Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ma and Pop

Within five days of Christmas and I was praying to my father today. Sitting in sight of an altar to St. Joseph, I asked my father for help. All his careful planning had brought his family each year to a Christmas that provided something for each of us. On Christmas Eve each year he used to sit at the kitchen table and cut up apples and oranges for the fruit salad that would chill overnight and be served at meal's end the following afternoon.

He was a quiet man. His opening of gifts on Christmas Day was accomplished in a corner armchair with no show, no exclamations, no insistent expressions of gratitude. He knew my mother needed her space amid the stacks of presents we laid at her feet.

What do parents think when their grown children try to do Christmas for them? What do parents think about their own children's lives that look different in so many ways from how their own once looked? I want to think they had startled their own parents once upon a time, once upon a Christmas. I want to think that all the generations had sighed over bowls of fruit salad year in, year out, and had wondered -- each of them -- when they were going home.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winter Journey: Shubert's "Winterreise"

At a holiday open house this past weekend, I heard a guest talking about Three Pianos. I had already read about the Obie Award-winning play now in production at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. Winterreise, the Schubert song-cycle at the heart of the evening’s entertainment, is a touchstone for me, recalling a cold, sunny afternoon in an apartment in Boston’s Back Bay where thirty years ago a friend, a voice major, rehearsed the piece while I watched. A tall ficus tree had stood in the window next to the piano.

I have not listened to Winterreise with any regularity since then. I thought yesterday that I might try what a favorite high-school teacher had once suggested as a useful method for deepening appreciation of a piece of music. He had advised listening to a variety of recordings of the composition and noticing differences in the experience.

With YouTube as a source of recordings, I moved yesterday through three renderings of “Der Lindenbaum” (”The Linden Tree”), the fifth song in the cycle. The first performance of the song that I watched comes from a 1930 German film titled Das Lockende Ziel (The Alluring Goal), starring opera singer Richard Tauber. The movie tells the story of a singer, and an early scene of his singing “Der Lindenbaum” – almost off the cuff – in a restaurant or café is useful for showing the reaction of the people who hear it. This song touches something in a whole range of the restaurant’s customers. The scene told me to expect that I might encounter other people with a similar reaction to Schubert's song.

The next recording of “Der Lindenbaum” shows some of those other people. Some readers may be as surprised as I to learn that before The Sound of Music ever moved American audiences, first on the Broadway stage (1959) and then as an Academy Award-winning film (1965), there were two German-Austrian movies about the Trapp Family Singers. What appears an impromptu performance of “Der Lindenbaum” in Die Trapp Familie (1956) evokes reactions from listeners similar to those depicted in Das Lockende Ziel.

Sentimentality? There is no denying that both the 1930 movie and the 1956 movie strive for an emotional response. One movie predates the political victory of National Socialism; we witness the readiness on the part of ordinary Germans to respond to a song associated with the homeland of their youth and childhood. The later film follows the defeat of National Socialism by ten years; this time immigrants from all the continents respond to the very same song, reminded of the tie to homeland that they can all feel.

Without such external narratives, what does Schubert's musical setting of the poem by Wilhelm Mueller manage to convey? Listening for a third time to "Der Lindenbaum," this time to a 1935 recording by an all-male German choral group, a listener is ready to be haunted.

Ready for German text? Ready for English translation? Ready for the overarching structure of the twenty-four songs? I am.

I might be ready for a January project.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bringing the Greens to Henry James...Again

In Cambridge Cemetery is a plot where the family of American writer Henry James lie buried. One Christmas season a swag of greenery appeared at the writer's tombstone (I like to think) for the first time. The writer of writingcabin.blogspot.com had simply wanted to pay tribute to another, far greater writer in the way that members of a family do when they pay Christmas visits to loved ones. The urge to write, the need to write creates another kind of family. Again this Christmas the James family plot gets its bit of greenery.

The custom is repeated.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saturday Morning Atlantic

Friday had been a day for Teresa of Avila and Wislawa Szymborska.

Sixteenth-century Teresa was familiar. Her autobiography had been sitting on a shelf in my office for three years. What urged me to pick it up and read on Friday, I do not know -- but it was a real "Tolle et lege" moment.

The passage I found was about the uselessness of trying to quiet thinking. A cloistered contemplative and mystic, Teresa knew that thinking must have its day. Thinking must go its paths. Thinking must move on and on, unmuzzled, unmuffled, ready to try out a new way of understanding life and the things of life.

Teresa was aware of the suspicious urge simply to appear quiet, to feel quiet, to mimic a mystic quiet. She knew that only some readers would understand what she was writing when she spoke about God's way of finally making space in us to hear what we would never know how to hear on our own.

And then the Polish poet.

A recent review in The New York Review of Books alerted me to Wislawa Szymborska. I am late in knowing her and reading her, even here in the United States. Reading her poems at home Friday evening was the experience of hearing a voice I did not know to expect, a voice I did not know I wanted to follow until its ways kept making sense.

It is the sort of surprise that you need when you discover what has happened to lives you thought you knew. It is the sort of surprise that you need when you discover what has happened to the life you thought you could always have.

Saturday morning, fresh from my Friday with Teresa of Avila and Wislawa Szymborska, I drove to the Atlantic. Unplanned trip, I returned to pathways that I have walked at times in my life when I faced the kind of change another person cannot measure.

It was actually good to be back.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Irish Wake

The mother of a colleague at work died last week. She had lived to her early nineties, and in her later years there had been that sad wandering from self that can make death a release and a relief for a family. When I offered condolences early one morning passing my colleague in the halls, Pat gave me a gentle smile. She had managed her farewells to her mother a long time ago.

A Catholic of my own generation, Pat is articulate, well educated and utterly efficient. Her family gatherings – among the most recent her own daughter’s wedding – get into narratives that people at work recognize as Pat’s. It is a large family that many of us met just a few years back at the funeral of a sister; her struggle with cancer had been quiet and heroic.

I arrived at the funeral home in a suburb of Boston yesterday in the late afternoon. It was a place whose address I needed to check on my phone at a certain point. I parked a block before the turn off for a parking lot that I expected to find crowded.

I did not see people from work on the walkways leading to the home. Some colleagues had talked about finishing their Friday work early in the interests of an easier commute to the suburban neighborhood. I got ready to greet Pat and her family on my own rather than as part of a familiar group.

At the front door of the white clapboard building, an employee of the parlor was waiting to greet me. When I nodded at him and started toward the line of people ahead of me down the hall, the gentleman extended his arm in the direction of a room to my left.

“This way, sir.”

With his guidance I found myself walking through two rooms to where the real end of the line of visitors was. I would eventually wend my way through still another room and then down two hallways before I got to the viewing area where Pat and her family greeted the arrival of wave after wave of friends and neighbors.

The laughter of recognition. Expansive embraces. Introductions and conversations, one head leaning close to another in confidential exchange.

Everywhere around the rooms and down the hallways had been photographs of a large, active Boston Irish family and their matriarch – wedding portraits, graduation groupings, vacation vans, anniversary celebrations. Everywhere had been flowers with the names of their donors prominently displayed and easily legible.

This was a Boston I could brush up against again and again and never fully know – a Boston of neighborhoods and Catholic parishes and parochial school friendships that lasted for decades. It was a Boston that had once boasted a priest in every family. It was a Boston down whose funeral parlor hallways generations of families had lined to greet the newly bereaved of other families they knew.

I arrived home over an hour later and amid the familiar intimacies of a Christmas season felt a newcomer still.

Thursday, December 1, 2011