Saturday, December 31, 2011

Advent Novena 2011 Wrap-Up

In addition to my own intentions, and those of my family and the friends known to me in person, I prayed for the desires of the following blog-friends and -readers during the November 30 - December 24 Advent Novena:

- Kimberlie of Welcome to the Dumpling House
- Mrs. C (who is also by now a dear friend in real life as well)
- The Ranter and her husband
- Ex-New Yorker
- Ex-New Yorker's friend Dawn
- Nayhee
- Tubbs
- JMB and her family

I have heard from two of these friends that their intentions have been granted favorably. If you have had your Advent Novena prayers fulfilled (and if you feel comfortable doing so) please share your experience in the comments box. It has been a privilege to pray for you all; praying for your intentions has been a gift to my own heart. I wish a very beautiful new year to all.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Wrap-Up

Christmas was greatly anticipated in my childhood home. My mother could cook and bake like you couldn't believe, and preparations went on for days and weeks prior to the day. Then after the inevitably un-pretty release of all that tension and expectation -- someone would always be in tears by mid-morning -- we would pile into the car and drive around to look at the impressive displays of Christmas lights put out by our same-ethnicity fellow citizens to gladden the hearts of all.

In contrast, I have tried to keep Christmas relatively simple. I don't cook and bake like a mofo, though my siblings do (my sister rivals my mother's astonishing ability at this sort of thing, while I am merely competent). Christmas lasts for twelve days, after all, or until February 2, if you stick to the old calendar. My son gets one "present" present and some books and candy in his stocking. Here is how we did it this year:

The main course:
- A ten-pound kosher turkey purchased for $4 after Thanksgiving at the local ghetto supermarket, where there can't possibly be much, if any, of a market for that sort of thing, stuffed with bacon-celery-apple-sage dressing, which sort of misses the point, I guess.

The dessert:
- Clementine cake, the easy dessert so good it makes you cry.

The presents:
- A discontinued Playmobil castle wished for over the course of several months and gotten on Ebay. This is a good strategy if you are Playmobil-assembly-averse, as I am, since most of the heavy lifting -- like the attaching of all those infernal little connecter pieces -- was done for you long ago by another parent.

- Out-of-print children's books about Sir Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition and the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, and The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which is set in my erstwhile 'hood.

The playlist:
- Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices: Carols from the Old and New Worlds (this is my favorite)
- The Americas Vocal Ensemble: A Hispanic Christmas Celebration
- Chanticleer: Our Heart's Joy: A Chanticleer Christmas
- Saint-Saëns: Christmas Oratorio (a beautiful but little-known piece; I had never heard it myself before getting a gig as the alto soloist a few years ago. The bass on the gig, who was black, told me that it's often performed in Catholic Churches in Harlem on Christmas Eve)
- Assorted Celtic-Traditional artists: Comfort and Joy
- Anonymous 4: Wolcum Yule
- Singing carols in the living room around the piano, the accordion (my husband plays), and the autoharp.

Those of you who revere Bach (which ought to be every one of us) should also know about the yearly broadcast of his complete recorded oeuvre, played nonstop on Columbia University's radio station, WSKG, from December 22 until December 31 each year. It's fantastic.

We miss little Jude today, and wish he were already here.

A blessed and joyful Christmas to all. And a word to the wise: if you're going to post status updates that include your opinion about female reproductive organs (referred to using a schoolyard expletive) on a day that you refer to as "Newton's birthday," I am going to unfriend your ass.

Poem: B.C.:A.D.

Go to Maria Horvath's blog to read an amazing Christmas poem. Happy feast day to all!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Spiritual Lullaby

This is the second of Brahms's two alto-viola songs, op. 91, the "Geistliches Wiegenlied." Brahms uses the German Christmas song "Joseph lieber, Joseph mein" as the melodic theme in the viola. My favorite composer, my favorite instrument (yes, the viola! let the jokes begin), and my favorite singer of all time, Dame Janet Baker, a.k.a. the only mezzo. Merry Christmas to all, and much love to all of the wonderful friends I've met through this blog. May God bless everyone who reads this and all whom you love. 

You who float
About these palm trees
In the wind at night,
You holy angels,
Hush the treetops!
My child is asleep.

You palms of Bethlehem,
In the rushing wind
How can you today
Swish so angrily?
O do not rustle like that!
Be quiet, lean
Down softly and gently;
Hush your treetops!
My child is asleep.

The heavenly boy
Has to endure hardship;
Ah! How weary he was
With the sorrow of earth.
Ah, now in sleep he
Is gently consoled,
His pain dissolves.
Hush those treetops.
My child is asleep.

Grim cold
Blows upon us;
With what shall I cover
The baby's limbs?
O all you angels
Who on your wings
Wander in the wind,
Hush the treetops!
My child is asleep.

(poem by Emmanuel von Geibel, after Lope de Vega; translated by William Mann.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Quick Takes: Advent Theology for Tykes and Regular Grown-up Ingrates

1. I frequently read on other people's blogs about the great love of God and near-mystical grasp of holy truths expressed by their young children. Lest I believe these qualities to be inherent in children, or somehow conveyed by the solid faith of their virtuous parents, I have my own son. He used to have a mini-devotion to John the Baptist, which sprang to life when he learned of the method of the saint's death, and every supper until the start of Advent he would close out grace with the plea: "Saint John the Baptist, pray for us forever." That appeal has now been replaced by "Santa, pray for us forever." I tried to unpack this one, only narrowly avoiding the argument that we can't ask Santa to pray for us because he's not real. Instead, I feebly remarked that we can't really ask Santa to pray for us because, well, he's not dead. My son acknowledged this, though not as any sort of preventative to Santa's prayers; "Santa never dies," he noted.

2. We still don't have our Christmas tree; we're always last-minute about it, a holdover from being broke in New York, where you can get a big, gorgeous tree on Christmas Eve for small change, because the very handsome Canadian tree-sellers who set up shop on every street corner in the city on the day after Thanksgiving are packing up and heading home. I did, however, set out a creche that I got at a garage sale last year for a dollar (it includes the swooning pasha above, who I don't think was original to the set, but I thought could stand in for one of the wise kings -- or maybe not), but my son immediately used it to enact a battle scene in which Baby Jesus killed everyone.

3. His kindergarten teachers invited me to come and read the wonderful Tomie DePaola book The Clown of God to his class. I suppose I overprepared a little, making a chart of the Italian words in the story (Really Rosie phoned me in the middle of this, and asked if I was planning to give an exam too) and discussing pictorial symbolism with the wee ones, but it was a hit nonetheless. Yes, this happened in public school (the teachers are required to teach about other holiday traditions too; my son announced the other day that he celebrates Kwanzaa).

4. My son has told me that he doesn't like speaking English; he prefers to speak Italian and Chinese. Admittedly, he knows a few words in each language, mostly curse words in the former (though not their meaning) and polite expressions in the latter, which he's learning in school. We say a decade of the rosary together each night as a family, so sometimes, to mix it up a little, I'll say a Hail Mary in Italian.  My son can actually say all the prayers in Irish Gaelic, and he does. Then we mention our intentions. His are usually along the lines of "That [his friend] will stop saying 'poop,'" or that another friend "will stop calling me 'poop-man.'" But most often, he says, "Thank you for my good day."

5. It's that time of the year -- it always is, isn't it? -- when I question God assiduously as to why He took me from a life I knew and loved and to which I felt profoundly connected and put me in this backwater. But it helps to remember that the Savior of the world was born in one place, and raised in another, whose backwaterness probably rivaled this one's.

Poem: December

I hope I'm not violating anyone's copyright by posting this poem here. I found it stunning.


A little girl is singing for the faithful to come ye
Joyful and triumphant, a song she loves,
And also the partridge in a pear tree
And the golden rings and the turtle doves.
In the dark streets, red lights and green and blue
Where the faithful live, some joyful, some troubled,
Enduring the cold and also the flu,
Taking the garbage out and keeping the sidewalk shoveled.
Not much triumph going on here—and yet
There is much we do not understand.
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand.
           Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
           And are there angels hovering overhead? Hark.

