Saturday, October 30, 2010

"I had a slightly different experience . . . "

There is a bill now before the New York City Council that would require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose in their advertising -- which is seen mostly on the subway, and in bus shelters -- the services which they do and do not provide, the latter being abortion.  The bill was triggered by a recent study undertaken by NARAL, which aims to show that the pregnancy centers use deceptive advertising to lure young women in crisis and . . . not give them abortions.  Chris Slattery, a member of my old parish in the Bronx and the director of Expectant Mother Care, which runs pregnancy centers in some of New York's poorest neighborhoods, believes that this proposed legislation is an attack on the work that the centers do, because, while technically it doesn't seem like a bad idea to require businesses to be specific about what they do and don't offer, in the case of the emergency pregnancy centers, this forced disclosure could very likely lead to loss of life.  If an abortion-minded woman in a crisis pregnancy goes to an EMC center without knowing that abortion is not on the menu, it's easier for the staff to persuade her to change her mind.  This, NARAL says, is a very bad thing indeed.  The fact that a woman may be talked out of having an abortion apparently does grievous harm to her freedom of choice.

I was fascinated today to read this article in the New York Times, in which a pregnant newspaper reporter took herself on an investigative-journalistic tour of two crisis pregnancy centers and one Planned Parenthood clinic.  She went first to one of Chris Slattery's centers, and was overwhelmed by what she freely calls the love with which she was welcomed.  She also admits that Planned Parenthood was the only one of the three places that had "a financial stake" in the choice she made vis-à-vis her (in real life, non-crisis) pregnancy. 

But most salient for me in this story were the reader comments -- or, I should say, one of the reader comments, which twisted my heart (most of the other comments were just what you might expect):

I am a pro-choice woman educated at one of the seven sisters and one of the Ivies. My point in stating this is that I am a liberal who strongly believes in the importance of privacy in this decision. I had a slightly different experience.

It was in the early nineties, I was fresh out of grad school, newly married and looking for a job in the recession of the early 1990s. I used to go to a clinic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for routine gynecologic care because I did not have health insurance. I occasionally saw people milling around saying prayers on the weekends (I lived in the area) outside the building.

Fast forward to when I found myself pregnant at 13 weeks in a crumbling relationship. I went there to ask about my options. Not once was I told about carrying the pregnancy to term. I went for an ultrasound and other than measuring the thickness of the uterine wall, the technician did not show me the fetus and as dumb as I was I honestly did not even think to ask. I think they assumed I was there for an abortion.

They told me to come in late on a weekday evening to have "something put in" to prepare for the procedure the next day
[This would have been a second-trimester abortion which requires a procedure that takes place over two days].  I was torn about doing it and when I asked the doctor questions before he put [in] the "seaweed extract," his exact words to me were, "we can sit here talking about it or we can just get it done. Do you want to do it or not? You need to make your mind up." So I went along.

It was only the next morning as I awoke with my warm cheek to the cold steel of the gurney after the procedure/abortion that I realized I was in an abortion mill. They rushed to get me off of the gurney even though I was groggy as anything to put others like me on the same gurneys while those of us who had gotten of the gurneys sat around on couches mostly with dazed looks in our eyes.

Fast forward 19 years, I have three wonderful children and a good life that I am thankful for yet I think of that fetus/baby every single day. For me this is not about politics, this is about the personal choice I made and that I have to live with every day of my life.

In my case I do think there is something to be said for the concept of post abortion depression. I am no psychologist, politician or religious person and I can only speak for myself. I really don't think this should be a political matter.
For myself I wonder if I might have made the same choice if I had the information I now think I should have asked for and received [emphasis added].

Hindsight is 20/20 and I take full responsibility for what I did all those years ago but not a day goes by that I don't think of the fetus/baby. So in response to your article about the "crisis pregnancy centers," my experience was that it went the other way as well. 

So heartbreaking.  And even more so because the writer appears to feel almost apologetic, as if she must qualify her experience as something peculiar to her:  "I had a slightly different experience  . . . For me this is not about politics . . . I can only speak for myself . . . In my case . . . dumb as I was . . .  I do think there is something [to] post abortion depression.  I am no psychologist . . . I can only speak for myself," etc.  This is hardly the language of empowered womanhood, and not exactly what one would expect from a self-proclaimed pro-choice liberal with an Ivy League graduate degree.  The pain of her choice -- a choice that was clearly coerced every step of the way, as so very many abortions are -- is only underscored by the fact that, in her circles, there are few, if any, socially-sanctioned ways to speak about the suffering and regret of abortion without facing scorn.

