Sunday, April 29, 2012

Interests and Talents That Do Not Involve You

I was surprised to see this blog mentioned favorably in a recent post on motherhood by Dartmouth undergraduate Clare Coffey in the "On the Square"  section of First Things. Coffey, who discloses in the second paragraph that she has no personal or quantifiable experience in her subject, nonetheless attempts in the piece to unpack certain cultural constructs of what we might call "the new motherhood," and to offer her ideas for remaking it along more humane lines. In case the reader should question her credentials, however, she lightly suggests that "if anything I say seems presumptuous, unrealistic, or stupid," the reader should "just chuckle."

It appears that more readers scratched their heads than chuckled, wondering why First Things would publish such a facile sort of piece that gets so much wrong by an admitted non-expert. Sally Thomas addressed these concerns in detail at Castle in the Sea, focusing in particular on Coffey's assertion to the actual mothers out there that "[it] is perfectly acceptable to say 'No, you’re not doing trombone camp this year, because I have interests and talents that do not involve you, and spending my life in the car prevents me from pursuing them.'” "Only a sociopathic narcissist," Sally counters,

would declare aloud, to her child's face, that he isn't going to get to do something because frankly she has better things to do with her life than drive him around. I don't think there's anything remotely, let alone perfectly, acceptable about saying that sort of thing to a child, who in any case is naturally going to think, "Who said we were talking about you? The subject of this conversation is me and trombone camp."

I have to conclude that the reason Coffey recommended my blog along with the excellent blogs of some of my esteemed friends is that this one (which does NOT, by implication, extend to theirs) has historically been heavy on the "interests and talents that do not involve you." The idea that this blog might be paradigmatic of some sort of platonic ideal of rightly-engaged motherhood has led me to consider, with some chagrin, the course of my own attempts to maintain my activities as a scholar and performing artist while trying to be a good-enough mother.

There was a time a few years ago when this blog had some very active detractors who, in the interest, I think, of correcting me on my evidently bad course, left hurtful and even vicious messages in the comboxes (must I mention that these trolls generally self-identified as orthodox Catholics?). One, after I had written something in a comment about one's art, if one is a mother, being able to flourish more readily when one has cash in hand for child care, helpfully sought to remind me that the arts were for "people with TALENT," which is to say not for poor schlubs like me, international performing credits, scholarly publications, and at-that-time A.B.D. in music notwithstanding. Another real-life former friend, a self-styled apologist with a strong internet presence, incensed by something I had written here on a different topic, similarly blasted me for my "unsuccess" at everything I'd endeavored, from music to marriage to motherhood (this same erstwhile friend, before he started hating me quite so much, had asked me to sing at his father's wake and funeral, which I did, taking a cab from the Bronx twice to another far-off outer borough of the City of New York, vomiting from morning sickness much of the way), and, further, suggested that I wickedly blamed this unsuccess on my children, both living and dead. You have a happy life too, buddy!

But there is enough fodder for a mommy war waged by me against myself right here in the present. I was asked recently to translate some academic-musicological essays from the Italian for a prestigious forthcoming publication from a major publisher. I felt I couldn't say no to a well-paid gig of this nature, which could potentially generate similar money-earning opportunities, and was being overseen by a scholar I respect. As it turns out, though, I've already had to renegotiate the deadline, because I'm fairly fried from my current nighttime parenting duties, and I'm recalling a woman I used to know who also did freelance translating but concluded, after the birth of her second child, that she just couldn't do it anymore.

Then there's The Magic Flute.  While it's an opera I've never done, the only roles for my voice type are ensemble roles, so it seemed like a low risk to agree to cover those two roles (Second and Third Lady), especially when the chance that I would go onstage in one of them was miniscule and the conductor welcomed my children at rehearsal. But as it happened, I took him at his word. I brought my children to rehearsal.  While the conductor continued to be supportive, saying it was "a delight" to see them there (the fact is that, out of the entire cast and production staff, he was the only other parent; such is opera), the stage director and his staff begged to differ. It seems that Maestro had asked the stage director not to curse in front of the wee ones, and the stage director made it clear that that was "how he worked," and that children were not an appropriate ancillary to his method (in all honesty, Maestro needn't have been sensitive on my behalf; I curse like a truck-driver, though I try to remove myself to another room when I feel like I have to, or else do so in Italian, though I know neither of those tactics are exactly praiseworthy). This has meant that, because of the sudden and unexpected need for child care, I've been to attend only a few rehearsals, and that, as a result, I wouldn't be able to execute the staging in any kind of admirable fashion if I happened to get a last-minute call that one of the mainstage singers was sick. I've done covers before, but this is the first time in my life that I haven't been prepared for the eventuality of going onstage, and it's a very uncomfortable feeling, not just because of that eventuality, but also because it's in violation of my own strict work ethic. I am grateful to the conductor for making accommodations on my behalf, but the truth is that few other people would have done so.

