Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Map of Mercy

The monk must learn how to sin, to be broken, to stand in need, so as to taste the mercy of God. His heart must be shattered and then mended. It thus becomes a map of Christ's mercy. Scars remain deeply engraved on it, making the heart of the monk a testament to the unrestricted forgiveness of God still on offer to every human being.

-- Michael Downey, 
Trappist: Living in the Land of Desire

H/T: Dark Speech Upon the Harp

Friday, September 28, 2012

Poetry Friday: To Ninety

A city sparrow
touches down
on a bare branch

in the fork of a tree
through whose arms
the snow is sifting —

swipes his beak
against wood, this side
then that,

and flies away:
what sight
could be more common?

Yet I think
for such sights alone
I would live to ninety.

-- Robyn Sarah, from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 29: Pavane for a Dead Soprano

One early-summer day fifteen years ago I saw, while walking around my old neighborhood, a flier for an apartment sale -- one that promised opera scores, costumes, and gowns. Being not only a struggling young opera singer but also an inveterate apartment- and stoop-sale junkie, I made my way over to the address listed, a couple blocks from my own building. There I saw a middle-aged singer I knew by sight from the neighborhood, the friend of friends of mine, presiding over the sale of the contents of a pre-war tenement apartment, the kind whose walls have been painted so many times without being scraped first that they look wavy, with a bearded middle-aged man. I pieced together that the things for sale had belonged to the man's sister, a soprano. This woman, whom I did not know, had died suddenly of an aneurysm in the middle of a Thursday-night rehearsal for one of her bread gigs, a church job at the lovely little Dutch Reformed church just down the street, whose choir was blessed by an abundance of local talent in the form of struggling opera singers from the neighborhood (there were a lot of us). She was in her mid-forties.

The soprano must been a lyric coloratura. The ghoulishness of the situation notwithstanding, I made off with the Schirmer scores of Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor, along with a pile of sheet music, some costume jewelry, and a couple of recital gowns. In fact, I bought so much of her stuff that her grieving brother, seeing me eyeing a tea-strainer -- the kind that looks like a little colander on a stick -- tucked it into the pocket of the big old man's shirt I was wearing. It appeared that he and the singer who I recognized from the neighborhood (she had sung with the dead woman in the church choir) had started some sort of romance, and I was glad for them.  On the way out, I saw a pile of the deceased woman's promotional postcards, no doubt ready to be mailed out to booking agents. They showed her in a variety of comedic poses, and I realized that the soprano, no longer young and easily cast-able as Lucia or Violetta, was attempting to move into character-actress work.

These memories came rushing back to me the other day when I saw Jude playing with the tea strainer, which has remained in my possession over the intervening years and four subsequent moves. I wondered if, like Babette, she was now delighting the angels in heaven, where she had become "the great artist that God meant [her] to be." I thought of some other middle-aged artists I had known from bread gigs of various kinds, some of them with prominent pasts: the former director of a theater program at a Midwestern university; the former award-winning fashion designer whose management company fired her for being too old when her long-time agent died; the tenor whose childhood of sexual abuse caught up with him just as he was achieving a stable degree of success, causing an undiagnosable psychosomatic condition that robbed him of the ability to walk; and many others. I thought about the untimely death from metastatic breast cancer of the luminous Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who worked steadily and quietly for many years before achieving the international fame she merited, and then died at 52, and of the charismatic voice teacher with whom I'd studied briefly, who'd worked with Bernstein and been friends with Jacqueline du Pré and her widower Daniel Barenboim, and who opined that great musicians seemed to be canaries in some sort of global-spiritual-crisis of a coal mine; since so many of them died in their primes, there must be a cosmic plan to it.

At the same time, I recently finished a new memoir of bohemian New York, a literary genre of which I'm particularly fond, but this one did not call forth the bittersweet elegiac sense that the best of them do. In fact, this one -- ironically, written by a friend of mine -- I found depressing. The book chronicles the author's debauched young adulthood simultaneously with the transformation of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from shunned ghetto to chic arrondissement. I've never lived in Williamsburg and was not part of the circle he describes, but I felt a strange, unpleasant sense of voyeurism while reading about other people's drug-and-sex-addled days and nights, which took place during roughly the same time I was pillaging the dead soprano's apartment and my first marriage, along with my own opera career, was slowly unraveling.

I spoke recently on the phone with an old colleague from those days, a wonderful lyric tenor and devout Catholic who has sung in many of the world's major houses, including the Met, and, after the initial years of struggle, was having an important career. His wife has been battling a debilitating illness for the past few years, and he's cancelled some very important gigs in order to stay home and care for her. "I'm back to where I was fifteen years ago," he told me. He has a church job and is teaching for a foundation that offers free music classes to adults with disabilities. "And," he added, "I'm totally at peace with it." He left his wife at home for years with their children while he was out on the road; backing out of his major career now, he said -- a career that requires ten months a year away from home -- is the least he can do.

"And you," he said, "Look how far you've come." I didn't know what he was talking about. I hadn't had a major career. I'd left everything and moved to the middle of nowhere, where no one knows "who I am," or even, for that matter, who I am. I expend a great deal of my daily strength managing my autistic son's difficult behavior. I barely sing anymore.

But he explained that he meant how far I'd come spiritually. He knew me back in the day -- the young singer who bought the dead soprano's scores and gowns, the young singer who sacrificed everything sacred on the altar of ambition -- and I supposed that he might, in some way, be right.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flying High

Yes, I know she's not a real nun. So?

Happy Feast of Saint Joseph of Cupertino.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Restless for Good Art"

If this is the dynamic of art—reaching into reality, being changed by it, and revealing that transformative truth to others—then we can understand why books, films, or paintings that only serve as a vehicle for spreading an idea fail as art. Formally speaking, they are more akin to propaganda, even if they use the material of art. . . . Making a movie because I want more people to acknowledge St. Augustine as the greatest doctor of the Latin Church may be laudable catechesis, but it won’t turn into art. 

A pithy analysis of why self-consciously Catholic art is so often bad.

Friday, September 7, 2012

"How is it that those girls get married, and we don't?"

And you thought it was just because you were a faithful Catholic!

A lovely little essay here. An excerpt:

There we are. Me, in a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse, knee-length pencil skirt, in the midst of a heat wave . . . while the city’s bright-eyed interns run about with bare shoulders and flip-flops.

Oh, and if you liked the essay, then you have to see the lovely little chick flick Arranged.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 28: Don't Look Back

About four years ago, my husband was offered his current job. He said at the time that if I didn't want to leave New York, he'd turn it down, but I told him I thought he should take it. The job represented real career advancement, came with a substantial pay raise, and was located in an area blessed with natural beauty and in which one could live on much less than in New York. In addition, he was extremely frustrated with the job he had then, and I was just coming off my third miscarriage in a row and might have been secretly yearning a little for what they call in A.A. " the geographical cure."

I thought of these things this morning as I drove from Mass through our decrepit downtown (the downtown which, every time I pass through it, I tell myself could be great, cool, and charming, when in fact it's pockmarked with abandoned storefronts, its roads continually under construction). Where would we be now, I wondered, if I had decided four years ago that I simply couldn't leave New York? If you're from there, you know that this type of person actually exists; there are members of my own family who have predicated their professional and family lives upon the axiom that they must never, ever move away from New York (and I have other friends and family members who once held to this position, but allowed it to relax over time when they found that they just couldn't get a job in their fields).

I feel especially nostalgic at this time of year, generally a beautiful time in New York, when the light has softened over even the most ramshackle auto-body shops in the Bronx, and the late-summer cicadas sing from every weed growing up from a sidewalk crack. I travel back in my mind, seeking after certain sense memories, trying to recall fragrances and sights: the smell of strong coffee wafting through the open doors of Puerto Rican lunch counters, the faint tang of smoke in the salty city air, the refraction of the mellow light through the trees, the plums and figs piled up under the awnings outside the Korean fruit-sellers'. But I know that there is no good reason to do this. If I strive, as I say the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, to surrender my memory and my will to the direction of Christ, then I know that I will at some point have to stop chasing the lovely ghosts of memory.

In his song "She Belongs to Me," Bob Dylan describes a woman who has "everything she needs":

She's an artist, she don't look back

I would like to be like this woman, who also "never stumbles;/She's got no place to fall," a line that, for some reason, makes me think of Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," especially the breathtaking last line about the heaviest nuns "keeping their difficult balance." 

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

I am striving against memory to keep my difficult balance in the world in which I now find myself. As my cousin said once, "Don't look back. You're not going that way."