A Rose By Any Other Name

In the past couple of years I have taken on a few adult piano students, and found that I enjoy teaching piano now so much more than my younger self ever did. One of my students has been working on the Debussy prelude Voiles. It’s a beautiful piece, perfectly capturing Debussy’s ethereal language of whole-tone scales and glissando-like figures.  I had always known this piece to have an English title of “Sails,” and was surprised to learn that is only one of many meanings of the French “voiles.” It can also mean “veils,” or “shroud” or “fog.” Debussy was purposely vague about the title, but it changes the music completely.  Are we playing music that evokes a sun-filled day on the lake or a foggy world seen from behind a veil? You decide:

Voiles – take one                Voiles – take two

Or maybe it’s a foggy day on the lake!  Words matter. How we interpret something changes everything, as we well know from the proverb of the glass half-empty or half-full. Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but I respectfully disagree.  A rose that’s called a latrine-blossom probably won’t smell as sweet.

This Sunday at Church of the Epiphany we’ll hear one of the newer additions to the lectionary in the Episcopal Church, the canticle A Song of Wisdom. Christians have inherited a patriarchal theology, but the church does try sometimes to widen the scope of our understanding, and we find that even small words, like pronouns, matter.

Wisdom freed from a nation of oppressors a holy people and a blameless race.  She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord, withstood dread rulers and wonders and signs…She was their shelter by day and a blaze of stars by night…

Wisdom

It was over a year ago now that I finished writing about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, tying each of the 30 variations to a personal quality that I found worthy of cultivating. In the final movement, the opening Aria returns, now seemingly imbued with the wisdom gained by a lifetime of experiences. Wisdom is so very different from being smart or academically gifted. It’s slow, thoughtful, and simple. Wisdom is learning to not respond immediately, temporarily walking away from a difficult moment, knowing that the answer will come. It’s being quiet and listening.

My own name is a variation of Sophia, Greek for wisdom. I don’t claim to have an abundance of it, but I so admire it in others. For me, wisdom has been gained when I’ve tried harder to see both sides of an issue, or even when I choose to take a walk instead of answering emails. When I let wisdom come to me instead of trying too hard to find it.

An interesting side-note about Voiles – in French, the masculine “le voile” means “veil” and the feminine “la voile” means “sail.” Debussy left out the defining article in his title – a tiny, but clarifying word. Creatures are largely divided into male and female, but recently society has been allowed to admit that there are some people in between that clear division. Time and the urban dictionary will find the right words for us to express this in-betweeness in our everyday language. Meanwhile, we can push gently (or not) against cultural taboos and boxed-in thoughts. Remembering that words really do matter feels to me like a step towards wisdom.

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.

 

 

People move in mysterious ways

I re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 book, Flight Behavior, not too long ago.  Writing about the problems of global warming and environmental degradation in what seemed a heavy-handed way just a few years go, her book now, in light of the hurricanes, floods and fires of 2017, is another clear call to change human behavior. Kingsolver also writes, somewhat more subtly, about the age-old problems of rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated, social intelligence versus academic smarts, rural versus urban. I haven’t noticed those problems going away either.

It was near the novel’s end that Kingsolver said something I have never thought about before. Her main character in Flight Behavior, the fancifully named Dellarobia, has wondered all her life why the answer to her life’s greatest difficulties has always been that “God moves in mysterious ways.”  She realizes with some astonishment that God doesn’t move.  It’s God’s people who are moving. In Kingsolver’s book, and in reality, many would argue, some people are heedlessly moving to destroy the planet, and others moving to save it.

…everything else is in motion while God does not move at all.  God sits still, perfectly at rest, the silver dollar at the bottom of the well, the question. (p. 350)

God’s wisdom is unmoving, but sometimes people need to move around that wisdom a second (or third or fourth…) time to unlock its meaning.  I had that very experience with a hymn sung at St. John’s a few Sundays ago, Come, labor on (The Hymnal 1982, #541).  It’s a favorite of mine and, though I have played and sung it countless times, new wisdom jumped out at me in the phrase No arm so weak, but may do service here (Hymn 541, verse 3).  I had never focused on those particular words before, but I appreciate the belief that all can serve God, no matter how unimportant they might consider their service. The words had always been there, but I had moved around them enough times to finally hear that kernel of wisdom.

A question we might be tempted to ask, in despair after the mass shooting in Las Vegas this week, is one which a scientist named Ovid in Kingsolver’s book also wonders: “What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?” Environmental degradation, gun violence, refugees from war and famine.  Where is God in any of this? There are times to be still in God’s presence and simply listen, and there are times to move, and it is in those times we might remind ourselves that God has no hands on earth but ours. As choirs have sung: Christ has no body now but yours. No soul on earth but ours.