When my older son was an infant, I was asked to chair a panel at an international conference on British music being held that summer in Vermont. I explained that I would need to bring him along, as he would be seven months old and couldn't be away from me. The conference organizers -- all men, fathers and grandfathers -- were happy to oblige, and so were most of my male colleagues. But I was not prepared for the reaction of the other women at the conference, who looked at me and my baby, whom I wore in a wrap, as if we were the shit on their shoes.  I asked a colleague if it would be all right if I brought my son to his panel, and I sat on the floor in the back of the room with him to minimize any disruption he might cause, and to have easy access to the exit. Luckily my baby was fine, only making a few baby sounds here and there, and no one seemed to mind. The keynote address was scheduled for later that day, and I was eager to hear it, as it was given by a scholar whose work interested me keenly. When I entered the hall, however, with my son in his wrap, another scholar, an up-and-coming young Englishwoman, fairly snarled, "If you're sitting there, I'm moving. I heard your baby in that panel discussion," and she swept up her things and flounced to another seat far from us. I got up and left the hall with my son and burst into tears, and ended up spending the keynote sitting under a tree with him and crying. Ironically, one of the conference organizers, a gay man who had recently adopted an infant with his partner, brought his own baby in on the last day, and father and son were swarmed and cooed over by the same women who had shunned me. My contribution to this love-fest was to give the dad a copy of Mothering that I had brought with me and finished. I won't take the time now to unpack this whole experience. but any conclusions you might draw are probably fairly accurate. Just trust me when I say that the world of academia is no more child-friendly -- if you're a mother, that is -- than the world of opera.

I was also a little embarrassed recently when I had to contact an editor who's involved in my own book project about a deadline missed because of my new son's baptism. If I were a man, this would never need have been mentioned.

Although I have no evidence, I'm fairly certain that the long-ago combox troll who reminded me that the arts are for people with TALENT was neither a mother nor an artist, and I would pretty much bet my life that she wasn't both those things at the same time. And while his scathing email ended my friendship with the "friend" who had suddenly become a self-appointed music critic and, though unmarried and childless himself, a marriage-and-parenting authority (this friend also helpfully brought up the "unspeakable crime" I'd committed against my unborn child years before he knew me, and years after being absolved), and while I no longer follow him nor his fairly prolific work for various online outlets, I would be willing to bet that he has remained unmarried and childless, because, seriously, with a personality like that what are the chances?

But I digress. My point, I suppose, is that, pace Clare Coffey (and thanks for the shout-out, Clare; it's a nice difference from the haters of yore), I'm hardly a paragon of, well, anything. But nonetheless (and this is probably what riled up said haters), I firmly believe that if you give up your whole prior life when you have children -- if, that is, your whole prior life contained anything that you found beautiful, nurturing, or salutary for your soul -- it's going to come back and bite you in the ass. I don't believe in what you might call "professional" motherhood, unless that's a life you've been trained for and have always wanted, which is undoubtedly the case for many mothers. And on a related note, I'm convinced, whatever lurking trolls and former friends might think, that the only way to maintain some sort of culturally-defined "success" -- the flip side, that is, of my troll-former-friend's concept of "unsuccess," the kind of "success" that the other arts-critic commenter seems to have imagined is the natural outcome of being a talented person in the arts -- is to have access to some kind of reliable child care, in which someone other than you, the artist-mother, cares for your children for certain periods of time during which you practice your art. And the cultural imagination notwithstanding (I have it from someone who knows that Angelina Jolie has six nannies, one for each child!), not a lot of artist-mothers have this access, so a lot of artist-mothers stop practicing their art. If you, dear reader, have any thoughts that suggest otherwise -- and generally the thoughts I give credence to are those that can be backed up, if not by quantifiable evidence, then by anecdotal experience; they are generally not, that is to say, wild guesses about what motherhood must be like, made by non-mothers -- then kindly let me know, in an un-troll-like fashion if you can manage it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ye Kindly Gods, Do Not Deceive Me!

