Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Dying Tomcat

My birthday was the other day, and I have a tradition of pulling a book off the shelf and reading a poem at random on my birthday morning, not for any necromantical purpose, but simply to make a small space for beauty and expansiveness before the diurnal responsibilities come to trample them down.  This is the poem I read: 

For a Dying Tomcat Who's Relinquished his Former Hissing and Predatory Nature

I remember the long orange carp you once scooped
from the neighbor’s pond, bounding beyond
her swung broom, across summer lawns

to lay the fish on my stoop. Thanks
for that. I’m not one to whom offerings
often get made. You let me feel

how Christ might when I kneel,
weeping in the dark
over the usual maladies: love and its lack.

Only in tears do I speak
directly to him and with such
conviction. And only once you grew frail

did you finally slacken into me,
dozing against my ribs like a child.
You gave up the predatory flinch

that snapped the necks of so many
birds and slow-moving rodents.
Now your once powerful jaw

is malformed by black malignancies.
It hurts to eat. So you surrender in the way
I pray for: Lord, before my own death,

let me learn from this animal’s deep release
into my arms. Let me cease to fear
the embrace that seeks to still me.
It's by Mary Karr.  I thought it was wonderful.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Mary Ellen Carter

On the way home from Mass today, my son asked over and over to hear the song "about that ship that crashes."  This is the song that he meant.  We found the CD, and sat in the driveway singing it.

I like the Bertolt Brecht quote that Liam Clancy uses as a preamble to this performance:  "With a man's dying breath, he should be prepared to make a fresh start."  It reminded me, in fact, of what Christ said in today's Gospel reading:  "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."  This is something I needed particularly to hear.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Twenty Years After

Twenty years ago, right around this time, I became pregnant with my first, lost child.

My whole world was M. then; all I wanted was for him to love me; I suppose that I believed somehow that the pregnancy would force his hand, would compel his love.  What I did not know was that the sacrifice of our child -- and his regret, and the way that we were now inexricably linked to each other because of that grim martyrdom -- was the thing that would finally inspire his love.

By then, however, it was too late.  I still loved him, but I had become bitter and cynical.  I married him because I felt -- we both felt, I'm sure -- that this was the one way to set right what we had made so wrong (though I can't really know for sure what he felt, because, after the abortion, we never spoke of it).  So I married M.  And I threw myself into my singing.  I have never met anyone who worked as hard as I did to become a good artist, who studied his craft from as many aspects, who strove to become an authority on the history and practice of his discipline the way I did.  (And I now know that, later on, when I taught college, I was much too demanding of my students; since this kind of striving, I believed, was the only thing that could save me, it was surely the only thing that could save them, all of whom were from humble backgrounds, all of whom were searching for the divine spark of beauty in their own hardscrabble lives, too).

I loved what I was doing as a singer -- all I ever wanted was to create something beautiful that would move people -- but, more importantly, it gave order to my life, it kept me from flying off into oblivion;  in short, it kept me from hitting bottom.  I trusted nothing and no one; I believed that all I had to hold onto in my life was my singing; I truly believed that singing would create a new, alternate reality for me, a realm in which the emptiness was filled, and in which I not only had power and agency, but also in which I became essentially good by virtue of the qualities I had developed as a musician.

I suppose it is no coincidence that I walked away from my opera career at the same time that I jettisoned my first marriage.  Too much had been predicated upon my first poor, lost child.

In the ensuing years, I have sometimes sought, sometimes resisted, the contraction of my life into a shape and a form more constrained than the expansive life I once imagined for myself, and which I have pursued at great cost.  I am both an accustomed and a reluctant penitent; as much as penitence has become a habitual stance -- to the bemusement of those who know me -- I would so much rather have all the nice, easy, kind, fun, pretty things in life instead.

My only prayer, as always, is that God will use the rest of my life for something good; that He will bring beauty and healing for others out of the abyss of my crimes and my despair.  Once, when I was very ill, I had a feverish hallucination of the Blessed Virgin standing at the foot of my bed; she showed me scenes from my life, little lozenge-shaped dioramas in her hands in which I relived all my misdeeds.  Then, as I lay there and watched, she turned each of the lozenges around, and they became roses, which she scattered from her hands.  Readers and friends, please pray for me too.