-- Gary Johnson

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saint Joseph, Adoptive Father

[The] Nativity story is also a story of adoption. A strong man heard the call of a God to take into his heart and home a baby that was not his biological child. Against the raised eyebrows of those around him, but because he dearly loved his wife and the God they served, he traveled a great distance. He wasn't sure what he'd find there; to say that the accommodations were less than what he was used to is to understate the case. And then, almost immediately, it was his job to rescue the baby, to save him from grave danger.

Once they were safely at home, he raised the child as his own. He shared the faith of his fathers; he taught him the family trade. Certainly, there were challenges in this family that related to the adoption. This child, at 12, left his foster father for three days to return to the home of his real Father. How many children of adoption have experienced that same restlessness and caused the parents who have rescued them the grief that Mary and Joseph felt while they searched for their child?

St. Joseph was faithful. Perhaps he recognized that we are all children of adoption. We are all broken, disenfranchised, wounded and in grave danger. . . . 

There are literally millions of children in this world who need rescuing. We are called in James 1:27 to care for the widows and the orphans. What does that mean exactly? Do we toss a few coins in the poor box or wrap an extra gift at Christmastime or do we take a risk? Are there brave men out there after the heart of St. Joseph who will travel great distances to difficult places to rescue a baby and give it a home all because it's the will of God? It is the will of God.

 -- From an old-ish blog post by Elizabeth Foss. Do read it all; it's excellent.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent, Loss, and Childhood Utopia

This Advent is a significant time of darkness for me because of my mother's sickening decline. Alex Haley noted that "every death is like the burning of a library," and it is absolutely true in the case of my once beautiful and vibrant mother, whom I have always, in my heart of hearts, somewhat superstitiously believed knew everything.

She still knows everything, but I can't ask her, and she can't tell me, because, though her fearsome intellectual capacity is undiminished, she is quickly losing her ability to speak.

I have found myself waxing painfully nostalgic for my 1970s childhood, which seems so much more idyllic to me than it really was in the desperate retrospect of impending loss.  In the past few months, I have compulsively begun collecting the now-out-of-print books my mother used to teach us and do arts and crafts with us: this, for example, and this, and this.  When I linger on the simple line drawings and black-and-white photographs in these books, a whole world comes rushing back to me: not just the world of my childhood, but the world of my mother's young adulthood -- a hopeful world, in which both children and their parents really believed that we could call down upon earth the New Jerusalem, and that we could do it through our quotidian work. When I think back to that childhood, why does it seem as if the sun was always shining?

I wish I could ask my mother how to do it now -- how to do life. How did she teach me, my brothers, and my sister -- as she did -- to love beauty, and then set us free to go and spend our lives striving to create it, to reveal it? (I am calling it a "setting free," but others might think of it as a wildly impractical neglect to help us out with a Plan B.) How did she accept the deprioritizing, the putting second or third or last, of her own impressive powers of creativity?  I continue to struggle with my tangled-up vocation, and I wish my mother could help me. I go to see her every month, but I have not been good with phone calls, because it's virtually impossible to talk with her on the phone; I'm told I'm the only one who can understand her on the phone, but I think my abilities have been exaggerated.  And yet I have heard it said over and over again that you have to talk to your parents while they're still alive, or rue it later.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Love and Evil

Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.
-- Vaclav Havel

A few years ago, this blog sparked the interest of several self-styled Catholic-internet heresy-hunters. In this it was hardly special or unique, but I wasn't prepared for their attacks. My blog didn't seem like the usual target for this type, since I generally don't address controversial issues, or at least not -- or so I'd like to believe -- from a polarizing position. Nonetheless, I got vitriolic hate mail in the comboxes. Women (at least they claimed to be women) who assured me that they themselves could never, ever have fallen into the serious sin that I had, nonetheless informed me that my blog was a destructive example to other post-abortive women, since it wasn't the cheeriest thing out there. Another apparently-female armchair theologian emailed my real-life close friend Dawn Eden to advise her to drop my blog from her own blogroll, because of her (the reader's) interpretation of an emoticon I'd used in a combox response. I was rattled by this, and no less so when a guy I had dated, a fairly prominent Catholic journalist, piled on in private, emailing me to let me know that I had "more in common with the Gadarene horde" than with the Magdalene (oh, I forgot to mention that one comboxer -- if I'm recalling correctly, I think it was the one who contacted Dawn Eden -- accused me of styling myself a "new Magdalene" based on my email address, which was a reference to a novel by that title which I used in my doctoral research . . . you see how Talmudic things were getting), criticizing me for my artistic "unsuccess," and attacking virtually every member of my family. (This fellow had once asked me to marry him, though he may have been drunk at the time. I was so very glad that I had at least had the foresight to say no.)

I have always had very detailed dreams, and those dreams, as dreams invariably are, have often been extremely fantastical. Except in very rare circumstances, I don't believe that dreams are prophetic, or that they're often even in any way a reflection of reality. Occasionally, though, an image from a dream will stay with me throughout the following day, and, when I turn it over and over in my mind, it will start to seem like a comment on something that exists in waking life. I had a dream like this last night. Without going into all the arcane and byzantine details, the main image in this dream showed something that I believe is true in reality: that evil is seductive, that it cloaks itself in the trappings of the beautiful and the good. Hardly a new idea there, but one that we all need to remember, particularly those among us who believe that we could never, ever be in commission of serious sin.

If you yourself have never, ever been in commission of such a sin -- oh, how fortunate you are! How grateful you must be to God for keeping you free from evil and participation in it -- because you must know that it is only His grace that has kept you free from these things, and not your own merits. And remember that, as He told Saint Faustina, the most egregious sinners have the most right to His mercy. And that He did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. And that tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before the self-styled righteous.  And that He had a huge party for the repentant one, and that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine virtuous men. And so on.

I have no right to admonish anyone, clearly. But who does? Probably not the proudly orthodox Catholics who troll the internet looking for other believers to mock, blame, and criticize, nor the Catholic "apologists" who skate on the outer edges of preaching righteous hatred against those whom we are commanded to love -- including their co-religionists! -- or those virtuous ones who recoil at the sinner, even where he is repentant, and conveniently forget that, as Christians, we are required to aid in the reform and rehabilitation of even those sinners who are most personally repugnant to us.

I've been thinking about these things since getting a call from Sister M. of the Sisters of Life about a poor young mother in desperate need of help, and also since reading a coincident combox discussion at Vox Nova, in which several of the loudest voices appeared to assert that it's justified to criticize pro-lifers, because pro-lifers tend not to regard post-abortive women (men are never mentioned in these discussions) in quite as blameworthy a light as logic dictates (um, I can assure you that these "anti-pro-lifers" are, in many cases, wrong to assume a lack of blame). The prevailing criticism against the pro-life movement is that many of its adherents also (and illogically) support policies that are punitive to poor single mothers who choose life; in other words, that once the baby is born, tough luck. Sadly, there is some truth to this. A., the young mother for whom Sister M. is trying to enlist help, is one of the most forgotten and despised among us, a poor, young, uneducated single mother of color living in an urban shelter. There is no good excuse for any of us, pro-life or not, to allow women and children to be as ignored and forgotten as she is, and those of us who are pro-life have a responsibility, whatever our political beliefs, to help her and the hundreds of thousands of others like her.

On the other hand, the tortured casuistry with which the Vox Nova commenters strove to make their point is just an exercise in intellectual pride, an excuse for a lack of action, a lack of charity, and a lack of true love. One commenter used Guttmacher Institute statistics to demonstrate that women don't choose abortion out of desperation, but he defined desperation as economic adversity, rather than, more accurately, as the kind of abysmal loneliness, the profound sense of failure, rejection, and unloveableness, out of which so much evil is born into the world, and which is the real reason for most abortions, and also the reason for most unwanted pregnancy in the first place.

Let us remember, as Advent draws to a close, that our enemy is our intellectual better. He knows how to use our tendencies and proclivities to induce us to acts of pettiness, vanity, selfishness, and unkindness, which only serve to snowball into more and more serious sin. He knows how to make what is ugly appear to be beautiful, and how to make what is evil appear to be the highest good, and thereby to tempt even the righteous to it. The only remedy for evil, and for the misery of sin, is true love.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sister to the Stranger

I'm not the only ex-New Yorker in my new home town.  In my peregrinations on foot and by bus, I have discovered that there is a small contingent of poor single mothers from the outer boroughs of New York City who have migrated here, some two hundred miles away, in the hopes of a better life.

