To Whom Much is Given

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

That’s a passage from Christian scripture, but it’s a precept that I’ve read, heard and seen in the texts and teachings of other religions, and it’s commonly enough reflected in social policy and proposals for humane and ethical action in all sorts of places that it deserves more general notice and attention, I think. There seems to be an underlying assumption amongst many people of all kinds and cultures that if one of us has more than another and that other is in need, one ought to take some responsibility for her neighbor’s well-being and share the resources. It’s arguably a foundational principle of civility and hospitality everywhere.

Yet it’s practiced so much less often than is possible. For all of my love of time with friends and family, I also crave quiet and reclusive time, shutting out the world and curling into my own self, and that applies to all parts of my life. And I think that’s probably more common than not. Who does not prefer the company of her own self or her very small circle of kin and kind, especially when the workaday world has seemed particularly demanding and rest and retreat as hard to come by as clear water in the swamp? Who doesn’t covet the privileges she feels she’s chosen and earned for herself?

I was reminded of this particularly when we were in Hungary this summer and I had the privilege of going with a number of the touring choir members and my husband to visit the ancestral home of a hereditary Count and his wife the Countess. The Count himself made only a brief appearance at the end of our visit, his wife having participated with staff and supporters in the greeting of our group, speechmaking about their work with orphans and special needs children in the family-sponsored home on the grounds of the residence, and a small but lovely reception in the main public-room of the place, a large parlor filled with art and artifacts passed down through the lineage. The Count was charming and rather cheery when he did appear, but I sensed that he preferred his privacy as well.

The Countess, on the other hand, had a rather regal bearing and while she was generous in hosting us and very willing to share her home and thoughts with the group, I heard some quiet comments aside that she seemed a touch condescending or even a bit put out by our visit. I had been at the back of the room during her parlor commentary about the family history and the work of the orphanage, not able to see her over the number of people in the room, and her tone was very subdued, so I got the gist of the story, but didn’t see any of the expressions that might have influenced the commenters.

What I did hear was probably a fairly common tale among the nobility in Europe during the previous centuries: a privileged kinship, whether by their own efforts or honors conferred upon them by royalty, this family had done as they were both able and expected to do with their wealth, which was to live quite elegantly and surround themselves with art and beautiful landscaping and magnificent homes. At the same time, they saw themselves very much as caretakers of the larger community, responsible for the well-being not only of the people who staffed their private holdings but those living in proximity as well. This is of course the story of noblesse oblige, a practice of good that may have been at its core a defensive move but served the purpose in any event. Like many noble families, the one we visited had essentially founded a town around themselves over the generations, supporting educational or healthcare or other needed resources and, in this instance, building a magnificent basilica where the town could worship and where, not coincidentally, the touring choir were performing on the evening of our visit in a benefit concert for the children’s home.

Also like so many other noble families, this one had gradually seen its fortunes decline in the years between the World Wars, and on advent of German action in the region in World War II, was ousted from their land and holdings and fled for safer places. Their palatial home first became military headquarters during that war (in which the Hungarians quickly and brutally learned that their alliance with Germany was a general pretext for annexation and Nazi rule), and then was used for Communist offices in the years after. It wasn’t until just a few decades ago that the Count and Countess were able to return to his family property and renew their residence in the place. The good news was that there had been no interest on the occupying military’s part in redesigning the buildings, nor any money for the Communists to do so, so the architecture remained for the most part intact. The bad news was born of the same circumstances, though: the military’s disinterest in redesign and the Communists’ lack of funds extended to any concern for maintenance. Naturally, the park in which the palace stood, the palace and outbuildings all fell into a state that even in their heyday the real owners could probably have scarce afforded to mend, and it all added to the sorrow that the art and fabulous book collections had been heavily looted.

This is a long way of saying so, but on the day we visited there, I stayed after the others had left that once-elegant parlor, pausing to thank the Countess and to ask her a couple of questions about what I understood were the Count’s and her attempts to resurrect some of the property, if only for the appreciation of the locals and the young wards and their caregivers now living in closer quarters with these two owners. Her tone, perhaps because she was no longer addressing a whole roomful of people, or maybe because she felt she didn’t have to represent her husband’s whole heritage anymore, not acting in any official capacity at the moment, softened greatly, and I sensed mostly melancholy. There was sorrow for what had been lost, yes, but after we spoke about that and the enormity of the restoration needs for a moment or two, I simply asked her in the middle of that once-glamorous hall if she had a personal favorite artwork in there.

