Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fritz Wunderlich Recital: Mozart-Zauberfloete Tamino's Aria

My 18-month-old son loves to listen to a live 1966 recording of the great German tenor (who died tragically just before his 36th birthday that same year) singing Beethoven's 1796 song "Adelaide." I couldn't find a video recording of it, so please enjoy instead this live performance of Fritz singing Tamino's aria from "Die Zauberfloete." He presents the music and himself with disarming simplicity and humility; one gets the sense that he puts himself wholly in the service of Mozart and his intentions.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I started to miscarry naturally over the course of two days. It was the most pain I've ever been in. My nine-months-pregnant friend took me to the ER (she went into labor and delivered a 10-lb. baby boy at home the next evening), where I eventually had an emergency D&C in the middle of the night. I got up at 3 AM to pump and dump some breastmilk for DS so as to cycle the anaesthesia through my bodily fluids more quickly. I have been ambivalent about weaning him, but he seemed able to get to sleep fine after a bout of crying in the middle of the night. I told him we couldnt nurse, but rocked him and sang "Buckeye Jim" in my voice cracked from the anaesthesia tube.

I will never believe the "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" ethos and scenario that most people espouse around this type of event. It assumes that some -- any -- people are good, and "Why callest thou me good? No one is good but one, that is God" (Mark 10:18). Nor will I believe the new-age platitudes that people whom I respect for reasons other than their ability to reason have beeen offering, along the lines of "that soul chose its destiny (which was to gestate in me and perish at eight weeks, then be scraped out of my womb) as a service to you . . . there's no judgement; everything is perfect as it is," etc. The one thing that resonates with me is the concept of God's justice. We like to focus on His mercy, which some say trumps his justice; in fact, St. Faustina emphasized that his mercy was his greatest attribute, or so he told her in his apparitions. But there must also be balance and proportion; there must also be justice. Could be, as my confessor suggested, that I am being chastised for my many, many serious sins. Not punished, but chastised; made chaste, as it were, purified in the consuming flames of suffering. If this is the case, I pray that it will work this time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dear Son and Soror Vitae

My Brilliant Career

I suspect I’m becoming one of those graduate students whose dissertation starts being supplanted by her blog. On top of everything else, I’ve come down with a brutal sore throat. Among other things, it’s preventing me from singing, but that bothers me a great deal less than it might. After my last pregnancy loss, an ectopic that ruptured and took one of my ovaries with it in March of this year, I immediately plunged back into my work. Work alone remains, I thought; Arbeit macht frei. But now everything that has meant so much to me for my entire adult life and in fact much earlier – music, philosophy, beauty, and an exaggerated idea of my own abilities to contribute to these things – is like a bouquet of dried weeds lying on a barren patch of ground. Instead of picking it up, I turn away.

Many years ago, in the early days of my apprenticeship in classical music, if I were sick and unable to sing for even a day, the whole world would turn black for me. It just came to me today that my zeal and discipline for the serious study and work of singing only began a month after my abortion seventeen years ago. I believe that it was again partially a case of Arbeit macht frei. With nothing else but a bottomless pit to peer over, there’s only, and always, work. Also, with the bottom kicked out of who I thought I was, I thought I might as well make something of myself. The man who caused the abortion, whom I’d loved, obsessed over, and pursued, suddenly seemed like a much less good prospect. However, as I found out years later, it was the abortion itself that made him regretfully realize that he did love me after all. Afterward, he invited me in, so I stuck with him, not sure of what else to do. He was a brilliantly disciplined man both professionally and emotionally, and I took on his discipline partly to impress him, and partly because I truly believed that discipline would set me free.

So I became disciplined and hard-working, and also competitive and shrewd. I was so disciplined that I spent every spare minute I had studying scores, making translations, haunting the Rogers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the Lincoln Center Library for obscure recordings of whatever it was I was working on. My obsession for work certainly enabled me to eventually become an accomplished musician, and my passion for study helped me immensely with the project that would occupy the greatest part of my singing career, which would involve the study and performance of specialized and neglected repertoires.

When the marriage to that man ended, I stopped singing opera. I believed somehow that my cool-headed pursuit of a singing career had led me down a path that was totally wrong, a self-centered path that had ended up wreaking destruction in my life and many others’ as well. I just could not do it anymore. I fired my agent and stayed in bed for a long time.

But I didn’t stop singing, though perhaps I should have. Rather, I went on with the specialized repertoire projects, singing mainly for academic audiences. My engagements allowed me to travel fairly often, and in the course of those travels, I came to know my wonderful friend, now deceased, John Stewart Allitt, whose example was among the many phenomena that led me back to my faith.

