Monday, November 18, 2019

From Maenad to Christian

The young journalist Tara Isabella Burton, both a polymath a fine writer, has a compelling conversion story on Catapult that is very much worth reading. She details her quest for the power to pull back the curtain of ordinariness covering the world, in order to glimpse what she believed to be the enchantment lurking beneath the surfaces of things. In fact, Burton's quest reminds me a great deal of my own younger life (though my own questing entailed fewer trips to Europe and a lot more subway rides to botánicas in the outer boroughs). My main complaint about her longish essay is that it spends itself in romping through such rites of magic as are preferred by flowing-haired moneyed college girls and skimps on the punchline, which is her conversion to Christianity, leaving it essentially unexplained.

Nevertheless, her article contains some pointed insights about the desire for meaning in modern life, spun from the perspective of a certain kind of twee aestheticism, with the surprise that all of Burton's searching ends in Christ.

I sacrificed all of myself. I emptied myself out. I hit bottom, in a thousand different ways, and got what I wanted, in a thousand more, and then, somewhere in the middle of my seeking a vague and generic sense of Poetry, I found a specific one.

I don't mean to be hard on Burton. As I said, she could be me with more money. I too spent years trying to pierce through the dull veil of ordinary time in order to live in a vague world of endless beauty, and used similar tactics. I wanted to be special, to live in a special way, and to surround myself with special people. I wanted to drift through the mean streets where I lived unscathed, a kind of wraith from a Cocteau Twins song. I too dyed my hair this or that color, read Tarot, and abused alcohol and other people. I too made terrible mistakes and sacrificed everything good that I had, though I didn't know at the time that it was good. I too had a conversion, and for me, the conversion is ongoing, as I hope it is for Burton.

I imagine Burton's readership is more interested in the details of her novelistic life in Trieste, with its Passion, Heartbreak, and Blood, than it might be in the daily humiliations I imagine are required for a mind like hers to make common cause with the demands of our faith, not to mention with the unwashed and unlettered hordes of other believers. Indeed, one of the most painful and salutary things about my own ongoing conversion has been embracing the everyday humiliations of my un-special day-to-day life, the life in which I work harder than I ever have at anything for seemingly minuscule gain, and in which the haunting, shadowy beauties of my past pagan life recede ever more into the distance.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the old things in New York City: a lamp I used to have, my old kitchen table with the sun streaming through the window's metal safety guards, a closed theater marquee on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, countless walks through Central Park undertaken just in order to get across town, a collection of blue glass bottles in my voice teacher's apartment -- random scraps of memories of the ordinary things of everyday life, which, when I lived it, I strove to see as pieces of a pattern, a riddle to solve, the road map to a more magical realm -- a life beyond life, though temporal, where everything was radiant and where I would be able to see things as they really were.

As Burton notes, however:

Fridays mean that Christ died and Christ is risen and that Christ will come again. So does rose quartz. So does a full moon.

In other words, the meaning of the natural world, and of all phenomena, and also of the dullness and pain of our everyday lives, is that Christ has redeemed and is redeeming all the scraps of ordinary existence from the clumsy and ineffectual grasping of people like me. Things are what they are, but what is real, and what is hidden, all point to him and to his ongoing restoration of all nature and all humanity. And minds like mine, which long to ascend to the stars, must content ourselves with gazing upon the one whom Burton calls "this unprepossessing carpenter," and about whom Isaiah says: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." In this mortification of clinging to beauty without beauty lies salvation for people like me, and perhaps like Burton.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Artists in the Kitchen

Among other Sisyphean pursuits, I've spent the summer culling books from my chaotic "library." It's been an anxious and painful task, because it's forced me to confront my neurotic used-book-buying habits, and to recognize the ways I've attempted to create a kind of escapist utopia in my house by populating it with library discards. I discovered early on in our sojourn in northern Appalachia that there are fantastic library book sales here, and it's hard to pass one by when hardcovers are $.25 (I suppose this says something about the reading habits of northern Appalachia or of post-industrial America in general, but that's for another post). Those library discards -- some of them truly wonderful books -- have then gotten unpacked and placed in half-hearted, meandering subject order on various already-groaning shelves around the house, with the result that, when I search the shelves  for a book, I can't find it, and I panic. So my first step this summer was to cull the duplicates, of which there were more than I care to admit -- because, if I find something wonderful that I already have, I always purchase it, because it's wonderful, and no one else will want it, and I might lose the first one -- a thought process that has ended up, more than once, with me not being able to find either copy of the book, and then buying another on Amazon.

I grappled with most of this, and ended up donating 17 boxes of books to the library for their next book sale, which I am planning to not attend, or at least to drive by with my knuckles white from my death-grip on the steering wheel.

There is one category of my collection, however, that I will not be culling. It is my two shelves of vintage spiral-bound community fundraiser cookbooks.

It's hard for me to explain how I feel about these books, which were published from the 1950s to the 1980s, produced by such organizations as the Women's Service League of St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Burlington, Vermont; the Valley Calligraphy Guild of Harrisburg, Oregon; and the St. Joseph Altar Rosary Society of Endicott, New York. Looking through them gives me a sense of excitement and anticipation, as if I've discovered a secret passage back to a lost world -- not only a time, but even a place, of wisdom that I lack: a world where a budget-stretching, wholesome meal made from cans of soup, packets of Jell-O, and bouillon cubes would draw a family together in a near-mystical communion, giving all its members the strength and comfort they needed to face the confounding exigencies of the world beyond the kitchen table.