The other day I got a phone call from one of the Sisters of Life. She was working with -- or "walking with," as the Sisters say about their ministry -- a young unwed mother of two toddlers who was very down on her luck. The family was staying in a shelter, but their eligibility was about to expire. The mother, A., had a tenuous connection to my new home town. Would it be a good idea, Sister M. wondered, if A. relocated here?

This is a complicated question, and I tried to give Sister as clear a picture as I could of what things might be like here for A. and her children, but it's really anyone's guess. The poor single mothers who move here are largely welfare-dependent, as is A., and it might seem, on the face of things, as if moving here would be a step up for anyone trying to get by on the very little money offered by welfare; the cost of living here is very low, especially if you're coming from New York.  But that's not necessarily how it plays out. People are able to get by on welfare in New York because everyone has a hustle.  There are all kinds of shadow economies there, and women on welfare work in all kinds of sub-rosa ways; without another income stream, welfare recipients in New York would simply be ground-down destitute -- and some are, but those are mainly the ones who cannot work because of disabilities -- because things are so expensive. But here, there are virtually no jobs. What would happen to a young single mother, barely out of her teens, with no high school diploma, and no car in a part of the country where public transportation is spotty at best? How and where would she find work? How would she get to work? How would she pull herself and her children out of poverty?

I've heard that the administration of social services is quite generous here, which is not the case in New York, where it generally takes four appointments and hours of waiting for each one to qualify even for emergency food stamps. I surmised to Sister M. that A. would probably qualify for a variety of benefits, including a housing allowance.  But this is still a city, in spite of its tiny population, and even though I can find myself in the middle of ramshackle farming country by driving five miles, there are also dangerous neighborhoods closer by. These neighborhoods are where the poor single mothers live.  The social problems of the big city exist here in microcosm, especially when bad relationships can't quite be sundered, and boyfriends follow the single mothers here; there is even a brisk drug trade, with supplies being muled in from New York City.

 I have heard, too, that sixty percent of the county budget goes to social services, and that, because of declining population, this little city has in fact been actively recruiting poor single mothers from New York for relocation here.  I'm not sure this is a good basis for urban planning, especially for a place already so economically devitalized. Our downtown could be beautiful -- apparently it once was -- but now, half the shopfronts are vacant. This is not only because of the proliferation of suburban strip malls, but also because people are afraid to shop downtown; it's where the poor single mothers live and where the sketchy-looking men hang out on the corners with pit bulls. I do go downtown every week to make the rounds of library, independent coffee-roaster that does most of its business through mail-order, and, occasionally, crazy department store with falling-down ceiling tiles where everything is always on sale, but I'm one of the very few. And now that I'm a homeowner, I have other feelings of shadowy discomfort about the whole notion.

But I look around here, and I see such crushing loneliness: the loneliness of the single mothers, the absolute heart-emptiness that leads them to so carelessly disregard their lives and the lives of their children. As a post-abortive woman, as someone who sought so desperately for love in self-destructive ways, I am intimately familiar with this loneliness. It concerns me deeply, and I don't know how to help.

A. chose life. She needs help. She's desperate to leave her old life behind, and she's getting kicked out of the shelter on January 1st. I told Sister M. that she should definitely come up and look around before making a decision, but that may not be possible, since she can't afford the bus fare. I told my husband the whole story, and, after rolling his eyes and mouthing some conservative platitudes, he said we should wire her some money. If she comes for a look-see, I will meet her, and try to take her and her children around and be helpful.

As a final note, could you please add A. to your prayers?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Who Are You Waiting For?

This is a great post for those who are considering adoption, and also for anyone through whose mind the thought of adoption might have flashed for even just a nanosecond.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Random Thoughts Particular to the Day

1. I am wondering, today, about the reasons for the apparent overlap between the grooming and sartorial choices of hippies and those of practitioners of early music. I am not naming names, but if you're curious, take a look at some Google images of actual early music players. And, lest you think that my musings are based solely upon the internet, let me assure you that it was ever so in conservatory, too. I wonder if it's because there's a back-to-the-land ethos about early musicians, which one can expect to go hand-in-hand with the delving into a past that's dead and gone, on the part of musician-scholars who spend their time plumbing old archives and playing models of excessively antique instruments that have long since fallen into disuse.

2. I am thinking, today, that there's one thing I really don't miss about Christmas in New York, and it is the unstoppable proliferation of panettone (above) in everyone's life. I really hate the stuff, and everyone brings it over when they make holiday visits. I used to be inundated with it at Christmastime, especially when I cantored at a church down in Little Italy. I often had five or six unopened boxes of panettone in my kitchen after Christmas, getting progressively even drier in my overheated apartment than the stuff is naturally. I hate to waste food, so I would spend several weeks after Christmas toasting slices of panettone in the morning for my miserable breakfast. If you want to try something Italian for Christmas that's good, go for panforte instead.

3. On the other hand, I have discovered something really good: gummy army men. Each is about two inches long, and they're molded into various poses just like little plastic soldiers: standing to hurl a grenade, lying prone and firing bazookas, etc. They're all green, naturally, and taste like sour apple. Saint Nicholas left a few in my son's shoes last night, along with a profusion of Swedish Fish, which I think is the best candy in the world.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


The other day I took my son to the local history museum. We wandered around for a while, and then, drawn by the sounds of some really lovely harp-and-whistle music, found our way into a large, empty room, where middle-aged couples were weaving through and around each other with bashful good cheer and not a little gracelessness while one of their number called out moves. This, as I learned from a handout, was English Country Dancing. I have to admit, wretched music nerd and, let's face it, frightful snob that I am, to being reminded of a famous eighteenth-century review of an appearance of the great castrato Farinelli in London:

Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe ! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear ! But, Heavens ! What Clumsiness ! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.

But the women were gorgeously dressed -- not in period costume, but in shimmering, jewel-colored tea-length skirts; I wanted what they were wearing -- and everyone seemed to be having a blast. It occurred to me that in the past, my heart would have been wrenched with sympathy for these dancing folk, and that I would have seen the invisible patterns left in the air through which they moved and the beautiful dresses on the fading ladies as a metaphor for the fleetingness of life, a "Now the leaves are falling fast" kind of moment. But the other day, I really just thought it was nice and that it looked like fun.

I had a college friend who roomed with me briefly in Brooklyn one summer, in a neighborhood that was on the verge of gentrification. We used to walk down to what may have been one of the last Italian fruit-and-vegetable markets left in the five boroughs, where the owner's wife in her black dress would choose for you from the piles of string beans and eggplants that you pointed at, while her husband would tot up what you owed in pencil on the back of a paper bag. My friend, a philosophy major who was in love with the young rising-star philosopher on the teaching staff (who I believe later actually married another one of his students), would sigh and say, "I love living the unmediated life."

I wonder whether it's actually possible to live a life unmediated by our own philosophies, our own aesthetic codes, our own expectations, and, perhaps most compelling of all, our own pasts. Sometimes I think we construct our entire lives out of nostalgia, even if it's nostalgia for a place we have never been and to which we will never go.

(On that note, I read a novel recently which I loved, All Shall Be Well, And All Shall Be Well, And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well [the title taken from Blessed Julian of Norwich's famous locutions]. It's a sort of black comedy about a medieval re-enactor from upstate New York who goes to Europe, ostensibly on a Hildegard von Bingen pilgrimage, to try to repair his own past. Some of you might like it.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

True Friendship

For those wondering about our adoption, we are currently waiting for travel approval from China, which, according to our best estimates, should grant my husband permission to travel to collect Jude in January or early February. Even if there were anyone to leave my older son with -- a grandparent who wasn't disabled, say, or overwhelmed by the care of a disabled spouse, or a local friend who would open her home to him for two weeks and help him to continue his daily routine with a minimum of disruption -- that sort of separation from me would be devastating for him. This is a child who falls apart if I'm gone for a day. When the weather was warmer, I used to try to get out of the house to take a walk by myself every evening, and, as I walked away, I would hear him screaming in his father's arms all the way up the street (he would command me to "walk in a circle," i.e., around the block, and not to cross any streets, reminding me of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherbee George Dupree's advice to his mother to "never go down to the end of the town,/ if you don't go down with me").  But my husband won't be alone in China. A dear, dear friend whom I met through the offices of this blog (and who insists upon remaining anonymous) has offered to meet him there to help him with Jude, and to bring them both back.

As far as that close local friend goes, she doesn't exist. Friendships here -- or perhaps just my own -- seem to be relationships of convenience and utilitarianism. There is not that soulmate thing that I have with my New York friends and with some of my friends met online. Sometimes I think that life in my new locale would be pretty good if there were such a friend nearby, someone who would pop over now and then and have a cup of tea -- or does that only happen in big cities? -- and with whom I could talk about the things that are really important to me. But then I wonder if I'm idealizing friendship the way that some Theology-of-the-Body-types seem to idealize marriage.

So my crushing loneliness is situational. The gift that I have of superlative friendship -- friendships like that with my anonymous China-traveling friend, or with Mrs. C, Jude's godmother -- is precious indeed, even if these friends are not near, just as the sun is still shining on even the bleakest and cloudiest days, and just as God is always near, even when His presence seems devastatingly imperceptible.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Madness of Love

Maria Horvath's Poem A Day is one of my absolute favorite blogs.  Maria is a master editor who chooses the poetry and images she publishes with a deep understanding and sensitivity of spirit, and who writes insightful commentary at the introduction of each post. I am mooching the wonderful poem she posted today, by the thirteenth-century mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp; it really took my breath away, and reminded me of Rabindranath Tagore's line "Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger," which has deep personal meaning for me.

The madness of love
Is a blessed fate;
And if we understood this
We would seek no other;
It brings into unity
What was divided,
And this is the truth:
Bitterness it makes sweet,
It makes the stranger a neighbor,
And what was lowly it raises on high. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent Novena 2011

Dear all, I will be praying the Advent Novena again this year, and I will gladly add your intentions to my already-scheduled ones.

If you have special intentions you would like to tack onto the list, please post them in the combox, and I will pray for them.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 25: Every Gig Counts

On the last day of classes at the end of the fall semester a few years ago, at the large urban university where I taught a writing class for music majors, I picked up several dozen doughnuts and a couple of gallons of coffee at Dunkin Donuts before getting on the subway to go teach.  I had a lot of jazz players in my class that term, and, when they fell upon the treats like a horde of locusts as soon as I'd set them out, I reminded them half-jokingly that it was probably more than they usually made on a gig. The truth is that it's harder to make a living as a jazz musician in New York than it is even as a classical musician.  As in the classical world, there's a glut of players and a dearth of jobs, but the prevalence of brunch spots and tony cocktail parties depresses wages for jazz players to a degree that few opera singers ever experience, owing to the virtual non-existence of comparable gigs in the opera field. So opera singers have desk jobs, and legendary jazz players take home two hundred bucks on a club date, while their lesser-known colleagues compete with Manhattan School of Music students for the $25-or-so-per-man that a brunch gig pays.

Still, in the classical world, you could always tell which of your colleagues was going to be an unusually good, and possibly even a successful, artist by the way she comported herself when even on the crappiest of gigs. The soprano singing a concert of opera arias in the church basement with a pickup orchestra of her friends from conservatory conducted by her boyfriend, who nonetheless wore her most beautiful diva gown, got her hair done, held her head high, and smiled dazzlingly at the audience at her entrances and exits, was the one who was going places. She treated herself, her motley audience, and the very essence of the singing profession, insofar as it was visible in that church-basement gig, with the respect commanded by the Western classical music tradition as one of the most beautiful possible reflections of God's divine nature and His desire that His creatures should live life more abundantly.

Even if it weren't for their gig at the Carlyle Hotel and Joe Nocera's rave in the New York Times, this couple is going places. Nocera's essay is certainly unusual for an op-ed piece, the sort of thing that is generally attributable to a slow news day, a personal connection to the subjects, or some combination thereof. Still, good on them. I don't know them or their playing, but they must be excellent. And their work history is very much like that of thousands of other musicians in New York, with the exception of their eventual, hard-won success.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When We Remembered Zion

I have been thinking about New York lately. I was standing on the asphalt at the playground on a recent sunny day when I saw the silver-lit arc in the sky made by a flock of pigeons in synchronized flight with the sun glancing off their wings: a beautiful sight, one frequently seen in the New York of my youth, and an image that is, for me, a sort of personal leitmotif. I've had bizarre dreams about the city lately, too, geographically incorrect dreams in which the Hudson River runs right through the center of it, separating East from West, and I have a gig singing Piaf songs in a neglected hole-in-the-wall café, and the denizens of Zuccotti Park storm the bastions of Park Avenue. I've thought a lot lately about my family, friends, and semblables still living there (their numbers are smaller now than they once were), and have contrasted their lives with my own (right now it seems there's nothing but contrast). I think of the holiday season in the city, and the happy-inducing sight of streets thronged with life. I know there are people in this world who prefer to live in the country and never see another living soul, but I can't quite believe it somehow.

I wonder how many marriages and other relationships, if taken out of New York, would fail. My unscientific guess is quite a few. The city is itself a massive safety valve; no matter how cramped your quarters, you can leave them at any time and actually go somewhere else and still return home in ten minutes. The teeming, rushing life all around buoys the spirits; aesthetic pleasures of all kinds abound. One can have myriads of secret lives there -- I don't mean affairs or other insidious secrets, but, rather, tiny, mundane ones:  favorite places, favorite trees on favorite streets, favorite cups of coffee at favorite diners.  It seems to me that in small towns, or in the suburbs, one has fewer means of release, fewer tiny secrets to maintain, and one is therefore much more exposed.  I'm not sure whether total exposure to the other is ultimately good for relationships, but I'm far from an expert on these things.

I started reading this article, but it seemed like every other paean to the city by a young transplant that I've ever read, and I got bored and stopped. I did like this quote, though:

Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, expresses a frequent complaint: "Newcomers to New York want backyards, bicycles, and barbecues. They want Greenwich Village to be like their hometowns in Wisconsin," he says. "Underneath this—and not very far underneath—there's a seething hatred of urban life. They don't like the dirt or the smells. They don't like the kvetching and the neuroticism. They don't like the layers of history. They want to tear it all down and make it clean and new."

And some of the comments are interesting, like this one [all sic]:

Anyone who calls themselves a New Yorker that was not born here is not a New Yorker in mind and thus we are left with the high-line, cup cakes etc and yes Wisconsin. I have been here for 35 yrs. and still a hick from the Midwest but I hated the mid west and do love NY but it is so hard to see now. New York City just seems to exit in photos and it is not in Brooklyn either but perhaps in Queens were no trend loving person would dare go to without the ok from fill in the blanks...of bourgeoisie papers or blog. I lived in the days of the Robert Christgau and Sylvia Plachy and the art for art sake of a seemly bygone era. Now it is just to much like all the other crap cities it is a cartoon version of some city has little substance to back it up.

(The High Line is a new park built on the old elevated freight rail lines on the far West Side of Manhattan.)

All in all, I suppose that everyone who loves New York is a nostalgist. If I moved back, it would be to a different city than the one that is branded not only upon my memory, but also, so it feels, upon the molecular structure of my being.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

After the Airport

I followed a God into this story who heals and redeems, who restores wasted years and mends broken places. This God specializes in the Destroyed. I've seen it. I've been a part of it. . . . He sticks with us long after it is convenient or interesting.

. . . .  Oh let us be a community who loves each other well. Because someone is always struggling through the "after the airport" phase.

