Tears, Laughter, and Love

It was the simplest of exchanges. On the day poet Mary Oliver died, I responded to a reader’s acknowledgement of her passing by saying, “Yes, and I was surprised by the depth of my grief. I don’t believe I’ve ever wept at the death of a ‘celebrity’ before.” “I understand,” he said, “and as I’m certain you know, that’s all right.” Smiling, I replied, “Indeed, it is.”
And that would have been that, had I not continued to think about other simple exchanges that have shaped my understanding of life. I’m posting the story of one such exchange today: in memory of Mary Oliver, in honor of Charles Treger, and in appreciation for all who understand the role of beauty, truth, and tears in our lives.

 

Tucked into the heart of an old Houston neighborhood, Villa de Matel gleams with burnished light. Home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the convent serves the larger community as a place of worship and retreat, as well as being a retirement home for the Sisters.

A large Lombard-Romanesque Chapel designed by architect Maurice J. Sullivan serves as its centerpiece. Consecrated in 1928, it’s noted for high vaulted ceilings, German and Irish stained-glass windows, massive marble pillars, and intricate tile work. Like the Rothko Chapel, another Houston landmark, it’s impressive without being ornate. Its numinous space shimmers in the silence, inviting visitors to pause, rest, and reflect.

Apart from its ambiance, the Chapel is known for magnificent acoustics, making it a perfect venue for musical performance. A few years ago, I attended one of three Houston Chamber Choir concerts in their Christmas at the Villa series. The program, a mix of traditional carols, seasonal favorites, and sacred choral music always sells out, so a friend and I arrived early to ensure ourselves the best general admission seats.

As we watched other music-lovers arrive, I noticed a woman taking her place in the subscribers’ section of the broad main aisle. Elegant in black velvet, she’d added a Santa hat to her ensemble: vibrant and red as the poinsettias trimming the nave. As she turned to greet friends, its white pompom jiggled and bobbed; the amusing counterpoint to her conversation continued until the orchestra and chorus arrived, and she settled back to enjoy the music.

A first selection by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria perfectly complemented the splendor of the Chapel. The music flowed easily, filling the nave with wave after wave of polyphonic delights. As it did, I noticed tears running down the cheeks of the elegant Santa’s helper. Dropping from her chin onto her velvet jacket, the tears glittered like jewels in the warm and glowing light.

She never moved, until the music died away into silence. Then, her shoulders quivered with a quick, almost imperceptible sigh as she lifted both hands to wipe her face. Oblivious to curious glances from people surrounding her — perhaps still in thrall to the music — she seemed a world away: unembarrassed, and not at all ashamed of her open expression of emotion.

Perhaps, I thought, she had met Charles Treger.

My own encounter with violinist Charles Treger took place during my senior year of high school. Having won an essay contest sponsored by our local Representative, John Kyl (R-Iowa), I received an extraordinary prize: a week-long visit to Washington, D.C. to explore the city and its political processes in the company of Congressman Kyl and his wife Arlene.

After a turbulent first airline flight, I arrived in Washington and settled into my hotel suite. During the next week, I shadowed Representative Kyl through offices, committee meetings, and discussions on the House floor. Eventually allowed to wander on my own, I prowled the corridors and tunnels of the Capitol, visited the Rotunda and Statuary Hall, and explored the Folger Shakespeare Library with a freedom impossible today.

As the week progressed, I shared the Senate’s traditional bean soup with Barry Goldwater and had a memorable meeting with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. on the House side. I still laugh at Powell’s colorfully-phrased suggestion that I should get myself out of the #$@&%*! Iowa cornfields and move to New York. The mid-60’s may have seen the beginning of Powell’s fall, but as a member of the 88th Congress, he still was something to behold.

But none of these memories surfaced that night at Villa de Matel. Watching a tearful woman’s response to the music of Victoria, I thought only of my excursion into Washington social life; the gift of another quite extraordinary concert; its dream-like aftermath; and a brief and intensely personal exchange with Charles Treger himself.

At the time, Treger had won a contest of his own, placing first in the 1962 Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition. He moved to Iowa City after accepting a professorship at the University of Iowa, and the Iowa connection no doubt explained the Kyls’ interest in attending his concert. Like Van Cliburn before him, his victory also carried political implications; it would eventuate in his 1969 State Department-sponsored tour of fourteen European and Eastern Bloc countries.

