of my new city. What does it do to you to hear unfamiliar Schumann or Beethoven on a relentless summer day? Do the thrilling strains of the Seventh Symphony act as some kind of cooling agent, or some sort of rising agent, on the system? Can they change the heart?

Sometimes I sing along. Sometimes I turn off the radio and do vocal warm-ups. It doesn't matter what I do. And that is the crux of the matter.

A few years ago, on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, I had a dream that Christ ascended into heaven on the cross. We know that's not what happened, of course, but I think the message in the dream was that we ascend by descending, as it were -- that is, by accepting humility. Indeed, the more I drive around my depressed little town in my hot little car with three hubcaps missing blaring classical music, the more I get the sense that, as John the Baptist said, I must decrease. And for someone who's used to being looked at that can be a little hard.

I noticed that my last post, the poem "Skyscrapers," went up on the five-year anniversary of my very first post. This blog started as an online diary, and, in writing it, I have written candidly about some of my sins and obscurely about others. I have tried to excavate my own memory in the hope of transmuting it into something beautiful, of spinning refuse into gold. Sometimes I still think that might be possible, but more and more I'm beginning to feel that I have to stop living in the past. God will transform bitter, devastating memory according to His own purposes if I let go of it and give it over to Him; it's not up to me. As Saint Ignatius's "Suscipe" prayer says:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

Perhaps I need to stop mining the ore of memory in order to be able to go forward into a new kind of smallness and quietness, a kind of fruitful unimportance. So much of my memory is the memory of sin, and, as someone who knows a lot about these things once told me, you don't need to tell people about your sins, because your sins are lies. In fact, as this person said further, your sins are shit, and you don't go around showing people your shit.

Since a great deal of this blog's content has been an exploration of my past sins, I'm not sure how much longer I'll be keeping up with it. I also have a big writing project coming up that's going to take up most of Jude's naptimes for the foreseeable future. For now, though, I will continue to check in here when I'm feeling inspired.

I will close now with a poem by Paul Bowles, which in many ways evokes the way I feel right now (Bowles, a composer as well as a poet and novelist, wrote a fine art-song setting of his own poem, but I couldn't find a decent performance on Youtube).

Once a Lady Was Here 

Once a lady was here.
A lady sat in this garden,
And she thought of love.
The sun shone the same,
The breeze bent the grasses slowly
As it's doing now.
So nothing has changed.
Her garden still looks the same,
But it's a diff'rent year.
Soon the evening comes down,
And paths where she used to wander
Whiten in the moonlight,
And silence is here.
No sound of her footsteps passing
Through the garden gate.
No, nothing has changed.
Her garden still looks the same,
But yesterday is not today.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Poetry Friday: Skyscrapers


The Flatiron Building,
first "scraper," squat,
like a snout.
Today it hardly scrapes the sky.

The Chrysler Building,
still the most beautiful,
most elegant. It points
its tiara toward heaven.

The Empire State Building,
majestic but haughty.
Imperious, indifferent,
scene of the most suicides.

The Twin Towers, doomed,
still speak to one another
but in whispers.
You hear them around nine A.M. 


(Above: Alfred Steichen, Flatiron Building, 1905)  

More Poetry Friday at Life is Better with Books.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tragedy

I've just learned that Kimberlie of Welcome to the Dumpling House has lost her husband. The two of them adopted four children from China, including an older boy with medical needs who has been home for less than two years. My heart breaks for her and for their four children, who knew the love of their father for such a short time. Please pray for them.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Something Beautiful

This summer, against the background noise of complaints that "my friends don't have to do this," I've embarked on a learning-at-home program with my son who's going into first grade (I won't call it homeschooling, because we are not what you would call a homeschooling family). We are doing various unit studies of my own design, starting with a central text on a particular topic and then branching out to ancillary texts. My son then has to write a sentence and draw an illustration in his journal every day based on our reading.

We started out with the topic of making the world more beautiful, a subject dear to my heart. We read the wonderfully straightforward Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, with its evocative folk-art-like illustrations, as our main text, and then went on to others that supported the same notion: Mole Music by David McPhail, about a mole who takes up the violin with consequences further-reaching than he can imagine; the classic Frederick by Leo Lionni, about the worth of the work of the artist; and, finally, a book that was new to me, which I found by happy chance, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.

This book has become one of my favorites in any genre, and my son wants to hear it again and again. It is about a little girl, in a neighborhood that looks very much like my old Bronx, who is saddened by the dearth of beauty in the hardscrabble world around her. She goes on a quest to discover what is beautiful, what has value, and what gives happiness to the hearts of her friends and family, and in the end resolves to take concrete steps to bring beauty to a place that knows little of it. The book itself is a beautiful thing, with an admirably simple and restrained narrative and wonderfully realistic pictures by Chris Soentpiet, a veteran illustrator who was, incidentally, adopted from Korea and has also illustrated a sensitive book by Eve Bunting, Jin Woo, about an older sibling coming to terms with his family's adoption of Korean baby.

I read an article recently about the ways that the wave of gentrification which has turned most of the five boroughs into a playground for the wealthy has averted the Bronx. I only lived in the borough as an adult, but all my life, when riding the subway in the outer boroughs where the lines go above-ground, I pondered the many sections in my vast city where neighborhoods seemed to consist of one auto-body shop after another (many of them surely chop shops), aluminum-shuttered bodegas where the only fresh foods were onions and plantains, and twenty-four-hour laundromats. These were places where not a single green thing seemed to grow, and yet children ran through the streets and played in the spray from illegally-opened fire hydrants. What was it like for children, I used to wonder, to live in a place where they never saw anything beautiful?

Sharon Dennis Wyeth's book gives one answer. She does not condemn the inequality that compels some children to live amid poverty and ugliness. Rather, she suggests that the beautiful may be something that cannot be comprehended by the senses, something hidden, secret, and essential, and that it is something to whose revelation we all can -- and should -- contribute.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Lordly Hudson

"Driver, what stream it is?" I asked, well knowing
it was our lordly Hudson hardly flowing.
"It is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing," 
he said, "under the green-grown cliffs."

Be still, heart! no one needs your passionate 
suffrage to select this glory--
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs.


"Driver! has this a peer in Europe or the East?"
"No no!" He said. Home! Home!
Be quiet, heart! This is our lordly Hudson
and has no peer in Europe or the East,


this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs
and has no peer in Europe or the East.
Be quiet, heart! home! home! 


-- Paul Goodman

Above: Hudson River Looking South From West Point (Robert Walter Weir, c. 1865)  


More Poetry Friday at A Teaching Life.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Business

I don't usually write here about how fantastic my children are, because, while it's a topic of endless fascination to me, I'm sure it interests no one else. Nonetheless, I'm going to put in a quick Jude update here to mention that the way he is being woven into the fabric of our family can only be described as amazing. He is a great little kid, and it seems as if he's always been here. He's also adjusting really well. I took him for an evaluation to see if he'd qualify for speech therapy under Early Intervention, and he didn't; in spite of the fact that the supervising speech-language pathologist has other adopted Chinese children his age in her practice, it turned out that Jude's acquired language, despite the fact that he was nonverbal in Mandarin and English three months ago, was too good. It is pretty adorable to see him point to various things and, when I hand them to him, to hear him cheerily reply "Ta-tee [thank you], Mama!" before toddling off, or when he puts on his little backpack which he's crammed full of doo-dads, calling "'Mon, Ree-ree," to his brother (whose name sounds nothing like Ree-ree) and beckoning with extravagant arm gestures before setting off on some adventure. As a friend of mine put it, "Jude is the business."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monday, July 9, 2012

TomKat

If you haven't noticed, Hollywood gossip is not in the general purview of this blog.

I loved this post, however.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 26: Heroin


About fifteen years ago I began the transition from pursuing a standard career as an opera singer to pursuing a recital career based mostly on the fruits my own research, a transition that would become final when I left my opera management the day before September 11, 2001. This change was precipitated by my meeting F., a wonderful Italian collaborative pianist and musicologist, on Saint Patrick's Day, 1996. Before long, we were researching and performing together, and he was my exclusive recital partner until he took a teaching job in Europe in 2005.

One day we were on our way to a gig in one of the mid-Atlantic states. We had walked from our late lamented neighborhood across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to rent a used car, had driven back to get our stuff, and now were on our way. On that drive, my colleague F. said two things that astonished me. The first was in response to my putting a Joni Mitchell CD in the car's player: he ejected it, saying, "Life is too short for bad music," and replaced it with a live recording that he had pirated himself at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy (I continue to disagree with his assessment of bad music in this case). The second happened a little further down the road, as he told me about the sunsets, mountains, and animals he'd seen while on a concert tour in Brazil. "Really, Pentimento," he asserted, "all of that is far more beautiful and important than music."

I was speechless. How could that be? Music was my elixir; no, my medicine. Thinking more about it, I wondered if it might not, more specifically, be a sort of chemo drug, a life-saving medicine that carried the risk of certain potent side effects. Nothing was more important to me. It came before, preempted, and supplanted what should have been my most important relationships. My early life had been so tenuously established, my adult life so undisciplined; music was the only constant, and sometimes I felt it was a thing even more essential to my existence than a chemo drug would be: it was oxygen itself, the most basic ingredient for my survival from one day to the next. I clung to it like a vine that heliotropes its maundering way around a trellis to get to a patch of sun. Or maybe music was my heroin, the jab that could deliver a few hours of beauty and a sense of agency into an otherwise bleak life.

Performing -- even rehearsing -- with F. has been one of the high points of my life. Our musicalities complemented one another in a way I'd never experienced before. We had plenty of conflicts in our working relationship, but working with him was one of the essential steps in my maturation as a singer and musician. We performed together just once after he moved abroad, when my first son was one year old and I was pregnant again, though I didn't yet know it. Having a baby meant that I could no longer practice obsessively, as I'd always done before, and, as we rehearsed before the gig -- the only time we had -- F. stopped and said, "How is it that you're finally singing the way you always should have sung?" I suppose it had to do with lowered expectations, with not predicating a hundred other things upon my success in that one particular performance, and with having my single-minded focus distracted and dissipated by the needs of another person.

Now F. is far, far away, and so am I. And I wonder if there is some way to convert the heroin of my former life as a singer into some kind of methadone, to ease off my addiction to that intense inner world with a duller, less devastating version of it. It's been said that pop music anchors the listener to the place and time that he heard it -- that particular summer, that one party, that boy or girl -- and that, as such, it's a mnemonically static form, whereas classical music is redolent with all kinds of associative possibilities. I'm not sure I buy that; hearing any of dozens of classical pieces evokes for me the time and place when that piece entered my life, directed my thoughts, dominated the world of my senses. It's very difficult for me, for instance, to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 without seeing a hundred moments from the years of my childhood to the years of my doctoral study; sometimes I cry when I think that Beethoven has to be dead, but I wonder if I'm not really crying for the past in general.

But the past is receding like a world seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and I must remind myself every minute to be here now, in post-industrial America, in crumbling northern Appalachia, a wife and mother, in the land where my own mother is dying and where my family members are wandering desultorily or struggling desolately, and where I seem to have lost the power and agency I once had when I was a young singer who lived for and through music.

(Above: Dame Maggie Teyte sings "Oft in the Stilly Night," which is not a folk song, as the announcer states, but rather one of the Irish Ballads of Thomas Moore, set to music by John Sullivan in the early years of the nineteenth century).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Running Up the White Flag


It's brutally hot here in northern Appalachia, but I hear that it is in New York City too. I think back upon those brutally hot days in New York, on every one of which you have to descend into the subway, whose platforms are ten degrees hotter than above ground. On days like these, the weight of your heavy backpack (in which you have to stuff all the things you need for the day because no one lives near their errands, university, work, or appointments unless they're rich, so it's not like you can swing by home to put down some things and pick up others) is more tiring, and its smell more noxious. And if you have a small child, you're schlepping not only the twenty-pound backpack, but also your child(ren) and stroller, up and down the subway stairs and bus steps in the roiling heat, and no one helps you because everyone feels insulted at some deep personal level by the weather, and so they hate you. And you hate them, too. I never realized how demoralizing this all was until I was no longer living it.

I met the mother of a first-grader at a massive end-of-the-school-year playdate yesterday who migrated here from another, deeper, part of Appalachia for her husband's work. She still owns and runs a business, however -- a boutique -- in her former town, and is going back there for the summer. In the course of our conversation, I realized that this is the same town in which my friend and fellow poetry-lover Rodak lives, and I was able to confirm that he knows my new friend's shop and has even been there with his daughters. This got me thinking about Rodak, about how he lived not at all far away from me back in the Bronx, but at a different time, a storied time, in fact, when New York was at the cusp of many things, when it wasn't what it has become today, which is, in most parts, a real-estate-porn set, a playground for people with a lot of money, a refuge for materialists who believe that being hip is about what you wear (and also about what you eat and drink and where you procure it from).

This mother's son is also mainstreamed with high-functioning autism, like my just-finished-kindergarten son. If every year could be like my son's kindergarten year, I would be overjoyed. Our neighborhood school is, quite simply, great, in spite of the fact that it's in an urban area and serves a diverse population and half of the students in the district are below the poverty level and all those other things that strike terror-about-public-school into the hearts of middle-class parents, but which are pretty much all the things I grew up with. I have been absolutely delighted with my son's classroom, teachers, and the various supports he has gotten because of his diagnosis, and he left kindergarten at the top of his class academically. He loves school, and says he wants to be a principal when he grows up, which has got to be a first.

The other day I was picking up shoes at the shoe repairman, and I couldn't find my ticket. I apologized profusely, to the point that the shoe repairman was a little nonplussed by my extreme contrition. I explained by telling him about a time when I lost a shoe repair ticket in New York, and the shop owner, rather than berating me, looked through dozens of boxes of fixed shoes while casting looks of such scorn and disgust at me, and telling me mournfully that people like me were the reason he wanted to close down his shop, that I was relieved when he actually did. "So you're a New Yorker?" the local shoe repairman asked. "Sort of," I said. I walked out of the shop scolding myself. Sort of? What did that mean? Had my allegiance flagged? Had I betrayed my beautiful city?

All of this is to say that I'm glad to be here now. And I guess I'm not really a New Yorker anymore.

(The video above is a popular, and extremely excellent, track from my youth. Be forewarned that it contains the b-word and the n-word if you're sensitive about things like that.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bags of Money

Simcha Fisher has one of the blog posts up that she comes out with sometimes -- the kind that bring you up short for a moment, then lead you to ponder the state of your soul, but in the friendliest way possible. It's about the new ministry founded by former Planned Parenthood clinic manager Abby Johnson, whose mission is to help former abortion-industry workers "through these four integral aspects: emotional, spiritual, legal and financial."

Not surprisingly, Johnson's plans have met with scorn and disgust -- from pro-lifers.

Simcha writes:

When Johnson announced her initiative on Facebook, some putative pro-lifers responded with anger and disgust at the thought of making it easy for abortionists to leave the industry. . .  several [comments suggested] that if the abortion workers really had a change of heart, they ought to quit on the spot and take a job at McDonald's to show the strength of their convictions. And a few even condemned these men and women outright, calling them murderers -- saying that, far from deserving help, they deserve to rot in hell.

Let's be very clear here. Yes, Jesus loves a leap of faith. Jesus loves martyrs. Jesus calls us to take up our cross, abandon our former lives and follow him.  But he also requires those of us who are already following him to make the journey easier for each other. We're supposed to take up our own crosses willingly, but try to make each other's crosses lighter.  

This is what St. Nicholas was doing when, according to legend, he crept through the streets at night, tossing bags of gold coins into the window of a poor famiy contemplating selling their daughters into prostitution. Or maybe you can imagine the original Santa Claus harumphing, "If they really thought prostitution was so wrong, they'd rather starve than get involved in that industry!" Nope. Bags of money. It's called "being the body of Christ" -- a body that has arms and hands that do the work.

If only pro-lifers considered how far some of them, including some of the most ardent and committed, drive those who have been involved in abortion, including the most thoroughly repentant, away. They make it seem as if self-justification, rather than demonstrating the love of Christ to (other) sinners, were the goal of their pro-life work. Remember, people, only God can read hearts.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Urgent Prayer Request

A quick one: my great friend Really Rosie has a new and very sick little baby in her extended family. The baby, a girl, was born with multiple and serious heart defects, is being helped to breathe with artificial means, and will need surgery very soon. Please pray that God will spare little baby R. and give comfort and strength to her family. May God reward you for your prayers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Poetry Friday: Majority


Now you'd be three,
I said to myself,
seeing a child born
the same summer as you.

Now you'd be six,
or seven, or ten.
I watched you grow
in foreign bodies.

Leaping into a pool, all laughter,
or frowning over a keyboard,
but mostly just standing,
taller each time.

How splendid your most
mundane action seemed
in these joyful proxies.
I often held back tears.

Now you are twenty-one.
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.

-- Dana Gioia, from Pity the Beautiful. © Graywolf Press, 2012. More Poetry Friday at A Year of Reading.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

No Shame in Smallness

In my final master's degree recital, I sang a group of Mozart songs, including a rather odd and rarely-performed one, "Verdankt sei es dem Glanz der Großen." Not being then the experienced and avid researcher I later became, I must admit that at the time I really didn't know what I was singing about. Yes, I translated every word, as I used to insist that my own students do when they were working on art songs in languages other than English, and I knew what it meant in literal terms; but the song, for all its simplicity, remained strange and rather mystical to me, and I assumed that it had something to do with Mozart's masonic affiliations. Here is a partial and paraphrased translation:

Thanks be to the glory of the great for showing me my insignificance so clearly. . . . I esteem those narrow boundaries in which I am so insignificant. Here I see stars and ornaments glistening, but they are of no interest to me, and cannot draw me out of my small circle. . . there is no shame in being small. 


It has crossed my mind lately that my life, background, and upbringing couldn't be more different from those of most of my readers here, including those whom I consider my friends. I was not raised for the life I'm living now. It's hardly necessary to detail the damage that I encountered early in life and later learned to replicate, but suffice it to say that I did not grow up with good values, morals, or catechesis, as you, perhaps, did. I did not go to Catholic school or university. I was not encouraged to become a wife or mother. I stopped going to Mass when I was eleven and didn't start again until years later. It never crossed my mind that a man would or should take care of me, and it wasn't something I particularly sought after or wanted. Rather, in spite of, or because of, my life of damage, I became a singer. From childhood on, I chased after the ethereal, the disembodied, the ungraspably beautiful that seemed to tend toward God (I would eventually learn that singing is anything but ethereal or disembodied). I tried to build my life on shards of color, scraps of sound, remembered fragrances and slants of light. In some ways it worked, and in others it failed miserably. I wonder if it failed because I was trying to make something hard out of something soft, something sharp-edged and useful as a tool or a weapon out of something warm and intimate. But in fact, I handled most phenomena in my life the same way.

Indeed, I never imagined what it might be like to be small in the essential way described in the text of Mozart's song, and the thought of being happy with such limitations frightened me. My whole life had been about kicking against the boundaries, pushing out of my way whatever conspired to keep me in smallness. So naturally I couldn't possibly understand what I was singing.

I went to Adoration yesterday, and it occurred to me that God is forcing me to grasp that kind of smallness now. I saw someone I knew there -- coincidentally, an Italian guy from the Bronx -- a tough-looking man with a shaved head who, seemingly uncharacteristically, indulges in extravagant gestures of devotion, including prostrations, frequent handling of a very large rosary on which he bestows loud kisses, profferings of monastic greetings when you run into him, and refusals to shake your hand at the Sign of Peace. I must stress that this is a genuinely holy sort of person, but I find the visible manifestations of the supposed state of his holiness a bit off-putting, and I have to admit to feeling chagrined that he was in the Adoration chapel when I walked in. I heard myself asking God, "Do You love this guy more than me? Come on, please don't love him more than me; You just can't!" which made me realize that, in spite of the fact that I was raised to make my own way in the world and for long stretches did so, all I had ever wanted was for someone to love me the best. In fact, I think that's the only reason I ever did anything.

But here and now, there is nothing but smallness. Not the life I had envisioned for myself. If being here in this crumbling post-industrial city is my school of humility, I'd rather have the school of walking around, of being among my people, of teaching my wonderful public university students: My Old School. Here it is hard work all the time and little excitement. Here there are many tears and few accolades. Here there are few opportunities to reveal that beauty that I always strove to uncover, which I later came to know was the beauty of God.

People from my old life email me and ask me when and where my next gigs are. I have to tell them I have nothing booked. I take care of my boys, each of whom has demanding and difficult special needs in different ways; I try to meet my freelance deadlines, which keep me on the edges of academia; and I try to keep the house clean. I try not to feel lonely and I try not to miss my old life, because it is gone, and probably some of it I'm well-rid of. I try to discern what God wants of me, and I can only assume He wants me to do what I'm doing now. Sometimes I long to go away to a hermitage, where I fantasize about the occurrence of profound healing and connection with God, but I understand that whatever healing and connection is going to happen is going to happen in the midst of confusion and brokenness, and I appreciate orthodox Jewish theology for insisting that the encounter with God happens in the midst of the chaos of family life and the marketplace; there is no precedent in Jewish tradition, after all, for monastic living, or celibacy, or hermitage.