Civility Revisited

We have to be able to revisit and revise our beliefs as we move through this world, or else we’d get stuck. Something may seem right at 25 or wise at 35 or important at 45 – but may later appear to be a folly of youth! A year ago, as I worked on a project of writing about each of the 30 variations that make up Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I chose to attach the idea of “civility” to one particularly genteel movement.  The music is utterly pleasant and without drama, and that apparently fit my definition of civility at the time.

Yet, I chose a photo to accompany that posting which I had taken in Cape Town several years earlier – a photo of a photo, actually, that showed Archbishop Desmond Tutu standing in front of a photo of Nelson Mandela. I knew even then, I guess, that civility could not be equated with politeness, and certainly not with meekness. Nor can our polite selves serve as a veneer over our inactions or subtle cruelties. With unfailing civility Tutu and Mandela stood up to injustice, but their actions were not meek. Not by a long shot.

It was a Washington Post column several weeks ago, ‘Civility’ vs ‘hysteria’ that woke me up to the fact that injustice is uncivil, and reminded me that confronting wrong requires civil disobedience. Civility is sometimes loud, and sometimes listening. Sometimes tenacious and other times forgiving. It pays attention to those who are hurt as much as it attempts to understand those that do the hurting. It’s so much more than Bach’s sweet 18th Goldberg variation implies. Civility, I’ve learned, requires something more nuanced – and though Bach’s music has plenty of places to look, perhaps I’ll go to Beehoven this time. Not thought of as a model of civility in either his personal or musical style, this elegy was written for someone he undoubtedly loved from afar for many years. Complicated feelings expressed in a civil package of string quartet and chorus:

 

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Meanwhile

Interim: provisionaltemporary, pro tem, stopgap, short-term, fill-in, caretaker, acting, transitional, makeshift, improvised, impromptu

Origin: 16th century (denoting a temporary or provisional arrangement, originally for the adjustment of religious differences between the German Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church): from Latin, ‘meanwhile.’

Yo Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist and humanitarian, is blessed with much more than musical talent. He has gifts of curiosity and personal warmth that bring people together in all sorts of wonderful ways. “Music,” he said in a recent NPR interview, “actually was invented, as all of culture was invented — by us — to help all of us figure out who we are.”  He has recorded the six Bach cello suites for the third time in his long career, and asks himself what has changed in the music for him since he last recorded them nearly 20 years ago. I hope you will take a few minutes to hear this brief interview about his latest project.

The music of Bach might be 300 years old, but it doesn’t stay the same. The notes are a foundation of sorts, but the space between the notes is ever changing. For an artist like Yo Yo Ma it has provided a lifetime of both stability and variety. A foundation, after all, is as much an underpinning as it is a point of departure.

Getting back to where I started, it is so interesting that the word “interim,” was born of religious strife. Though used in lots of ways now, it still describes a particular kind of religious leadership, which is often enough necessitated by trouble in the institution. Interims are people in the church who might be described with any of those definitions at the top – temporary, fill-in, caretaker, transitional – but they should be much more. Shedders of light, sea captains through rocky waters, absorbers of anxiety.

A kind of limbo is implied for those places that need interim leadership. This is usually a chance to re-examine and re-order what was, attempt to give the accumulated dirty laundry a good airing, and get ready to move into the future. Ideally anyway.

I was deeply hurt a few years ago by many people in positions of leadership at a religious institution. “Stand in line,” you say? You too were betrayed by people you had thought cared about you? Who were supposed to value things like justice and truth and kindness? You’ve also had the rug pulled out by people and places that you trusted? Okay, I’ll go to the back of that very long line.

But as I deal with that hurt – and honor its pain as part of what makes me whole – I am reminded regularly that change is the only constant. Everything changes  – our relationships, our families, our bodies, our jobs, our homes. And those changes create in-between times. Is life just one big interim period then? Are we always in some kind of limbo? And if so few things stay as they are, well, then where in the shifting sands can we build a foundation to stand on?

In serving 6 different churches in musical interim capacities of one sort or another during the past two and half years, and amid all the challenges of jumping into new situations and dealing with so many new people and ways of doing things, I try to help people through those periods of shifting sands, broken relationships, and confusing changes, and I think sometimes that I have found a foundation for myself by being a foundation for others in these places.

So much of what’s wrong in the world is summed up by the inexplicable human need to feel superior. That drive is unmasked in different ways, all of them damaging to our souls  – like racism or classism or consumerism. For whole countries and cultures it’s too often expressed by insularity, rapaciousness, and violence.

We often do, in fact, have more resources than many people around us. For me, they are resources of family, friends, time, enough money, a capacity to care and to listen, a home, freedom. These aren’t things that make me superior to anyone, but they give me strength to be the foundation others might need to get through their in-between times of confusion or hurt or scarcity.

Like the space between musical notes, we have in-between times in our lives that are also important. Interim periods require us to negotiate the movements between sorrow and joy, strength and weakness, moderation and passion, constancy and change. That can be disorienting and disturbing, but ultimately being able to do so, I think, is what makes us strong. Meanwhile, for the times when we need some help getting through transitions…well, among our many resources, we always have Bach.   (Suite No. 5).  According to Yo Yo Ma, music will help us figure out who we are, and just maybe who we are supposed to be in this world.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was, and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

More Resilience

As for most of you, it’s been a remarkably busy time for me too, so I updated a post from last summer in part as a time-saving measure, but also because the word “resilience” keeps coming up for me in various ways.  As a reminder? An aspiration? What’s clear is that resiliency is a place where failure means something.