Friday Poetry: I Will Go Into the Ghetto

This beautiful poem, by Charles Reznikoff, is one of the works of art dearest to me in the whole world.  It has such profound personal resonance that I feel as if it could be the story of my own life, or, at least, the story of my sentimental and artistic educations.  Enjoy.

I will go into the ghetto:  the sunlight
for only an hour or two at noon
on the pavement here is enough for me;
the smell of the fields in this street
for only a day or two in spring
is enough for me.
This peace is enough for me;
let the heathen rage.

They will take away
our cakes and delicacies;
the cheerful greetings, the hours of pleasant speech, the smiles,
and give us back
the sight of our eyes and our silent thoughts;
they will take away our groans and sighs
and give us -- merely breath.
Breathe deeply:
how good and sweet the air is.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Deceptions and Enormities

I just finished reading a short story by the poet (and prolific writer in many genres) Donald Hall, "From Willow Temple," which you can read in its entirety here.  The story, about a young farm girl whose inadvertent witnessing of her mother's adultery resets the trajectory of her own life, is restrained and affecting, notable as much for what Hall leaves unsaid as for his stance of quiet, distant compassion for his characters.  He has his protagonist muse:  "Surely I was changed forever . . . . I knew that by universal conspiracy we agreed to deny the wickedness of every human being.  We needed, every hour, to understand:  The fabric of routine covered unseen deceptions and enormities.  We also needed to remember that the cloth must show no rips or tears, and this covering was as real as anything." 

Then I read the Facebook status update of a man from my old parish who runs a crisis pregnancy center in the South Bronx, helping desperate young women seeking abortions to choose life instead, and supporting them in every way possible in that choice.  On his Facebook, he often posts anecdotes from the day-to-day work of the interns who tend to the young mothers.  One young woman, he wrote, came to the office seeking an abortion because of her dire economic situtation and her desire to finish school.  A friend of his -- incidentally, a self-described conservative Catholic homeschooling mother -- commented, "If you want to finish school, don't have sex!"

Then I picked up the copy of Marian Helper that had come in the mail, the little journal published by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, the order in Stockbridge, Massachusetts whose apostolate is the spread of the Divine Mercy devotion.  I read an excerpt from a memoir written by Fr. Donald Calloway, a priest in the order, who had been a runaway, a drug addict, and a criminal before his conversion.  The story included a photograph of Fr. Calloway addresing a crowd, and quoted from his address:  "Don't think I'm holy, because I'm not.  The honeymoon is over.  I go through trying times, tough times, and I am tempted like you don't know.  Big time.  So pray for me . . . I need it.  I'm a hunted man.  Satan hates my guts.  And I am still a man in the conversion process [in need of] more mercy, more mercy, more mercy.  That's what I need, what we all need."

At first, I misread "hunted" as "haunted," and I began to wonder if all of us are divided into two groups, the haunted and the scared -- those who have committed "deceptions and enormities," and those whose fear of the consequences has prevented them from doing so.  Of course, this is wretchedly simplistic.  Still, reading the barely-disguised contempt of the homeschooling mother on Facebook for the poor young girls in my old borough reminded me once again that those who were lucky enough to receive sound moral instruction in their early lives should not attribute their good fortune to their own merits, and that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Whether haunted or scared, however, we are all hunted; surely we can unite in our recognition of this, our human condition.  Some of us, like Fr. Calloway, are "tempted . . . big time"; others are probably tempted to far less spectacular sins, like the common house-and-garden pride and scorn that is so very hard to weed out of our hearts, and which seem to me emblematic of the state of being scared -- for surely it's fear that leads us, more sinful than the publican and less virtuous than the Pharisee, to commend ourselves for having avoided spectacular sin and for having achieved much.  This brittle self-commendation surely masks the quite justified fear that our nice lives, our accomplishments, our sense of ourselves as good people doing good things, could be swept away from one moment to the next by the simplest, most unwitting mistakes made in a moment of carelessness.  Which is why, in addition to being hunted men, we all need more mercy, more mercy, more mercy; and the more we're given, the more we are required to show to those poor souls we're inclined to scorn.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Life in a Northern (Appalachian) Town

I went to what I think would count as a society wedding the other day.  As the unlikely wife of an accidentally prominent man, I have to go to these things sometimes, and I always dread them.  First of all, I just know that I'm going to disappoint; the local society ladies are probably expecting a Sex-and-the-City, glamorous type of New York woman, and I turn out to have no jewelry to speak of and grad-student hair.  And then I always seem to say the wrong thing.  I started talking to a Very Important Person about concertinas at one of these events, for instance, prompted by the shape of a box he was carrying, and watched his face take on that look that you get when you're trapped with someone who at first appears to be normal, but whom you slowly start to realize is preoccupied with abnormal obsessions.

My husband was unsure if we should even attend at all, because it was the third marriage of a lapsed-Catholic son of a prominent Catholic father.  Politics prevailed over theology, however, as my husband works with the father, and besides, we were only invited to the reception; and so we went.  The groom, who was fifty, was a gorgeous, tanned creature with perfectly-gelled hair, who looked ten years younger; the bride was a rangy, slightly-loopy-but-sexy blonde about half his age, just a couple of years older, in fact, than his children.  When I said the wrong thing, which didn't take long, it was to her (though she started it, by suggesting -- rather wildly, it seemed to me --  that I possessed the entrepreneurial skills to start a small business of the kind that is desperately yearned for around here, in the hopes of sparking some sort of resurrection in this fallen-on-hard-times post-industrial town):  I asked her what her plans were once she got settled into her new, married life.  It became immediately clear to me that I'd been rude, though I hadn't meant it rudely at all.  I saw the bride an attractive, energetic young woman at the cusp of her adult life, and I felt I was taking a kindly interest in her.  Though I said none of these things, my conversational gambit, I hoped, implied the questions:  would she start having children right away?  (I doubted the couple, who had lived together before their marriage, were NFP practitioners.)  Would she take a class, pursue an interest, a career?  I was disheartened when she seemed flustered and upset by my question; fortunately, she got caught up in another conversation before we were both forced to walk our own back to some other, safer topic.

One of the groom's sons presided over a table right next to ours, which seemed to be populated by theater geeks; his wavy, Botticelli-esque hair hung down below his shoulders, and he wore a fedora, reminding me pleasantly of the Devo song "Through Being Cool":

If you live in a small town
Your might meet a dozen or two
Young alien types who step out
And dare to declare:
We're through being cool

I spent a long time talking to the groom's elderly mother, who was not at all hesitant to express her concerns about the union:  "He keeps getting married," she sighed.

The food was dreadful, but the band was really fantastic, and even included a horn section.  We danced to one song, and then we went home.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Waiting Confoundedly

It's been hard for me to make new friends in my new home town.  One of the reasons is that I'm relatively isolated by my lack of license-able driving skills.  It takes extra effort to go anywhere, and it usually involves strollers and bus schedules, and the sort of planning that no one I know really does here; they just throw their kids and stuff in the car and take off, while I mostly just stay at home.  But it's not just that, and it's not just that the people I meet here come from such different backgrounds from mine.  Another reason, I think, is that it's hard to find other mothers here who share my essentially pessimistic philosophy of life.  (It's not at all hard to find such mothers in New York, since it's really not hard to find anything at all you're looking for there.)

Now, those readers who know me personally will tell you that I'm actually not quite so much of a downer as you might think in real life.  I laugh all the time, and I truly enjoy things (I also cry every day; there's just so much to cry about.  It's hard to say how much of this is neurosis, how much is justifiable compunction, and how much is culture and genetics; it seems to me sometimes, having been like this since childhood, that I must be the logical heir of a tragic Mediterranean worldview).  Nonetheless, I have to keep reminding myself that I no longer live in New York City.  I live in America now, the land of positivism.  I feel that I cannot talk about the things that preoccupy me with the other mothers I know where I live now, lest I intrude upon their deeply-held conviction -- one that seems to be a bedrock of our culture -- that everything is, or will be, all right, and that, if you are an essentially good person, you deserve to be happy.  While I believe that everything will be all right in the eschatological sense, the rest of this point of view utterly confounds me.  Does this mean that I suffer from depression?  Or just that I need to go back to New York more often, or perhaps back to my ancestral village in the mountains of Campania?

