Thursday, April 30, 2009

There and Back, Part 5: The Sacramental Everyday

The other day, while looking at the catalogue from the recent Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, I read a reference to his friend and colleague Édouard Vuillard's "touching small narratives of the 1890s and their poetic visions of an inward life routinely spent."

I thought that was burnished prose, the kind of phrase I might write in my dreams. But not just that; it also described something that I've been turning over in my mind, dreaming and awake, for as long as I can remember: the meaning of a good life and how it is spent.

When I was an undergraduate studying classical voice, this question prompted me to leave school for a while. I was, like so many undergraduates before me, in search of something more "real," more authentic, than what was all around me (mainly my fellow undergraduates engaged in the various bad behavior and poor choices made by undergraduates, and faculty preoccupied with other things). I had stirring ideas about how things really ought to be. I imagined, for instance, that Schubert's great song "Gretchen am Spinnrade" could be dramatically improved with an avant-garde, Sprechstimme interpretation (though I never sang it this way myself), for how can one describe the sensation of an obsessive love that is driving one mad with a modality as stylized and, let's face it, square, as classical vocal delivery? And, like Meghan Daum in her much-read New Yorker essay "My Misspent Youth," I believed that one's integrity was somehow connected to what one owned, and that if I had the right lamp and the right bowl (though "right," to me, always suggested provenance from a thrift shop), I would somehow have the right life. (I'm happy to say I did not go quite as far in this belief as one of my college classmates, who claimed that you could tell if someone was a really good musician by the clothes he or she wore.) One summer I decided not to return to school. I would have a "real" life. I had fallen in with a bunch of avant-garde theater artists, and I started performing with them and working in restaurants. Notwithstanding the fact that such experiments were thirty years out of date, I began making my own deck of tarot cards that I would use in performance, developing chance-based theater pieces based on an arbitrary lexicon of sounds, words, and gestures that I would assign to each card (fortunately, I never finished my deck). I had to do something more relevant, I thought, than sing. What did classical singing matter?

A couple of years after this extremely disorderly period in my life, I met my first husband. He himself was an artist, and he encouraged me to disengage myself from the self-indulgent silliness that passed, in my mind, for serious work, and to recommit myself to what I truly did well. With him I learned the rigorous discipline that would serve me so well throughout the rest of my life. But part of me still railed against the staid, bourgeois ethos of classical singing, and wondered if such a near-obsolete art form really mattered.

Whether it mattered or not, though, I loved it, and I kept doing it. I had a small career as an opera singer, and a somewhat bigger one as a recitalist; my real love was, and still is, the classical recital repertoire. My recital work began more and more to be based on my research into obscure and forgotten genres of art song, and my growing love for this research eventually led me to my doctoral program.

In the interstices of one's daily work and activities, though, are one's dreams, one's delusions, one's hopes, and one's failings. I always loved that terrible line in "You're So Vain" about "clouds in my coffee," because it rang true for me. There is one's morning coffee, and there are the clouds, the dewdrops, the landscapes and the weather of the imagination that inform it and the act of sitting at the kitchen table and drinking it. I wanted to be mindful of that act, and of every act.

One's mindfulness, though, can itself become an obsession and a delusion. When one is focused on the meaning behind the act and the thing, one is prone to investing the act and the thing with meanings that they do not possess. One can then so easily fall into the trap of self-aggrandizement, the illusive notion that acts and things open their meaning to oneself alone, even the fantasy that life is about reading the true meaning of phenomena, the act behind the act, the breathing soul at the heart of the thing. And this can lead, at best, to neglecting one's unpleasant chores and mundane vows, and, at worst, to madness.

What, then, is a good life well spent? How does one execute one's diurnal responsibilities without neglecting the beauty that somehow infuses everything? How does one honor that beauty without leaving reality behind?

I think the Catholic Church is extremely wise to have given us a sacramental understanding of the world and its phenomena. To acknowledge that the commonest of things can be a vehicle for divine grace is truly revolutionary, out-Buddhas Buddhism, and is a stance I need in order to resist getting sucked up daily into a whirlwind of despair. If only everyone who craved beauty and knowledge could find it in the Sacraments, the world would truly be transformed.

The frustrations of my daily life now, too, make the glimpses of beauty so much more precious. Sometimes God speaks to us in ways that are startlingly direct, but most of the time He is maddeningly silent. The memory of the startling directness can sometimes be just enough to get us through the long periods of lonely silence.

(Image above: Madame Vuillard Refilling a Carafe, 1914.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Homage to Roy Orbison

If I can touch the voice of Roy Orbison
singing "only in dreams" and if I can

swallow the sweet pudding of his song
then why shouldn't a piece of music

fill in for human contact? Maybe it does
for a second or two, but life is long, or we are,

in our minds, and the singing we do gives us
a taste and not a meal. And what would

happen without it? Would we reconcile
since there would be no contrast, no lift of

Roy's dulcet tones to guide us up to immense
heights of one-pointed ecstasy? So why not sing

as hard and deep as we can? Why not feel out
the song-nerve and trace its trajectory?

I think that in the voice's rise
and wail we finally wake and hear the voice

of an angel. "Sweet dreams baby" Roy throbs.
If so, we go past abrasions and promontories

of broken stony sounds, and emerge up here
where the guitar is a guru, and where Roy's

sweetness is the rule and his sense of form
shapes up this shard-filled life. "Move on

down the line." So there, do it, dance in
a strange way and who cares. When the

listeners judge by their sweetness gauge
and their sucked-in breath at "crying over

you," will anyone care that he dyed his
black hair and had false teeth? I thrash

and shout like a teenage girl for the duration
of the song. "I got a woman mean as she

can be." (I think that's me.) He told me
that anything I wanted he would
give it to me, and you know? He did.

-- Irene McKinney, from Vivid Companion, © Vandalia Press, 2004. H/T: The Writer's Almanac.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our Lady Magdalene

The sinful woman who, in a dramatic gesture of penitence, washes Christ’s feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50 is never identified as Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman from whom Christ drove out seven devils (Luke 8:2-3), but Pope Saint Gregory the Great, in his thirty-third homily, conflated the two women, also declaring Mary of Bethany (mentioned in Luke 10:38-42 and John 11) to be one and the same.

The Vatican reversed Gregory’s conflation in 1969, but it has always seemed to me, as it has to millions of believers from the seventh century on, that he knew what he was about: his conflation gave the Church a powerful figure of repentance and spiritual renewal, at once a reformed prostitute, a watcher at the Crucifixion, the first contemplative (in her identification with Mary of Bethany), and, finally, as the first witness to the Resurrection, apostola apostolorum -- the Apostle to the Apostles. In the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene also came to be identified with with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11), and with the Samaritan woman living, without benefit of marriage, with her sixth “husband” (John 4:1-42).

If we read the Gospels as a linear narrative, then the incident in which the penitent sinner anoints Christ's feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee precedes the similar incident described in John 12:1-11, in which Mary of Bethany anoints His feet at another dinner, six days before the Passover seder that precedes His arrest. It seems to me that these are meant to be two separate incidents, not two different retellings of the same one. We recognize Mary as the penitent sinner because she has performed once again her unique and beautiful act of penitence and reverence.

Devotion to the Magdalene was strong in the Middle Ages, when popuar belief held that, after her conversion, she had been miraculously restored to the state of virinity. A thirteenth-century calendarium refers to her as “Magdalene virginis,” and a sermon by a Syrian monk from the eleventh century calls her “Our Lady Magdalene." Saint Godric, a twelfth-century English hermit, received a vision in which the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene appeared to him together and taught him a song, a striking example of two saints who seem in our time to possess distinctly different, almost opposing, ethoi, mystically joined together in the practice of music.