Did you know that the word “resilience” has the same roots as “sally,” as in “sally forth?”  To leap forward, to burst out, or to simply set forth, one foot at a time.

These are stormy days and the quality of resilience is one that I find more desirable than ever. And I do mean literally stormy – hard rains and harsh winds that cause trees to bend and plants to bow down under the weight of the rain. But, of course, I also speak metaphorically.

Carya

I am again collaborating with friends to put together a Carya Ensemble event – this time a tour in France for 8 voices and harp –  and I think resiliency is an idea that will always be attached, for me anyway, to my Carya projects. To remind some of you, or illuminate for others: Carya is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and resiliency is a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life. To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” provided a vehicle for me to think about the many personal qualities, including resilience, which contribute to building a happy life.  

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, shutting down conversations, grudges, toxic “friends,” or dulling places in our lives all seem like good first steps on the path towards resilience.

Throughout your life there were times when you knew you couldn’t go on. And yet you did, one step at a time.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For 32 weeks in 2017 I posted one of the variations and wrote about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection was obvious, but more often was unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings were made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Irreverence

What emerges from all that chaotic experimentation of the previous Variation? Irreverence! Not what anyone would have expected from the dourly-depicted J.S. Bach, devout Lutheran and Cantor of Leipzig. What a refreshing insight we are given here, one which humanizes his monumentalism.

Four part harmony, jocular in tone, this variation is a spirited chorale-like ending akin to those found in his cantatas. Described as a quodlibet – “what you please” – the music has suggestions of two old folk songs, Ich bin so lang night be dir guest (“I have been so long away from you”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (” Cabbage and beets have driven me away”). 

Goldberg Variations, 30 (Irreverence)

BUT, as you can hear, I completely failed with this one. I had wanted to capture some sense of a slightly drunken, mildly bawdy gathering of Bachs in 17th century Germany.  Beer steins raised, laughter, and hearty folk songs. Listening to what I recorded eight months ago now, I find that I was in a sedate frame of mind that didn’t serve what I was hearing in my mind’s ear very well. I will certainly go back and re-record this one day soon when I’m feeling less polite.

Next week, the opening Aria returns and brings us full circle from Innocence to Wisdom. Alpha to Omega. The journey will end where it began, but not before a bit of irreverential fun that reminds us not to take ourselves or life’s complications too seriously.

Peace,
Sonya

Read more: National Public Radio-Bach’s Enduring Enigma


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

Innocence

I’ve lived with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for a long time now. More than half my lifetime. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.

Aria (Innocence)

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a journey of sorts, and all journeys begin in innocence. We can’t know where any journey will actually take us after all, or what we’ll learn along the way. Innocence is a word with many meanings, but I choose a definition that holds a lack of guile at its core, and one that implies the optimism that hope’s triumph over experience expresses. The innocence of children shouldn’t be carried into adulthood, because it would become a refusal to acknowledge some of the hard truths all adults face. Without burying our heads in the sand then, perhaps innocence in adults doesn’t first assume cunning in the actions of others, and looks like the open-heartedness that tries to see good in the people and experiences we encounter every day. The more I think about cultivating innocence in myself, the more I wonder if it will lead to wisdom.  Journey with me.

Peace,

Sonya

Joy in Sadness

You’ve probably heard music written in a minor key that ends with a final major chord which lands on the ears like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds. That kind of moment in music is known as a Picardy third – taking a minor chord and raising the middle note to create a major chord – and it certainly has a place in music-making.  Sadness to cheerfulness.  A happy ending.

Recently, while preparing Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 for a concert, I found myself grinning during a particularly favorite passage near the end of the fugue. I felt such joy shining through the minor key.

Sun through cloudsIt’s not a big step for most of us to think about the possibility of joy coming after sadness goes away.  I think we have a harder time thinking about experiencing joy IN sadness. Not so much finding that the dark clouds have moved away and the sun is back in full force, but those magical times when diffused rays of sun come through the dark clouds.  Perhaps when someone we love has died and we are mourning their loss, yet feeling grateful at the same time that they were ever part of our lives. Or when someone we trust betrays us, feeling fortunate to have new insights into what true friendship looks like in contrast.  Perhaps something doesn’t work out the way we hope, yet we have enough wisdom to find gladness in the possibilities of our future.

In yoga, a set of principles known as niyamas offer the prescription of santosha as a way of finding joy through contentment with what is.  Not what could or should be, but an embrace of the place where we are now.  Dark clouds and all.

I am no Pollyanna about finding rays of sun through the darkest clouds.  It would be unrealistic, not to mention unkind, to expect victims of tragedy to find joy in their pain. Maybe, just maybe, in that case we can find ways to be the diffused light so desperately needed by others in our world.  It seems like very little, yet perhaps we can simply cling to what makes us human by continuing to pursue understanding and beauty.  And that brings me back to Bach’s great fugue in G minor, even ending, as it does, with a Picardy third. 

Here is what this Holy Week holds for me:  playing for a Maundy Thursday service at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, attending the Good Friday service at Washington National Cathedral, and for the first and perhaps only time ever, worshiping  with my husband on Easter Sunday, also at Washington National Cathedral.  Having experienced Holy Week in some sense already this year, I am grateful to learn that I still care about being in church and am gingerly walking my way through the Triduum.

Peace,

Sonya

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway.  More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested.  You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment.  If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.