Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tear-Water Tea is Always Good, or Why I Write

This is a Catholic blog. But it's not a Catholic apologetics blog, or a Catholic-mommy blog, or even the kind of blog in which a charmingly self-deprecating, adorably-bumbling Catholic woman candidly reveals her missteps and foibles, only to show how, in the end, they reveal profound lessons of God's wisdom. I was chided once in the combox here (by a non-post-abortive woman, one of more than a few who have taken the opportunity, in the comboxes, to assure me that they would never do what I had done all those years ago) for setting a destructive example, with this blog, for other post-abortive women, presumably by not making it one of the blogs described above. And I've been advised by a respected friend that more people would read here if this blog didn't have its ethos of quietly-pervasive melancholy.

But that's okay with me. Unlike, I presume, most bloggers, I don't like to think that too many people are reading here; it makes me feel exposed. After one of my posts went bizarrely viral a couple of years ago, I canceled my occasional participation in a much more widely-read blog, because the attention was uncomfortable. I'm not interested in things like getting a book contract out of my writing here, which seems to be the logical next step for many of the Catholic bloggers I admire. I already have a book contract in real life, for a work based on my musicological research. But not only will few people who read this blog read that book (most of my readers don't know me by the name under which it will be published), but it's also likely that few people in the real world will read it. Again, that's okay with me. I want to finish writing the book in order to honor my commitment to the publisher, and also because I believe I have something original to say in my field that might be of use to other scholars. But there's more.

While I have neither any authority nor any ability as a theologian or apologist, nor as a mommy- or cute-hapless-chick-blogger, I'm an observer, a witness to the mundane life, a diarist of memory, and a noticer of beauty in unusual places. This blog is where I attempt to chronicle those things. My life has been, and is, very different from those of most of my blogger cohort, including those whom I consider my friends. Because of my background, my temperament, and in some measure my circumstances, I experience psychic pain, both chronic and acute, every day, and I don't really believe in neatly-tied-up endings, which makes this blog not only an anti-blogger-book-contract-getting kind of blog, but even, in some ways, exactly the kind of blog you don't want your search engine to turn up when you're looking for answers in the lonely middle of the night.

In Barbara Kingsolver's compelling novel The Lacuna, Harrison Shepherd, an aspiring writer working as a cook in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1930s Mexico, states his greatest wish: "To make something beautiful, that people would find very moving." I share that wish. I suppose that the reason I continue to write here when I have time is that I want to make sense of things, of my life, and of the world around me, and to pull some beauty out of it in the hope of moving some anonymous reader's heart.

This is why I love the story "Tear-Water Tea" in the easy-reader book Owl at Home, by the legendary Arnold Lobel.  In fact, it may be the perfect work of literature, because it describes what I think must be the true purpose of literature, and indeed of all the arts: to take what is mundane, sad, or even unbearable, and to make something consoling and useful out of it, if not something transcendent.

In the story, the childlike and solitary Owl, in his bathrobe and slippers, decides that it's the right sort of night for making tear-water tea. Aided by sad thoughts ("Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again . . . . pencils that are too short to use"), he proceeds to weep into his tea-kettle. When the kettle is full, he boils it for tea, saying, "It tastes a little bit salty . . . but tear-water tea is always good."

There's something reminiscent of a sacrament, I think, in the idea of tear-water tea, which uses the commonest, plainest, most mundane and intimate substance -- a substance whose association with suffering is inescapable -- to make something else, something comforting and curative. All true works of art, I suppose, are reflections, however pale, of that divine confection, the sacrament of God's mercy, made from materials which are worked by human hands. In my own small, particular, faltering, and anonymous way, I would like to reflect God's mercy here, in the hopes that it might be useful to someone else. That's why I write.

Merry Christmas to all of you, dear readers. I wish you a very happy new year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beauty: Let it Kill You

Heather King has linked to a very good essay by English pianist James Rhodes, published a few months ago in the Guardian, about the sacrifices, existential and ethical as well as physical and material, that Rhodes has made in order to be a musician. Rhodes writes (quite accurately, as any working classical musician or singer can tell you):

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching) . . . And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary.