I love to read the names of the recipes in my spiral-bound cookbooks. There is Priest's Goulash; there are Lasagna Rollups. There is City Chicken; there is Grandma's Waistline. There are Orange Chiffon Pie and Cottage Cheese Cake. There are many, many casseroles. Some of them from the late 1950s and very early 1960s are hand-lettered in an artistic, leftward-slanting calligraphic hand that must have been popular at that time, since it is found across vastly distant regions. Some of the hand-lettered cookbooks also include little pen-and-ink drawings by the recipes' authors, generally the cooks' own idealized images of times that were long past even during their own lifetimes.

I also cook from these books, and it is a great pleasure for me. The best of them recipe-wise are, perhaps unsurprisingly, compilations in support of big-city cultural institutions: I have, for instance, a cookbook produced by the staff of the Library of Congress; another, called Artists in the Kitchen, by the Women's Council of the the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester; and two published by the Junior Committee of the Cleveland Orchestra. One of my favorites, however, was created in 1973 by the staff and board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum (pictured above). It contains a short foreword:

It is a little-known and indisputable fact that museum people devote a great deal of thought and time to food, and the fare at the tables of colleagues is more often than not of the highest quality. We hope that you will enjoy this collection of recipes . . . the Museum's first venture into the culinary aspect of the arts.

And the recipes are redolent of a mythical New York City past. There are such 1970s-era staples as hot crab meat, Roquefort cheese ball, and tuna casserole, and there are still hints here and there of the rapidly-fading favorites of an earlier spiral-bound era, like green rice baked in a mold. There are also some bizarreries that, in my fantasies about what "museum people" must be like, I could not have imagined -- such as this one for spaghetti sauce:

But most of them are charming, interesting, and even touching -- like this one, whose name, use of Teflon, and offhand acknowledgment that it "will do for a light supper," combine to make me sigh with longing for an easier time -- a time in which an omelette with a bottle of white wine and a green salad would have made a lovely Sunday supper, and in which you would have eaten it with someone who loved beauty and simplicity, as you do.

But this one treads, for me, uncomfortably close to pathos. Mr. Hawkins was a bachelor, who nevertheless "[impressed] his guests with this spectacular dessert." I think about Ashton Hawkins. Was the notation of his bachelorhood a signifier of gayness? Or was he, perhaps, just lonely? I think I would have liked to have sat at his table and been impressed not only with his spectacular Calvados Soufflé, but also with the wit and mirth of his company and his colleagues'.

And it's not just the bachelor Ashton Hawkins. It's also Margot Feely, who submitted a recipe for "Desperation Shrimp," a lifesaver when dinner guests show up unexpectedly. It's Katushe and Danny Davison, who "have lived in London for the past several years and have found themselves in the enviable predicament of having their freezer bulging with pheasants," and who, to clear some space, invented the "excellent dish" of Pheasant Hash. It's Edward M. H. Warburg, who avers that his Veal Casserole with Peas, and his Curried Eggs, "are amongst my wife's favorite recipes."

Where is Mrs. Warburg now? Where is Ashton Hawkins and all of his colleagues? As Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his 1936 poem "Encounter":

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Friday, March 22, 2019

I Hear the Bronx Singing

A student at my alma mater published this poem, a sort of homage and reply to Walt Whitman, in The New Yorker this week. It made me nostalgic.

Along the East River and in the Bronx Young Men Were Singing
I heard them and I still hear them
above the threatening shrieks of police sirens
above the honking horns of morning traffic,
above the home-crowd cheers of Yankee Stadium
above the school bells and laughter
lighting up the afternoon
above the clamoring trudge of the 1 train
and the 2 and 4, 5, 6, the B and the D
above the ice-cream trucks’ warm jingle
above the stampede of children
playing in the street,
above the rush of a popped fire hydrant
above the racket of eviction notices
above the whisper of moss and mold moving in
above the High Bridge and the 145th Street Bridge
above mothers calling those children
to come in for dinner, to come in
before it gets dark, to get your ass inside
above them calling a child who may never come home
above the creaking plunge of nightfall
and darkness settling in the deepest corners
above the Goodyear blimp circling the Stadium
above the seagulls circling the coastal trash
along the East River and in the Bronx
young men are singing and I hear them,
eastbound into eternity even
as morning destars the sky.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Death = Love

Pierre Bonnard, The Breakfast Room, 1930-31.
A long time ago, back when the only thing that mattered was whether or not I might be able to persuade him to love me, M. showed me a book of essays by the New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. The introduction to the collection was by the mid-twentieth-century novelist James Salter, and M. said that he found Salter's writing so pretentious and gratuitous that he had cut the pages out of the book with a razor (which was, now that I recall it, very much an M. thing to do).

