Forward, Onward, Upward

I didn't want to look back on this year. I'm not sure why. It was very difficult in a number of ways, most of which I can't talk about here (and even if I could, I wouldn't really want to.) But there have been more difficult years, and I have always been able to highlight the bright spots and gloss over the rough patches and sculpt the whole thing into a chatty, upbeat Christmas letter. This year, I just didn't want to, and I guess I'm at the point in my life at which I've realized I don't have to keep doing things I no longer enjoy.

It has been a year of growth; I thank God for that. I have learned a lot, sometimes at great cost. After my first wretched few days in a grad-level French language pedagogy course, I told a friend how strange it felt that none of these people really knew me as I am, or rather, as I like to think I am: Intelligent. Driven. In control. 

(My classic anxiety dream is not my teeth falling out or forgetting to wear pants or being chased through the woods: it's traveling with my cat. Sometimes I'm at school, or in church, or shopping. Once I was walking through Paris. The common thread is that I have my cat with me, and she's trying to get away, and I'm trying to contain her, and I almost always lose before I wake up in a cold sweat. That is literally my worst nightmare: losing control.)

But, at the same time, I told my friend, it was strangely freeing to be someone else for a change. The me who always knew the answer got to stay home with her feet up, while the other side of her -- the side who tried not to get called on, who enjoyed listening for listening's sake, who flushed with pride when she understood enough of the joke to laugh at it -- that me got to climb out of the cellar, squinting at the sudden brightness, and explore the world for herself.

So here I am looking back, after saying I didn't want to. What I really want to do is look forward. The Church Fathers reduce the spiritual life to three very simple maxims that sound suspiciously Zen, and I believe this is because Buddhism was, like Judaism and paganism, awaiting the fullness of spirituality that would only come with Christ. Still, there is much wisdom in the simplicity of their advice: don't resent; don't react; keep inner stillness. It is only when we are able to "lay aside all earthly cares," as we sing each week in the Liturgy, that we can hear Christ speaking to us. I'm chipping away at the crippling mountain of resentment I've allowed to rule my life, but at the same time, I'm trying not to focus on it, but instead to look over it -- to see the beauty and goodness all around me and to be inspired by it. 

For instance: last weekend I got to chant Matins with a friend who is talented, charismatic, thoughtful -- one of those people I just can't be around enough. Joy pours out of him. He invited me to sing with a smile and an open heart, even though I lack much of the experience and skills needed to keep up with the others; he drew me in toward the music even though I couldn't understand most of it; he cracked jokes that only I could hear to make me more comfortable; in short, he helped me feel like I belonged. That is something at which I am terrible. My extraordinarily high expectations keep me from making those kinds of adjustments and concessions, the kind that are necessary in order to show love truly and freely. But instead of looking inside, when I look outside -- at him, at the light of Christ shining through him -- I don't feel fear and disappointment, but hope and inspiration. I want to change, to grow, to become more than I have been thus far. 

I think that's a good way to end this year.

Lent, Anew

This is my seventeenth Lent as an Orthodox Christian -- which means I have now been Orthodox for longer than I was not Orthodox. But this is the first year I have really looked forward to Lent. I know I need it. My life feels out of balance, drifting, directionless, turned inward. I crave the peace that comes from humility, that only the most focused, demanding spirituality can provide. I think of Saydeh's words: "Lent is a joy." Yes.

Last week I rediscovered the Audio Bible I bought for Rob years ago. I decided to start it from the beginning. At first I found Jon Sherberg's voice uncannily dramatic, distracting. But after the first handful of chapters, I didn't hear his voice at all -- just the stories. Wow. It's been decades since I heard some of them, and it's as if I'm hearing them for the first time. They floated back to me in clumps as we sang the Canon of St. Andrew last week:

  • I have rivaled in transgression Adam the first-formed man, and I have found myself stripped naked of God, of the eternal Kingdom and its joy, because of my sins.
  • The Lord once rained down fire from heaven and consumed the land of Sodom. O my soul, flee like Lot to the mountain, and take refuge in Zoar before it is too late.
  • Leah is action, for she had many children; and Rachel is knowledge, for she endured great toil.  For without toil, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed.
  • Once Joseph was cast into a pit, O Lord and Master, as a figure of Thy Burial and Resurrection.  But what offering such as this shall I ever make to Thee?
  • David, the forefather of God, once sinned doubly, pierced with the arrow of adultery and the spear of murder. But thou, my soul, art more gravely sick than he, for worse than any acts are the impulses of thy will.
  • I have put before thee, my soul, Moses' account of the creation of the world, and after that all the recognized Scriptures that tell thee the story of the righteous and the wicked.  But thou, my soul, hast followed the second of these, not the first, and hast sinned against God.

