the lullaby

I had a moment, last night, of feeling cradled.

It happened at Albany High. My daughter Jeanne is a senior there and sings in assorted ensembles. I was in the auditorium for the third and last of the school’s year-capping spring concerts when choir director Brendan Hoffman — “Hoff,” as the kids affectionately call him — asked everyone in the wings to move into the middle. Just one song, he promised. The students are going to surround you. Then everyone can move back.

I dutifully dislodged and parked myself in the center. As promised, the kids lined up around us. There were 80 or so of them, of every background, bent, ethnicity — the world sprawled beautifully across their faces. Hoff stood in the aisle, poised at that moment of rapt inaction before the hands snapped into motion and the music began.

And then he moved. And then they sang: Eric Whitacre’s “Allelulia,” a gorgeous piece that repeats and distends the one word, over and over and over, with layers of ecstatic harmony and solos spiked with airy dissonance. It isn’t an easy thing by any stretch. But it’s exquisite.

And we in the audience sat there, awed. It wasn’t just the song that awed us, or the enduring power of art, or the gift of an inspiring teacher — or even the miracle, and that is not too strong a word, of a publicly funded music program that feeds so many kids.

There was something else going on. Something maybe we felt but didn’t quite pinpoint, not till later. I know it didn’t hit me until late last night as I was lying in bed, my brain skittering fitfully through the day. I realized belatedly that we in the crowd — the proud parents of girls and boys so lately become women and men — had been serenaded by our own babies. Circling us in that big hall, embracing us in song, their young, strong voices hushed and held us as our own long-ago voices had once hushed and held them with lullabies.

We were cradled, in that middle strip of auditorium, by our own children. They gave us a song, a thing of beauty, a timeless snatch of enveloping love and joy. From the moment of birth, every parent anticipates a day when the tables are turned, when the son becomes the father, when the daughter spoons pudding into her mother’s soft and pliant mouth. That day will come, whether I’m aware of its arrival or not. What I never expected was last night’s gift, this sense of being soothed and nurtured by the child to whom I sang at bedtime not so long ago.

Maybe this is the power of art, after all: music that gives and gives, moments that stretch and stretch, children who grow up and sing to their parents, transformed.

the queen’s (fabulous) new weapon


Art draws joy from the unlikeliest sources, doesn’t it? For all the highfalutin things we say about it, for all the heady postmodern theorizing coughed up on its behalf, the thrill and meaning of art boil down to just this: it mines beauty from the everyday grunge of human existence.

Consider this glorious drawing by Sylvie Kantorovitz, an Albany artist and children’s author/illustrator. Sylvie, an old friend, lives just a couple blocks from me in this homey and humble neighborhood packed with friends. The bunch of us have now spent a couple of decades watching our children get older and wiser while we, curiously, do not. (And yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve ALWAYS been gray.)

Sylvie reads my blog, bless her. She saw my post the other day on plungers, plunger-related tchotchkes and my new, exciting role as Shit Lady. Much to my shock and delight, she responded to it with a plunger-themed drawing on her own blog, where she posts an artwork a day.

This one, “New Weapon,” features one of Sylvie’s recurring characters — a lanky regal sort attended by birds — as she toes up to some unseen onslaught with her plunger at the ready. “Life deals a lot of s*** cards. The Queen attacks and moves on,” says the caption.

I love this. How can I NOT love this? I would love it even if Sylvie weren’t a friend of mine, even if she hadn’t drawn it in response to my blog post, even if I hadn’t written a book with a plunger on the cover, even if I’d never discovered my mid-to-late-life calling as a discombobulated shit-prophet with her head in the stuff. You needn’t be stricken with early widowhood to realize that life will find a way to dump a steaming pile in your path some time or other, be it illness or the pain of divorce or a howling plague of lice and gnats upon the land.

Personally, I have never had to deal with lice. Neither on my land nor on the heads of my progeny; that shit has avoided me so far. (Gnats are another story.)

But Sylvie’s drawing got me thinking, again, about the gift of creation — and the creative urge itself. What better way to cope with the shit we’re given than to make something of it? Something beautiful, affirming, infectious, hilarious, inspiring? Something just a little bit less smelly and repulsive? Anyone who sings the blues knows that shit sounds damn good with flattened thirds. And it should. It’s our most abundant medium, the unrefined ore from which we craft our lives — so we may as well make it interesting. We may as well make it art.

accidental beauties

sunset

If you live in Albany, did you catch the sky at sunset tonight? It was all cotton candy magnificence. I saw it by accident through the upstairs bathroom window, and it caught me at just the right moment: I’d been fretting about something over which I have no control, which is, of course, the nature and boundless asininity of fretting. One never frets over the distressingly few things over which one has control, such as whether or not to floss before bedtime. (“Aggghhhh! I wish I knew! The suspense is killing me! Crap crap crap!”) Instead one frets over the infinite number of things outside our own personal agency. If we have no authority or power to act — and if we forget, for some long moment, that surrender is our only real and rational option — we brood.

I was brooding earlier tonight. But then I glimpsed the sunset, and the cloud of fuss suddenly lifted, whiffed away by those ribbons of pink and blue.

A similar lightening of spirit had occurred over the weekend, as I tooled through light whorls of snow along the Petersburg Pass to Williamstown. Once again, I was stewing. Once again, it concerned a matter over which I have no control. But then, mid-fret, I came around that glorious, mountainous, rising curve that swings into the Berkshires with an abruptness that always shocks me; I’ve driven that road a thousand times, and still, that morning, it caught me unawares. And I stopped fretting. Not only that: I felt like a boob for having fretted at all. Why should I chafe over little nothings, when the world can throw such beauties in my midst? They rise out of nowhere with the force and largeness of truth.

That’s what matters. Not that niggling, nagging stuff. And when the awful shit lands, the real shit, worrying won’t fix that, either.

Sometimes, flipping through the bible at night, my thumb lands on a passage from Matthew that addresses the boobishness of worry: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Ummm, no. Definitely not. That there is one apt rhetorical question, Jesus. And yet I do it. I worry. I did it again in the bathroom tonight, right there at the sink, just by the floss — which actually might add an hour to my life. But then I looked over and saw the sky, and I opened the window, and I snapped a picture, and I smiled. No more fretting. For now.

 

beautiful-mamaHere I present one of the most beautiful images I own: an early, glorious, glamour shot of my late mother, Jeanne Frances Mitchell Biancolli. Mama for short.

I could write a book about this woman. Maybe someday I will; I already devoted a sizable wedge of paper to her in my last wild stab at memoirizing, “House of Holy Fools.” I also wrote about her, and my second mother, Pat, in a Times Union column last summer

As you can see, she was a knockout. What you can’t see is the blueness of her eyes, the outrageousness of her wit, the flintiness of her spirit, the wiriness of her arms or the roughness of her left hand’s fingertips, which were calloused from many hard hours of practicing the violin. Those callouses said it all for me. They said: Beauty makes demands on us. It hurts. It toughens us, but in a good way, a necessary way. Sometimes, in the creation of music and the living of life, we grow new layers of skin.

Mama was a world-class concert violinist who performed six times in Carnegie Hall, toured South America and Scandinavia, soloed with the Philly under Ormandy — while drawing raves for her musicianship and wolf whistles for her looks. My father Louis, a music critic for the New York World-Telegram, reviewed her and loved her playing long before he loved her, too.

When she played, all that she was came out in her violin: Her music was an aural blast of authenticity, clarity, intellect, deep human insight and ferocious emotional might. She always said exactly what she knew to be true, in words and music; her phrasing was apt and efficient, whether nailing rubato in a hunk of Brahms or flattening me with straight talk when I was mooning over a boy. (“He’s pretty, I take it.” Quarter-beat rest. “Just be sure you’re not thinking with your gonads.”)

This directness drove me nuts, sometimes. When I was a teenager, more than sometimes. I now recognize it as Mama’s single greatest beauty, a source of strength and balance in a house so often cluttered and listing. But not when she played the violin, or my sister the piano. Not when we laughed. Not when she cut through all of it with her piercing, uncompromising, fearless mind. That was as clear as her eyes, as sinewy as her arms, as powerful as her music.