 O ihr guten Götter, täuscht mich nicht.

Prince Tamino utters these words in Act I of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), after the Queen of the Night has asked him to rescue her daughter, Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, who has not yet proven his manhood (he faints while being menaced by a dragon in the first scene, and the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies kill the beast while he lays unconscious), sets off to fulfill this charge. In a shocking twist of events, however, he learns in Act II that Sarastro, the high priest of Isis and Osiris, is a good man who has taken Pamina away from the evil Queen for her own good. Because they love wisdom, Tamino and Pamina seek to be initiated into the sacred mysteries of the Egyptian gods.

One of the most remarkable things about Mozart's last opera is its ethos of complete and stunning reversal. What was one way in the first act turns out, in the second, to be its exact opposite; what appeared good proves evil, and vice versa. A close study of the score provides early clues that all may not be as it seems; for instance, the Queen's entrance aria, rather than musically portraying her as a grieving mother, instead clearly reveals her to be steely and domineering, and, when sung and directed well, is actually a little scary (indeed, the voice type that sings it -- dramatic coloratura soprano -- has often been used in opera to represent characters who are not quite, or are somehow beyond, human):  

In a classic moment of overcommitment, I agreed, before Jude arrived, to cover (i.e. understudy) the roles of Second and Third Lady in a production of Zauberflöte being staged by a regional opera company in my area, in spite of the fact that it's been more than ten years since I last appeared in an opera. The conductor had heard me, and was very supportive, even telling me that I could bring my kids to rehearsals (a rare accommodation in opera, where few performers -- at least few women -- have children, and one that in the long run did not go over well with the stage director and his staff). The chances of me having to go onstage are slim, thank God, because I'm not ready; in addition to the usual parenting, homemaking, and post-adoption stuff, I'm also doing some editing and translating work for pay in the few moments I can spare for it, as well as working on my own (academic-musicological) book.

It's hard to describe how strange it is to be sitting on the sidelines during rehearsals, either with or without my children. To be benched, as it were, has forced me into a position of unwonted humility, since singing was always my ticket up and out, the simple tool I used to make a better life for myself. I watch the mostly excellent young singers and learn the staging, and I wonder what their lives and careers will be like. Two of the singers in the cast recently married each other: what will happen to them? Will one be successful, the other not? Will they have children? Will they stay together? In the world of opera, all of these matters are open to question.

And to be here, doing this, in Applachia is doubly strange. I think about my old life in New York, and I wonder if it was really real at all. After moving here, I longed greatly for that life, which I regarded as my true life, and my life here as some sort of shoddy bargain-basement substitute for what I might be doing. But now I'm not so sure of that hierarchy of lives. As I sit and watch rehearsals, I wonder if this was the life I was always meant to have, and if everything leading up to it -- everything which is now falling away as if it were a dream -- was in fact like Tamino's understanding of the world and the cosmos in the first act of Die Zauberflöte: shiny, deceiving, baffling, and completely opposite to the way things really are.

(Above: The Queen of the Night's entrance, from a stage set designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for an 1815 production of the opera.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sehnsucht for Tots

I know something about longing, especially about longing for a past that may have never been what I now imagine it to be; I know reasonably well the dull ache for people and places gone forever, even when that longing is ontologically misplaced. I know all this not only from my own long and neurotic experience, but also from my schooling in the soundtrack of German romanticism, in which the keenest longing -- Sehnsucht -- is a guiding ethos.

My new son wakes up in the middle of the night and cries for hours and will not be consoled. My husband suggested that he, too, knows Sehnsucht. The present is better than the often-idealized past, but it's hard to explain that to a post-institutionalized, pre-verbal toddler in culture shock.

So this goes out to Jude; music by Schubert, text by Goethe:

Over all the hilltops
is calm.
In all the treetops
you feel
hardly a breath of air.
The little birds fall silent in the woods.
Just wait: soon
you too will rest.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Years of the Locust

the lepers, the possessed, the ones whom Jesus heals always want to follow him, but he always sends them home to tell their families what the Lord has done for them. Or, in some cases, to tell no one who healed them.

I think I've missed this point in the past, as I've always thought the highest form of praise is to "leave all things you have, and come and follow me."