People do indeed move in mysterious ways, from profoundly loving to cruelly indifferent to simply evil. If we are able to see God’s wisdom as a complete and central foundation for our lives we might try to move around that wisdom, uncovering bits of it, finding those truths that have been patiently awaiting our discovery and collective remembering. It is wisdom which will move us closer to love in all its forms, from quiet to outraged.

Peace,
Sonya

Wisdom

When we get to the end of something, anything, it’s natural to look back and wonder what could have been different, what should have been different.  Maybe those feelings are labeled as regrets, or maybe they’re simply insights into what has been.

So many regrets, hmmm, insights! I wish I was a better pianist, and I wish I could have more fully accessed and conveyed all that I feel about this music. Maybe I should have explored other ideas, such as serenity, courage, trust, light…

Complexity makes this music interesting, but it is the simplicity of its symmetry and repeated harmonic progression that bring people to it again and again, I think. Coming home to the final Aria, the innocence we first heard in the opening Aria becomes something else – perhaps evoking nostalgia, or weariness, or contentment.  We can’t return home, whether after a lifetime or after these 30 explorations, and have it be the same after all we’ve been through. The wisdom of old age surely knows that as it recasts any regrets into insights, and wistfulness into contentment.

I was inspired several years ago to write for another blog about the Goldberg Variations after reading an article by pianist Jeremy Denk. I quoted him in 2012 and again now because he summarizes so beautifully my own thoughts:

The [Goldberg Variations] is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder; the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music…[and at the end there is] a sense of completeness of everything that has come before, the rightness, and…the radiance of experience.  It gives you that rare thing in human existence: a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile.”

That’s the message of hope that Bach is speaking to me.  It has all been worthwhile. How is wisdom gained? I would say that it is achieved by celebrating the most fundamental elements of life; cultivating patterns of healthy relationships, kindness, generosity, and by opening our hearts to God’s plan for us.

Peace,
Sonya

NPR’s “Goldberg Week” 
Read more by Jeremy Denk


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.

Abandon/Restraint

Bach gives us a turning point at midlife with variation 16, exactly midway through the Goldberg Variations. He wouldn’t have used this term, but it’s a yin yang moment as well. Work and play. Alone and in community. Sleeping and waking. Two things seemingly contrary, but nevertheless inter-dependent for a fully satisfying life.  Wisdom at midlife embraces the “both/and” mindset that finds joy in quiet and chaos. Life’s richness is fed by a maturity which recognizes the need for balance.

Goldberg Variations, 16 (Abandon/Restraint)

Runs and trills and loud chords…all played with a sense of abandon in the first 16 bars.  Ah, but discipline wins out and the second 16 bars feel restrained, careful, polite.

No need to choose.  There is time for both abandon and restraint in any life well-lived, as we’re reminded in Ecclesiastes: (and take note, my friends, this reading is in my funeral plan, along with a dozen or so of my favorite hymns)

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

We might recoil at making room for times to hate and to make war, but there is a place for hating those things that work against love –  abuse, lies, selfishness, addiction. Not hate for the person, but for the falseness which can take hold of someone’s life.  And war…hard to justify a need for war, except the kind of war that troublemakers have to wage before they are recognized as peacemakers.

Peace (and war!),
Sonya

A reminder: This Sunday, May 7 at 4:00: a performance by pianist Sophia Vastek to benefit Bethania Kids, a ministry which supports orphans in India. Learn more and rsvp

Also, save the date Thursday evening, June 22: Sophia and I have put together another program for two-pianos, raising money this time for Samaritan Ministries. More information and a chance to rsvp later.


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.

Aloneness

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and
curl my back to loneliness.  – Maya Angelou

We read to know that we are not alone
quote credited to C.S. Lewis, from the film “Shadowlands”

Wisdom suggests that we stop and ask ourselves sometimes, are we feeling lonely or alone? In loneliness something is missing, there is pain, a need or a lack of something, an incompleteness, depression perhaps. It is the absence of light. Conversely, aloneness is the presence of light. Being comfortably alone implies an aliveness, a joy of being, a comfort with yourself in which you feel complete. What the faithful know in their hearts is that we are not alone, ever, in our aloneness.

For Maya Angelou the antidote to loneliness was music and for C.S. Lewis it was reading.  In their loneliness they each found a way to be alone.

Vivaldi Concerto – YoYo Ma and Bobby McFerrin

The aloneness expressed in this music of Vivaldi is not that of emptiness, tragedy, or even sadness, as forlorn as this music can sometimes sound. Hearing it takes me to a place of receptivity, of hunger for something indefinable, but desirable.  No loneliness in this music, written originally for two mandolins, and recorded by two musical luminaries – YoYo Ma and Bobby McFerrin.

Goldberg Variations, 12 (Aloneness)

Bach’s 12th Goldberg Variation begins and ends with a single note, but so much happens in between. The tolling single notes heard are wrapped in a gentle cocoon of two other musical lines. Another reminder perhaps that we are never really alone.

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 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.