Saturday, November 21, 2009

…. May the martyrs welcome you…

Today I sang a funeral for an Italian woman who had lived long and well. This was according to the eulogy read by the celebrant. It was a letter that was sent by her nephew and served as a tribute to her loving kindness extended to him throughout his life. The family decided that this would make the best eulogy and asked the priest to read it. At this point in the Mass the priest refers to the speech as “words of remembrance”. It is always amazing to observe the manner in which people remember their loved ones. Often they will read poetry or letters. At most funerals, the people who deliver these words have some degree of distance from the sting of the loss. But with the elderly; anything goes. I think because in their case, death makes sense.
Viola had lived through her eighties. One of eleven children, she had grown up in the Depression in Little Italy and had learned at an early age that sacrifice for family was most important. She lived her life giving her all to her husband and children, as she had learned to do in her home growing up. According to her nephew’s letter, she was last on her list. She suffered with health problems untended and lived much of her life in physical pain. Was she a martyr?
One day a friend said to me accusingly, “Why are you being such a martyr?” This was following an attempt to help her after the birth of her child. I had offered to bring dinner or diapers or something that I can’t even remember, and she shot back with those words. I processed this as a postpartum meltdown and tried to move past it, but the moment was hard to forget. I had reached out in a genuine fashion to a person with whom I was close. This should not have been controversial at all, but because of the conditions it was. Years later I laugh at the memory of being hurt and insulted by being called a martyr, not only because my friend, if not for the surge of hormones, would never do anything to hurt me, but because in my younger days I would rather be called anything than, long suffering and self-sacrificing. It was like taking an arrow to heart. In one shot, I was classified as something I had worked my whole life to never become: the women who raised me.
I grew up in a home where, in my view, my mother had bent and swayed in the winds of her choice to marry and have children. I thought certain I could detect the scent of dissatisfaction and I made decisions based on that impression. I had decided that if I were to marry at all, it would be to someone who would help me be me-whatever that was going to be. He would not be Italian for one, he WOULD wash dishes and he would let me go wherever singing would take me. I would not suffer, I would not up give too much of myself, I would not let him have anything that I did not get.
My mother had come from a long line of martyrs, starting with my great-grandmother who had been dragged from her homeland, on a boat, by my great-grand father, in pursuit of the American Dream; my grandmother, who according to family folklore did not marry the love of her life but rather married my grandfather, worked hard in her family business and in the end wound up with nothing because her brothers inherited everything, only to spend her later years caring, tirelessly, for her daughter with Multiple Sclerosis who could do nothing for herself; Then there was Aunt Josie. She was my grandfather’s unmarried sister who lived with my grandparents. The only daughter in a family of five boys, she gave up dreams of going to college to raise her brothers after the death of her mother when she was 17 years old. Aunt Josie, more than anyone, wore the emblem of martyrdom with pride. There was no other purpose for a woman’s life than to suffer at the feet of a man’s demands. Men were always right, women should simply want to make their dinner, wrap it in tin foil to keep it warm until they came home after fulfilling their purpose in life. That is what I understood, when she called my brother “The King” and would run through all the girls names until she finally hit the right one. Since she was my mother’s greatest help source, we were served, daily, a healthy serving of not only her food, but her philosophy on womanhood. As the eldest girl, I was taught (or rather required) to clean out my mother’s cluttered closets in order to prevent “spontaneous combustion”, bake bread and clean the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. It was as if I was in the martyr-training-program; a human insurance policy that servitude would survive in the generations to come.
Years later I found myself standing at the threshold of love dressed from head to toe in armor. I was ready for duty, but I was certain that the disappointment that comes from self-sacrifice could not touch me. I had made my choices to ensure this would be true of my life. The thing that I could not have seen coming, was the shifting sands of time and wisdom that comes with its passage. Throughout my life, I had misunderstood so much. I had extracted what I wanted from the stories that were told and the things that I observed. What I think that I am learning now is that every life has its own reasons and with each year in love I am more flexible, more giving, more resilient, more myself, more peaceful, more willing, more like the women who raised me.
It has occurred to me that in modern day, we misuse the word martyr. It has become something that we say to describe a person whose level of giving makes us uncomfortable. The purity of their goals and priorities threatens our need to complicate our lives in the name of sophistication. It is easier to assign a label that infers goodness on some level, yet is swollen with depreciatory intent. It exonerates our self-focus and makes us more complacent in the decisions that we are unwilling to make. The martyrs, in the true sense of the word, suffered willingly for causes that were larger than themselves; things that mattered and mattered to everyone who would come after them-even if they did not know it.
Today I sang for the Viola the Hero, who died in old age without a prodigious career, a mansion or large bank account, but was sent off with a letter from a nephew who was better because she was part of his life. Who like Mom, Nana and Aunt Josie knew that nothing really mattered but taking care of those you love, a clean closet and some spaghetti with a warm loaf of bread.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

May the angels bring you to Paradise....