It was almost as if she became for a moment the young bride who had come there with the Count before the war, a little in awe of his family and the wealth that surrounded them, the power and the weight of the name upon her shoulders seeming rather immense even in the midst of her happiness. I can’t say she became suddenly shy, though it seemed to me that there was the slightest hint of it as she walked across the room and, instead of choosing one of the showy ancestral treasures or superb museum-quality portraits but this moderate-sized, unrestored and slightly bleary, painting of peasant girls dancing around in an Impressionistic meadow, and said simply, “This one.” I asked her what made it so, and she did little more than offer a soft comment that it was pretty and it made her happy.

Digital artwork from a photo: The Countess's Favorite

This is my digitally painted version of the Countess’s beloved artwork, which besides being in great need of restoration was under glass and hard to see without much maneuvering. But even in its retouched state here, I think you can catch a glimpse of what filled her with such longing: a sense of sweetly carefree innocence that must seem now like a distant, faded dream.

And I thought that perhaps what had been asked of her, she who had had quite a lot at one time and might even be seen in town nowadays as a bit of a remnant of things past, was her innocence. It must have been a long, sorrowful journey from being a young lady inducted into the nobility by marriage and impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the lavish life and the heavy weight of what was expected of her in her new role, to the life she knows now. However she and her husband might work to regain a place in the community through their labor and largesse, the world has changed, and they with it.

What must it have been like, as she moved through the war and later years in exile, knowing that everything tangible she had known at home might well be gone? On returning long after, though she saw that it wasn’t demolished, her happy ease was clearly broken and irretrievably changed. Finally, settling into her new role as figurehead of a still somewhat nebulous but ambitious attempt to find a way to make all that was left have real meaning again, looking into that painting must have become rather like looking into a mirror at her past self, not as a dancing peasant girl but as a naïf who thought the world was simple and clean and kindly and that all she had to do was make the best of what had been given to her in order to be happy in it.

Urbanity

There is a huge difference between the merely impressive and the expressive when it comes to modern cities. Rotterdam, once one of the glories in the European architectural crown, was bombed to dust in WWII and, given the poverty of post-war resources, was rebuilt in the following decades as a horrifyingly soulless, boxy blot of concrete on the face of the Netherlands. There is no comfort in knowing that the firestorm that destroyed the city was probably not planned as it happened but resulted from a perfect storm of another kind in miscommunications; the horrors of war are a long testimony to the potential for such devastation. In any even, it took Rotterdam ages to be revitalized into the place of energy and beauty that it is today. Why? What made it such a heart-stopping graveyard of a place when it had once been full of life and loveliness, and how could it ever come back to be something gracious and potent again?

There is no obvious single word that can express the massive destructive toll the bombing took on that city; annihilation is perhaps a close approximation, since it’s clear even from faded photos that the thoroughness of the attacks left very little evidence there had ever been a Rotterdam. I find it nearly impossible to imagine even when staring at proof. When my spouse and I visited the city for a conference even less than fifteen years ago it was still a sad shadow of its former glory, still dominated by 1950s-vintage blocks of affordable and utilitarian harshness that made me want to scream when I saw them in juxtaposition to the few tiny remnants of the beautiful architecture that had once filled the place.