Prior to attending his performance with the National Symphony, we dined at a private home in Georgetown. Prepared to deal with multiple courses and too much silverware, I was taken aback by the brandied figs offered as dessert, but a solicitous table companion grinned and whispered, “I don’t like them either. You don’t have to eat them.”

After dinner, as we made our way to Constitution Hall for the concert, another of the Kyls’ friends asked if I’d ever attended a formal concert. When I admitted I’d never been to the symphony, he said, “Well, my dear, what you must do is not worry about what you’re supposed to do. Just enjoy yourself.”

And so I did, until halfway through the second half of the program, when tears welled up and began streaming down my face. Despite all that I’d imagined for that night, I hadn’t imagined tears. Mortified, I collected myself, and no one seemed to have noticed.

After the concert, we stopped at the reception being held for Treger at Blair House. As I edged around the room, trying to disappear into the woodwork, Charles Treger himself suddenly appeared in front of me. “They tell me you’re with the Kyls,” he said. “What did you think of the concert?” 

Disarmed by his sudden appearance, or perhaps by the directness of his question, I responded with equal directness. “I cried.” Treger never blinked. “Good,” he said. “When?” “In the second half of the program, during the slow piece,” I said. He cocked his head slightly and paused for a moment. “That’s even better. Just remember. Crying at a concert’s never wrong.” And then he was gone.

Pondering an experience already decades old, I would add only this. On a night when he might have been forgiven for thinking primarily of himself, Treger made it a point to speak directly and honestly to a young girl drifting out of her depth at his reception. Today, his action and his words still speak: not only to his character, but also to his understanding of the nature of music and its value in our lives.

Charles Treger’s truth – a truth confirmed again and again in poetry, in music, and in art — is that responding to beauty is never wrong. We need not be embarassed by emotion evoked by art, and we need not attempt to explain away our response.

Whether filling a cathedral’s soaring space or vibrating the cramped quarters of a daily commute, whether interpreted or improvised, tapped out or sung, when music comes to life it gives life, often in unexpected and quite remarkable ways.

Play the music, not the instrument, advise the anonymous teachers: and so we play, however well or poorly. But now and then, when we least expect it, music also plays us. Touched by music’s loving bow, we discover that we ourselves are capable of resonance — in tears, in laughter, and in love.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Innocents, Still

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, greeted her readers on Christmas day with a heartfelt Feliz Navidad and a reminder of a charming Ecuadorian custom:

At the  midnight hour on December 24th, many people in Ecuador pause during their late-night meal and raise a toast to Baby Jesus. They exchange greetings with everyone in the room; then they return to their seats and resume their meal.

Other Ecuadorians, on their way to Christmas Eve Mass, carry the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes to the church. The infants are placed on the altar until midnight. At the end of the service, they’re carried back home and returned to their mangers.

It’s a lovely tradition, reminiscent of some Americans’ practice of leaving the manger empty until Christmas Day. Once the baby Jesus has been tucked back into the heart of his family, we sigh over the loveliness of his mother, admire the steadfastness of his father, give a nod to his humble surroundings, and go our way. What comes next isn’t our concern.

The temptation to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy isn’t particularly surprising. Babies offer challenges, to be sure, but there’s very little more touching than the sight of a sleeping infant, warm and secure. More than a few parents and grandparents have been heard to murmur the ages-old wish: “If only this time would last, just a bit longer.”

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at innocent babes in bassinets is only the beginning. Soon enough come colic and teething, followed closely by the terrible twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or coaches come knocking at the door. The driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter everyone assumed was spending weekends in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse than a tattooed skateboarder. Unhappy choices of friends may lead to a Saturday night call from jail, or a suspension from school. Now and then, illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury. Given the unpredictability of life, it’s impossible to know what’s just around the bend. Whatever it is, it may be heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children, and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, the challenges are different, but equally daunting. Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis, and simple malnutrition lead to much higher infant mortality rates. Violence, insurrection, civil war, and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  

While our Christmas celebrations often romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios, and slums around the world continue to suffer and die. They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered. Innocents in every sense of the word, they have done nothing to deserve their fate.

Massacre of the Innocents ~ Illustrated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France (c. 1200 CE)

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  According to historical sources, King Herod the Great, Rome’s man in Judea, already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  

Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior,  Herod lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing both Rome and his own subjects alike.  After a visit from the Magi, the traditional Wise Men from the East who prophesied the birth of another, more powerful ruler capable of usurping his authority, Herod reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence exists that Herod’s ferocity was real, even when it came to his own sons. But no matter how many Bethlehem children actually died by Herod’s hand, their Feast Day stands as a reminder that power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

An especially poignant and mournful Christmas song commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named for Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, an entertainment rooted in 14th century morality plays and provided by tradesmen to their towns.

One of the oldest unadapted carols we have, the Coventry Carol retains both the original lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534) and tune (Thomas Mawdyke, 1591). Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

“Coventry Carol”  ~ Collegium Vocale Gent
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and sigh
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.

Understandably, Coventry’s carol rarely is heard in retail spaces during the Christmas season, but it’s equally uncommon in congregational settings. Medievalists love it, as do madrigal groups and chamber singers, but it’s not Joy to the World or Adeste Fidelis. Offered the chance to move beyond familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even our violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate.

Perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas songs rarely experienced today.  Too archaic in language, too bleak in tone, too reflective of realities we prefer to ignore, and far too straightforward in its recognition of innocent death, the Coventry Carol makes us nervous.

Ignoring reality has its perils, of course. Birth is only the beginning. Life is movement; time passes, and history continues to unfold. Herod may be gone, but his successors live on, determined to preserve their positions of power at the expense of innocent life.

Certainly we are free to turn away, to avert our faces, to imagine ourselves innocent of complicity in events unfolding in time.  But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger while choosing to ignore the needs of children living among us.  If we can come to see in Bethlehem’s stall every child of Christmas; if we dare to preserve against slaughter every poor youngling for whom the angels sing; we may yet free them from the world’s hand, and transform their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

Comments always are welcome.

Justice and Freedom ~ But Most of All, Love

Peter, Paul, and Mary arrive in Tokyo (1964) to play for military audiences
(Photo courtesy Stars and Stripes)

Stan Lee. Aretha Franklin. Charles Aznavour. Tom Wolfe. Neil Simon…

As if confounded by the inability of wealth or fame to resist the predations of time, we stand, incredulous, before the deaths of our celebrities, watching as their lives begin to fade against the horizon of history.

Sometimes we grieve. Sometimes we become nostalgic. Sometimes we become nervous, aware that the passing of yet another famous face is a marker of sorts: a memento mori, a reminder that our years, too, are passing, and that the fate of others soon enough will be our own.

Occasionally, the response is more personal.  When I learned of Mary Travers’s passing in 2009, I wasn’t surprised. Her struggles with leukemia had been well documented, and her death in a Danbury, Connecticut hospital at the age of 72 was the natural outcome of a long process. Still, it stirred some memories.

mary

I’d first become aware of Travers when she joined with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey to begin making music around New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s; the trio swept into American consciousness with an irresistible combination of intensity and cool. Herb Caen, celebrated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, coined the term “beatnik” in a  1958 column that might have taken lanky, blond Mary and her goatee-wearing pals as models.

maryalbum

Their 1962 debut album, Peter, Paul & Mary, contained two of their biggest hits: Lemon Tree, and the multiple Grammy Award-winning If I Had a Hammer. Within weeks of purchasing the album, I’d memorized the lyrics and chords for each of its songs, as had most of my friends. Later generations might moonwalk or play air guitar, but in our 1960s basements and bedrooms, we strummed and harmonized.

Folk harmonies sounded ‘nice’ to an older generation unsure about Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis, so our parents found it easy to smile approvingly while we listened and sang. In time, the songs’ lyrics would begin to balance the sweetness of those harmonies, resonating in a way rendered sharper and more pointed by changing circumstance and our own maturation. But in the beginning, it was the fun of singing along that drew us in.

One day, news of a concert appeared in the Des Moines Register — Peter, Paul, and Mary would be playing the KRNT Theater in Des Moines. Immediately, four high-schoolers set about nagging four sets of parents for permission to attend. When our parents agreed, my friends and I hardly knew how to respond. It was to be our first live concert, our first trip without chaperones to an out-of-town event, and our first exhilarating taste of an adult social life.

The concert, a two-hour performance before a sold-out crowd, seemed far too short. At its conclusion, unwilling for the night to end, we searched out a well-known coffee house on the edge of the Drake University campus and settled in among the mix of patrons, trying not to call attention to ourselves.

We needn’t have worried. Shortly after our coffee arrived, Peter, Paul, and Mary arrived as well, drawing all of the attention to themselves. After ordering, they began working the room, chatting and signing autographs as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Inevitably, someone asked if they’d sing another song. Rather than declining outright, they suggested they’d be happy to reprise Lemon Tree if we would join them in the chorus.  And so we sang: beautiful, ethereal Mary, puckish Peter, and quiet Paul leading their awe-stricken fans down paths of melody like a trio of Bohemian pied pipers.

Many decades later, browsing web postings about Mary’s death, I discovered a similar account of a KRNT concert in the comment section of Rzine, a former publication of Rhino Records.

John Hagelston had told the story of a visit by the trio to the company’s headquarters. It was a typical account of an entirely pleasant day: a mix of a little business, a little singing, and some time for employees to meet and chat with the musicians.

Imagine my surprise when I found this comment, left by an anonymous reader:

My girl friend and I attended a concert given by the trio during the late 1960’s in Des Moines, Iowa. After the concert, the trio were signing autographs and interacting with fans in their usual fashion and I got up the nerve to ask Peter if he needed a ride to the hotel. Amazingly, after exchanging glances with us between autographs for what seemed a long time, he brought the autograph session to a close, approached the two of us and said he would alert his manager to the situation.
So off we went, the three of us. Peter asked if there were any coffee shops on the university campus where local talent performed but, unfortunately, the only such establishment closed early on week nights. I always wondered how the “regulars” would have reacted to an impromtu jam session with Peter Yarrow.

I’ve always wished I could have told that anonymous commenter that Peter had his opportunity to visit the coffee house on a Saturday night, and that he brought Paul and Mary with him.

Over the years, I enjoyed other concerts by the group — in Iowa City, in Telluride, in San Francisco — but none of the performances exceeded the pleasure of that intimate coffee house evening. Still, by the time they joined together to perform on April 24, 1971 at the Washington, D.C. march to protest the Vietnam war, the context for their music had changed. No one who attended that march — or followed events connected to the civil rights protests of the 1960s — ever will forget the power of their collective voice.

“If I Had a Hammer” ~ written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes

I last heard the group in Texas, at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mary, who had been quite ill and hospitalized, flew in for a single performance. Walking with a cane and obviously suffering the effects of her treatments, she remained dignified, good-humored and honest about the realities of her life.

Despite being in less than good voice and despite needing physical support from time to time, she sang on. As the sun set and stars rose, tears fell among audience members compelled to face the truth. It would be the last time we would see Peter, Paul, and Mary together on stage.

marykerrville2001

To remember Mary Travers today is to remember a woman whose voice stirred longings and aspirations in an emerging generation as surely as she expressed those aspirations to the world. Clear-eyed in her approach to life, graced with remarkable toughness and an extra allotment of kindness, she maintained her commitment to causes of peace and justice to the very end.

Reflecting on her life, fellow group member Peter Yarrow mused, “Mary always was honest and completely authentic. That’s the way she sang, too: honestly, and with complete authenticity.”

Listening to Travers’s songs and tracing her path through the decades, I feel again the surge of hope and possibility that rang out in that honest and authentic voice. Weary of bureaucratic wrangling, sick to death of pettiness, pessimism, and every sort of posturing along the full length of the political spectrum, I wonder: is it possible that the old songs might once again stir hearts grown accustomed to seeking not justice, but partiality: not freedom, but advantage? Is it possible that clear and authentic voices once again will ring out over the din of manipulated rancor?

Only time will tell. But while Mary Travers has laid her hammer down, it may be time for those who remain to pick it up. There are sisters and brothers among us who need to hear her song.

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about the history of the song “If I Had a Hammer.”

Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while. Continue reading

On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
Continue reading

Iesous Ahatonhia: The Huron Carol

“A Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling Moose” ~  Cornelius Krieghoff, 1868

Known as the first North American Christmas carol, “The Huron Carol” was written by Père Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary and accomplished linguist who supervised the preparation of a Huron grammar and dictionary.

After arriving in Quebec from Normandy in 1625,  de Brébeuf (1593-1649) lived and worked among the Huron from 1626 to 1629, and then again from 1634 until his torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois in 1649. Canonized in 1930, de Brébeuf became one of the patron saints of Canada.

Like so many early missionaries, de Brébeuf necessarily became an explorer. After being assigned to Huronia, he found himself crossing the 800 miles that separated Quebec from the Hurons by canoe. It was far from an easy trip, as  the Dictionary of Canadian Biography makes clear:
Continue reading

A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading