How to listen to slowness: Handel Minuet in G Minor

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
(from John Keats’ “To Autumn”)

I’ve been spoiled by some amazing foliage in my lifetime, having spent so many years in and around New England. I spent fall of last year in Bavaria, which boasts its own fairytale charm in October, November.  But really, Korean falls are second to none. Right about now, every road is lined with immoderate bursts of gold, auburn, canary, crimson. God dipped his paintbrush and is drenching his canvas of hills and ridges in color. I can’t help but imagine that even the most unsentimental mind might start to give into the insistence of nature’s poetry.

I was driving to work this morning, luxuriating in the carpets of red and yellow unfolding across my path. Roads relatively clear and serene, since it’s a Sunday. And this came on the radio, Handel’s Minuet in G Minor. It was one of those almost comically perfect scenery-music pairings.

 

 

How to listen

Listen, and trace the unfolding of the main melody, which repeats four times, each a gentle re-consideration of the original thematic idea, slowly building in tension and complexity. Notice the subtly different mood of each rendering.

Then about halfway through, listen for a change, the “response,” the “bridge,” so to speak.

I always imagine that a piece of music contains a conversation — two parties in this case, but in more complex polyphonic pieces, more than that.

Listen for how the two melodic lines (left hand and right hand, if you play the piano) flow alongside, crossing, rubbing against one another. Notice the two trills, happening in succession; one a statement, the other, a whisper.

A hushed chromatic (that is, notes climbing up or down one by one, step by step, as in a staircase) sequence follow. There is some sadness, a questioning, a hesitation, a lifting, a resolution — a sighing folding.

Then the original idea, the main melody, repeats, but it feels different from the first time. It talks back, bringing the conversation to a close, leaving a space that is so much bigger than what the piece opened with.

 

As I drove, allowing the music to re-organize the air around me, it started to feel like a seduction to the idea of slowness. This minuet is a very slow march. It occurs to me now that it might also be a very slow dance, which a minuet is supposed to be.

There is so hurry — the deliberately languid, soporific pace is a gift. You can bend time, stretch it out, let looseness flow, and in the process, alter your experience of the same feeling and understanding.

Slowness creates space that one passes by in a hurry. We escape the go-go-go frenzy of a chattering brain momentarily so that we can come back to waking consciousness with a greater measure of presence.

More, better, faster is not always a virtue. A verbal argument is not necessary when we have a musical idea such as this; a musical idea can only ever be an invitation, a seduction, which is better.

 

Lastly, I leave you with this quote from Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness, a book I read with great relish many years ago.

“In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

 


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Reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”

This poem, it is said, was written when Auden was asked by his friend, Cyril Connolly, to pen a poem that would make him weep.

Well, to be honest, it didn’t make me weep, but it is still pretty fucking fantastic. What about you? Have a read:

 

The Fall of Rome

W.H. Auden

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

 

I didn’t have a keen interest in ancient history until I started reading about Rome and its decay as a way of getting insight about where the U.S. is headed today. The comparisons between the U.S. and Rome is not original or accurate if you get pedantic with a historian, but in a poetic sense, look how the themes Auden presents ring so awful and true for Americans today.

“Absconding tax defaulter” in “the sewers of provincial towns”? Sound like anyone on the news a lot nowadays?

(I mean Trump. In case you didn’t get it. I am increasingly less confident in my powers of allusion.)

“Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines, / But the muscle-bound Marines / Mutiny for food and pay.” And when is it more apparent than today, the  vast and gaping gulf between the educated elite, with their high-minded liberal ideals, their academic feminism and muscle-free globalism VERSUS the working people of ghostly industrial towns and PTSD, stripped of dignity and insurrecting with virtue-free ire?

“Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form.” Ah, here it is, why my heart beats and my breath skips for Auden. Such compact and damning imagery hidden in a lulling ABBA rhyme scheme (warm – clerk – work – form). His humour, laced with a bitterness; the way he crosses modernity with the ancients in one fell swoop, as well as the sacred with the profane (as in his Musee des Beaux Arts, where he goes swfitly from the massacre of children before Christ’s birth to a horse scratching its butt against a tree.) The idea of a Roman clerk scribbling words of dissatisfaction IN ALL CAPS on a pink slip of paper makes me first laugh, of course, and then despair a little bit — about the ubiquity of this condition, postmodern alienation, hiding in the crevices of trivial daily life. Was it also thus in Caesar’s day? I wasn’t there, and neither was Auden, but he thinks so, maybe?

Ah, and the last stanza! Suddenly, with “herds of reindeer” crossing “miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast”, we suddenly zoom way, way fucking out, out of Rome, out of America or wherever your mind was, to… where the reindeer are, and that is — what — Sweden? Lapland? A borderless, post-human, northerly zone of stillness, for sure. One of those National Geographic aerial shots, surrealist in the lack of sound, and fast-forwarded. I love the cinematography of Auden; his imagination is vertiginously agile. While human folly and greed are unfolding with the utmost absurdity and drama in the greatest of cities, there it is on the other side, the uncommenting indifference of ever-moving nature.

 

 


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Sri Lanka: I went away to hear myself

I spent a week with a friend in tropical paradise. I felt the same way I do whenever I visit tropical paradises — delight and bliss at the richness of warmth and sun, green and color, wonder at the fact of being somewhere wildly different from the northerly countries I call home, and the background static of discomfort and grief about the reality of global inequality, the shame-inducing awkwardness of being served lavishly by people of darker skin, brief moments of envy that people seem to live much better connected to nature, community and tradition, then castigating myself for the impulse to romanticize the “other” and whitewash the terrible differential of power and opportunity that exists between me and them.

No matter which way I turn it, never visiting developing countries, never participating in their tourism industry does not seem to be the answer, either. To the best of my ability, I try to remain curious and aware, give my money to non-exploitative enterprises, not act like an entitled asshole, and be fully willing to feel the stew of emotions about what it means for me to be here, including gratitude, embarrassment, ambivalence, guilt, all of it.

All that considered, I had it on good authority that the particular experience I signed up for in Sri Lanka was going to be rewarding. An intentionally, lovingly curated experience of nature and silence and ayurveda. I had never been to the subcontinent, a real shame for a religion major. It sounded good. I came here to gather enough stillness to hear myself better.

Within a week, my persistent shoulder ache and the months-long, mysterious dull pain under my left clavicle disappeared. It may just be the tropical humidity, but so did my psoriasis and chronic sinitis. It took a week of 100% vegan, all-natural ayurvedic fare to completely reset my tastebuds. In the end, I couldn’t finish a shot glass size serving of chocolate mousse because it felt so aggressively sugary and rich. Normally, a whole pan of brownies is not a problem.

 

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To my greatest shock, I completely forgot to crave alcohol. When at home, 1-2 drinks with dinner feels normal and necessary (as the baseline, I mean. Standards of socially acceptable prandial drinking are quite different in Korea). There was definitely a moment of watching a truly ravishing, papaya-hued sunset meeting the mirror surface of the ocean, when I thought, a really well-made tequila-something would be terribly apropos. Alas, the thought left me with merely a nostalgic smile, not a compulsive desire.

I’ve had enough of these cleansing-healing-retreat-y things to know what follows: a week back at home, I’ll probably be readjusted to MSG-laden, pork fat-thickened stews, washing it down with soju, habitually rubbing my aching “keyboard shoulder” again.

I know that, but that doesn’t make these experiences less of a treasure. I spent many hours in deep conversation, yoga, hypnosis and literary musings with my companion in discovery. I drank in the vainest offerings of natural beauty that the earth could offer up; daily herbal baths and swims reminded me of baptisms, the truth that you can live each day as though it is new, and as though you are new.

 

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A flower fell in the pool.

 

In every single one of my numerous solo trips to faraway places, I have not once been spared having to face myself. Every single time, I bring all of my inner angels and demons along and especially in my aloneness, there it is, the looping film of loss, trauma, fear, regret, and the mother of all pain, shame. Every time I was rejected and thought it had something to do with me, every time I betrayed myself, every time I broke myself and couldn’t remember how things get put back together again. I don’t know about you, but these are reliable guests to my experience of aloneness and stillness. I go away far so that I do not have the option of compulsively reaching for the easy numbing agents. Food, booze, Facebook, Twitter, TV, sex, people.

You sit with the pain. Well, it only looks like you’re sitting still but really, you’re thrashing and flinching inside because it’s unbearable. You’re looking for ways out, so you pay attention to breath, you keep your gaze fixed on the trillion shades of emerald-blue-grey of the ocean, you try to tap the ache in your heart away. You pick up a pen and start writing, and only then does what you know flow out from your fingers.

You remember what truth feels like.

You remember that truth feels like being seen for who you really are, by someone who is somehow, inexplicably, okay with it. Truth always makes my shoulders come down. Truth tastes like sober and generous goodness. Truth smells like unassailable, steely knowledge that gods (and good) are on your side. Truth is undefensive; it feels like the spaciousness to accommodate anything, everything; it feels like you’re drawn toward, expanding out, rather than pushed away from, contracting.

Truth feels good to your soul even when it’s uncomfortable to your mind; truth leaves you feeling flexible and able to act from the belly; truth dissolves fear. Truth feels like a steady hand on your back. Truth feels like the most elemental recognition of where you’ve come from and where you’re going, the place beyond birth and death, the place that connects every living thing.

So I remember slowly that everything that doesn’t feel and taste and smell like that is not truth. Then I hear the call, more often like a whisper than a siren, to steer back towards it, to wake up. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.

And slowly waking up, gliding through that sleeping-waking liminal space, I remember that I needn’t live in fear of pain. The pain rises and destroys and rises and destroys but you are not the house that is being destroyed, nor the high wave of sea that is doing the destroying. You are the one who rests with the stars; you are the bringer of dawn.

I remember that my one and only contract is with God (or gods, or goddesses, or spirit, or the universe, or Buddha, or “Whatever,” if you are Martha Beck) alone. According to that contract, my job is to show up to today, the only day I’ll ever know; chop wood and carry water, materially tending to the quiet holiness of earthen existence; ally myself with cause of creation, of generativity, of love.

 

My writing buddy at the cafe.
My writing buddy at the cafe.

 

I went away to hear myself. I heard everything, all the things that were hard to hear, then I landed in the remembering of grace.

 

 


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Why paying for art is an investment in yourself

My friend Paula Schramm is a full-time human, an celebratory label I attach to those who are more awake to life than the average bear. I have learned many things from her: how to be a pilgrim, how to pink your hair, how to be vulnerable and powerful at once. (Yes, Paula, I like to alliterate.) One of the most life-altering things I learned from her is the value of paying for things you like.

When I find an artist I like, I mostly admire their work online. I follow them on Facebook or Pinterest or whatever. Paula actually buys a giant painting from them and hangs it on her wall. If we both follow a spiritual teacher, I read their work and tweet about it. Paula buys their merchandise and puts it on her table, next to her well-loved pens and notebooks. They sit in her flat, radiating energy and blessing the air.

It’s not that Paula has all this cash to burn and I don’t. Paula likes to pay to have things she values take up physical space in her life. To her, voting with your dollar (or, strictly speaking in this case, her euro) goes beyond politics; it goes to the realm of art and ideas. With her money, she votes for beauty and presence and wakefulness.

What I have come to understand is that, supporting an artist I love, paying for something that nourishes you, changes you. It really does so much more for you than whoever that money went to.

An artist serves as the vessel of their art-ideal, and when you support the artist, you join them in service. You feel that you have invested in the thing that they stand for; what you get back in return almost feels like a transference of the qualities you admire back to yourself. By paying materially for art, you officially and irrefutably ally yourself yourself with the cause of your artist, whether it is beauty, wonder, healing, provocation, humor, clairvoyance or sublimation. The cause also becomes yours.

 


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every two weeks, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.


 

Why it matters that Mormon women don’t want to vote Trump

 

You are living in the most secular world that ever existed. Everyone still has an opinion about religion.

  • It’s an antiquated set of beliefs about a bearded man in the sky.
  • It’s a tool for bigots to push their misogynistic, homophobic, anti-science agenda forward.
  • It would be nice and comforting to believe in a religion if I could get past all the irrational stuff, and oh, all the hypocrisy.
  • Opiate of the masses.
  • It is enough, or preferable, to abide by your own morality.
  • There is no God, no Creator, no-pie-in-the-sky spiritual truth.
  • We make our judgments by empirical science and accept only the cold and mysterious reality of physics and biology.

Actually! I find every single one of the statements above highly defensible and compelling, each in considerable philosophical and moral weight. That said, there is something that really bother me about the current state of socially- sanctioned unreligiousness.

People often mistake the leadership for the religion itself. This happens all the time, and it’s tempting! After all, the leaders are the ones who make the rules for their adherents. Leaders are the ones who symbolically and practically speak on behalf of their church to the outside world. So yeah, it feels like a reasonable thing to do.

Except, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

Judging a religion by its leaders and public doctrine is kind of like judging a country by the actions of its government. Is that fair? Kind of, maybe, in some circumstances, depending on the situation? I think a lot of Americans I know would prefer not to be judged by, or held accountable for G. W. Bush’s decision to start the Iraq War. A lot of non-Americans who are pissed off about our involvement in the Middle East don’t have much sympathy about that. On the other hand, many believe that the German people deserve some of the responsibility for Hitler, having brought him to power and abetted his decisions.

In other words, it’s not so black and white to me.

Catholicism is often judged by the actions of the Vatican. It’s a little disingenuous to say that you totally shouldn’t do that, because Catholicism is an explicitly centralized, top-down religion, and the Vatican does kind of control everything. And unlike a nationality, strictly speaking, there is an element of choice in professing a religion. But also, there are one billion Catholics in the world, spread out across every continent. Damned if you think that Indian rural Catholics and Korean progressive Catholics and Peruvian indigenous Catholics and Brooklyn hipster Catholics are all fairly represented by the PR put forth by a small group of balding men wearing dresses in Rome. In fact, I’d wager to say that the vast majority of Catholics don’t keep up with, or don’t particularly care about whatever the hell is going on in Vatican, or what the New York Times thinks about it.

People live their lives, get together and spread mayo on sandwiches for the church picnic, argue about the correct way to dip Easter eggs in paint, raise funds to fix the rectory ceiling, hike to the faraway parish to get a newborn baptized on time. The mundane, trivial and profane goings-on of human lives everywhere intersect with communal sacred space where we find meaning, forgiveness and comfort.

The people make the church; not the other way around.

I just read this article: 7 Popular Mormon Bloggers on Why They Would Never Vote for Donald Trump, and it got me thinking about the tension between the official authority of a church (and perceptions thereof) and the lived experience of its adherents.

Statements like this:

On the night that Hillary got the nomination I was alone, because I didn’t know who in my community I could talk to about it. I was too nervous to reach out. […] But I’ve turned my daughters into Hillary fans, so now we’re all in it.”

I’m very engaged in some of the feminist movement in the church. Having a candidate that’s a female is something that’s really important and interesting to me, especially as a mother of two girls.

I have a few friends who are not plugging their nose while voting for Trump, and they’re really excited about it, which makes me nervous.

Abortion is a big issue for Mormons. Based on my research, Trump has never been particularly conservative or antiabortion. So I’m not sure why people are voting for him based solely on this important issue.

Sounds to me like evidence that Mormon women are — GASP!! — critically-thinking, modern women with a nuanced perspective on cultural norms that sometimes conflict with their private truths JUST LIKE MOST OTHER WOMEN EVERYWHERE FUCKING ELSE.

I wish this kind of a thing were less of a surprise for people. It’s very important to see the ways in which the people make the religion, not the other way around, and people are smart and resourceful and conflicted and grappling and kinda fucked up and courageous and inventive and dissonant wherever you go. At least, that has been my experience and I’ve lived in five countries in three continents.

Failing to realize this so puts us at risk of other-izing (to use the parlance of our times) entire groups of people. Religious people are not always fairly or adequately represented by their leaders. Even when the leaders claim otherwise. People, in the complexity and beautiful messiness of conducting human lives, make religious doctrine an living, adaptive animal. People imbue meaning and beauty into ritual, which would otherwise only be a mechanistic series of movements.

If you want to know a church, look not at their book but at the parisioners’ hands, broom closet, the way they crease bills before putting them in the collection basket, little baby fingers dipping in holy water and making the tiniest ripples, the after-service gossip, the preacher’s secret stash of anti-balding shampoo.

People is where you find their God.

 


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