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.