Who knows where stories come from. My novel Comandante Ibarra, the first book in a trilogy of three love stories, was about a Mexican rural policeman, or as they say in Spanish a Rural. He had had had a stroke from which he had mostly recovered. But it changed his thinking about the Mexican constitution of 1857 which had not granted many rights to the Yaqui Indians of the Mexican State of Sonora just below Arizona.
For hundreds of years the Spanish crown and then the governments of Sonora in Mexico had been trying to wipe out the Yaquis and take their rich farmlands and water for themselves. And they are still at, the state and the federal governments. Then a few years passed and I began a sequel to the second novel in the trilogy: Playing for Pancho Villa
On Leaving America, Elena Poniatowska, and Janet Blaser’s Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats
I’ve done this before, in fact, many times over the last twenty years. Leaving what used to be home in northern California and returning to my new home in Mexico. I look at faces in the airport, each time younger. Each time more distant.
I’ve never really known how to bridge the gaps that separate us. The biggest one being America’s brand of alienation, the one I grew up in. Moving through the world in a car, getting out, brushing shoulders with others. But then, not really brushing. More like glimpsing from the side while standing in the Pete’s Coffee or the Starbucks pickup line. What are you like, my fellow corporate customers? I ask silently. We are conjugated, that is all. I consume, you consume, he she it consumes. The Latin of separation in this corporate meeting place. Would you ever even be interested in what I write and think about? Novels about events in Mexican history? Events much like those in US history. Genocide, slavery, civil war—the motives for what are not taught in school or discussed at the dinner table. Should we call it Deep America?
“What has fiction got to do with it,” you ask, as you stir your coffee, without looking at me, without speaking. One moment, please, while I consult my inner muse. The one that dictates the next sentence. The one that is listening to something in my brain. And so, well, aren’t we all living out the plots of our own lives, our own stories? The ones about conflict and struggle, love, cruelty suffered and forgiveness given and received? Aren’t we all protagonists, flawed yet still trying to do the right thing? Trying to find our place.
I am heartened by the children, on this morning, traipsing along behind their mothers, carrying their little stuffed-bear backpacks and their fuzz blankets, trudging along bravely, as if the snow were two feet deep, for the moment protected by the same glittering airport bubble that I too inhabit.
At the same time, as I drink my coffee, I’m holding Janet Blaser’s wonderful Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, the testimonies of twenty-seven women, including Janet, on why they moved from the U.S. to Mexico, looking for a better and more satisfying life. If only I had had this book in my hands twenty years ago, when my love and I took a deep breath and crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona.
If that had been the case, we would have had much insight into what we were doing. But we did not have her book and had to learn everything ourselves and, in the end, over the years, became permanent residents of Mexico, the place we call home.
In her book, before the Preface, Janet quotes from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. “I have an idea that some men (change the man pronoun as appropriate) are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace…Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends them far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
Several years ago, Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, gave a keynote speech at the San Miguel Writers Conference, where she read from a long list of foreigners like herself, who came to Mexico, wrote, painted, sculpted and composed and added to the country’s vast cultural richness. Each one of their stories of why they came (and some left) are part of the same kind of testimony you will find in Janet Blaser’s anthology.
Still at the airport, I am going where most of my fellow airport coffee drinkers aren’t going. I am leaving “we” once again and joining “them.” Already, I have to start saying “they” again, referring to my fellow coffee drinkers. If I told them where I was going, they would pause for moment and then politely ask, “Why?” And I would tell them, in order speak a different language and live in a different culture.” And then after another polite pause, and with concern in their voice for me, they would ask, “Is it safe?”
I am familiar with being afraid of Mexico. Years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I flew to Puerto Vallarta—my first time in Mexico—and found my way to the old hotel. I went to my room and closed the shutters, got in bed and pulled the covers over my head in the middle of the afternoon.
It was another thirty years before my love and I crossed the border. The women Jamet Blaser’s anthology are far smarter and braver than I was. They knew something was missing in their American lives, and they wanted to change that. They saw through the mirror that reflected their American culture assumptions back at them. That is not easy to do. We are the dominant culture or, more accurately, the dominant country. As the Mexican saying puts it: “So far from God, so close to the United States.” Dominant cultures tend not to be able to see into other cultures.
I sip my Pete’s Coffee. I guess I could say I’m going to a place where some of the coffee beans that fuel Peet’s and Starbucks are grown and are picked by people whose day wage would not buy even a quarter of a cup and whose lives most of us are not even aware of. They do not figure in the corporate algorithms. Except, perhaps, that you may think they are dangerous. They are not. They are poorly paid workers and kind people.
Truth in advertising: There is a Starbucks in the very historic center of my colonial city Guanajuato. Clearly, corporations are not put off by Otherness and simply hire locals. But there is a choice here. The best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is a few steps up the street at Greg’s Café Tal.
My one recommendation? Begin learning Spanish now. It’s like having a diving bell that lets me sink into the culture. My Mexican writing partner always argues that I have not immersed myself deeply enough, that I don’t always find the precise word I’m looking for. That happens to me in English, too. I started Spanish when I was fifty. He may be missing the point somewhat. There is no bottom to culture. Your intent and persistence is key to communicating and respecting the wonderful people we live among. And so: begin your Spanish and buy Janet Blaser’s book: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats.
Recently, I wrote about the origins of a short story. How I had been at the side of the Seine, in Paris, on a cold spring morning, beginning a water color sketch of Notre Dame, when a river dredger anchored in front of me more or less and began bringing black silt up off the bottom of the river. Then the diesel shovel, a backhoe, really, brought up a brass bed frame. Who had thrown it there? And why? This is the story.
“The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.”
If you look closely, you can see a patch of hair under my lower lip. I was going to glue some sort of fuzz there but decided it was just as easy to grow a little of the real thing for the purpose of tonight’s reading. You see, I find myself in the middle of a crisis. Not global climate disturbance. Not unaffordable housing, medical care, college tuition—our oceans choking on plastic. The spread of fascism. No, it has to do with the way I look. Specifically, my face. And whether to grow and keep a soul patch—also known as a jazz patch, mouche, jazz dot, and love patch. Continue reading “Love Patch”
As a man, and regarding rape and Dr Ford, I know one tiny fraction of what it’s like. I am 81 now. I was in my early forties or younger when it happened. I was a strong man and agile. I was canoeing down the Petaluma River in California with two or three of my students. They were older, thirties maybe. At least one was a woman. We had eaten a snack on shore. Out of the blue one or more held me down and the others tried to pull my swim shorts down and off. I fought back and threw them off. But the point is I felt the most horrified and panicked violation while it was happening, and I know it was a small event compared to what so many women have experienced. I have never spoken publicly about this. Why would I? There’s some sort of shame attached to it that I don’t understand. But this is a good occasion to bring it up. If I could sit in front of the old white (all) men senators, I would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what this is about and are unqualified to make any decision to seat this man for a lifetime appointment. You are criminally uninformed. And we will vote you out.”
“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”
While in Toledo, Spain, I rushed to the Museo del Ejercito, the Museum of the Army. I had barely a half hour. As I went, I asked attendants where I could find things having to do with the period 1936 – 1939. The Spanish Civil War. “There’s very little,” said one woman. I watched carefully to see whether she was also expressing an opinion one way or another as to whether that was a good or bad thing. Eight or ten years ago, I went through the Catalonia Museum in Barcelona., again looking for the civil war. There was one small room with a few photos on two walls. People in that museum’s book store told me they had very little written on the war; and that it depended on who was in power when it came to choosing a version of history. If any at all. Continue reading “Toledo and Faces of the Spanish Civil War”
My friend likes to meet once a week to discuss important things. Like the trips I am planning to take. He has all kinds of questions. First of all, why am I going? Especially when I could stay home. I say we’re going to Madrid for a month. Maybe to Dubrovnik, too. He wants to know how to spell Dubrovnik. I tell him. D-u-b-r-o-v-n-i-k.
My friend is a very good writer, as well as a tireless reader. And highly literate. But he can not get beyond the –D-. I think it is because it is a city that is somewhere else. Where you have to travel to get there.
I do not press him. I had a father once who was also hodophobic. “Hodo,” Ancient Greek for “road.” Someone who is afraid of travel. Which doesn’t quite fit my father, who loved to drive the back roads of our New England stomping grounds. I use that word for lack of a better word. Though now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Like who did the stomping? The Original Peoples who lived there, as part of religious or cultural celebrations? Or the original dirt farmers who stomped their floors into harden earth in place of wooden floors. Or was it a more powerful group that came along afterward and stamped out the people I mentioned?
In any case, it was a limited area, circumscribed by my school, the bank, the factory where my father presided over the braiding of nylon filaments to make saltwater fishing line. A sand pit where we shot at each other with .22 rifles aimed wide. Jacob’s Pond. And my Uncle Ed’s house—which reminds me of fruit cake at Christmas, it’s dollops of hard sauce, and the unsettled brandy flame that flickered on top like St. Elmo’s Fire. My Uncle Ed had bad circulation in his legs and fell dead while mowing his lawn in 1955.
At the other end of the Known Area—the opposite boundary—were bright beaches where you had to have a membership and not be a minority. Then the salt tidal river accessed through the home of one of my father’s classmates, Harvard 1923. Then over to the yacht club in a neighboring town, where I heard something about Jews being discouraged. My best friend lived across the street from me. My mother explained pleasantly that he couldn’t go to the river with us because my father’s Harvard 1923 classmate’s wife didn’t feel comfortable having my friend there. Same for the yacht club, I knew, although no one ever said as much. My friend was black. And he was my stomping ground.
In New England, it seemed, there was a stark difference between the Known and the Unknown. My father delighted in the Unknown, the back top roads that led outside of Our Area. Together, he and I, in his old station wagon, we would drive through the mottled light, under over-arching Pine, Beach, Maple, and Birch, and my father would point out small farms he wouldn’t mind living on. Past fields that were surrounded by ancient stonewalls, where he could see his Black Angus cattle grazing, if he had them, and dream of the other women he had known but not married. Something I made up later, when I decided to call myself a writer. That’s how strong the unknown was in my mind, even when it was partially true, I think. And there was usually a porch where they could sit and just look out over Known New England while he smoked his pipe. The one my mother said never left his lips. The one whose stem, levered against his upper teeth, pressed down on his lower lip and gave him a look of comfortable authority. And innocence. And finally killed him with a series of heart attacks punctuated by final stroke. That made him act indecently in his final bed. So that my mother had to cover him with his sheet and blanket.
“Why go to Dubrov….?” my friend asked, “when you could go to Norway?”
I replied that I could go to Norway later.
“It’s very cold there,” he said.
“I could buy a coat.”
“That would weigh you down.”
“I could buy it there.”
“But you would have to bring it home.”
“I would give it to a Laplander,” I said.
“That would be cultural appropriation,” he said.
“Then maybe ask him for one.”
He was silent, considering my reply.
“Plus, I’m not even going to Norway,” I said.
“You could give it to a poor person in Oslo,” he said.
“I think I’m going to Dubrovnik.”
“Do you know anyone there? In Du…?”
“…brovnik. No, I don’t.”
“Then why are you going?”
I was beginning to lose my urge to travel, to have adventures. To see something different. Plus, Dubrovnik would be overwhelmed by aggressive tourists bent on having too much to eat, talking too loud,
and on taking a hundred and forty perfect photos. It would be hard to get away from them.
“Why not take me along?” he asked.
“You don’t like to travel.”
“I don’t know, I’m kind of interested in Du….”
He was quiet. Happy, I would say, at the prospect of seeing something I wanted to see.
“You know,” I said, “the Croations were allies of Hitler in the Second World War. They did terrible things to people. Ustaše fascists murdered outsiders. People who were different. Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Genocide. Of the 22 concentration camps, two of them were for children.”
“Yes…and they speak a different language. And you have to wear special trousers. There are pickpockets everywhere. And they haven’t removed the land mines from the last two wars.”
My friend was smiling at me. “You’re trying to talk me out of traveling with you to Dubrov…nik.”
Something had gone wrong in the course of the conversation, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“There’s a good chance we’ll go to Norway,” I said. “My wife and I.”
“Because of the coat?” my friend asked, nodding wisely.
