Friday, September 30, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. 
-- William Blake
More Poetry Friday at Read Write Believe.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quick Takes: Nostographers' Back-to-School Edition

1. For about two weeks after the first day of school, the route my son and I walk took us past a dead squirrel lying in the street, close to the curb.  It was near someone's driveway, and looked as though it had died in great agony.  "Look!" my son gasped, seeing it before I did that first day.  I tried to conceal my nauseated cringe, and we talked about it.  In fact, we had many opportunities to talk about it, because the squirrel remained, gradually deflating and decomposing, day after day.  In the morning, my son insisted on going up a different street, so as to save the fascinating dead-squirrel nature observations for the way home.  "Don't look up that street," he would caution me as we walked to school, but on the way home he would eagerly examine the squirrel's current state of decay.  I called the city sanitation department two or three times, but the squirrel remained.

Then one day last week, my son, inspired by the wonderful out-of-print Margaret Wise Brown book The Dead Bird, asked me to make a sign to commemorate the squirrel.  One one side, the sign was to read: "Here Lies A Squirrel That Is Dead," and on the other side: "Here Lies A Squirrel Which Is Dead." So I did, on a piece of cardboard with Sharpie marker, and on the way to school the next day we detoured past the dead squirrel and laid the sign in the street alongside it.

A day or two after that, the squirrel was gone, though, if you scan the gutter carefully, you can see a couple of bedraggled tufts of gray fur.  The sign remained for another week, and now it is gone too.

2. The school is about three-quarters of a mile from our house, and the walk takes us down a lovely divided street with stately homes.  Walking home alone one day, I noticed that, in back of one of these houses, a labyrinth had been painted on the driveway blacktop.  I remembered when I worked at a Wall Street law firm for my day job, and how a church down there -- was it Trinity Church? -- installed a similar labyrinth, white lines painted on black canvas stretched out in the church courtyard.  It was a very troubled time in my life, and I thought that walking the labyrinth during my lunch hour would somehow help.  I would walk that flat, painted maze in the church courtyard, car horns blaring outside on the street, without knowing what feelings or insights it was supposed to inspire, and, to my knowledge, it didn't inspire any.

3. I learned recently to my dismay that the accomplished, attractive college-age daughter of a musician colleague whom I greatly respect has developed a serious heroin habit. Instead of taking her daughter back to school, my friend pulled her out of a sordid crack-house and drove her to an out-of-state rehab, and the daughter is now living in an out-of-state halfway house.  My friend has no desire to go and see her.

This made me think about how my friend's music always seemed to come before everything else.  She spends many months of every year on the road, and this family crisis has not slowed her down.  If anything, I imagine that she is barricading herself ever more tightly into the predictable world of practice, rehearsal, and performance.  This is an impulse I fully understand, for, where the world is broken, music is sound and whole, and where I am utterly powerless and ineffectual in my own life and the lives of others, I have always been able to feel a sense of power and agency in my art -- the ability to perform on a relatively high level and, in so doing, to move hearts. And, where the people I knew disappointed me, Brahms and Mozart did not -- could not.

The world is broken, nonetheless, and music cannot fix it.  I wonder how often music becomes a substitute for what it stands for -- real love, true human connection.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Poetry Friday: Faint Music

Warning: this poem contains language and images that might be offensive. In case you have decided not to read it because of this, here is the last stanza, which no one ought to miss.

It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.   
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.
Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,   
and everything dead is dead,
and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,
and the heroine has studied her face and its defects
remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,
as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves
has lost its novelty and not released them,
and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,
watching the others go about their days—
likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears—
that self-love is the one weedy stalk
of every human blossoming, and understood,
therefore, why they had been, all their lives,   
in such a fury to defend it, and that no one—
except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool
of poverty and silence—can escape this violent, automatic
life’s companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,
faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.

As in the story a friend told once about the time   
he tried to kill himself. His girl had left him.
Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.   
He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,   
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,   
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word   
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,   
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up   
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid. He put on the jacket   
he’d used for a pillow, climbed over the railing   
carefully, and drove home to an empty house.

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.   
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick   
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.   
They’d have just finished making love. She’d have tears   
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. “God,”   
she’d say, “you are so good for me.” Winking lights,   
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.   
“You’re sad,” he’d say. “Yes.” “Thinking about Nick?”
“Yes,” she’d say and cry. “I tried so hard,” sobbing now,
“I really tried so hard.” And then he’d hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they’d fuck again, and she would cry some more,   
and go to sleep.
                        And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened   
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.

It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying “And then I realized—,”
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.   
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.
-- Robert Hass, from Sun Under Wood (HarperCollins, copyright © 1996.)