About halfway through the 90-minute service on Tuesday, I finally started to pray, really pray. And just then, I caught the eye of a tiny baby who was nestled in a blanket on the floor, on the other side of the wooden lectern where my music rested. As I bowed and reached for the floor with my fingertips, she gave me the full-body smile only a baby can deliver, and I had to smile back. There is joy, too, even in the midst of repentance. Maybe the repentance is what brings the joy in the first place.


Paris Top 10: Music

Paris is known for its romance: rosy sunsets, dappled canvases, snowy tablecloths with artfully-arranged plates. 

And music, of course, without which romance wouldn't exist at all.


On our last trip, we were lucky enough to hear a phenomenal chamber-music ensemble perform Vivaldi and Chopin in this tiny, soaring chapel of the kings. It was truly a transformative experience, heightened all the more by the whining toddler in the section across the aisle: somehow that nagging annoyance made the music even more sublime.

And yet, I can think of half a dozen equally incredible experiences. Walking from the rich luxury of Chateau Versailles into blinding sunlight, triumphant strings mingling with the noise of rushing water in the fountains all around us. Arriving back to our hotel to find a rock concert being performed from the back of a semi at the curb, the top rolled back to reveal drums, bass and plenty of attitude. Cruising past Notre-Dame in the twilight to the strains of amateur guitars and tambourines, along with a chorus of young wine-enhanced voices. More than one Metro musician who moved me to tears (but I didn't stop. I never stop. I wish I could.)

Here, a very different scene: a completely unexpected, outstanding meal. The Latin Quarter is not really my scene (too noisy and filled with tourists) but this Moroccan establishment served tender, juicy chicken cooked with green olives and preserved lemons, roasted potatoes and carrots, couscous spiced with cinnamon and currants, crisp white Burgundy and a casually brilliant jazz guitarist who ensured we would never forget a bite.

Bottom line: you really don't have to look hard to find music in Paris. Open your ears, and it will find you. 

Posts in the Paris Top 10 Series:

  1. Wait and see . . .  
  2. Wait and see . . .  
  3. Wait and see . . . 
  4. Music
  5. Museums
  6.  Fine Dining
  7. Conversation 
  8.  Churches
  9. Chateaus
  10. Cafes


Poor Pianos

Right around the time I decided to end (at least temporarily) my piano-teaching career, I read one of the saddest stories ever written:

The Knabe baby grand did a cartwheel and landed on its back, legs poking into the air. A Lester upright thudded onto its side with a final groan of strings, a death-rattling chord. After 10 pianos were dumped, a small yellow loader with a claw in front scuttled in like a vicious beetle, crushing keyboards, soundboards and cases into a pile.

The site, a trash-transfer station in this town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is just one place where pianos go to die. This kind of scene has become increasingly common.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood.

“We bust them up with a sledgehammer,” said Jeffrey Harrington, the owner of Harrington Moving & Storage in Maplewood, N.J.

It really does say something about our society that we're unable to find a use for these instruments. In the age of digital music, aspiring singers can play accompaniment tracks they've downloaded online and record themselves on vocals; fewer people need to know how to read the notes. In churches, they've moved to rock bands and recordings. 

Saddest of all? The late-night singalong jams that were such an important part of my childhood are less and less common. We used to pride ourselves on remembering all the words to American Pie; now when we get together to make music, everyone pulls out a phone and Googles the lyrics. 

I'd love to see someone step up to organize donations to low-income families, schools, churches and anyone else who wants one. It seems like we should be able to work that out.  Right?!

Music and Laughter

Student turns over a music symbol card with the sign for trill.

Me: “That’s called a trill.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen—”

Student: “Ooh!  OOOOOOHHHH!  I know!  It’s what they play in a movie when something bad’s about to happen!”

Very young student spots Grand Staff cards in her box and wants to play with them.

Me: Well, we really haven’t looked at these yet, but maybe I can show you the C’s.  This one’s called High C.  Can you say High C?

Student: Hi, C!

Me: (laughing) I suppose I had that coming.  This one’s called Treble C.

Student: Hi, Treble C!

Dinner for Eight

Recently, Rod posted an interesting conundrum about a fantasy dinner party for you, your spouse, and six other well-known people (living or dead, but in separate groups.)  Here is my list, which took me a couple of days of hemming and hawing to complete and a couple of weeks to write about:

Rod noted that your list wouldn’t necessarily be the people you’d most like to meet or even the people you most admire; they should be people you really think would make good dinner guests.  I like diversity, so I tried for an even mix of occupations, religions and gender (classic dinner-party etiquette mandates boy-girl seating, anyway.)

The Living:

  1. Bono (Musician and Activist) He can make me weak-kneed with one soaring descant, and his occupation as a rock musician would certainly make for some interesting stories, but I’m actually most interested in his take on African politics and hearing about what it was like growing up under the specter of the IRA.
  2. Carla Bruni (Model and Musician) No fantasy dinner party is complete without a French presence. She’s stylish, talented and completely classy, and the fact that she’s married to the President of France helps lend an air of political importance to the gathering.  (The air is the important thing; actual politicians couldn’t possibly be interesting dinner companions.)
  3. Atom Egoyan (Filmmaker) I want to know where his ideas come from (I wrote my senior thesis on The Sweet Hereafter) and I want to hear about Armenia — what it means to him and what he thinks its future will be like.
  4. Peter Eisenman (Architect) Believe it or not, this pompous philosopher was one of the first on my list. Back in my undergraduate days, we’d all drag ourselves to Tuesday crit, sleep-deprived and nearly suicidal, only to hear about his latest dinner party. They included the most unusual guests (German philosophers and rock musicians) and he always had something interesting to say about the zeitgeist that inspired them. So I guess I’m taking a gamble that he’s more fun over a bottle of wine than in front of a wall full of blood, sweat and Rapidographs.
  5. Sharon Astyk (Writer, Activist, Mother) I respect Sharon more than almost any person I know [of.] Her deep faith, commitment to traditional ideals, and desire to create a better world for her children are amazing.  I also think she could hold her own against Eisenman in a debate (and could certainly make him feel like a bad Jew.)
  6. Mother Aemeliane (Scholar, Nun) I couldn’t feel right hosting a dinner party without at least one Orthodox Christian guest, and I can’t think of anyone else who would be a better addition to this one. You may have heard the story of her miraculous rescue from a collapsed building, but unless you have been in her presence you can’t understand the tremendous force of spirit, combined with an even greater humility, that enables her to guide so many people with such grace.

The Eternal:

  1. C. S. Lewis (Writer) He should be a required guest for any Christian taking part in this exercise. Brilliant, creative, thoughtful, funny, likes to smoke after dinner.  Yes, please!
  2. St. Brigid of Kildare (Nun) She’s my patron saint, a disciple of St. Patrick.  And she once turned an entire bathtub of water into beer, so she’d be a handy person to have around!
  3. Frederic Chopin (Musician) The token Frenchman: he lived a short life, filled with suffering, but bequeathed oceans of beauty to the generations that followed.
  4. Anne Frank (Martyr) Another short, painful life, but one which inspired many. I worried about her young age at first but then remembered: teenage girls always have plenty to say.
  5. e. e. cummings (Writer) Many poets are accused of being artists with words, but he really was one. The way he saw the world was truly unique.
  6. Hester Prynne (Seamstress, Outcast) I was really stuck on this last one until I remembered there had been no injunction against fictional characters.  Considering how thoughtful and introspective this group is, I think she would have a lot to add to the conversation.

Your lists, please!  Answer or link below.

Culture to the Rescue

Sometimes it’s good to buy nonrefundable tickets in advance.  It means you can’t back out at the last minute, no matter how much you have to do.

It means that, after three long days of parent conferences, missed meetings and students who have worked themselves into a frenzy, you’re forced to shut down the computer for a few hours and take in dinner and an opera with your adopted sister, the friend you can unload on about home and work (it helps that she’s a teacher too) and then, full and happy with Thai and chocolate, lose yourself in a gorgeous and silly story about sex, lies and damnation.

Who knew the prudish Donna Anna could be so breathtakingly pious about the memory of her departed father? Or that Leporello could work so much humor into a scene that almost claims his life?  And the music — the real reason we put up with the repetitive lyrics and melodramatic make-out scenes — the soaring violins, stately harpsichord, trilling clarinets.  It was one giant three-hour sigh of relief from this week that is now, happily, more than half over.