The main reason that Rotterdam is beautiful once again, and that many other cities have, and some have never lost, such beauty is simple: architectural thought and distinction. Building what is cheapest and easiest to construct is a poor solution to lack of structure anywhere. Places that have never experienced the ravages of war, urban decay and other forms of damage and neglect in such extremes can retain the beauty and patina of urbane culture in their urban settings far more easily. Take Boston, Massachusetts, a city that has seen its share of ups and downs over time, but as one of the older cities in a young and generally untouched-by-war country, still has many of its older–even oldest–and most prized, elegant, distinctive buildings. Despite the expected problems of social unrest, economic up- and downturns, spots of urban blight and misdirected city planning that Boston has faced like any modern city, the knowledge that the architectural strengths it does have are worthy of protecting and preserving means that it was built as more than mere indoor space in the first place and that the character of the structures has as much value in shaping the city’s identity as do its great denizens.photoIt should be obvious to those of us wishing to see all of the world housed and sheltered in humane and useful structures and towns and cities that simply throwing up whatever is cheapest and most readily available is hardly more useful, in the long term, than just plain, well, throwing up on people. If we want others to live educated, healthy and therefore productive and admirable lives, we can’t stuff them into trash bins of buildings that, even if they don’t collapse under their own flawed ugliness, will never encourage their occupants and users to flourish. If we don’t intend to fill others’ lives with the vomitous garbage we ourselves would reject and flee, we must find ways to make good, practical, appealing design a mandate and not an afterthought or an unaffordable dream.

That approach not only makes living and working in tolerable shelter possible but nurtures the human spirit and pushes us all to better ourselves, our cities and our world. photo

Musick has Charms

The charms of music can, indeed, soothe the savage breast–and it can bring the terrible savage right out of the calm breast just as well. It’s a power that few can resist, love the music or not; it gets under the skin and slides on into the soul. The marvels of music are not, as you know, unknown to me and yes, I have been both incited and soothed at various times by it.

But I haven’t lived the life of total immersion. That is, as are most fully engulfing passions, left to the titans of the art. Not necessarily people known and celebrated by a large and laudatory world, indeed, but those who, whether in that pop-culture celebrity way or from deep in the dark of the behind-scenes action or somewhere in between have shaped history in whatever bold or subtle way their particular art could do.

I said I was going to be a bit dark and Halloween-ish these days, but I was reminded that this day deserves a different kind of recognition, being a memorable date of another kind altogether: the birthday of one of those titans of musical arts aforementioned. So you get a break from my grimmer humors while I bow to a great musician and a lovely man.pen & ink drawing

My husband, you ask? No, I would surely call him both as well, but I refer just now to one of the musicians who helped pave the way for my spouse, inspires him in his work, and befriended him both professionally and personally in ways that made it more possible for my partner to be quite the accomplished musician and artist that he himself is. I’m talking about the man sometimes known as the godfather of Swedish choral music, Eric Ericson.

He is celebrated by far more than just his family and friends, more even than his numerous choirs’ members and his almost countless students, because he stood at the center of an almost unbelievable burst of musical art flowering in the little Scandinavian nation of his birth and spreading throughout and beyond Europe quite immediately after World War II, sooner than it should have happened by rights except that his own country remained neutral and mainly untouched by the physical depredations of the war, and enough so that a number of outstanding leaders in culture took refuge there during and after the war, creating a remarkable hothouse where those fertile minds could put their restless art to work, and often did so together.

He is celebrated also because, as one of the central figures in this new bloom of music, he helped to shape the whole modern state of choral music, both in the church and in secular circles, in Sweden and to foster its wide spread via his own work and travels, via that of his artistic and intellectual partners and rivals and colleagues, and especially via the many, many young musicians that between them they all trained and sent off into the wide world. Their collective influence, expanding at the virtual rate of plant cell division and sending tendrils around the globe, is a rich and vital gift that will long outlive them all.pen & ink drawing

Thankfully, Eric Ericson, for one, is going to give that theory a run for it, as he has attained more than ninety years already himself. And his artistic offspring will undoubtedly keep the music sounding and growing for a very long time too, and for that I am happy and grateful indeed. We who love choral music today owe him thanks.

With that, I will say that the gracious and generous kindness that he and his dear wife have shown on a personal level to both my husband and me makes me as glad as anything to think of him on this day with great admiration and fondness. I hope that every note I have seen him conduct, heard him play on the piano while conducting and discussing the finer points of music or listened to him hum under his breath as he recollected another bit of his own fascinating and incredibly complex history as a musician will linger in the atmosphere for many years yet to come, and that in turn, no matter where on that spectrum of artistic or intellectual accomplishment any one of the rest of us happens to perch, we too will make our own kind of music echo happily in the hearts of all those whose lives we touch.

Happy birthday, Eric Ericson, may the music you hear always soothe and delight you.pen & ink drawing

A Broad in the Great Wide World

photoIt’s so easy to forget my place. Oh, yes, you know full well that I am uppity and contrary by nature and will drag my heels at the slightest hint of insistence that I should do a particular thing or be a particular way, even if by the pseudo-polite stealth of passive-aggression. I’m just not that naturally Appropriate. A broad, rather than a lady.

I am well enough educated and naturally prissy enough to know the difference. On top of that, I’m smart and cultured and experienced enough to know a whole slew of ways in which I could and possibly should be a better person. I’m also self-aware and honest enough to recognize that the vast majority of those things are just never gonna happen. What you see is mostly what you get, now and forevermore.

But I’m an optimist, presumably quite the cockeyed one indeed.

So while I have openly confessed to you my many excessive loves–gastronomic outrageousness, all things intense and overblown in color and form and bejeweled wildness, baroque language, hardware store binges–I still believe in my own willfully naive way that I might moderate my urges when absolutely necessary. It’s in this hope, however vain or misguided, that I think I might at least periodically overcome my natural state of inertia, of fixity so granite-like on this planet earth that the mere thought of exercise tends to cause me hyperventilation and require smelling salts.

Yesterday, the sun smiled brilliance on me at such an opportune juncture that I broke stasis. The perfect confluence of a gloriously blue-sky cool day with a lunch date with friends a manageable distance away conspired to lure me upright from my characteristic hunched position at the desk and right out into the world.

How quickly one forgets that said world is rather alluring and full of wonders! How quickly I forget that, along with whatever position(s) I occupy in the world of my narrow influence and contact, I also live in the beautiful, messy, unpredictable, constantly shifting world that is my neighborhood, this town, this part of an entire planet.photo

The whole walk wasn’t necessarily impressive in and of itself. Recent longed-for and welcome rains have left the Texas clay in many areas (lacking sidewalks) converted to rust-colored mucilage, so I spent more of my focus on not being sucked ankle-deep or doing a banana-peel slide in those spots than on looking around me with interest. Fortunately, most of those zones are alongside the duller and dirtier of the main roads, where there mightn’t be much more than an onrush of traffic to engage the senses anyway. But in about seven miles round trip there’s a whole lot to awaken those dormant senses, too, and to remind me that while the sedentary state may have become my default position it isn’t necessarily the best or even the most desirable one.

Yesterday I saw the sun again, really saw it; felt it brush my cheek like a tender hand. Felt the breeze tug the hem of my coat and run its fingers sloppily through my hair. I heard birds whistling and chattering in their treetop congregations. Saw the wintry silver seed-heads of prairie grasses blink their brightness on-off, on-off as they swayed in and out of shade, and trees whose leaves have finally burnished to the exact same shade of red as the bricks on the facade behind them.

And I stopped partway home to have a walk through the cemetery, where I chanced on the headstone of a soldier killed at Pearl Harbor to remind me that it was the very anniversary of the attack that left him and many others dead and launched the US fully into World War II and the loss of millions more. The cemetery is old enough to serve as resting place too for a generation whose family plots often contain two, three, four children’s graves, as many in those days died in infancy or barely beyond youth. There are graves for those who lived long and fully, too. The thing is, I was the only person in this particular cemetery at the moment that wasn’t dead.photo

Which pleases me a great deal, I’ll tell you.

And it was an incredibly fitting reminder to me that while I was busy patting myself on the back over having been such an outstanding and exemplary being as to take a measly fair-weather walk, I too will join the hordes of the dead soon enough. So I’d jolly well better get out and about in this wide wonder of a world a whole lot more if I want to see the ravens tumble and leap among the tombstones, smell chimney smoke as it drifts between the sweet gums and cedars, and see that twenty-four-karat sun glittering in the enamel-blue sky like there’s no tomorrow. There can’t be an endless number of tomorrows, to be sure.

photo

Death comes to us all, sooner or later. In case I needed a reminder, I came across this grave of a young lady who died on her own twenty-eighth birthday. A birthday I happen to share. The End!