 More Poetry Friday at Anastasia Suen's Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Other Madeleines

Sometimes it takes time for the reality of one's circumstances to fully hit one.  When we first moved here, I assumed that my life would sort of go on the same way it always had, just in a much smaller place.  I imagined, for instance, without really considering it, that I would have no problem walking into a deli and getting a coffee and a prune danish.  But then, after a while, I realized that there were no delis here.  Is it the same everywhere outside of major urban areas?

So I made my coffee at home, and I even made prune danish a few times, a laborious process, but worth it.

Still, it's hard to describe the jolt you feel when you realize that you can no longer do the ordinary things you once did.  In New York, most people can legitimately claim membership in a handful of communities, into and out of which they slip with relative ease. These might include one's friends from church or work, say, or the other mothers, like oneself, generally shunned at the playground (in my neighborhood, these included the German woman married to a Jamaican man, whose toddler daughter was completely bald from alopecia; the Irish-born woman who'd lived there for years and had many friends, but who was rejected when she adopted an attachment-parenting philosophy; and, perhaps most problematic of all in my majority-Irish neighborhood, the black Englishwoman).  For me, they also included my classical musician and singer colleagues; the brilliant young university-student mother with autism who lived downstairs and was my son's first babysitter (and, for her own reasons, a fellow outsider in our neighborhood); my professors and colleagues in my doctoral program; and the community of solid friendships I was able to construct with a few other women, including Really Rosie. Here, I can't even seem to make friends with anyone at church, and the post-kindergarten pickup line is not shaping up very promisingly; the other mothers seem to know one another already, and I'm prepared to be shunned when it's discovered that I'm the mother of the only child with autism in this otherwise mainstream class.

I found myself with time on my hands this morning, and I decided to go to the local Catholic hospital, to which I can walk, and do Adoration in their chapel.  One of my main incentives was, admittedly, that the hospital cafeteria carries these fantastic chocolate-filled croissants that are reminiscent of the ones sold at many a New York deli, with one of which I anticipated rewarding myself afterwards.  In the chapel I met an elderly nun I know who's originally from New Jersey, and I poured out to her my tale of crushing loneliness.  But as we talked, it dawned on me, as it does every so often, that God has uprooted me from everything I once knew and loved in His mercy. For everyone who wishes to ascend must descend. 

In my former life, after many years of struggle and hard work, I had achieved a certain level of accomplishment and a certain small amount of recognition.  And when I entered my doctoral program and began teaching college, things seemed, for the first time, completely right; I felt as if I had finally found what I was meant to do.  When I met my husband, got married in the Church, and had a beautiful baby boy nine months and three days after our wedding, I felt even more confirmed in the rightness of it all.

And then, multiple pregnancy losses.  And then, we moved here.  And then no more teaching, or friends, or community. And secondary infertility. And my mother's terminal illness. And my son's autism diagnosis. All these conditions, for now, are ongoing, as is my sense, to quote Saint John of the Cross, of the pervasiveness of "nothing, nothing, nothing."

And now this community has been devastated by flooding resulting from the recent hurricanes. I suspect that, because of the disaster, more people will leave this area, which has already lost half its population in the past twenty years.

Being stripped so bare of everything that I thought made me who I was, being so left to my own meager devices, makes me realize how much I relied on the good opinion of others in my former life, and how much I defined myself by my accomplishments. Here, it seems there is nothing but my daily struggles, mostly of the most mundane kind, but in many ways more challenging than the daily struggles of my former life, which were more easily solved, and whose resolution was so much more readily rewarded (good coffee and pastry, after all, can be had on nearly every street corner back in New York).  I feel so diminished here, and I feel as if God is pushing me to my knees every day.  Though this is painful and is not what I would have sought, it can't be bad.

My new town used to be a manufacturing hub.  That's all gone now, of course, leaving an emptied-out shell of a city.  In the midst of this, for some reason I can't fully comprehend, there is a small, independent coffee roaster here that makes the best coffee I've ever had in my life outside of Italy.  After the days of flooding, feeling rather helpless, I went downtown just to have a coffee there. They had been closed for several days because of ordinances against water use, and were just reopening.  As I was paying for my coffee, my eye fell on a glass cookie jar at the counter, which, to my amazement, was stocked with regina biscuits, a very particular, local, and therefore rarely found Italian cookie -- sesame-covered, delicate and not too sweet, my favorite biscuit of all, far outstripping your margheritas or your anisette cookies -- that I had not seen since I was quite young in Brooklyn, when I used to eat them by the dozen out of a brown paper bag from the local bakery.  I asked the proprietor where these cookies had come from.  From Brooklyn, she told me.  She didn't know the name of the bakery; a friend had brought them. I bought some; they were the same as they always had been.

I sat there with my coffee and my reginas and I wasn't sure whether I should play my usual game of conjuring lost worlds by way of strange-yet-familiar objects, mediating the ghosts of the invisible past with the tangible, the material, the present, as Proust did so famously in the opening pages of Remembrance of Things Past. In the end, though, I decided not to, because I am trying to actively turn my memory over to God, as suggested by the Ignatian "Suscipe" prayer.  I see, indeed, that there is nothing to fall back on but God.  I'm not saying I like this state of affairs, but that's the way it is.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sybil of the Rhine

Today is the feast of the great Benedictine mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), known as the Sybil of the Rhine.  Although Hildegard was apparently one of the first blesseds subject to the official process of canonization, the process was never completed in her case, and technically she remains at the level of beatification.  Nonetheless, Hildegard began to be named in the Roman Martyrology in the sixteenth century, and has been called a saint by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

"When I was 42 years and seven months old," she wrote, "a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind, like a flame that does not burn but enkindles. All at once I was able to taste of the understanding of books—the Psalter, the Evangelists, and the Books of the Old and New Testaments."

Hildegard was also a composer, one of the first women in the Western tradition to be identified as such, and the first identified Western composer whose biography is known.  She wrote more than seventy liturgical pieces which were performed at her abbey, and even a sort of proto-opera, Ordo Virtutum, about the conversion of the fallen human soul (I was crazily fortunate to see a very good performance of this piece in college, ambitiously mounted by a fellow music student).

Here is one of St. Hildegard's hymns to the Blessed Virgin. I'm pretty sure it will fill you with joy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Poetry Friday: French Horn

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.
What in this unpleated world isn’t someone’s seduction?
The boy playing his intricate horn in Mahler’s Fifth,
in the gaps between playing,
turns it and turns it, dismantles a section,
shakes from it the condensation
of human passage. He is perhaps twenty.
Later he takes his four bows, his face deepening red,
while a girl holds a viola’s spruce wood and maple
in one half-opened hand and looks at him hard.
Let others clap.
These two, their ears still ringing, hear nothing.
Not the shouts of bravo, bravo,
not the timpanic clamor inside their bodies.
As the plum’s blossoms do not hear the bee
nor taste themselves turned into storable honey
by that sumptuous disturbance.

-- Jane Hirshfield

More Poetry Friday at The Poem Farm.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Quick Takes: Disaster Edition

1.  Posting has been light here due to various catastrophes, of both the major kind that affect large swathes of the population, and the minor kind that are more like earthquakes or hurricanes in the soul.  My area has been badly hurt by flooding, and I've been spending time with my very ill mother.  It's strange how sometimes the outer landscape reflects the inner, and then there's no relief for the sufferer; he can neither go within for comfort, nor hope that the beauty of his surroundings will cheer him.

2.  We don't have television, so I will not see the Towers falling over and over again on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  And I didn't have television then, so I didn't have to watch it back then, either, for which I was grateful.  The first time I went downtown afterwards, near the end of September, 2001 -- I tried to avoid it, but I had an appointment to keep -- the ruins were still smoldering, and seeing them almost literally brought me to my knees.  Back then, all at once, the rest of America loved New York, but a few months later was back to hating us again for the usual reasons, mostly having to do, I think, with elitism and liberal values.  And yet New Yorkers took their lives into their hands, and continue to do so, every day in the pursuit of things that are objectively good, like going to work or school, performing acts of family and community service, attending religious services, etc.  The fear of my fellow Americans in the days and years following 9/11 seemed a little out of proportion to the threats they actually faced, while the ordinary courage and good-naturedness of New Yorkers seems to be the only way to live, no matter what we're facing.

3.  All tragedy is local, however, and my attention is focused on some very difficult things going on in my own community.  Posting will probably be light here for a little while.  May God bless everyone who reads here.

4. A song that has repeatedly played in my mind during the flood.  We need beauty even more than usual during a disaster.

Friday, September 2, 2011


I was looking for recordings of one of my favorite Neapolitan songs on Youtube (you can take the girl out of Napoli -- or at least her family -- etc., etc.), and, while I didn't find my favorite version, sung by the great Italian-American soprano Rosa Ponselle, I found some pretty worthy ones. It was a popular song for Italian opera singers in the first half of the twentieth century, but, though these two singers are not operatic, they sing in a truer Neapolitan style, with gorgeous, full-throated sincerity and quasi-Arabic melismas aplenty.  This is a lovely song; enjoy. Carmè is a nickname for the beautiful name Carmela.

Sleep, Carmè!
The loveliest thing in the world is to sleep and dream.
Dream of me;
If I could, I would fly with you to Paradise!

(Incidentally, this is not a folk song, though by now it's thought of as one; it is an art song.  The Neapolitan song repertoire with which we are familiar was conceived as upper-middle-class parlor music, and was first published in in the music journals that were popular in the 1880s and 1890s.  "Carmela" was written by the de Curtis brothers.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011