We are still in the throes of adoption paperwork, and it's taking longer than we expected, because Catholic Charities, our agency, is woefully understaffed and -funded.  It occurred to me recently that most Americans (and also most New Yorkers) in our position do IVF, and, indeed, IVF seems like a typically American-positivist response to an intractable problem.  I'm quite sure, however, that even if I had not had a dramatic reconversion to the Catholic faith, IVF is not something I would have ever undertaken.  It's not just the ethical problems that give me the creeps about it, but also the philosophy of positivism on which it's based -- the philosophy of everything-will-be-all-right-and-I-deserve-to-be-happy -- that I reject all the way down to my bones.  IVF strikes me as a salient example of the American tendency to marshal all the resources at one's disposal to try to force a desired outcome, and, even if I weren't a Catholic revert, I would think (and in fact know from bitter experience) that to base one's actions on this shaky philosophy can only lead to bad ends.

Nonetheless, the world of adoption is equally confounding to me.  I recently read a parent testimony in an adoption book about a couple who rejected a Chinese adoption placement because the little girl they had initially accepted had become seriously, perhaps fatally, ill.  "We chose to accept a new referral," wrote the adoptive mother, which seemed to me a rather cagey way to put it.  After adopting a different girl -- "the daughter I am sure was always meant to be ours" -- this mother was relieved to find that another couple had chosen to adopt the first, sick little girl as a special-needs placement.  And yet the mother made a point that this sick little girl, the girl she and her husband had decided not to adopt, "will always be ther first daughter of our hearts."

I found this attitude absolutely confounding, and vaguely troubling.  The adoptive mother's rejection of the sick child cannot be compared to terminating a pregnancy with a poor prenatal prognosis, the major difference being that the child rejected on account of illness survived and was adopted by someone else.  But what if she hadn't been? 

I am hardly in a position to judge this mother or anyone else, or to speculate about the nature of the girl's undisclosed illness.  Perhaps the first adoptive couple did not have the means to care for a child who might be very ill for the rest of her life, or who might not live very long.  But the rejected placement did make me wonder how the parents would have reacted if it had been found that their biological child was gravely ill.  Call me a Mediterranean fatalist, but it's not part of my worldview that anyone deserves to be happy.  I do believe, though, that we are called to love and to serve, and in some cases that means loving and serving children who are less than perfect, and who God gives us as a gift, one that will transform us and conform us, in His service, more closely to His will.

UPDATE:  Karen Edmisten writes (in a recent blog post about parenthood) that, "when a gift is given, it is worth the sacrifice it takes to accept it."  That sentiment articulates my feelings about the rejected adoption placement better than I did; but, again, it's hard to know all the variables in that situation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"To be a true artist," part 2

Michael Greenberg's Salinger essay, linked to in the post immediately below, reminds me of the poem "To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing," by W.B. Yeats, whose 145th birthday was yesterday:

NOW all the truth is out, 
Be secret and take defeat 
From any brazen throat, 
For how can you compete, 
Being honour bred, with one        
Who, were it proved he lies, 
Were neither shamed in his own 
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes? 
Bred to a harder thing 
Than Triumph, turn away 
And like a laughing string 
Whereon mad fingers play 
Amid a place of stone, 
Be secret and exult, 
Because of all things known 
That is most difficult.

"To be a true artist, the performer must give up being on stage"

One of the fringe benefits of rehearsing at my old university is the out-of-date magazines that someone has been leaving for years on a marble counter just outside of the elevators (on a floor that Music shares with the French, Classics, and Theater departments).  I've gleaned many a few-weeks-old New Yorker and Chronicle of Higher Education there, and on this recent trip, picked up some New York Reviews of Books, in one of which I found this excellent short essay on J.D. Salinger.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Song of Francis

 I got this book out of the library, and it soon moved across to the list of books that I want to own.  My son loves it, and he makes up his own songs about blessing the Lord, based on the song that Saint Francis sings in the book.   I just saw that Amazon is offering it at a bargain price.  If you browse there, you can look inside the book (please note, I make no money from directing you there; I only mention it because I think some of my readers would also love this book).

