Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How You Get Unstuck

This is not the sort of thing I usually link to, and I only found it myself through a confusing concatenation of links and recommendations, as one does sometimes:  an online advice columnist in an edgy online cultural journal, The Rumpus, extending help to a woman mourning a late-term miscarriage  (I clicked through some of the other articles, and they looked to be the sort of garbage that I try to stay away from).  But I was riveted and moved by the columnist's harrowing story of her young clients, and how she finally resolved to help them salvage their lives.

It is heartbreaking that the lives of so many are untouched by beauty, or even by kindness.  It is heartbreaking that so many children are betrayed.   It seems that the young girls Sugar writes about were very fortunate to have encountered her.

Please be warned that Sugar describes painful situations of abuse in some detail, and uses offensive language.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Walker in the City

I have not been feeling inspired to post here lately, but I wanted to mention Charles Reznikoff, whose compete poems I'm currently reading.  I had a discussion with a friend about the poem "I will go into the ghetto," posted in the link above (which is not its real title; Reznikoff did not title his poems, but numbered them), and my friend noted that the meaning of the poem changes dramatically depending on whether you set it in pre-war New York or pre-war Europe, and again if you transpose it to the present day.  To my mind, however, the poem is inexorably about New York, and, while it evokes images of the old pre-war immigrant Jewish ghettos in Canarsie or the Lower East Side, at the same time it suggests the seed of the artistic endeavor, the quest to find beauty where it is hidden and bring it forth.

One of the things I loved best when I was a very young woman dreaming of beauty was to get on the subway and ride it anywhere, then get out wherever the fancy struck me and walk and walk.  I ended up in all kinds of strange places, talking to strange people, peering into shops and alleyways, feeling especially heartened when I saw a green shoot pushing up through the cracked pavement, or geraniums rallying in a window box.  I passed laundromats, and breathed deeply the intoxicating aroma of damp, freshly-washed clothes drying in the machines; I went to lunch counters and ate what there was; I got back on the subway to head home, carrying with me Jamaican spice buns, quart jars of oregano, bottles of ghee, Chinese face powder and the gold and silver papers hung for luck at the lunar New Year, which I used for stationery.  Occasionally I found myself in places where I was met with veiled hostility, but I didn't really notice, so intent was I on my purpose of discovering and uncovering beauty wherever it resided, just below the surface of things.

the smell of the fields in this street
for only a day or two in spring
is enough for me.

Even now, one can walk into the New York ghetto and smell something wild, free, something fresh, seeming to come up from the earth and the sea.

Here is a poem by Reznikoff -- also, I believe, about New York, in the days when the country encroached upon the city -- in honor of the brutal heat today.

We children used to cross the orchard, the brown earth covered
with little green apples,
into the field beyond;
the grass came up over our knees,
there were so many flowers we did not care to pick any --
daisies and yellow daisies, goldenrod and buttercups.
It was so hot the field smelt of cake baking.

And here is a great multimedia piece about a walker in the city.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Parenting as Path

There's an interesting discussion about attachment parenting (commonly known by the acronym AP) on Erin Manning's blog, with a lot going on in the combox.  When my son was born I joined a hard-core group of AP moms in New York City (everything undertaken by New Yorkers ends up being hardcore), but I became disenchanted when the group leaders began insisting that the only true AP was UP -- i.e., Unconditional Parenting, the vague and somewhat kooky parenting philosophy promulgated by non-doctor, non-psychologist, non-scientist, and non-teacher Alfie Kohn -- and that to say no to one's child was an act of aggression.  There was a prevailing ideology in the group that by AP-ing your baby, you would create kind, compassionate, loving, empathetic children, and would thus change society, but I began to question that premise.  And then there was this guy who joined the group and would complain on our email listserv about how he believed firmly in AP, but his wife did not, and why weren't we all just hooking up with each other anyway?  Although I met my best friend, Really Rosie, in that group, the whole thing was over for me before very long.

I also used to go to La Leche League meetings in the Bronx, and that was the group I really preferred.  The LLL meetings on the Upper West Side that many of my AP confrères attended were full of the subtle judgment and oneupmanship that are endemic to every style of parenting in New York City, but submerged, here, in the crunchy ethos of groovy, conscious mothering.  My Bronx meetings, on the other hand, were full of relaxed, funky Orthodox Jewish moms of many children from Riverdale who would tell the new black and Latina moms not to worry if they had to supplement with formula, that even trying to breastfeed once in a while counted -- rather unorthodox advice, pun intended, for La Leche League, but suited to the reality of very low breastfeeding rates in the nation's poorest urban county.     

My own sister is becoming something of a Buddhist parenting guru.  She writes articles on parenthood for a Buddhist publication, and has started a blog about parenting as a tool toward enlightenment. 

As for me, in the end, however, I suppose that all parenting philosophies, like all ideologies, are bids that we put our faith in in the hope of not completely breaking down and flying off into a million pieces in the face of the entropy that is both parenting and life.  Back where I come from, there is a very strong and compelling illusion that hangs over everything and permeates the very atmosphere like a sort of noxious gas, which encourages us to believe we can make things happen, that we can do it, that we can get it -- in short, that we are in control of our lives (this may not be a notion peculiar to New Yorkers, but I suspect it's more pronounced there than elsewhere, because of the concentration of highly capable people in the city siphoned off from other locales).  It seemed to me when I was in my AP-NYC group that attachment parenting was being wielded as a kind of talisman in the face of chaos, with the devoutly-believed-in premise that if a mother AP-ed, her kids would be okay.  When other people's kids were not okay, it was because they were not attachment parents.  And when Really Rosie's son started to exhibit challenging behavior consistent with neurological difference, her own commitment to attachment parenting was questioned by her friends:  did she really baby-wear?  Because if she did, surely her son would be kind and gentle, not difficult and challenging (and, in fact, a fellow AP group member had seen Rosie on her way to an audition pushing her child in a stroller, and had shunned her, admitting later that she just couldn't talk to those moms who used strollers).

Now my own son has been classified as a preschool child with a disability, though the nature of that disability has not been clearly defined.  He's going to see a developmental pediatrician in October; we have to go more than a hundred miles away because there are none in our area, and we couldn't get an appointment any sooner.  My son is smart, happy, and deeply empathetic, with a prodigious memory and some striking musical gifts which, I believe, go beyond the genetic and are probably neurological in basis; he is also difficult, challenging, deflective, avoidant, hyperactive, and displays repetitive motor movements when he's excited or happy, which is a lot of the time.  He seemed to be developing fairly typically until we moved here just before his third birthday, and now I torment myself, wondering if his problems are the result of toxic chemical residue in the environment, left over from the time when this town was a manufacturing center (in fact, I found out that my area is a "hotspot" for autism spectrum disorders; one in 55 boys here are diagnosed on the spectrum, as opposed to one in 70 nationwide).  Perhaps moving here was a mistake.  But how can we know?  How can one ever know?

Erin Manning suggests that humility is the most necessary parenting tool, one that trumps ideology.  I believe she is right.  I don't know what I'm doing, as a mother or in any other area of my life.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and don't know where I am, both literally and figuratively.  But I keep asking -- no, demanding of, shouting and raging at -- God to at least give me one tiny little clue each day to let me know what I'm supposed to do next.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 10: Oh People of My Land

My new town appears to be home to a high number of mentally unstable citizens, the result of the mandated deinstitutionalization of the residents of the area's large, now-defunct state hospital in the 1970s.  Since I still don't have my driver's license, I often come upon these citizens when I take the bus or walk around in the near-deserted downtown.  Today I felt my old and my new worlds colliding when an apparently-mentally-unstable woman on the bus asked me if I was a teacher, the question I was often asked on the bus, in cabs, on the subway, and on the street back in New York (I'm not sure why, but this bus rider added what my former fellow citizens in New York used to say:  "You just look like a teacher").  I told her that I used to teach music, and she segued into a monologue about her boyfriend's concert-level skill at playing Chopin, and then asked me if I knew every word in the dictionary; she claimed acquaintance with several people who did.

Then a Mexican man got on the bus, and my heart leapt.  I almost never see Mexicans here, a sign of the area's extreme joblessness.  Likewise, I want to dance on the rare occasions that I come across an Orthodox Jewish couple, or a pair of frum women with their children in the park; it's a reminder to me of home, of the world outside of this place, the world of color, of music, of warmth.

Speaking of color, music, and warmth, I got a catalogue in the mail the other day listing the scholarly books on music published by Ashgate, the English academic publisher.  One of their new releases is a book called Fado and The Place of Longing:  Loss, Memory, and the City.  According to the catalogue blurb: 

Fado, often described as 'urban folk music', emerged from the streets of Lisbon in the mid-nineteenth century and went on to become Portugal's 'national' music during the twentieth. It is known for its strong emphasis on loss, memory and nostalgia within its song texts, which often refer to absent people and places. One of the main lyrical themes of fado is the city itself.

