Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lent: Mountains Were Mountains

I looked out the kitchen window yesterday during a lull in the afternoon and observed that the sky was gray, the same color, and seemingly the same substance, as the winter-bleached asphalt of the road, which, if there were no other houses in the way, seemed as if it could go on forever into the distant vanishing point and dissolve into that lowering metallic horizon, gray into gray. The unrelenting grayness seems to have seeped into my bones and entered my spirit. Though this happens less frequently now, my mind leapt to compare the northern-Appalachian grayness to what I used to know, in New York City, where on a day like this I would have left my house and walked and walked in the cold and the grayness until it seemed as if the March wind, which howled down certain streets unchecked and whipped scraps of paper into whirlwinds on street-corners, had swept everything contrary and unyielding from me, leaving my spirit as empty as a bare room.

The other day I was looking to buy some fava beans, but even the large supermarket chain that carries gourmet and ethnic foods didn't have them. I ended up at a little halal corner grocery store in the ghetto where, when I asked for fava beans, I was shown a whole shelf of them -- the Egyptian variety, the Palestinian variety, the Yemeni variety -- and which kind did I like? The shop was like a scrappy, rundown echo of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the blocks-long bazaar of Middle Eastern shops and restaurants where long ago I used to shop on Saturdays. I chatted with the owner, a halal butcher who told me that for twenty years he drove the 200 miles to New York every week to deliver his meat to those very shops. "In New York," he mused, "you walk out your door, and everything is handed to you."

Yes, that is true. In New York, someone has already opened that shop and sourced the gourmet groceries so that you don't have to. You can pay one thin dime, or even a penny, to time-travel and immerse yourself in the parallel dimension of the great artifacts of every culture in history at the Metropolitan Museum; a generous and well-endowed foundation has made it possible for even the broke and the poor to use their own judgment when considering the recommended $25 admission fee. You can go anywhere, you can walk anywhere. And the most beautiful trees bloom in the spring, the flowering pear trees that turn whole city blocks into tunnels roofed with white blossoms. And the gray of that rara avis, the urban pigeon, is illuminated by the lovely purple-green iridescence of its neck feathers as it struts and bobs to devour your half-eaten hot dog.

A zen master is supposed to have said, "When I was young, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. When I sought enlightenment, mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers were no longer rivers. Finally, mountains are mountains again, and rivers are rivers."

One of the hardest things for me about leaving New York and being here has been the unrelenting grayness that cannot be swept away with a long walk. While the countryside surrounding this town is beautiful in an unkempt, natural way, there is a distinct lack of the kind of man-made beauty that is fashioned by skill and artifice -- the beauty of Wallace Stevens's jar, which gave order to "the slovenly wilderness." When you go out your door, nothing is handed to you. You're on your own, in alien territory that feels vaguely hostile.

Back in New York, I sat on the floor next to my baby's crib and wrote my doctoral dissertation while he slept. When he woke up, we went to the neighborhood playground. Here, I despair of getting any serious work done on the book that the dissertation has become; there's no time even to write a blog post. Because nothing is handed to you here, I spend much of my time striving to create a parallel dimension for my children with the books and music and pictures in my own home, and I sometimes have my doubts about whether this endeavor is healthy. Is it creating a bulwark against the darkness of the world that will shore up my children against its cruelties, or is it nurturing futile dreams of beauty that will necessarily be crushed by that darkness? It seems a lot easier when everything is handed to you.

But I know some young single mothers who are refugees from New York, who see this broken-down, post-industrial former boom-town as a haven full of promise, and who never, ever want to go back. And I imagine that many, if not most, of my fellow citizens live in places like this -- small, decrepit cities that are gradually being invaded by spiritual darkness and in some cases even reverting to "the slovenly wilderness" -- and that to have spent the rest of my life in one of the greatest and most beautiful cities in the world, where everything is handed to you, would be to ignore that darkness, to be lulled to sleep by beauty and ease of access, and to do nothing about it.

I once thought I would do something great; I longed to reveal something of lasting beauty in the world. But instead, I teach music at a sad, down-at-heels community college to hardscrabble working-class students, who seem far less naturally-intelligent and well-prepared than the hardscrabble working-class students I used to teach in the City University of New York system. I feel sometimes like a Lego minifigure whose plastic legs have been swapped out for the short ones, or like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

But maybe mountains really are just mountains, and rivers really just rivers.

D.H. Lawrence wrote in his poem "The Phoenix":
Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled,
made nothing?
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?

If not, you will never really change.


priest's wife said...

That Lawrence quote! wow!

Pentimento said...

I know!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

So many things I love about this. I love the close observation, the details, so thick and rich. Like the pigeons. My children adore urban pigeons. They are strange birds they usually only see when we go into Boston, not the familiar suburban backyard feeder birds.

Everything is handed to you. Dom can never imagine living in the city, it doesn't appeal to him at all. I don't actually want to live in the city, but I definitely know the appeal. The beauty and the richness and the immediacy. I daydream about it, even if at the end of the day I'm probably just as happy to not be there.

And I love how you pull dear old Wallace Stevens into the dance with you. We had to learn the Anecdote of the Jar for our comps when I was an English major, but I never really loved it. And yet it haunts me, popping up here and there. This may be my favorite instance yet. I think I might even love the poem, seeing your alien territory as slovenly wilderness and the longing for the beauty of the jar. When I was young my parents dragged us to the wilds of Colorado and Montana and Wyoming and the jar just felt out of place in my image of woods. But I see it much more clearly now, the man made beauty that allows the wilderness to look beautiful, that gives it imaginative form and structure. The woods and wilds are beautiful because they are part of a beautiful story. They weren't always so beautiful to ancient peoples. The woods were a wild and scary place. As much as my young adult self tried to reject the Romantics, I was still steeped in the world they created.

What is a haven, what is a prison? What is a terrifying darkness and what is an enchanted woods?

Somehow this piece sent me back into my own memory hoard and I just wrote 2000 words describing the house I grew up in where we lived from the time I was born until I was 12.

Now I really need to go to bed and I've forgotten completely what else I had to say about what you wrote. Oh well, good night and Happy Easter.

Pentimento said...

"What is a terrifying darkness and what is an enchanted woods?"

This is a nagging question to me and one that preoccupies me as I think about my past and write about it here. Sometimes I feel like I need to abandon this blog completely, because there might be something unsavory and unhealthy about always traveling back in one's mind to the past and mining it for its atmosphere. We're supposed to be new creations in Christ, and some of what I write about on this blog is my pre-reversion past and the impressions it made on me. I wonder if I should just put my hand to the plow and move on.

"The Anecdote of the Jar" is also something I think about a lot. Ten or 15 years ago, when I was performing a lot with my regular accompanist (and when music was by far the most important thing to me), we were rehearsing one day, and he waved his hand and made an offhand comment about none of the great music we were immersed in being as beautiful as the natural world. That was shocking to me, having devoted my life and all my energies to this art form which is essentially artificial. All art is artifice, which I think is Stevens's point. In my own life and experience, the jar has towered over the slovenly wilderness and given it order and meaning, and I tend to think that is the human condition, that we're constrained to making meaning of the world only by seeing it through our man-made prisms.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Isn't part of being a new creation the ability to see the past through new eyes? Seeing the beauty of the past in a new way, recreating it with words, I think Tolkien would argue that it's a partaking in the act of creation. You say you're mining it for atmosphere, but perhaps you are redeeming the past?

Eliot says:
"There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives - unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation - not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern. "

It seems to me you are seeing the past in new patterns, re-examining and re-imagining, transfiguring. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think there is something new growing in your writing and that it's not just wallowing in the past.

Enbrethiliel said...


Happy Easter, Pentimento!

My family has just moved to a new apartment, and for the first time in my life, I have real freedom to design my own bedroom. It's a wonderful project that fills me with energy and happiness . . . and makes me wonder whether all I'm doing is making myself a beautiful bunker in which to retreat from an increasingly ugly world.

