A fable. A parable. Or, a true story

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It was the Mozart solo she’d had her heart set on. A simple kyrie, appropriate for ten-year-olds, but the rising descant over the chorus made her feel unnameable things, and she wanted to sing it with all her heart.

In parochial schools in those days, there wasn’t much else to do but participate in the arts. There was no prom king or queen, no dances, no competitive sports. Instead, the boys took piano, and the girls played the flute – or, at least it seemed like everyone in her grade did. Twenty-some girls on flutes, and not a one of them with the courage to do something original, like learn the French horn. But, it was what it was – middle school in the 80’s.

The Kyrie was the first real classical music they’d ever done, so out of the mundane realm of kids’ songs they’d done before. Everyone was aware that they were in the presence of Grown-up Music, and acted accordingly. Desire to show themselves as grown up – and sing that descant – was intense. Her choir teacher knew she wanted that solo, knew she was a soprano who could consistently hit the right notes, but, weighing his choice by scales she could not read said, “Well, sweetie, we’ll give this solo to X. We’ll save a nice, juicy Spiritual for you.”

But, she didn’t want the Spiritual. She wanted the Mozart.

♦ ♦ ♦

In college, she was to remember this moment when visiting home on a weekend to sing with an ensemble. The rehearsal was early – the music was lackluster, and the director was getting desperate as the singers’ yawns increased.

“Sing it more black,” the director urged her, finally finding both scapegoat and fix.

She stopped singing altogether, bewildered. “What? What does that even mean?”

“Well… you know,” the director gestured vaguely. “More black.”

She vanished behind a brittle smile. “You mean, with more of a swing? With more of a backbeat? With more syncopation? What?”

She kept her voice even, because she had learned it did no good to scream.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fast forward to a progressive party in San Francisco, where, armed with cameras, teams of teens and twentysomethings were on a scavenger hunt. One of the requirements was for participants to take a picture of themselves on or near a stage. Half the group pressed to simply go to Max’s Opera Cafe and take a group shot with a singing waiter. Another vocal male found a jazz bar on one of the piers, and insisted she go inside, take the mic, and ‘scat.’

“Scat?” she echoed, for a moment setting aside the breath-stealing idiocy and horror of making an unsolicited performance in a private club.

“Yeah, scat,” he said, “Like Ella Fitzgerald. You know…scat!”

This time, embarrassment came mingled with shame, as the entire group began to wheedle. “No, you guys. Really…no.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fast forward even further, to singing with a quartet, in which two of the members – white males – donned sunglasses and capered to the spiritual style hymn in the style of the Blues Brothers. Fleeing during a break, she called her sisters, asking them what to do, how to act. They stood and listened while she laughed, tears streaming, face so hot they evaporated. “But, why am I embarrassed?” she kept asking. “They’re behaving like jackasses, and I’m embarrassed? I feel like they’re making fun of me, and it’s humiliating, but why am I the one who is feeling …stupid?

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The shame didn’t make sense, but by then she had learned that few things did, when casual racism was added to the mix did. Musically, it meant that people assumed she wanted – always – to sing gospel music, even though she did other music well. It meant that people assumed she could break into Janet Jackson improvised choreography, that she could imitate the vocal rhythms of Bobby McFerrin on a whim. It meant that instead of who was in front of them, someone whose eclectic tastes ran from the weird to the classical with many stops in between, all they saw was myriad aspects of Other combined into a single person, on whom they could glue myriad of labels, none of which were hers.

It was sometimes exhausting.

♦ ♦ ♦

We fast forward one last time, but our time machine is about out of steam. Now see it has limped to a stop at chamber rehearsal, where a gleeful last-minute addition means another entry into the program, another song to be learned. “Oh, it’ll be quick,” the director encourages the panicky singers. “It’s just two parts, in Swahili. Uh, just read the pronunciation as is — I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“It’ll be fine.” A startling phrase, after the lengthy lectures about pronouncing German as to not “sound like hillbillies.” Unexpected, after the long-winded arguments about “church Latin” vs. classical Latin pronunciations. Shocking, that an entire language is mischaracterized (the people are Swahili; the language, Kiswahili) and shrugged off as “nothing to worry about.” As the translation was cooed over, in ways the translations of European languages were not (“Ooh, how sweet!”), she found herself, once again… conflicted.

The composer’s name was American, and a thorough search uncovered no African translator. Deeper research revealed that the composer’s translation didn’t match a word-for-word translation of Kiswahili words, that the tune was from a Nigerian harvest song. There was no citation as to where the words came from, no African educator or musician listed. She feared that they were singing an imaginary lullaby, with imaginary text, the rocking 6/4 tempo convenient but false. This was music selected by an intentional community made up of good people, people whose stated goals were to bring parity, inclusiveness, and justice to the world – yet they easily diminuitized the importance of a tribal people and its language as “cute,” but ultimately too insignificant to merit concern or further study.

