Monday, January 31, 2011

A Prayer for Anyone Inclined to Despair

Lord, I am in this world to show Your mercy to others.
Other people will glorify You
by making visible the power of Your grace
by their fidelity and constancy to You.
For my part I will glorify You
by making known how good You are to sinners,
that Your mercy is boundless
and that no sinner no matter how great his offences
should have reason to despair of pardon.
If I have grievously offended You, My Redeemer,
let me not offend You even more
by thinking that You are not kind enough to pardon Me.


-- Saint Claude de la Colombière (from my friend Theresa Bonopartis's post-abortion website)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Delusions of Grandeur

I sure loved this poem today.

Psychology Today

Have you ever had
     delusions of grandeur?
I read all about it
in a magazine
on the coffee table
at Dr. Broadwell's office.

Have you ever thought
you were meant for
something special?
But you were afraid.
Afraid if you tried
you'd fail?
would think you
a fool?

You might risk
only for
     delusions of grandeur?

I have.
Thought that, I mean.

-- Darnell Arnoult, from What Travels with Us. © Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Only Word for Love is Everybody's Name

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.  (Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov)

It's hard to argue against the position of Dosoevsky's saintly Father Zosima, and yet this raises the question: what does it mean, then, to be able to love?

I've noticed that the orthodox Catholic circles I began traveling in since my reversion in 2002 provide, among other things, a harbor for people who seem not to believe that they are required to fulfill the great commandment to love one another, and much less that to love their enemies.  To be clear, I've never heard anyone say that he thinks he is exempt from this command, but, just as the progressive church waters down some of the more difficult teachings of Christ, so does the orthodox one -- or at least, in my experience, so do many of its professed adherents -- water down this one, which is no less difficult, and perhaps infinitely more so.  For example, during the brief period when I dated a moderately-well-known Catholic journalist, I suggested that he pray for abortionists and for those who promote abortion.  He replied, with disarming honestly, that the thought had never occurred to him.

Indeed, I have often heard orthodox Catholics, when speaking of their responsibilities vis-à-vis other people (not forgetting, of course, that other famous definition of hell -- that it is, itself, other people) use the word "charity" in place of the more powerful, intimate "love."  But even in the Douay-Rheims Bible, favorite translation of the orthodox Catholic, Our Lord's commandment is "Love one another."

But my point is not to scold; I'll leave that to others who have far more right to it than I do.  My point is to ask the question again:  what does it mean to be able to love?  And how does one do it?

I've been reading some of the unpublished writings of English mystic Caryll Houselander, and in one diary from the 1930s, she writes:

Nothing helps me more to love other people than doing penance for them.  If it is an individual for whom I have any bitterness it is a sure cure, but since I took to praying and offering penance daily for all sinners I have found my love of people growing in proportion . . . It seems that in proportion to the love we give to God, He gives us love for each other.

Houselander was a natural-born misanthrope, and yet she strove to love other people; she also noted that Christ himself "sought [the] love" of others.

I used to think I knew all about love.  I now know that I know approximately less than nothing about it.  But there is a beautiful line in a beautiful song by Dar Williams, "It Happens Every Day":  "the only word for love is everybody's name."  How do we put that into practice, I wonder?

You can here the song performed live here, starting at 2:42.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Back Where I Come From

Little-known fact about me:  I was born in Kansas.  Really.  My father was working on his doctorate there.  We moved back to New York when I was two years old, but my earliest memory takes place in the state of my birth:  I am outside, chasing our dog around a garbage can.  Neither I nor anyone else in my family has ever gone back.

As part of our adoption paperwork, however, I had to contact the Kansas State Department to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, and I was astounded, though I guess I shouldn't have been, by the difference between the vital statistics people in Kansas and their counterparts in New York, where all the rest of my vital records reside.  The Kansas people were genuinely nice, kind, generous, and helpful.  They called and left a message when they had a question for me.  The state registrar herself helped me to complete my request because a very nice vital statistician named Betty, which seemed the most perfect name for a kindly low-level bureaucrat from Kansas, transferred me over to her during a phone call.

The New York people, on the other hand, have sent back my vital records applications several times for various oversights and infractions.  And they are, I'm chagrined to admit, not really all that nice.  I wonder if they'll ever cough up all my other vital records unless I go there in person and wait all day with cash in hand, which is exactly what I'd do if we still lived there.

Another little-known fact:  I've been told my entire life that I have an accent.  I always took this to mean that I actually had no accent, i.e., that my speech had had all regionalisms trained out of it through my long years of voice study.  But once, when I was in my teens and working at an ice cream parlor for my summer job, a graduate student in linguistics came into the shop.  While I was scooping his order, he told me that everyone's speech patterns were laid in place by the age of two, and that he could usually guess where people were from by the way they spoke.  I smirked; here was my chance to stump him.  "So where was I born?"  I demanded.  "Kansas," he said.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Practice Babies

No, it's not what you're thinking.  Read on:

Once upon a time, infants were quietly removed from orphanages and delivered to the home economics programs at elite U.S. colleges, where young women were eager to learn the science of mothering. These infants became “practice babies,” living in “practice apartments,” where a gaggle of young “practice mothers” took turns caring for them. After a year or two of such rearing, the babies would be returned to orphanages, where they apparently were in great demand; adoptive parents were eager to take home an infant that had been cared for with the latest “scientific” childcare methods.

Read the rest of this fascinating story here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

At the End of the Rainbow

One of the functions of this blog is, as I now realize, to chronicle the downwardly-mobile memoirs of a sort of anti-diva, which strikes me somewhat funny since Soprannie and I, back in the days of our high ambition, used to assuage each other's latest heartbreak or botched audition by telling one another it would all go into the diva memoirs.  Now that I've moved far away from the capital of that ambition (which is also the capital of everything else), I feel like my own ambition needs to sink low rather than soar high, as if I, ant-like, should dig tunnels underground and put whatever it is that I have to offer as an artist in there, in the dark, and hope something good will come out of it.  As Dar Williams says in the excellent song "What Do You Love More Than Love" (which, sadly, I couldn't Youtube for you):

I love the way the world is your garden
You plant your seeds and you let 'em grow
And you dig things out of the ground just like
You take what comes but you never know

You never do know, do you?  You recall having planted a rose way back thousands of days and nights ago, before the snows came; but when winter thaws, you see that what you have is a cabbage, which, while not nearly as lovely as a rose, is infinitely more useful.

So, in spite of the fact that at a certain point in my life the idea of the glittering career that I had longed and striven for began to repel me, I kept singing.  What else was there to do?  I threw myself hard into scholarship and research, digging out, from the rich ground of library archives, dozens upon dozens of wonderful pieces that hadn't been heard in a hundred years or more, and making them the basis of my post-operatic performing career.

This career, such as it is, has brought unexptected, even bizarre, good into my life.  There was, for instance, the strange reconciliation with the old flame I'd regretted treating shabbily as an undergrad.  And now, there is The Autoharp.

I was all excited to go to my son's pre-school classroom last month with a program I'd worked up of Christmas music.  I had all the accouterments in a big plastic see-through box:  rhythm sticks, jingle bells, a length of white chiffon fabric that I'd fashioned into dozens of little individual scarves to stand in for snow.  I had songs both sacred and secular for my young audience's delectation and participation.  And I had my axe, i.e., my nylon-string acoustic guitar, on which I'd laboriously taught myself to play a chord progression in A major.  I used the guitar on one song only, "I Saw Three Ships."  And I played that chord progression badly.  Luckily it wasn't a tough crowd.

I noted the experience on Facebook.  My old voice teacher from my master's degree program, A.B., who has been perhaps the single most important teacher I've ever had, suggested that I needed an autoharp.  The truth was, I confessed, I'd been coveting one for a long time.  The autoharp is like a guitar, but for dreamy girls with long hair who don't have time to teach themselves a variety of chord progressions on the axe they really want to play, which is, of course, the nylon-string acoustic (and they really want to finger-pick it like Joan Baez or Mimi Fariña, but that will have to wait for another lifetime).  In fact, I almost bought a used autoharp at a garage sale last summer, but at $175, I didn't think I could justify it. 

So A.B. and his wife decided to make me a present of an autoharp.

It came in the mail yesterday.  It is the Oscar Schmidt Ozark model.  It is the most excellent thing ever in the history of the world.

This is what I aspire to (with all due respect to the comic geniuses Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, from the great movie A Mighty Wind):

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Accompanist

I loved today's poem.  Especially the line "it's partly/sexual but it's mostly practice/and music," which is true about classical music praxis too.

Don't play too much, don't play
too loud, don't play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
and to subdue yourself.
She used to give me her smoky
eye when I got boisterous,
so I learned to play on tip-
toe and to play the better half
of what I might. I don't like
to complain, though I notice
that I get around to it somehow.
We made a living and good music,
both, night after night, the blue
curlicues of smoke rubbing their
staling and wispy backs
against the ceilings, the flat
drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life
we bitch about the way Army pals
complain about the food and then
re-up. Some people like to say
with smut in their voices how playing
the way we did at our best is partly
sexual. OK, I could tell them
a tale or two, and I've heard
the records Lester cut with Lady Day
and all that rap, and it's partly
sexual but it's mostly practice
and music. As for partly sexual,
I'll take wholly sexual any day,
but that's a duet and we're talking
accompaniment. Remember "Reckless
Blues"? Bessie Smith sings out "Daddy"
and Louis Armstrong plays back "Daddy"
as clear through his horn as if he'd
spoken it. But it's her daddy and her
story. When you play it you become
your part in it, one of her beautiful
troubles, and then, however much music
can do this, part of her consolation,
the way pain and joy eat off each other's
plates, but mostly you play to drunks,
to the night, to the way you judge
and pardon yourself, to all that goes
not unsung, but unrecorded.

"The Accompanist" by William Matthews, from Foreseeable Futures. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 19: Reparations

For most of my life, my behavior was so selfish, willful, amoral, and defensive that, in recent years, my fervent wish has been not only that the people I've known along the way would have peaceful and happy lives, but also that they might forget me completely.  So it was with some trepidation, and a great deal of embarrassment, that I sent a check to the workplace of A., the Columbia boy I'd borrowed money from years ago.  Although it was during Lent of last year that I remembered this unhappy incident, it took me until the end of the year to make reparations, because, although I went out on gigs with some frequency in 2010, after travel and childcare expenses were figured into my fee, I generally returned home each time with something like fifty dollars.  In December, however, two large-ish fees came in that did not need to be offset by as many expenses as usual, so I took myself to the post office, praying that paying off this old, until-recently-forgotten debt would not open up some unpleasant can of worms.

A letter from A. came in the mail yesterday, and I opened it grimly.  To my astonishment, he was not only happy to hear from me, but also, unbeknownst to me, he'd been at a concert I gave last month in Boston, where he now lives.

He wrote: 

. . . I don't want to be a creep, which is the main reason I didn't approach you at your concert.  That and -- well -- certainly the memory in my mind is not the actual person you are . . . . it was at a recent bored moment at work [that I undertook a "Pentimento" internet search and] saw that you were giving a concert soon, and in fact it was in my own backyard. . . . And the performance [brought] tears to my eyes.  [Your] voice was soothing to the soul, and especially exciting given that I knew you back when you were first going down this path . . . .

Most striking [were your] expressions after the songs.  The bashful turn to the pianist, the being exposed, the being vulnerable and showing it.  I could see why you have specialized in [concerts given] in salon or intimate settings.  You share yourself with your audience.  You are there with them, not above them . . . You share their vulnerabilities. . . To see how that path you started -- to see the beautiful place it has progressed to -- that also brought tears.

The letter brought me to tears too.  I thought of how the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen had told his friend, my old voice teacher Barbara Conrad, that she must never give up singing, because she could never know when it might make the difference between life and death for someone in the audience.  I doubt that my singing carried that import for A., but perhaps some healing did come out of it, some reparation for the past.  If only A. knew how bitter the road was that led me to the point of being able, now, to be vulnerable onstage, and to share in the vulnerabilities of the audience.  For so many years, I sang defensively, acquisitively, planning what I could get from it.  Life -- everything -- has changed so much since then.  Once, when I mentioned to my husband that my singing had changed, he suggested that one can't compartmentalize one's life; when one's heart changes, everything must change along with it.  As the poet Jane Hirshfield writes:

let one animal/eat from your hand and the whole herd comes.

Hirshfield's poem, "Letting What Enters Enter," concludes with the line

she forgave me nothing that I love.

But after reading A.'s letter, I believe that God, in His mercy, somehow forgives us everything that we love.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wonderful news

. . . from the generous, open-hearted Mrs. C at Adoptio.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter for Nostographers

There is snow here, but not like in New York (can anything here ever be compared to its counterpart in New York?).  I miss snow days in New York:  the excitement in the grocery store as people line up for their provisions; the quiet cleanliness of the streets, punctuated only by children sledding and grown-ups skiing right down the middle of them; the comradely delight of the citizens at the unwonted pleasures shared in the aftermath of a city blizzard.  Therefore, I loved this poem on today's Writer's Almanac, and especially the image of Orpheus descending into the subway.  I wish I'd thought of that one myself.

City Scene in Snow

After sledding in the park's deep snow,
the two sons refuse to walk home.
The weary father trudges along
pulling them home
in the sparsely trafficked streets
snow still falling.

At times the kids fall off, laughing,
not wanting the day to end.


Hushed streets except for the
rumble of the subway.

Out of the corner of his eye
the father spies Orpheus

with guitar case, descending
the dark steps, off to reclaim lost love.

("City Scene in Snow" by Jonathan Greene, from Distillations and Siphonings. © Broadstone Books, 2010. Above:  André Kertèsz, Washington Square Park, 1954.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Medicine of Brokenness

I've made a bedtime CD for my son that includes the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" from Bach's Cantata BWV 82, "Ich habe genug," whose opening text is a gloss on Nunc dimittis, the words uttered by Simeon upon beholding the Christ.  

I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
into my eager arms;
I have enough! 

I have beheld Him, 
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart; 
now I wish, even today with joy 
to depart from here.

Fall asleep, you weary eyes,
close softly and pleasantly! 

World, I will not remain here any longer, 
I own no part of you 
that could matter to my soul. 
Here I must build up misery, 
but there, there I will see 
sweet peace, quiet rest.

The shimmering, controlled intensity of LHL's remarkable performance -- especially the way that she crescendoes and then diminuendoes every syllable of every word of every phrase -- not only give the listener a sense of the singer's profound intimacy with this music and these words, but also convey the sense that she was going beyond interpretation, anticipating her own untimely death with equanimity and even hope.

As he's going to sleep, my son always asks when "Lorraine" is going to sing.  He asks about the times I saw her perform, and wants to know what she wore and what her hair was like (in her legendary performance of this piece, she wore a hospital gown, and her hair was scant and straggling).  He asked me tonight if he came with me to see her when he was a baby, and if Lorraine held him, which made me think of her in the role of Simeon himself.  We always pray that she is in heaven with God.

Tonight I thought of her, and the gift of healing and profound compassion that she poured forth in her singing.  It occurred to me that some of the same behaviors I recently wrote about critically here were also behaviors that my heroine had herself engaged in -- the breaking up, for instance, of a marriage, not to mention the embracing of strange gods.  I cannot rationalize the suffering she participated in and perpetrated, in spite of my great admiration for her (and I have participated in and perpetrated suffering enough myself).  I can only pray for her, as my son and I do together each night.  I have found it to be true that one's own great brokenness can be distilled into a medicine for others, and I believe that Lorraine allowed herself to be this medicine.  I pray for her healing then and now, and for the healing of all of us here too, towards which music can go such a long way.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work . . .

A Chinese-Canadian pianist friend of mine from graduate school drew my attention to this article.  Once I got over my initial shock, it made me think two things:  one, that my mother must be secretly Chinese; and two, that some people are right there on the same page with me about the ethos of relentless practicing, if perhaps not about other things.

Please Pray for Christine

Dear friends, a situation that I posted about here a year and a half ago has taken a turn for the worse.  Christine's cancer went into remission after her surgery, but has now returned in metastatic form and, according to her neurologist, there are no known survivors of this type of cancer.  Her husband, G., a close friend of mine, has told me that he's had the "what if" conversation with their daughters.

In the meantime, G., a lyric tenor who has sung all over the world, including at the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas, can't get a gig.  The reality of the business now is such that thirteen or so American opera companies have shut up shop in the past two years.  What usually happens in this kind of climate is that the A-level singers get gigs in the B-level opera houses, and the B singers go to the C houses, but there are no more C houses, which leaves many very fine singers, who have devoted their lives to perfecting their craft, unemployed -- and, since the time spent perfecting it has precluded other pursuits, essentially unemployable.  I've been asking my contacts about teaching work for G., and keep hearing the same question:  "Does he have a D.M.A. [Doctorate of Musical Arts, the degree I earned in 2009]?"  Um, well, no, he doesn't, since, instead of retreating to academe, as I and many of my colleagues did, he kept laboring in the trenches of opera performance, spending ten months out of the year on the road away from his family, and he achieved a high degree of success.  What's more, it's not as if there are enough teaching jobs for people with D.M.A.s.

There are all kinds of efforts, including a well-funded foundation, to help ballet dancers transition into other careers.  Why not opera singers?

I've been praying to my usual friends in heaven for Christine and G., especially to St. Joseph and St. Jude, but I'm going to make a special daily devotion to Blessed Pope John XXIII on the behalf of this couple and their children, because of G.'s great love for Italian culture, and because John XXIII is so the man.  Please, if you can spare the time, say a prayer for them, too.

The Good Pope

A couple of weeks ago, fired up by a dream I'd had of Blessed Pope John XXIII, I looked for and found a book about him in my parish's neglected library, which is a sort of dumping ground for unwanted, out-of-print works on theology and biographies of forgotten priests.  I took it home, and it's now somewhere in the middle of a pile of books I have to start on as soon as possible.  In the meantime, though, a reader sent me this wonderful video of Pope John visiting a Roman prison on Saint Stephen's Day, 1958.  It is powerfully moving to witness his profound humility, humanity, and joy as he tells the prisoners (who sing "Adeste, fideles" as he enters) with disarming simplicity: "I put my heart close to your hearts."  Many thanks, Irenic Cannon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Clementine Cake

As most readers here surely know, this is not a recipe-posting kind of blog.  Except today it is.  I made this cake for Christmas, and it was absolutely freaking amazing, and so easy too.  I'm about to make it again tomorrow for my husband's birthday.  In fact, I think everyone should make it, which is why I have linked to the recipe.

I have heard of this cake being made with Valencia oranges, too, but clementines are ubiquitous in the supermarkets here at this time of year, so I'm sticking with what I know.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Coffee Break with God

(My title is shamelessly mooched from a book I've never read, and has pretty much nothing to do with this post.)

I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, because I know from long experience that they tend to be swept out with the eggshells and coffee grounds sometime around the end of the first week of January, and I like to save myself the embarrassment that my own broken resolutions cause me.  Sometimes I toy with various resolutions, however, trying them on and then, more often than not, rejecting them.  Here are a few that I'm idly considering this year:

1.  No longer swearing like a truck-driver, if only inside the echo-chamber of my own head.  I almost never swear in front of my son (not in English, anyway, though I have to admit to having said some really gutter things in Italian at times, when I've stepped on a Lego, say, or given myself a paper cut), and I've been very relieved that he's never yet, to my knowledge, said a curse-word (at least not in English).  And yet, we now know that swearing is much more effective at relieving pain and frustration than consciously resorting to blithe euphemisms; the real words just seem to work, and are so much more satisfying emotionally, perhaps because of their taboo status.  I often take myself into another room alone so I can swear out loud in English, but mostly those four-letter bombs are just dropping in the quiet of my mind as I face the frustrations of the average day.  And yet, for all the silence of my cursing, it still doesn't seem . . . seemly to even think those words.  So perhaps I'll silently substitute some corny-sounding euphemisms in my inner monologue in 2011.  Or perhaps not.

2.  Giving up coffee. I consider undertaking this heroic feat every so often, and even went so far as to make it my Lenten sacrifice a couple of years ago, an intention which lasted one solid day.  The truth is, I sometimes go for whole weeks without drinking coffee, but I have no wish to put it away from me forever.  Not only do I love the taste -- it's one of my favorite flavors, the darker and bitterer the better (no sugar, and lightened with half-and-half or cream; if only milk is available, I will forgo the coffee altogether) -- but I also love the idea of coffee.  There is something so companionable about it.  Two mothers having coffee together while their children play are engaging in a kind of conspiracy of community, it seems to me.  Tea, though I drink it, seems insubstantial and a bit fey in comparison, and herbal tea is something I dislike and generally avoid unless there's a medicinal reason for taking it.  (It's crossed my mind once or twice that if I gave up coffee, perhaps I would be able to conceive again; I've heard the anecdotal notion that coffee suppresses fertility.  But the truth is that I was drinking coffee all the other times I conceived; I believe God intends for us to add children to our family through adoption; and the possibility seems strong that conception wouldn't occur, and then I would have . . . given up coffee.  Is this a foolish, fetishistic, fatalistic line of reasoning?  Perhaps.  Maybe I will give up coffee after all, though it will be with great reluctance.)
3.  Being more patient. My son, who's quite advanced in some ways, is quite delayed in others.  He doesn't draw (though he is very specific in directing his parents and teachers to draw according to his designs), partially because of his fine-motor delays, and partially because he's intensely perfectionistic, and melts down completely when he attempts to draw something that doesn't come out as he'd envisioned.  Today I was helping him draw a tugboat puffing smoke.  He was trying to draw circles for the smoke, but, as he said, his circles had tails.  He flung himself down in tears, and didn't want to continue.  This brought me to tears too, because I felt that he had to.  The ability to practice a skill until it virtually becomes ingrained into the sinews of the heart, and the ability to love that relentless practice, are probably the most important capacities I've cultivated in my life.  But how can I teach a volatile, neurologically-puzzling preschool boy to love practice, to love discipline?  I was stymied.  With him, I realize that I will have to take many deep breaths and work very slowly on the same basic skills over and over again, when I want him to dance, to leap, to fly, as the ethos of intense practice has allowed me to do.  He is the sort of child who, I believe, will fly eventually; he is very bright, musical, and imaginative.  But I am so attached to the idea of self-discipline as the means to becoming skilled and independent, and to the notion of becoming skilled and independent as the means to intellectual and artistic freedom.  I suppose that, in 2011, I should resolve to learn how to slow down my own wild thinking and imagining.

Which, to sum up, is why I love this ad from the 1980s.  It suggests that, when you're hitting the wall in your ethos of relentless practicing, and especially if you're a musician whose work is starting to sound like sh--,  you need . . . coffee.  I guess the shadowy forces of the coffee-industrial complex figured, back in those pre-Starbucks days, that Americans just weren't drinking enough of it.