* * *

Last Easter Vigil, my parish had a wonderful celebration--the perfect cap to what may arguably be the best (Novus Ordo) Triduum observance in the country. A wealthy parishioner had even provided a feast for everyone to enjoy after Mass. There was arroz caldo, lumpia, various kinds of kakanin, deep-fried fish balls and squid balls, ice-cold gulaman with tapioca balls, and even fancy gourmet stuff like mozzarella sticks. I could have stuffed myself all night . . . and probably would have had I not remembered that less than a hundred metres away, right outside the subdivision gates, half a dozen child beggars were waiting for the Christians to emerge from church and to show them some love. I ended up leaving early to sneak some food to them (and feeling guilty for "stealing" from the party).

Now, my fellow parishioners aren't bad people a la Dives in the Gospel. Having lived with them for a decade, I can't imagine a better bunch of people to go to church with . . . even if I've never made a "bosom friend" among them. We all love our church and pour so much into making it look beautiful. And it's SO worth it to have our souls fed by beauty-in-the-service-of-truth whenever we go for Mass or other devotions. But sometimes I wonder whether this worthy project has had the sad side effect of tunnel vision. We've created a wonderful world for ourselves, but is it one in which starving outsiders aren't welcome at the community feast?

Some old-timers might say I'm being too harsh. Our "rich" parish also encompasses a working class neighbourhood, and the poorer families from there are 100% integrated into our poncy parish life and get a lot of practical support. The priests also bend over backwards to make sure the live-in help of many wealthy families get their spiritual needs met. Perhaps this is already the best we can do--and to try to do more would make the whole thing come down on everyone's heads. And I must admit that the beggar children aren't even "ours": they travel here from another part of the city. There's a sense in which another community is responsible for them and we're already subsidising them without a murmur. (And we're pretty generous, if the same beggars have been coming back for years!)

We seem to do really well when it comes to alabaster jars, but the miracle of multiplying loaves and fish so that everyone is fed seems much trickier.

Pentimento said...

Happy Easter, Enbrethiliel, and much joy to you.

I recently found out about a Polish woman whose cause is being investigated, Stanislawa Leszczynska. She was a midwife who was interned at Auschwitz, where she delivered 3000 babies, the majority of whom were murdered by inmates appointed to this task shortly after their births. I was deeply disturbed by the story (as of course anyone would be). I thought about the fact that it's beyond duty -- it's the *calling* of those in the medical professions to help and to save lives, no matter what the circumstances, and, indeed, some of the horror of the Nazi doctors' participation in that regime is their perversion of that calling.

Please understand that I am not trying to draw an analogy between your wealthy and beautiful church and the poverty and degradation that lies outside its doors. It sounds to me like your parishioners and priests are doing many good things. But when I read about Stanislawa, it struck me that her calling is all of ours: to encourage life and beauty in the face of darkness and evil. Some darknesses are deeper and more visible than others, but it's certainly always there around the edges of our lives, just outside the doors.

Enbrethiliel said...


All analogies in my comments are, of course, my own! =) My personality is inclined to building "arks"--environments to keep people whom I care about most afloat--and rationalising that there's nothing I can do for the people drowning outside. At least not without hurting everyone in the ark. But I do feel guilty that the encouragement of life and beauty for some seems to leave out so many others.

Pentimento said...

Me too, E. In fact, it's a signal preoccupation of mine.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elizabeth Aucoin said...

I visit your blog for the beautiful musical and literary insights that you share. Leaving the city has made your life seem much poorer, but you have an eye for beauty and you will find it, and help others around you to see it. On the weekend edition of the CBC, Robert Harris did a piece about the body of music known as the "great American songbook." It was an eye-opener, because a large contribution was made by jews, some of whom were musically illiterate, who were restricted in their careers by quotas. They were not blase about the freedoms they did enjoy in
America, and their music is inspiring, and, not suprisingly, bittersweet. That they ended up writing songs because there was money in it and they didn't have many careers open to them, and it made the natives born here see the beauty of their own country's aspirations, this strikes me as God bringing good out of bad.

Pentimento said...

Dear Melanie and Elizabeth, for some reason I've only just seen your comments (your second one, Melanie) and published them. I apologize. I've been neglecting this blog and I didn't mean to be inhospitable. Thank you for them.

Pentimento said...

It's true, Elizabeth, that the composers of the Great American Songbook were primarily Eastern European Jewish immigrants. It makes me think of Ps. 137: "How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?" But I suppose that everyone who loves God must do so, in a way.