I pray not only for this woman's healing, but also that other readers of the article will read her comment with care, and perhaps might begin to understand that her story is not some anomaly, experienced only by women "dumb as [she] was" (what a sadly ironic self-descriptor from such a highly-educated woman).  If the New York City Council demands truth in advertising, then this woman's testimony should be included in all of Planned Parenthood's pro-abortion literature. And what a great day it will be when pro-choice women -- many if not most of whom in my experience have never had abortions themselves -- come to realize that what is good for one is good for all, and what is destructive to one woman is destructive to each and every one of us.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Birthday, Caryll Houselander

Today is the birthday of the English writer, mystic, woodworker, self-styled neurotic, and unlikely holy woman Caryll Houselander (1901-1954).  I was first introduced to her work through her slim volume The Reed of God, which I picked up somewhere third-hand in the early days of my reversion, and which, in many ways, changed my life.

Houselander was a woman after my own heart -- a revert, a misanthrope, a former bohemian, and even, for a period of her life, in love with the wrong man.  Her friend and biographer, the Catholic writer and publisher Maisie Ward, referred to her as a "divine eccentric."  She is someone I would have dearly liked to know in life, and whom I hope to know one day in heaven, and I pray for her guidance in my life, as well as for her canonization.

More here, and here, with other sources cited.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Patron of the Hopeless

Dear readers, tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Jude Thaddeus, near kinsman of Christ and patron of hopeless cases.  If you think of it, would you please pray for my family regarding a special intention of ours which we have put in his hands?  I hope later to be able to write more about it.

Thank you and God bless you.

In case you had a burning desire to know my thoughts on Halloween . . .

Elizabeth Esther expressed them better than I could.

As writer Adrian Walker has noted, "The Catholic person is truly universal: he is interested in everything and afraid of nothing,"

Monday, October 25, 2010

"All those who are His must go downwards . . . "

GretchenJoanna, a wonderful commenter on this blog, has kindly shared a link on an Orthodox site called "Grace and the Inverted Pyramid," about the theology of humility, and specifically the necessity for Christians to take "the downward path."  I found it so stirring and countercultural that I wanted to share it here.  Please read it:  it's short, and galvanizing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Book of Tears and Remembering

It's a Saturday, and I'm surprised to find myself doing what I used to do on Saturdays for years back in New York City, before I was a mother, before I had fully accepted my reversion back to the Catholic faith (and even then for a long time after), before I moved to the Bronx, a move about which a friend of mine said, "I thought people went there willingly only to die." I am sitting at the enormous sixties-era oak desk that I got for fifty bucks at the apartment sale of a divorcing Argentine woman in my old neighborhood, editing text while I listen to Jonathan Schwartz's weekly radio program on WNYC, on which I know he will play at least one song that will make me want to take to my bed in a paroxysm of tears -- probably something sung by Audra McDonald or Nancy LaMott -- and sleep until my heart is healed, a moment which, of course, will never really come.  In those days, however, most of the text I was editing was my own, and I was often longing for love, love either past or ambiguously present, and working against the feeling of shikata ga nai, the sense that everything I was doing was just to fortify my own very small world against the encroachment of despair, so I had better keep working.  And then, as now, I was constantly nagged by the feeling that I had to get up from the desk and go over to my little piano and start practicing already, because I probably had a gig or a university recital requirement right around the corner.

Back then, when I would hit the wall and not be able to read another word, I would push up from my mammoth desk and flee the apartment, letting the steel door slam behind me.  I would go out the side entrance of my pre-war apartment building and walk to Fort Tryon Park.  Now, I slink out the back door of my house and walk through my silent neighborhood, often meeting no one on the street except a young man with Down syndrome, like me an inveterate walker no matter what the weather.  Days like this, I miss everything about New York.  I miss the colors and the smells.  I miss seeing people on the street, even if I didn't want to talk to them, even if I hoped and prayed, as I did on many a day, that I wouldn't run into anyone I knew.

I know there must be a reason for my coming here, besides accompanying my husband to the place where he got a job.  When he got the job offer, he told me that if I wanted to stay in New York, he would turn it down.  But even I, with my more-than-occasionally faulty grasp of the theory of mind, knew that I couldn't hold him back from what was a step up.  Even I had a shred of humility large and sincere enough to swallow hard and accept that we would be leaving everything we knew and many of the things we loved, but that it would be willful and cruel of me to put my foot down and keep it in the city I love.

That was two years ago.  It's been a hard, lonely two years.  There have been many struggles, and few bright spots.  Sometimes it feels as if things are just getting more and more difficult, and as if none of my prayers are being answered in the way I want, not even what seemed like the inocuous-enough one for a friend.  I feel like my life is contracting, getting smaller and narrower, rather than expanding, which is of course what everyone wants to happen in their lives.

It is so hard for my prima-donna self to accept this smallness, this forced humility.  My heart aches when I think of what might be happening in my old neighborhood.  The plane trees are turning yellow and dropping their leaves to the sidewalks.  My friend N., the opera singer who lives on the other side of the building, is writing some software code for a design client.  My great friend F., who was my recital accompanist before he moved to England, is swinging his book bag full of bottles of Italian wine from Astor Wines and Spirits as he trudges with his idiosyncratic gait up the hill from the subway to his apartment, which is around the corner from mine, and from which he can see a sliver of the river and the bridge out of one window.  My beloved downstairs neighbor, Mrs. M., an Austrian refugee from World War II who died last year a month before her ninety-ninth birthday, is walking back from the hair salon, looking natty in a tweed jacket.

But all of this is long ago.  My friends are dispersed, and some are dead.  And if I remember hard enough, I will see M. on the street outside, waving to me over his shoulder as I stand in the window of our apartment, on his way downtown to work a night shift in a building that was destroyed in 9/11.  And then I will remember the day he stopped waving.

And then where will I be? At my desk in Appalachia, my heart aching, asking God that, if He's going to allow me to remember all of this, to let it be for a reason that will be helpful to someone else, even if I never know it.  As Pablo Neruda wrote, "Es tan corto el amor, y tan largo el olvido" -- love is so short, and forgetting is so long.  And now I really do have to go and practice.

Here's some music about tears and remembering on this lonely Saturday.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is Beethoven the Voice of God?

I'm being facetious, of course.  But it did cross my mind yesterday, after I woke up in the dark of early morning, and, in a bit of a panic, asked God the Father to send me a hug (I'm not usually that sentimental, but waking up in the dark really kicks the ass of my soul).  Later, I turned on the radio, to hear Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 -- again: the last time I asked God for some sort of a sign, the same thing happened, and the same music played (and I was annoyed).  So, I thought, is this it?  Is this you talking to me, God?  I would have maybe preferred the humanity of the Symphony no. 6, the Pastoral, which contains whole worlds of delight and terror and the wistfulness of nostalgia.  But the Seventh is awesome in the truest sense of the world, and this was God the Father I'd been talking to, after all.

Then, today, I was helping my son clean up the dozens of empty wooden thread spools we'd been building with (I've become obsessed with this slim series of English craft-and-early-learning books from the 1960s, Learning with Mother, which features all sorts of things you can do with wooden thread spools), and put on the radio again.  And this time, I felt as if I were not only being hugged by God the Father, but also kissed by God the Son, for it was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, op. 80.

I can't explain why I love this piece with the intense passion that I do, but to me, it is the most perfect piece of music ever.  I love the simple, anthemic theme, so redolent of human hope, which Beethoven cycles through the sections of the orchestra, treating it with grace, wit, and -- if a composer can be said to feel this way about his own tunes -- heartfelt love, before handing it over to the full orchestra, where it erupts into a swelling lyrical outburst that foreshadows his other great anthem, the "Ode to Joy."  The theme starts at 1:20, below.

And then, out of nowhere, what has been, to this point, a piano concerto becomes something else entirely, when the voices suddenly appear as if wafted down from above, singing self-referentially about the consolations of music (about 2:51 here).

I remember hearing the Choral Fantasy fortuitously on the radio one day when I was a lonely new mother, and how I shouted with joy at my newborn, "That's Beethoven!" as if he could understand. Later, when he was two, he was playing the harmonica one day, and I told him he sounded like Bob Dylan.  "Beethoven," he loftily corrected me.

Today I did something similar, feeling like a real music geek.  I could feel my face light up as I turned the volume higher and explained to my now-four-year-old that the music had been composed by Mr. Beethoven, and then pointed out, one by one, the different instrumental entrances.  I know he's going to be really embarrassed by me one day; I was embarrassed by myself.  And then, without meaning to and without any warning, when the piece was over I burst into tears.  "What's wrong, Mommy?" he said, alarmed.  "Nothing," I replied. "Just that the music is so beautiful."  "It's not beautiful," he said, trying to comfort me.

I read once long ago, in a book of essays about English literature by an early twentieth-century Indian scholar whose name, like the title, I can no longer remember, that the aim of literature is "the total eradication of sorrows and miseries."  God must have intended music to be a similar balm.

(The picture above illustrates a famous incident in the life of Beethoven.  He and Goethe were walking together one day in the Schönbrunn Palace gardens in Vienna when they met the Archduke and Archduchess.  Goethe made as if to move aside to let the imperial party pass, but Beethoven linked arms with him and made him walk on.  They marched right into the midst of the royal entourage, which humbly parted to make way for the two great artists, the true nobility of the modern age.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"More fit for gills than lungs"

How's this for a poem?

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

"The Thing Is" by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


M., who was of Japanese descent, loved the novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.  A few months after being so honored, Oe gave a talk at the City College of New York, where M. was a student.  M. brought several books for Oe to sign, which he did graciously.

On a recent library trip, I found a book by Oe on the free table.  Oe's oldest son, Hikari, was born with severe brain damage, and much of Oe's early novels are fictionalized accounts of his attempts to accept the upheaval in his life occasioned by his son's disability.  The book I found, however, is not a novel, but a memoir called A Healing Family.  I've been reading it in snatches stolen from the big copy-editing job that's taking up much of my time.  Oe, who studied European and American literature at university, writes here about William Blake (from one of whose poems Oe took the title for one of his novels, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!):

[He] evolved an utterly original version of the world in [his work,] at the heart of which were two preoccupations.  One was his engagement in the crucial historical events of his period, namely American independence and the French Revolution . . . . The other concerned his role as a seer whose visions linked him to a tradition of . . . neo-Platonism . . . . Among the shorter of [Blake's "prophetic" writings] is a strange but lovely poem called "The Book of Thel," which tells the story of an ethereal being who dwells in the valley of eternal life but wonders about her existence there and seeks to find answers to her doubts by questioning a lily, a cloud, and a worm.  Finally, having consulted a lump of clay, she manages to pass through the gate leading to the world of men, but one look at this vale of tears sends her fleeing, with a piercing shriek, back to the valley of eternal life.

I found myself recalling this poem when my elder brother developed cancer . . . In plain, precise, and convincing words [Blake] is able to capture the desolation of the land of those doomed to die and the frailty of human flesh; he makes one think of all the hosts of people, with oneself among them, passing through this world only to fall victim to disease or to the ravages of age.  My brother's cancer . . . will soon kill him.  As if unafraid of this other reality, the two of us used to laugh and sing together once; but now it is another sound we hear -- the cries of pain that mark the true condition of our lives . . .

Then, in a less despairing mood, I go on to think that maybe in a way we are like Thels who ventured down to this world but didn't go crying back to heaven; who, when they made that now-forgotten choice, perhaps told themselves to "just get on with it."  In fact, the older I get . . . the more convinced I am that my soul, in that instant when it was first marked with the stain of mortal life, turned to face its fate with the same resolve.

This passage, expressed with Oe's typical modesty and elegance, offers a relatively more optimistic version of the Japanese ethos of shikata ga nai, which, written in Japanese katakana, is the title of this post, and which means, loosely translated, "there's nothing to be done about it." This implies that, therefore, one simply has to go on.  I learned about this too from M.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 9: R.I.P. La Stupenda

I'm terribly saddened -- though it was not untimely -- by the death of the great Joan Sutherland, who did so much to revitalize Italian bel canto repertoire in the twentieth century, taking up the mantle dropped by Callas in a way completely different from that of the older (and, arguably, greater) soprano.  Dame Joan was also, by all reports, a genuinely kind person and a gracious colleague.

Enjoy this great, great live performance -- I'm guessing it's from her 1959 Lucia at La Scala, conducted by Tullio Serafin -- of "Ardon gli incensi," the second part of Lucia's mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Mercy of a Rude Stream

I will be posting relatively lightly over the next few weeks, as I'm working against deadline on a big copy-editing job for a scholarly book, as well as using my spare time to practice.

I just wanted to link here to a heartfelt post on Simcha Fisher's blog

She writes:  "The mercy of God is like a flood . . . . You can go back and salvage some of your stuff, but you won't be living in that house again."

(The title of this post is the title of a late novel by cult writer Henry Roth.  I've never read it, and it's probably not apropos, but it came into my head when I read Simcha's post.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 18: Dreams Dashed

I got a letter in the mail today -- a real one -- from my beloved friend Soprannie.  She writes of attending a production of Le nozze di Figaro, an opera in which she and I once performed together: 

I missed [some] parts because I was busy weeping silently as my husband held my hand.  Mostly in Act II, that perfect, beautiful thing.  I try to feel lucky that I got to be a part of that gorgeous music -- twice! and once with a dear friend.  Ah, we were so full of hope.  I remember [my voice teacher] saying to me, when I called her, tearful, from [an audition tour in] Germany, "You're not the first girl to get her dreams dashed". . . . It was . . . the first time I have gone to the opera without thinking, "that could be me some day . . . " Instead, I thought, "that will never be me."  

But it is OK, isn't it?  I think so.  We could have kept striving and striving and still never hit the big stage.  My friend R. [a gifted baritone] is a great reminder of that.  He's doing well -- a few small directing gigs, constant choral work (New York Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra, etc.), occasional step-out [solos] with ASO, a few opera gigs at regional houses around the country . . . but at 45 he is still couch-surfing, single, and hoping for a B-house gig.  I don't envy him.  Usually.  Mostly.

Soprannie is one of the best musicians I know.  In some way, I think I immunized myself against the depth of her present grief, having preempted it by leaving opera, focusing on the rare recital repertoire that became my specialty, and getting my doctorate in voice performance.  Sometimes I think those were all dodges, ways to avoid a fate that is shared by the vast majority of singers who graduate from conservatories and voice programs at American universities each spring.  There are thousands of them, young singers who are talented, well-trained, and hungry, and I estimate that there are currently only around a hundred or so American singers making a living as soloists in opera.  About ten or fifteen of them are famous; the rest you'll never hear of, but they're working.

A couple of years ago my comboxes played host to a rather vicious woman who saw to it to remind me that the arts were for "those who have talent," myself, presumably, not included among them (this same commenter urged Dawn Eden to drop me from her blogroll after interpreting an emoticon I had used in my own combox as proof of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  If I were made of tougher stuff, I would tell you truthfully that this didn't make me cry for months, or send me to the confessional about seven times just to make sure I hadn't somehow unintentionally committed such blasphemy, but this was not the case).  I can only assume that this reader, who is perhaps by now plying her own talents elsewhere, didn't know many classical musicians personally.  In the layman's world, is there really the idea anymore that if you're good, you make it, and if you don't, that's proof of your lack of goodness?  The professional and academic classical music world is the world in which I've been brewed, steeped, and simmered for almost my entire life.  My friends -- singers, conductors, instrumental soloists, orchestral players -- are not getting work, and in case there was any doubt, many of them are musicians of the highest level.  I subbed on a couple of church gigs on Long Island, for instance, with one of the best conductors I've ever worked with.  Another friend, a cellist who was acclaimed for his performances of new music and played a few gigs with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, was shunned by other classical musicians when he started subbing in the pits on Broadway shows after his children were born; a few years later, the scorners were approaching him, hat in hand, to ask how they, too, could get sub work on Broadway.  A kick-ass oboist I know is working for a bank; a truly great pianist moved to Vermont in order to place his autistic son in a better school, and did financial consulting work from home when he could get it, mostly borrowing, as he told me, from "the bank of Mom and Dad."  I know of at least one marriage that has ended as the result of there being simply no work in classical music.  This is bitter indeed for "those who have talent," and who have spent their entire lives learning to speak the language of beauty in order to share it with others, to help others to wash, as Picasso put it, the dust of the everyday from their souls.

Little girls who sing with preternatural vocal (but not musical) maturity on national television will work, in the sense of getting Vegas acts with lots of costume changes and making lots of money.  But they will miss the chance they might have had to enter into the enchanted realms of art, of beauty, of poetry, of music.  It's a pity that the world values classical music so little, and values classical musicians even less; every true musician I've ever known has wanted only to share their joy in that "holde Kunst," as Schubert and the poet von Schober put it -- that wondrous art that transports the hearts of the suffering in their darkest hours to joy, to companionship, to the knowledge that God exists and that they are not alone.