Myths and Truths

de_grey_hours_f-57-r_st-_nicholasDecember 6 is the day on the church’s calendar when St. Nicholas is celebrated. The myths around this saint from Myra (in present day Turkey) are many.  The bags of gold that he tossed into one home so that the daughters would have dowries and not be sold into prostitution become the origin of the gift-giving tradition we now have at this time of year. He is considered the patron saint of children because one story has Nicholas resurrecting three boys who had been slaughtered during a time of famine and were being prepared to be eaten. And he is credited with saving a ship full of sailors in a storm-tossed sea by calming the waters.  These are tales told in many cultures, and of course all relate directly to Christian theology.  Are they true?  Does it matter?

Where do mystery and reason meet?  One might argue, and certainly Joseph Campbell did so in his book and television series “The Power of Myth,” that they meet in theology, as both mystery and reason attempt, in their own ways, to express truth.  Where does myth end and truth begin?  Do we have to know?  There are many truths that can’t be confined to those things we perceive with our five senses and personally, I have never been hobbled by a need for certainty. I enjoy the universalizing process that any story can lead us through.

The danger of myths that feed our misperceptions about race, about various threats to our safety from vaccines to immigrants…well, that’s a topic for another day. There is a big difference between things we absolutely know to be true (but aren’t), and those things we know aren’t really true, but which we acknowledge still have something to teach us. A very provocative TED Talk takes on this very topic, if you are interested.

What matters, it seems to me, are the universal truths that the story of St. Nicholas expresses – the value of generosity, of helping those in need, and maybe most important at this time of year, being the calm during a storm (the quiet voice during a family argument perhaps? A peaceful presence among harried shoppers or co-workers?). These are truths we all could incorporate into our lives.

Close your eyes and return to your early childhood. Was there anything more wonderful than anticipating the return of that greatest of all myths, St. Nicholas in the guise of a gift-bearing Santa Claus? The evolution of our adult happiness hinges on turning that early eagerness for the gifts of things into a mature appreciation for the gifts of spirit – friendship, time, kindness, and, of course, music.

A gift for you then on this St. Nicholas Day – music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, which includes this text in the third part of his choral work Triodion:Ode III:

O Holy Saint Nicolas, Pray unto God for Us A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicolas, intercede before Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

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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.

Veni Emmanuel

In the Christian church, the new year – the liturgical year – begins this coming Sunday with a four week journey known as Advent. It’s often described as a time of waiting, watching, and hoping, and a season when we might try to quiet our minds in the midst of the chaos around us, but living in a state of anticipation and also with a quiet mind seem to be at odds with each other. Somehow we have to accept that Advent is a season of duality. A time of joy and penance, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ messages, images of light and darkness.

I love the hymns of Advent, and no hymn better captures the two sides of Advent than O come, o come Emmanuel, sometimes known by its Latin name, Veni emmanuel. Its text is built on the ancient words of the “O Antiphons” which were sung before and after the chanting of Mary’s Magnificat in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (hence the dates you see before each verse). Mourning in lonely exile (vs 1), we’re asked in the refrain to “Rejoice!”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s brave response to God’s plan for her to have a child, one who will be both human and divine.

oemmanuel

Each verse of Veni Emmanuel (#56 in The Hymnal 1982) begins with a salutation, in the form of a name for God, and then an invitation for each of these aspects of God to come into our lives. An invitation is meaningless, of course, unless the door has been left open, so don’t sing this beautiful hymn unless your heart is open to change!

O Sapienta (v. 2)  O come, wisdom, and show us a path towards knowledge

O Adonai (v. 3) O come, Lord of might, and with an outstretched arm, save us

O Radix Jesse (v. 4)  O come, branch of Jesse’s tree, and be a sign of God’s love

O Clavis David  (v. 5)  O come, Key of David, and open the gates of life and set us free

O Oriens (v. 6)   O come, Radiant Light, and shine on those who sit in darkness

O Rex gentium (v. 7)   O come, King of all people, and end our sad divisions

O Emmanuel  (vss 1 and 8)  O come, Emmanuel, and dwell among us

In the complexity of this life, may we discover truth somewhere in the middle of all the dichotomies of Advent. Anticipation and peacefulness. Questions and answers. Joy and penance. Comfort and discomfort. And in all of that, may it be a journey towards light and rebirth, a triumph of dreams and hopes over our knowledge of life’s dark places.

Veni Emmanuel,

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.