The first funeral that I sang after getting my church job here in the Boston area, was for a 17 month old child. Talk about being thrown into the fire. I was still at the point where I could have used a nice transition from one way of working to the next; this was not a transition. I was fresh off of singing in French, Italian and German, every beautiful melody in this world; everything I had ever dreamed of singing. Each note seemed so important. I was so important because I was producing the notes. Every time I sang for an audience it was the culmination of the hard work that preceded that moment. Did they know what it took to do this?
When I stood to sing the opening hymn, Precious Lord Take My Hand, I was no more important than the pews in church. In fact, I was less important, for every note soared across the heads of the congregation and fell upon the ears of a mother who could only hear the clamor of grief.
In the end of Madame Butterfly there is a scene where the title character sings a farewell to her child. I had struggled with the flood of emotion at imagining her terror. It was difficult to manage singing beautifully, while conveying my understanding of the gravity of the moment: This was ten times worse. I now have my own children and my own experience with the deepest love there is, by which to try on and measure such grief. That is not to say that I am capable of truly understanding. It is as if the despair were encased in a plastic bubble: You see it's dimension, you see it clearly. You are next to it, but you cannot touch it and it cannot touch you.
With pure grace and courage so raw that a chill ran through the church, the mother glided to the lecturn at the end of mass to pay tribute to her baby son. Like a soldier after weeks of combat, having just been bathed and fed, she found the strength to recount the events, for she knew that no one else was qualified to tell the story of the piece of her heart that has floated away from her body.
Had he lived and grown, what sense would it have made to put pressure on him to be the best or whatever it was that she would have grown to expect? What would she have taken for granted in him as a boy and then a man?
Two years later, I think of her often. I pray for her often. She holds a great secret to the meaning of the journey of parenthood. The perspective that comes from loss. The gratitude through the desperate hours. The sweet Paradise that we often forget in the expectations and stresses of family life, which is the sweetness of that kiss, or the hand in yours. Only when it is gone could we know that that is heaven on earth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In the beginning...

I have always been fond of looking through windows. Store windows, people's windows, car windows. This is not to say that I enjoy looking out of windows, which would be a view of the world from my perspective, but rather through windows belonging to other people, the objects behind the windows untouchable, untangible, colored by stream of sunlight or dusky shadows.

Living in New york it was a hobby to peer into the apartment windows, from the distance of the street or across the street from my apartment into the neighboring buildings. This may seem like voyeurism, but the fact is, I never once remember seeing a person in all those years of looking through windows. That is not to say that no one was home; I just do not think I would have noticed. I was more preoccupied with the setting;with whatever scenario was created in my mind by viewing their things. The Christmas tree, the molding, the red walls, the antiques, the modern art, just- right floor covering, leather seats, big screen tv, computer armoir from ABC carpet that I wished I could have bought, but instead ordered the one from Walmart online.

How did they choose that paint? How did they afford that piece of art? What do they do? How did they get that huge apartment? Do they have mice? Of course not! The doorman would help them if they did. Do they walk to Columbus Avenue with 30 pounds of laundry on their back. No. They send it out or what's that I see? A washer and dryer in the apartment? No I can not see clearly, but I suppose they must. Must be a doctor, must be a lawyer, must be anything, anyone, but an opera singer. An opera singer who packed her music school dreams along with her music school sweetheart and moved to the big city. Destined to sing auditions and jobs, and more jobs and oooppps, no jobs, oh phew, got that job, nope have to work at Macy's for a while.

Thank God, he got that job. Oh not that job? Better wait tables for a while.

All the while wanting what was in the store window, his car window, their apartment window.

Two kids and 17 years later, we packed our dreams and our car and moved to Boston. I immediately took to driving in my car and looking through people's house windows, including my own when I pull in the driveway, just to see if it looked better from the outside than it did from the inside. If it looked like I too, had done something right.

Looking through the windows has also been, for me, a way of trying on someone's life. Imagining their path to their things. But my recent experiences have led me to ponder the ways in which we are all moving down a path away from our things, away from our people, away from the lives that we think we have built. Everyday is a step away.

Why the sudden burst of philosophical thought? How does a budding New York Diva, turn suburban philosopher?? Well, now that I have traded travel for the more tame life of teaching and singing concerts and church jobs to offer more to my family, I make one quarter of my income singing-you guessed it-funerals.
All a person has to do to kick the habit of looking through windows, is buy a front row ticket to reality that is spending several days a week at funerals. This is not a morbid or depressing thing. Believe it or not , it is quite the contrary. Sad? Most of the time, yes. Thought provoking? All the time, yes. Would you believe inspiring?
Now it may be hard to believe that someone who spent her young life living for art would be inspired in middle age by death, but it is not nearly that simple. Even after years in one of the best conservatories in the country followed by singing amazing music with fantastic colleagues, I have never felt that my voice was put to better use than it is now. Every time I enter the church and prepare to sing one of these jobs, I come closer to understanding the mystery and purpose of talent. The gift that we are to each other, the invaluable, intangible nature of a life well lived and it's impact on every creature, everywhere. I am humbled by the work because there is so much to learn as I bring the only beauty left on the worst day of a strangers life. Once again, I am looking through the window, but this time I see myself moving around inside. From my birds eye view, these are my notes from the loft: