Sunday, January 31, 2010

Franny, Zooey, Being, and Nakedness

Before my sister became a committed Buddhist, she was an actress.  In fact, not unlike the eponymous heroine in J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, she was an exceptionally gifted actress, who nonetheless, like Franny, felt a searing spiritual lack at the heart of her life and craft.  In Salinger's novel, Franny is dissuaded by the ministrations of her wised-up brother from "wandering off into some goddam desert with a burning cross in her hands"; Zooey convinces her that she need not integrate her heartbeat with hesychasm in order to live an authentic life, but will better serve God and her fellow man, in whom she is to see Christ Himself, by returning to college and her artistic discipline.  My sister, on the other hand, in her own painful search for authenticity, alighted on an austere Tibetan Buddhist practice, abandoned her profession because, she claimed, she had only entered it to "get attention," and began moving all over the country with the man she would marry and working in various jobs to support him while he "took time off" to meditate.  She now teaches meditation to beginning practitioners in her Buddhist sect (in this sect, one has to shell out a lot of money to receive the higher, apparently secret teachings that enable one to work as a meditation instructor), and has gained some attention for her articles on using the everyday frustrations of parenting as tools toward enlightenment.

Back when my sister was a struggling actress, there was a period during which she, along with many other actors I knew working Off-Off-Broadway, got a string of parts in plays that featured a guy getting totally naked.  Apparently there was some sort of trend in early-millenial theater theory that a guy getting naked onsage was a good way to further a play's dramatic action or to salvage a foundering plot.  I went to a number of diverse plays by various playwrights in which a guy got naked, and would sit in the darkened house in a strange state of conflicting emotions that included both admiration for the naked actors' courage and heartfelt, head-hanging empathy for all those who had to share the stage with them.

To one of these cringeworthy naked-guy spectacles I once brought a boyfriend of recent vintage, and after the show we went out to eat at a nearby diner with my sister and a childhood friend.  My sister, our friend W., and I were giddy in the rush that follows any performance, even an embarrassing one.  We all ordered grilled-cheese sandwiches.  When it came time for Stoner-Carpenter Guy to order, however, he handed the menu back to the waitress with an air of noble renunciation, and said loftily, "Nothing for me."  Knowing he was a vegetarian, I helpfully suggested dishes like quiche or salad that would not be cooked, as our grilled-cheese sandwiches would, on a grill tainted with runoff from bacon cheeseburgers.  But as Stoner-Carpenter's demurrals became more insistent and began to take on an air of condescension, it occurred to me that he regarded us grilled-cheese eaters as persons to be pitied.  We thought nothing of the ethical contamination of our foodstuffs; indeed, we were happily munching away on cheese -- made with rennet, the lining of a cow's stomach -- pressed between packaged slices of non-whole-grain bread, all cooked together in animal fat.  While Stoner-Carpenter sipped his water, I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and cried.  It seemed to me that Stoner-Carpenter saw through me to the deep, dark truth within:  I was morally deformed, a lesser human, a fraud.  I had lost his love through my unethical eating, and this loss, as well as the fiasco the night was turning into, was clearly my own fault.  Our relationship would go on like this for two more years.

I thought of these things today, while buying coffee at a gas station during a road trip with my husband.  The gas station-convenience store milieu suddenly called up from my memory another road trip, taken with Stoner-Carpenter Guy one winter long ago, during which, when we got out at a truck stop somewhere in Pennsylvania, he ordered soup to go and requested, to the bemusement of the cashier, that it be packaged in a soda cup rather than in a styrofoam bowl (styrofoam being, of course, lethally toxic).  And then, from these memories on to the essential questions:  How do we live?  How do we hew to, and honor, the truth?  How are we to be authentic?

