Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Madness of Love

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent Novena 2011

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Music and Memory, Part 25: Every Gig Counts

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When We Remembered Zion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

After the Airport

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

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

Amazing post by an adoptive mother about parenting traumatized children.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

For Brahms-Lovers Only

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Now You Know What Purgatory is For

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crime and Communion

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guerilla Librarianship

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah posits:

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Senses Working Overtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Magical Thinking

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Hidden Life with McGillicuddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Love is Service

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

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

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

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

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