I found a Salter novel, Light Years, being thrown away by the library a few years ago, and, though I remembered M.'s caveat, I picked it out of the discard box because it had on its cover my favorite painting of all time, Pierre Bonnard's The Breakfast Room, which hangs at the Museum of Modern Art. I've always loved this painting, and when I was a very young woman and could get into the MoMA for free with my student i.d., I used to visit it frequently. Bonnard, an artist who contended with his fair share of suffering, has nevertheless painted an image of a world in which all is well: there is breakfast, with a loaf and a teapot, on the table; there is the window open to the park, and the buttery light of morning falling on the clean white tablecloth. Bonnard's world seems suffused with goodness, a place in which, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, "Somebody loves us all." The only note of darkness in this abundant canvas is the figure of a woman half-hidden in the shadows on the left, her eyes downcast, holding a cup in one hand while the other hangs listlessly at her side.

So I read the book I had fished out of the bin. I found it so disturbing that, while I didn't take a razor to it, I threw it away when I was done. On a recent trip back to New York City, however, I was seized with the desire to read it again. The Kindle book was four dollars on Amazon, so I downloaded it for the journey home and tried again. I'm almost done with this second go-round, and I see the book in a different light now. It's less disturbing to me now than it is mildly bewildering, and, while at first reading I found the preciousness of Salter's prose maddening, I now see much of value in it.

Salter's style is both glorious and risible, lapidary and sophomoric at the same time. Light Years reads as if it were written by a man grown wise through longsuffering, detached from the passions of everyday life, able to see things in the luminous light of their true meaning, who's decided to collaborate with a precocious teenager whose primary literary output is confiding in her diary. It's hard to even tell what the book is about: is it about a marriage? Is it about a family? Is it about failure? Or is it about the surfaces of things, the way things look, the beauty of everyday things that can never really be penetrated or grasped? Salter's prose seduces and baffles at once.

He writes in the voice of a distant narrator who nevertheless seems to be intimately familiar with the interior lives of his characters, the pretentiously-named Viri and Nedra Berland, wealthy bohemians who live in one of the more artsy suburbs of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Spoiler alert: they have affairs, they get divorced, their friends suffer various tragedies, their daughters grow up, and Nedra dies young. However, there's no real plot, just intricately described snapshots of various points in their lives. Salter's dialogue-writing is laughable; here for instance, is just a fragment of a longer speech:

You are cold . . . I will warm you . . . you are not used to winter, not these winters. These are something new. They can be cold, more cold than you can imagine. In your nice English shoes everyone thinks you are warm and content. Look, how nice your shoes are, they say, such fine shoes. Yes, they think you are warm because you look nice; they think you are happy. But happiness is not so easy to find, is it? It's very difficult to find. It's like money. It comes only once. If you're lucky, it comes once, and the worst part is there's nothing you can do. You can hope, you can search, anger, prayers. Nothing. How frightening to be without it, to wait for happiness, to be patient, to be ready, to have your face upturned and luminous like girls at communion. Yes, you are saying to yourself, me, me, I am ready.

While the character who delivers this and many other tedious monologues is not a native English speaker, everyone in the book talks this way. Everyone is wise, and peppers their conversation with poetic observations and witty bons mots. Everyone knows how to cook, dress, and drink. A whole chapter is devoted to Viri ordering custom-made shirts from a tailor. When disasters happen, the beloved friends to whom they befall fade from the narrative, and, one presumes, from Viri's and Nedra's thoughts as well. Viri and Nedra are at first admirable, enviable, but throughout the course of the novel Salter destroys them bit by bit.

And yet Salter describes the drive home from New York to the suburbs like this:

WE DASH THE BLACK RIVER, ITS flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with the cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

It is really Salter's beautiful descriptive writing, his devout attention to the surfaces of things, that make the book compelling. In a sense, Light Years is not really about Viri and Nedra; it has little in the way of narrative, or even of cohesive plot. It's a book, instead, about things, objects, what they look like and what they reveal. Salter pulls no punches when it comes to his intentions, informing the reader from the outset about Nedra:

I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in which the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rough and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse, objects glistening like evidence, many which might had they been possessed by ancient people, have been placed in the tombs for another life: clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself.

It is the things that matter, the things that tell us the story, the attention to the things which makes it occasionally hard to tell whether Salter loves or despises his characters, who, for all their beauty and wit, are selfish, cruel, and self-deluded, just as it is the things in Bonnard's painting that convey the sense of an entire world -- a world whose surface shimmers with goodness, but whose ambience of contentment is undermined by the shadowy figure in the corner. Things speak, they tell stories, but, Bonnard and Salter both seem to suggest, the stories they tell may be untrue: if we heed those stories, if we let the beauty of this world guide us, we are in danger of being led astray. Things are beautiful, but they are unreliable narrators.

I think this is what prompted me to throw Light Years away the first time I read it. My own life -- my old life -- had been outlined and limned with a devotion to things, with the way things looked and seemed, with what I thought they meant and conveyed. The ugliness of the world around me, the inadequacy, the injustice, was nevertheless suffused with beauty for me. In my old life, I would have given up, given away, thrown away, a great deal for a pearl of great price; the problem was that I mistook artificial pearls for real. The selfishness of Salter's characters cut me to my core, convicted me.