The practice of hesychasm, though it suggests a gradual winnowing away of everything in the seeker that is false and not conformed to Christ, turned out not to be the appropriate path for Salinger's Franny; as to my sister, I have my doubts that an esoteric spiritual practice rooted in a foreign culture can possibly lead to the capital-T truth (and, of course, as a Catholic I believe Buddhism is, if not a false path, at least an incomplete one).  As for Stoner-Carpenter Guy, not long after the grilled-cheese incident I came upon him, for all his public show of eating only bread at a dinner party I was giving, surreptitiously wolfing down bowls of bouillabaisse in a corner of the kitchen.  But it's a tricky thing to make food your god, and especially so if you believe that eating confers moral status upon the eater, or, conversely, strips it from him (and that illicit drug-taking has no similar effect upon the user).

I remain filled with a kind of awed respect for all those actors who gamely got completely naked in those Off-Off-Broadway shows years ago.  If only it were as easy for the rest of us to humble ourselves right down to nothingness like that, to strip off all that is non-essential, and to open ourselves completely, in the terrifying vulnerability of our pitiful nakedness, to God.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Ineffable

Good one today, from The Writer's Almanac:

I'm sitting here reading the paper,
feeling warm and satisfied, basically content
with my life and all I have achieved.
Then I go up for a refill and suddenly realize
how much happier I could be with the barista.
Late thirties, hennaed hair, an ahnk
or something tattooed on her ankle,
a little silver ring in her nostril.
There's some mystery surrounding why she's here,
pouring coffee and toasting bagels at her age.
But there's a lot of torsion when she walks,
which is interesting. I can sense right away
how it would all work out between us.

We'd get a loft in the artsy part of town,
and I can see how we'd look shopping together
at our favorite organic market
on a snowy winter Saturday,
snowflakes in our hair,
our arms full of leeks and shiitake mushrooms.
We would do tai chi in the park.
She'd be one of the few people
who actually "gets" my poetry
which I'd read to her in bed.
And I can see us making love, by candlelight,
Struggling to find words for the ineffable.
We never dreamed it could be like this.

And it would all be great, for many months,
until one day, unable to help myself,
I'd say something about that nostril ring.
Like, do you really need to wear that tonight
at Sarah and Mike's house, Sarah and Mike being
pediatricians who intimidate me slightly
with their patrician cool, and serious money.
And she would give me a look,
a certain lifting of the eyebrows
I can see she's capable of, and right there
that would be the end of the ineffable.

-- George Bilgere

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Audition

 If you are a singer, a lover of singing, an artist in any discipline, or simply a homesick New Yorker, download the MetPlayer here (you can get a free trial for seven days) and watch The Audition, a documentary about the finals of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council competition.  Although I wish that it included more background on the competitors, as well as a glimpse into the sacrifices they made to get to the Met stage (dues-paying merely alluded to in interviews with the singers), the film is a compelling glimpse into the backstage world of high-stakes professional singing.  There are the glorious-voiced dramatic soprano held back by her weight, the bad-boy tenor from New Jersey, the dark horse who has struggled with spotty training, poor self-image, and personal bankruptcy (this is the candidate whom the audience is most able to see grow as an artist before our eyes, an exciting process), the seemingly arbitrary criticisms of the judges, and a cameo by a beloved former teacher of mine.  Watch the trailer here.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fr. Hermann Cohen

Today is the 139th anniversary of the death of Fr. Hermann Cohen, a.k.a. Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement.

To celebrate his feast day, you can amuse yourself by playing Tetris with photographs of him.  Oh, those French!

The Gifts of Blogging

As I've mentioned here before, I first began this blog as an on-line diary when I was trying to work through my grief after repeated miscarriages, and to generally make sense of the enormous changes in my life that had come crowding in upon each other in a small space of time -- conversion, marriage, motherhood, move to the Bronx.  I invited four friends to read it and, before long, as these things do, its readership snowballed, and the number of readers with whom I had a personal relationship was dwarved by those I did not know.  Then I began getting the sort of reader whose presence is strongly felt on the Catholic interwebs -- the orthodoxy-policing, mote-in-your-eye sort of reader who believes he understands your motives and knows your soul.  At the same time, I acquired readers of great sensitivity, kindness, and thoughtfulness, some of whom, though I've never met them, have become true friends.

Around the time that we left New York, one real-life friend of mine, who I did not know was a reader here, misunderstood something I'd written, and sent me a personal email repudiating me and rejecting my friendship on the grounds that I was dangerous to his spiritual well-being.  He accused me of having no talent for music (though he'd attended some public performances of mine and had subsequently asked me to sing at his father's wake and funeral), marriage (though he'd previously asked me to marry him), or motherhood (I have no idea on what he based this opinion, though he seemed to glean from this blog that I blamed motherhood for the fact that I didn't have a high-powered opera career, something I can't imagine ever having written since it's not something I actually believe).  Moreover, he suggested that, although I seemed to see myself as a "magdalene," I was actually more like one of the Gadarene horde (I'm guessing that he thought I equated myself with the Magdalene because my doctoral dissertation was about the reappearance of Magdalenian imagery in the visual culture of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, in paintings that also used music symbolism, and because I used the email address newmagda1en - at -, a reference to an 1873 novel by Wilkie Collins, The New Magdalen, which was one of the sources for my dissertation research).  I believe that this same friend had some of his acquaintances leave remarks in the combox making similar arguments.  I cried over this for months, and went to confession about it seven or eight times.  My first confession after the fact was at a monastery near my new city, where the priest suggested that I stop writing my blog because it might be the fruit of vanity.  I thought about that, but decided that he was wrong.  For not only is this blog anonymous; since it became public, early on, I have only hoped and prayed that it would be a means of some solace or consolation to those who, like me, are penitents, and who, like me, mourn and struggle on our way to Christ, Whom we nevertheless love above all else.  Besides, this blog is about the mote -- or rather the beam -- in my own eye.

In the past day, I have seen a remarkable work come about through the agency of this blog that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit.  One of the wonderful friends I've made here, whom I've never met in person, responded to my request for prayers for my friend N., the homeless, undocumented immigrant who lives in a shelter in Queens with her four-year-old, by sending me a sizable check to give to her.  This check is going to be converted to a money order for N. and sent to her immediately.  I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and so happy to note once again that God makes His will known using even the frailest of instruments -- us sinful men, and the etheric clouds through which we transmit our fleeting thoughts.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A New York Saint for Haiti

When New York was hit with the plague, Pierre risked his life and nursed the sick and dying without regard to his own safety. His sister Rosalie said, "You think of everyone but yourself. Now that you are free, you are still acting like a white man's slave".

Pierre answered, "I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman but I am a servant of the Almighty God who made us all. When one of His children is in need, I am glad to be His slave".

O great Toussaint! How you so exactly captured the essence of our God - the God who humbled Himself to become a slave for our sake. 

-- From the blog Roman Christendom

The first time I went to confession after my abortion (three years after, to be exact) was also the first time I had been to confession at all since making my First Penance as a child.

The priest was a kindly man with a Brooklyn Italian accent that made me feel right at home, and he prescribed ten rosaries for my penance.  "Is that all?"  I gasped.  "Whaddya want?" he replied.  "That I should tell you to do the Stations of the Cross on your knees?"  I immediately went to the little gift shop at the church and bought a rosary, and that weekend said my penance on the Peter Pan Bus to Boston, where I was going to visit a friend.  I still have that rosary; it is my favorite one, and the only one I have that's never broken.

All this took place at Saint Peter's Church, at the corner of Barclay and Church Streets in lower Manhattan (kitty-corner from where the World Trade Center used to be), the oldest Catholic parish in both New York City and New York State.  I had sneaked across the street into the confessional on my lunch break from my bread gig.  Soon I was attending daily Mass at the charming little Greek revival church, whose noonday congregation of businessmen exuded an ethos of faith the likes of which I'd never encountered.

Saint Peter's was also the church where Venerable Pierre Toussaint -- Haitian native, freed slave, hairdresser, phllanthropist, and New Yorker -- attended daily Mass. There was a stir among black activists and their supporters a few years back when the late Cardinal O'Connor opened Toussaint's cause for canonization, according to this 1992 article in the New York Times (which raises the bar for anti-Catholicism somewhat even for that paper).  There can be no doubt, however, that Venerable Pierre Toussaint was a man of extraordinary holiness, as the above-linked blog article attests.

As Venerable Pierre was a native of Haiti, I am invoking his intercession for the devastated victims of the earthquake in that country, and I invite you to join me.

UPDATE:, a family-owned and -run company, has created a beautiful Venerable Pierre Toussaint prayer card, and is donating 100% of its sales of the card to relief in Haiti.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


If you are concerned about the theological soundness of Catholic aid agencies organizing relief for the devastated earthquake victims, you can't go wrong by making a donation through Food for the Poor.

I was awed by what I read near the bottom of a news dispatch from Port-au-Prince:

Then the singing began. Those gathered outside tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.
“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

"Beni swa Leternel" being a gloss on Job 1:21.  May God grant us all the gift of such faith, and may He have mercy on the people of Haiti.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Future without Down Syndrome?

Coinciding with Berenike's post about the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, a surprising (and hopeful) article introducing an unlikely new cohort of advocates for children with Down syndrome.  An exceprt:

Rachel Adams, a professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, is one of the special-needs parents whose ranks may dwindle in coming decades. She was studying the history of disability in popular culture for years before she gave birth to her son Henry, now 2. Still, learning her newborn had Down syndrome was “the biggest shock of my life,” she says. “A tremendous shock.”

Adams describes herself as a pro-choice feminist, a woman who wouldn’t want to deny any other woman the choice of whether to carry a pregnancy to term. But she’s also committed to giving expectant parents a more hopeful view of what it’s like to be a mother of a child with Down syndrome. This spring, she and a friend will be giving talks to genetic counselors about how they can more sensitively deliver the news that a fetus has Down syndrome, without steering couples toward termination.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Contemplative Life with "The Smallest in the Kingdom"

A year after my re-conversion, and shortly before I met my husband, I briefly dated a moderately prominent ortho/trad Catholic journalist, who one night confessed to me his irrational horror of people with developmental disabilities, and his fear of fathering a child afflicted with them.

We remained friends for a time after our dating relationship ended and he'd begun seeing someone else, when he spoke once more about his fear of having a child with Down syndrome.  His innamorata, it seems, was approaching the age at which the rate of bearing babies with Down increases to 1%.  I reminded him that this statistic suggested that, should they marry and have a child, the odds were 99% in favor of the child not having Down.  This did little to reassure him, however, and he was no more comforted by the ample testimony of parents of children with Down syndrome of the blessings these children bring to a family.

Today I read this remarkable story on the blog Laodicea about a contemplative order of nuns, the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, which is partially comprised of young women with Down syndrome.  May God prosper this wonderful order abundantly, and may these holy women of God pray for us all.  For all we know, in the mysterious economy of God's grace, they may be instrumental in my erstwhile friend's salvation.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 7: Grace

Soprannie, my dear friend and colleague from my opera days, told me of going down to the basement as a young girl and finding her mother, a violinist who had stopped playing to care for her young family, weeping as she practiced her old instrument in secret.

She could have written this poem, by Frannie Lindsay:


Praise my plain young mother for leaving
her husband's bed at four in the morning
fumbling around for her bifocals
carting her stained velour slippers
down the raw-grained stairs not tying
her robe sliding her violin from between
the magazine rack and the firewood
easing past the mantelpiece scattered
with wedding portraits

praise the caked galoshes drying beside
the basement door swollen away
from its frame and the top step's narrow slat
praise her large bare feet
their tough and knotty bunions
the cool of her hand on her sheet music
praise the scotch tape on the spine
of her Bach and its weakening glue
her penciled maiden name

praise the steadfast ladderback chair
and the music stand there in the basement
the set tubs the damp socks
and undershirts draped too close
to her shoulders praise her shoulders
limber and painless for three brief hours
praise the rosin's glide down her bow
the throaty fifths the sacrament
of her tuning

praise the measure she counted aloud
and the downbeat's breath-lunge
praise her calloused and lovely fingerpads
the noteprints the sixty-watt bulb
the mud-plashed screen through which
the unsorrowing ends of the night slipped in
and although she did not ask to be touched
praise how they lifted up the brittle
wisps of her perm.

-- from The Writer's Almanac

Falling Back

A quick post to let my readers know that one of my favorite bloggers, Fallen Sparrow, is writing again after a long hiatus. 

If you haven't read him before, I urge you to check him out.  Fallen writes with elegance, wry wit, and searing honesty about sin, penitence, loss, recovery, and other matters both spiritual and mundane.  I have missed him and am glad to have him back.

Monday, January 4, 2010

That Book by Nabokov

As I unpack my books, volumes keep floating to the surface which I'm surprised to find I'd even moved from Washington Heights to the Bronx when I got married almost five years ago, let alone brought along on the three subsequent moves since then.  I thought, for starters, that I'd gotten rid of all the books before my wedding in 2005 on whose flyleaves my first husband had signed his name; I saw yesterday, when unpacking a copy of Anna Karenina and another of Bleak House, that this hadn't been entirely true (I BookCrossed Anna Karenina, but kept Bleak House, which probably makes any symbolic act of purging the old man moot).

I also found a book of Nabokov's short stories which I know belonged to my first husband, but which I must have justified keeping because he hadn't signed it.  I have never liked Nabokov; his cruelty to his characters and his readers is unsettling and repellent to me.  But I remember, when this volume was published in the late 1990s, reading some excerpts in the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and finding them wonderful.  So last night, I re-read one that I remembered as especially moving, "Cloud, Castle, Lake," which can be found in its entirety here.  I still loved it, though perhaps not quite as well as I did ten years ago.  Nabokov's coldness is nowhere apparent here, and though he touches on his frequent topic of human cruelty, it is clear that he is just as bemused by the sadism of the proto-Nazis toward the little Russian refugee, full of love and longing, as is his narrator; and Vasily Ivanovich's hopefulness and humility, and his striving to find beauty and redemption in the natural world, are treated by Nabokov with tenderness rather than contempt.  In fact, the character of Vasily Ivanovich reminded me of one of my favorite books, My Friends by Emmanuel Bove.

I do not think I will read this book again, though, and will probably put it up on BookMooch.

Above:  Nabokov with his wife Véra and their only son, Dmitri, who, in addition to translating his father's Russian-language works, had a prominent career as an operatic bass.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Blindness and Literacy

My research for my dissertation-to-book project is, in part, concerned with the sense of hearing in early Christian theology.  In the world of chant scholarship (a world unto itself, of which my research is not a part), there has long been speculation about how the oral transmission and aural perception of musical and liturgical norms in the mostly pre-literate society of the early Middle Ages differed from later transmission based on transcription and literacy.  I was reminded of the orality-vs.-literacy Gregorian chant debate by an interesting article in today's New York Times Magazine, about the gradual demise of Braille, and hence of literacy, in teaching methodologies for the blind.

Though sighted, I learned to read Braille as a child.  My best friend in elementary school was L., who had been blind since infancy.  L. was mainstreamed into our public school classroom with the help of a teaching aide, who read Braille and corrected the assignments that L. produced on her Braille typewriter.  L. taught me how to read Braille too, and gave me a stylus and a slate so that I could punch out the symbols myself and hence write letters and stories in Braille.  We had great fun reading to each other, using our respective fingers and eyes; she would accuse me of cheating when I scanned the Braille page visually instead of feeling out the narrative with my fingertips.