The "and yet" part is one of the great, secret pleasures, I think, of any classical musician's life. There is a quiet but profound elation at opening a fresh piece of music and settling in to work. A young musician, to paraphrase Stanislavsky, practices his art because he loves to hear himself in it; but as you advance in that art, you begin to fall in love with practice itself. You come to love the protecting walls of even of the most moldy practice rooms, the ones with the broken piano benches, the missing ceiling tiles, and the garbage cans stuffed with half-full cups of deli coffee; such places become your kingdom of solitude, your secret laboratory, the place where you shuck off the shell of the mundane world and become better than you are. And you also come to love the methods, the process of taking apart a piece: phrase by phrase, working those phrases backwards, forwards, in triplets, in dotted rhythm, in reverse dotted rhythm, using different vowel sounds, in different keys, etc. Maybe the dawn of this very particular kind of love is one of the reasons classical musicians appear to exhibit more autistic traits than the general population.    

Using Rhodes's essay as a starting point, Heather suggests that the necessary sacrifices an artist makes -- the eschewing, or the loss, of love, financial security, success, and emotional stability -- can be a unique imitation of Christ:

If you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting. . . . There is nothing more Catholic than letting ourselves be killed by love. 

Indeed, though one often hears platitudinous reassurances from teachers and mentors that you don't HAVE to to be unhappy to be an artist, one sometimes suspects that these mentors are just trying to stave off the ruining of their students' lives. Who are these happy artists our teachers allege exist? And do we admire them? Edvard Munch said, "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. . . .My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Conversely, Gustave Flaubert wrote:  "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

Beethoven is known to have been a difficult and not very nice guy who was at times wildly unhappy, unhappy to the point of suicide when he realized that his hearing loss would eventually be profound deafness. He wrote in 1802, in a letter found after his death which has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. . . . With joy I hasten towards death [but]  if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead.

To echo Heather's point, the sacrifice that Beethoven made in his terrible unhappiness -- the decision to forestall his own longed-for death and to continue living a life of suffering until he had brought out of himself all the beauty that he wanted to give to humanity -- is Christ-like. 

I'm not sure that great art and happiness are compatible, and, for the selfish reason that I get to be wrenched open by the  profound understanding of the human spirit that is evident in his playing, I'm rather glad that James Rhodes does not live a bourgeois life of comfort and forced good cheer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Consolations of Appalachia

The literary critic George Lukács defined the novel as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." I wonder sometimes whether, in my own small way, I am living in such a world. The winter has set in for good in my aging Rust Belt town, and the sky overhead, like the blighted landscape below, is every day an unrelentingly gray: an oppressive gray, a dull, gun-metal gray; not the kind of gray that's illuminated from behind by the sun, or the gray that seems redolent with mystery, or the gray that you know will blow away with the next strong breeze; or the gray that, even if it lingers, is mitigated by the hum and buzz of industry, endeavor, and human interaction. There were gray winters in New York, too, of course, but Petula Clark wasn't lying when she suggested that "When you're alone and life is making you lonely/You can always go downtown," because, there, you're liable to meet "someone who is just like you."

In spite of the fact that I've been here for five -- five! -- years already, I still feel that lack, that inability to meet who Anne of Green Gables would have called a kindred spirit -- that dearth, in fact, of someones who are just like me. Maybe they exist, but I would never know where to find them here. In New York, of course, you don't have to look far. You're bound, by the sheer volume of people, to meet many semblables. But I need to keep reminding myself that your friends don't have to be just like you.

Nonetheless, even though I've been here for five years already, my heart still leaps into my throat sometimes when I speak or hear the name of the city where I now live. How can it be that I live here? I think to myself. It sometimes seems like everything has conspired to humble me, even to chide me, for imagining that I could ever do important things. Will I die here? I wonder. Will the fire that burns in my heart be extinguished here, in total obscurity, in a forgotten backwater full of people who are sad, sick, and poor?  Will I never be able to bring forth anything beautiful?

And, my own loneliness and yearning notwithstanding, every day young single mothers from my old city and my old borough climb off the Greyhound bus here, their little children and a few shopping bags of belongings in tow. And some of them, I know for a fact, weep tears of relief when they arrive in this place about which I try very hard to remain neutral, grateful for the chance to leave behind the danger and despair of their lives in New York and to do right by their children. And with very good reason.

A few weeks ago I was actually back in New York for a semi-important gig. Remarkably, these still come my way once in a while, and I usually take them if the pay is reasonable and they don't disrupt my life or the lives of my family members too much, although they usually involve a lot of driving in the dark to get home as soon as possible afterwards. Doing school drop-off the morning after a concert on scanty sleep, my professionally-styled gig hair and traces of stage make-up are the only evidence that I've just come from a "real" place, doing what I think I "really" do, living for a day or two what I used to think of as my "real" life. And the fact is that my real life in that real place is no longer real. When I try to remember everything -- the years and years of memory accreted like layers of sediment, the smells and the sounds, the way the light looked -- it's almost as if a wall of smoke, of fog, stands between me and the person I was and the place in which I felt myself to be so deeply and intrinsically rooted.

I spend a lot of time in my car now, which is a very strange experience -- the sense of ploughing forcefully through a world that's hostile or at least indifferent, observing everything and yet removed, encased in the protective shell of my own atmosphere, is so different from the multi-sensory engagement, and the vulnerability, of being out on the street in a scrum of your fellow men. I have to say that it's cool to drive -- and even that I love my new used car, a Subaru Outback -- but I don't like the way that it's supplanted being in the greater world, and I find it hard to accept that this ethos of driving around is one of the defining aspects of middle-class American life.

One of the few random amazing things about this place though, is the libraries. There are four contiguous municipalities here that bleed into each other, but have their own separate governments, and each has its own library, and each of these libraries is a wonderful place, a haven, in a different way. I drive around to all of them, usually hitting two or more in a week. I love to go to the various children's rooms by myself, because I love to read children's books, and each library's children's room is bigger and better-stocked than my entire old branch library in the Bronx. And each library has discard tables that are veritable treasure troves, mainly for the kind of out-of-print children's books that I love. Some of the many books I've bought for a quarter have not been out-of-print, just inexplicably neglected and thrown away, like a new-looking copy of Maira Kalman's Fireboat, and a whole stack of books by Tana Hoban, which are among my favorites. My breath catches in my throat when I look at her photographs, so full of mystery, and suggestive of the strangeness and beauty hidden in the most mundane things (a picture from her book So Many Circles, So Many Squares, a library-discard-table glean, is above). Just the other day, for the combined price of forty cents, I picked up the following: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt; 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 1-12; a beautifully-illustrated children's biography of J.S. Bach from the 1960s; the January 2011 edition of the PMLA journal; and the "brief edition" (still four-hundred-plus pages) of the standard college music textbook Listen!

So, while haunting the public libraries here is one of my favorite things to do, it's an activity carried out in solitude (I shun the children's story hours, because they're way too noisy and frenetic for me, let alone for my children), and it reinforces my own solitude. But while I drive to the libraries, I often listen to Beethoven's Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, whose first movement never fails to astonish me and fill me with delight, as it coalesces out of a tentative, fearful darkness and into triumphant joy. I wish I knew a way to bring that joy out of my car and onto these gray streets.

(If you play the clip below, do pay special attention to the ABSOLUTE GLORIOUS WONDER of Beethoven's writing for woodwinds, specifically for the solo woodwind quintet -- the way that he lifts it out of the structure of the symphony for a few measures, and allows each of the wind instruments' voices to come forward as they twine together in their finely-woven texture. I think that Beethoven, in all his large-scale works, gave the music of consolation to the woodwinds).