I used to wonder about the passage in Luke in which Christ declares to Simon: "Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much." Did He mean, I wondered, that He forgave her because she showed her love for and faith in Him so dramatically? However, I believe now that somehow she knew, in a motion of the heart, that she was already forgiven; and that therefore she gathered up her ointment and rushed off to Simon's house in an outpouring of love.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

There and Back, Part 4: Reading the Entrails

For many years in New York City, I lived in a neighborhood that was chockablock with classical musicians. There were four opera singers, for instance, in my building alone (one was my upstairs neighbor, with whom I tried to coordinate our practice schedules), and scores more lived up and down the street and on the surrounding blocks. There were also many instrumentalists, composers, and conductors around. Another neighbor, two flights up in my building, was a violinist who was also a colleague in my doctoral program; and to rehearse for the many concert gigs I had in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I simply walked around the corner to my recital pianist's apartment. It wasn't until later that the neighborhood became hip; a high density of classical musicians living in an area for cheap rent and proximity to the music schools, concert venues, and teachers of the West Side does decidedly little for a neighborhood's hipness, since classical musicians are themselves mostly not hip at all. But there was a palpable sense of artistic comradeship and shared purpose in the community. At rush hour, one squeezed into seats next to fellow-travelers studying Schirmer opera scores as they listened to Discmans on their way to temporary office jobs, and it wasn't unusual, when walking down the street on warm days, to hear the sounds of many voices and instruments practicing through the open windows of apartment buildings.

I became close friends with one of my singer neighbors, N., a beautiful and gifted soprano who lived in my building. Also a wind player, she had earned degrees in both opera and oboe at prestigious conservatories. We were constantly in and out of each other's apartments. She would drop in on Sunday nights, and I would make us tea while we had deep heart-to-heart talks, mostly about men and heartbreak, which were as constant in our conversation as they were inevitable in our lives. In spite of her beauty, intelligence, and tremendous drive, N. had no better luck than I at holding onto romantic relationships. This phenomenon was an accepted hazard among young women of our set, class, and time. Although we longed for what we hardly dared admit were husbands, we were close to giving up. The men of our set simply had few compelling reasons to marry, and many compelling reasons not to.

N.'s father had been a rage-filled alcoholic, as well as a professional pornographer. Like me, she dabbled in occult practices -- astrology for her, tarot cards for me -- that were passed off as innocent, and that gave us some sense that we could understand and control our lives. I remember the last time I read tarot cards, a practice I had vowed to discontinue after being confirmed in 2003, was for N. I reluctantly agreed on this occasion, shortly after Confirmantion, as she was deeply troubled and believed that seeing tarot pictures laid out might give her some sort of road map through her sorrow. I felt a physical chill while peering at her cards, and had to put on a sweater.

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. This document warns that, while some practices, even Christian ones, "automatically produce a feeling of quiet . . . [and] perhaps even phenomena of light and warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being [to] take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life." Cardinal Ratzinger goes further to warn:

Giving [these phenomena] a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead ot psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.

This was the problem for N. and me. We sincerely wanted to know God better, to know His will for us, to know His love for us, and to do the right thing. But we simply didn't know how. We thought we could draw down His wisdom into our own lives by the practice of gnosis, special knowledge. We tried to read the entrails, but we had no faith. In fact, it was very hard for us to have faith in the midst of lives that were chaotic at best (by the grace of God, I was able, eventually, to find my faith).

In the months before I moved out of the building to get married, N. was in a crash-and-burn relationship of a whole new dimension. She had fallen in love with M., a construction worker and part-time model, a devastatingly handsome man who was also a hopeless drug addict and alcoholic. She tried to keep him sober, but both N. and M. (who was also attracted to gnosticism) held themselves aloof from the poor souls who were forced through hitting rock-bottom to go to twelve-step meetings with non-gorgeous losers in moldy church basements. In a last-ditch effort, they went on a trip to South America, where, under the supervision of a tribal shaman, they ingested hallucinogenic herbs and had visionary experiences that they hoped would not only cure him of his addiction, but would also reveal the paths that they were to take in the future.

When they got back to New York, they were full of purpose. But soon M. was using again and N. was in despair. The final straw was when he called her to his side while he sat up all night freebasing cocaine, and then sent her out for beer in the morning when the bodegas opened so he could come down. After that horrible night she didn't see him for weeks, but then ran into him on the street one day, where he revelaed that he was getting married to a single mother of his acquaintance. They were expecting a child.

I wonder now if occult practices, even if undertaken innocently, inevitably result in tremendous moral disorder in the lives of the practitioners.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"My home is over Jordan . . ."

Sorry the visuals aren't better for this, but the song is the point. It's the Negro spiritual "Deep River," which may actually be a "pseudo-spiritual" art song by Dvorak's African-American pupil Harry Thacker Burleigh. Burleigh is credited on the sheet music as the arranger of the piece's piano-vocal setting, but recent scholarship suggests that he may have written it and disguised his handiwork -- which is marvelous -- as an old folk melody.

The late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson used to sing the piece as a recital encore. Her interpretation is somewhat square, and yet, at the same time, nothing could be more heartfelt.

The song is about the longing for a holy death. The lyrics:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go
To that gospel feast,
That promised land
Where all is peace?
Oh, deep river,
I want to cross over into campground.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

A Prayer for the Self

Who am I worthless that You spent such pains
and take may pains again?

I do not understand; but I believe.
Jonquils respond with wit to the teasing breeze.

Induct me down my secrets. Stiffen this heart
to stand their horrifying cries, O cushion
the first the second shocks, will to a halt
in mid-air there demons who would be at me.

May fade before, sweet morning on sweet morning,
I wake my dreams, my fan-mail go astray,
and do me little goods I have not thought of,
ingenious & beneficial Father.

Ease in their passing my beloved friends,
all others too I have cared for in a travelling life,
anyone anywhere indeed. Lift up
sober toward truth a scared self-estimate.

-- John Berryman, from "Eleven Addresses to the Lord." Collected Poems 1937-1971. © Noonday Press, 1989.

H/T: The Writer's Almanac

Please Pray

For my blogging comrade Kyle Cupp and his family.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Uses of Memory

Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all I have and possess; you have given it me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me your love and grace, because that is enough for me.
-- Saint Ignatius of Loyola

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will probably know certain things about me, its anonymous author: for instance, that I had a dramatic conversion several years ago, which led to gradual changes in my life and reasoning process from one way to its near-complete opposite; and that I consider myself a penitent. Having gone from espousing and living a self-absorbed, promiscuous, bohemian ethos that caused a great deal of harm to myself and others, to striving to espouse and live a Christian life, has been no easy transition. I struggle daily with the discipline and humility needed to shoulder the cross of my mundane responsibilities, and the past is always beckoning to me over that shoulder -- not so much the events of the past, which mostly ended in heartbreak and failure, but the sensations that accompanied and illustrated them.

I recall the way the light rallied bravely on a post-industrial street in early March in my old city; the taste of the coffee at a Puerto Rican lunch counter by the subway; the green glass bottles arranged on the window sill in a friend's apartment. The lime-green haze of the new leaves, like a diaphanous scarf caught in the black branches of the trees on Riverside Drive. The impossibly warm, nostalgic sound of my voice teacher's Bechstein. The buzzing haze of the city in summer, and the marvelously strange way that a hush would descend at certain moments over even the busiest street. The weeds that heliotroped and bloomed through chicken-wire fencing on a strip of auto-body repair shops in the Bronx. The playing cards I would often find on the street (I found a tarot card, "The Lovers," once). And the many, many goodbyes. While Rome is a city that is layered over with the history of Western civilization, New York is a city that is layered over and over again with the personal histories of its denizens. Certain corners are redolent, even overripe, with memory; certain neighborhoods become forbidden zones because of the heartbreaks to which they played host. And when one has tried to change one's life in a place that was the site of so much crash-and-burn, one occasionally feels as if it might be easier to do it elsewhere, and is tempted to take flight from the snares of memory.

Now I am elsewhere, with none of the sensations of my beloved city around me. And sometimes I mourn for the sights, sounds, and smells of the past, the beautiful fragments of a mostly unlovely life that shimmer even more in the refracted light of memory. And I wonder what God wants me to do with my memory. Must I ask Him to sever it from me? I suppose I would be happier and better-adjusted if I could forget the past. And these sense memories inevitably incur regret, because they suggest the past, which, since I cannot change it, leads to grief, and even depression. If God has forgotten my sins, must I remember them?

The quandary of conversion is that it must always be rooted in penitence. Can one be penitent and not mourn constantly? Saint Peter, according to legend, had furrows in his cheeks, gouged there by his incessant weeping for having denied Christ. And, according to Raïssa Maritain, the eyes of Blessed Ève Lavallière, a French actress and convert, were, after her conversion, always wet with tears of contrition for her past sins. Saint Ephrem the Syrian is said to have written:

The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again!

And yet, as Brother Roger of Taizé has noted:

It may be impossible to repent without feeling some regret. But the difference between the two is enormous. Repentance is a gift from God, a hidden activity of the Holy Spirit that draws a person to God. I do not need God to regret my mistakes; I can do that by myself. Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, "dispels my sins like the morning mist" (Isaiah 44:22).

What, then, is the place of memory in the penitential consciousness? Is it possible to mine the memory for beauty, and to use the beauty as a palliative for others? Is it the responsibility of those who are conscious of beauty to nurture it, wherever it is found, even in ugliness? Or must that beauty be left behind, even buried?

I recently had the opportunity to go back to New York to see the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum (the image above, "Work Table," is the poster for the show). Retrospectives of Bonnard's work are rare -- the last one in New York was in 1998 -- and I enthusiastically recommend this show, which closes on April 19, to anyone who can go. It is wonderful. Bonnard is an artist who has always been important to me personally, and in fact, in his late paintings, there is an apparent attempt to come to terms with painful memory. He paints mundane domestic objects with luminous, even joyful, intensity, and yet the shadowy human figures who cling to the edges of his canvases hint at a tragic personal situation that caused great damage in his life and the lives of those around him in the mid-1920s, several years before he began producing this prodigious later corpus.

Were the dreadful events in Bonnard's life, then, somehow salutary for the rest of us? The beauty of his late paintings give the viewer great joy.

My fondest hope is that, out of the dreadful turmoil of my own past, some small healing for others might also be brought forth.

Happy Easter (and Passover) and many blessings to all my readers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"In springtime, no one is lonely . . . "

Act III of La Bohème. Ill-fated lovers Mimi and Rodolfo must part: she is very ill, and he is very poor, and he wants her to be free to find a richer man, one who might have the means to obtain a cure for her.

But they decide to wait until April to break up, because in the springtime no one is lonely; the birds and the flowers keep solitary souls company. Mimì says, touchingly, at the end, "I wish the winter would last forever."

(In the meantime, the unfaithful lovers Musetta and Marcello are having a spat.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Patches Make the Goodbye Harder Still

When I was dating the Stoner Carpenter Guy, I fantasized that we would get married and have children. (In fact, we broke up shortly after September 11, which seems to have been a huge crucible for New York relationships, separating the ore from the dross.) One day, as we were walking down West 14th Street, we saw a tiny glove lying in the middle of the sidewalk where it had fallen from a child's stroller. "Do you see that?" SC Guy pointed at it with uncharacteristic, near-histrionic despair. "If you have children, you have to deal with that EVERY DAY." I knew that he didn't mean the annoyance of children losing things, but rather the dreadfulness of life's quotidian losses and separations, the casual sunderings that time and carelessness bring and that remove us inch by inch from those we love, until they're so far away that we can only wave to them from the horizon and hope they recognize us. As Holden Caulfield noted, growing up means that you have to carry suitcases in elevators and miss people.

My hardest Lenten sacrifice this year, and in previous years, is striving to become aware of all the goodbyes that we say to those we love, especially the goodbyes we must say on a daily basis. Here is a song I've always loved, "Oh Very Young" by Cat Stevens (above), that describes those goodbyes.

(My dissertation is about an iconography of penitence in the Western art-historical tradition that employs music imagery, and thus I'm interested in penitent musicians, like Hermann Cohen, who's appeared on this page more than once. Cat Stevens might fit into the penitent musician category too, since he seems to have almost completely jettisoned music after converting to Islam. He was also, I'll admit it, the object of my first crush.)