As I finish Light Years for the second time, however, I'm also reading Sister Wendy's Spiritual Letters, in which she evinces her own early devotion to the thingliness of this world, the beauty of it, in the art that so moves her. She writes to a friend who is in physical pain, about to undergo a feared operation:

I can't feel anxious [for you]. It seems so clear to me that this is pure Love giving Himself in a way you must learn to accept Him in. Either you say: "Come my Love, anyway. You choose." Or you make it impossible for him to come at all . . . Love can't take hold under these restrictions . . . Didn't your insight into Duccio's Annunciation tell you that death equals love?

Duccio, Annunciation, 1308-11
The first time I read Light Years, Salter's metaphor for death unsettled me:

The underground river. The ceiling lowers, grows wet, the water rushes into darkness. The air becomes damp and icy, the passage narrows. Light is lost here, sound; the current begins to flow beneath great, impassable slabs.

But now, reading it in tandem with Sister Wendy's book, I feel differently. Salter's gorgeous descriptions of the thingly world are ultimately devastating, for things cannot save one. Sister Wendy, however, posits the things of this world -- especially the beautiful things that make the heart leap for joy --  as a kind of orthodox exegesis of God's unfailing goodness.

Death equals love. We must go down to that dark place, the dark earth, the underground river, and know that descent to be lit up by Love Himself.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Into Those Bitter Waters

The secretary of the department in which my father taught for many years was Greek Orthodox. In other words, she Took Lent Seriously.

One day during Lent, my father bought her some bunches of daffodils sold for a charity fundraiser. When he gave them to her she burst into tears, explaining that her Lenten fast had been a kind of spiritual scouring-out of the depths of her soul, a purging of all attachment to beauty, and that the shock of he daffodils' scent and color completely broke her.

I remember this as I slog through teaching music history in the metal-gray days of late February. Coincidentally, I have begun reading Sister Wendy Becket's book Spiritual Letters, which is a collection of letters she wrote from the hermitage where she spent most of her adult life. Sr. Wendy, of blessed memory -- the Art Nun, famous lover of beauty -- writes to a friend in a different religious order:

I do feel that the grain of wheat never dies until, or unless, it accepts to fail. More than just accepts, goes down contentedly into those bitter waters, putting all its hope, now, in Jesus . . . God is always coming to us, as totally as we can receive Him, but from every side . . . the natural tendency is to romanticize the way of His coming. . . And he says: No, - I can't give myself, not fully, in any way that gives self a foothold. Nothing romantic or beautiful or in any way dramatic; nothing to get hold of, in one sense, because it must be He that does the getting hold. A terrible death in every way, destroying all we innocently set our spiritual hearts on: all but Him. So utter joy, in a sense that 'romance' can never envisage. There are depths of self-desire . . . that He must empty so as to fill them.

It seems to me that my father's secretary knew the pain of this hard and pitiless kind of self-emptying.

The thought of that pain reminds me of another gunmetal-gray late-winter day, when a long-ago boyfriend and I were crossing Seventh Avenue. We saw a tiny woolen mitten lying abandoned in the middle of a slush-puddle at the curb, and he grabbed my arm. "This," he cried desperately. "THIS is why I can never have children." And -- though that was one of the reasons we eventually parted ways -- I got his point. Because it breaks one utterly to have to cope with the devastating small losses and goodbyes that one must negotiate every single day with children.

Last week, as I drove past a block of early-twentieth-century houses constructed in a jumble of styles in my old, small-city neighborhood with little J., , he piped up from the back seat: "I love this place. Just driving past these houses makes me happy." My heart started beating fast, both from bewilderment and from recognition -- bewilderment because Who Is This Kid? And recognition because This Kid Is Me -- the kid who saw beauty where it was not, who pulled other kids' discarded drawings out of the trash to smooth them out and admire them, who thought the crumbling urban sidewalks were built with diamonds because of the way they sparkled in the streetlights. Only now my memories of that kind of encounter with the world -- an encounter of breathless wonder -- are hazy, and in fact I'm not sure such an encounter can do anyone any good. Should all beauty, and all pretense of beauty, be stripped away so that we can encounter God without any semblance of beauty? Perhaps; but Isaiah reminds us that when we did encounter him thus, we turned our faces away.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 36: Walking Away

After a long illness, Christine, the wife of my friend and former opera colleague G., died a couple of weeks ago, just shy of her fiftieth birthday. I wasn't able to go to her wake or funeral because of my teaching schedule here in Northern Appalachia, but I've spoken with G. at length in the days since. G. is a wonderful lyric tenor, and, beyond that, truly one of the best musicians I know. For a number of years he sang in many of the great opera houses of Europe and America, but he withdrew from all of his contracts a few years ago to care for Christine, and because opera gigs are scheduled at least two years out, that meant his career was effectively over. A late bloomer who grew up in a working-class Irish-American family and spent his early adulthood tending bar and giving guitar lessons, G., after walking away from the opera stage, never looked back. He now lives and sends his daughters to college on the proceeds from his church job and a small income earned teaching music to the disabled.

