Betty Duffy

Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let there be banjo... or cello... or whatever

I spent two thirds of my life learning how to play an instrument, and then gave it up when I got pregnant. Granted, I got pregnant twice in a row, and then I had two toddlers who double timed me whenever I tried to play, and the cello is not like a violin that you can frolic around overhead and out of reach of their little hands. It's right there in their faces, and it was frustrating to worry about poking one of them in the eye with my bow, even though sometimes I wanted to do it on purpose.

But they're older now, and the baby really only likes to suck his thumb and push tractors around on the carpet, so he's no obstacle to cello playing. The only obstacle is my post-hibernation dustiness, weak and tender fingers, and a bow that needs re-haired. There've been all these videos going around online, heavy metal cello playing, like Apocalyptica playing Metallica covers. I've always been drawn to the song "One," because when I taught English, a relatively troubled student loaned me his Metallica CD so I could listen to that song and understand him somehow. I do detect a few grace-notes in there, a truly lovely piece, until it drops off into complete nihilism, which Apocalyptica plays skillfully, but it's nihilism nonetheless, which isn't my thing.

So it got me thinking that while I'm too shaky right now for classical music, I could definitely pull off a pizzicato bass line, or some mournful whole notes in the background of a pop song. A friend of mine runs a music co-op, putting contract musicians in touch with one another, so I asked him if it would be something I could do--get into his database, and maybe pick up some small gigs. He thought maybe his band could use me, and we made plans to get together and "jam"--which sounds funny to me. Jamming on the cello.

I've been practicing, and playing bass lines from songs I like. Rush always has a good bass line, even when the lyrics are cheesy; "Freewill" for instance. And then I thought I could pull in themes from certain hymns and punk them up a little, "Caelitum Joseph," maybe. And then I started thinking about old poems I wrote that stink as poems but might actually work as a pop song, and then I wanted to sing rather than play the cello, but I couldn't pull out a tune that sounded right, so I just sang hymns.

The baby, then, starts putting his hands over my mouth to shush me. He doesn't want me me to sing. Maybe because "O Sacred Head Surrounded" doesn't sound good when the songstress takes intermittent bites of dry Cheerios and chases it with coffee. Regardless, my singing voice is horse and off key and only sounds manageable at a low timbre like a lullaby. What if I whisper, Baby? Will the sound of mother's voice singing hymns in the morning be a grace note in your memory, or will the smell of coffee and dry cheerios, the throat clearing and chest bumping, and Shh Baby, Mommy's singing make you forever averse to this particular song?

Beauty requires discipline, which is the troubling thing about it, because discipline can be terribly, terribly ugly. Recall for instance, the mother combing her daughter's hair, and every time the bristles get stuck in a tangle, the daughter pulls away shrieking. The mother pulls back, holding the pony tail tighter and they're in a hair tug-of-war, till the daughter drops to her knees in a tantrum, and the mother walks out of the room saying, "It hurts to be beautiful. Doesn't it?"

But the product of discipline is nearly always a grace note, especially when it comes unwarranted, unsought, unscripted, as years ago when I sat in the upstairs bedroom reading a book at the lake house, and wind blew in the open windows, bringing with it the sound of wind chimes and my older brother playing the banjo. Slow at first as he found his bearings, soft like a lullaby, then faster, he practiced a few runs and put the banjo away.

We've had a troubled relationship, my brother and I, and whenever someone you painfully love produces something beautiful, that beauty becomes mythical somehow, something to chase and recapture. So I can't tell whether it's a sign of aging, or some quest for a mythical beauty I once knew that causes me to scroll through the radio stations in the car listening for banjo. It sounds honest to me, even played badly--let there be banjo.

Anyway, my son doesn't like my singing, but the way the kids all gather around when I play the cello, the way they ask for it now, I've realized that while I thought I was doing them a favor by putting the cello away, I was actually depriving them. And the baby goes around the house looking for objects to turn into a cello bow, like my husband's carpentry pencil, the flat kind that you sharpen with a pocket knife. He sits down on the floor next to me with his knee bent up, and runs the pencil lengthwise over his fibula saying, "I play cello, Mommy!"

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hunger and Thirst

I used to clean house for one of my college professors who had floor to ceiling bookshelves in almost every room. Most days when I cleaned, no one was home, and I would pick a CD out of his music collection to play while I dusted or folded laundry. I remember standing on a chair to dust in some high place when the Borodin Quartet, playing Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, reached its climax in the first movement.

The piece was a revelation to me, and I thought to myself that someday, somewhere, I had to go to wherever it was that that music lived. I'd never heard such exultation in pain, such thirstiness, such suffering and salve combined into one. I've always been susceptible to other people's angels and demons in music, and the combination of both in Shostakovich convinced me that those notes held the secret to life.

Several months ago, in anticipation of my husband and mine's anniversary, I got to thinking again about going where the music is, or at least, about "going" as salve to suffering--having some place to look forward to going as a means of making it through the day in which I lived--and I bought concert tickets, not to Shostakovich, but to Iron and Wine, which is a folk-rock band that my husband and I both love.

I always know I'm in trouble when anticipation of some future event is the best part of my day, but sometimes I ignore the warning signs because anticipation is bewitching and fun, and allows me to occupy the mostly unscripted hours of my life with thoughts of taking a longer shower using exfoliators and a fresh razor, of picking out clothes and getting dressed, asking my husband to point to my right foot or my left to indicate the shoe of his choice. And these luxuriant preparations would be only a first course to dining out, to walking around a town on a hot summer night, to visiting the cavernously dark and cozy interior of a club where well-dressed people have intimate conversations over drinks while waiting for good music to begin.

My anticipation reached its zenith Friday night as the concert date had finally arrived. And I felt this urgency about it--that somehow it wouldn't happen the way I anticipated it, that childcare for the kids would fall through, or my husband would have to work late, and that any obstacle would mean the life or death of our marriage, or more accurately, the life or death of me--since anticipation had been my sustenance now for a number of weeks.

The feast of my anticipation couldn't begin with the dawn as I had hoped, but it happened. The dressing occurred with slightly less luxuriation than it had happened in my fantasy, but my husband and I both readied ourselves in time for a good dinner before the concert, and some walking around, and some standing in the dark but not quite cozy club. And the music was quite good. Not dancing music--more like the repetitive bending of one knee while I slapped my thigh. And then there was the parade at midnight to our car, where crowds on the sidewalk had thickened to a current of bare shoulders and thighs, people bending over trash cans, and a few people standing on the corner handing out tracts that said, "Who is Jesus?"

And in the morning, driving to pick up my kids, I was thinking about a time in my life, when I might have anticipated such an evening every Friday night, where even that would not have been enough. My anticipation had been slaked but I was still thirsty.

It had been a lie--this story I've told myself over the past weeks that the one thing I need is a night out on the town. And driving through cornfields to reach my children, it seemed the most absurd thing I could ever have allowed myself to believe.

My husband knew the truth. When he has spent the week working "out there," and sometimes staying in very nice hotels, and eating good food, and playing golf with people whom he doesn't care for, because it's part of business, I don't believe him when he says he doesn't really enjoy it. I get agitated sometimes that he comes home on the weekend and wants to stay at home rather than going out again--taking us out (we who have been "stuck" at home). He wants to work on the house, or the yard, or relax with the kids running around here--and all I can think is "more of the same?" How much more of the same can I take?

But after a night out on the town, more than ever, "I hunger and thirst for true righteousness." I will not tolerate another lie: the soft thrill of a trip to the store, the cup of black coffee that pulls me out of bed each morning, any of the myriad objects and interests I deem to consume that likewise consume me--and yet never satisfy. I hunger and thirst for true righteousness: my children and their goodness, loving my husband, a family that helps one another. I hunger and thirst for communion with Christ, for the Eucharist, for the way the Holy Spirit whispers the truth in the bending of tall grass.

And yet to enjoy that for which I thirst, there is always a burden to carry, the burden of self-crucifixion. Sometimes, when I become aware that my eyes are in the habit of opening inwardly rather than outwardly, I have to teach myself all over again how to see. At first it burns to use my eyes, not just for getting around, but for acknowledging the realities of life as I live it, because life as I imagine it can overpower all of my senses.

It is a discipline to accept frustrations as well as gifts and perks; the suffering and the salve, the pain and exultation that blew me away in Shostakovich, and that I appreciate in Iron and Wine as well. It occurs to me now that the music is not some expression of an impassioned and idealized place in time, someplace that I can go, but rather the expression of having lived, truly lived, an entire life.

Unless we keep our hearts thus unfettered, how can we come to the Lord? Nothing apart from God can satisfy the human heart which is truly in search of him.--Saint Anthony of Padua

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mathematically Challenged

I’ve been thinking about third-grade Math. I might as well come out of the closet and admit that I’m home-schooling one of my kids this year, the one who came home from school one day last year with 25 unfinished ditto sheets that he was supposed to have completed that day. I thought that was a little much for a kid with a few manual dexterity issues, so this year, we have done not a single worksheet. Not one. What we have done is try to memorize things, beginning with Math facts.

I don’t know what kind of brains both the child and I have, being that we are both completely incapable of remembering that 7+8=15. I used to get good grades in Calculus once upon a time, but I have always done addition facts on my fingers, and so does the boy. He has memorized three very long poems, however. I read him a stanza, and he doesn’t need to hear it twice before he’s got it in his head. He’s quite amazing that way. But knowing by heart the various sums of the numbers between one and ten are just not within our reach.

