Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Honor Thy Mother

Sometimes, mothers can get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of life, especially as they get older.   It just seems to go with the territory.  That's no excuse of course and, with a bit of good fortune, someone might come along with a reminder.

Several years back, my mother and father then 88 and 89 respectively, found themselves in the ER on a June afternoon because my mother was experiencing severe stomach pain.  My parents lived independently in their own home and enjoyed good health given their age.  My mother's stomach pain turned out to be not a physical ailment but an emotional one.  She had been suffering from depression and was having a panic attack. She later said the attack was a feeling of fear and aloneness as she'd never had before.

With the help of medication and a therapist, my mother settled into a sleepy, silent melancholy that was itself depressing to watch.  My sisters and I met with her therapist who told us that our mother's depression was severe and centered largely around a neurotic preoccupation with suffering a lingering painful death, a fear of hers with which we were familiar.   As we wrapped up our session, the therapist looked at the four of us and said, Now, who's planning to stay with your mother?

A palpable silence met her question making it clear that none of us had plans to stay with our mother. Clearly seeing the need for intervention, the therapist admonished us gently while educating us firmly.  Your mother is very, very depressed she began. It's going to take at least 6 weeks for the medications to work.  In the meantime she's going to be unhappy, she may not get out of bed, she may not eat.  She needs to have someone there in addition to your father. She needs your help.  We must have looked unconvinced or bewildered or maybe just embarrassed because she added by way of summing up, It's a kindness you'd be showing her.

A kindness.  I thought her phrasing delicate, diplomatic. This very secular therapist who would help my mother so much and was to recommend Eastern meditations and feminist politics was never once to mention prayer or religion as a possible source of comfort.  Yet here she was, in spite of herself I imagined, invoking the Holy Spirit and laying out the options to us.  She did not berate or upbraid by lecturing us, though she might have.  She might have said that if we deeply loved our mother now was the time to act on that love.  She might have said that we needed to sacrifice our time and energy and extend to our mother that generosity of spirit, that desire to help heal and care for her that is not just a kindness but is Kindness itself, one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit.

From there she moved to the Ten Commandments.  Her turn of phrase allowed for the possibility that, whether we loved our mother deeply or not we were obliged to do more than show up for a weekend. The therapist might have said that we owed our mother a kindness not because she was 88 and suffering, but because she was our mother. We had a responsibility to show her gratitude, respect and faithfulness. She had brought us into the world.  She would forever occupy a singularly unique place in each of our lives just as she had when we were under her care, just as she did now in her old age and just as she would after her death.  The therapist might have said,  If you can't summon up a fruit of the Holy Spirit, you can at least obey the fourth Commandment and honor your mother.

My sisters and I stirred from our silence to agree on who could do what. I was the one whose schedule had the greatest flexibility, and I left that Sunday night to return a few days later to watch my mother emerge ever so slowly from her gloomy sadness.  In the weeks and months that followed, my mother made a very successful recovery and was herself once more.

About two years after her panic attack, she and my father returned home along with my sisters after the family had spent the day together at my daughter's college graduation.  I'm told that as my mother got out of the car she immediately and without a word fell flat on her back into some low-lying shrubbery by the side of the house.  She was brought around and had a few hours during which she talked and smiled but remembered nothing of what had happened that day.

The family doctor recommended a visit to the ER just to have everything checked out and two of my sisters made the trip, none of us really thinking that much about the hospital visit one way or the other.   In the car, my mother chatted normally and only complained to say that this was all so much bother for everybody.  About 15 minutes into the ride, however, she lost consciousness.

After phone calls, tests, consults and the rest of the family finally converging on the hospital, my mother was pronounced dead due to a massive hemorrhaging of the brain. There had been no pain, no lingering illness, not even apparently any fear.  My mother departed this world in a whirlwind leaving all of us with eyes glazed and minds struggling to understand what had just happened.

I thought of the two years since my mother's panic attack. These were the last two years of her life and they'd been easy, happy ones.  I thought about the lesson on Kindness and Honor.  Not talking to one another, we all drifted out of the hospital into what was now the next day, Sunday, May 13th.  It was Mother's Day.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Pastries for St. Agatha's Feast Day

St. Agatha, Pray for us!
St. Agatha holding her breasts on a plate
Zurbaran


A recipe and some commentary here and here on these pastries for St.Agatha's Feast Day, February 5th.  I was surprised to read that the latter doesn't mention searching at Veniero's for the St. Agatha cake but does mention finding them at De Robertis, which, alas, is no longer in business.  Next year, if I'm in NYC on February 5th, I'll have to stop by Veniero's.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Snow Christmas Hymns

I thought I knew all the Christmas carols and hymns there were to know--Hark The Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel, Good King Wenceslas, Joy to the World and so on and so forth.  Then, about 15 years ago,  I heard for the first time ever the beautiful Once in Royal David's City. From that point on, there have been every year carols that I've never heard before--Sussex Carol, Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly to name a few.

Included in these unfamiliar carols or hymns were several what I'll call snow carols.  Invariably, one of these snow-themes would become wrapped up in another and I would take the verses from one carol and combine it with the refrain from another thereby mixing myself up as to just which snow carol I was singing. This past Christmas season, I finally sorted them out.  There are four: The Snow Lay On the Ground,  See Amid the Winter's Snow,  Gesu Bambino and  In the Bleak Midwinter.




"The snow lay on the ground, the stars shone bright, when Jesus Christ was born that holy night."  So begins the eponymously named carol's first verse.  "See amid the winter's snow, born to us on earth below," and in Gesu Bambino (English translation of the Italian lyric),  "When blossoms flower er'e mid the snow all on a winter's night." Jesus is born on a snowy night.  In Bethlehem  And not surprisingly, in Christina Rossetti's poem set to music,  the midwinter is bleak because "Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow."  

Whence the snow and the birth of our Lord?   No surprise perhaps, but Irving Berlin's iconic 'White Christmas' of 1940 is not the source of Christmas as a snowy holiday.  Rather, Berlin's song evokes our almost 200 year old tradition of a white Christmas which dates to the Victorian era and to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol  in particular written in 1843. Prince Albert who was of German descent is credited with having imported German customs and traditions as well.  As for snow in Bethlehem, it is possible and as for the birth of Christ falling on or about December 25th, there is good reason for it to be so.

But whether fact or fancy makes little difference. Much like the flowers that appeared when Our Lady dispatched the peasant Juan Diego to request from the bishop that a church be built on the slopes of Tepeyac, Jesus comes when least expected and completely out of season.  The snow carols lay before us in rhyme and verse the utter implausibility of it all--the "tender Lamb appears" in a world "hard as iron," a rose flowers in the bleak midwinter, a "manger poor" is actually a throne, a poor baby who "built the starry skies" is the Savior of the world. The Light of the world comes into the world at the darkest time of the year.  He comes under cover of cold and buried in the mystery of snow on snow so that, unless we actually search to see Him amidst the world's snow and darkness, we may ourselves become caught up in only the bright reflections of the starry night and not see clearly that "He Whom Mary bore was God the Son."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Nano Farms

It's always a little bit iffy when we pray at our Wednesday Novena for a just distribution of the earth's wealth.  The word 'distribution' leads one's thoughts possibly to 're-distribution' which leads one's thoughts possibly to think of the Church's often politicized social justice ministries that lead one's thoughts possibly to Socialist ideologies.  Are we asking for a just distribution of the earth's wealth or for a re-distribution of people's individual wealth? I admit to muttering that intention half-heartedly.

Here, however, is a ray of sunshine in a Catholic approach to poverty.  A priest has seen fit to cash in on, if you will, that faddish business of sustainable agriculture, eating local, farm to table and farm to fork and so on and on with Nano Farms USA.


Father Larry Goode is the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in East Palo Alto, a small and historically low-income city in the San Francisco Bay area. Recently, Fr. Goode watched as big tech companies – Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – bought up most of the land surrounding his neighborhood, driving rent prices up and St. Francis' low-income families out.He started brainstorming with St. Patrick's seminary professor Father George Schultze and Ignatius Press founder Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio to come up with a way to create sustainable income for the poor in the area. That's how the idea of NanoFarms USA, a worker-owned farming cooperative, was born.
After receiving permission from Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and St. Patrick's seminary rector Father Gladstone Stevens, Fr. Goode and St. Francis parishioners started using seminary grounds to plant produce, which they then started selling at local parishes and markets.
Not only do they sell the produce but they also sell miniature gardens, the Nano Farms, and then supply the labor to maintain them. Fr. Goode says, "NanoFarms is responding to the Holy Father’s constant call to the Church to care for the poor."  

Perhaps at the Wednesday Novena, instead of praying for a just distribution of the earth's wealth, we might rather pray for the distribution and growth of many Nano Farms.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Memorizing the Wallpaper - Piano Interlude

Classical pianist Josef Hofman wrote that when memorizing a piece of music you will, in addition to memorizing the music, memorize the wallpaper in the room and, . .. "the discoloration of the ivory on some key of the piano, the pictures on the walls. . . "   Hofmann goes on to say that if we then stumble through that piece in a performance we're likely to blame our memory.  But, he observes, memory is so exacting and precise that it's actually the "difference from our accustomed surroundings that upsets our too precise memory."   Practice is one thing, but performing, even with a well-memorized and prepared piece, is another.

For the amateur musician like myself, Hoffman's wallpaper became painfully real as I embarked on a personal initiative to improve my performance skills, or, indeed, to develop some. A year or so ago when I sat down at the Model D Steinway in the midst of a very friendly and informal gathering, I was the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  The glare over my head had to be at least a dozen Kleig lights pointed directly at me.  The audience, similarly performance-inexperienced adult musicians,  had obviously turned into hungry wolves and cackling hyenas. The very keys of the offending instrument came rushing up at me, aggressive and threatening.  I looked down at them utterly intimidated.  I was sure I'd never seen a piano before.

What had happened to my nice little Kawai upright with the green wall behind it and the painting above it? Who had made me do this?  It was a simple Bach fugue which I had to start over at least twice after twice playing some ridiculous jumble of notes that had nothing to do with anything I had ever heard in my life.  My fingers literally fell all over themselves in hysteria.

I got through the piece and everyone clapped, mostly out of grateful joy that my misery was over I'm quite sure. Meanwhile, my rational mind told me that it wasn't necessary to play so badly in front of people when I can actually play quite well albeit in the privacy of my living room.  So began the task of trying to figure out how to make an informal, friendly performance a doable if not even mildly rewarding experience.

I knew there were some gaps in my performance approach, some tendencies that I suspected would get me demerits in the musicianship department.  For example, I usually employed a kind of close-my-eyes-and-cross-my-fingers approach when sitting down to perform.  Then, once I got going, I'd usually be thinking about when I'd make the first mistake, when the next, how and if I would recover, when and where I would have a memory slip and how I'd feel leaving the piano in defeat.  I was vaguely aware that I was skating on the surface with the methods I used for memorization.  And I was keenly aware that I couldn't keep focused on the music.  My concentration was lacking.  After all, I was mostly thinking about mistakes.

But what else was I supposed to think about? What do people, seasoned performers, think about when performing? The music, maybe? But what about the music? How it sounds? The next note? Picture dreamy clouds when playing Debussy and stormy skies when playing Beethoven? Ridiculous. I had heard from my teacher of some quotes by Yo Yo Ma and Claudio Arrau, something to the effect of, actually, not thinking about the music but about conveying the music, orchestrating the performance, being involved with the music yet above or beyond it.

Jonathan Biss, though not writing about performance per se in his Beethoven's Shadow, talks about the "macro- and microcosmic aspects of music" and notes that "one of the great peculiarities of the performing musician's work is that it is simultaneously so spiritual and so mundane. . . ."  I don't fancy myself a Jonathan Biss (or a Schnabel, Fleisher or Serkin, the musicians he's discussing), but these words summed up an apparent contradiction I had noted which circles me back to Hofmann's wallpaper.  Performing is not practice nor is it sitting down to play in the privacy of one's living room nor is it sitting down to play by oneself just for the enjoyment and love of the music. Yet a performance relies on all these--a studied preparation and knowledge of the music, a desire to communicate the music to others and, perhaps above all, a love of the music.  All told, a peculiarity for sure.

Based on little more than an inchoate research methodology and a smattering of intuition thrown in for good measure, I began by reducing a performance to 1) some physical properties of the performance space and 2) the first few notes of the piece. Thus, if time and place permit, I now study the performance space, sit down at the piano and take note of the lighting, the piano bench, the pedals and anything else that's around the piano.  (In one space there was a humidifier that provided a faint backdrop of sound which would have probably driven me to distraction had I not identified it beforehand.)  If the audience is there I size them up as well, mostly wondering, of course, why they haven't all stayed home.

When the person before me in the program takes their bow, it's true that I'm still momentarily annoyed at them for finishing before I'm ready to play (whereas when they sat down to perform I was momentarily annoyed at them for being ahead of me thereby prolonging my misery), but I move toward the piano. Once seated, there's no choice but to do something.  First on my list, I look at the foreign keyboard and address it bass to treble aiming to make its very keys my friends.  I tell myelf they will like me.

I  take what seems an eternity to find the place on the keyboard corresponding to where my piece of music will begin and find that's a good time to picture the first notes of the piece and think about how they're going to sound once I get my hands to the keys. If I'm playing an opening chord, I say it silently by name.  I think about exactly how I should sit on the keys to get the sound that I've practiced. I try to remember that, having arms, I must use them, but that, having shoulders, they must not be up, that sound is produced by a downward motion on the keys not by cruising tentatively on top of them.  It does help to breathe now and again. I begin.

Have I seen an improvement?  Yes I have.  If nothing else, I have something to think about now besides nerves and the audience and mistakes.  I've contrived a humble beginning to establishing a foundation that consists of something other than doubt and anxiety.  I have a positive opening ritual to pre-empt the negative one. It's my version of the micro level of  playing (apologies to Rudolf Serkin and Jonathan Biss) and it will hopefully get me to the macro. The idea of a performance still looms but now seems doable.The lights aren't Kleigs, the piano isn't an attack dog, the audience is, if not friendly, at least remote, almost out of mind as I go down my checklist.   The wallpaper phenomenon is far less and the amateur performer soldiers on.



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First Thing: Is Maureen Full of Mullarkey?

Still on the tail of the dust-up over the New York Archdiocese's  Making All Things New campaign, we have First Things and National Review persisting with articles about good, bad and ugly parishes in New York City.  I hesitate even to cite the articles but, here, here and here, it's only fair that one reads and decides for oneself.

In these articles, everything from clashing ideologies to art history to bureaucratic politics is invoked to report on what reads like ad hominem attacks on Our Saviour's newest pastor and his very bad horrible decision to remove artist Ken Woo's icons from the Church of Our Saviour.  As a former parishioner at Our Saviour, I too signed the petition to save the icons and I too lamented the loss of Fr. Rutler as pastor.   I also lamented the loss of the religious education program.  (Oh, you didn't know about that?  Funny that neither First Things or National Review has picked up on the termination of the program--eighty kids, numerous loyal families and some 20 volunteer catechists and volunteer director summarily told by the new pastor, Good-bye!)

Fr. Robbins, or the mere idea of him, has managed to get the very blood of some so-called traditionalist New York Catholics boiling.  It's true that at Our Saviour, the air has changed, but Fr. Robbins hasn't yet replaced the wafer with Wonder Bread nor has he brought in liturgical dancers or a rock band. The Mass continues to be a rather reverential one.

What comes through in these articles is an ideologue's vitriolic disdain for that which challenges his ideology.  In this case, the target is the likes of a Fr. Robbins who, with his co-conspirator Cardinal Dolan, himself by now a satyr with tail and horns, dares to oppose a Fr. Rutler, definitely a heavenly cherub who can, by the way,  more than adequately defend himself if need be. It's predictable now if not comical to hear how suspect and disagreeable are all those who do not present as sufficiently traditionalist and orthodox to the traditionalist Catholic New Yorker who requires that others of us pass muster, we lesser ones being those who surely collude and conspire to deprive traditionalists of their priests, their parishes, their masses.

Where's the Catholic joy?  Who would want to be a part of this orthodox crowd when they whine and stamp their feet so miserably because their sensitivities are upset. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Week of Saints

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Bonaventure, St. Camillus de Lellis but we began the week with the Bavarian Holy Roman Emperor St. Henry II of Bamberg whose saintly wife Cunegunde is buried with him in the Dom in Bamberg, Germany.  I decline to post my plain photos of Bamberg except for the one below. Besides Henry and Cunegunde's Riemenschneider sarcophagus in the Dom and all the other sights of this Bavarian city, the Age of Faith lingers in modern-day Bamberg if you walk around a bit.
A crucifix at the end of a quiet street leading back to the Bahnhof in Bamberg
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