Saturday, September 19, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 36: Walking Away

After a long illness, Christine, the wife of my friend and former opera colleague G., died a couple of weeks ago, just shy of her fiftieth birthday. I wasn't able to go to her wake or funeral because of my teaching schedule here in Northern Appalachia, but I've spoken with G. at length in the days since. G. is a wonderful lyric tenor, and, beyond that, truly one of the best musicians I know. For a number of years he sang in many of the great opera houses of Europe and America, but he withdrew from all of his contracts a few years ago to care for Christine, and because opera gigs are scheduled at least two years out, that meant his career was effectively over. A late bloomer who grew up in a working-class Irish-American family and spent his early adulthood tending bar and giving guitar lessons, G., after walking away from the opera stage, never looked back. He now lives and sends his daughters to college on the proceeds from his church job and a small income earned teaching music to the disabled.

I've known G. for a long time. We studied with the same voice teacher, and on Thursday nights we would meet at the Liederkranz Club on East 87th Street, which was around the corner from his house (but far from mine), to work out the opera arias we sang at our auditions with a quirky but gifted stage director. "I can still see you twenty years ago," he told me recently. "I can see what you were wearing, and your hair. You were this hilarious, talented Italian chick who just said THESE THINGS." I remember G. picking me up and driving me out to Long Island one evening to run through obscure arias with a brilliant pianist whom I'd never met and never saw again. "I don't coach my repertoire," he said that night, with a cockiness that, in his case, was wholly warranted. "I just know how the music is supposed to go."  He was on the cusp of a great career, and I was on the cusp, for reasons still not completely clear to me, of using my career as a tool in the blowing up of everything in my life.

G. has what I would call -- though he does not call it this -- a visionary gift. Since childhood, he's been able to correctly intuit certain people's fates, including those of relative strangers. He's often able to discern whether someone is going to die, and roughly when. In fact, he and his wife both had the foreknowledge, years before she became ill, that she would not live to see her fiftieth birthday. But this gift -- or call it what you will, and he's often prayed that God would rescind it -- comes in the context of his deep, even mystical, Catholic faith, a faith he and Christine shared. Because of this faith, the death of his beloved, though it's devastated him, hasn't utterly crushed him. He has a kind of palpable, tactile, tangible knowledge of God's great love for him, for Christine, and for all of us, and he talks about it often. It was G. who told me about the rosary novena after I came back to the faith, and I have prayed it during some momentous times in my life. While I'm not sure the novena has always "worked," it has changed my life.

I thought of all this recently when I read some caveats going around the internet against praying the novena to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Someone knew someone else who had prayed the novena, upon which the supplicant's life had rapidly started coming apart. A hard-line Catholic apologist I used to date mentioned once that he was terrified to pray to Saint Rita, because, according to popular legend, she would give you what you wanted, but it would come wrapped up in unconditional awfulness. And more than one friend has told me to be careful about praying the Litany of Humility, because that prayer was bound to be answered in particularly humiliating ways. But all of this goes back to the great fallacy of American Christianity across creeds: that when you embrace Christ, your life will get better. This is only a slight variation on that other characteristically American conclusion: that, if your life is good, it's because you deserve it (and conversely, if it's bad, it's because you don't, a faulty maxim upon which much unfortunate policy has been based). It's some combination of gnosticism, paganism, exceptionalism, and fatal self-regard, and it's so pervasive in our culture that, in spite of my own status as a miserable sinner, I have to remind myself multiple times a day that if my life has any good or happiness in it, it's not because of my relative merits. But if I lack merits, which I do, why do I possess or experience anything good at all? So many people I know have little, or even nothing, in their lives that is good. 

When G. and I became friends, I was married to M. He was an artist, and he strongly encouraged me in my singing. I wanted to get at something -- I used to tell myself it was the truth -- in and through my singing. I asked M. once if he would still love me if I stopped singing and did something else, say, became a lawyer. He didn't even entertain the question, because (he said) if I weren't a singer, I would no longer be myself. Ironically, M. is now a lawyer himself. 

Apparently one of THOSE THINGS that I said back in our aria class was along the lines of "I used to be Catholic, but no more." G., whose father is a deacon, took note of that statement. He brought it up recently, and reminded me that without my life blowing up, I would never have come back to the faith, which is true.

Towards the end of his short life, Henry David Thoreau, the great naturalist and visionary in his own right (one scholar has written a book about Thoreau's "ecstatic witness") seems to have lost his vision, the hypersensory awareness of the indwelling sublime that formerly had colored all of his encounters with the natural world. The mystic of Walden, who called the telegraph wire that ran along the railway "the telegraph harp," and wrote of it: 

by the end of his lifetime had reduced his writing to dry journal notations about the seasonal changes of various plants and animals.

I have in fact been praying the Litany of Humility for a long time now. My hope is that God will give me the humility to walk away from the dreams that damaged my life and the lives of those in my midst, and to do it with good cheer. You'd think this would have happened by now; we've been living in Northern Appalachia for almost seven years, and my professional energies have mostly turned from performance to teaching, which I love. But I still reflexively try to assuage my loneliness in this small (and in some ways sad) place with the old thoughts of my talent and the delusion that it gave me special privileges. I pray that I will be able to walk away simply, as G. did, because, as he knew, in the estimation of God there was something better and far more important to do.