Commuting in America

One of my favorite parts of my week is the walk I take every Wednesday from the church where I am working at 13th and G Street to the church where I have a  midday rehearsal at 20th and G Street. That would seem like a pretty straight shot along seven blocks of a single street, but nothing is quite so simple when you travel around the city of Washington D.C.

My route is bisected diagonally by Pennsylvania Avenue, and that takes me past the house at 1600 every week. Being a veteran Washingtonian of more than 30 years now, I am too cool, of course, to gawk at The White House, but the house itself is the least interesting thing along my commute. That long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, with Lafayette Square on one side, and a wide swath of pavement that was blocked off from cars more than a decade ago, beckons people from every state and continent. Musicians playing everything from rock guitar to smooth saxophone to mountain tunes on the harmonica.  Camera-wielding tourists, families, and people in wheelchairs. Evangelists for their own brand of God’s good news, and protestors of causes I didn’t even know existed. People who have created memorials for those lost at war or for lives wasted by gun violence. Men in well-pressed suits zipping by on scooters, briefcases in hand, weaving around strollers and the very obvious security guards, who stand seemingly at ease, but clearly attuned to everything and everyone around them.

Of all that I’ve seen on my Wednesday pedestrian commutes, the best so far has been a group of men in robes and large white hats. From a distance I feared a gathering of the KKK, but getting closer I saw that these were dark-skinned men who held signs proclaiming themselves to be Moors. It wasn’t clear what they were protesting, but if their goal was to let the world know that the Moors still live, they succeeded with me. Did you know there are still people who identify as Moors today?

There are always lessons to be learned, and I love my few minutes every week of seeing the world gathered, sometimes to gawk and sometimes to proclaim. We can’t know if the residents of The White House are observing anything that happens outside their windows, but I find hope in what I see – community, curiosity, diversity…and street musicians! As we look forward to Thanksgiving next week I am grateful to witness America on that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s colorful and messy and so very beautiful in its openness to all sorts and conditions.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot, among many others, have quotes attributed to them about the journey mattering more than the destination. They remind us that transient moments have value and enrich our lives. That the journey itself can bring happiness. I certainly feel that on Wednesday afternoons.

Reaching a destination suggests an ending, but as every musician knows, the journey is all we have. We will never reach a musical destination because we know that something could always be better – a phrase more beautifully shaped, an emotion more clearly expressed, or a technical passage more perfectly executed. I think that’s probably true for every part of our lives. We’re all works in progress, so why not appreciate the commute as a welcome part of life.

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.

 

 

Armistice

A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.

But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen.  Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.

So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility.  And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.

Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.

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.

 

Laugh Out Loud

Some good reasons to laugh – laughter raises our heart rates, increases blood flow and lowers stress, thereby boosting our immune system, lowering blood sugar levels, and yes, even burning calories, though not enough to justify extra chocolate, sadly. And those are just some physical benefits.  What is more psychologically healing than bonding with others around something humorous?

Laughter Clubs, a form of yoga, began developing in the 1990’s and is now a movement with over 8,000 groups of people gathering around the world, usually in the morning in a park, to simply laugh as a form of healing. I haven’t been to one but maybe I’ll start one in my back yard! Apparently the human body cannot differentiate between unfeigned, spontaneous laughter and forced laughter. Whenever I pretend to laugh it always seems to turn into real laughter anyway. Haven’t we all experienced the contagion of uncontrolled laughter that sometimes catches us at the most inopportune moments?  I certainly hope you have!

It seems like the more we’re digitally connected to the rest of the world, the less connected we actually are to our neighbors and family. Could laughter be a common ground that leads to more conversation with those around us? Here are some digitally delivered ideas to get you started.

Funny cat video, with a classical twist

You can’t listen to this notated laughter without laughing. I’m taking bets…

Not-So-Serious-Music

I really hope you click on the links above, and start laughing so loudly that someone hears you and joins you in laughter without even knowing why. Today, October 18, is the feast day for Saint Luke, Evangelist and patron saint of healing on the liturgical calendar. Though we don’t have a lot of control over many things that affect our lives, finding more times to laugh is a wonderful gift we can give ourselves, and one that beckons those around us to an irresistible adventure towards healing.

Hahahahahaha,

Sonya

If you saw my note last week inviting you to a house concert, please know that we have had to postpone the concert.  My musical partner has had a health emergency in her family.  Stay tuned for a new date.

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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.

 

 

 

Dead Leaves

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) – Claude Debussy

The short work linked above, from Debussy’s second volume of preludes, has a decidedly straightforward title. For the composer, at the height of his career, but having learned recently that he had cancer, perhaps the desolation he expressed in this music required such a stark title. Though the music can seem blurry, Debussy was a master of clarity in capturing the essence of a feeling or a moment in sound, in this case the leaves of autumn, fallen and desiccated. Harmonically and rhythmically vague, as his music often is, it is music that seems filled with mournful sighs.

Why do we sigh? Whether we do so from frustration or from sadness, there’s one theory that suggests that our sighs serve as a re-set button. In all the ways that breath is life, our sighs overcome the shallow breathing we sometimes fall into and re-energizes our lungs. Maybe it’s a pointed “snap out of it” message from our brain. We can’t really know what was going on in Debussy’s own brain as he composed, but I’m grateful for the “snap out of it” messages that keep me from settling too comfortably into melancholy.

Feuilles mortes had another incarnation that many of you will recognize –

Fueilles mortes-Yves Montand

The translation of “Dead Leaves” sounds somewhat more alluring in French – Feuilles mortes. But then, as I learned this past summer while traveling in France, even the voice of the GPS sounds more alluring when he (there was no way this GPS voice was an “it”, nor a “she”) gave directions.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.                   Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful, so can memories and regrets.

The American version softens death into merely falling, and changes the title from Dead Leaves to Autumn Leaves, but we often retreat into the prettier words of euphemism in order to save ourselves from confronting the hardest truths.

Of course, as with the lefts and rights of my friend’s French navigation system, allure is part of anything sung by Yves Montand.  He sings here a tender song of nostalgic longing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this was a song written in France in 1945. There is no euphemism for all that is lost in wartime.

Nor for the loss of talent taken too soon:  Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves

Debussy’s dead leaves are disorienting and bleak. Cassidy’s autumn leaves are heartbreaking. I gave myself permission to cry and to live in melancholy for just a bit as I listened, and so should you before you sigh and reset for whatever comes next.

Peace,
Sonya

if you’ve read down this far, you might be interested in a concert I’ll be doing on October 21 – Debussy’s Feuilles mortes is included – let me know if you’d like to attend.  Four Seasons of Caring – a house concert

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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.

 

 

 

The Still Point

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

What are memories made from? I know there are scientific answers to that question, but I’m more interested in the metaphysical explanation. We know that memory is malleable, that we can’t count on our memories of conversations and events being completely accurate. Or at least, we should know that. I believe we do remember feelings – our feelings of fear or happiness, safety or sorrow. More than sight, senses of smell and hearing seem to create lasting memories that often relate to our feelings, rather than to specific moments in our lives. Our house was affected by a tornado several years ago, and it wasn’t until weeks later when I sat on an airplane and heard the jet engines roar to life that I suffered a few moments of PTSD.  I don’t recall hearing anything except breaking glass in my panic at the time, until I heard a similar sound which caused that panic to return.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Wrestling with T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton seems like an autumnal event to me. I don’t pretend to have any depth of understanding of these poems in his Four Quartets, but the words evoke familiar feelings that I yearn to understand, and cause questions to arise which don’t have answers. There is so much truth in Eliot’s belief that poetry communicates before it is understood. News and life have lately conspired to make me think about memories and nostalgia and all the ways that our minds hold on – or let go – of life’s experiences.  Is Eliots’ “still point” the moment when the present meets our former self in a memory? Do the future and past exist within the present?

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

An important figure in my childhood memories died recently. He lived on a farm where my friend and I spent our summers, and she and I will return to the scenes of those youthful summers which bound us so closely together for a memorial service. Memories of those idyllic summers from many decades ago are back in force right now. Laying in the grass under the shade of a tree-lined horse pasture, propped on elbows in hunt of four-leaved clover.  Picnics near the opening to a badger’s den that we watched for years with hope of seeing a nose poke out, wind moving through the pine trees, games of croquet and badminton that became boring or competitive depending on the day. It was a childhood of summers spent reading on the screened porch and picking gigantic zucchinis that seemed to grow overnight. Reclaiming those memories means reclaiming those feelings of freedom and wonder and a thousand life lessons, and all of that makes me feel like I am moving through Eliot’s coexistence of time past and present and future.

In another part of my life, my mother is shedding new memories more quickly and clinging to old memories more ferociously. I’ve entered her world of time past and present in ways that I hope will keep us close for as long as possible. I’ve also begun teaching a piano student who is openly and bravely facing memory issues. Music is this person’s connection between past and present. In Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia he writes in the final chapter, titled “Music and Identity,” about the ways that music experienced by dementia patients draws on the deepest parts of their memories, but also grounds them in the present, creating shared experiences of listening and singing with others around them.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

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.