I have somewhere read the theory (and now can't remember the source) that literacy is a cause of aggression (if I'm recalling correctly, this theory held that the cognitive norms of pre-literate or non-literate societies are somehow more productive of peaceful human interaction).   The Times article seems to suggest, however, that the inability to read, now prevalent among the non-Braille-tutored blind, gives rise to chaotic, disorganized thinking, which seems to me one of the root causes of aggression.

Above:  "Blind Tom" Wiggins, a nineteenth-century piano prodigy and autistic savant.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cooking with the Poets

This is what it feels like to be living in our new house right now.  I'm going through the many, many boxes of books we brought with us, which has been a tremendously fraught pursuit each time I've moved house.

I love books probably more than I love any other sort of inanimate created object.  I get a physical rush when I walk into a library, especially an academic library, and if you offered me jewelry, I'd ask for a gift certificate to Amazon instead.  At the same time, I feel a sort of reckless rage against all these books right now, and have the irrational urge to cast them out into the snow, which lays abundantly upon the ground tonight.  I gave away five boxes of books to the library before we moved. A friend then told me about Bookmooch, a book swap site through which I've given away a dozen or so books; while its method is cumbersome, I'm glad to know that these particular books were sought for, requested, and wanted by the people to whom I sent them.  There's also BookCrossing, a site through which you can register books that you then leave in random places for other people to find.  The premise of BookCrossing is interesting: it's a sort of aleatoric method for creating an invisible community of connected readers.  But for me, it's really just a way to get rid of books that are less-than-precious to me, and hope that whoever finds them will take them home, read them, and love them (though I suspect my books will actually be thrown away if I leave them at indoor locations, and become compost if I leave them out of doors).

Our new house, as it happens, has lovely built-in bookshelves, but my books seem out of place in them.  When they were cheek-by-jowl in the rickety homemade bookcases I had for years, my battered copies, mostly second-hand, of books like London Labour and the London Poor, A Muse for the Masses, and Prostitution and Victorian Society, looked at home; here, however, they seem shopworn and suspect.  I don't know if I'll ever use them again -- they were dissertation research, and, though I'm at work on a book version of my dissertation, I'm expanding a different area of my research -- but it seems heartless and disloyal to put them, erstwhile comrades of my spartan, disciplined days of dissertating, up for grabs on Bookmooch or cast them to the Fates on BookCrossing.

I am looking at a book right now, Cuisine for All Seasons, by Helen Hecht, the widow of the great latter-day Formalist poet Anthony Hecht.  I absolutely adore this book.  As with all my books, I remember the circumstances in which I acquired it, bought from a homeless man selling second-hand books and knick-knacks out of boxes by the curb on Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets on my way from the subway to a voice lesson.  When I was married to my first husband, I actually cooked from it once in a while, but mostly I just liked reading it.  It's a menu cookbook of rather complex recipes grouped by season, interspersed with chatty, literate reminiscences of trips to exotic climes and namedropping of poets (one of Mrs. Hecht's menus is called "A Dinner for Joseph Brodsky"; another is "A Birthday Dinner for Tony").  Doesn't this meal, dubbed "A Farmhouse Lunch," sound just right for the first chilly days of fall?

Roast Peppers with Feta Cheese and Olives
Alsation Omelet
Tomatoes Provençale
Greek Salad
Apple-Custard Tart or Fresh Fruit

As the author notes, "This is the sort of earthy, rustic lunch you might serve to weekend guests or to friends who gather at your house after an outing in the country."  Indeed.  Or what about this one, perfect for a night like tonight:

Celery and Gorgonzola Soup
Leg of Lamb with Green Peppercorn and Mint Sauce
Spinach, Cheese, and Mushroom Casserole
Braised Fennel
Green Salad
Mocha Mousse with Chocolate Almond Brittle 

While I'm not at all sure if I'll ever cook any of Helen Hecht's proposed meals again, I can't bear to part with her cookbook, which gives me the feeling that there is a world of comfort and peace available to those who order their lives and the seasons according to a collection of recipes like hers.  And, while I feel as if I should cast off the old man to begin a new life in my new home, I'm not ready to jettison the books that old man read and cherished.