Reading the book description, in addition to making me think that fado should be the official musical genre of this blog, brought to mind a memory of my old home.

For a long time back in New York, my across-the-hall neighbor was a single, middle-aged woman who shared my first name, and who was herself apparently mentally unstable.  She was an artist whose work was exhibited, but in her day-to-day life she seemed anxious to the point of being severely troubled and not entirely functional.  I was surprised one day to meet a beautiful young woman coming out of her apartment, who, as it turned out, was my neighbor's only daughter, D., come to live with her for a while.  D. seemed like someone I wanted to know:  she was sophisticated and smart, and was a former writer for the Village Voice whose music criticism I had read.  But one night, as I was coming home late, I saw her moving all of her stuff out of her mother's apartment.  They had had a huge fight, and D. was moving to Staten Island by taxicab to live with a man she'd recently met.  I assumed I'd never see her again, and I was chagrined.

But D. came back.  In fact, she came back more than once.  At one point, she moved to Italy to try to make it work with a different man, but returned with a diagnosis of breast cancer.  After treatment, the cancer went into remission, and D. was unsure where to go next.  She was trying to restart her life, and she had a book contract from a major publisher to write about cancer from the perspective of a woman like herself, a hip young New Yorker, who would refute all the bullshit New-Age cancer platitudes -- you caused your cancer with your own self-hatred, you can heal through visualization, but only if you want to badly enough, etc.  She came across the hall to tell me about it one day in the fall of 2002, when I had just come back to the Catholic faith and had just started graduate school.  And the reason she had knocked on my door that day was that she had heard the notes of this fado song leaking out through the doorjamb, a song she had first heard on a recent trip to Portugal.

The wonderful singer is the part-Mozambiquean, part-Portuguese Mariza, who even looks strikingly like the biracial D.  According to a fan-written translation, this is the meaning of the text, sic in its entirety:

Is both mine and yours this fado
destiny that tides us (together)
no matter how much it is denied
by the strings of a guitar
whenever one hears a lament
of a guitar singing
one is instantly lost
With a desire to weep
Oh people of my land
Now I've understand
This sadness which I carry on
Was from you that I received
and it would seem tenderness
If I let myself be soothed
my anguish would be greater
my singing (would be) less sadder
Oh people of my land

This time, or so it appeared, D. had come home for good.  She was broke.  But we never did hang out much; our schedules didn't mesh.  She went to a nearby café to write during the day, while I was traveling between the university and my office job; and she stayed on at the café at night when it became a bar, while I was too busy and tired to go out (and was also experimenting with not going to bars or drinking at all, in what I saw, perhaps misguidedly, as solidarity with my then-boyfriend, who was recently sober in A.A.).  Our paths continued to diverge, and, right around the time I moved out of my long-time and beloved home to get married in 2005, I was shocked to learn that D. had died at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, the cancer having returned and metastasized to her bones.  I wrote to her mother from my new home in the Bronx, but never heard back.

From what I understand, D.'s mother is somehow keeping on, God knows how.  But in writing this, I have realized that it's been a long time since I've remembered to pray for D. or for her mother.  Dear readers, if you have it in your heart to do so, please say a prayer for this them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Road to Mandalay

My father used to sing this song when I was little; it's the famous setting of the equally famous Kipling poem, written by American composer Oley Speaks in 1907.  We were singing it today just for fun, and I decided (inevitably) to look for some versions on Youtube.  The first one I listened to was the one I expected to be the perfect performance, sung by matinée-idol baritone Lawrence Tibbett, a paragon of baritonal virility; and it is great, but his fake Cockney accent just gets silly after awhile:

And then I found this.

Could anything be hipper?  I love the "exotic" arrangement, and the fact that Sinatra changed "Burma girl" to "Burma broad," and, of course, Sinatra himself.

Monday, July 5, 2010


A terrific poem today on the Writer's Almanac.

(It's also a New York poem.  The poet, Eleanor Lerman, is from Far Rockaway by way of the Bronx, so the channel to which she refers is most likely Broad Channel. in Queens, or the East Rockaway Channel in Nassau County, Long Island.)

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night
the channel was full of starfish
. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
stopped when you should have started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

("Starfish" by Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds. © Sarabande Books, 2005.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

One of the Gayest at Montmartre

Eugénia Fenoglio was born in 1866 in Toulon, France.  Her father, an alcoholic tailor, battered his wife, who often fled with the children to seek shelter with relatives.   The day came that her mother left her abusive husband for good, but not long after, he sought the family at their new residence and killed his wife and then himself in front of their daughter.

As a child, Eugénia had loved theatrics, and had written, directed, acted in, and even designed the sets for plays she staged with her friends.  Not long after her parents' murder-suicide, she made her way to the capitol, where, encouraged by a lover, she tried her luck on the stage and met with phenomenal success there.  She took the name Ève Lavallière, after a mistress of Louis XIV who, incidentally, had become a penitent and had died a Carmelite nun.

According to CatholicIreland.net:

"The sudden death of one of the leading actresses of the theatre became the opportunity for Ève and she did not disappoint. Her voice was exceptional and she was able to use it to convey every sort of emotion - from silence to violence, from authority to disgust.

"Listening to Ève conveyed the audience into the very heart of the tragedy or comedy . . . she was playing. Even the great contemporary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, told her, 'What you do is innate: you create - you do not copy the characters. You give birth to them from within yourself. It is very beautiful.'"

La Lavallière became the most popular and successful actress-singer of the Belle Époque.  She was fabulously wealthy and a critical success.  At the same time, her personal life grew more and more chaotic and disorderly.  Before achieving fame onstage, Ève had supported herself as a Parisian courtesan; after, she was the mistress at one time or another of an assortment of prominent men, and bore a child out of wedlock -- a daughter, who would cause her mother great despair as an adult by living openly in a lesbian relationship.

During the First World War, on holiday in a small village while preparing for a tour of the United States with the Théatre des Variétés, Lavallière experienced a dramatic conversion after meeting a local priest and mentioning to him lightly that she had sold her soul to the devil in order to maintain her youth.  The priest, at first outraged, lent her a book about St. Mary Magdalene, which she read in a state of gradual awakening to the reality of her life of sin, and in a spirit of deepening penitence.  She cancelled her participation in the American tour and retreated to the countryside with her dresser from the theater, Leona, who accompanied her conversion with every step.  Lavallière applied for entrance as a Carmelite postulant, but was denied on account of her poor health (and perhaps too because her fame both as an actress and as a libertine had penetrated even into the cloister of the Carmel).  Instead she became a Franciscan tertiary, and after an attempt at missionary work in Tunisia, spent the rest of her life in solitary prayer and penance.

Some years after Lavallière's abrupt renunciation of the stage, a French reporter managed to track her down.  The New York Times published a story about this encounter in 1921:  "Once talk of Paris, Actress is Recluse," proclaimed the headline. "One of the Gayest in Montmartre . . . Lives Apart from the World Except for Village Poor."  The article, which can be downloaded here, mentions that the reporter asked Lavallière's maid if the former actress "ever [thought] or [talked] about the past." 

"Never," was the maid's answer.  "When she gets letters from her old friends she sometimes smiles, for she has no bitterness about the past, but she doesn't think about it.  She thinks only of the present and the future." 

I first learned of Ève Lavallière five years ago, while doing my dissertation research on music and penitence.  Raïssa Maritain had written of her friend that, after her conversion, Lavallière's eyes were always wet with the tears of contrition.  I remember reading at the time that Pope John Paul II had beatified her, but have not been able to confirm this on the web.  Nonetheless, I have decided to start a home-made novena to her in advance of the anniversary of her death, July 10.  I am closing each day with a prayer written by Lavallière herself: 

Oh my beloved Master, by Thy hands nailed to the Cross, I beseech Thee to wipe away all of the sins committed by my criminal hands.  My sweet Jesus, by the painful fatigue endured by Thy blessed feet, by the divine wounds They suffered when They were pierced, wipe away the filth left by my guilty feet.  Finally, Oh my Master, Oh my Creator, Oh my Savior, by the dignity and innocence of Thy life, by the holiness and purity which characterized it, wash away all of the stains of my impure life.  May that abominable life exist no more in me, may the ardor of Thy love hold me entirely, for Thou art, Oh my King, the sole refuge of my soul; grant that I may be unceasingly consumed with the ardor of Thy charity.  Give me, my Redeemer, above all, Holy Humility. 

For more on Lavallière, go here. 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Late Ripeness

A poem by Czeslaw Milosz, in honor of what would have been his ninety-ninth birthday yesterday.

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget - I kept saying - that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago -
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef - they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.