“Yes,” I said. “Because of the coat.”
Yesterday, I put on my old German Expressionism 1930s leather jacket and, full of questions and expectations, rushed to the recital being held in the diminutive upstairs Foro Cultural 81 concert hall at calle Positos 81, Guanajuato, Mexico—wondering whether I would find a seat, be able to see, feel ensconced, anchored, tethered to the mast in such a way that I could, if I had to, resist both high c’s and the overall complex seduction of opera. The occasion was a master class given by James Demster, an esteemed voice coach from Mexico City with a very long list of distinctions, among which—the one that caught my eye—is having been piano accompanist for Plácido Domingo. I suspect the event was arranged by city treasure Kate Burt of Ópera Guanajuato. Maestro Demster was a slim, refined looking man who clearly loves the human voice and, as far as I could note, guided each participant with equal gentleness and respect as he accompanied them on the grand piano. I have had the great privilege of having had teachers like him but in Latin, Greek, German and French—not in music, about which I know very little. Except that when I write my fiction, I listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or, best of all, to famous opera duets.
I sat in the front row. Which placed me about eight feet from each singer. A station that carries with it certain restrictions. I hesitated to wriggle or move, uncross and re-cross my legs while the young divas were singing, or clear my throat during a pause. I didn’t know whether to look at them, or look away. Because before each one began, she had to gather herself together, looking down at the floor—wrapped in a private moment of composure—then up again when she was ready for the maestro to begin the accompaniment. There were fourteen or fifteen singers, all sopranos with one or two mezzo-sopranos sprinkled among them. They came forward in an arranged order. The less experienced first; the more advanced, afterward. So no one had to follow a devastatingly stronger performance. I have been around long enough to know that it takes enormous courage to stand in front of an audience and try to perform to the highest possible standard. To render the music so that the notes are strong and gentle, absolutely in tune and rich in tone variations. I heard high notes that were strained, lower ones that were more beautiful. Each singer warmed up and did better and better as the moments passed. And I, eight feet away, was more and more conscious that something special was happening. The presentations became more and more powerful, more sure-footed. With me, they have the effect of calling forth figures from my past whom I had not expected at the recital. I thought lovingly of my father who was my extended family’s best singer, once someone gave him a beginning note. And my mother, who, in contradiction to all my fault-finding, would open her mouth and transcend her Puritan constraints in a voice that was clear and passionate and foreign to me. In that moment, she was someone who was not my mother, perhaps someone else’s mother, or not even a mother at all but an independent and unknown person, who led a secret life apart from my father, my brother and me. A life that was magical and beautiful. And unassailable.
Other visitors appear, from much further back. As much as thirty years back, I sat in the middle pews of in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, just after the fall of the Wall. It was late morning on a week day. A voice from above and behind me, in the choir loft. A woman’s voice, a mezzo-soprano, as exquisite as anything I had ever heard began singing “Agnus Dei” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the very church where Bach had been the Cantor for many years. It was a chance moment and as spiritual a one as I have ever felt. As if the Past were the Present, and as if I were inside the music Bach had written back in the first half of the Eighteen Century. Or it was inside me.
You ask, how can I compare that experience to the recital of the fourteen young singers at Foro 81? Easy. I sat right in front of the recitalists, and it was as if my ears were laid back by the passion coming at me from each one of them. That is what is grand about young actors and singers. And I suspect that is something Maestro James Demster may have taught them. That it is not possible to sing opera with complete sincerity without giving it everything you’ve got. Or, put another way, truly good opera will not be good opera if it does not come largely from the heart. The effect on me is transformative and I am back in a Thomaskirche and part of something so much greater than my own little struggles. Part of all the composers, singers and musician that ever risked trying to create beauty. I feel immensely lucky, privileged. And, for a man who is not religious, I find myself resorting to religious vocabulary. Feeling blessed. In a state of wonder. Being as close as I could imagine to that which is spiritual. Standing outside of myself, as in the Greek ecstatic. In a state of rapture and delight. Along with others in the audience, daring to softly cry “Brava!” over and over. Praise that surely registered with no one other than myself. But sincerely meant from someone who knows so little about music.