Monday, February 28, 2011

"Why I Avoid Both the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right"

I’ve had abortions. I feel deeply that abortion is wrong. I have gone on record and I will go on record again as saying I believe abortion is deeply wrong. But the reason abortion is wrong is that it’s a failure of love, and  if you're not converted by the sight of an actual child, you're certainly not going to be converted by seeing an aborted fetus; just as, if you're not converted  by Christ's person, teachings and life, you're not going to be converted by watching a fetishistically violent film of his crucifixion.

So I don’t show my sorrow by wearing a button of an aborted fetus—or actually any fetus—who by the way could not possibly have been in a position to give his or her consent to be plastered all over my chest in order to make a statement about my political/religious views.

I show my sorrow by
changing my life. I show that I care by changing my life.

Heather King, writing on her blog, Shirt of Flame.  Read the rest of this astonishing and wonderful post, of which this excerpt gives only a small taste.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Inappropriate Plea

Because we are adopting baby Jude from a country which is a signee to the Hague Adoption Convention, both my husband and I must complete many hours of online study meant to prepare us for the health and developmental risks that attend the institutionalization of children.  The readings, some of which are medical journal articles, others of which are personal/anecdotal accounts, are sobering and heartbreaking.  I don't have time to write a lot about it now, but I want to make a statement that is bold and probably inappropriate: if you are reading this blog, please consider -- even if you've never thought of it before, and if it is in any way at all feasible for your family situation -- adopting one (or more) of the many thousands of little ones waiting in orphanages abroad.  These children desperately need you -- need us.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Prayer Booklet Giveaway

Somehow I have acquired two copies of a very beautiful Eastern Orthodox prayer in booklet form, called "Akathist of Repentance for One Who Has Aborted a Child." According to the introduction, it was written by "someone in Russia," where multiple abortions are extremely commonplace, and translated into English.  I read it, and found its heartfelt combination of true contrition and complete confidence in God's mercy very stirring.  If anyone is interested in this prayer booklet (it can be prayed for oneself or for another person), leave your email address in the combox.  It will go to the first requester.  All my comments are moderated, so I will not publish a comment with an email address in it.

Keep in mind that the prayer was written for Eastern Orthodox Christians, so in one place the editor makes reference to the Bride of Christ, "Our Holy Orthodox Church."  If you are Roman Catholic, do not let that deter you -- the prayer is beautiful, and it would be wonderful if it found purchase in our own churches.

P.S. I have an extra copy of this as well, which I will include.  I'd like to send both to the same person.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Theology of "Room"

"[F]or me, Room is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. If God sounds absent from that triangle, that's because I think for a small child God's love is represented, and proved, by mother-love." - Emma Donoghue

Great interview with Emma Donoghue, author of Room, at The Economist.

The Perils of High-Stakes Mommy-Blogging

[Heather] Armstrong tried joking with [her daughter] Leta, then hugging her, then distracting the two children with another game that didn’t require as much coordination. Noticing that I’d been taking notes during the meltdown, Armstrong winced but didn’t ask me to stop. “It’s all fodder,” she said. “It’s all material.” 

Or is it? It’s true that the most-trafficked personal bloggers appear to have few boundaries, in part because so many found their followers, and their voices, in times of crisis. Yet the most successful of the genre, the women who manage to turn this into a living, or at least part of one, pull off the neat trick of seeming to share more than they do. “Nobody reveals every piece of themselves online,” [Ree] Drummond says. “It’s not really inventing a personality as much as shying away from certain subjects". . . .

In other words, she will write about Leta . . . but not really. She will tell readers something is going on . . . but not what. She will let strangers feel as if they know what she is going through . . . but not completely. It’s a sleight of hand that seems a necessary part of this evolution from online diary to online business.

Read the rest of this fascinating article.

Friday, February 18, 2011

From a Friend's Journal

One of my oldest and dearest friends -- now, by dint of serious dues-paying, a moderately successful author -- sent me an email in the middle of the night with the heading: "A Journal Entry from 1996."  The recorded entry, in its entirety, read:  "Pentimento says she goes into the office every day and cries."

I wrote him back to ask if I'd ever mentioned back then what I was crying about.

His reply: "I think 'the human condition' was pretty much understood."


I suggested that my lachrimosity had probably made me a less-than-sought-after office temp, but my friend reassured me: "I think they were perfectly happy to overlook the tears of a matchstick girl who could type as fast as you did. Perhaps they even found your suffering to be nectar."

It's an interesting thought.  I often pray that it might at least be a balm for someone else's suffering. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

By an' By

I don't know how much longer my mother has to live.  She could be gone within a few months, or she could linger a year or two.  But I've started planning the music for her funeral, and have already asked a friend to conduct what will probably be an eight-voice choir.  My siblings will probably be angry with me, but, since I have no control over life or death, I find it comforting to try to sort out the little details that might bring someone some consolation.

This is not one of the pieces we will do, though I am planning to include a choral arrangement of the Negro spiritual "Soon-ah will be done."   (My mother is the daughter of a Civil Rights activist, spent most of her own best energies working for equal access to educational opportunities for disadvantaged -- i.e. poor and black -- children, and is well-known and -loved in the local African-American community).  But it is one that I've loved for a long time.  Paul Robeson sings with his accompanist, Lawrence Brown, who has an aching, humane tenor voice. I love the line "I know my robe's going to fit me well/I tried it on at the gates of hell."

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Lone Pilgrim

At the waning of winter, I want to do nothing else but sit in solitude in a spot near a window through which only a little light comes with a steaming mug of tea close to hand and read Laurie Colwin.  In honor of St. Valentine's Day, here is a re-post from 2009 of an excerpt from her wonderful story "The Lone Pilgrim."

The writers one loves become our friends, and revisiting my beloved Laurie Colwin is like seeing a great friend again after many years, and finding that your conversation is as easy as if there had never been a pause in it. This is from her story "The Lone Pilgrim":

You get used to a condition of longing. Live with it over time and it becomes part of your household . . . . You cannot fantasize being married if you are married. Married to Gilbert, what would I long for? I would not even be able to long for him.

Woe to those who get what they desire. Fulfillment leaves an empty space where your old self used to be, the self that pines and broods and reflects. . . . The feelings you were used to abiding with are useless. The conditions you established for your happiness are met. That youthful light-headed feeling whose sharp side is much like hunger is of no more use to you.

You long for someone to love. You find him. You pine for him. Suddenly, you discover you are loved in return. You marry. Before you do, you count up the days you spent in other people's kitchens, at dinnner parties, putting other people's children to bed. You have basked in a sense of domesticity you have not created but enjoy. The Lone Pilgrim sits at the dinner parties of others, partakes, savors, and goes home in a taxi alone.

. . . . [N]ow the search has ended. Your imagined happiness is yours. Therefore, you lose your old bearings. On the one side is your happiness and on the other is your past -- the self you were used to, going through life alone, heir to your own experience. Once you commit yourself, everything changes and the rest of your life seems to you like a dark forest on the property you have recently acquired. It is yours, but still you are afraid to enter it, wondering what you might find: a little chapel, a stand of birches, wolves, snakes, the worst you can imagine, or the best. You take one timid step forward, but then you realize you are not alone. You take someone's hand . . . and strain through the darkness to see ahead.

(Above:  "Love Locked Out" [1889] by Anna Lea Merritt, which was used for the cover of The Lone Pilgrim, the collection in which the story with the same title was published in 1981.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

"How Angelina of You"

I mentioned in the previous post that I'm entering a very busy period.  It's busy in ways good, bad, and ambiguous.  In the obviously-bad department, among other things, my mother is dying by inches.  In the ambiguous (and exhausting and frustrating, but also hopeful) department, my son has finally, after almost a year of evaluations by different school, medical, and psychological entities, gotten an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, which is opening up a whole new world for all of us, about which I'll write more later (the frustrating aspect being that lately I've had to spend most of my free time on the phone, a hated instrument for me, trying to advocate for and coordinate his services; the exhausting aspect being that it's, well, exhausting to parent a small child on the spectrum).

In the good-but-still-ambiguous department -- ambiguous because it's overwhelming, even maddening -- is the adoption process for Baby Jude.  I'm up to my neck in paperwork, and what arcane paperwork it is.  I'm still trying to get vital records from the great city of New York; my husband, it turns out, will have to be background-checked in Ireland as well as the United States; we have to have our home study entirely rewritten to reflect how we will become a multi-cultural family (which, in some ways, we already are); and we have to spend hours online being trained for compliance with Hague adoption standards. 

This video, however, is a bright spot in my week (sorry, I couldn't embed it; you'll need to click the link to watch).  My understanding is that it provides a frighteningly, if hilariously, accurate depiction of one standard adoption conversation.  (It's never too soon to be prepared.)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Repost: The Long Black Veil

I'm reposting this for both negative and positive reasons.  The negative reason is that I'm entering a pretty-much-too-busy-to-post period over the next few weeks; the positive reason is that I was thinking about this performance and how much I love it.

There's a long tradition in both high art and folk poetry of the voice from beyond the grave. Tennyson wrote:

Come not, when I am dead,
To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,
To trample round my fallen head,
And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.
There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;
But thou, go by.

Child, if it were thine error or thy crime
I care no longer, being all unblest:
Wed whom thou wilt, but I am sick of Time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave me where I lie:
Go by, go by.

The 1959 song "The Long Black Veil," by Lefty Frizzell, has one foot in that tradition, and the other in the equally long tradition of crime balladry. Here is a wonderful performance of the song as a duet sung by Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell, from Cash's short-running television show at the end of the 1960s.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Simple Theology of Beauty

 An artist must have the conception of what he intends to make within himself, be it a picture, carving, music or anything else, it must be there in his own mind complete.  The making of it in paint or stone or wood or sound is a little image of the Incarnation, the "Word made flesh."  When it is made, its validity as a work of art depends upon whether others recognize in it the expression of something that is inarticulate in themselves.

-- Caryll Houselander (above), from an upublished speech to the Catholic Evidence Guild

I found this remarkable little picture book on the $.25 table at the library.  An excerpt:

An artist is like God, but small.
He can't see out of God's creation, for it includes him. . . .
An artist spends his life not only wondering,
but wanting to work like God with what he can command:
his paints.
He tries go copy God's creations.
He tries to shape beauty with his hand.
He tries to make order out of nature . . . . 
An artist is like God
as God created him. . . . 
he tries to make paint sing.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Town and Country

 Years ago, I used to take the train upstate in the summer to visit family.  Passing through the crumbling cities of the Rust Belt, I would fantasize about leaving New York City to move to one of them.  That abandoned warehouse hard by the train station:  what a great cultural center it would make!  Studios for artists, a performance space, workshops, community outreach, a coffee bar . . . I supposed that grants to arts organizations in areas like that could be had for the asking.  But it never turned into anything more than one of the many idle get-rich-quick schemes of a slightly-out-of-the-mainstream and rather-increasingly-jaded young opera singer.

A few days ago, I gave a concert in my new town, which is very much like those crumbling Rust Belt cities that I used to see from the window of the Amtrak Maple Leaf, only possibly slightly less cosmopolitan and slightly more crumbling.  The genesis of this concert was a phone call a few months ago from a colleague of mine, a wonderful bass who now teaches at a large Southern university; he told me he wanted to come up to do a concert with me.  He needed more performances for his tenure file.  So I contacted a few people and arranged for us to do a concert in what may become a regular salon concert series in a beautiful space with a fine piano.  I also arranged for him to teach a master class to the local university's voice students.  I planned and thematically programmed the repertoire -- all chamber music from nineteenth-century Italy -- made translations, and spoke to the audience about the music.  And, as with all gigs, no matter how small, I practiced as if it were the most important gig of my life.  We also enlisted a gifted young local tenor, a popular favorite, to sing with us, and there my troubles began. 

I think there's a reason that some of the best twentieth-century British comic novels are set in the provinces.  My tenor, who I emphasize could be monstrously good, has never made the break to New York, partly because he's well-loved here, and partly because it's cheap enough to live here that he's able to spend a good part of his day taking long baths, watching old movies, and drinking martinis, which doesn't happen much for young tenors in New York, most of whom are office temps by day and/or waiters and bartenders by night.  But who can blame my tenor?  I'd be drinking a martini in the bath right now if I had some gin on hand.

I gave him the music I wanted him to sing -- all pieces that have rarely been in the past hundred years or more, possibly never performed in this locale at all, and unrecorded (which meant he wouldn't be able to take the lazy man's way out and learn them from CDs) back in October, but he learned it (sort of) three days before the performance.  My bass colleague was slightly appalled for about five minutes, but quickly assured me he'd seen this sort of situation, and this sort of tenor, before: the gifted local favorite whom much is forgiven on account of his personal charm, and who never develops the skills that would afford him a career outside of the provinces.  "It's too bad," my colleague said, "because my manager needs a tenor, and I would have recommended him if he weren't so unprofessional."

The moral of this story is that there are no low-stakes gigs.  You never know who it is that you may be working with or performing for.  I'm not saying that I've never turned in a bad performance -- I have -- but it wasn't because I hadn't learned my music.  In fact, I have a recurrring nightmare, as I'm sure most singers do, that an important gig is looming and I don't know my part.  I couldn't understand why my tenor would willingly put himself through such harrowing stress, if it weren't that he knew he'd be forgiven any offense by an adoring audience who wouldn't notice his mistakes anyway. I'm trying hard to find this attitude forgivable, for to me it shows contempt for one's audience, for one's colleagues, and for the music itself, which we are privileged to be able to sing.

Our pianist -- who is local and truly excellent -- was chagrined.  She had recommended him.  She has some connections to New York, has played there, and feels a sort of provincial insecurity around artists from there.  "Pentimento," she kept saying me, "when did you last experience this sort of thing?"  Well, never, actually.  But it's not because singers, or people, in New York are better.  It's just that they're different.  They're hungry; they're driven.  There are hundreds of people auditioning for the same job.  There are thousands of opera singers in New York, of varying degrees of success and ability, who have come there from all over the country and the world because they believe they have the relentless discipline and stamina to survive and triumph in that brutal, cut-throat climate.  They aren't always better singers than my local tenor, but they are better workers, and in the end, I will aver with my dying breath, that is the thing that matters most of all.

I'm not knocking the life of a small-town artist.  I can understand its appeal to a certain sort of person.  But I see that it has a lot to do with adoring dowagers and martinis in the bathtub (though not at the same time), and very little to do with art, because you can never really get to the heart of the beauty, the truth, the compelling intimacy, or the healing that is inherent in the music if you haven't bothered to really learn it.
When we went out to a bar after the performance, I told my bass colleague that I felt like a light had gone out in my life since we moved here.  "Well, turn it back on, Pentimento!" he roared at me.  "Make your niche here!  I'm going to call you every day and kick your ass until you do."

It may happen.  My autoharp-procuring mentor, unbidden by me, has pledged a fairly substantial sum to fund a vocal chamber music collective in this area founded and directed by me.  His idea.  I may be writing more here at some point about music-making in the provinces.  In the meantime, straight up with olives, please.

(Above:  a scene from "Red, White, and Blaine," the show-within-a-show in that great film parody of community theater, Waiting for Guffman.)