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.