Sunday, February 28, 2010

No Surprise Here

"[The] radical idea . . . that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit . . . has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. 'that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.' This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem 'Il Penseroso': 'Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.' The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, 'Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?'

(From an article in today's New York Times, "Depression's Upside.")

Saturday, February 27, 2010

More Lenten Poetry

Karen Edmisten has posted a beautiful poem by Thomas Merton, "Winter's Night":

When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.
Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step -
"We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended."
Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
Bridegroom's messenger?
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)
The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
And the children are again, awake,
And all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I found a wonderful book of poetry at the library today by a poet whose work I didn't previously know, Jack Gilbert:  Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982.  Unfortunately, it's out of print; I scoured the internet looking for it, because it is one of those rare library finds that I want to own forever, but I can't find a copy for under a hundred bucks.  So I suppose I'll keep renewing it until I'm forced to return it.

Here are two short poems, found on facing pages:

Heart Skidding
The pigeon with a broken wing.
The pigeon with no left foot.
That pigeon with his beak grown wrong
starving among the others eating.
Or the homeless old women carrying
all they own in worn shopping bags
around Chicago at three in the morning.
What is the point of my suffering?
They are nothing to me. Filthy
pigeons.  Jew-hating old women.
Why does it bother with me?

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain?  Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.


To me this is up there with the best writing, and possibly the best art across disciplines:  lucid, naked, deeply moving, saying everything while appearing to say little.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Down the One-Eared Rabbit Hole

The first few months of an adoption are taken up with what's called a home study, which involves compiling many pages of personal documents, writing autobiographical essays, getting background-checked and fingerprinted, and being interviewed on diverse occasions by the social worker overseeing the adoption process.  It's a little disconcerting, especially when you remember how relatively easy it is to get a baby in the usual way, should you be able to swing it.

I like the social worker who's handling our adoption.  She is soft-spoken and kindly, and she lived in New York for a time, which is enough to endear anyone to me around here (I almost started bawling at Mass the other day, at a parish in my town's old Italian neighborhood, when the old man behind me began intoning the responses in the cadences of the Bronx).  But I felt at a loss in our meeting the other day, when she was probing me about my relationship with my husband, and wanted to know what had drawn me to him when we first met.  His kindness, I answered truthfully, his masculinity, his qualities of strength and steadiness, the beauty of his voice.  Were these the qualities I had been looking for in a man? she asked.  Well, I answered, I didn't have a checklist.  And it was true; I didn't.  Nor did I plan on marrying him, no more than I had ever planned on doing anything.  It's usually been the pattern that I'm not sure what to do, but something appears to present itself as a logical option, and I investigate the option and see where it leads.  I don't believe in a dream spouse (I doubt that anyone who's had some of the experiences I've had ever could), and I don't believe we have very much control over the things that happen in our lives or in the lives of those around us, though I do believe we can influence those lives for good or ill (and that, perhaps, more than we know).  For the most part, however, I think that it's probably more realistic to wake up every day with open hands and abandon ourselves completely to the will of God, though I didn't tell this to the social worker. 

She had given me some adoption magazines at our last meeting, and I had enjoyed reading them, but I felt as if they created the expectation of a fairy-tale ending around every adoption story, and I told her so.  The editorial thrust seemed to be that you wait and wait for your child, and you finally bring your child home, and everyone is henceforth happy all the time (not, come to think of it, unlike the tone of most books and magazines directed towards bearing, bringing home, and parenting one's biological children; if there were less of that around, there would probably be less post-partum depression).  The social worker agreed that the magazines were very glass-half-full, which is not a bad thing; nor is presenting adoption in a positive light a bad thing at all.  However, she said, most prospective adoptive parents are mourning the loss of their dream baby, the biological child they didn't have, and many have come to adoption with the attitude that it is a second-best way to become a parent, so it helps them to have the dream story reinforced.

I don't see it as second-best, and, just as I don't think there's a dream spouse, neither do I think there's a dream baby.  No matter how you get your children, they will always be unplumbable, even incomprehensible, mysteries.  How can we ever really know anyone else, including our own children?  The people that God brings into our lives as friends, spouses, children, are, and will always be, vast, unexplored continents.  "Thou has brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger."

For all of my confusion and lack of planning, and all my lack of belief in goals and dreams, I do have a memory that has remained all these years, and has given me some sense of direction.  When I was a child, I loved and collected stuffed animals.  I would line all my stuffed animals up around the edges of my bed at night so that none of them would feel excluded while I slept.  One day, when I was about seven, I was with my father at a drugstore, where I spied a bin of little stuffed rabbits (this must have been around Easter) with coats made of real rabbit fur.  One of them, I noticed, was missing an ear.  I started to cry out of pity for this one, and begged my father to buy it for me.  He suggested that I get a nicer one with two ears, but I stood firm:  it had to be the one-eared rabbit, I said, because no one else would ever love it.  So he bought it for me, and I brought it home and loved it.  In fact, I may have loved it more than I loved my stuffed animals with both ears intact.  The one-eared rabbit, after all, just needed more love.

I wonder if finding and loving the one-eared rabbits is my real calling in life.  If it is, I have to trust that God will give me the strength I need to carry it out.

"The world will be saved by beauty"

"The world is altered by good, new poems. It is made larger, given new windows that open out onto different landscapes and that also shine an altered light back into the known, as opening a new window in what used to be a wall changes not only the wall but the room.”
--Jane Hirshfield

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Six Quick Takes from a Winter of Discontent

1.  I have noticed that this is the sixtieth anniversary of Dunkin Donuts's existence.  This is by no means an occasion I think worth celebrating, since I find their coffee to be both bitter and weak, and, on the whole, virtually undrinkable.  But then, I find most coffee undrinkable these days.  I used to only be able to drink coffee brewed in my own Neapolitan coffee maker on my own stovetop, but now even that is undrinkable to me.  The coffee hath lost its savor, in spite of the fact that the idea of coffee is almost always somewhere in the nimbus around my conscious mind.  (Incidentally, as much as true coffee snobs claim to hate Starbucks, those who know cannot deny that Starbucks did New York City a great public service when they came to the city in the 1990s by uniformly lifting all New York coffee to a higher level.)

2.  I'm listening to the live broadcast of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Metropolitan Opera, and reminiscing about seeing the same production around the time that Starbucks first came to town.  It almost never happens, at least in my experience, that the tenor who sings the role of Theseus sings it well, but perhaps I'll be surprised today (or maybe not, since my son just said, "I want that song to be turned off," and I can't say that I blame him, because, although Richard Strauss may have been one of the greatest composers who ever lived, especially in the way he wrote for orchestra, I find his music creepy, unsettling, even, if amorality can be said to have a sound, amoral.  I do love Zerbinetta's aria, though).  When I went to the Met's Ariadne in the mid-1990s, the Theseus was so bad that, after his aria, my then-husband called out, "Go for it, brother!" from his seat next to mine in Family Circle, and I nearly died of exaggeratedly-virtuous embarrassment.

3.  I don't know if such mortifying prickings of memory and conscience are Lenten in origin or not, but I have just remembered that I borrowed money from a Columbia boy I dated during the summer I was twenty and never paid him back.  The circumstances under which I borrowed the money were unhappily clouded, as I recall, by my sense that, because he was rich and I was poor (and since we were sleeping together), the loan wouldn't, or shouldn't, be a problem for him.  Thank God for the internet, and for the fact that I have some concert gigs coming up.  As soon as I remembered his last name, I was able to find out where he now works, and as soon as I get paid I am going to send him a money order.  And thank God for conversion, too.

4.  Speaking of Kurt Weill, I also recently remembered one of the worst experiences of my life, which happened when I had a club date with an avant-garde outfit called the Imploding Head Orchestra.  Believe it or not, I sang this song, as well as the "Youkali Tango," and the man whom I loved desperately arrived, while I was singing, with the woman whom he loved desperately.  Because I was the sort of person who did things like that referenced in number 3, above, it wasn't all that much longer before we were married, but not before we'd sacrificed our unborn child on the altar of our desperation.

5.  At the library today, I saw a family of young women who I assumed, based on their style of dress, were Christian, perhaps even trad Catholic, homeschoolers.  If you were from New York, you might at first have thought that they were Orthodox Jews (just as, if you are from New York and you see an Amish man in these parts, you at first think he's an ultra-Orthodox Jewish patriarch, and your heart longs for home).  But if you put a family of Christian homeschooling girls next to a group of Orthodox Jewish girls, you'd notice at second glance that, although the Jewish girls also have skirts down to their feet and sleeves down to their wrists, they are ineffably more elegant and fashionable and, I might add, prettier than the Christian homeschoolers.

6.  I hope and pray that God will use my sense of exile from my city and all that I once knew, my remorse for my misdeeds, and my confusion for His glory and honor and for the help of someone else who, like me, is stumbling brokenly through the Lenten desert.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

September Songs

 In childhood, my world was saturated with the music of Beethoven and Brahms, which probably went a long way toward pushing me (as well as my two older brothers) toward a life in music.  One day, however, my mother's record player broke.  This happened at a time of chaos in our family life, and it remained broken for three or four Beethoven- and Brahms-less years. And then one day it was fixed, and my mother came home with an armful of LPs.  The music she brought home was entirely new to us children, and altered my idea of our mother as both a listener and a person:  Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and, inexplicably, the original-cast recording of the Joseph Papp production of Threepenny Opera. 

This record in particular seized my imagination in a way that can only be described as neurotic.  I absconded with it to my room and played it over and over on my own garage-sale-gleaned record player.  The dark landscape of Weill's music, and the tawdry underworld of Victorian England it evoked, worked their way into my imagination, until I dreamt of singing one of the wholly corrupt female roles (in college, I considered it both vindication and high praise when my vocal coach suggested this would be good repertoire for me).

In the decade or so following the Papp Threepenny, there was a minor vogue for Kurt Weill among hipsters.  The marvelous, emotionally-fragile soprano Teresa Stratas released two wonderful albums of lesser-known Kurt Weill songs (the first one is pictured above), and artists like Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and David Johansen took stabs at recreating the decadent Weimar/Weill ethos. One of my favorite bits of Weilliana is Tryout, a collection of studio recordings of Weill playing and singing his own show tunes for Broadway backers in a whispery, frail, intimate voice.

My father mentioned to me the other day that his favorite version of "September Song" (from Knickerbocker Holiday, a 1938 Broadway show about the Dutch in early Gotham) was Jimmy Durante's.  I hadn't known Durante had even sung the iconic Weill classic, of which there are so many beautiful recordings, Sinatra's being the most famous.  I found the Durante version on Youtube, naturally, and it is certainly worthy in its own way.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy St. Valentine's Day

Not to Trouble You
Not to trouble you with love, I mean
those adolescent dreams of great, of greater,
or of greatest loving, let alone
the crumbly personal kind—compared with, say,
the public good or harder thoughts of death
obliterating thoughts of love, or after-
thoughts of love outgrown or love undone;
and not to be ironic either, not
to forget we come into the world alone
and leave it so; and not to be claiming more
than you can give, uncertain as I am
what I require: something like love, I guess,
whatever it is we've done without so long,
so faithfully and with such tenderness.

-- Leonard Nathan

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sense and Sensibility

Though he hasn't been evaluated or diagnosed yet, my son's teacher at preschool recently suggested that he exhibits behaviors that may be consistent with a sensory processing disorder.  I wasn't alarmed by this, since he is a bit quirky, and since I know several children who have received this diagnosis and received treatment for it.  When I plunged into the waters of the primary source of all knowledge -- Google -- and found this checklist, however, I wondered if I didn't have it, too, especially in the area of hypersensitivity to sound.

As a child, I couldn't stand to watch t.v., a habit that's stuck with me, because I found the low-pitched buzz that the television made acutely disturbing.  As a parent, I physically cringe and do cartoon-like double-takes at every normal-household-decibel-level whine and shout, and even at the ringing of the telephone, until, by the end of some days, I am in the blackest of noise-induced moods.  When I met my husband, I was intensely drawn to him, among other reasons, for the beauty of his speaking voice, and rejected another suitor around the same time because (among other reasons) there was something about his voice that bothered me (based on his later denunciation of me, this seems not to have been a bad decision).  In spite of the fact that I'm a professional musician, I often find it difficult and unpleasant to listen to music, because it absorbs my attention so completely that I feel as if I become the slave of what I'm hearing, right down to my very cells.  And music of all kinds makes me weep (interestingly, my sister, the only one of us four siblings who did not become a professional musician, exhibited this same propensity as a baby).  And don't get me started on the sense of smell. 

My son has been telling me lately, "Mommy, we are twins," which I chalked up to your common house-and-garden Oedipal complex, but perhaps he's more right than he realizes.  My friend H., disability activist and author of the now-defunct blog Retired Waif (as well as one of the most brilliant and fascinating people I know), once guffawed loudly when I referred to myself as "neurotypical," and replied, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "Oh right, Pentimento, you are the poster girl for neurotypicality."  I wonder now if I would have made entirely different choices in my life if I had been the kind of person who was not wholly unsettled by the hum of a television.

And, come to think of it, when M. gave me a copy of Remembrance of Things Past years ago, and told me that Proust had lived in a cork-lined room on coffee brewed with milk, I found myself nodding my head in total sympathy with the neurasthenic author; it sounded like a good kind of life to me. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

"A Saint for Those Who Are Prisoners of Their Past"

A re-post from February 8, 2009.

Today is the feast day of recently canonized Saint Josephine Bakhita. Read her amazing story here. As Father Mark notes:

Looking to the future does not mean forgetting the past; it means transfiguring it. It means re-reading it with eyes of mercy in the light of faith. We need not remain slaves of our own histories, chained to the evil things, the hurtful things, the unjust things that happened ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or seventy-five years ago. There is another way: the way of those set free by love.

May Saint Josephine Bakhita, la madre moretta, pray for us.

Hat tip: Elena Maria Vidal at Tea at Trianon.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Brother of the Stranger

Back in New York, I was a graduate student mom, and my husband was an Irish guy who would go down the corner to the pub, which happened also to have been the site of both our wedding reception and our son's baptism party.  In the small city in northern Appalachia where we now live, my husband is a man in a visible position, and I am . . . the wife of a man in a visible position.  It took us a while to figure this out.  It's hard to overestimate the anonymity of New York City, where you could have easily found ten thousand people almost exactly like each of us (but that anonymity is the reason that so many people decamp for New York from depressed post-industrial towns just like this one, anyway).

When we arrived here, my husband sought in vain for a pub like any of the couple of dozen back in our old neighborhood, but none appeared.  As for me, coming to a place that required driving skills when I had none gave me a unique perspective into our town, one that I have come to believe the town's boosters have missed entirely.  I walked everywhere, just like in New York, and also took buses and cabs; but it was nothing like walking and taking buses and cabs in New York, which are done by everybody.  In a place like this, cabs (as well as buses and hoofing it) are for those who are too poor to own cars, which, in a place like this, means very poor indeed.  So, in spite of the fact that I am something I never dreamt of being -- a prominent man's small-town wife -- I have come to see some things in our new town from the perspective of the local poor, and what I see has been disturbing to me.

New York is full of poor people, too, but -- or at least so it now seems to me -- the poverty in other places in America, if this place is any gauge, is its own special misery.  Here, there is isolation, alienation, and a tremendous divide between the haves and have-nots in ways that just don't exist in New York, because in New York, whatever people may think, there is a high level of equity in transportation access -- though the price of subway fare recently went up to $2.25, you can still traverse the entire length of the city, going the thirty or so miles from the northern Bronx to Coney Island, or from the Hudson River piers out to Kennedy Airport, for one swipe of a Metrocard, any time of the night or day -- which allows you to literally rub shoulders with everyone else in the city.  Here, on the other hand, those who have cars are in them all the time, and don't have to walk to the supermarket with a folding push-cart or take cabs home from Wal-Mart; in fact, they don't shop at Wal-Mart at all.  In New York, there is a sense of energy, ambition, and life surging all around, wherever you are.  In New York, there are the bad schools you've heard about, and they are in poor neighborhods; but under No Child Left Behind, the most motivated parents in poor neighborhoods can and do transfer their children to the better schools out-of-district.  In New York, everyone who can works; even welfare recipients work in the black market economy, and New York is full of illegal immigrants who live in poverty and squalor and yet work a hundred hours a week and send huge sums of money home.  My friend N., for example, would certainly qualify as poor by any American standard.  She came from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father and a developmentally disabled mother, didn't make it through the equivalent of the eighth grade, settled in New York illegally, is a single, unwed mother, and lives in a shelter; but she works hard at her illegal job in the salon, and has the ambition, drive, and intelligence to survive through situation after situation that would have made many a lesser person (myself included) crumble in despair.

Here, on the other hand, in my perambulations through the post-industrial landscape, I see the empty husks of many souls who seem to have been felled by despair, and by the kind of multi-generational poverty, out-of-wedlock childbearing, drugs, violence (domestic and otherwise), and welfare dependency that are supposed to be the hallmarks of the ethnic urban underclass, but seem even more entrenched in white semi-rural areas like this one.  And so I walk around; I go swimming in summer at the public park where the poor, the drug-dependent, and the tattooed take their children; I take the bus to the library, a beautiful structure in the midst of crumbling tenements and abandoned shopfronts, where a little black girl once asked me, incredulous, "Don't you have a car?" when she saw me getting my son into his stroller for the walk back to the bus stop; and occasionally I even take a cab home from Wal-Mart.  I see very young women with many children by different fathers, judging at least by the children's varying skin shades, and mouths full of stumps instead of teeth, which I suppose is a symptom of meth addiction.  I see little boys at the playground with neck tattoos just like their fathers'.  I see many people who stare at me with the same mixture of suspicion and hostility I met thousands of times when riding the subway through the South Bronx or through pre-gentrification Bedford-Stuyvesant.  I suppose I'm as strange to my fellow citizens as they are to me, though I hope I'm not as unsettling to them as they are to me.

However, we are now in the process of adopting a child from our community.  The child will, most likely, come from one of the broken families of the very poor among whom I have walked like a strange, observing shadow during the past year.  As the small-town wife of a prominent man and the prominent man himself, we are in a rather unique position -- a position we never dreamt of being in back when we were a grad-student mom and an Irish guy who went down to the pub in the Bronx -- to open our home and our hearts to children who might be called the children of despair, and we very much want to do so (and after our string of miscarriages, it's not at all certain that we will be able to have more children on the natch).

While my family of origin has long been committed -- some in thought, some in action -- to ameliorating the lives of the poor, if not to overthrowing the structures that they believed made people poor to begin with -- the adoption will connect us in a mysterious way to the lives of the poor in our community, the lives that I find so unsettling.  We feel called to parenting through adoption, and to welcoming the stranger in this way, and recognize that the threads of grace that bind us to one another, not only as parents and children, but also as neighbors, brothers, and fellow citizens, can be impossible for the human mind to entangle.  Please pray for us.

As Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.

(Above:  my town.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hard Times Come Again No More

 I heard a repeat program on Saint Paul Sunday the other day featuring Thomas Hampson and pianist Craig Rutenberg (who also appears briefly in the documentary The Audition).  I've had the good fortune not only to have heard this particular program before, but also to have heard Hampson live many times at the Metropolitan Opera, and am delighted that he is now devoting a considerable amount of time and energy to advocating for the American art song tradition.  On the program, he sang Stephen Foster's beautiful "Hard Times Come Again No More," written in 1854, as an art song, rather than as the American folk song it's become since the Civil War, and it was heartbreaking; if you can figure out how to make the listening device work on the Saint Paul Sunday website (linked above), you can hear it.  In the meantime, I offer this lovely performance in memory of Kate McGarrigle (1946-2010).

The text Foster set, incidentally, has a lot of resonance with Catholic social teaching:
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh Hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.
There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mourning and Purification

Karen Edmisten writes movingly on the loss of children and the Feast of the Purification.

Those who sow in tears
       will reap with songs of joy.

 He who goes out weeping,
       carrying seed to sow,
       will return with songs of joy,
       carrying his sheaves with him. 
(Psalm 125:5-6)

 As always, Brahms says it so well.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 8: "Cradlesongs of my sorrows"

These are the words Brahms used in private to describe his Three Intermezzi, op. 117, written in 1892.  The first, in E-flat major, is the best known.  In the score, Brahms prefaced the piece with two lines of poetry, an excerpt from a Scottish poem translated into German by Johann Gottfried von Herder: 

Schlaf sanft, mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön!
Mich dauert's sehr, dich weinen sehn.

(Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well!
It grieves me so to see you weep.)

E-flat major is a key that had come to be associated earlier in the nineteenth century with the heroic, chiefly through Beethoven's use of it as the key of his Symphony no. 3 ("Eroica") and Piano Concerto no. 5 ("Emperor").  But as the vehicle for the voice of Brahms's gently-rocking melody, it becomes the key of bittersweet resignation, and even of profound heartbreak mediated only by memory.

There are many beautiful recordings available, but I like this one in particular, since it's the one I grew up with.  Glenn Gould playing late Brahms might seem counterintuitive, but this is a stunning, restrained, and deeply moving performance.