I was thinking about this whole concept recently in my sleep, because that seems to be the only time my brain is functioning lately. Indeed the current hour is some time in the middle of the night, and I had to get out my bed to write this, because I won’t remember it tomorrow. I was thinking about how words are relational. How they connote images and concepts that relate to one another in graphic ways, and by graphic I mean that I could draw several horizontal lines indicating the plot points of a novel and show how when the tension rises within one character, it might drop in another. Relational.

I was just having this dream, and in my REMs I could see a staff of music, and could hear the music written on it at the same time. I have never in my life written a piece of music, though this has happened to me before that I think I’m writing music in my sleep and when I wake up, I cannot remember the notes I saw on the staff. I wake up thinking I must have some subconscious genius inside writing music, but hell if the genius doesn’t dissipate as soon as I’m conscious.

Anyway, I do remember this: There was a cello line, these lower grumblings in eighths and sixteenths that cut off when the treble piano line interrupted. And the treble was actually two separate themes, a duet that moved up the scale with a crescendo, climaxed, then shifted back to that bass line on the cello.

Maybe you followed that, maybe you didn’t. But I was trying to think of pieces that sound similar, maybe something I’ve played in the past. It sounded so familiar. What was it? And then I realized, that the piece resembled nothing so much as the short story I’d read right before I feel asleep. It was John Cheever, “The Jewels of the Cabots.” It began with a sort of neurotic and comical male narrator, who then told a story about a woman he once dated and her mother. The end of the story went back to the male narrator, and I can see now that the music in my dream was some sort of echo of the voices in that story.

If I can graph the plot of a story on a musical staff, writing music being an inherently mathematical endeavor, there has to be a better way to see the graphic relationships between single digit numbers. When those numbers keep showing up, without rhyme or reason on the other side of a shuffled deck of flash cards, however, those relationships completely defy me.

Also, it seems like I used to know a way to graph patterns like this one:

His cheek fur grows in a whirlpool. I wonder if it will do that when he has whiskers. (And by cheek fur, I really do mean the cheek on his face. I just realized that this picture could be mistaken for the other kind of cheek.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When the Words Come Back to Get You...

You can say what you want about the legitimacy of blogging, but one thing it does do is hold its authors accountable. Thinking about the parties I've got coming up here, it occurred to me rereading my last post that I've had a laissez-faire attitude regarding my son's First Communion this weekend.

If I believe what I say I believe as a Catholic, this event is one of the most important in his life, and as such, is worthy of a bit of my labor. So...I have ironed a table cloth:

I love looking at other people's neatly stacked linens, the way decorating magazines will arrange antique textiles in shabby-chic pie-safes. I have, however, been apathetic about making my own stacks of neatly ironed linens. My table-cloths usually live in the bottom drawer with the dish towels and occasionally are used as dish-towels when the real thing has run out.

But there is something generous about the sight of a good table-cloth. My sister wrote an article several years ago for Canticle Magazine about the lost art of hospitality. My sister has great parties, and I have always been inspired by her family's celebration of Sacraments.

I remember a Baptism years ago, where my sister refused my Mom's suggestion that she lighten her preparation burden by serving canned pineapple rather than fresh in her fruit salad. I'm easy to please, but I really felt taken care of by my sister's unwillingness to compromise (I love fresh pineapple). I also enjoyed the loving preparation of her Mimosas. If only half of her benevolence could rub off on me...

But I'm always surprised by how much I like ironing. The hardest part is getting out the ironing board, but after that, I don't want to stop. Ironing is low concentration enough that I can listen to music while I work. Listened to Hildegard Von Bingen, which matched the overcast mood outdoors, the grim light coming in the windows. I remember walking the towpath along the Thames River, listening to Hildegard on the walkman and daring myself to dive in and skinny dip to my death like a Kate Chopin heroine (the purpose of chant was lost on me). It was so romantic to feel alone in the world. The mood recalls another recent post (accountability moment) spent mooning for friends that I refuse to make.

It has been a lifelong drama of mine to withdraw and shoot silent arrows at the silhouettes in the distance. Starting around eleven years old, when our family went on vacation together, I would take my notebook into the woods behind the lakehouse, sit on a stump and write, "I'm so alone!!! Those people in that house five hundred yards away have no idea how they're hurting me!" I could have closed my notebook and gone back to the house and asked if anyone wanted to play cards, but then I'd have had nothing to write about.

That these reflections occur preparing for a series of recurrant parties throughout the remainder of Spring makes obvious that, contrary to fancy, I am not alone at all, and perhaps to my chagrin, I never have been. If I hadn't documented all my groaning on this blog, I might never have realized how offensive the assertion of my loneliness really is.

So...sorry for that.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Faulkner Stole My (.)

Sometimes when you're walking at sunset and the fields have just been turned over by an old farmer wearing a flat-billed con-agra hat, and the insects haven't yet emerged from their underground nests, and the dogwood and redbud are the only color in the woods surrounding the field, and you and your wag-tail dog turn around to the biggest orange orb of sun you've seen in a long time hovering over the horizon, you want to listen to a little happy music, but only a hammered dulcimer accompanied by a bongo drum will do.

Times like these, I reach for Malcom Dalglish and the Oolites. "Hymnody of the Earth" is one of the best musical accomplishments to come out of Indiana, ever (which isn't difficult to say really); compositions for the above-mentioned instruments to accompany a youth choir singing the poems of Wendell Berry. It's earth mama, Holy Holy, conservation chic, and old man river, with just a dash of new age cheese--and I never get tired of it.

Plus, I get to say Malcolm Dalglish and the Oolites, which has so many misplaced L's, consonants and double vowels, it gives me the chills.

I really cannot listen to music and do other things at the same time; no background music to my writing, no mood music to my shopping--particularly not tunes of Joni Mitchell with the lyrics replaced by saxophone, because I know the words, and their Kenny G stand-in will grate on me so much I'll lose my mood for shopping if I had it to begin with.

In Florida with Pedge and Irene, Pedge wanted some tunes in the background while we played cards, which wasn't kosher with me because not only do we have dissimilar tastes in music, cards require more concentration than I can give them if I'm distracted by the songs.

"My husband hates listening to music while he's doing other things," I say, which is not true so much, but I'm such an accommodating friend, I won't come out and say that what you're doing annoys me; I'll say it would annoy my husband if he were here, so in the airport, for instance, when Pedge was popping her gum, I said, "My husband hates loud chewing," But Pedge enjoys popping her gum, and said, "Good thing he's not here."

Anyway, I have a one-track mind, so I can only listen while I'm doing something mindless like walking or driving or cleaning my house, and it's also why I played the cello rather than piano since I can only handle one staff of notes at a time.

I'm writing in long sentences, stream-of-consciousness because I'm reading Faulkner right now, and as Mrs. Darwin said in a comment stream here, "What he (Faulkner) does not repeat much is the period," and nothing is more alarming than a period that goes MIA, as evidenced by the fifty dollars worth of pregnancy tests I took this month trying to figure out where mine went--which is no where, that is, until without rhyme or reason, it decided to return, and now I want my money back.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chunky Hair and Tornadoes

My friend, Letty, owns a couple hair salons. At Pedge’s house the other day, it came to light that Letty does the hair of a prominent Catholic matriarch here in town, Mrs. M. It’s a small world among Orthodox Catholics, and Mrs. M is known, not only for the vastness of her brood, but also for having spazzy hair. When one first meets her, it’s tempting to think, “Please get a hair clue, Mrs. M.”

We’d all been thinking about visiting one of Letty’s salons, but maybe...not a good idea.

“Don’t judge how I do hair based on that particular client,” Letty said. “She requests her colors in chunks. She wants it chunky, chunky.” Letty grabbed chunks of her own hair as she said “chunky” and I could see Mrs. M making just that same gesture. “The client is always right.”

So the spazzy hair is intentional. It’s exactly what Mrs. M wants. It’s…self-expression of a sort: chunks of vibrant color in crispy little spikes all over her head. It’s punk, now that I think of it.

On this particular day with Pedge, Irene and Letty, we had a discussion about letting go of the idea that there’s something else we’re supposed to be doing besides staying home with our kids. Letty was taking a break from coloring hair because she’s pregnant.

We’re in our thirties; “something else” sometimes feels like a do or die prospect. We’ve got to write that book and make something of our lives, because we can’t hide our lights under a bushel, and we’ve had a bunch of kids already, and surely God wants us to do something more.

Or does he? Maybe he just wants us to stay home. Maybe this is all there is. Maybe we’ve been deluding ourselves and we’re going to rob our children of everything they need and deserve from us.

It’s been a couple of years now that Pedge and I have been hammering these issues out. This year, during Lent, it’s become pretty clear to me that there is no Act II. It’s not do or die; it’s keep on chugging.

Have detachment from what I want my life to look like, and detachment from what I don’t want—which would be something like having another baby every two years for the next twenty years of my life. Live in what is, rather than what may be.

When I told Pedge these things, she said, “So what are we supposed to do then? Have another baby?”

“Not necessarily. Not just because we need a goal, anyway.”

We sat in silence for a minute, letting the dreams dissolve, at least for this afternoon.

“If this is it,” Pedge said, “I’m getting the chunky hair.”


My cousin recently asked an unsuitable young man to step out of her life. Her attachment to him made the decision a hard one. But she felt good about spending Easter Sunday focusing instead on the Risen Christ.

The trouble is, the young man decided that Easter would be the day he went back to Church. He sat right behind her, looking in her direction throughout most of the service.

My cousin said God was testing her: “Are you going to let that boy steal your heart again, or are you going to focus on me, like you said?” And it was a struggle, being watched all through church, so difficult that by the time we met up afterwards, she was on the verge of tears. But she made it; bypassed the Sunday dinners she’d been eating with him and his family, and came instead to spend Easter with us.

When she told me the story, it was those words, “…like you said,” that struck me. They sounded so much like a parent disciplining a child, “Are you going to do this like you said, or am I going to have to come make you do it?”

At the same time, there was something sort of poetic about them, something of a covenant. You said it, and so it is. Your word means something to God.

That night, before bed, I said Compline for the Easter Octave, and there were those words again:

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia,
has risen as he said, alleluia.

Would we rejoice so much at Christ’s Resurrection if he hadn’t told us about it first? It was the fulfillment of his Word. He did it, just like he said, and it gives us hope and assurance, then, that everything he said is true.

Words mean something. Makes me want to take a fine-toothed comb over everything I’ve ever said, especially the covenants I’ve made to God. Will I go forth and sin no more, like I said? Will I love, honor, and obey, like I said? Words mean something.

Today was eighty degrees and gorgeous, with just a hint of humidity that let us know there would likely be rain later in the day. I was itching to go for a run, to burn off some of the Cadbury eggs that keep walking into my mouth. But right when my husband got home, the weather finally delivered on its promise. The sky opened up and let loose a terrific thunder storm.

So we went ahead and had dinner. We worked the kids through their homework. At dusk, it seemed the storm had passed, and I seized the moment to go out and run. There was no wind at all. The sky was green and pink. Not a soul on the road.

I had the Ipod on shuffle, and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” came up. Hadn’t heard that song in a couple decades, and it sort of matched the weather, so I let a few bars pass, before I heard, in the background, dim as could be, the tornado siren going off.

I looked around and didn’t see any suspicious clouds, except for one that looked sort of like a mushroom cloud. Death wasn't imminent, but I feared for my life anyway. If not the tornado, it could be some other disaster, a nuclear one, a meteor. At any moment, the world could go up in a poof, and really, I DO NOT want to be listening to The Smiths when that happens.

It was enough to cure me of the Ipod until I’d made it home safely, and I’m considering going through my files and deleting any music to which I could not stand to die. It would be curtains for about 90 percent of what’s taking up gigabytes on that little machine.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Melanie Penn makes music.

One of my best friends from college has put out an acoustic/folk album.

Buy here.

Listen here.

She's very good.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"You're On A Freight Train Headed for the Blues"

--Jack White

Several months ago, my husband and I went to “Ribberfest,” a blues and ribs festival in Madison, Indiana on the banks of the Ohio River. I’ve never been much of a blues fan, and that night didn’t change it all for me, but it piqued my interest.

We sat on a stone wall next to a couple of bikers who’d been to this festival annually for the past few years. They were blues aficionados, and talked and sang and smoked as though anyone around them were welcome to join the conversation, so I did. Robben Ford played with a bassist and a drummer. I wasn’t familiar with the band, so I was listening for clues in the bikers’ conversation.

“They’re putting out a lot of sound for just three guys,” one of them said. I’d hardly noticed how many people were actually playing up there, because I just heard the product, a bluesy song that sounded much like every other bluesy song I’d ever heard.

“This guy’s the real deal,” said the other.

The real deal? “Why?” I asked, joining the conversation. Was it because he’d won a grammy? Because he’d collaborated with Joni Mitchell (a true accomplishment, in my opinion)? And if this guy was the real deal, why weren't there more people in the audience?

“Watch them closely,” the guy next to me said. “They’re having a conversation up there.”

I wanted to see this conversation up close, so I went up to the front of the stage, where the serious appreciators danced with their eyes closed.

The three members of the band breathed together. They communicated with eyes, with toes tapping, with the swaying of their bodies. Bass’s mouth puckered while his shoulders hunched. He appeared to be chewing. Reminded me of the puckered expression that would show up sometimes when people took pictures of me playing the cello, one of the reasons I was too vain to let go of myself and play with attitude. Drums watched him closely, then they both turned to Robben, who was getting down on the guitar. He was the leader, the big breath, the ignition. If he stopped, they would all stop.

My husband and I recently watched the documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” in which three iconic guitarists (Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White) come together to discuss their craft and make music. At one point, Jimmy Page talks about what it felt like to hit his groove in a band: “When passion meets competence, it’s absolute musical heaven.”

Yes, these guys were the real deal.

The three band members relished their command of the unspoken language. “How can I get some of that?” I wondered. It was a dance, with plenty of improvisation.

Pentimento spoke here (in the comments) about how music speaks a language beyond words, but I’ve found that the written word can also take on an aspect of "unspoken" communication.

In “It Might Get Loud,” The Edge said he considers the guitar his voice. He uses the sustain feature on his amplifiers to make his notes converse with the notes he played seconds before. His present music becomes a duet with the very recent past. I’ve always wondered what it was that made U2’s music so compelling. In a large part, it’s this conversation between the past and present, this "sustain," that has been taking place right under my nose all these years without my being aware of it.

I think Pentimento uses a sustain feature in her writing. I’ve often read one of her posts, like this one, and wondered what is it about her writing that makes me want to keep reading. It is the conversation between the past and present that is so skillfully executed, I hardly realize it’s taking place. It’s no coincidence she’s a musician as well as a writer.

“Music evokes location,” said the Edge. “Where is this music being played? Where does it take you?” The best writers evoke location. The Southern writers, O Connor, Faulkner, Percy, are not called the Southern Writers for nothing. I’ve been thinking lately about what the particular music of the Midwest is these days. Maybe it’s these new blues, Robben Ford singing, “I want to see what it feels like to be nothing to nobody.” Midwesterners always want to ditch the good stuff and run off to the coast.

The Edge spoke of a moment in U2’s early days, acknowledging that no one in the band knew what they were doing. They weren’t trained musicians. And he one day had the realization, “Our limitations as musicians were not going to be a problem: I can do that.”

For about eight years after I started having kids, I didn't write much. I decided that instead of writing, I would be a reader. Someone had to buy the literary journals. Someone had to appreciate all the words sent off to find their way in the cosmos. I would be that person. I spent most days reading all the books to which I didn't pay attention in college, and others that my liberal professors wouldn't have assigned.

I read a lot of good writing. And a lot of bad writing. And one day, it dawned on me: "I can do that." I could write somewhere between the good and the bad. What do these people producing all these words have that I don't have? Is it competency? Is it passion? Is it time? Am I not allowed to write? I decided that I would not let my limitations, whatever they were, be a problem for me. I was allowing my limitations to intimidate me. I was allowing them to make me feel like an imposter in a world I was born to inhabit, not the "Literary World," so to speak, but the world of my every day life that I longed to decipher in the written word. The only way for my limitations to cease being limitations was to surpass them, daily, little by little.

Though my limitations are still likely a problem for whoever reads this blog, writing it makes me feel like I'm a part of that three-way conversation, picking up cues from, breathing in accord with God and the world around me. It's my own little Midwestern blues band I guess. Not quite "the real deal," but one of these days...

More Quotes from the Movie:

Edge on the creative process: “There will always be something if you keep going.

Jack White: “When you dig deeper into Rock and Roll you’re on a freight train headed for the blues.”

On writing music: “If you don’t have a struggle inside of you or around you, you have to make one up.”

Jimmy Page on early experimentation with dynamics on electric guitar in rock music: “It’s the whisper to the thunder, the quiet invites you in….Light and dark, crescendo—wouldn’t I want to be employing that?”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Only Solution

Tonight I was driving all of my children around town in order to make drop-offs at swimming lessons and play practices, etc. The kids were nuts, screaming in the back of my van and jumping all over the place. I could feel myself dissolving into the driver’s seat. I was at the point where I typically snap and start yelling bloody murder, but the car was suddenly filled with the sound of pipe organ. I’d turned on an unmarked CD which happened to have on it the “Veni Creator Spiritus” as it was played at my husband and mine’s wedding, in an arrangement by Friedrich Froeschle.

The Church where we married has a long aisle with blood red carpet, and we processed to the altar to this piece, chosen to invoke the Holy Spirit upon our marriage. When I hear this music, I cry. Every. Single. Time. There’s something so humbling and comforting in knowing that whatever proceeds from that moment on the altar is God’s will because the Holy Spirit was there, and is there in our marriage. I count on it.

I was driving and crying, and the children were silenced by the pipes, at least I think they were because I’d turned the volume up so loud that I wouldn’t have heard them. And I had the sort of moment I always hope for, when confusion becomes clarity, where anger becomes charity.

I’ve spent the better part of this week thinking I have no answers for any of the troubles in the world. I teach a catechism class for adults at my Parish, and I’d been dreading it all week. What incredible over-confidence, to think I have something to teach these people. All week I have felt helpless about the poverty in the third world. I don’t know how to make the government operate how I want it to operate. I don’t know how to make my kids behave how I want them to behave. I don’t know how to be happy with all that I have. I have no answers, nothing to teach, no easy solutions.

Except for the Holy Spirit.

This happens sometimes, that I just feel ineffective in my positions. I’m no kind of mother, no teacher, no writer. Even striving to be Holy feels like an act of self-indulgence—because who can sit around examining their conscience when there are such abominable things happening in the world?

Last week discussing the Beatitudes with Pedge and Irene, I felt incredibly sad with its message. Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, those who hunger for righteousness. I was none of the above. I was just about to comment on my ineptitude at living the Gospel when Pedge said, “I really am all of these things at one time or another. Sometimes I’m a peacemaker. Sometimes, I’m poor of spirit. Sometimes I hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

This keeps happening to us, that we can both read the same Gospel passage and glean from it the exact opposite. Today we read about the widow putting her last two coins in the basket, and I felt sad thinking that I haven’t given enough. And Pedge felt glad, because she interpreted the two coins as love for God and love for neighbor, and she felt that God had positioned her life so that she could give just those two things.

Driving in my car tonight the Veni Creator Spiritus reminds me that there is room for all of these different interpretations. There is room to find the cup half empty, or half full, because the Holy Spirit is going to speak to each one of us as individuals. The Holy Spirit is going to inspire Pedge to remark, “What gives God more Glory, to beat ourselves up because we have been given so much, or to be glad and spread what joy we have because it has been given to us by God?”

Teaching my class, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me, and feeling as lacking as I do, maybe opens more room for the Holy Spirit to fill me. It’s the only solution I have to the problem of teaching that class. The DRE is counting on me. People show up. I can’t hide. I must prepare. And then when I’ve combined my resources and drawn up my plan, I ask the Holy Spirit to make the right words come from my mouth. It’s the only solution I have, because I have nothing else to offer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Trust is Negotiable

In college I dated a boy who had the gay double life on the internet thing and a habit of telling lies. I was blindsided by the evidence when his roommate produced it for me.

Of course, a relationship cannot continue if one partner is only feigning interest, but beyond that, I had been deceived, and it seemed an inability to trust would render any relationship insupportable.

Last year, I sponsored a young woman as she came into the Catholic Church. She converted, and her fiancé reverted, both inspired by a deep sense of contrition about how their relationship began. There was apparently some overlap between their relationship and a prior (invalid) marriage for him.

I had this young woman over for coffee Friday, and we were talking about the plans for their impending marriage, her hopes and doubts. And she said that she was having trust issues, perhaps inspired by the circumstances under which their relationship began. People who begin a relationship under the strains of infidelity can’t help suffering from paranoia.

Like me, she thought that if she has doubts about her ability to trust this man, then the relationship cannot function. She keeps thinking she needs to postpone their wedding until she feels an adequate amount of trust.

I wonder if it will ever come.

Looking at trust from the other side of ten years of marriage (to a man who is undeniably heterosexual), I had pause to wonder if a failure of trust really is incompatible with a long-lasting relationship.

Having been stung by my aforementioned relationship, I spent many hours of my husband and mine’s early marriage waiting for the other shoe to drop. With each child we conceived, I felt more and more vulnerable. I would calculate my ability to handle life if our marriage, for some reason, ended. I could definitely take care of one child on my own, but could I manage two? What about three, or four? How many kids could I have and still be able to cut my losses and run? I was certain that my husband’s mid-life crisis or untimely heart-attack was right around the corner, and then I’d be up shit’s creek.

But at some point, one has to quit weighing trust against one’s insecurities, and choose faith. Choose to believe that I’ll be ok no matter what happens, that God will take care of our family even if my husband or I fail one another. Absolute trust in another person is overrated, even negotiable. It is fear and paranoia that undermines relationships.

Who can bear the weight of a beloved’s trust? In the course of our marriage, we have both lost and had to regain the other’s trust more than once. Maybe we haven’t committed the “big gun” acts of infidelity, but countless marriages, having suffered adultery, pick up their broken hearts and battle to keep their marriages intact until death. And so it seems that there is a sort of ebb and flow to trust, that in my pre-marriage days, would have made me feel very insecure.

I am NOT saying, “no one can be faithful, so just be honest.” I believe that spouses can be faithful to one another for a lifetime, but it takes work, and vigilance, and it’s scary how thin the line can be between a seemingly innocuous interaction and an outward turning change of heart. And even so-called minor breaches of trust are contagious. For every husband who looks at pornography, there is a wife googling her ex-boyfriend.

My husband is currently addicted to the Iron and Wine song, “Resurrection Fern.” The lyrics feel appropriate to this subject:

“And we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire
Both our tender bellies wound in baling wire
All the more a pair of underwater pearls
Than the Oak Tree and its Resurrection Fern”

Particularly, for couples who do not use birth control, there is a poignant vulnerability to the marriage act. Even when the fire has cooled to ashes, those “tender bellies” are always open to the possibility of new life, and the binding to one another that takes place with each conception. This is where we have no choice but to turn towards God and put our trust in him. We are less the stalwart Oak and its dependent regenerating flora than we are two delicate creatures growing together underwater in blindness.

A related post at Video Meliora

Another related post, by my sister at Back Bay View.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Becoming More Human

Celebrity cellist, Yo-Yo Ma performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this week. Tickets sold out many months in advance, so sitting at home rather than in concert finery, I’ve been inclined to read the reviews. Raving positive, they can only be, or Indianapolis may never see such a headliner again, but our local classical music reviewer (I’ll call him J.) went above and beyond his superlative duty and labeled the event “special.”

He went on to describe, with intricate detail, Ma’s interpretation of The Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor; how he blended with woodwinds in a second movement cadenza, echoed a horn theme in the first, and accompanied the flute with his beyond-other-worldly bow control.

For a minute, just one little minute, I thought to myself:

Who in Indianapolis, Indiana, besides J. himself, and one or two nerds (myself included—but just barely) could possibly care about what Yo-Yo Ma did with a second movement cadenza? And what did J. do? Sit there with his own copy of the sheet music in his lap to see, “Oh, here, Ma needs to play ‘ma non troppo.’ Will he do it? Yes!” Nobody here cares about classical music anymore. And if Yo-Yo Ma is on their radar, it’s probably just to say, “Hey Yo Mama is here!”

But maybe I had that thought because I have gradually lost interest in classical music. Why? Because it’s difficult. I have never been able to understand or appreciate a piece of classical music until I have played it. I do have to hold the sheet music in my lap while I listen, and read or play along. Interpreting classical music is a bit like reading a big fat classic novel, like War and Peace. You have to get over the desire to reach the end of it, and learn to appreciate each word, each sentence, each theme for what it is. You have to have patience and concentration, which is something I have gradually lost.

I admit, I know this J. I played in a youth symphony with his son, also a cellist, when I was in high school. His son (I’ll call him T.), sat first stand with a lanky Polish boy on whom I had my first major unrequited crush. But T himself was a classic, textbook nerd. He wore coke-bottle glasses, had a shaggy head of greasy hair, and bountiful zits which he used to rub with the tip of his bow. He was home-schooled and didn’t watch TV, though sometimes he said, they borrowed films from the library. He could recite in chronological order, with incredible speed, every ascendant to the Czarist Russian throne, and he did so at least once a rehearsal.

I sat behind him, fourth chair, sharing a stand with a pudgy, dark-skinned boy named Darius. Darius and I were like a couple of puppies poking and prodding the two serious musicians at the stand in front of us. When T eventually grew irritated, he would turn his entire body around without moving his neck to glare out of his coke-bottle glasses like a pre-pubescent Dracula. In short, he was the model of patience and concentration, and the living artifact of an eccentric, intellectual education. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in his home! To be the son of local classical music reviewer, J., who believes that certain cadenzas are beyond special!

I say all of this a little tongue in cheek, because I was, am, and ever shall be envious of what I do not have, and what I did not have in high school was a life built on aural appreciation. Music was always my hobby, something I did that was different from everyone else at school. I had enough aptitude to get by, make the cut, but never enough patience and concentration to make music my life.

As a member of the cello section in this particular state-wide youth orchestra, we received complimentary tickets to hear the last celebrity cellist who came through Indianapolis over fifteen years ago, Mstislav Rostropovich. If my memory serves me correctly, he played the same piece that Ma did this weekend. During the intermission of that concert, I made my move on the lanky Polish boy who occupied the first stand of the cello section, and he brushed me off, quickly, because the lights were beginning to dim, and he didn’t want to “miss a note.”

His father was a first generation Polish immigrant, founder of a local violin competition, and yet another classical music aesthete, who would sit on his couch in the middle of the day listening to obscure recordings. When we walked through his living room, he would say, “Young people, sit down and listen to this recording! It’s sublime!” and throw back his head on the couch, smiling at the ceiling and swinging his leg, crossed over his knee. That love is what I never had—the desire to sit and do nothing else but listen to complicated music, to read it like a novel, to enjoy every note.

Now I go for walks and listen to the ipod which is filled with a lot of classical music, a lot of folk, a lot of rock, and a bit of country. I set it on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.

It’s sad.

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

I’ve been trying something this week—something I should have done long ago—which is severely limiting my time on the computer. Write with a pen and paper. Listen to music that requires patience and concentration. Read a book, even if it is one I’ve already read, and value every word. Share other people’s experiences, even those that make me uncomfortable or exhausted. This because I want to be more human, less technologically enthralled, and less dependent on the highs that technology somehow mysteriously provides for me. I wonder, if becoming less the master of my sensory environment would provide me with more dependence on God, and if my failures in patience and concentration are at the root of my current difficulties with prayer. I want to care about how Yo-Yo Ma blends with the woodwinds in the second-movement cadenza, because that is such a definitively human concern.