I've known G. for a long time. We studied with the same voice teacher, and on Thursday nights we would meet at the Liederkranz Club on East 87th Street, which was around the corner from his house (but far from mine), to work out the opera arias we sang at our auditions with a quirky but gifted stage director. "I can still see you twenty years ago," he told me recently. "I can see what you were wearing, and your hair. You were this hilarious, talented Italian chick who just said THESE THINGS." I remember G. picking me up and driving me out to Long Island one evening to run through obscure arias with a brilliant pianist whom I'd never met and never saw again. "I don't coach my repertoire," he said that night, with a cockiness that, in his case, was wholly warranted. "I just know how the music is supposed to go."  He was on the cusp of a great career, and I was on the cusp, for reasons still not completely clear to me, of using my career as a tool in the blowing up of everything in my life.

G. has what I would call -- though he does not call it this -- a visionary gift. Since childhood, he's been able to correctly intuit certain people's fates, including those of relative strangers. He's often able to discern whether someone is going to die, and roughly when. In fact, he and his wife both had the foreknowledge, years before she became ill, that she would not live to see her fiftieth birthday. But this gift -- or call it what you will, and he's often prayed that God would rescind it -- comes in the context of his deep, even mystical, Catholic faith, a faith he and Christine shared. Because of this faith, the death of his beloved, though it's devastated him, hasn't utterly crushed him. He has a kind of palpable, tactile, tangible knowledge of God's great love for him, for Christine, and for all of us, and he talks about it often. It was G. who told me about the rosary novena after I came back to the faith, and I have prayed it during some momentous times in my life. While I'm not sure the novena has always "worked," it has changed my life.

I thought of all this recently when I read some caveats going around the internet against praying the novena to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Someone knew someone else who had prayed the novena, upon which the supplicant's life had rapidly started coming apart. A hard-line Catholic apologist I used to date mentioned once that he was terrified to pray to Saint Rita, because, according to popular legend, she would give you what you wanted, but it would come wrapped up in unconditional awfulness. And more than one friend has told me to be careful about praying the Litany of Humility, because that prayer was bound to be answered in particularly humiliating ways. But all of this goes back to the great fallacy of American Christianity across creeds: that when you embrace Christ, your life will get better. This is only a slight variation on that other characteristically American conclusion: that, if your life is good, it's because you deserve it (and conversely, if it's bad, it's because you don't, a faulty maxim upon which much unfortunate policy has been based). It's some combination of gnosticism, paganism, exceptionalism, and fatal self-regard, and it's so pervasive in our culture that, in spite of my own status as a miserable sinner, I have to remind myself multiple times a day that if my life has any good or happiness in it, it's not because of my relative merits. But if I lack merits, which I do, why do I possess or experience anything good at all? So many people I know have little, or even nothing, in their lives that is good. 

When G. and I became friends, I was married to M. He was an artist, and he strongly encouraged me in my singing. I wanted to get at something -- I used to tell myself it was the truth -- in and through my singing. I asked M. once if he would still love me if I stopped singing and did something else, say, became a lawyer. He didn't even entertain the question, because (he said) if I weren't a singer, I would no longer be myself. Ironically, M. is now a lawyer himself. 

Apparently one of THOSE THINGS that I said back in our aria class was along the lines of "I used to be Catholic, but no more." G., whose father is a deacon, took note of that statement. He brought it up recently, and reminded me that without my life blowing up, I would never have come back to the faith, which is true.

Towards the end of his short life, Henry David Thoreau, the great naturalist and visionary in his own right (one scholar has written a book about Thoreau's "ecstatic witness") seems to have lost his vision, the hypersensory awareness of the indwelling sublime that formerly had colored all of his encounters with the natural world. The mystic of Walden, who called the telegraph wire that ran along the railway "the telegraph harp," and wrote of it: 

by the end of his lifetime had reduced his writing to dry journal notations about the seasonal changes of various plants and animals.

I have in fact been praying the Litany of Humility for a long time now. My hope is that God will give me the humility to walk away from the dreams that damaged my life and the lives of those in my midst, and to do it with good cheer. You'd think this would have happened by now; we've been living in Northern Appalachia for almost seven years, and my professional energies have mostly turned from performance to teaching, which I love. But I still reflexively try to assuage my loneliness in this small (and in some ways sad) place with the old thoughts of my talent and the delusion that it gave me special privileges. I pray that I will be able to walk away simply, as G. did, because, as he knew, in the estimation of God there was something better and far more important to do.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 35: Lorelei

One summer a long time ago, I was a waitress at a popular restaurant in the publishing district. Late at night, at the end of a busy and generally lucrative shift, I would take a cab home with my tips rolled up in my little black waiter's apron. I was living at that time in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is now impossibly expensive, but was then a sort of African-American bohemia. A legendary experimental jazz musician lived nearby, and I was over at his house fairly often, because his girlfriend was a friend of mine. Spike Lee lived around the corner, and I would pass him walking his dog on my strolls through the neighborhood.

My apartment was at the back of the third floor of a brownstone, and it was quiet, which was nice, because I stayed up late in those days after winding down from the intensity of a busy night shift, and consequently I slept late in the mornings. It was a beautiful thing to be able to sit up in bed in the mornings and look out of the window and see not a concrete-paved airshaft, but the lush vegetation of old-growth trees-of-heaven filling the small lot that was my backyard, though I had no access to it, and the backyard of the brownstone on the block behind me. The fern-like branches of the trees -- ailanthus altissima, the eponymous tree of the great novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn -- seemed to be piled up in the condensed space of the lot, frond upon feathery frond. They emitted a dark, dusty vegetable smell, the fragrance, to me, of a New York summer. I would get out of bed and make a quart or so of strong coffee in my little Italian stovetop espresso maker and drink it all, sitting at the table in my kitchen-slash-living-slash-all-purpose room. Then I would practice. It suited me to work at a night job, because I felt like I was giving the best energy of my day to my singing, and whatever was left over could be tossed casually into the hungry jaws of the chi-chi-restaurant-going public, which seemed to me, as Enid Bagnold wrote in another context in the wonderful book National Velvet, "like a million little fishes after bread."

I lived alone, and while the solitude felt rich and redolent, it was also devastatingly lonely. I was in love with M., and he had treated me cruelly. In my anxiety and sorrow I didn't have much of an appetite; besides the coffee -- Café Bustelo, which I made so thick that it could probably have been classified a foodstuff -- mangoes and Italian bread were the mainstays of my diet. One night, I recall, I sat alone at my table drinking Wild Turkey -- M.'s favorite libation -- while listening to Joni Mitchell, which, by the next morning, had caused me to swear off Wild Turkey forever, if not off M. or Joni Mitchell.

All during that summer and into the fall, a man sang in one of the apartments in one of the buildings on the block behind my own. Each day, across the thick, weedy verdure of the back lots, I heard this man's stentorian baritone boom out as he sang along to recordings. He would keep it up for at least an hour, and longer on Sundays -- sometimes the entire afternoon. I don't know what it was that he sang, or what he was listening to; the music and the words were indistinct, muffled by the distance across lots and absorbed by the dense urban vegetation. But it was something anthemic and simple -- likely a soul ballad, from what I could make out -- and he sang it over and over again. I can still hear his voice rising the interval of a major sixth, with a flourishing crescendo, at the chorus.

Rather than annoying me, I found the phenomenon of the invisible singing man and his incomprehensible, repeated song strangely comforting. It gave a rhythm to my day. Perhaps I was, for him, also an invisible singing presence, with my caffeinated late-morning vocalizing. I remember that during that time, I was working in particular on the song "Waldgespräch" by Schumann, about a man journeying through the woods, who is seduced and entrapped by the Lorelei; she tells him, in the last vocal statement: "You will never leave these woods again."

And perhaps I identified with the Lorelei, that siren of the Rhine who enchants men with her song. Believing that my own singing was a tool, likely the only one I had, I honed it in the hopes that it would precede me into the world and bring me back the things I wanted: security, peace, happiness, and love. But it didn't. And I was not the Lorelei. I was the hapless man in the legend, enchanted by myths of love and illusions of my own power. And everything that, at the time, I thought real and vital turned out not to be, though it took me many years to grope my way out of those woods -- even though they were not really woods at all, only Brooklyn back lots overgrown with weeds -- and see it.

Above: La Belle Dame Sans Merci, J.M. Waterhouse, 1893.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 34: Mister Softee

I've been having an ongoing conversation with my friend Ex-New Yorker about the ways that New Yorkers, when they are transferred to other regions of the country, are often revealed to be functionally incompetent. It's not just the not-driving; it's also the inability to perform the sorts of common workaday tasks that other people seem to know how to do instinctively, including any kind of home repairs more involved than changing a lightbulb. I suppose people's fathers teach them how to do such things; but if your father grew up in an apartment building, where the super was routinely called in to fix minor problems, neither your father nor you would ever have learned.

When I moved here, I assumed that most things would be essentially the same as they were in New York, only smaller and with a more primitive public transportation infrastructure. However, while the smallness and the poverty of transportation infrastructure were as I envisioned them, the rest wasn't true at all. We rented a half-house at first; I had imagined that renting a place would be much the same as it was New York, only that you would get more space for less money. But, while that part was in fact true, nothing else was. Before we found a livable place, we saw many that were in shocking disrepair; I told one landlady that her building ought to be condemned --the kind of candor, I soon learned, that does not seem to be appreciated outside of New York City.

At the start of our first summer here, though, I heard the familiar sound of the Mister Softee truck making its way up the street, and I figured I knew what to do. Well, actually, it wasn't the familiar sound of the Mister Softee truck, that great nostalgic jingle that sounds as if it's being played on some transcendent child's music box that never winds down.

It was really just a bell repeating the same note over and over every three seconds or so, but, coupled with the sound of a truck going slowly up the street, I got the message and ran out of the house with a couple of bucks in hand. I still remember, strangely, what I was wearing that day. I asked the ice-cream truck man for a coconut Frozfruit, the creamiest and most delightful summer treat known to man. He pulled one out of the freezer case, I gave him my money -- a lot less, incidentally, than I would have forked over in New York City -- and all was well.

The next time he came up the street, I ran out again and asked him for the same, but he didn't have them. Nor the next time, nor the next. After a couple of weeks of this, I asked him why. He explained that he had only had coconut Frozfruits that first time as a fluke: in New York on other business, he had loaded up his truck at the legendary Benfaremo's, the Lemon Ice King of Corona, Queens. Frozfruits were apparently an urban treat, not to be had in the hinterlands. Crestfallen, I got some cardboard-y regional ice cream instead, and stayed indoors the next time I heard that single-note bell coming slowly up the street. I have since found coconut ice-cream bars at the grocery store, but, gluey and too sweet, they're nothing like coconut Frozfruits.

That winter, when I still got everywhere around this town on foot, I was walking down the gray, shabby Main Street when I saw a New York City bus driving past. It really was an actual New York City bus, without a number or route listing. I stopped and stood there staring; it was like seeing a ghost. It made me ecstatic for a brief moment, and then plunged me into back into abject homesickness as I resumed trudging through the slush, realizing that I was about a million miles away from my old life. I later found out that the New York City hybrid buses were built by a local manufacturer.

But memories of the old life are not exactly like cash in hand. They're outdated currency, and the more I trade in them, the more I feel like I'm trying to pass off Confederate currency in a Union state, or trying to substitute an Irish pound for a Euro. Time has gone by, it is summer again, and the world is not now as it was. And the strains of the old Mister Softee truck anthem, to take T.S. Eliot out of context, "echo/Thus, in [my] mind,"
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 33: The Key-Flower

I was thinking today about a man I dated for much longer than was reasonable, because it is his birthday. The last time I saw him was from the window of a bus going up Madison Avenue about ten years ago. On that day, as I was gazing idly out of the window on my way uptown, I happened to see him, my former love, driving a pedicab against traffic and hand-signaling a left turn with a vaudevillian flourish. After my first son was born, I mentioned to a new friend with a same-aged baby that I had once dated a pedicab driver, and she told me later that my revelation had shocked her. Since I'd done a lot of worse things, I wondered why.

I suppose it was because I was a serious classical musician, at that time pursuing my doctorate in music, writing my dissertation, teaching in the music department of one of the four-year colleges of the City University of New York, and gigging out. I was also, by then, a married mother, living in the Bronx in a leafy working-class neighborhood with freestanding houses and well-gardened postage-stamp yards. On the face of it, I must have seemed a nice hardworking girl, and nice hardworking girls, one would think, don't date scruffy downwardly-mobile alternative-transportation fanatics, nor, moreover, those whose lives are foundering in the mire of extreme past trauma (sexual abuse at the hands of a close relative from the age of five; drug abuse from the age of nine; and all this in a nice middle-class family from New Jersey). In short, intellectual women who spend the better part of their time, talent, and treasure pursuing an elite art are somehow inoculated by their specialness from slumming it with losers, except in novels in which their characters are inevitably doomed, or unless, in real life, they are convinced that they possess some salvific power that will make everything all right.

In other words, it's really not that shocking. How many of us striving women haven't thought we could save a hapless man?  And how many of us haven't thought, too, that, through our special abilities, we could even somehow save ourselves? Although classical music is not exactly the same thing as drug abuse or wanton sex, its relentless pursuit, for some of us, promises a similar sort of escapist release. I have known other musicians who became excellent rather incidentally in the course of running like hell from a troubled past. There was the wonderful tenor whose father had systematically violated every child in the family, and another male singer to whom dark things had been done in his poor Appalachian childhood, who remains to this day one of the greatest musicians I've ever had the good fortune to know. There was the soprano fleeing from an abusive marriage who brought her baby to her classes at the conservatory and later became the chair of a well-regarded university voice program. And I often ponder the preponderance of gay men in our profession. I have no idea how much of gayness is nature and how much nurture, but I do believe that there is a compulsion toward purification in the pursuit of great music: while it generally doesn't work out that way, the urge to cleanse oneself of one's sins through sustained hard work and an ascetic life focussed on high art cannot have been particular just to me.

My great voice teacher and mentor A.B. once told me a fable in which a shepherd idly picks a flower, whereupon a cleft in the hills opens to reveal a hidden vaulted treasure-room, its coffers open and overflowing. The amazed shepherd goes from one treasure-chest to the next, filling his pockets with gems and coins and ropes of pearls, while all the while an angel hovers near him, exhorting him: "Don't forget the best! Don't forget the best!" Finally he can carry no more, so he makes ready to leave, planning to return with a wheelbarrow. "Don't forget the best!" the angel whispers again in his ear. The shepherd looks about wildly, trying to find a jewel more precious or a coin more brilliant than those with which his pockets are already bulging. Finally, in confusion, he gives up and stumbles out into the daylight. The treasure-room disappears, and the cleft in the hills closes over it as if it had never been. And he realizes with despair that he has forgotten the best: he has left the key-flower behind, the simple flower he plucked that had opened all the treasures of the mountain to him.

Things get so complicated, so labyrinthine, when you try to make something out of something else, to do something with that something else that it cannot do, that it was not ever meant to do. Art cannot be salvific -- though how very, very close it seems at times. Music is still for me the elusive sacred tongue, the holy language which, when I hear a few words of it spoken here in exile, pierces my heart like a dagger. It is the language whose words at once cut to the quick and heal. It is the key-flower I search for in my memory, which will unlock the riches of the history of the human spirit. It is medicine and elixir. But perhaps it is none of those. Perhaps it should never have been any of those at all.

Nevertheless, if my own great pain and the pain of so many of my colleagues had not driven us to seek its solace and transformation, we would have been fortunate to find ourselves driving pedicabs against traffic down Madison Avenue.

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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fear of An Autistic Planet [Updated 2/6/15]

I've been wonderin' why
People livin' in fear
Of my shade
(Or my hi top fade)
I'm not the one that's runnin'
But they got me one the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love
On this planet
(Ain't that how God planned it?)

-- From "Fear of A Black Planet" (Chuck D/Public Enemy)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

We are living in fear of an Autistic Planet. This is the primary reason why so many, including Catholics who consider themselves pro-life, feel justified in their decision to risk the disability and death of their children and the children of their fellows by refusing the MMR vaccine.

Of course, they will tell you that this is not the reason they refuse it. They will tell you that the reason they are willing to risk death for their children and others' is that the vaccine was grown in a culture derived from the cell line of an aborted fetus fifty years ago.

This is supposed to be some kind of principled pro-life stand. It is not. 

Here's why:

- The material cooperation with evil on the part of those who use the vaccine is so remote that it is devoid of any of the characteristics that would make it sinful;

- The willingness of self-styled pro-life anti-vaccinators to risk the death, from measles, of those who are immunocompromised and must rely on herd immunity to stay safe is in direct contradiction to any principle that purports to stand for life; and

- To deny the good that has come from vaccines, including those derived from aborted fetal stem-cell lines fifty years go, undermines Christian theology itself.

I know that some Catholics are calling vaccine refusal "conscientious objection." It is not. True conscientious objection admits that the dictates of one's own conscience are in opposition to the social conscience, and is willing to accept the consequences, including punishment, of following them. Conscientious objectors to the draft in World War II and Vietnam, for instance, willingly served prison time for their choice (draft dodgers who fled to Canada in the latter war were obviously not conscientious objectors). I have yet to meet or read of a so-called conscientious objector to the measles vaccine who would accept a similar punishment for following what he purports to be the dictates of his conscience. Rather, the argument they make is that one's own self-interest trumps the common good. Can someone explain to me how this argument can be legitimately called either pro-life or Catholic?

The Vatican has made it clear that vaccinating is neither an occasion nor a near-occasion of sin (see the link above). If this is so, then what is the real reason that so many apparently faithful Catholics refuse the vaccine, even if to do so announces to the world, in the starkest possible terms, that they do not love their neighbors as themselves?

It's because they fear autism. And because they believe in the debunked and compromised results of a corrupt and amateurish study, published in the Lancet almost twenty years ago, that linked the measles vaccine to a gut syndrome in twelve children and theorized that this syndrome somehow made them autistic (a study conducted by a doctor with undisclosed conflicts of interest, who has since been stripped of his license to practice, but has moved to the U.S., where he is exploiting some parents' Fear of An Autistic Planet for cold, hard cash). Apparently anything, including the death of children, is better than having an autistic child. Can someone explain to me how this fear of autism can be legitimately called either pro-life or Catholic?

I will not link here to any of the so-called Catholic commentary that tries to pass off the championing of personal freedom over the good of all as conscientious objection. Because it's not Catholic. It's libertarian. And libertarianism, in spite of all the recent Talmudic parsing by Catholic libertarians to make it seem Catholic, is not.

But let us be hypothetical for a moment and suppose that all these free-floating fears are justified. Let us imagine that big pHARMa really does want to change your child's genetic neurological structure in order to line its own pockets (never mind the fact that the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines give millions of doses away to Third World countries and that vaccines are actually a loss leader for these companies). And let us suppose further that, in cahoots with Big Pharma, the governments wants, in Jenny McCarthy's evocative phrase, "the soul gone from [your child's] eyes]," probably in order to take your child from you and make him a ward of the evil state, or something like that.

Such fears, whether trilled in the strident tones of unabashed conspiracy theorists, or spoken gently by well-heeled Marin County parents (in a recent New York Times article, one mother rationalized that she had "meditated on it a lot" before deciding not to vaccinate her children; another explained that "[v]accines don't feel right for me"), are really the Fear of An Autistic Planet. Even Catholics, who embrace the birth of a baby with Down Syndrome and heroize the parents of such children, evidently want to keep the soul in their children's eyes, and would rather not vaccinate than risk having a child with autism.  I am struggling to understand how this inherently ableist attitude is pro-life.

Finally, it is a denial of Catholic theology itself to insist, against all evidence and clear-cut statements from the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, that the measles vaccine is evil. I do not deny that the basis for its creation -- using the stem cells from an aborted fetus -- was material cooperation with evil. But our faith teaches us that God can, and does, bring good -- even great good -- out of evil. The crucifixion of Christ was evil, undoubtedly the ultimate evil. But the cross, the Romans' barbaric instrument of torture and death, became the sign of our salvation.

The belief that vaccines cause autism, and that refusing them will prevent autism, is belief in magic. The belief that God can use anything to bring about a good effect, and that the measles vaccine has ultimately proven that God brings good out of evil, is Christian. The fear of autism is pagan. The love of all our brothers and sisters is Christian.

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, whose daughter Maria Zita died of measles at the age of six, a year before the measles vaccine was introduced, pray for us!