Monday, January 28, 2013

Your Crooked Way

My children wake up during the five o'clock hour each morning, which means that I do too. I find waking up in the dark extremely demoralizing, though, and often am filled with dread first thing in the morning. In order to mitigate this sensation, I make a cup of strong coffee using this excellent device as soon as I get downstairs to the dark kitchen. The three of us then say a morning prayer, which always includes the petition that God will help us to make the world a more beautiful place that day, and we sing one verse of this, our morning song.

I've had a cold for the past few days, so the other morning, because I was losing my voice, I told my older son to lead the singing. "You can sing, Mommy," he encouraged me, "in your crooked way."

You can sing in your crooked way: I thought about this later, and the expression seemed apt. Hadn't I spent years, after all, singing in my crooked way? I remembered the period in my life when I thought that singing was all I had, my only pathway to salvation. As a young woman, growing up and going out on my own felt like launching a cobbled-together boat into dark and perilous waters, or flinging myself off a cliff into some dark void. The world struck me as unkind and unreliable, and love as fleeting and evanescent. If there was something I could do extremely well, I imagined, it could be my shield against the inevitable bitterness and heartbreak that love and the world would deal out. I could not trust love, nor my fellows, but I could wield my singing like a weapon to cut through the dangers they proffered. Other people might have more and better gifts than I had; other people might have the gift of love. But I could sing, and I loved to sing, and I developed a rigorous self-discipline that enabled me, over the course of years, to become a highly-skilled and effective practitioner of that art.

It's not uncommon even for singers at the highest levels to sing flat. I've heard it happen many more times than I can possibly count, including at the Met. Indeed, I've heard mediocre and even lousy performances there, as well as great performances marred by mistakes, bad notes, miscalculations, and musical train wrecks. It happens to everyone. I remember feeling particularly bad for Plácido Domingo one Saturday afternoon when he was singing the title role in the rarely-performed opera Sly, which ends with a tenor aria, and he flubbed the final sung note in the opera, leaving the audience not with the memory of a compelling performance but with that of a single lame high note. There's something touchingly human, though, about singing flat; it's as if the heart, the moment's emotions, the character's words, all cause one's voice -- or, to be technically correct about it, cause one's ability to accurately replicate pitch -- to fail, and doesn't that happen in everyday, non-singing life, too?

There was a period in my career when I was singing in the wrong fach.  I was a small-ish young woman, and my size, combined with my high energy, quick wit, and fast conversation, led some in the field to assume that I was the kind of soprano capable of high, fast, virtuosic singing. As it turned out, I could do the fast singing part, but I could never reliably sing the notes above high C, which is what the fach requires. A famous coach commented on my low speaking voice and the disparity between it and the high-sitting roles I was singing; an assistant conductor at the Met told me that if I even "went one fach lighter" I'd be "working everywhere." I tried to be lighter, higher, faster, perkier. Finally, though, when things were falling apart in my everyday, non-singing life, I began to remember the advice of people who'd known me and my singing for a long time, including members of my own (musical) family, who had always suggested that my voice would darken and deepen. I had wanted to be something else, someone else, but I was not, in fact, that person; and how can the voice be compartmentalized, treated as its own entity separate from the singer's own body and interior suchness?

I listened to my lesson tapes and watched my coaching videos and realized that, when I deviated from pitch, I was not singing flat; I was singing sharp -- above the pitch, even in repertoire that was, really, too high for me -- and I came to see that particular dysfunction as a metaphor for forcing myself into a box (fach, after all, means box) that was not the right size for me. Singing sharp, too, seemed very much in keeping with the use of singing as a weapon -- a sword is sharp, after all; a knife is sharp; so is  a switchblade. I switched to the lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire, a switch I've written about in more detail here, and everything settled into place technically; it felt comfortable, like finally finding clothes that fit after you've been wearing someone else's for the longest time.

I sang in my crooked way for years, and my aims, as an artist, were crooked too, in the sense that everything was predicated upon my singing. It was my heroin, the drug I immersed myself in when I was devastated, frightened, falling apart; it was my consolation when girls around me had husbands and families -- had love; I didn't need those things, or so I thought, since I could sing. It came before everything else in my life; I did not know how to have a life that did not heliotrope like a vine around the trellis of musical discipline and accomplishment. In fact, it was my life.

Even in the time since my own life has settled into patterns more closely resembling other, more usual ways of living, I haven't quite known where to fit singing into those alignments. I still sang, taught, researched, and performed after becoming a mother, but without the same . . . graspingness. I still believe that the ability to sing is a gift which, I now realize, God would have me cultivate (like all His gifts) in the interest of bringing beauty and consolation to others. I'm still trying to understand how to do that.

But I don't know if, in this life, I can ever leave my crooked way behind. I'm reminded of Auden's poem "As I Walked Out One Evening," in which the narrator, on a walk through London, overhears a lover declaiming the usual platitudes. Suddenly the declaration of love is cut short by "all the clocks in the city," who argue that

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day. . .

and exhort the lover and his listener to

. . . stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

I know now that my singing isn't the only thing I have; the only thing I have is my crooked heart. And because it's all I have, it's all I can give to this world; my crooked heart is the only means through which I will ever be able to live out my daily prayer to make the world more beautiful.  I pray that God will bring beauty and consolation out of my own crookedness.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Friends

Twenty or so years ago I found a little pile of copies of this slim novel on the remainder table at the legendary and lamented Coliseum Books (just seeing their logo with the doric column, which was imprinted on the bookmarks that the cashiers, almost all of them aging grad-school refugees, would stick in the store's black plastic drawstring bags bearing the same logo, gives me a painful sense of nostalgia. Où sont les neiges d'antan?).  I bought one and read it, and it became, and remains, one of my favorite books of all time. It's the first-person account of the bumbling attempts of World War I veteran Victor Baton to maintain a life of modest freedom without having to work and to find some sort of meaningful human companionship in 1920s Paris. He fails fairly miserably at both, and the book is sweet and funny and suffused with an aching melancholy. Emmanuel Bove, himself a veteran, asserted upon its publication that he had created a new genre, the novel of impoverished solitude. If you can find a copy, you will love it.

