Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Apostola Apostolorum

 From the blog Laodicea:  a compelling argument for the Western conflation of four figures -- the sinful woman who washes Jesus' feet with her tears in a dramatic act of penitence in Luke 7:37-50; another unnamed woman who commits a similar gesture of anointing, pouring perfumed oil on His head, in Matthew 26:6-16; Mary of Bethany; and Mary of Magdala -- into one, the great Saint Mary Magdalene (called, by Saint Catherine of Siena, the greatest saint after Our Lady, and known in the Middle Ages as "Our Lady Magdalene").

May Saint Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles and the protectress of penitents, pray for us as we approach the Paschal Triduum.

(Above:  Mary Magdalene, by Piero di Cosimo, 1462-1521.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Uses of Memory (re-post from April 10, 2009)

My recent trip to New York has moved me to re-post this entry from almost a year ago, since, having returned, I am struck all over again by the fact that

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.

So far, after a year and a half in a very, very different place, however, I still feel as if I'm in exile, and it's become no easier. Ironically, I've found that one can become a new person in New York City simply by moving to a different neighborhood, far more easily than one can by taking on the trappings of a very different way of life in a small town.  And the snares of memory are tighter now than ever after a visit back.  I miss my friends; I miss the beautiful people of the city of New York.  And I miss the end of summer, when the bark of the plane trees in playgrounds from the Bronx to the Lower East Side becomes mottled, and the acrid stench of summer has started to give way to the clear skies and the faint smell of burning in the air that presage autumn.  And spring in New York, when people pour out of tenements to sit on their stoops and play radios, and children dance on the sidewalks out in front.  And the hum of quiet that descends over even the noisiest streets once or twice today, like a passage of angels.  And being able just to go down to the corner and have a drink or a cup of halfway-decent coffee.  And many, many other things.

So here's the re-post:
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.

Nostalgia for Preschoolers

My son asked me to write out signs that he would dictate to me, and to paste them on his barn (as above).  The first few signs contained straightforward instructions about how beings, both sentient and non-, should handle themselves around this structure:

Danger!  Keep out of the pen.
Go in the pen.
This gate is closed.
Tractors go in the barn.

But then they began to suggest the sense of memory, nostalgia, and longing for his first home:

Our old house should stay here.
New York City.
New York Harbor.

And, my favorite one (though geographically impossible):

The Bronx is in New York Harbor.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Meritocracies of Love

While in New York this week, I had lunch with an old friend, a singer who has in recent years been much in demand for her performances of twentieth- and twenty-first-century classical music.  She revealed to me that she has canceled all her engagements this year because her husband has left her and their children, and she didn't want to give them the impression that she was leaving them too, even if only for the temporary absence of an out-of-town gig.  Her husband, also a musician, had become embittered by the new, essentially jobless reality of the classical music world, and had begun to blame his inability to make a living in his profession on the modest success his wife had begun, after many years of hard work, to enjoy.  Now, after a dreadfully harrowing year, my friend has met another man.  She told me that she feels magnetically drawn to him each time they meet:  could he be the soul mate she never had?

I have recently made a new friend in my new city, a beautiful, vibrant, expressive and gracious woman, a conservatory-trained musician, the mother of teenagers.  She is leaving her marriage after twenty-plus years because her husband, she is convinced, is not anywhere close to being her soul mate.  She is willing to risk her home, her financial security, and a partner who, though perhaps unable to show her in the ways she craves, does (she admits) love her -- not to mention the stability of her children's lives -- for the possibility that she may, one day, find her true soul mate.

She came over and had coffee with me recently, and I prayed to say the right thing (I always pray for that, usually, I fear, without much success).  What could I tell her?  That our spouses and children are dark continents, unknowable, like Africa?  That we can never really know them, nor they us?  (It is always a bittersweet shock to run into your spouse, or even a close friend, when both of you least expect it, when both of you are immersed in the concerns of quotidian life and don't see one another at first.  The second or two before your spouse or friend glances up give a glimpse into his utter hiddenness, his utter separateness, from you.)  I am not the sort of person to give anyone the advice to follow their bliss; doing just that pretty well ruined my life.  I'm more the sort of person to give others the advice to suck it up, which is advice I wish I had received myself.  And at this point in my life, I have come to believe the mantra my mother used to repeat to me as a child, though I resented it at the time:  we're not here to be happy; we're here to change things for the better in the ways that we can.

