she willed us along
beneath willows and oaks
toward the life-giving water
of words. See, she says, how they rise
and flow ~ quenching imagination’s
thirst, flooding away darkness from our eyes.
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.
The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind attempts to blanket the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.
As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of no-longer and the land of yet-to-be. Perhaps a passing, shadowed thought suggests itself even to revelers in the street:This is the way of life.
Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence even as their elders sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of steaming mud evoke a season’s final turn.
Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against a backdrop of continuous change, torrents of words flow on: a steady sluice of syllables seemingly uncontained. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts: nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.
Still, for poets, novelists, and essayists — for every story-teller or myth-maker stepping into or hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.
Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words sometimes slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.
Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…
Within the context of his poem, Eliot’s words carry particular meaning. But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how twisted beyond recognition or firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners of our mind, words demand respect, and words will have their way.
When the shadow of wordlessness comes upon us, when we sense our language has grown old and tired as the visions of our spent imaginations, we can be tempted toward a misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages, we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify that which refuses to be reclaimed. When a loss of language comes, no formula or key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.
But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. Emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light lie waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon, they are, in fact, our new year’s words.
Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will succeed. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing stream of language, some have sent back bulletins from a newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
Fading but still recognizable, the coneflower drowsing in late afternoon sunlight seemed oblivious to the laughter surrounding it.
“Look!” said the friend who knows me well enough to know the reason for my laughter. “What do you suppose it wants to say?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but it certainly knows how to ask for attention.”
We laughed because the arrangement of the coneflower petals — so much like crossed fingers — reminded us both of my own finger-crossing habit. As a child, caught between my eagerness to take part in adult discussions and parental admonitions not to interrupt others, I often found it hard to plunge into the ebb and flow of conversation. By the time an opportunity presented itself, I’d forgotten what I’d meant to say.
As a memory aid, I began crossing my fingers while waiting for a chance to speak. After others noticed the gesture and learned its purpose, my crossed fingers became a family joke. Over time, they became a family tradition: a recognizable sign that someone had something to say, and would like a chance to say it.
Of course, crossed fingers have taken on multiple meanings over the centuries. The coneflower might have been as interested in concealment as conversation, or it might have been hoping for the luck of a lingering fall. Whatever its purpose, the ambiguity of its gesture fits nicely into an etheree.
Strictly speaking, this handsome bird is a grackle rather than a blackbird: specifically, a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major). Often seen along the Gulf coast, it can be distinguished from the common grackle by its dark eyes; common grackles’ eyes tend to be a bright yellowish-gold.
Ogden Nash once wrote a humorous if not entirely complimentary little ditty for the grackle, but the stately demeanor of this bird seemed to demand something more. Wallace Stevens was able to describe “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and these four ways especially appeal to me:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.