Elegy for Dominic

•October 7, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I trace circles

—Looking for traces of you.

I pace the rooms,

Their emptiness confirms my own.

 

I made to move the elder out

Clean the room and lock the door:

Holding all in readiness for you.

I still want to lock the door

Bar my preparations from my sight

Forget the room existed

A place you’ll never know

I want to unknow it too.

 

I look outside

The world

It feels immense and empty.

Child, how did one so small

Take up so much space

That the world now feels impossibly

Large?

 

I would need all the beautiful

Words from every language

To give to you

I don’t know them all.

 

The broken chords seem more broken

No music there

No sound

“Silence is the language of God.”

 

So you spoke to me through the hours

I held your body

Soul already flown

Unfettered from this world

From my life.

 

You went with the light of day

Softly, in your father’s arms.

They saved me to walk the mortal world

With your brothers.

 

I trace my world

Searching like a frantic bird

For the remnants of its wings…

You flew on.

 

And I love you so.

 

I have been here before

On this river of tears

It feels so different and yet

All the same

 

Row forward!  First one hand

Then another— no other journey to make

Different trees, different rocks,

The same grief

Row

Scan the shore – no little one

Gone ahead

 

I know beauty returns to the world

Part of the feathers you shed

Flying before me – I’ll find them in the future

Glistening plumage amongst the trees

Echos of your song will wing their way

Back to me

I’ll hear them and smile

But not today, my sparkling firebird.

 

For now I’ll row on

I’ll count the trees

Search the rocks

Beg the sky to be less vast

 

So I can feel less lost

Less empty

Less broken

 

I love you so…

 

Klaus

•September 19, 2016 • Leave a Comment

He was there at my graduation from my MA.  He was present for debates, for conferences, for reading group sessions, and colloquia.  Many times afterwards we all went out together just to continue talking.  Classroom doors would close and lights would go out but the fire for discussion hadn’t burned out and so we’d all rejoin in the street, meander to a pub or restaurant and continue where we’d left off.  We were a group of people of various ages from those in their 20’s up through the 70’s.  In many ways we symbolized what I love most about the musicking world: a community that stretches its way through all humanity and connects people to each other from wherever they originated.

Last week as I sat upstairs alone with Teddy asleep in his crib in the room across the hall I was surfing Facebook just before turning out my own light when a post appeared in the news feed, and it was the kind of post no one wants to see.  Someone had written a post saying that my friend had died.  This was a post I didn’t want to believe, and so I reached out immediately through email to some of the members of our group who were more closely connected to Klaus for verification.  My mentor, the founder of our little group in many ways, wrote me back the horrible words that what I had read was undoubtedly true.

Since I first entered university as a bachelor student I have been blessed to run into extremely intelligent people.  I have met the kind of people whose possession of knowledge is vast and deep, who share it willingly without condescension or self-pride that they know so much.  They are the types of people who honor you with their knowledge by sharing it without making you feel vulnerable in your ignorance.  Klaus was one such.  As knowledgeable, as skilled a musician, as clever and humorous a person as he was, in all the environments I ever was present in which he spoke, I never saw him speak without choosing how he spoke without compassion for the persons he was addressing.  Klaus was a joyous man, and he was so lively  that it seems impossible to me that he’s gone, or that all along he was doing as the Dutch tend to, and that was bearing terrible health burdens in utter silence.  For many hours after the message appeared on his page people continued to post comments in shock and grief at the loss of their friend, and not one of us knew what could have happened to him.  It was only after I learned a few days later to what sickness Klaus had fallen did I realize the extent to which he had kept his illness “close to his shirt”.  In the hours after the posting I had seen his own family members writing in to ask how he had passed away.

But Klaus’ death, beyond filling me with sadness and grief at a bright, warm and joyous life snuffed out far too soon also reminds me again of the lessons I learned after my father died: you cannot ever know how much time you have on Earth or how long you have with the people you care for.  Grief has many faces and phases.  I suspect that my grief at Klaus’ death will touch me whenever I enter the university halls again for a time, or when the reading group reconvenes and I have to remember he won’t be there.  There are many like me in this regard.  Klaus, like most musicians, was an active part of his world: he accompanied, he was part of several ensembles both Western European classical music and gamelan ensembles.  I may have met Klaus through musicology, but that was only a small part of his life: through his work as a musician he touched hundreds of people over the years.  So as I start another autumn of colloquia and readings and writing I will be joined in my sense of an empty place at the table by many others in the worlds Klaus moved within.

And though I’ll remember for years and years his brilliance, I believe what I’ll never forget is his kindness.  It was a rare thing in a person with so many gifts: a special humility in a superbly talented and intelligent man.

 

Defenseless

•August 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Five years ago I was the music teacher the man with the budget ax came for.  He came for others in my district including a gifted conductor with a MA in Choral Conducting.  We were turned out of our positions, left to seek our way through to new paths in life.  Some of us went back to the classroom.  Some of us (like me) went away entirely.  It was quite something at the time, for me, because I had actually tears to shed for the loss of a position I wasn’t sure I wanted for two years.  The honest truth is that in my second year of teaching I almost quit entirely.  Burned by one district that tricked me into signing a contract for a 70% position they promised would become full-time (and which didn’t), I was handing over my salary to pay for childcare.

I left without any intention of returning to a classroom.  In the summer of 2007, one week before school was to start, I got a call from the district I grew up in.  Would I like to come in for an interview?  Today?  The long and short was that there was a position for choral and general music teacher which was full-time and had opened up very suddenly.  I went for the interview, contemplated working in a district my parents had worked in, considered the higher wages I’d be earning, and decided to go back to the classroom.

It was a bad year mostly because I felt, from the get go, that the school system as a whole was irreparably broken.  Nothing I’d seen since student teaching or my first year as a teacher into my second would convince me otherwise.  I saw ragged children walk in every day because there were no buses from the areas they lived, yet they were assigned to this school, and there were no parents (like mine) to drive them every morning.  I watched sixth-graders too proud to stand in the breakfast line learn by 8th grade that that breakfast and lunch the government were paying for was too precious to not take.  I saw children cowed by poverty and lives far harder than mine.

I cried most nights in my car on the way back to my home, a sheltered life that was so easy: all I had to do was show up and teach children about music…  Their griefs and pain were hard on me because I had no place to put the sense of the injustice in those young lives.  I also had little understanding of how my work should matter at all in a world like that.  And then little things started happening.  I had a student in my 8th grade general music class who looked like she was 15, and she was falling asleep nearly every day try as she might to stay awake.  I’d watch her head slip onto her arm every blessed afternoon, and she’d find herself waking at the end of class.  After the second week of school I pulled her into my classroom during her lunch (… subtle… real subtle… Okay a beginning teacher isn’t always a subtle creature) because I had the 8th grade lunch as my lunch time too, and I asked her why she was falling asleep every day.

She was horrified.  Maybe she’d thought I hadn’t noticed?!  And then she started explaining to me that she was alone every day after school with her two siblings: a 6-year-old and a two-year-old.  “I wait up every night until Mama gets home at 2 a.m. from Chicago because I can’t sleep with them babies in the house and it’s just me.  I’m so scared something will happen!”  It was the fact that it’s hard for me to cry in front of people that kept me from sobbing in frustration for this girl (to her face).  She was bearing (much as I had) heavy responsibilities at just 15, and her fear that something would happen to her two siblings was taking away her chances to rest.  Not done growing herself, needing an education to advance out of the poverty that was forcing her mother into the necessity of using her 15-year-old daughter as the only childcare for her other two children, this young woman was being deprived of those perquisites by the real needs of her body.

But out of that interview grew a relationship with a student… And I smile sitting here typing now because it was, as my father once said to me (on another subject entirely) “The first of many.”  I learned from that young woman that, in and of itself, music— and certainly general music— had no intrinsic value to many of my students.  What speaks to every student is the value they derive from the relationship to the teacher. My student and I connected, and though I couldn’t give her better sleep at night, just knowing she had someone that cared, someone who’d let her come into the dark, quiet auditorium every lunch time and nap and wake her in time for the next class, became the route to caring suddenly about a class she was forced to take.

General music was and still is the scheduling principal’s dumping ground.  Many “specials” teachers moan and cry that their classes are used as “dumping grounds” for those who chose classes that filled up on them and needed to be placed elsewhere in the schedule.  Next to no one chooses general music in 6-8 grade, though that proved to be an inaccurate statement by the end of my 4 years at that school.  I learned that I could shut my classroom doors, connect to my students, and through that connection, share my love of music with them: teach them the keys to one of humanity’s oldest technologies for connecting to the unspeakable realities of its experiences.

So it was that in the spring of 2011, I had tears to shed when the principal came for me.  I cared deeply and still care that I was being sacked to allow another teacher to remain full-time, and it broke me in ways I am still learning to grieve through.  For one thing, it put paid to the career path I had believed I would always follow.  But though I buried choral conducting in the five years past, I have not lost the abilities, not given up musicking, not given up teaching, and not given up learning.

All that said,  I no longer believe, as I used to, that music education, nor any of the arts, nor physical education belong in the same world as the academic subjects.  All my educator friends, all my musician friends, and any other readers, please don’t let your hair start on fire with that statement.  I have very reasoned ideas for this turn in my understanding, and I do understand the rationales guiding the housing of music, the arts, and physical education along with the regular school day.  It is this understanding which prompts the reversal for me.

Defending the Indefensible

It was a year ago when I spotted a share of the blog originally posted here entitled “Stop ‘Defending’ Music.”  Lots of my acquaintances and friends were sharing it and applauding it.  Some were not.  That’s not really the point.  I essentially agree with the author’s main points.  Being constantly on the defense for music is a sure sign that you’re on the losing side.  If you have to constantly apologize (in the classical sense) for your profession, then are you a musician or merely a musical apologist?  I wound up asking myself that in my five years as a music educator, and I couldn’t give myself a satisfactory answer except to shrug my shoulders and go back to my work… I think a lot of educators wind up in the same untenable positions mentally watching their curricular demands increase, but the depth decrease, the testing up every year and the results suddenly count towards their paychecks.  I think educators all over the US can relate to the feeling of being trapped between the many and varied needs of their students and the ticking clock that sends those children all too quickly from their care.

The Largest Problem is Housing

As long as music education, the visual arts, dance, physical education, drama etc. are housed in the same building as the core academic subjects then they will be viewed in the same way as the academic subjects… But different.  In middle and high school alike, these disciplines are subject to similar treatment as the academic world, the illusion that they could be given similar evaluation and guidelines, and yet be continually dispensable when that budgetary ax comes back around.

The arts are not academic subjects.  Neither is physical education.  Sport craft and art are very different cultures than academia, and this is the reason that in the Netherlands musicology is not housed in the conservatory, but the university.  One is the praxis, the other is the academic means through the praxis— not so much a different world as a different universe at times.  Do I believe, then, that musicology has no need of praxis?  No, but that’s not the topic.  The real question here is, whether continuing to house the academic disciplines (the original trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) alongside the arts and physical education is the course of greatest wisdom?

In cultural musicology we discuss a concept called musicologica: music logic.  It is a means of breaking with traditional views of the world and its disciplinary compartmentalizations and reconfiguring these to understand the disciplines as logics of their own specific domains: various means of understanding/viewing the world.  Pure logic, mathematics is one world-view.  Music is another.  Language-logic (the Dutch have a phenomenal word for this Taalkunde or language skills) is its own domain as are all varieties of sport.  Different logical systems for encountering the world and its internal systems.  Housing the arts, which are dramatically different from the academic logics in a separate place would help preserve them from the idea that the ax means that any one discipline is less important than another.  In their own home, the arts are not “extras” in the school day, or dumping grounds affording the other teachers their prep periods, but a necessary component thereof.

In a perfect world, all children would have access to all these subjects.  If districts were to pool their resources together: all their experts, all their teachers, and their funding in a central program that serviced the city, then it would be possible to remove the musical, visual and physical arts from the academic buildings.  So all students, in elementary school would continue to all receive the mandatory education in music, visual arts, physical education, etc. In middle school and thereafter, however, I would house all those subjects separately in a large city-wide building(s).  A massive arts center, a massive sports center where children could go take courses in the second part of their day based entirely on two ideas: their choices and their ability level.  Separating the arts and physical education from the academic buildings would allow students greater freedom because it would spread the resources of the many specialists in the districts more evenly, freeing the schedules more to allow students to have courses truly of their choosing while at the same time permitting students across an entire district to participate together in ensembles/classes/sports (large and small)  at their ability level and not based upon their age.  This separation would, furthermore, allow coordination between ensembles, arts courses, and even post-secondary specialists far more easily because of the centrality of the courses.  Finally, moving the arts and physical education out of the academic buildings would allow a break down (to a certain extent, I’m not a complete cock-eyed optimist) of the traditional school rivalries that sometimes mar district cooperation at larger city-wide events.

So, in fine, I do actually believe in giving all children past the age of 11 access to a musical education, or an arts education, or drama, or physical education… But I do not believe in mandating it (completely separate post), and I do not believe that these things are at all effectively housed  alongside the academic subjects in a public education because the conjunction subjects the disciplines and the students too greatly to the foibles of slotting upwards of 300 children (in the high schools it can go as high as 550) into a smattering of classrooms within a very confined time-table.

How it Came to Look Like This

I understand, however, that such systems are not completely possible.  The larger sprawl of American cities would require more adequate busing routes (city or school) or safe bike lanes for children.  Further complicating the issue: American parents are not used to letting their children get home and from school, to and from various places completely unsupervised at the age of 11 whereas European and Japanese parents turn them loose into the streets at around 6 or 7.  Parents in other parts of the world trust their children to get where they need to go, to be responsible for their daily activities, and to return home safely.  Finally, the vastness of such buildings would be additional and heavy expenses on districts that are already financially crippled at present.

I will also close with the observation that it was on my graduation day as a music educator that my mother reminded me that she knew the American education system before it included specialists in music or art or physical education.  All of these subjects in elementary school were (up to a specific point in history) at the discretion and skill level of the particular teacher you had in your classroom.  When my mother and father first started teaching in the 1950s they were the sole teacher their students encountered in a day.  They were the person responsible for music time, for art time, for physical education, and for the academic subjects.  I think that the US has come a long way since those days, but I think we could go still further to create an equal space in every child’s life for access to all the arts (of any kind).

And I think mounting defenses of alternate world-views and access to those domains is a pointless exercise, or, put another way: defenseless.

Sowing and Reaping

•August 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Some of my friends and family may not have heard the Republican Presidential Candidate’s latest words that are causing Americans to have fits.  To very briefly recap, he stated at a rally that:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

The reactions were swift on both sides for the candidate has his defenders along with his detractors, but the purpose of this post is to outline something that has become “classic” modus operandi for the Republican Presidential Candidate.  His statement could be read/heard either way.  Of course, one could dissect the speech and tease out the fact that he hints that it is after the fact that Hillary has picked a judge that a “Second Amendment person” (let’s not start on that idiotic phrase) could do something.  But what has been and what remains constant out of the double-talking and the inconstancy of this nominee’s words are their seeming open-ended nature.  This statement, indeed, could be read more than one way.  Which brings me to something one denouncing journalist wrote in response to this.  Dan Rather, in addition to bringing up a rhetoric that incites violence, says of the American people in general

We are a democratic republic governed by the rule of law. We are an honest, fair and decent people.

Let us spend the rest of this blog doing two things.  Let us examine speech acts, and let us really ask ourselves if Americans are, indeed, “honest, fair and decent” people.  The examination leads, I promise, not to an indictment of a nation, but to an understanding of the lies we all tell ourselves every day.

First, it was John Searle who studied indirect speech acts in the 1970’s.  Spare yourselves the boredom of reading about it because reading about speech acts is enough to make one want to bang one’s head repeatedly with a blunt object until reading is no longer possible.  But when a person studies what is obvious, abundant and part of the everyday that is the kind of writing that emerges.  It is simply a fact of that kind of scholarship that unearthing the links and chains that bind together common phrases, tone of voice, and apprehension of speech leads to writing so stultifying that you have to take it page (or sometimes paragraph) at a time with breaks in between.  But it IS worthwhile reading if only to understand to a visceral level what is meant by the phrase “speech act.” For starters, there are many different kinds of speech acts, and some of these, as Searle outlined,

The hypothesis I wish to defend is simply this: In indirect speech acts the speaker communicates to the hearer more than he actually says by way of relying on their mutually shared background information, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, together with the general powers of rationality and inference on the part of the hearer.  (Searle 1975: 60 & 61)

The Republican Presidential Candidate, however, usually engages in a standard few of these types of speech act, and almost all of them fall into the category of “ambiguous” statements.  This allows him turning room, because it is the only room left to him being that he has no facts, data, or valid, credible information at his disposal with which to speak, and no policy experience at all upon which to draw. Thus it is, perhaps, no surprise, then, that his only acts of speech must all be laden with ambiguity.  But this ambiguity, satisfactory as it is for his candidacy thus far– when you have gaping holes in your own knowledge or experience, pointing at other holes is a means of distracting your listeners– is dangerous to the consuming listener.  It allows the semblance of credibility to emerge in the void so neatly created.  In place of concrete meaning we have concrete accusations followed by ambiguous suggestions.  This is dangerous on the level of understanding for the public (and understanding has never been more crucial for humanity than it is right now on the ticking time bomb we’re living on) and dangerous for the political process because it invites masqueraders into the praxis.

Historically, the United States would seem to have never shied away from electing the, technically, unqualified.  (I am thinking primarily of Reagan here because of the jokes about the fact that he was mostly a polished actor.) But, truthfully, even Reagan was the Governor of California before being elected to office.  It is a claim to legitimate political leadership experience which the current Republican Presidential Candidate cannot make.  His appeal is partially that he seems “detached” from the games, iniquities and policy princes of our current government, two branches of which come under regular fire for their own sectarian and partisan idiosyncrasies.  This does not help matters of ambiguity.  It muddies the waters, as it were, because appealing to those who have lost all hope in the “established” political mode is a ploy to those who really do seek an overthrow.  This is an appeal to a rogue, vigilante form of “governance” and I use the term governance most loosely because these are the types of people who defend what Cliven Bundy and his ilk did in holding a Federal Reserve hostage.  The Republican Presidential Candidate is banking on the support of these people, and his ambiguity satisfies enough of their anger and power lust to be appealing, while at the same time allowing him room to maneuver out of his own seeming words.

In general, in the performance of any illocutionary act with a propositional content, the speaker expresses some attitude, state, etc., to that propositional content. Notice that this holds even if he is insincere, even if he does not have the belief, desire, intention, regret or pleasure which he expresses, he none the less expresses a belief, desire, intention, regret or pleasure in the performance of the speech act. This fact is marked linguistically by the fact that it is linguistically unacceptable (though not self-contradictory) to conjoin the explicit performative verb with the denial of the expressed psychological state. (Searle 1976: 4) [emphasis mine]

The ambiguity of the Republican Presidential Candidate’s statements finds its roots in two homes simultaneously: his words themselves (the syntax of his statements) and the supposed sincerity thereof, the latter he may always disavow.  The second is the more dangerous root for being able to disavow one’s sincerity at any moment leads only to one logical conclusion: we are dealing with a genuinely insincere human, a person who really will say anything and mean perhaps nothing.  What this candidate says is easily recorded, but what he claims to have meant, what he claims to believe always turns out to be negotiable, and that is simply unacceptable in a candidate for the presidency.  Even if we were to let go as people of the enormity of his false claims (Politifact could publish a book by now… Or several books!) what cannot be let go of is the fact that at any given moment, NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THIS HUMAN BEING MEANS BY WHAT HE SAYS!  A person who continually relies on ambiguous statements which could be read or heard in any manner of ways, and whose true intent is always negotiable is not someone you want sitting in command of incredible power.  This is not only someone difficult to understand, but who cannot be trusted to ever speak their mind.

And this leads me to whether or not Americans are “honest, fair, and decent” people.  That’s a comforting statement isn’t it?  It’s comforting to think that we’re honest, in general, fair, on the whole, and a decent bunch of folks, right?  Well if you look at how our social constructs look then that claim cannot really be made very well.  Flint, Michigan is the work of honest people?  How many young voters this year truly screamed and cried about feelings that their voices were stifled in an election/primary process that was unfair to them?  How many of you wander through the world asking yourselves, “Where has common decency gone?”  I want to point out that Americans are no different than any other society on Earth.  We’re not more honest (nor are we bigger liars), we’re not more fair (nor are we visibly less fair), and we’re not more decent than the other citizens of this planet, though whether we’re just as despicable in our capacity to cave into fear, hate and disgust by choosing to seat a man who has not a single sincere moment of air time to his name in the Oval Office remains to be seen.

We have to do two things as a nation and they’re simple things that can be accomplished at the level of the individual.

  1. We have to stop listening to people who refuse to own their speech acts!!!!
  2. We have to start owning our cowardice and start talking beyond the digital sphere.

It’s all well and good to type out a blog like this, but if I am too much of a coward to say these things to my friends, neighbors and family then I serve the silence surrounding the ridiculous human currently holding the Republican Presidential Candidacy!  I will not pander to this kind of insincerity anymore by according it my snooty disgust and failing to speak out against it.  If we all did the same, come this November, there will be no more ambiguity, but one clear choice about the direction we all want our society to go, and none of us want more placation, none of us want more of the same.  What this election cycle has shown us is that we’re tired as a nation of voters of Statesmen and women whose candidacies are empty except as a means to fill their bloated bank books, who work for no one, and whose voices do not represent more than their own greed.  We need to retake our local elections, our state elections, and we need to hold our candidates responsible for their words by voting, by writing, by talking and by saying this is OUR land and you serve the COMMON good!

Sources:

CNN. “Donald Trump: ‘Second Amendment’ gun advocates could deal with Hillary Clinton.” Accessed August 8, 2016.  http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/09/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-second-amendment/.

Facebook. “Dan Rather Status Update.”  Accessed August 8, 2016.  https://www.facebook.com/theDanRather/?fref=nf.

Searle, John. “Indirect Speech Acts.” Syntax and Semantics 3 (1975): 59-82.

Searle, John. “A Classification of Illocutionary Acts.” Language in Society 5 (1976): 1-23.

 

An End To Race

•July 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

It is a subject that has intense meaning and depth of value to me. I used to teach children in the United States songs of a heritage built through a model of ownership that persisted into the middle 19th century– slave songs.  We all shared a heritage in it because the progeny of former singers were potentially seated alongside the progeny of former masters.  These songs were a singing legacy of a former reality, but much of its social reality, the pretense upon which slavery rested in the United States, is a reality the home of my birth continues to struggle with to this day.

In 1911 there was a congress held in London, a gathering of many thinkers and scholars across varied fields.  Among those present was an author who has nearly been effaced from the historical literary tradition of the United States: W. E. B. Dubois.  The conclusion that this congress came to was that “race” was a fiction.  Dubois was famous for his theses on the so-called “double consciousness” and it is remarkable to me that this relatively early work of his remains the work that is required reading on college course lists and receives continued attention from scholars, when, in fact, Dubois became an advocate of the idea that “race” as a self-constituting form was not and could not be other than fiction.  He essentially undermined his earlier work’s premise by turning against the idea of a multiplicity of identities based in racial codes.

And there is good reason to end discussions centered around, based in, confronting, and aligning themselves with races.

I have been reading a lot of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon of late, more specifically his works on Individuation of the Collective and Individual Psyche.  Simondon’s approach to the psyche from both levels of the individual and the collective was a unique one, as was his foundational theory that individuation itself is a process which gave meaning to information as it passed between transmitter and receiver: that both could be altered by the alteration of meaning in social contexts.  His was a philosophy of the social as active, meaning-centered, and derived from interaction between forces.

When I wrote a thesis on how the slave song was stolen by white popular entertainment as well as white collegiate choral programs and thereby lost its integral voice as a force for change, I took a vow banning words that ascribe race to people from my vocabulary.  A dear friend and colleague at the University of Amsterdam challenged me in this by saying that whether race doesn’t exist or not could not be addressed by banning the word.  Ending one’s usage of racial terminology couldn’t help change the social reality that race is.

I have struggled mentally with that challenge from that day to this, because it is an argument with some validity in my eyes.  Race has an undeniable social reality.  It has a social reality despite its fictive nature in the same way that Santa Claus has a fiscal, social, and even political reality (so-called wars on Christmas come to mind…) and, yet, every adult in the United States knows that Santa Claus does not “exist”.  Yet the rituals, social calendars, meanings, pervasive presence of this fictive being are hard to deny.

But I maintain that if every person in the United States forgot tomorrow who Santa Claus was, denied his existence, threw away their adherence to the fiscal and social manifestations that he has inspired, then he would “die” to the culture.  Such is the fight I want to begin by refusing proverbial house room in my vocabulary to ascriptions of race.  If I cannot think of a better adjective to reach for to describe another human being than their skin color, then I have failed in my duty as a human to see the person across from me as more than the inheritor of a legacy of slavery and hate in the land of my birth: a social order born of a misbegotten premise.  We have all kept alive and for far too long the idea that people are a “race” and we have done so to our cost.  I did not think this way until I came to Amsterdam, and I became the person who was an outsider.  The Dutch students in MA courses with me asked me many things about what they had heard of American culture:

Do people really drive everywhere?  Yes.

Do people really eat lots of food on the run? You bet.  That’s why it’s called “fast” food.

Did you have lots of homework as a kid?  (Dutch children don’t get homework in primary school.)  Not an amount I ever considered a burden.

On tests and questionnaires are you really required to fill in your skin color?

To my shame and regret (and if anything demonstrates the power of indoctrination this does) I had never once thought about filling in that little bubble called “white”.  I’ll confess that in elementary school while sitting the Iowa Basic Skills Tests I considered being a nasty brat and filling in “other” just to see adults freak out.  It made me laugh as a child that there was a category called “other”.  My friends and I used to laugh together.  “What does ‘Other’ stand for???  Alien???  Green?  Purple?? Paisley???”

Well might the inheritors of the hegemony laugh.  Well might we dutifully bubble in our skin color, blithely ignoring that this was a sure sign that we were continuing a tradition of pre-selecting the statistics that would succeed, and those that would meet obstacle after obstacle.  It never dawned on me as a young educator to question that those bubbles sat on every test: an unspeaking symbol of a power structure concerned more with the color of my students’ skins and the numbers they turned out on tests, than with the minds behind their questioning eyes.  I remember feeling like the world had slowed the first time a Dutch student asked me that.  I felt as if time stood still and I saw my culture anew, with eyes that were given to me from a relative stranger.

Why would my skin color matter unless there was a vested interest in how certain skin colors act and perform?  Unless there was a belief that skin color was a valuable piece of information?

A society that values the knowledge of a person’s skin color believes that information about the people all colored that way can be gleaned.  It is a society that believes in totalising realities: realities that ignore significances, singularities, fine distinctions, the interplay of lives at the community level.  It is a society interested in giant headlines that can be applied across a vast space.

In the years since that colleague challenged my personal lingual ban I have come to believe even more strongly, (and it is a conviction that haunts me and causes me gripping fear) that #Blacklives will never matter until no one thinks to call them black again, because skin color is not a totalising reality, but it is a devastating fiction which the majority of the people I have ever known subscribe to. It allows people to leap to conclusions based on half-truths they once read coupled with a fanatical adherence to “facts” they read and memorized at some point in the hope that they could justify their mass-medially induced panic when confronted with a person who became America’s essential “other”.

My hope is not for color blindness, but for deeper nuance in how we observe the humans around us.  Rather than seeing a “black” man or woman, I want to see the person they are, and, yes, I suppose that if we’re being literal to the point of idiocy part of that is a skin color, but I want the meanings that have become attached to the skin color– the steadfast beliefs in violent natures, the ingrained fear, the empty efforts at integration which mask larger schemes of ever greater segregation to end.  For decades we’ve asked students to bubble in their skin colors.  For centuries we’ve registered, calculated, databased and collated “races”.  I am tired of assuming that what we’ve been doing in the US, focussing with ever greater intensity upon the skins of those we live, work, and play with, will result in greater appreciation of those the hegemony reinscribes in every day in its system of winners and losers.

And, no, I don’t believe that all lives matter.  I believe that each life has an integral reality to it, an INALIENABLE and INDELIBLE worth.  I believe that it’s time for those who retaliate to a hashtag with their own totalising effort at silencing dissent to a broken system to forget their indignation because it won’t serve in the present to fix that broken system.  Why don’t we, as a nation, try affirming that #BlackLivesMatter with MORE THAN WORDS– every one of us, because it’s going to take every last one of us– and why don’t we, then, once each life matters equally, teach our children what racism did when everyone used to believe it existed?  Perhaps giving a raceless world a try, once we’ve torn down our collective beliefs about races, about what we think painting race with such broad brush strokes has meant will turn the tide of malice.  The clash matters.  It matters that people are being shot for no reason, that people are dying in police custody from neglect, and it matters that this has gone on for centuries.  It matters that every human in the US is allowed to bear arms but certain children aren’t allowed to have toy guns in parks. Just as the blood of our police officers on the hands of those whose hate matches the hateful wrongs done a populace because of race also matters. These are separate instances of miscarriages of justice, but they are also terribly symbolic to the historical treatment people labeled “colored” in the US have received for centuries, and of the retaliatory violence such mistreatment inspires.  Neither works, all of it erodes our country, our cities, our communities, and our homes.

But we can no longer turn indignant when our citizens, our brother and sister Americans, cry foul.  It is time to hear them all because their voices are like unto mine– of equal value– and I want to hear the words of my brothers and sisters even if it causes me pain.  I grieve for the families of police officers killed in the line of duty.  I grieve for the violent deaths that happen every live long day in our cities.  The US has long had a problem with violence and also with race, and this blog is about the race problem.  Let us acknowledge where we have all failed to build the society we all want for our families and friends of every skin color, and then let us try to undo the ideology that led us there: let us let go together of believing that race has broad spectrum meaning or value to the entire United States.

I am a Rhiza

•March 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I have begun my PhD dissertation and this after having done background research into musical memes, tropes, history of images and imagining the “other”.

But before beginning this thesis I have decided that people are no longer going to call me a woman, or female, or lady, or a girl because these are words that bear with them a history I can unchain myself from.  Perhaps for many years to come people will call me this in their minds.  Perhaps they will still say female.  Perhaps they will still believe that a woman is appropriate to call a person of my sex.  This is something I cannot prevent, and, yet, if I start somewhere, the tiny somewhere of my own mind, if I deny those words power in my own life then perhaps a change can occur.

As part of the background research for my thesis I read (for the first time at 33 years old…) The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.  I have been researching how the way we think about things, the order in which we organize our thoughts around the people and objects of our lives gives shape to those people and objects in both imagination and reality.  There are a lot of powerful words in The Second Sex but I become haunted by two passages in particular because though her book was written in 1949, and fully available in English (albeit via a contested and arguably inadequate translation) by 1953 still these passages ring true for my experience of my “sex” and the perception thereof for me today in 2016.

Women’s actions have never been more than symbolic agitation; they have won only what men have been willing to concede to them; they have taken nothing; they have received.  (De Beauvoir trans. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier 2011: 8)

Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.  “Woman, the relative being,” writes Michelet.  Thus Monsieur Benda delcares… “A man’s body has meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas the woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male.  Man thinks himself without woman.  Woman does not think herself without man.” And she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called “the sex,” meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute.  She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential.  He is the Subject; he is the absolute.  She is the Other.  (Ibid. 5)

I would make a change even to this most excellent translation, but rather, I would make the change to De Beauvoir’s original text, arrogant creature that I am.  Rather than saying “Elle est l’Autre”.  I would have driven home my point further saying, “Elle est SON Autre.” She is HIS Other.  Woman has always been the Other belonging exclusively to the male.  I refer also to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s words in her lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” when she says that the language of marriage is a language of ownership.  I contend that we, the collective we of all who bear this anatomy, this designation, this status that the language itself in referring to us is a language often of ownership.  We are the Other that belongs to the Essential but still does not derive essentiality therefrom.

In doing my first MA thesis on musical tropes built off the musicking traditions of slave songs I came across the works of Jacques Lacan, a theorist in psychoanalysis.  I am well aware that his work is disputed among intellectuals and basic readership alike, and, yet, I cannot discard from my mind the way he organized his description in psychoanalysis of the means by which humanity lives in our societies.  We dwell in three mental/spatial realms, two of which are used chiefly to avoid lasting contact with the third.  The imaginary and the symbolic realms, argued Lacan, were lingual realms, realms in which humans assigned meaning, created significations, and accorded voices to its denizens.  The Real is what you would expect, but it is a terrible place that humans seldom come into contact with unless it’s against their will– being too horrifying to endure for long periods on end without doing lasting damage to the psyche.  (Yet there is a longing as well for The Real which creates much of the tension of our minds and lives.)  The origin, Lacan wrote, of much psychosis and mental illness was living or encountering The Real too frequently.  It rendered life meaningless and poisoned existence or created the need for still stronger mental phantasmagoria to go on living.  This is all fairly deep for a basic blog post, but suffice to say that the idea that as humans we live primarily amongst our words, our ideas and the structures we have built to maintain those historical entities was a theoretical construct with a good deal of merit for me.  It is a framework I still cannot let go of.

I deeply believe that part of the problem that has faced feminists all these long years since the middle 1800’s is that the language itself constructs our otherness, and it is an otherness that is owned by the essential subject.  When I brought this idea up to my Dutch husband he suggested that rather than inventing a new word for all those who identify as my sex I use a word from another language.  He then modestly suggested the Dutch word “vrouw” and I invited him to look up that word’s historical usage (having already done my research).  He wrote back with, and I quote “That’s disgusting.”  In Russian the word woman is akin to “hens” in English it means the weaker form of the male.  In French femmes is almost the same as the word female.  In Italian donna comes from the Latin for the female head of house la domina, but here too she is derived from the male that runs the house: domine.  In Latin the case is still more pronounced, mulier being derived from mollier which is “soft” or “tender” in opposition to the male vir.  I cannot claim to be able to look into languages beyond this with any knowledge of my own, but the languages with which I am cognizant ascribe to woman first, that she is related to the male, second that she belongs to him in wedlock once she is grown.  The order of the world has been chained to the word itself.

“Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, but we don’t teach boys the same?”  Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie We Should All Be Feminists.

I want no more part of this hierarchy and so I went looking for a word to describe my function, my body, and something I could agree to be called that would posit my otherness as a Subject which could not be subjugated without my consent.  It was not long before the word Rhiza came to mind.

Rhizomes are a form of plant that grow outwards from the root, and new shoots then are part of the old yet differentiated enough that once a system (say of peonies or even irises) has grown too big to be housed comfortably in an area they can be successfully split in dormancy.  In searching for a word, I was thinking about the genetic researches into the human genome.  They don’t go back in time through male lines.  Research in the human genome can only be done through matrilineal mitochondrial DNA research.  Those who share my sex leave forever behind a genetic trace of their mothers, their grandmothers, their mothers from ancient times and it struck me that this is very rhizomatic that we can look from young shoot to young shoot and somewhere find the parent’s stem all the way back.

So dear readers I am not a WO-man and I am not FE-male nor am I a lady (though I might at times be a bitch) and I am not a girl.  I am a rhiza.  Perhaps there are more rhizae, who, like me, will differentiate yourselves from men radically and break forever with the lingual chains that have steeped us in an ancient order of ownership and absolute otherness.  I am essential in myself.  My anatomy does not refer to the male.  I am human and I am rhiza, and my counterpart is the male of the species.  For looking back through all the generations that my sons shall spawn, therein shall they find me at the root, with all the rhizae I descend from.

Works Cited:

Beauvoir, Simone De, Constance Borde, and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage, 2011.

“Symbolic, Real, Imaginary.” Symbolic, Real, Imaginary. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolicrealimaginary.htm.  University of Chicago, Media Studies

TEDxTalks. “We Should All Be Feminists | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TEDxEuston.” YouTube. 2013. Accessed March 30, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.

Afscheid

•March 16, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The French say Au Revoir! or even the sweeter A Bientôt! but both mean essentially the same thing: I will see you again though we part for the present.  French was the first foreign language I learned.  Now into my fifth language I can honestly say that I love languages, and perhaps what I love about them is the special way that each language crafts its closely held cultural values to the surface of its usage.  The French assume a rather confident stance, thus, on parting.  They say, while leaving, you and I will meet again, whenever that my be.  Perhaps, at 12, I internalized that so much that I left “good bye” and its finality behind in childhood, and then forgot how to let go in the soul of those I love.

August 14, 1998

The hospice nurse came to speak with both of us that afternoon, and Mom was there as well, crying into a heap of Kleenex.  The hospice nurse sat on the edge of my bed, my sister and I resting on it together and she explained that she believed Dad was holding on because he needed to hear from both Jackie and I that he could go.  She asked us to go to him and tell him that it was okay for him to die, to reassure him that we’d be alright after he was gone.  We agreed and went into the sun room which had been converted into a makeshift bedroom for him so that he could see the gardens in the last few months of his life.  Jackie climbed up onto Dad’s bed.  I sat next to him at the head of the bed, and took his hand.  He recognized both Jackie and I almost immediately, which was a good sign, though when I looked at his eyes I saw that he truly was (as I’d heard in conversations between adults in the house over the last few days) “with a foot in one world and a foot in the next.”  I leaned forward, knowing I’d have to be the first to say these dreadful words to my father without knowing if they were true, but because I was older I’d have to speak first.  “Daddy.  It’s okay to die.  You don’t have to stay.  We’ll be okay.”  Jackie cried.  I cried.  Daddy cried.  He asked, “Are you sure?”  I told him we’d be together and look after one another.  I couldn’t know I was lying to him, but I also truly thought it would all work out differently than it did.  He sighed.  We hugged and kissed him and went back to my room where I held my sister and we both cried ourselves to sleep.    He died in the afternoon of the next day.  And I never said good-bye.

October 2002

At some point in Madison, during my second year at college, there was a concert of Early Music being put on by one of the ensembles that traveled to the area.  I went only to fulfill an attendance requirement built into the music major that you view a given number of performances in and outside the music program.  I will say here that music of the Baroque and I are not friends, and I went to this concert very much afraid that I was going to have to hear upwards of two hours of Bach or Handel.  I will sing it and never complain.  I will listen to it and support the arts, but this is just simply not my flavor of music.  I was 19 and stupid so I’d never heard of Heinrich Schütz before and I was a bit worried that I was going to hear a Bach duplicate when I saw a piece called Musikalische Exequien on the program.  Well, I can honestly say that that was probably the first time I walked out of a concert in a trance of pure rapture and amazement.  I know I filled my poor voice teacher’s ears at our next lesson about how completely blown away I was by this piece and its performance.  I think voice teachers at college must laugh themselves sick every time some dumb 19 year old stumbles across a work/composer from 400 years ago and goes on raving about it like they’d discovered the most sumptuous chocolate known to man.  Well Paul Rowe was polite, said it was a lovely piece, he was glad I enjoyed it, and couldn’t we get on with warm ups now???  I filed away that work in my head as a piece I’d sell my eyes to perform and rejoice if the opportunity ever came up.  For the next several years I jumped excitedly every time a piece with the name Schütz on it wound up in my folder, but alas…

June 14, 2012

I boarded the plane, pushed myself into the corner with my head against the glass of the window.  I felt like I was being throttled.  After a harrowing two weeks, when there had been a brief spark of hope that she would survive yet another brush with death, all hope had been extinguished when she asked to die, and neither I nor any of her other children could say, “No.  You have to fight on.”  She had fought so long and so bravely for her dignity as a human, through pain that tortured her day in and out, through anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, through loneliness and feelings of increasing helplessness I’d watched this woman fight for life against diabetes long past the days when her soul mate went to his grave.  Fourteen years after his passing, none of her children would say to her, “There’s a reason for you to carry on in this broken body and to try to recover.”  Even her doctor who had pulled her through one medical disaster after another took her hand and said, “I won’t tell you, you have to fight, Jackie.”  She begged to be taken off the medications used to drag her back from death, to let the pneumonia have her and so I brought my son to say his good-byes at her bedside.  I held her hands and kissed her.  I knew I had to fly back to Amsterdam to clear up business, set things to rights, sing a concert and that I would fly back one week later for her funeral.  I could not stay for her passing.  After AJ’s father took him out of her room I knelt next to her, I took her hands.  I kissed her cheeks and forehead.  I told her how much I loved her.  I thanked her for the life she and Dad had given me.  I promised to take care of AJ with all the love she’d ever showed to both he and I, and I left.  The words good-bye, I refused to say since they would come out broken and ragged.  Easier by far to say, “I love you.” and close the hospital door.

March 12, 2016

I once had a voice teacher who said to me that the key to performing really dramatically was to wrap yourself up in the meaning of the words and the music and then let it flow outwards from you like you were “unzipping” yourself.  I confess I never mastered this in the short years as a bachelor in music.  It took years of performing before I finally understood what she was trying to describe, and even then, perfecting that technique of letting the music and words invade you and then transcend you doesn’t always work.  Sometimes you just simply don’t bring across precisely what or how the music means to you.

And then something else can happen too, which I experienced with this last project we did, and I didn’t know how to overcome it until about halfway through the project.  I had to strip away my knowledge of the lyrics completely because the words, this time, simply meant too much and lay too close to my heart to let me sing them without weeping.

I’m not half way through my life and I’ve lost both my parents.  I’ve watched my family destroy itself and rebuild itself.  I’ve loved and lost many people over a short time span and this time around we were singing about death and love lost.  Each piece in our program had to do with loss and grief, and even the title of the program, it was eventually decided should be called Afscheid which can mean any number of things in English, but which I believe is best translated as “breaking off”.  Scheiden is the Dutch verb “to sunder” or “to divide”.  When the Dutch talk about “leave taking” or saying “good-bye” it has a visceral finality to it very unlike the first language I learned out side of English, and perhaps this is the reason that the Dutch are very careful about throwing this word Afscheid around.  Its literal meaning is “the end”.  Everything from here changes, and is broken off.

There’s a mysterious quality to the human mind which I didn’t encounter until I was learning Italian in college and realized (after two years) that I could “read” (not well or in depth, you understand) uncomplicated Spanish.  This has now happened to me with Dutch and German.  I started learning German vocal repertoire well over 10 years ago now, so I had a decent vocabulary before coming to learn Dutch, but when you add having learned Dutch to a fluency to pass their state examination in proficiency, suddenly I do not understand isolated words anymore when I sing in German, but I understand, by and large, whole sentences.

It was during the choir weekend that this became a real problem for me.  Here I was learning a piece I’d fallen in love with years ago, living amongst melodies I’d long since memorized, and reveling in the chance to be doing this program when the words I was singing began to penetrate ever deeper.  In short, the music coupled to these lyrics about how we must all at some point die, how life is at times a vale of woe where angst, Night, and grieving pervade all things unzipped me.  I saw my father dying again.  I heard myself reassuring him that everything would be okay.  I held my weeping sister.  I held my mother’s hand again as she pulled through every brush with death except the time she asked for death.  I watched my ex-husband sob as I asked him for a divorce.  I read a text saying good-bye to me again and again before smashing my phone on the sidewalk.  I watched my son shuddering from saddness as I hugged him at the airport.  I found myself wandering in the vale of woe and was overcome by it.  Somehow I found myself so deeply bound to this music that every beat became a pulse I’d shared in grieving terrible losses.

Des Bleibens ist ein’ kleine Zeit, voller Mühseligkeit
Our stay here is a short time, full of soul-deep care/fatigue.

I would look up at our conductor whom we were saying good-bye to, and the music became unbearable suddenly.  The other two pieces on the program were not doing this to me.  Carissimi’s Jephte and Monteverdi’s Lamento D’Arianna did not have me weeping uncontrollably.  Clearly I’d learned my way into a work so deeply that it simply meant too much to sing those words and really mean them. Now I had to learn my way out, otherwise I would not be able to sing it.  I started playing a game with my own mind.  Each time I saw a word I knew, the start of a sentence I had to focus my mind elsewhere, on vowels, on ideas of other things.  This is the first time I had to try to be distracted while singing otherwise I was going to end up sobbing through it.

In the end I did not learn how to say good-bye, but I learned that this is something I’ve never known how to do.  I can say Au Revoir! I can tell people I love them.  I can be loyal until the bitterest end even as the fiercest indifference freezes the blood in my veins, but this project taught me that I do not know how to make Afscheid work for my life.  I guess those I love will only be dead to me when I join them in death some day.  I am so grateful for the chance to have sung this amazing program and to have brought it to a successful if very emotional conclusion with the incredible choir I belong to.  I know that the experience drew us all closer in various ways, and it was beyond meaningful to us and the audiences that heard it.  It was a program of music sung so fully by everyone, with so much depth and passion and sincere gratefulness to our conductor that there were few, I imagine, who could have heard it and not been moved.

I learned that in the end, you give your best to those you love, to show them your joy in their presence in your life.  I learned that good-bye doesn’t always have to be said, and that though things change, we can accept it and grow from the changes without losing the core of our natures.  I learned that sometimes you don’t unzip yourself to let the music out; but sometimes the music lets you out of the box you put your painful moments away in.  I learned that there is life even amidst the vale of woe .

Den Tod verschlingt das Leben mein, mein’ Unschuld trägt die Sunde dein; da bist du selig worden.
Death shall my Life devour, my innocence will bear your sins; and so shalt thou be blessed.