Perhaps, as was implied, it wasn’t that important, in a world where wrongs of greater significance loomed large. Perhaps it was merely good enough for an American winter festival – not exactly religious, Christmas, not exactly non-religious, Solstice. Not exactly meaningless… and not exactly meaningful.

Or, perhaps it was as infuriating and confusing as everything else she had ever encountered.

Edited to Add: Readers will be gratified to know that speaking up helps. The director phoned a friend in Kenya, determined that the text is maybe Nigerian and not at all Kiswahili, and promised to do due diligence to find out what he could, and add his findings – or lack of such – to the program notes. Intentional communities such as choirs and churches must be intersectional in their inclusivity, and must think through the many ways we as people can belong to various communities, and do our best to respect them all. It’s tricky sometimes, but if we draw each other back to the road when we wander off, it can be done.

A Goat-Headed Perspective

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2015 is meant to be the Year of the Goat, by Lunar zodiac reckoning. Some people want to soften that to a sheep or a ram, but we’re liking the idea of the year as a goat. Goats are allegedly perspicacious, curious, intelligent and stubborn, and 2015 started out with some of those characteristics. A curious leap, a reckless launch, but digging its heels in, things are stubbornly balancing. T’s little sister has been back at UCSF twice this year already, but despite all germs and infections (and despite the fact that UCSF should just give her an apartment in the post-renal transplant area, she’s there so often) she is holding strong and recovering from pneumonia much faster than anyone on immunosuppressant drugs has any right to expect. D’s having septoplasty surgery the 30th, after months of out-of-breath mouth-breathing and years of thrice yearly sinus infections – and we’re nervous, but it’s a solution at last. We’re leaping, all, into the dark, but landing, surefooted, clinging and stubborn and eager to see what’s next, we goats. The usual vexations, as always, but when looked at from another angle, the usual small miracles and eleventh-hour reversals that make up a life.

And, so far, life is good.

I had a conversation with a woman last week, who told me about taking her daughter, years ago, for a corrective spinal surgical procedure. They have you sign paperwork in surgical centers, Do you hereby swear to hold harmless this doctor, this entity, these people, if x, y, and z happen, and your child never walks, talks, stands, sees, hears, leaves again? Sign in blue or black ink, triplicate please. It’s disconcerting, my friend said, to say the least. The entire family was rattled, as they went up to the prep room, to get the child gowned and IV’d and ready to be surrendered to the physicians. The family crowded into the room, distracted, distressed — and saw her roommate, smiling from the other bed. Smiling, but armless and legless, in for a procedure to attach a prosthetic arm, after months of preparation to create a place for it on her body. The word of the day, my friend said, became perspective.

Our unexpected Staycation for two weeks at Christmas meant that we had a veritable feast of reading selections – which is immediately awesome. In this house, you are truly miserable and ill-beyond-bearing if you can’t read and distract yourself. Here D. was, covered full-body with blisters upon blisters of hives, but aside from the odd scratching, when he forgot he wasn’t supposed to, he was content – immersed in clay and oatmeal and boiling water, propped up with his Kindle. It was actually kind of a relaxing two weeks – overlooking the spiking fevers and sweats and shivers and hives. D. was much calmer than anyone could have expected… sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective.

So, we read. As usual. We’re fairly eclectic readers, and T reads compulsively, so many books she doesn’t always remember what she’s just read, or how long ago she’s read it, or if she’s told you about the plotline (“Remember that one book?” Um… no…). We read all over the board, now, anyway; we once tried to read things which… we were supposed to read. You know, those books – like the ones the NY Times calls the “best books of all time,” or the inevitable “Best Books Of (Insert Year Here).” This Staycation involved reading widely from all kinds of genres. D. made his way through the complete Vonnegut and Bradbury – again – and then launched into a book called THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss… and hasn’t been seen since.

That happens, sometimes. Books, man. If you can’t go on vacation, you may as well disappear elsewhere.

T’s reading has historically been different through the October – December cycle of the year, as she’s been a panel judge on the Cybils – the Children and Young Adult BLogger Awards – and she usually has about three hundred and fifty books to read and review during that shockingly brief time period. This year she’s a final judge, which just means ten books in two months, and as her writing schedule is shifting, and she has more balls in the air at once, she’s going to have to retire – after seven years – to being only an occasional participant in the whole thing. On one hand, it’s a little tragic to miss the boxes and boxes of books from publishers arriving and the glee of new books to read and share and pass on. On the other, she is relieved to be free of some truly stupid novels (First Round judges are required to read a minimum of fifty pages before they can cry off of a given book), and has ventured into the previously unfamiliar territory of nonfiction.

If you’re a story addict, narrative non-fiction is probably something you can learn to enjoy. Narrative nonfiction is full of biographies and historical incidents (and those little nuggets of fact which readers who are writers encounter, and about which they occasionally imagine themselves writing fiction), and things which help them understand the world. Since 2014 was apparently The Year Of Egregiously Visible Racial Intolerance, as well as being the Year of the Horse or whatever, T read WHISTLING VIVALDI: How Stereotypes Affect Us, And What We Can Do, by Claude M. Steele, and she picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS because it appears, after all, on one of those New York Times Best Books Of (Insert Year Here) lists. But her most unexpected pick was a novel about a group of nuns, a beleaguered priest, and a mining town on the Mexican-Arizona border in 1904.

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THE GREAT ARIZONA ORPHAN ABDUCTION, by Linda Gordon is both backstory and saga, tracing the story of Arizona from the time of the Apache to the discovery of copper; from the first white settlers to the mass migration of upwardly mobile Mexicans from Sonora and Chihuahua, to the entrance of big mining companies towns which started out as mixed communities, and entrenched the roots of the Arizona we know today. Woven among the history is the narrative of a group of nuns bringing a crowed of inner city New York orphans out into the country to better lives. This was a pretty common idea for a lot of the early ladies societies in New York – that cities were where prosperity was, but the countryside was where health existed, and so orphans and the sick and those wealthy enough to do so were always “repairing to the countryside,” and right-thinking ladies were interested and eager to do benevolence to the poor, and get them out there, too. Well, the many Children’s Aid societies and Catholic Charities which held to this point of view were very active, and so in 1904 a group of Irish Catholic children repaired to the countryside, with nuns and a priest in tow. They were being adopted, since it was assumed that no one in New York particularly cared what happened to them, and the good Sisters of the Catholic mission felt it was their bound duty to get children off the street. The mission was stuffed to the gills with more children coming in every day, some of them not willingly, so the nuns and their very determined priest found a way to get them out of tie city. They carefully vetted good Catholic parents and packed up the children to new lives… in Arizona.

Arizona had mines which were worked in by Latino folk who lived on one side of town, and Anglo folk who lived on the other side. Arizona only became a settled territory in the 1860’s, and wasn’t a state until 1912, so things were pretty fluid. It was a melting pot of Mexican, Indian, and Angelo peoples, a place where there were a few Europeans who had staked land and were trying to fiefdoms of the past; it was the land of cowboys but moving toward the industrialized land of miners. As the Orphan Trains began rolling, the dynamics of these small towns changed again.

In the border town of Clifton-Morenci, Mexican families were on hand to pick up their children. Of course, so many visitors to a tiny town attracted attention, and the Anglo folk – not necessarily Catholics, not adopting children, and not all that interested in the doings of Mexicans on any other day – saw Latino folk walking away with little blonde and light-skinned children, and they asked what the heck was going on. The women who spoke to the nuns were immediately up in arms and pressured their spouses to do something. It was, obviously A Fate Worse Than Death for a non-Hispanic child to live with Mexican parents. The resulting mess — with these breathless small-town newspaper headlines that refer to a “rescue” and abhorred a “kidnapping” is both slightly comedic, slightly horrifying, and very much all-American.

The author seems to be making a carefully illuminated point about race relations in the United States, how much of it we make up — and how much of race only matters when we say it matters. The idea of having “moral authority,” which is what the Angelo ladies thought they had, to see white children “raised right” comes smack up against what the nuns felt was their moral authority, to make sure that the children were raised as good Catholics, regardless of with whom – to a certain extent. (There’s a tiny question of whether or not the children were orphans to begin with… many of the nuns simply felt some of the Irish Catholic moms were not taking care of their children properly, so they were simply… moved on to better Mexican Catholic homes. Racism upon racism.) As with any racial conflagration, there are so many ways the story could have gone, so many “if onlys” that we as modern readers and thinkers can see, looking back. What stands out, however, is the idea that each one of us is a participant, in some way, in the racial system we inhabit. An unwitting participant? A deliberate “keep-the-status-quo” participant? What difference can it make if we’re an informed participant? Is there still space to change an ongoing narrative?

Curiosity. Perspicacity. Sheer goat-headed stubbornness. Perspective.

Not bad things with which to start a year.

Clifton, Arizona in 1903. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.