Amazing post by an adoptive mother about parenting traumatized children.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

For Brahms-Lovers Only

All one or two of you, follow this link to hear the last two movements of the Op. 25 Piano Quartet in G minor played by the superstar ensemble Opus One. I heard the performance on the radio this morning, and was absolutely astonished by it.  This is a piece I know and love, and I've never heard it played with this kind of organic blossoming of tempi and complete integrity among all the voices.  It sounds as if they're composing as they go -- incredibly exciting.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Now You Know What Purgatory is For

My friend Tertium Quid does not blog regularly. But when he does, you can be sure that what he writes will hit hard and cut deep. May Jesus Christ have mercy on us all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crime and Communion

Speaking of old stomping grounds, my favorite crossing-guard is a black woman who hails from my old neck of the woods. She was born and raised in Yonkers, and later lived in Newburgh in upstate New York, a very tough town which, from what I gather, was the site of her near-total destruction from drug addiction. She got clean, found God, and moved here years ago to start a new life. In addition to being a well-loved school crossing-guard, she has a night job as the female warden at the county jail, and occasionally as we stand at the corner chatting after school drop-off she tells me about the women who are brought to jail in the middle of the night and their crimes (which are mainly robberies and drug offenses). She has a bad hip and a shunt in her heart, but she says she'll be standing on the corner with her stop sign in her hand as long as she "can still hop along."

Though I don't remember it all that well, I'm told that I was almost barred from receiving my first Holy Communion, so poorly did I acquit myself in the pre-sacrament interview with the priest. I apparently didn't know any of the answers to the catechetical questions. And yet I loved CCD, and I especially loved my First Communion prep class teacher, Mrs. B. I used to stay after class to help her clean the classroom. I remember being very excited the day that she took us into the church and showed us how to bless ourselves with holy water, and I wondered, as I erased the blackboard after class, if the proximity to the blackboard of my hand dipped in holy water would somehow bless it and all the words that would be written upon it in times to come.

Mrs. B. had ten children, and, though I didn't know this at the time, she was married to a bookie. Evidently there were as many telephone lines in her apartment as there were children, and her husband was in and out of jail. I found this out only recently, when my father mentioned seeing his name in the paper now and then on the occasions of his arrests.

I had occasion this fall to attend Mass at the parish in which I grew up, and, when I went up to receive Communion, there was Mrs. B., proffering the Most Precious Blood. I couldn't help smiling broadly when I saw her. It seemed truly good and right that we were both there together.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guerilla Librarianship

I love books so much that sometimes this love feels dangerous. I get a rush whenever I enter a library, especially an academic library. I often have twenty or thirty books checked out at a time, which is where it threatens to become a sickness.  If I run across a reference somewhere to a book that seems like something I'd want -- I'd need -- to read, I immediately request it at the library; there's a sense of urgency, of immediacy, there, the fear that, if I let time pass -- the amount of time, for instance, that it would take to read the books I've already checked out -- I will forget that very important book, that new reference, and never request it, and, hence, never read it. And then there are the six full bookcases I own, pared down by a couple of bookcases over the course of several moves, and the books piled high on my desk, research materials for my book project (on a topic in academic musicology).  And an overflowing basket of finds I've gleaned from BookMooch, and my finds from thrift stores, yard sales, and the library discard table.  I spend way too much money on books, often rationalizing it to myself that eighty percent or so of what I buy is second-hand. Nonetheless, as Betty Duffy has noted elsewhere, this doesn't make it a virtue.

I often feel as if I've missed my calling, and should have done my degree in library science instead of in voice performance. And, had I become a librarian, I have the suspicion that I would have become a guerrilla librarian.

Jeremiah's Vanishing New York has a great post up detailing the short history of guerrilla librarianship at the People's Library at Zuccotti Park. An excerpt:

Librarians gassed and jailed. Heroes strapping books of poetry to their bodies. Here's something: Nobody's doing that for a Kindle.

And the acclaimed young adult novel The Book Thief (a moving, luminous read, though it has some problems, among them the facts that it's just too long and too relentless) is essentially about guerrilla librarianship as redemptive act.

Jeremiah posits:

[W]hat if bibliophiles became, again, radical revolutionaries in the collective imagination? What if the borrowing, lending, buying, selling, and reading of real books became a renegade act?

. . . . It's time to start burning the Kindles and get back to the real thing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Senses Working Overtime

"Most people see beauty where there's beauty, Pentimento," my old comrade S., from the days of Bohemia, once said. "But you see beauty where there's none." This habit must have started early; my mother has told me that in the first grade, I pulled another child's discarded drawing out of the classroom trash can, wondering aloud that anyone could possibly throw away something so beautiful.

Once I'd moved the four miles that might as well have been a thousand -- from Washington Heights, that is, to the northern Bronx -- I retained my old habit of walking until the blocks turned to miles.  I loved to walk, to walk and to look. I walked around my own gemütlich neighborhood until I had to walk out of it. Then I walked in other, less savory climes: Bainbridge, Norwood, Mosholu Parkway, Fordham Road. I walked the four or five miles to the Botanical Gardens and back again. I walked from the Bronx Zoo to West Farms Square to the Belmont section. I did most of this with my baby strapped to me, trusting that his presence would keep unsavory types at bay, which it did; I don't know if this is true in America as a whole, but there's a by-no-means-negligible amount of respect for women with children in the street culture of New York that can confer a safe passage where none should be expected.  It's true that I walked in places where I probably shouldn't have. But to me, it was all beautiful. The sun, the people on their stoops, the weeds blooming in vacant lots, the music, the sound of the elevated subway, the smells of coffee from the bodegas and of diesel from the buses: it made me happy.

Now I live not a thousand, but a million miles away from that time and place. I have left my old life behind, and my old life was, itself, a leaving behind of my old-old life. Here, I walk my son to school first past stately homes with well-kept lawns, and then, after a certain point, past increasingly down-at-heels two- and three-family houses with sagging porches and roofs missing shingles. Beautiful or not, sunny or not, I feel mildly desolate, and I realize it's the people I miss -- seeing them, walking past them, exchanging nods, smiles, hellos. People don't say hello to each other here. Even on these mostly-deserted streets, when someone walks past you, he strenuously avoids looking you in the eye.

One of the school crossing-guards admired the Phishhead hat my former student made for me, so I ordered an extra one and asked her to send it to me, and I gave it to the crossing-guard. I see this particular guard only rarely, because she doesn't work my usual route, but today I had an appointment that required me to cross at her corner, and she greeted me by name. She remembered my name, she told me, because I share it with a popular actress, who happens to be her favorite. She wished me a good day. For some reason, as I walked on, I burst into tears. 

We are called, as Rabindranath Tagore said, to become the brother of the stranger. This brotherhood, so fleeting and so rare, melts the heart so that all hostility is disarmed.

Below: XTC's great song "Senses Working Overtime."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Magical Thinking

We think that if we do the right things, we will be able to trick suffering away from our doors.  Not so.

May God open our eyes and turn us aside from such magical thinking. As a friend of mine used to say, God provides minimum protection but maximum support.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Hidden Life with McGillicuddy

Last year, my son started taking violin lessons with a local Suzuki teacher.  I was not interested in creating a prodigy, though naturally I believe that proficiency at music, if one has any opportunity at all to gain it, is something that should be encouraged in both children and adults. As for my son, he had been wanting to play the violin since he was two, and used to cry because we didn't have one. Around that time, he ran up to the altar after Mass one Sunday and hollered, "Jesus! Please have a little violin!" So, when he was three, I got him a cheap Chinese 1/16th-size violin, which he promptly named "Cutie."

The local Suzuki teacher kicked us out after four lessons. My son climbed on the furniture and commando-crawled across the floor during lesson times (though, when he practiced at home, it was clear that he had somehow absorbed the content of the lessons).

One of the handful of high-level classical musicians here then told me about V., an old Hungarian violinist who had somehow washed up in our crumbling Rust Belt city many years ago, when there was still a viable living to be made as concertmaster of the local small-town symphony, and when there was still a philanthropic class to support such genteel endeavors. By now, V. is making his living teaching the best violin students in the area out of his crumbling Victorian house in the shadow of the ghetto.

At our first lesson, it was clear that V. "got" my son. V. could see his innate musicality right away (my son could match pitch at two months old, and learned all of my dissertation recital repertoire along with me when he was two, finishing every line of Beethoven's "Adelaide" and "Maigesang" in German with me while I practiced). My son responded especially well to having a male teacher, and has come to love him. And, pace Suzuki purists, V. taught my son to read music, which I realized was the right thing for him.  My son needs and craves discipline, structure, and a formal framework. I could see that learning to read music would open up entire worlds for him, as it had done for me.  He practices diligently every day, and memorizes a piece as soon as he's learned it. The by-rote pedagogical approach of the Suzuki method would be, for him, too intangible and too inchoate.

And my son's lessons with V, for me, are like coming upon a well of fresh water in the desert. As I pieced together his history, I learned that V. had been a member of an acclaimed chamber ensemble which settled in America in the 1960s before splitting up.  We talk about music, about art, about discipline. Occasionally, V. brings out and plays live performance recordings of his ensemble, and the hair on my arms stands on end when I hear the enormous, wide-open, long-phrased sound that the ensemble had in Schubert and Brahms. This group was truly remarkable; I can attest that no American chamber music ensemble today plays like that, which is a great loss.

The problem is that, when I start to talk about music, art, and discipline, I start to get a little crazy, and probably even foam at the mouth a little, because I feel as if I'm stepping into the fresh green world that is a parallel universe to this one, the world of beauty, the world which, once I found it, provided the framework around which, even as a miserable young girl, I was able to heliotrope my life.  Music was the fertile world which gave me food, water, shelter, and air. The daily world, on the other hand -- the world that has no part in it -- is parched and withered, lonely and gray.

When my son plays a wrong note in his lessons or at home, I flinch involuntarily. Part of it is my auditory hypersensitivity, which has only gotten worse without the constant background thrum of New York City; but part of it is because of the heliotroping of my life around that musical framework, a life in which, for so long, all nourishment and all nurturing went towards perfecting a demanding craft, the practice of which costs so much, not only in treasure but also in human relationships. A wrong note causes me pain, because music is the image of perfection.

I suppose I'm something of a Tiger Mother when it comes to practicing. It's entirely non-negotiable with me. In fact, the thought that a day without practicing might, in some circumstances, be permissible is bizarrely taboo (I remember how, when an undergraduate voice major colleague of mine told me that she didn't practice on weekends, I thought she was making it up). I travel often on the Greyhound bus with my little son to spend time with my very ill mother, and his violin (no longer Cutie, but a 1/8th-size instrument inexplicably called McGillicuddy) travels with us. Yes, I know that I'm neurotic. But at the same time -- it is music, which was my oxygen for so long. It is the thing that for so long made me know that God existed.

I still don't know what it might look like to have a life as a musician while living the quotidian life here in northern Appalachia. I've become very interested in and concerned with the lives of the poor mothers I meet here.  My pastor has offered to sponsor me to become the Creighton Model instructor for this region of our sprawling diocese, and it's crossed my mind that to do so might be a way to help some of the women I encounter here, whereas teaching a music-appreciation class might not.

Yet I hate to think that the art that I love -- the holde Kunst -- is a locked fortress to so many in my midst.  As William Carlos Williams wrote:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Love is Service

I'm not sure how I found this blog, but I'm so glad that I did.

An excerpt from a recent post about, among other things, women's work in the home:

"Last month I listened to a radio program . . .  that made me groan out loud . . . .  about adoption . . . . Who knows what gifts and treasures an adoptee might bring to the world, if they're only given a chance ([the commentator] said).  For proof, just take a look at what Steve Jobs accomplished!  And the same has been used as a rationale against abortion: don't deny the unborn a chance to become the next greatest CEO!

"What rot.  Children, refugees, women, men, the elderly, the disabled, the severely disabled, the unborn, are of extreme value because human life is valuable.  Period.  People are worthy of our service simply because they are people and as such have inestimable dignity.  Furthermore, as Blessed John Paul II said, women are particularly well-placed to humanize society.  He said that we need women because they are women, and by their existence and through their bodies and their experience, they bear witness in a special way to the value of the human person by just being women."

Read the whole thing at English Please. I Don't Speak Hindi.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Occasionally I've written here before about the idea of happiness, and how it might or might not coincide with the endeavor to live with some modicum of virtue, or with a sense of surrender to the will of God. Lately I've been thinking about how those of us who, for want of a better terminology, live in the First World, have come to expect it as an integral part of our destiny. Expectations of happiness -- whether those expectations take the form of growing into it, or achieving it, or earning it -- seem to cut across social and economic boundaries in our culture.  In his book City on a Hill, James Traub describes remedial-reading and -math students from the poorest reaches of my former city, who believe that they will one day live in the suburbs and drive luxury cars, though this belief is based on nothing in their experience or in the experience of anyone they know, nor upon being in the position to achieve such a goal. And I have often wondered if the tattooed mothers I encounter in the crumbling Rust Belt town where I now live have had their skin pierced and written upon in order to mark themselves with a kind of talismanic map to a better place; after all, the Hollywood and pop-music stars who appear to be the heralds of our culture are inked within an inch of their lives, and they seem to have everything. And it goes without saying that my cousin's Princeton classmates expect to have the world handed to them by virtue of their being, essentially, who they are.

I wonder too if the anxiety that's currently gripping our culture is based, in part, on the bottom dropping out of our expectations of happiness. The recent college graduates currently occupying Wall Street and other less-likely places (there's an OWS contingent camping out in a vacant lot here, for instance, which seems like a particularly ineffective form of protest, since the jobs fled from here at least fifteen years ago) are the first generation in memory for whom a once-reliable pathway to security (and, hence, to happiness) has been washed away.  I don't like to hear people on the right casting aspersions at the OWS-ers, who are probably very scared; it's just unkind.  I have a close family member who is long-term -- as in years -- unemployed; he has a graduate degree, and worked in highly-remunerative capacities for years. I have another close family member who is married to a fully-employed licensed professional who likewise has a graduate degree; this family, nonetheless, gets WIC, but makes just a little too much to qualify for food stamps (i.e. SNAP). When you're scared about how you're going to provide for your family, happiness tends to go missing.

But of course, fear and happiness are different in the First World from what they are reputed to be in the Third.  As for me, I think of happiness as something that I sometimes devoutly long to have administered to me -- like a draught, or a shot, or a little homeopathic pill -- to keep me going, to settle me, so that I can do my work -- the daily work of trying to know what the will of God is, and, then, of trying to do it.  Sometimes I have it, in spite of being a million miles from home and dealing with a number of painful or wearying situations.  As for the work, I'm generally quite shaky at it, but then sometimes I'm entirely in the groove, making contact with what appears most clearly to be God's will with the kind of precise and delicate balance that you feel when you ice-skate, when you become aware of the sure and beautiful contact of your skate-blade with the ice, and you glide with a sharp and true freedom, picking up speed, until you go stumbling and crashing down. 
The other day I read this poem, by Barbara Crooker, on The Writer's Almanac:

Sometimes I am startled out of myself

like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

Perhaps we need to let go of our quest for the happiness we have come to believe is ours by birthright. Perhaps we need to abandon all hope. Perhaps we need just to give up, and, abject as we really are, go crawling into the shelter that we have simply got to trust is there. So much of life happens with no contribution from us, with no word, no consultation, no solicitation of opinion, from us. But there is shelter, and perhaps shelter might become haven -- might even, somehow, become home.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In Which I Bitch and Moan a Little

I was leafing through an old women's magazine today while waiting for an appointment, and I found an interview with the actress Holly Robinson Peete, in which she contended that parenting a child with autism is like dealing with the problems of a typical child, only magnified by ten. That sounded like a high factor to me; after all, a mother-of-many at the Latin Mass remarked once about my son: "He's as much work as four or five would be!" (which I took as my cue to never go back).

Yes, it is hard work. Some days -- today, for instance -- are nothing but tears, and I feel locked inside of a world that's impossible to describe to anyone.  I'm sure this is compounded by my loneliness and isolation and sense of being in exile here.  Some days I wonder if anyone will ever understand him, or understand me, without making erroneous assumptions and faulty judgments about us.  And my son is high-functioning, intensely verbal, noticeably gifted, and in love with learning, so I probably have no right to my tears, when so many other mothers spend all their time trying to enter and topple the locked fortresses in which their non-verbal children dwell. I don't want to be too grandiose.  In spite of our struggles and pain, my wonderful son with autism is just right for me, and I pray that I'll be just right for him.

Gerard Nadal believes that the burgeoning number of autistic children in our midst is a gift from God, and that God intends to use this "epidemic" to teach us how to truly love. It may be our only chance.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Word, Coequal with the Most High

I was just thinking how fortunate I am to have sung this piece more than once. My favorite performance was as the alto in a four-person choir, with organ.

The text, roughly translated, is a gloss by Jean Racine of a hymn for Tuesday Matins.

Word, coequal with the Most High,
Eternal day of both heaven and earth,
We break the silence of the peaceful night.
Divine Savior, cast your glance upon us!

Pour out upon us the fire of your most powerful Mercy,
So that hell flees at the sound of Your voice.
Dissipate the somnolence of a soul
which has been conducting itself in forgetfulness of Your laws!

Oh Christ, be merciful to this faithful people,
Who are gathered here to bless you,
Receive the songs that they offer to Your immortal glory,
And may they return again, filled with your gifts!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Time to Every Purpose

A very beautiful and righteous version of the great song.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

And They Lived Happily Ever After

I am re-posting a performance of my all-time fave Dame Janet Baker's performance of the Schubert song "Die junge Nonne" (The young nun), in honor of my great friend Otepoti's reception into the Catholic Church this past Saturday.  (No, she's not actually becoming a nun, but the song reminds me of the title of her moving post about her reception, which is the way that fairy tales end in German, and is literally translated as "And if they haven't died, then they are living still.")  I hope I will be forgiven for boasting that I'm Otepoti's godmother (though a proxy stood in for me in New Zealand, to which Otepoti so succinctly refers as the Ass-end of the World).

Dear Goddaughter Monica, I cried tears of joy to know of your reception into the faith to which I always knew you belonged! Just don't forget, just as the Schubert song suggests, that there's both light and dark here, but that Our Lord makes all things new and brings light out of the dark.

Quick Takes: Kennst du das Land?

1. I've been absent here because I had a semi-important gig yesterday in New York.  I performed with wonderful colleagues, in a hall that has some of the best acoustics in a hundred-mile radius, in a program of music about childhood and disability.  In the audience were many friends, family members, mentors, former professors and former students.  One of my former students, a Phishhead, had crocheted warm, hippie-style winter hats for my whole family, and brought them to the gig.  I had dinner with Mrs. C and her new daughter; I hung out in Riverside Park with Really Rosie, and I walked for miles and miles, filling my lungs with the slightly smoky air of my native land.  I wonder if there's any more beautiful time of year in New York City than the month of October.

2. My accompanist drove like a fiend last night and we arrived back home in the small hours, having narrowly averted a disastrous encounter with a deer, which she grazed with her driver-side mirror while swerving to miss it.  I scraped myself out of bed this morning to take my son to school, and, since I hadn't unpacked, I pulled on some clothes spilling out of a Bergdorf Goodman bag filled with cast-offs from my gorgeously-dressed, same-size sister-in-law in New York.  My usual attire in the provinces is scuffed corduroys, droopy sweaters, and clogs, but today I showed up at school in skin-tight pants, boots, a fitted coat from Paris, flat-ironed hair from a New York salon, and traces of last night's stage makeup. I felt as if I were in a strange uniform made for life on a strange planet. It wasn't so much that I felt as if I were walking on the moon, but more as if I was breathing on the moon; the air had become so thin that I felt as though I was inhaling it through a leaky oxygen tank, the only thing that would enable me survive in a foreign land.

3. Luckily, I remembered to pull a package of chicken thighs out of the freezer when I came into the darkened house last night, so we'd have something to eat today.

4. "Kennst du das Land" (Do you know the country), one of the songs sung by the enigmatic character of Mignon in Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, was one of the most frequently-set song texts in the nineteenth century. Schubert's four settings are well-known, but it was also set by Schumann, Liszt, Wolf, and Tchaikovsky, among many others.  Mignon is a young, androgynous circus performer who is in exile from a half-remembered land, which she describes (in Walter Meyers's translation):

 Knowest thou where the lemon blossom grows,
 In foliage dark the orange golden glows,
 A gentle breeze blows from the azure sky,
 Still stands the myrtle, and the laurel, high?
 Dost know it well?
 'Tis there! 'Tis there
 Would I with thee, oh my beloved, fare.

 Knowest the house, its roof on columns fine?
 Its hall glows brightly and its chambers shine,
 And marble figures stand and gaze at me:
 What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?
 Dost know it well?
 'Tis there! 'Tis there
 Would I with thee, oh my protector, fare.

 Knowest the mountain with the misty shrouds?
 The mule is seeking passage through the clouds;
 In caverns dwells the dragons' ancient brood;
 The cliff rocks plunge under the rushing flood!
 Dost know it well?
 'Tis there! 'Tis there
 Leads our path! Oh father, let us fare. 
Here, Schubert's D. 321 setting is sung by the great Christa Ludwig.
Irwin Gage is the pianist. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Creeping Up on Marriage O'Clock

A long but provocative article on the shifting roles of women and men in society.

“The transformation is momentous—immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.” 

. . . . Even more momentously, we no longer need husbands to have children, nor do we have to have children if we don’t want to. For those who want their own biological child, and haven’t found the right man, now is a good time to be alive. 

. . . . [On the other hand, my] spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment.

Take the high-powered magazine editor who declared on our first date that he was going to spend his 30s playing the field. Or the prominent academic who announced on our fifth date that he couldn’t maintain a committed emotional relationship but was very interested in a physical one. Or the novelist who, after a month of hanging out, said he had to get back out there and tomcat around, but asked if we could keep having sex anyhow, or at least just one last time. Or the writer (yes, another one) who announced after six months together that he had to end things because he “couldn’t continue fending off all the sexual offers.” And those are just the honest ones. 

Read it here.  Be forewarned that it contains some crude language and frank talk about sex. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Saint Columbus

Did you know that, in the last half of the nineteenth century, the cause for canonization of Christopher Columbus was opened? I didn't know this until just the other day, when my father told me. Evidently the effort stalled out before too long; not only could Colubmus's birthplace not be ascertained, but he was also a slave-owner, which was problematic for the Vatican even a hundred years ago. 

Nevertheless, if you search Facebook, you'll find a page dedicatd to supporting his canonization. Somehow I doubt they'll get much traction.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poetry Friday: At A Window

Give me hunger, 
O you gods that sit and give 
The world its orders. 
Give me hunger, pain and want, 
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame, 
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger! 

But leave me a little love, 
A voice to speak to me in the day end, 
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness. 
In the dusk of day-shapes 
Blurring the sunset, 
One little wandering, western star 
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window, 
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk 
And wait and know the coming 
Of a little love.

-- Carl Sandburg

Above: Edward Hopper, Room in Brooklyn, 1932.

More Poetry Friday at Great Kid Books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meth and Mercy

Read Calah's recent post at Barefoot and Pregnant.  I have no words.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Phantom Limbs

How do we live with these phantoms? How do we live when our memories and our perceptions desire a unity that is not apparent, when in fact it seems like we’ve cut off large pieces of ourselves? I think St. John of the Cross offers us some indispensable insights into the spiritual life. Often these “phantom selves” retained by our memories, and our current desire to live the Christian life, taken together creates an impasse that we, on our own, cannot overcome. These are the moments in our live when God helps by infusing Hope into our souls–Hope being an anchoring in God’s goodness, and an expectation of receiving his promises by knowing God’s goodness. Hope is not “wishful thinking,” but a courageous act in actively, authentically choosing the joy of the Christian life. It is the will to live, the will move forward, the will to be anchored in God no matter the cost. It is through Hope that the fragmentation of ourselves that we experiences because of our memories will find healing and peace.

A wonderful article, germane to all reverts and converts -- that is, to all of us in our ongoing conversion -- about the "phantom sensations" infused into our new lives through memories of our old ones, and how to deal with them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Tattooed Mothers You Will Have Always With You

My father, whose illiterate grandparents came to America about a hundred years ago (on the run from personal tragedy, as well as from crushing poverty and from the hated Camorra who terrorized Naples and its environs), used to urge his children to look their best at all times, saying that only the rich could afford to dress badly, because, for the rich, a sloppy appearance had no consequences. 