I suppose I've also come to believe that there's no real meritocracy.  Not everyone can be rich; not everyone, no matter how lovely, good, or gifted, will succeed professionally.  We grow up hearing that we can do anything we want to do; as adults, the world generally disabuses us of this notion in ways either gentle or cruel (this makes truthful parenting a tricky proposition, but that's a subject for another time).  And yet, egged on by our culture, we continue to believe that there is a meritocracy of sorts in love.  The good will be loved; the lovely will be loved; through hard work, prayer, or perhaps serendipity, it will happen for us, just as it appears to have happened for those couples we see whose marriages seem like overflowing fountains of the bliss that I just advised you not to follow.  But just as not everyone can be rich, or good, or attractive, or talented in the same measures, why should we believe that everyone can achieve the same kind of blissful romantic or married love?  After all, it was Woody Allen who rationalized his seduction of his de facto stepdaughter with the immortal words "The heart wants what it wants."  I suspect that for many people, love is work, even backbreakingly, or heartbreakingly, hard work.

On the other hand, perhaps I am just a cynical person.  Sometimes I worry that years of struggle have calcified my heart a little.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Teacher Blues

Packing to go to New York for my upcoming semi-important gig, I realized that I have an embarrassing surplus of clothes, mainly work clothes that I used to wear for university teaching: stylish blouses, tailored skirts, grown-up Mary Janes with chunky heels, and the like.  I haven't worn any of these clothes since my last semester teaching, which was two years ago now, yet I'm extremely reluctant to get rid of them.  What if I ever teach again?  A good friend of mine who lives on the razor's edge of poverty in the South Bronx has given away all of her baby things in between each baby (there are three so far), saying, "God will provide."  But these clothes were expensive, I thought.  However, chastened by memories of my friend, I got out a bag and started putting things in it to give away, but the only things I could manage to part with were some recital gowns that no longer flatter me, not exactly useful or practical wear for most people browsing at the Catholic Charities thrift shop on my new town's Main Street.

When I started teaching at my university, I felt as though, my years of performing notwithstanding, I had finally found my calling.  When I was in the classroom, I was in the zone.  Taxi drivers and strangers on the subway and the street would assume I was a teacher (though that may very well have been because most middle-class-looking white women seen in poor neighborhoods in New York, like the one in which I taught, are either social workers or teachers).  I don't know if I'll ever teach again, though I suspect I will in some form.  When we moved here, I sent my academic vita to a dozen schools within a hundred miles of here (an optimistic gesture, considering I still can't drive a car).  The state schools, however, were (and stil are) all under hiring freeze, and in any case my rather eccentric background -- abandoning opera for research-based recitals; then abandoning most performing in favor of speculative music-cultural research -- makes me a less-than-obvious candidate for a teaching position in a state school, although state university teaching jobs are highly desirable gigs.  My experience teaching in a large urban university back in New York had been such a positive one that I then decided that my calling was to teach in community college. I might never teach a promising graduate student, but promising graduate students are highly overrated, I thought.  So I phoned the head of the music department at the local community college, introduced myself, and explained my work.  Somehow from this conversation he gained the mistaken impression that I was an ethnomusicologist (how anyone would draw that conclusion from my c.v. baffles me); but anyway, all his positions, including teaching voice as an adjunct, were filled.

So then I decided I would get certified to teach in public school.  I dreamt of nourishing the budding talent of disadvantaged high school students in my economically-depressed community, and teaching them that the beauty and goodness of music could enrich, improve, and change their lives, as it had mine.  I spent countless hours and about a hundred dollars researching the ways my state would allow me to become certified, only to come up empty-handed.  I had numerous conversations with an educational recruiter in my area, who explained to me that my doctorate had no meaning in this context, nor did my years of teaching at the college level.  I would simply have to go back to school and get a master's degree in education, and then I'd have to do many hours of supervised student teaching.  While I agreed with her that my experience had not taught me the latest early-education pedagogical methodologies, I was confident I could learn those from books.  However, I balked at the idea of going back to school after the long, hard road to my doctorate, so it was not to be.

I'm thinking of homeschooling my son and whatever other children we are blessed to welcome, if for no other reason than that I love teaching so much, and miss it to the point that every day I find myself fantasizing about my time in the classroom.  But the truth is that I really don't know how to teach young children.  High school would be fine; for me, the really exciting stuff in terms of both ideas and pedagogy begins around age eleven.  But I now wonder, looking back, if I was too demanding even of my college students; I was so intent on their getting it, on their loving what I loved, that I think I expected them to reason and write on almost a graduate level, which not all of them could manage.  I fear that my greatest failing as a teacher is the same one that used to plague me as a young singer:  I was having a powerful experience onstage, but my going through it did not necessarily bring the audience there with me, or allow them to come to the catharsis that the music led them to expect.  If I homeschooled, at any rate, I would need an overhaul in my very meager store of patience.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Anyone Lived

Spring at last.  We are all dust (and to dust we will return), but it's a very good thing that the vernal equinox breaks through the inescapable Lenten ethos of human frailty and contemplation of death -- Not only Christ's, but also our own.

Here is a beautiful poem about the cycles of life by e.e. cummings, "anyone lived in a pretty how town":

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Terminal Degree

The first day of my doctoral program consisted of an orientation session in the music department.  I arrived on time, but the music students' lounge was already so crowded that I had to sit on the floor.  It was the end of the summer of 2002, and I was wearing an outfit that I don't think I ever wore again after that day, a hippie-ish ensemble held over from my days with Stoner Carpenter, consisting of a purple brocade dirndl skirt and a loose artist's blouse.  There was bad pizza, and the department chair, a composer, held forth to the incoming doctoral students on how, if you had to put up with what he called "the bullshit of living in New York," you might as well take advantage of New York's cultural opportunities.  I felt dismayed, even crestfallen, at his cynicism.  I will never make it here, I thought; I will fail out.  This department lounge, all of whose chairs seemed to be occupied by hipster composers, etiolated musicologists, and ethnomusicology dudes in sandals and funky hats, was not the place for my diffident post-hippie, post-opera-singer self.

Like most other endeavors in my life, I had auditioned for the doctoral program, passed the draconian music-theory-and-history entrance exam (it was so hard that I cried in the middle of it, and I knew some gifted singers, including one who was covering roles at the Met, who were denied admission after foundering on the rocks of that test), and enrolled at the university without having much of a plan.  In fact, it had all started shortly after 9/11, when I happened to run into G., my undergraduate piano professor (who had written the memorable line on my end-of-year evaluation, "Pentimento spends too much emotion away from the keyboard") at a friend's student recital at Juilliard.  We caught up, and, when I told her about the performing I was doing based on my own archival research, she urged me to get my doctorate.  "In what?" I asked, rather thickly.  "Get your D.M.A.!" she laughed.  I had never seriously considered getting my D.M.A. -- Doctor of Musical Arts degree -- in voice performance, but all of a sudden it seemed to me that it was indeed the next thing to do.

Influenced by G's suggestion (I have never seen her again since that fateful night), I briefly considered applying to Indiana University.  As soon as I worked out in my head that that would mean leaving my home and everything I knew to go and live in the Midwest, where I knew no one, had no idea how I'd support myself (there are few fellowships for D.M.A.'s in voice, unless the candidates are tenors), and would have to learn to drive, I abandoned that idle thought, and instead sent in only one application, to the urban university that would become my beloved haven for six years.  I passed the audition and then, rather amazingly, the wicked entrance exam.  Coincidentally, I gave a performance of my specialized repertoire in the spring of 2002, before acceptance notifications went out, as part of a scholarly conference at the same university -- it had been scheduled months earlier, before I'd even considered attending there -- and the conference organizer, a music professor who had been at my audition, said "See you next fall."

So there I was next fall (or, technically, late summer), sitting on the floor, feeling pretty scared.  What was I getting myself into? I wondered.  If I dropped out before classes started, could I get a refund?  I met my colleagues entering the D.M.A. program in voice -- all four of them -- and walked to the subway with one, who would become a cherished friend.  We told each other about our research interests, and, when she heard about my work, she excitedly suggested various grants and fellowships I could apply for.  "Um, I'm just trying to get through this day," I admitted sheepishly.

The next day there was a second orientation, but this one was for the entire incoming doctoral student body, hundreds of students across disciplines.  We met in the largest auditorium in the building.  The president of the doctoral students' council, a candidate for the Ph.D. in English, spoke.  She assured the audience that you could have a life while getting your doctorate.  You could get married while getting your doctorate, she said; you could have a baby while getting your doctorate (I would go on to do both of those things).  Suddenly I thought that maybe I could do this, after all.  And indeed, I could.  I didn't fail out, as it happened.  I earned a 4.0 grade point average during my coursework years, before I got married and had a baby while getting my doctorate.  During coursework years I also taught voice as a graduate teaching assistant in the university system, and after coursework, when my son was one year old, I was hired as an adjunct lecturer to teach voice, music history, and a special writing class for music majors.

Soon after my marriage, a traditionalist acquaintance of mine, the mother of a large family, urged me to lay aside my academic and performance pursuits.  She held up the example of a friend of hers who'd completed her medical residency and then gave it up happily when she started having children and never looked back.  "You can still sing," she told me.  "You can sing lullabies to your children.  Anyway, weren't you only doing all of those things because you weren't married?" 

I thought about it.  In a sense, it could indeed have been said that I was doing all of those things because I wasn't married.  If I had been married, I would presumably have been doing other things.  Or maybe not.  The truth was, I was doing all of those things because they were what I'd always done, and when you start doing something and get good at it, you're usually encouraged and even asked to do it more.  Gigs tend to beget more gigs, which is, if you're an artist, only what you want.  And beyond the pedestrian day-to-day work of any profession, making music with colleagues is one of the most incredible experiences that there is, especially when you know that what you're giving to the audience is being received and understood.  After each gig there was always someone who would come up and say, "I won't forget this night for a long time," sometimes with tears in their eyes.  And I was always particularly delighted when it happened to be an older Italian-American man or woman.  My peeps got it, I would think, they got the beauty I wanted them to have.

As a Catholic wife and potentially a mother, then, did my vocation imply the laying down of my craft?  The thought terrified me.  I made the mistake of attempting to justify myself by sending the traditionalist mom an offprint of my first article in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, which was published the month after I was married.  I thought she'd like it -- it dealt with certain musical tropes in patristic theology -- and I thought it would lead her to recognize that, among Catholic wives and potential mothers, I was one who didn't have to give up my profession, because I was special.

Well, the desire to be special, alternating with the belief that I was special, has permeated my life since childhood and led me to do many rash things that I now lie awake at night regretting.    Saint Paul said that woman would be saved through childbearing, and I wonder if that is particularly true for someone like me, for whom humility is bitterly hard-won.  My husband said recently that I act sometimes as if I still live alone, and it's true.  My ego, my sense of specialness, are painfully squashed every single day that I live in the community of my family, and being the wife and mother I feel I should be -- cheerful, helpful, present in all my senses, permeable, poured out like water for my loved ones -- is a constant struggle.

But still I wonder if I have to give up my profession.  Certainly it's true that I've performed a lot less since becoming a mother, though I have some fairly high-profile gigs coming up.  These gigs have no glamor for me anymore, though they might have if they'd come a few years earlier.  They are just hard work now, with the added stress and annoyance of having to travel for them and to rehearse on site; and the travel time and expenses, rehearsal time, and the practicing I'm able to squeeze in at home end up subdividing my fee from an amount that seems impressive to something hovering below minimum wage.  I wonder if I love my craft or my audiences the way that I used to.  Do I have anything more to give?  Does it matter?

And then, I'm also turning my dissertation into a book. A publisher has expressed an interest, and I've been working on the book proposal off and on for months, my progress slowed by the same question:  does it matter?

I don't know why I do these things anymore, except for the fact that, like graduate school, like marriage, like childbearing, like everything else in my life, they're right there in front of me and therefore seem like the things I'm supposed to do.  And also I think I'd miss them and become completely unmoored if I stopped..  I have asked God many times to show me if He wants me to stop singing and writing, but I haven't gotten an answer that I can decipher, and so I just keep doing the next thing that's in front of me.  I suppose, however, that if something else were in front of me, I'd do that thing too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quick Takes: God Takes the Sugar

1.  One of my oldest friends says that all poetry is based on the premise that things used to be better than they are now.  Sometimes I think that this blog is based on the premise that everything is better in New York than it is here.  But my premise is true.

2.  On the other hand, I saw two of those birds again today, the drab, starling-sized ones with the iridescent green heads, and I felt very kindly disposed towards them.

3.  I went for driving practice with my husband yesterday, and, as I nervously contemplated the death-dealing power conferred upon me by my seat at the wheel, I remembered with what ease and comfort I used to entrust my life to other drivers, chiefly those who drive cabs in New York City (who may be among the worst drivers in America, if not the world).  And it's not that they're technically bad in terms of their knowledge of the mechanics of maneuvering an automobile, but that they drive with total disregard for the rules of driving and with that special, self-centered New York sort of sprezzatura, by which everything one does is the equivalent of raising one's middle finger to the world.  This is true even for drivers who are freshly arrived from the Punjab or the Ivory Coast.  A hundred cab drivers flashed before my eyes.  I couldn't begin to count the number of drivers in my life who have asked me, "Where are you from?  You have an accent" (as often happens with classical singers, most traces of regionalism have disappeared from my speech, although here, everyone says I talk like a New Yorker).  I would make up random nations of origin -- Canada, South Africa, Holland -- until finally I started saying, "I'm from here, and you have an accent," which was, after all, the truth.  I began to recall individual taxi drivers, like the Sikh who got very excercised while driving me up the West Side Highway one night.  He explained to me that the Sikhs had to assassinate Indira Gandhi, because she had her troops destroy the Golden Temple, his religion's holiest site.  As he described to me his contempt for the ways of this country and his disdain for the Sikh immigrant boys and girls who grow up in America and start holding hands before they are married, a crime punishable by death back in India, he started to drift dangerously over the line, and I wasn't sure if I should ignore him or frantically try to calm him down.

I also remembered a soft-spoken middle-aged cab-driver I had once, a white man when such were becoming a rarity, who told me that he was only driving a taxicab in order to write a piece for the New Yorker about driving a taxicab.  "Uh-huh," I replied offhandedly, sure he was lying.  But for all I know, he might have been telling the truth.  I remembered another cab ride, when the driver, a handsome young man, sighed when I reapplied my lipstick in the back seat and asked hopefully if I was Jewish.  And another time, I left my handbag in a cab when I was living on a gated street on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, subletting the faculty townhouse of a Pratt Institute professor.  I had gotten out at the gate and gone inside the compound in a late-night post-waitressing haze, not realizing I'd left my entire purse behind.  About an hour later -- this was sometime between three and four in the morning -- there was a knock on the door.  It was the taxi driver, who'd been driving around and around the neighborhood, trying to figure out how to get in and give me back my purse, which was flush with my tips (though what I really cared about among its contents was my journal and my copy of Remembrance of Things Past, on the inside cover of which I'd pasted a picture of M. to remind me that he had given it to me).  The driver refused the money I offered him.

4.  I came across one of the best descriptions of exile that I've ever read in Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin, which is excellent so far (I'm less than a hundred pages in).  The narrator is an Irish writer in 1970s New York who's taken a bartending job in Woodside, Queens.

I figured I might write a play set in a bar, as if it had never been done before, as if it were some sort of revolutionary act, so I listened to my countrymen and wrote notes.  Theirs was a loneliness pasted upon loneliness.  It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave.  Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.  My accent deepened.  I took on different rhythms.  I pretended I was from Carlow.  Most of the customers were from Kerry and Limerick.  One was a lawyer, a tall, fat sandy-haired man.  He lorded it over the others by buying them drinks.  They clinked glasses with him and called him a "motherf---ing ambulance chaser" when he went to the bathroom.  It was not a series of words they would have used at home . . . but they said it as often as they could.  With great hilarity they injected it into songs when the lawyer left.  One of the songs had an ambulance chaser going over the Cork and Kerry mountains.  Another had an ambulance chaser in the green fields of France.

The place grew busier as the night went on.  I poured the drinks and emptied the tip jar.

5.  A Turkish woman I know who adopted a son from Korea after struggling with infertility told me that in her country there is a saying:  "God takes the sugar, but in its place leaves honey."  And honey is so much better than sugar, as today's poem from the Writer's Almanac suggests:

Luxury itself, thick as a Persian carpet,
honey fills the jar
with the concentrated sweetness
of countless thefts,
the blossoms bereft, the hive destitute.

Though my debts are heavy
honey would pay them all.
Honey heals, honey mends.
A spoon takes more than it can hold
without reproach. A knife plunges deep,
but does no injury.

Honey moves with intense deliberation.
Between one drop and the next
forty lean years pass in a distant desert.
What one generation labored for
another receives,
and yet another gives thanks.
-- Connie Wanek

Friday, March 12, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 9: February

While many of my New York City compatriots hate pigeons (a.k.a. "rats with wings"), I have always loved them, because they are so beautiful.  If you look closely, you can see that each one is different, and the way their necks ripple with brilliant shades of purple and green in the sunlight is a reminder of the beauty hidden in the even the drabbest-seeming among us.

Today I saw a bird in my backyard that was not a pigeon (some days, here, I'd give a lot for a glimpse of one), but it reminded me of one.  It was a dull, blackish, starling sort of bird, and its head was subtly colored with an iridescent green that called to my mind images of pigeons strutting and scrapping in the city sunlight, and reminded me that spring was not far off.

Not two weeks ago we were shoveling, and now it's mild, though the mountains all around are still covered in snow.  I used to have a recurring nightmare that I had missed spring entirely, having slept through it or been too distracted by whatever I was brooding over to notice the loveliest of seasons.  But these past few years, I've wanted the winter to go on and on.  I never feel ready for the reawakening of spring, for its lightness, its nakedness and simplicity.  But the seasons rarely respect human desire; as T.S. Eliot wrote in the first lines of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow . . .

Here is a song about winter giving way to spring, Dar Williams's "February," from her 1996 album Mortal City.  It is one of the saddest songs I know.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Novena for the Slothful and the Proud

I'm the sort of person who needs a lot of direction, or else my life will start to go to pieces and I will spend my days wandering around in a haze of confused nostalgia for the past and bemused wonder at the present, which translates into neglecting or resenting my daily responsibilities and spiraling into a funk because I can't seem to read and decipher the language of quotidian life.  A dear friend of mine, when she was a little girl, insisted on wearing drawstring dresses that tied in the back, and having them pulled as close as they could go, and on having her mary janes buckled so tightly that she still has scars on her insteps.  This is how I am spiritually.  I need my steps and my actions rigidly circumscribed, or I fall easily into a sort of mental and emotional Egyptian fleshpot.  My Lenten sacrifices are usually modified or abandoned completely by this time, and I often forget to complete my novenas.