Now I’m writing in my dissertation about the patristic theological trope of abandoning music pursuant to a spiritual conversion. Perhaps I shall have to abandon music too. Right now I don’t see the point of going on with it. It is not balm to my soul, not now anyway. Whatever God wants, hopefully He’ll make clear to me.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mother's Day

On Sunday evening, after the party ends
and family have gone, you’d love to say
how you can’t bear this gathering each May.
Your thoughtful husband usually sends
a rose bouquet, but changed his mind this year:
a special gift, it makes your finger shine
with emerald and ruby. “Too much wine,”
he banters as he wipes away your tear.
But you and I know, mother, what he can’t -
your April foolishness; how bit by bit
they snipped me out of you, took care of It;
how through the years I’ve been your confidante,
the reason for this night’s unraveling,
the garnet missing from the mother’s ring.

-- Catherine Chandler

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Recuperation From the Dead Love Through Christ and Isaac Babel

by Mary Karr (published in The New Yorker, February 12, 2007)

If you spend all night reading Babel and wake on an island
metropolis on your raft bed under a patent-leather sky
with the stars pecked out, you may not sense
the presence of Christ, the Red Cavalry having hacked up
all those Poles, the soldiers hugging each other
with their hatchets. This morning, my ex-man
is a caved-in box of disposable razors to ship back.
He wore a white Y on his baseball cap. Night
was a waterfall down his face.
Marry me meant You’re a life-support system
for a nice piece of ass, meant Rent
this space. Leaving the post office, I enter
the sidewalk’s gauntlet of elbows. All around me,
a locust buzz as from the book of Job. Yet I pray, I
pray: Christ my Lord, my savior,
and my good brother, sprinkle me
with the blood of the lamb. Which words
make manifest his buoyancy in me.
If the face of every random pedestrian is prayed for,
then the toddler in its black pram
gnawing a green apple can become Baby Jesus.
And the swaggering guy in a do-rag idly tossing an orange
into the crosswalk’s air might feel Heaven’s winds
suck it from his grasp as offering.
Maybe the prospect of loss—that potential emptiness
granted his hands—lets him grin so wide at me.
His gold teeth are a sunburst.
When the scabby man festooned with purple rags
shoulders an invisible rifle to shoot him, he pirouettes,
clutching his chest. Light applause follows
his stagger to the curb. The assassin bows.
These are my lords, my saviors, and my good brothers.
Plus the Jew Isaac Babel, who served the Red Calvary,
yet died from a bullet his own comrade chambered.
That small hole in his skull
is the pit on the map we sailed from.


I first read this poem in a copy of the New Yorker that I lifted from the open bag of a colleague in the office shared by adjunct instructors in my university department. I was so impressed by it that I took the magazine to our department's administrative office to photocopy the poem, intending to return it immediately to my colleague's bag. Coming back to the adjunct office a few minutes later, however, I was chagrined to see that he had left in my brief absence, making me the reluctant owner of a magazine pilfered from someone I respected from a distance.

I am an admirer of Isaac Babel. For some reason, Red Cavalry was the book I brought with me to the hospital to read while recovering from my son's birth. I stayed up those nights in new-mother exhaustion, underscored by horrified sadness at the brutal fate of the Jews in early twentieth-century Russia.

And I'm also a New York woman who has more than once lived through the crushed, dazed, hopeful and equivocal feelings that Mary Karr describes. By this time, however, her poem, though skillfully and beautifully written, strikes me as winsomely, almost pathetically over-optimistic. She is smiling bravely through her shocked tears and attempting to recuperate from the dead love by distancing herself from it, applying the prism of aesthetics to her broken heart. Yes, the poem suggests, life does and must go on. I like the addition of praying for random strangers, an act of charity akin to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, by which the suffering of random strangers is accepted and taken in by the practitioner and peace is given back. But Karr's poem also implies that the fate of a modern woman, especially a modern intellectual woman, is that she must use her abilities to reason, to remember, to recognize or perhaps invent allusions, and to compare the particular sorrows of her life to the universal sorrows of art, to pick her way through the minefield of modern love. Why must it be this way? Why must modern women expect so little from modern men? Why are we left to heal our own hearts by trying to find some cosmic universality to our personal suffering? I do not say that a universality doesn't exist. I simply believe that modern love, such as it is, has caused modern women too much pain, and it saddens me that we must use such paltry tools to heal our own hearts.

That said, however, I remember reading long ago in a book by an early-twentieth century Indian scholar of English literature that the aim of literature was the total eradication of sorrows and miseries. If only it were so easy. As Goethe wrote, addressing the Muses, "You cannot heal the suffering that love inflicts; yet assuagement comes, dear ones, only from you."