Five Happy Thoughts

Boy, what a week.  It began with, literally, hundreds of essays to grade; having lost so many days from the beginning of the year, I had no choice but to push everything to the last day possible (and even asked for an extension so I could finish marking them over the weekend and still get a little sleep.)  A deep breath and then we launched right into the second quarter: new lesson plans, new texts, new questions.

I laid down the law about absences and trips out of the classroom, both of which students have more control over than they’d like to admit.  (One student asked me first thing if she could use the bathroom; I asked her to wait. Once I’d outlined the new policy limiting everyone to four trips per quarter, it turned out she didn’t have to go after all.)  Discussing these things is awfully tedious for everyone, but when they’re not addressed, loads of tiny interruptions add up to a vaguely chaotic feeling in the classroom, and ultimately it distracts everyone from our real goal: teaching and learning about English and life.

But there were so many bits of happiness sprinkled throughout all this drudgery.  Here are the highlights:

  • ONE father called to thank me for tutoring his daughter, who has several rather severe learning disabilities. We’d been studying techniques for test-taking on the SAT, and when her newest scores came in, the guidance counselors were simply shocked she had done so well.  She was accepted to her school of choice within a day, where she’ll be able to play field hockey (her sport of choice) and get an education with the supports she needs.  “I have two more kids,” he said at the end of the conversation, “so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”
  • TWO former students flew at me for hugs and gushing greetings.  “Mrs. LOWE!  How ARE you?  I haven’t seen you in so long!”  A third thanked me for all my help preparing her for the SAT; it was even more of a gift to see how much she’d matured in the intervening years, from an awkward and slightly-sullen teenager into a glowing, self-possessed young woman.
  • THREE students who were struggling took the time to complete an extra-credit assignment (seeing a play and comparing it with the written work we’d studied in class.)  They enjoyed the experience and their grades rose along with their confidence.  
  • FOUR pianists are progressing by leaps and bounds because they get to work together.  It’s amazing to see how much more they learn from each other than from me.
  • FIVE minutes after the bell rang, I dashed into class (my first tardiness of the year; I was blindsided by a schedule change and sabotaged by an uncooperative copier.)  When I entered the classroom, breathless and on edge, every student was sitting in her desk with her book open.  “Oh, hello, Mrs. Lowe,” one called out.  “We’ve just been discussing what we think of Hester Prynne.”

So, you see, it wasn’t all bad.  It rarely is.


Modern Love

So a couple of nights ago, instead of grading papers or cleaning the kitchen, I went to the movies.  Ever since I read in The Week that the *average* rating of Drive was four stars, I had wanted to see it — even though I enjoy cars less than probably anyone else I know.

It was just as fantastic as everyone says it is: gripping and understated at the same time.  I don’t want to go into a lot of detail (I’m certainly not a qualified film critic) but I think what got under my skin the most, and has stayed with me in the days since, was the depiction of the side-note love story between the two main characters.

(Possible spoilers ahead, depending on your pickiness; continue at your own risk.)

They meet honorably: he holds the elevator door for her and watches with an eager, shy smile as she enters her apartment on the same floor.  Later, he listens in on a sweet, intimate conversation between her and her son, and he helps fix her ailing car in the parking lot.  As their relationship deepens, we watch as they watch each other, laugh together, care for her son.  They spend a lot of time just smiling, bashful in each other’s presence but unable to shake the wide-eyed adoration they feel for one another.  Physical contact is limited to a squeeze of the hand and one glorious, passionate kiss in the elevator just before they are separated forever.

The things they love about each other are apparent.  She is a nurturing mother with a sense of adventure; he is protective, dependable and comfortable in almost every situation.  They are both beautiful (hey, it’s Hollywood.)  But it’s not their physical attractiveness we see; it’s the strength of their character, strength that’s reinforced as they grow closer together and help each other cope with problems and celebrate victories. And, despite their love for each other, they each choose something even higher — she, her marriage; he, her family’s safety — in the end.

Is there anything that’s more beautiful than this?  And, basking in the warmth and purity of it, how can we stand to be confronted by the sheer drivel of Sex in the City and its counterparts in film, the relentless stream of romantic comedies that washes over us every summer?

I realize a movie is just a story.  But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it use that hour or two to say something meaningful.  A movie like that can just take your breath away.