Tomie DePaola has dedicated The Song of Francis to the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, a wonderful place; I went on retreat there a few years ago, and recently performed in a concert series sponsored by a lay Benedictine foundation that is affiliated with the abbey.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick Takes: Return of the Native, Bronx Edition

1.  When I went back to New York last week, my days there took a shape that was practically identical to their shape during the last few years I lived there.  I stayed a block away from my old house in the Bronx.  I got on the train to go downtown and rehearse with my colleagues at my old university.  My old voice student B., now at conservatory, watched my son while we rehearsed, and took him to the university language lab, where he was in a language study as a toddler, and which has a nice playroom full of toys.  I went to Starbucks every day, which I never do where I live now, because you have to drive there; in New York, though, there's one on every other corner, so you have to be a hard, coffee-hating man to walk on by.  I hung out in playgrounds with Rosie and our children.  I pushed my son in his stroller for miles down city streets in ninety-five-degree heat with a backpack on my back.  (This last, I must admit, I found quite hateful, though it was something I had always done in the past without a complaint or a second thought.  I now realize that one gets quite spoiled living in a place where this kind of extreme parenting is not the common, shared experience of all mothers.)

2.  Rehearsing with my pianist J. is something that has become second nature for both of us.  We met in our doctoral program in 2003 -- she was the only Korean pianist who wanted to hang out with singers, and, a first-rate musician, soon began working as a collaborator with some of us -- and we have performed together more times that I can count off the top of my head.  So our musicianship is well-known to one another, and we have certain codes and cues to bring out certain aspects of the other's musicality, and after a minute or two of rehearsal time we fall into a kind of groove, gradually building up to an intense experience of the kind we hope to recreate for our audience.  It is such a great pleasure to work with colleagues whom we know, musically speaking, as intimately as spouses.  It is a great pleasure to make music with other people in most circumstances, come to think of it.

3.  Back in the Bronx, I loaded up on the things you can only get there:  Barry's tea, and these Italian whole-wheat cookies from a shop just over the city line in Yonkers that I've never found anywhere else (which is saying a lot because in New York you can get anything).  And the truth is that Barry's tea is not really exclusive to the Bronx; I can even get it where I live now.  But in the Bronx, the box pictured above retails for four dollars, and in my new town it goes for nine.  I suppose Irish tea is one of the few things less expensive there than here.

4.  It's funny about the Bronx.  When I moved there after living for so many years in "the city," I felt as if I already wore the mantle of the exile, in spite of the fact that I had moved only about four miles.  But as any New Yorker knows, four miles might as well be a million; venturing even four blocks from your home can catapult you into a parallel universe, one with strange and incomprehensible customs and a populace that may or may not view you as having come in peace.  If the four miles separating you from your old home are inaccessible by public transportation except via an elaborate system of transfers, as is often the case in the outer boroughs, you might as well forget about seeing what begins to feel like your distant, native shore.  When I moved to the Bronx, my English friend and mentor John Allitt wrote me a letter in which he commented that "Bronx" was an ugly name, and what did it mean anyway?  (Well, Archie Bunker said it meant "the land where no trees grow.")

Nonetheless, the Bronx, that most forsaken of boroughs of the City of New York, really burrows its way into your heart.  Anyone who has ever lived there will tell you that, for all of its problems, they have come to love it.  When I moved to my old neighborhood, people there used to say that it was the best neighborhood in the world.  I looked at them as if they were out of their minds then, but now I agree.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Always Going Home

I'm going back to New York tomorrow for another semi-important gig, and this time I'll be staying within blocks of my old home.  Coming as a disruption in the ongoing process of getting used to my new life in a place that could be a million miles away, this trip is making me feel a little trepidatious.  I'm uneasy about going back to the old neighborhood.  While I have a sense of my obligation to pay calls on the comrades of my past, in most cases I would really rather not.  There is a certain sense in which my anonymity in my new city is a blessed relief.  I know very few people, and very few people know me; so, while it is true that, as Faulkner said, "the past is never dead.  It's not even past," no one here has to know it. 

I recently dyed my hair a different shade from my natural color, and, though the upcoming visit to my old stomping ground did not consciously play a part in my new color choice, I'm now sort of half-hoping that, if any of my old confrères sees me on the street, they will fail to recognize me and will walk on.

(Incidentally, Betty Duffy also has a post up -- as usual, an excellent and thought-provoking one -- about going back to the old neighborhood).