I was thinking about his exhortation the other day while I waited in the pick-up line for my son outside the neighborhood elementary school.  A disturbing -- disturbing to me, anyway -- number of the other mothers sport visible tattoos: not just things like hearts and flowers on their ankles, but things like large pairs of bat's wings across their shoulder girdles.   Now, there are plenty of tattooed mothers of young children in New York City, too (including some in my own family), but most of those mothers self-consciously partake in a sort of countercultural-outsider ethos, and tend to be employed in various creative professions, in which their appearance doesn't matter as much as it would if they were working for the man; their life goals, they presume, will be unaffected by the in-some-ways-shocking state of their skin, because they have put themselves outside the mainstream.  But there are two ways to be outside the mainstream.  The self-conscious, creative-class, New York City tattooed moms generally possess a level of education, or of family money, or, for want of a better term, of cultural capital, that ensures that they will not suffer major consequences from what would seem to be a willing self-exile from the workaday world enabled by symbolically marking their flesh. The tattooed moms in my community, on the other hand, do not have this luxury, and their marked skin sets another bar between them and meaningful employment.  So I wonder: is their tattoing truly subversive -- subversive in a way that creative-class tattooing is really not -- because it's a gesture of acknowledgement that, in being poor, they are already irrevocably outside the mainstream? Is it a self-marking of despair?

For the record, I have no tattoos, and I find them unappealing on men as well as women, which I suppose makes me a sort of oddity in my cohort (even up-and-coming opera singers I knew back in New York had tattoos).  And I wonder how the subculture of tattooing and body modification made its way from the edges of Bohemia in large urban areas to half-forgotten, post-industrial backwaters like the place I live now, a place that suffers from the worrisome combination of entrenched and widespread poverty and a dearth of meaningful and well-paid jobs, and how its meaning changed en route.  Sometimes I want to say to the other mothers in the pick-up line, "Why did you deface yourself like this? What does this mean to you, and what does it mean, socially, here, in this place?"  It seems to me that the poor and disenfranchised cannot afford to get tattoos, and I don't just mean that the hundreds of dollars each tattoo costs could be better spent.  I mean that there are certain consequences that come with putting yourself outside the mainstream, and that those consequences are particularly harsh if you don't have a cushion of money or education to soften them.

The public library in my new town -- there is only one -- is my absolute favorite place here. I get a rush when I walk through the front doors.  You could fit four of my branch libraries back in the Bronx into the Children's Room alone.  It is clean and beautiful, and they let me take out all kinds of books on interlibrary loan, and they call me on the phone to let me know when my ILL loans have come in.  I take the bus there once a week, and, as I descend the bus steps, I feel the eyes of those waiting to board linger upon me, because people who look like me don't ride the bus here.  By people who look like me, I mean people who aren't overweight and in their pajamas though there is also a certain ethnic sameness to the people here which I don't share, a sameness which I suppose comes from centuries of intermarriage among the Europeans who first settled in these hills.  People who ride the bus are poor, very poor indeed, too poor for even a few-hundred-dollars' beater car. Another non-tattooed mother in the pick-up line, who teaches remedial reading at the community college, told me that when her students have spent their financial aid grants on textbooks, they're generally strapped for ways to buy food and bus passes for the rest of the semester.  In the end, it's very expensive to be poor.

I walk from the bus stop to the library past small, decrepit apartment buildings with "No Loitering" signs affixed to the front doors, past empty storefronts, past a boarded-up old tavern whose walls are choked with climbing weeds.  One room of my massive library has been turned into a FEMA disaster assistance site, as have several churches downtown, including the parish where we attend Mass.  As I collected my books at the checkout desk the other day, I overheard one of the front-desk workers on a personal phone call.  She was broke, she was telling her friend on the phone, not sure when a child-support check was going to come, and lacking even in milk and bread.  When I left, I passed a family with young children waiting on the church steps across the street for the FEMA center to open.  They all waited patiently, with suitcases piled on the sidewalk around them. 

All of this makes me wonder, and wonder again, about the calling I've always strongly felt:  to show other people, to teach other people, to guide other people to the sublime beauty of the western classical music tradition. Pope John Paul II wrote in Redemptor Hominis about the essential humanity of man's natural "nostalgia for the beautiful," and noted that this "creative restlessness" is part of our longing for God.  But what good is it to tell my tattooed cohort about how uplifting,  how deepening, how connecting, how humanizing, how healing is the stuff with which I usually deal? To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht in Threepenny Opera, "First food, then aesthetics."

And, too, all of this brings me face-to-face with my own hard lack of charity.  I do not love these poor; I fear them. They seem so shaky, so unstable, to me; they are so different from me. Though surely not all of these poor are addicts, they remind me of the junkies I used to see around New York, who you could tell were junkies because they were rail-thin, were young but looked old, walked really fast and crookedly, and, when they had fixed, moved in strange, jerky ways, as if they were marionettes.  I found them terrifying and repellent even as an adult.

Last week, Mark Gordon wrote a hard-hitting and moving piece for Vox Nova about helping the poor. "[Am] I responsible for helping poor people that I know personally?" he asks himself, then answers:

Yes. Am I personally responsible for helping the poor in my community? Yes. Am I responsible for working toward a just social and political order in which poverty itself is eventually eradicated? Yes. Am I responsible for helping the poor in foreign lands? Yes. The poor who are in this country illegally? Yes. The poor with substance abuse problems or criminal backgrounds? Yes. The poor who don’t appreciate my help? Yes. The poor who disgust me in their helplessness? Yes. All the poor? Yes.

OK, I thought, I'm good with a lot of this.  We continue to support N., who's desperately poor and illegal (though I admit to grumbling as I stand at the sink and wash dishes because we just sent the money that was supposed to have gone to a new dishwasher to her when she was in danger of being evicted). I have no problem helping the illegal poor; the fact is, I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the tattooed moms in my community.  The reason the illegal poor are here is that they're strivers, adventurers, risk-takers, and extremely brave; they work their asses off; and most of them share my religion.  The poor in my community, on the other hand, frighten me. They are not like me. They reject the things I hold dear.

Nonetheless, as Sister Mary Martha wrote in response to a reader who voiced his objections to Appalachian culture more strongly than I have (yes, I know she's not a real nun, but that doesn't make her wrong):

Jesus never had a job and just lived off of other people who put Him up in their houses and fed Him AND all his friends. He actually told His friends to STOP WORKING and hang out with Him. His final words to them was a commandment to never even try to earn money and have any money or nice clothes or even shoes. Lazy slobs. No wonder they were all killed.

Jesus loved sinners. Remember? We never have to condone sin to love a sinner. God does it every single minute. It makes me extremely sad to think that we can not let go of calling people some kind of name and that we insist it is just fine and dandy to do so.

Can you imagine if Father stood in the pulpit said "white trash" and meant it? Why is it not okay for Father to say that, but okay for you?

Maybe it's time to bring back the ruler.

Food writer Mark Bittman (whose recipes I love, but who, as a professional chef friend of mine memorably put it, is prone to a kind of "soapboxing tinged with a**hole") wrote a recent post displaying a similar sort of arrogance and lack of understanding when it comes to the food choices of the poor (yes, similar to my own arrogance and lack of understanding about the poor in my community).  Many people in the combox put him straight, and, as one writer put it in a letter to the Times:

Mark Bittman would persuade poor families that nutritious food prepared at home can be cheaper than the fare available at fast-food outlets. He points out that if you can drive to McDonald’s, you can drive to Safeway, but doesn’t mention other realities.

Shopping after work means crowded stores and long wait times, which are likely to interfere with child-care arrangements. Then the meal must be prepared, which with Mr. Bittman’s recipes entails chopping, dicing, shredding, sautéing and cooking. After the meal, the preparer must clean up or persuade someone else to do it.

A trip to McDonald’s allows a family to spend time together having their food brought to them, enjoying the meal and walking away, in less time than is needed for the Safeway option. 

A big selection of healthy foods isn’t available at fast-food prices. Until it is, Mr. Bittman shouldn’t lecture people who are making not-unintelligent tradeoffs.

In the end, there is an appalling lack of love among some of us who are well-fed, well-educated, and even champions of beauty -- of love, that is, for the unbeautiful.  I suffer from this lack, and I pray that God will show me a way to truly love those I would shun.  But I fear this love, too, and its consequences.