To those he has healed, Christ says, go home to your family. Go be in relationship with your people. Make reparation, which in many ways, is a more difficult vocation than leaving a tragic past behind and starting fresh among new people.

In all of my years in New York City -- years of bad mistakes, of humiliation, of foolhardiness -- I harbored the secret fantasy of moving somewhere far away where nobody knew me, a place where my life would be a blank slate and I could start over. I had all kinds of career plans in this fantasy, most of which involved buying a dilapidated old warehouse in a decrepit town like the one where I now live and turning it into a thriving arts center. To actually move away from the city, though -- and probably to actually move anywhere -- you need a good reason, and to turn old warehouses into arts centers you need a lot of cash, so my fantasy stayed a fantasy.

And then it happened -- part of it, at least. We moved far away to a place where I knew no one and no one knew me. And so here we are.

Every day my life here becomes different in ways both big and small. The big ways include things like adding another child to my family through adoption. The small things include learning to accept that "all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil," that, in other words, all is not as I longed for it to be since before I can remember -- that is, a life lived through, by, and for aesthetic values, dominated by beauty, and redolent with the variegated shades of meaning not stated outright, but only hinted at in the music that, over long years of study, became part of me. The fact is that I spend a lot of time cleaning up messes, trying to neutralize extreme behavior (my children's as well as my own), and going to Walmart, all things entirely antithetical to my youthful aesthetic ideal.

Otepoti just did the incredibly generous and heroic thing of traveling from New Zealand to China to help my husband bring home our little Jude. She slept on my sofa for two weeks, and helped out with the kids, cooking, and cleaning.  She dealt fairly and compassionately with my autism-spectrum son's sometimes-maddening behavior, and she changed plenty of nappies. She also went to a big Rwandan-refugee house party with me, hosted in honor of my friends' daughter's baptism, attended rehearsals of an opera production at the regional opera company located here in which I am a cover (i.e. understudy) for one of the roles, and watched episodes of Portlandia and the marvelous Danish film Babette's Feast with me. 

At the end of the latter, there is a wonderful monologue spoken by General Löwenhielm, who, as a young man, had rejected the love of one of the two devout daughters of an austere Protestant minister. In old age he is invited to a banquet given in their home, and he gives the following speech at table:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us, and everything have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together; and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

As he leaves the party, he continues:

. . . I have been with you every day of my life.... You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you: not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

The first comment Otepoti ever made on this blog was from Joel 2:25: "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten." Not only did this comment mark the start of a great friendship; it also gave me hope. And I have come to believe, like General Löwenhielm, that God even restores to us what we rejected in this life, though restoration of this kind may not look the way it did in our fantasies. Indeed, Otepoti helped with that restoration herself, when she helped to bring our Jude home. Now may God help me to make the reparations I need to make in order to be in relationship with people, to live in a family, and to demonstrate to others the ways He's healed me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Before, During, and After the Airport

I just want to note briefly that Jude is a very, very cool little kid.

And I want to thank some people who helped us in getting him here, especially the wonderful and brilliant Otepoti, who, with my husband, brought him home.

But there are also some local friends (a term that until recently I thought was an oxymoron) who helped in all kinds of ways, including

- Laura, who drove eight hours round-trip to pick them up at Newark Airport.
- Sara, who with her construction-worker husband brought over and assembled a crib for him.
- Father W., who assured me that God privileges adoption in a special way.
- Maria, who gave me a box of lemon pastilles from Sicily on a bad day.

And the Chinese-born Princeton professor who sat next to my husband on the flight going over, and emailed him later to say:

I was delighted to hear from you and to receive pictures of your new son.
As I told you on the flight, I was deeply moved by your unselfish love! What a lucky boy with a wonderful family.
Jude looks very healthy, smart and handsome.
Thank you very much for what you did to Jude and to this world!

Thank you so much, friends -- and especially you who have been praying -- for what you, too, did to Jude and to this world.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


A quick one: Jude is doing very well. He's amazingly attached and happy, and is a delightful little boy. I'm worried about his medical condition, though, and would appreciate your prayers on his behalf. He is going to have to go to at least one and possibly more specialists at a hospital in another city.

Between all of this and some freelance translating/editing jobs I'm doing on deadline, blogging is going to be light for the next few weeks.

Thank you all for your prayers.