Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

(The hymn is "Colchester" by eighteenth-century English composer William Tans'ur, performed by the Theatre of Voices, led by Paul Hillier.)

The Holy Souls

Dawn Eden has written a moving post about a life-changing dream (which sounds like one of the very few true dreams we may be fortunate enough to receive in this life). Christmas Day is traditionally regarded as a time when many souls are freed from Purgatory; may our prayers help them, and help those who remain.

I wish great joy on Christmas day and beyond to all who visit here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Now That's Sangin'

(as my old voice teacher from east Texas used to say).

In fact, this humble little recital performance is some of the best singing I've ever heard in my life. It's the radiant Austrian soprano Gundula Janowitz, whose peak years were in the 1960s, singing Mozart's little Lied "Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling" (Longing for Spring). The song has something like folksong status in Germany and Austria, where it's known by its first line, "Komm, lieber Mai" -- and, as you can see in the translation below by Emily Ezust, it's a children's song.

Come, dear May, and make
the trees green again,
and by the brook, let
the little violets bloom for me!

How I would love
to see a violet again -
ah, dear May, how gladly
I would take a walk!

It is true that winter days have
much joy as well:
one can trot in the snow
and play many games in the evening;

build little houses of cards,
play blind-man's-buff and forfeits;
also go tobogganing
in the lovely open countryside.

Ah, if only it would grow milder
and greener out there!
Come, dear may! we children,
we beg you!

O come and bring for us, before anyone else,
lots of violets!
Bring also lots of nightingales
and pretty cuckoos!

Friday, December 19, 2008

How I Got That Dress

This is post is going up by special request from Really Rosie and Fallen Sparrow.

December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, was the fourth anniversary of my engagement (which took place, incidentally, in the church in whose excellent choir Fallen sings -- in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which is a good way to win a girl's heart). At the time my then-boyfriend asked me to marry him, however, I had already purchased my wedding dress. How did such an unorthodox thing come to be? Here, gentle reader, is how.

A couple of weeks before that fateful event, I was having a bad day. It was a cold, gray afternoon in mid-November, and I was late with my tuition payment at the university and wouldn't be able to re-enroll for the next semester until that matter was settled. I'd been working part-time while doing my coursework, and had recently returned from a recital gig in England, which, while it garnered me some attention, ended up being, like most recital gigs, rather unprofitable, and my bank account balance that day was hovering around $37.00. I had gone to my bank to ascertain this state of affairs (Amalgamated, "the working man's bank," natch, of which there were only three branches in New York, none of them anywhere near my home). After receiving the disappointing news, I caught a bus down Broadway, wondering what to do, and for some reason I decided to get off at West 37th Street and go into a church that I'd never been in before, the Church of the Holy Innocents, which is right in the heart of the garment district.

For those who haven't been there, it is a remarkable church. It is old, dark, and lit mostly by candlelight, and the walls and nearly every space not in prescribed liturgical use are covered and crammed with old-fashioned images of many saints, some of whom I can't even identify. At any hour of the day, you can find several mantilla-clad abuelas praying in the pews. Being an ethnic American Catholic myself, this is the kind of place I always feel at home.

Once inside, I knelt down and prayed fervently. Mostly I asked God to show me what to do with my life, and in particular to let me know if there was anything I was overlooking. Then I had to go teach a voice lesson (one of my jobs at the time was giving voice lessons to little girls on Park Avenue, which was very complicated for various reasons, about which I will blog another time), and, as I was leaving the church, I saw that it had a thrift shop in its basement. The thrift shop had a sign in the window advertising a very small-sized wedding dress for two hundred dollars. For some reason, I felt as if I should take a look at the dress, just for fun and just in case.

I went in and asked about the dress, but no one working there could find it. I looked at a few white things I saw hanging up, but they were not wedding dresses. All in all, the place looked sad and poor, with a few faded clothes draped limply on the desultory racks. So I made to leave, but just then a man came into the shop to start his shift there, and the other workers told me that his name was John and that he knew about the wedding dress.