I was raised in one of the many 1970s-era Catholic homes in which Catholicism was fiercely clung to as a source of ethnic identity, but proudly dissented from in actual practice. My parents were not only white ethnics who’d emerged from the working class, but were professional liberal intellectuals as well. I had a very confused notion of what constituted a sin until rather recently in my adult life. As I suspect many young Catholics do, I lived a life that was in violation of many of the Ten Commandments, but I didn’t think that restricted me from receiving Communion. At one point, I was a cantor, and in spite of being in serious sin and by that time also having mostly rejected the Catholic faith, I still received in full sight of the public. Somehow I thought it would help me, would heal me, would bring me closer to God, but I didn’t grasp the simple fact that I needed to confess my sins first. In spite of his open dissent from the Church, my father had the good sense not to receive Communion during a time when he was, by his own admission, in a state of mortal sin; even though my catechesis was spotty, I might have learned in this case from his example.

The odd thing is that as a child I had a strong consciousness of the reality and the weight of my own sinfulness. This feeling persisted into adulthood, but by that time it had become annoying and, according to my friends and therapists, neurotic, so I tried to shake it by delving deeper into the temporal pleasure of sin. I was thinking homeopathically, that like cured like, so sin would be the antidote for sin. I thought I was special and specially gifted and privileged, that living life to the fullest meant claiming every experience that was gratifying to the senses and the ego. In spite of my current penitence, it’s still hard to lose the feeling of special privilege by which I became my own authority on what was sinful for me. It’s a miracle that God drew back such an incredibly disobedient soul to Himself. I am suffering now, but I have heard that a hundred years of suffering on earth are better than one hour in purgatory.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Two Poems by Robert Herrick

To God.

Make, make me Thine, my gracious God,
Or with thy staffe, or with thy rod;
And be the blow too what it will,
Lord, I will kisse it, though it kill:
Beat me, bruise me, rack me, rend me,
Yet, in torments, I'le commend Thee:
Examine me with fire, and prove me
To the full, yet I will love Thee:
Nor shalt thou give so deep a wound,
But I as patient will be found.

Another, to God.

Lord, do not beat me,
Since I do sob and crie,
And swowne away to die,
Ere Thou dost threat me.

Lord, do not scourge me,
If I by lies and oaths
Have soil'd my selfe, or cloaths,
But rather purge me.

Bad Dreams

I've been tormented lately by horrible dreams of a dreadful person I once loved. If I'd been acting reasonably at the time I would have seen that this person was dangerous; I can quite easily imagine a future for him that includes prison time. In my dreams, I will get into a taxicab and suddenly out of nowhere he'll jump in next to me; I shove him forcefully out of the cab and tell the driver to step on it. Or he's always at my shoulder and I can't shake him. There is so much that I wish I could forget, so much humiliation and grief in remembering who I have been and what I have done. A priest who had a conversion told me once that it's Christ who separates our old life from our new, but that it's salutary to remember from where we came. Is it? Is it also then salutary to harbor regrets, and to know that only God can set right what we have made wrong? And can we trust Him to do that, even if it happens at some later time and we are forever unaware of it? How do we go on with a knowledge of our past, which highlights how undeserving we are of the gifts of the present?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

House Special Coffee Ice Cream

A friend has reminded me that when St. Faustina received Christ's visits, her spiritual director, in order to test whether the visions wre truly coming from Christ or from His enemy, advised her to ask the apparition what she had said in her last confession. The vision replied, "I do not know. I have forgotten," which convinced the priest that the Visitor was in fact Our Lord, for God told Jeremiah that He would forgive his people's sins "and remember them no more" (Jer 31:31-34).

Still: I'm about to have a D&C for a missed miscarriage, my second pregnancy loss in four months and the second that will require an invasive procedure. I'm supposed to be 12 weeks pregnant but the baby died at 8 weeks. Seventeen years ago I was 8 weeks pregnant when I had my first pregnancy loss, a self-chosen abortion. My mind has been flooded uncannily with minutely-detailed memories of that time, down to what I wore, the shade of my lipstick, the menu that my then-boyhfriend good-humoredly and ruefullly drew up for the "last meal" the night before, with a menu card promising "House Special Coffee Ice Cream." (That good man [for he was good in many ways, in spite of this horrible mistake, which I'm sure he regrets] is long gone. We married and I did most things imaginable to ruin it.)

I must remember, then, that this is not punishment for those sins of long ago, for God has forgotten them, even if I have not. Then how am I to understand it?