I've thought lately about my own friends, and my own solitude, which is not now, as it once was, impoverished, and which endures only for the brief period each day when my big son is at school, my husband at work, and Jude napping, time during which I'm pledged to work on my scholarly book for the English publisher in between the scores of mundane tasks that need to get done and the occasional snuck-in mystery novel. One of the things I miss most about New York, apart from teaching, is my friends there, although the truth is that many of the dearest ones of my youth left New York long before I did, which makes me wonder if nostalgia is really the sense of longing for things misremembered, for the mistaken recollection of things that were really quite differently arranged or never perhaps even existed. It's such a cheerful thing, though, to have friends who are peers -- who are at the same stage of life, or engaged in the same activities, or love the same things that you do. While I had those friendships back in New York, here I have not found them. Perhaps such friends don't live here, or maybe it's just that it's so much easier to make friends there: everyone is out on the street walking around all the time; there's the sense of a flowing stream of humanity, and there are so many self-selective places where like-minded people can go and engage with one another, that one is sure to make some friends. I've always thought that, no matter how obscure your interests or obtuse your personality, there are at least 2,500 people in New York who are just like you.

My friends here in northern Appalachia are unlike me in my own forms of obscurity and obtuseness. While my New York friends were artists and intellectuals, my friends here include a heavily-made up Greek housewife whose American husband abandoned her for what we would call, back where I come from, a puttan; a hairdresser who's taught me everything I know about how to help my autistic son; and a Rwandan refugee I met at church, who works the night shift as an aide in a home for developmentally-disabled adults. There's the doctor's wife who taught me to drive and, when she found out my mother was dying, offered to, and did in fact, drive me and my children three hours to my mother's bedside, since I'm not a confident enough driver to make such a trip and my husband couldn't leave work until the following day. There's also an unemployed Iraq War vet whose biracial son is in my son's first-grade class, and who always treats little Jude with great warmth and respect. I'm the room mother in the classroom, and as such have all the children's addresses, and when I realized that he and his family lived in the worst house I've ever seen in my life (owned by an absentee landlord in New Jersey), and noticed at school pick-up that his children didn't have winter coats, I asked my husband, in lieu of a Christmas gift, to let me get them a Walmart gift card in an amount that would allow them to buy some, along with boots and hats and gloves (I did do this, and the card was passed along to them anonymously through the school social worker).

And I do have a friend here from New York -- A., the young single mother of three children who moved here in the hopes of giving them a better life. While she was able, here, to get a minimum-wage job and off welfare, it appears that improvement may have been short-lived, since her children's father, who joined the family here and stayed home with the children while A. worked, recently abandoned them, forcing her to quit her job because of the lack of child care. I went to see her last night, and found that she'd been inside with her children for two weeks and had no food in the house, having been unable to get them bundled up and down three flights of stairs by herself and marched off to the supermarket a mile away with one stroller in the freezing cold. I went to the store and got diapers, soap, and toilet paper and filled her refrigerator, though she didn't want me to, with food.

All of this makes me wonder whether perhaps we idealize friendship unrealistically in the same way we idealize romantic love. Perhaps friendship is not all Anne of Green Gables and Diana, just as romantic love is not all Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. We are often instructed that love is a choice, an act rather than a feeling; perhaps friendship is too. My friendships here are not based on shared intellectual or artistic pursuits, nor on a shared love of certain music, books, places, or food, nor on a shared parenting style, but upon the idea of mutual aid, even if its mutuality is not readily apparent at this time. I would like that A. not always see herself in the position of receiver of my beneficence, but as my friend. Perhaps A. "does nothing" for me, but I, in turn, "do nothing" for the doctor's wife who has shown me such great generosity. So, as much as I would like to have a "bosom friend" like Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables, perhaps this place is providing me with the chance to be formed in the school of true friendship. In true friendship, as in true love, loneliness is not forever banished, as much as our longing for its extinction may motivate us to reach out in friendship and love to others. Those whose friends or spouses share their aesthetic values and ways of looking at the world may be lucky, but those whose friends or spouses do not are not necessarily unlucky.  I think that, being away from New York, where everything is always already in place and you only have to advance toward it, I'm now in a place that's stripped bare of everything I formerly wanted and loved and strove towards, but perhaps here I have the opportunity to learn what it means to love in all kinds of ways.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Apparitions at Vicksburg

I asked Jessica Rabbit at . . . the hell with it to draw a saint for me for 2013. She assigned me not a saint per se, but rather the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which struck me as both excellent and fitting. I will strive to focus my devotion on the Sacred Heart, and feel therefore as if I'm somewhat freed up to address some special prayers this year to an unofficial patron saint -- in this case, a man I've only recently learned about, whose cause has not yet been opened, but one day may be, which is one of my prayers. Read the remarkable story of Claude Jude Newman here.