John, a diffident, humble older man with kind blue eyes, brought out an enormous garment bag from behind a curtain. He laid it on a table, unzipped it, and inside was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, white satin with a ten-foot-long embroidered train that could be hooked up to the skirt, and a bodice encrusted with artificial pearls - a princess's gown. Understandably, considering the location of the church, the dress was a designer's sample. It looked as if it would fit me, but I couldn't be certain by eyeballing it, so I asked John if I could try it on. He refused, because he didn't want it to get dirty, and anyway, there were no changing rooms. So I figured it wasn't meant to be -- and why would it have been, since I wasn't even engaged? -- and I made to leave. But then, for some reason, John relented, and said I could try it on, as long as I took off my shoes. So I stood on what honestly looked like a Muslim prayer rug -- I'm not sure why it was there -- and two women sheltered me, and I pulled the dress on over my head found that it fit like it was made for me. Then, to my great amazement, John fell to his knees, made the sign of the cross, and started praying and thanking God. He said he'd had the dress in the shop for a long time, and that many women had wanted to see it, but none could wear it; one, he said, had even left in tears because it was clearly the wrong size, so obviousy the fact that it fit me like a glove was a demonstration of God's holy will. He asked God to bless me and my fiancé (I didn't tell him that I didn't officially have one yet). All of this happened on a Friday, at three o'clock, the hour of Divine Mercy. So clearly I had to buy the dress. I put ten dollars down on it, all I'd been able to take out of my Amalgamated bank account that day, with a promise to pick it up on payday. I brought it home a few days later on the subway in an enormous garbage bag.

So then there I was a couple of weeks later on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament as my husband-to-be produced a small box from his pocket.

We were married four months after that, on the day that Pope John Paul II died ("Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints" [Ps 116:15]), in a torrential rainstorm. Our son was born nine months and a couple of days later.

I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to have children; I was in my late thirties, and I couldn't shake the heretical notion that God would want to punish me forever for my abortion. But this whole story, after all, is about how His Mercy (as he made clear to Saint Faustina, who, it is rumored, will soon be declared a Doctor of the Church), is greater than his just judgment.

You can see a picture of me in the dress here. One of my friends in the Sisters of Life, several of whom attended my wedding, thinks that the dress was designed by the same designer who created their distinctive and beautiful habit, which can be seen in a couple of images on this blog.

It is important to emphasize, for my own benefit as much ss for the benefit of those reading this blog, that, as Christ said in Matthew 5:45, good things happen to bad people (and, sadly, vice versa). God allows the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike. Whatever God has given me is through no merits of my own, but rather through the storehouse of his unfathomable Mercy.

Dear readers, please pray for John, the man who worked at the thrift shop. I ran into him again with my husband a few months later, praying in another church (he was astonished to see me pregnant so soon after our momentous meeting). He no longer had his job at the thrift shop. He is a poor and holy man who lives a solitary life, and I know very little else about him, but I believe he could use our prayers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Perils of Blogging

When I began this blog in July 2007, I told four people about it. Two of them were friends of long standing, who had seen me through the darkest and most disorderly days of a life darker and more disorderly than most, as well as the dramatic re-conversion to the Catholic Church that I experienced later. Another was related to me. I never anticipated having a readership larger than a small handful of people who knew me intimately, and who I thought would be amused by reading my occasional thoughts on music, aesthetics, and faith. After a couple of months, I invited a few more close friends to read this blog, including Dawn Eden, who, to my surprise, posted a broadcast about its existence to her readership. While I have to admit that I found this new attention upsetting at first, it has gained me some wonderful readers, and even some real friends. On the other hand, it has also created certain attendant problems. What started as, essentially, a diary for a few close friends has become a more public journal. Where, before, I left out the backstory to my posts' subject matter -- not naming names because there was no need to; my readers knew what I was talking about -- I later had to be vigilant about not writing in too much detail about people, places, and events, in order to preserve the anonymity of the innocent as well as of the guilty.

Radical Catholic Mom's comment on a recent post has gotten me thinking about this blog and its origins. It struck me that the pro-lifer who told RCM's friend "you women need to repent for the rest of your lives" (though it may be true) did not know the circumstances that led to the friend's tragic choice.Really Rosie has told me that she thinks the content here has gotten blander in the wake of what she calls the "character assassinations" left in the combox during the pre-election season. I'll admit that I was deeply hurt, and even haunted, by the viciousness of some of the commenters, particularly those who appeared to self-identify as faithful Catholics. While I think readers are perfectly justified in arguing about the ideas they find here or elsewhere, I do not think they are justified in assailing the essence of the person writing them, unless they know that person in real life, and well enough to have some understanding of the basis for that person's ideas. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions,

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it.

I see this rush to condemnation as an understandable defense on the part of those frightened by a world where everything seems to be quickly going off-kilter. But, dear readers, let it be said here that my only wish for this blog, and it is a fervent one, is that someone might find here some small thing, some shred, of hope or beauty.

I've often wondered about the real ability of the repertoire that I have performed to help listeners toward a deeper experience of their humanity. How can it be that some of the darkest pieces, even those that wring tears of real sadness from an audience, can also leave them feeling exalted in the end? The truth is that sometimes we have to touch upon, even delve into, the darkness in ourselves in order to heal it. In the course of a concert, the artist can, if it's a particularly good night, lead the audience through a small healing.

Rosie has said that she misses the introspective blogging about the interior life that has been previously featured on this blog, and perhaps I will take that up again soon; right now, although my dissertation has been successfully defended, I'm still quite busy making edits against the deposit deadline, as well as getting used to a completely different way of life in my new city. In the meantime, I will hope and pray that this blog might one day be a vehicle for someone's small healing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Musical Saints: John of the Cross

Today is the feast day of the great Carmelite Saint John of the Cross. The Carmelite Order, which traces its origins to the prophet Elijah, is notable for its ethos of close listening -- Elijah himself had to discern the voice of God on Mount Horeb in the midst of a soundscape of terrifying power -- and so it is fitting that the order has attracted holy men and women of a musical bent, incuding Father Hermann Cohen and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity.

Saint John of the Cross himself spoke of the search for and mystical union with the Savior in musical terms. In his Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, he described the fleeting moment between night and day as a time charged with the "silent music" of this encounter:

The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

Musical saints of Carmel, intercede for us, that we may receive the gift of true hearing!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Pro-Life Movement

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and also of the unborn. The pro-life movement has taken her as its own patroness for this latter reason.

I have no wish to delve into the politics of the pro-life movement here. To do so would be to duplicate the content of countless other blogs, but would do nothing to advance the cause. My fellow blogger Kyle Cupp, who has written extensively about pro-life politics from surprising and provocative angles befitting his background as a philosopher, is a good place to go for commentary that advances the dialogue toward the ideal state of healing.

All I have is my witness as a penitent post-abortive woman. This witness has been condemned by some commenters on this blog, who have suggested that, because I continue to speak of and to mourn my sin in spite of having had much else restored to me, I provide a destructive example to other post-abortive women. Although I do not know these commenters personally, I do know this: they are not post-abortive. And they do not read blogs written by other post-abortive women. If they did, they might find this one downright cheerful in comparison.

As my beloved Father Hermann Cohen, a fellow penitent and a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin, once said in a sermon, "We have been nailed as signposts before the Gates of Hell, warning others, 'Do not go this way!'"

My prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe today is that she might move the hearts of the virtuous members of the pro-life movement to accept and embrace the fervent witness and participation of women like me. For there are many of us in the movement, including many who are not open about their penitence and its cause. Their reticence is the result of the reality that many others in the movement -- like many faithful Catholics, sad to say -- have an attitude toward penitence not unlike that of the Prodigal's older brother. It would do us all well to ponder the great mystery inherent in the fact that God forgives even great sin, and remembers it no more. Moreover, He rejoices more over the return of the penitent than over those who have no need for forgiveness.

I suspect that women like me could be the future of the pro-life movement, especially as the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens become more and more complacent about the sanctity of life. Indeed, it's not impossible that penitent post-abortive women could even in some way revitalize the Catholic Church in America.

H/T for the quote from Father Hermann: Fallen Sparrow

Best Sesame Street Ever

There's been some discussion of vintage Sesame Street clips in the combox. This one is the clear winner for all time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Random Acts of Classicism

In my new home town, there is a 1970s-era apartment building in a working-class neighborhood whose cornerstone is inexplicably inscribed with Latin axioms (and one Greek exclamation). I chanced upon it yesterday, and transcribed what I found there:

Mens sana in corpore sano
Omnia vincit amor
[followed by the seemingly contradictory]
Labor omnia vincit
Gutta cavat lapidem
Ex nihil nihil fit

At the bottom of this list, the sculptor appears to have signed his work:

Loran scupsit

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Litany of Humility

A friend of mine sent the following prayer, which was written by Servant of God Cardinal Merry del Val (above). Every cell in my body protests against it, which is how I know that I must say it every day, preferably several times a day.

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen.

The Loudest Voice

I just re-read the Grace Paley story "The Loudest Voice," about a Jewish girl in 1930s New York who, because of her clear, loud voice and expressive reading, is chosen to narrate the school Christmas play. Her mother is against the idea at first, but her father reassures his wife:

"You're in America! . . . In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms . . . Here you got Christmas . . . . What belongs to history, belongs to all men. . . Does it hurt Shirley to speak up? It does not."

So Shirley Abramowitz is allowed to continue with rehearsals. The day of the performance comes, and her voice -- as the voice of Christ -- booms from the wings as the actions she describes are pantomimed on the stage.

"I remember, I remember, the house where I was born . . . "

Miss Glacé yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house -- an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester, and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father's prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered around Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to the famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The soldiers . . . grabbed poor Marty . . . but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city -- in this world -- now knows, I shall have life eternal."

Later, the Jewish parents discuss the paradox of their children taking the lead parts in the play. One mother opines that the teachers showed poor taste in assigning the major roles to the Jewish children, while the Christian children got cast in small parts if at all. But Shirley's mother explains: "They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler?"

Shirley listens from the other room to the talk of the grown-ups, then

I climbed out of bed and kneeled. I made a little church of my hands and said, "Hear, O Israel . . . "

. . . . I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passers-by, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Courtship of the Lost

In times when the Catholic world is healthy, God woos most of us through the institutional channels of family, Church, and culture. But even today, when . . . the object of His love is apt to spurn Him for worldly pleasures, still His quest continues, until either He wins the heart of His beloved or death intervenes. When His courtship is successful and His love returned, He forgives past neglect and pours out His grace unstintingly; repentant sinners are as likely as anyone to become saints. Blessed Josemaría Escrivá . . . urging his followers to welcome a penitent, once advised, "Remember that he may yet become an Augustine, while you remain mere mediocrities."

-- Donna Steichen, Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church

The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 18:12-14, the parable of the lost sheep, in which, as Donna Steichen notes, "Jesus describes the purpose of His life . . . [by comparing] God to a devoted shepherd who leaves the main body of His flock to search out a single lost sheep." As Christ emphasizes in the Gospel text, the shepherd, upon finding the lone straggler, will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine who did not stray. This is a salutary reminder of one of the great paradoxes of Christianity: that God's longing to pour out His mercy on his beloved is far above our own thirst for justice. How fortunate then are those of us who, in Isaiah's words, "like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6) to be thus wooed.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My friend Otepoti has either ruined my life completely or improved it immeasurably, depending on how you look at it, by turning me on to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. She sent me this clip, and I was compelled to watch almost every single one of their performances available on Youtube. It almost makes me wish I was still writing my dissertation, so that I'd have something pressing to keep me away from them.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"There surely is need of youth and innocence"

Today is the birthday of journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), most famous for his poem "Trees." Kilmer, who was killed in France in World War I, was a convert to the Catholic Church; his journey to Rome was driven by the illness of his little daughter Rose, who died of polio at the age of five.

While discerning the path of his conversion, Kilmer would stop every day at the Church of the Holy Innocents, above, in what was once the red-light district of New York City (it's now the Garment District), on his way to his office at the New York Times. This church has had an almost mystical importance in my life, and I know it's also a place of great spiritual significance to my friend and "antiphonal blogger" Fallen Sparrow. Kilmer wrote about the church to his spiritual advisor, Father James J. Daly:

Just off Broadway, on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a Church, called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate - for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this Church for faith. When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralyzed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down.

It's appropriate, then, that the Church of the Holy Innocents has a shrine dedicated to unborn children. Anyone who's lost an unborn child, for whatever reason, can enroll the child online in the Shrine's Book of Life. Indeed, the name of one of my four unborn little ones is inscribed there.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Saint Mary Magdalene, Sinner and Bride

One of the topics of my recently-defended dissertation is the patristic concept of the flux between sin and grace in the human soul (what this has to do with music is best left for another post). Some of the Fathers of the Church symbolized this flux with a hermeneutical pairing of Saint Mary Magdalene with the Mother of God.

The Church began to identify with the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century, but remnants of an earlier tradition remained, a tradition that looked to Saint Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner, as its herald. An example of this tradition can be found in the commentary Origen (above) wrote on the Song of Songs in the third century. In a detalied exegesis of verses 1:5-14, in which he expounds virtuosically on the dichotomy of light and dark, Origen further suggests the similarity of the Bride to Mary Magdalene:

I am beautiful through penitence and faith . . . she who now says "I am black and beautiful" has not remained in her blackness . . . She became black . . . because she went down, but once she begins to come up . . . she will shine with the enveloping radiance of light . . .

[The bride] has repented of her sins; beauty is the gift conversion has bestowed; that is the reason that she is hymned as beautiful.

Origen thus conflates both the individual soul and the Church with, simultaneously, the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 and the bride of Christ -- a bride in need of purification, "black by reason of her sinfulness but comely . . . because of her repentance [and] because she was loved by Christ." The bride's darkness, as Origen construes it, is not a physical trait but a spiritual one, for, though she is penitent, she is not yet wholly purified from her sin.

What's more, according to medieval legend, the Magdalene was herself a bride -- the bride at the wedding at Cana where Christ performed his first miracle (John 2:1-11); and her bridegroom was none other than Saint John the Evangelist, who, upon witnessing the apotheosis of Christ's divinity in the miracle of the wine, abandoned his bride to become the Beloved Disciple. In anger, Mary Magdalene embarked upon a life of carnality, until, encountering Christ herself, she was called to conversion, and eventually, through years of penance, rose from the depths of sin to the height of heavenly glory.

As Pope Paul VI noted in Lumen Gentium, the Church, "clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and conversion."

And as Bob Dylan says in the song "Ring Them Bells": "Time is running backwards, and so is the Bride."

During this season of Advent, when we, in all senses, step outside of ordinary time, may we reflect on these mysteries and seek to be truly converted ourselves.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Odetta 1930-2008

Growing up a dutiful child of the Left, the voice of Odetta was part of the soundscape of my formative years. Requiescat in pace.

This is a beautiful clip of the artist, in a groundbreaking couple of minutes of early 1960s airtime, with the white gospel singer Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Turning Everything to the Purpose

As my readers know, I love Brahms. Like many of the great composers, however, it must be acknowledged that he was not much of a mensch. His well-known apology for not having offended each person present at a dinner-party was a bit of a self-effacing joke on his part; he was notorious for his barbed, even cruel, wit and his heedless egotism, and, according to a friend of his youth, Brahms was "sehr herbe in Wesen": very bitter in his essence. This bitterness was tempered later, when, as one of the only composers in history to be acclaimed and handsomely remunerated in his own lifetime, he was able and eager to show extraordinarily generosity to those in need.

It has often been speculated that Brahms's personal problems were the result of childhood trauma. Although his home life seems to have been happy, his family struggled in poverty, and the young Brahms was forced to quit school and bring in an income to help out. So, from the age of twelve, Johannes played piano in the dockside brothels of his native Hamburg, the Animierlokale ("stimulation pubs"), providing music for the dancing of the St. Pauli Girls and their sailor clients.

Brahms was a virtuoso pianist and musician, and he was able to play the waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas that his employers demanded from rote memory, while at the same time reading from a novel or a book of poetry that he had propped up on the music rack of the whorehouse piano. But, as his biographer Jan Swafford writes,

the effects of the Lokale on him were deep and indelible. For the rest of his life, with friends or in his cups, Brahms would recall those nights as dark and shameful . . . . He told one beloved that "he saw things and recieved impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind" . . . . Between dances the women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity.

And Swafford continues, in an aside which drew mocking derision from Charles Rosen when he reviewed the Brahms biography in The New York Review of Books in 1998:

There may have been worse from the sailors. Johannes was as fair and pretty as a girl [see the sketch of him, at twenty, above].

As Swafford notes philosophically:

Everything that happens plays a part in an artist's life. What elevates one and not another to the level of genius is not only talent and ambition and luck, but a gift for turning everything to the purpose. Many first-rank creators have had traumas in their lives -- Beethoven's drunken father and his chronic illness and deafness, Robert Schumann's mental illness . . . With Brahms, it was first of all the lowlife of Hamburg. The [St. Pauli] Girls shaped him along with the training in music, the novels and poetry. The . . . squalor of his home and the Lokale . . . and . . . the idealistic intensity of his studies and his reading -- all that is one with the story of his music.

I've been thinking about Brahms lately in light of my friend Fallen Sparrow's recent brutally honest posts about his struggles with intimacy. Fallen and I had a discussion about his use of the word "monstrous" to describe some of the women he'd been involved with before he found sobriety. His violation as a teenager by an older woman is monstrous indeed, and I hope and pray that, as Brahms was able to do, Fallen will be able to temper the poison that was given him into medicine that he might use to heal the sick. There are people around him who need that medicine, and who need to receive it from him in particular.