In spite of these acknowledged deficiencies, I also , conversely, resent any order or direction imposed from the outside.  Sloth and pride vie for ascendance in me.

If you are like me, you might find the following novena to Saint Joseph to be just the ticket. 

From TAN Books:

This novena has proven to be highly efficacious. It seems to be pleasing to St. Joseph and helpful to souls. This form of novena was originally devised by the celebrated Fr. Louis Lallemant, S.J. (1587-1633). It has proved particularly effective in obtaining favors through the intercession of St. Joseph. In the Life of this saintly priest and great master of the spiritual life, to whom St. Joseph never refused anything he asked, the story is told that on one occasion he urged two young priests to make this novena, promising that they would obtain everything they asked through the intercession of St. Joseph if, in turn, they would show him special honor and spread devotion to him among others. Both did as Fr. Lallemant suggested. One of them asked for grace to speak and write worthily of Our Lord. But the next day he came to Fr. Lallemant to tell him that, upon reflection, he wished to ask for a different grace, which he considered more conducive to his perfection. Fr. Lallemant replied, “It is too late now to ask for another grace. The first one has already been granted.” This grace was conspicuously displayed throughout the whole course of the priest’s life, as he became one of the most noted preachers and writers of his day.

How to Make this Novena

No particular prayers need be said for this novena [emphasis mine -- isn't that great?]. Every day for nine days, turn to St. Joseph in spirit four times during the day and honor him in the following four points. (These “visits” may be made anywhere—at home, at work, on the street, in the car or bus—and at any time.) 

1. During the first visit, consider St. Joseph’s fidelity to grace. Reflect upon the action of the Holy Ghost in his soul. At the conclusion of this brief meditation, thank God for so honoring St. Joseph, and ask, through his intercession, for a similar grace.
2. Later in the day, consider St. Joseph’s fidelity to the interior life. Study his spirit of recollection. Think, thank God, and ask.
3. Later still, consider St. Joseph’s love for Our Lady. Think, thank God, and ask.
4. Finally, in a fourth visit, reflect upon St. Joseph’s love for the Divine Child. Think, thank God, and ask.

Saint Joseph's feast day is March 19 (a big day for Italian-Americans, who usually try to ignore Saint Patrick's Day), and his novena begins today.  If this novena delights you, as it does me, please join me in saying it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

There and Back, Part 10: Four-Armed Gods and One-Eared Rabbits

Some readers have asked me to elaborate on my reversion to the Catholic faith, and I've always demurred, because the story is long, complicated, both mystical and prosaic, and, actually, probably kind of boring.  What is more, while most conversions share certain narrative elements -- I was going along one way, when something set me on a wholly different path; I was one man, and now I am another --  the thread that we follow in that transformation seems to be woven by God out of the material unique to the convert's psyche, so, while conversion is a potentially universal experience, it is also a highly individualistic one.  For these reasons -- the boredom factor, and the fact that my conversion was specific to me in all my neuroses and failures -- for a long time I thought it best not to discuss mine too extensively.  But it's been on my mind lately, and I have never written it out, so I will begin to do so here.

Because God uses us in all our weakness to accomplish His will, it should not be surprising that my conversion was set againt the backdrop of a romantic relationship.  Shortly after 9/11 and the end of my relationship with the Stoner-Carpenter Guy, I got a call from an old friend whom I hadn't seen for years; he wanted to take me out to lunch.  I began seeing more of him, and, though we'd never been romantically involved in the past, we slowly began dating.  This was, logically, too soon after the end of a previous relationship -- in fact, if I'm remembering it correctly, he phoned me within a day or two after Stoner-Carpenter was out of the picture.  But, as an inveterate non-planner, I've always been a take-what-comes kind of person, and I supposed that dating C. was the next thing on my agenda.

Besides that, I was extremely fond of him.  Although I was a non-planner, I secretly hoped that that our relationship would grow, and would end in marriage (secretly, because those in my set labored under Bohemian values, or at least under their aftermath, and feared that any talk of traditional things would send the men we loved packing; it usually did).  One night, however, C. seemed to dash my hopes, when he told me that he "didn't think" he wanted marriage and children, but he begged me not to end our relationship, suggesting that he might change his mind.

So I went on, non-planning but hoping, until one night when he phoned me from Las Vegas (I realize this sounds like a punchline), where he had gone for a bachelor party.  Suddenly his tone had changed.  We wanted different things, he asserted.  This should not have been very surprising to me; after all, if I were a man in Las Vegas for a bachelor party, I would probably find myself wanting things entirely different from a non-planning but hoping Bohemian girl in a shabby apartment in Washington Heights.  But he went further, and sought to explain himself by revealing that he was an alcoholic in early recovery.  I had already guessed this, since, in our earlier friendship, he had been a regular drinker, and now he no longer drank, and he now used language that was familiar to me as an alumna of Al-Anon.  Still, he told me, in the years that we were out of touch, he had been such a low-bottom alcoholic, and he was now so new in his recovery (about a year at that time) -- and, after all, though he didn't emphasize this point he was in LAS VEGAS at a BACHELOR PARTY -- that he apparently felt completely unequipped to continue in our relationship.

As someone used to crushing disappointment, I remained calm and collected, and suggested a moratorium on our relationship that we could revisit and re-examine after about six weeks' time.  But when I hung up the phone, I was fell apart.  By revealing his brokenness, C. had become a full-fledged one-eared rabbit to me.  I imagined that he needed me, a lover and defender of one-eared rabbits, to stand by his side; and, besides, by this time, I loved him quite deeply.

But it wasn't just the expected breakup desolation I was feeling after the phone call.  Many post-abortive women talk about "abortion triggers," events, symbols, or sensory phenomena that bring the traumatic memories of their abortions flooding back.  Someone wise once told me that, while a man's greatest fear is that his wife (or his Bohemian girl, or whoever else happens to be nearby) will wake up one day and realize that he's the fraud he secretly believes himself to be, a woman's greatest fear is abandonment.  For some reason, the abandonment by C., undertaken long-distance via phone call from Vegas, brought the horror and grief of my abortion flooding back.  I sat in the chair in my bedroom and cried for two hours.  Then I called my mother, to whom I had almost never turned for emotional support, even during my divorce, and told her that, in spite of the fact that I'd been to confession and been absolved for the sin of abortion, I didn't feel absolved.  She told me simply to ask God to forgive me in Jesus' name.  So, when I got off the phone, I knelt down on the floor in tears and did.  And I felt as though the weight of that sin were being lifted from me in a physical, tangible way; I could almost see this process happening.  That was it.  That was the moment of my conversion.

I'd spent the previous few years hammering together my own syncretic religion out of various elements that were in vogue around me -- mantras, gurus, tarot cards, meditation -- and I had a long, narrow table I'd gotten at an apartment sale that I used as a meditation altar of sorts.  I had set all kinds of little statues and images upon it -- not only the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, but also statuettes of the Hindu gods Shiva and Kali; my mother used to come over and say, accusingly, "I see a lot of strange gods here."  In the moments after my conversion, it occurred to me that, because Christ had given me the gift of forgiveness, it was up to me to meet him halfway by pledging my allegiance to Him.  So I gathered up all my pagan paraphernalia and dumped it in Fort Tryon Park (I did not yet have the faith or the discipline to just toss it in the garbage chute, and I felt a little sentimental about those little statues).  I went to see a priest in my parish for absolution -- it had been years since my last confession -- and told him, among many other things, about the "strange gods."  He was a saintly Franciscan missionary, and he said, in his gentle way, "The eastern religions have much in the way of beauty to offer, and even some truth; but they don't" -- indicating the crucifix on the wall -- "have this."  I enrolled in RCIA classes to prepare for Confirmation (a sacrament I hadn't received in adolescence, because a priest in my family's parish had said it was "a sacrament in search of a meaning," and my parents went with that).

Ironically, C. and I resumed our relationship after the self-imposed post-Vegas moratorium had expired.  I started in my doctoral program that fall, and would spend my days walking from work to the university and back again, then going home on the subway in the evenings and buying a solitary lamb chop or chicken breast at the neighborhood market for my supper.  On Wednesday nights, I would walk in the dark to the church in a particularly drug-scarred section of my neighborhood where Confirmation preparation classes took place.  They were taught by a nun, who informed us, among other things, that the miracle of the loaves and fishes had been brought about by everyone having something in his pocket and sharing all around, which was the "real" miracle.  My classmates were all young Dominicans in their teens and twenties, most of whom spent the class texting on their cell phones or with their heads down on their desks -- a blessing when you think of it, because their ears were closed to heresy.  Then I would see C. on the weekends.  We would go to Mass together.  I went to an A.A. meeting with him on the anniversary of his sobriety.  I loved him more and more.

It was not to last, however.  He moved across the country to take a new job, and didn't think he had it in him to pursue a long-distance relationship.  As a non-planner but an inveterate hoper, I was devastated afresh.  I'd been knitting him a sweater that was half-finished, and now I worked on it furiously, thinking on the one hand that I needed to complete it and get it out of my life, and on the other that in those thousands of stitches, there might be a mystical knot that would tie him to me (the real absurdity lay in the fact that he had moved to a warm climate where he would never need to wear it, but perhaps that was a metaphor for our whole relationship).  In my graduate seminars, I would keep my head bent over my notebooks so that no one else sitting around the table would see that I was crying.  I would go to the little Adoration chapel at my parish church and cry, praying that C. would come back, or that at least God would show me what He wanted me to do and where He wanted me to go.  At the same time, I was busier than I'd ever been as a performer, and my scholarly work was also starting to attract some attention; I'd begun giving papers and lecture-recitals at important international conferences.   I was a non-planner but a hoper, and I knew that, in the face of bitter failure and cruel disappointment, there was nothing else to do but to keep going.

I was confirmed that fall, taking the name Cecilia, and I met my husband the following week.

In the beginning of my conversion, I received a great deal of consolation.  God is generous to those who come running -- or, more accurately, crawling -- back to Him, and gives them many graces.  Now, however, I'm just like anyone else -- lazy, proud, grumbling, prone to discouragement and despair, slogging through the trenches of faith and mostly falling.

When I think of my conversion, it seems to me that it could only have happened in New York, in that shabby apartment in Washington Heights; so imbued was it with the ethos of the life that I'd cobbled together there.  But then, it could probably have happened in Vegas, too, or anywhere else, since God shows us His love for us, in all our falling and failing, wherever we are, and in fact is doing it all the time, even if we can't see it in places that have none of the beauty and charm of my old home town.  But we can't live forever in the beautiful moment of conversion.  We have to keep going, wherever we are.  As Richard Wilbur wrote, love calls us to the things of this world, and that holds true wherever in our exile we might be -- even in Vegas.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Old and New Man

Karen Edmisten quotes from Joan Didion's chilling essay"Slouching Towards Bethlehem":

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.  Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, and who is going to make amends."

As William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Although Christ separates the lives of converts (and reverts) into two halves -- the earlier life without Him, and the new life in Him -- the old life cannot help but inform the new.  We are still who we were, even though we are, at the same time, completely transformed.  And even if we have amended our lives, it's probably a bad idea to forget what they once were.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Prisoners of Love

I wonder if the reason that some who seek comfort or confirmation in the Catholic blogosphere are outraged when they find blogs like this one, is the commonly-held myth that everyone is exactly like oneself.

Sometimes I fear that I have little in common with many of my most admired colleagues and co-authors on these pages (though of course I could be wrong about that, too).  I still mull over the accusation of the erstwhile suitor who denounced me in an email after reading a post here that he found insufficiently anathematizing of Obama back in 2008 -- an accusation that alluded to the "unspeakable crime" I'd committed against my own unborn child.  I do not deny the crime aspect of it, and I say this not to defend myself: but not everyone, even cradle Catholics, grows up knowing that abortion is a crime, much less an unspeakable one, and I was one such.

Not everyone's parents marched in pro-life rallies; some marched in the opposite direction, to a place where the bumper sticker that reads "You can't be Catholic and pro-abortion" would have been met with real incomprehension.  My father, for instance, was not only glibly and openly pro-abortion, as well as pro-pornography, while my mother suffered silently by; he was also a drinker and a philanderer, and during fights on these topics my mother would sometimes, in a dramatic gesture whose symbolism could not be lost even upon young children, throw her wedding nightgown out the window (I think she would collect it later, after things had cooled down somewhat).  And there is many a church in which abortion is never mentioned at all (I can't recall a single bus going down to Washington in January from my own childhood parish, for example, though it was very much involved in the Sanctuary movement).

Suffice it to say that if you grew up in a family in which all its members loved God and each other, and if you had the added benefit of receiving good catechesis, you should really consider yourself extremely fortunate.  You might also consider that those you see embracing positions of apparent evil often scarcely have any idea that they are doing so.  It's easy to forget that evil rarely displays itself in all its ugliness.  On the contrary, evil almost always appears as if it were good, and had good ends in mind; if it did not, a scant few people would ever consciously choose it. 

It would be so much easier to love one another if everyone really were like oneself.  But I suppose if it were that easy to love, it would not be such a dreadfully painful struggle to try to be a Christian.

As for me, I thought that if I got pregnant M. would love me.  Then, when he offered it as the only possible solution to our predicament, I thought that if I had the abortion he would love me.  I had no idea at the time that (as it later emerged in marriage counseling) seeing me in that state of abjection and woundedness had in fact, or so he said, inspired him to love me.  It was too late; I never trusted him again, though I did marry him; but I suppose a love whose building blocks were desperation, need, misguided passion, and the sacrifice of an unborn child must have been doomed to failure from the start.