Let’s be real: in terms of mental health, I’m often not playing with a full deck right now. Sometimes, I’m not even playing with half a deck. I have a three. And if you get that reference, let me invite you to my Zoom happy hour.
I mean, I’m one of the lucky ones. I can work from home, I have my own sanctuary, I have my cat and my Netflix Party and my book club group text and a jumbo bottle of Beefeaters. But luck, in these circumstances, is definitely a relative term. In normal circs, a four-day panic attack is not the thin end of the suffering wedge, but it is now — and I can’t even tell myself that there’s no grounds for being worried and upset. Nope, I said, I need to call my doctor and tell her I need either an industrial-size Xanax or my own personal pulse oximeter. Or possibly both.
Nevertheless, I persist. And fait accompli still applies. There’s room even in this miasmic situation — perhaps especially in this misasmic situation — for reality and humor and wry compassion for self and everyone else.
So I share a couple of things that have brought me solace or cracked me open or both.
Music in particular has been a source of catharsis. I might have mentioned here my love of Widor’s Toccata for organ, and how I longed to finagle some way of getting someone to play it on Kauffman Center’s organ some Symphony night. So I was scrolling through FB yesterday and saw this — and when I unmuted it I instantly burst into sobs.
(I’d embed it but FB and WP are not playing nice.)
It wasn’t even the first time that week that music had got to me like that. We haven’t had much in the way of spring thunderstorms yet, but it rained heavily the other day and so I broke out the Dona nobis pacem from the Bach Mass, which I always play at high volume during the first good storm of the year.
It undid me completely.
It strikes me that crying at beautiful music at a time like this is an eminently sane thing to do, so I embrace it. But it’s not the only sane thing. On the advice of my coach I’ve also embraced taking my mask and saber out to the backyard and practicing cuts and lunges. It makes my whole body feel lived-in and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I guess it’d take a fencing coach to think of something so obvious to suggest. I envy my friends with gardens; but I reckon there are plenty of people who envy me my saber drills.
Solace is richer if you can share it. And if you can’t share it, I suppose the next best thing would be to enjoy it in honor of those who are in need of it. Good will is a paltry gift, but in times like these we can see the difference between good will and nothing.
I’ve been wanting to make a post for a couple of weeks now, but my ideas were all too inchoate to put hand to keys for. My thoughts are only barely starting to coalesce, but it’s time to take a stab at posting anyway. So here they are: beads on a string, notes in a mode.
To start with, this morning’s offering from the Lent Project included a chant from Ensemble Organum, a ninefold Kyrie Eleison that made me sit right up in the predawn dark and then seek it out to listen again. I’ve said before that the chants in my ‘verse owed something to plainchant from both western and eastern Christian traditions, but didn’t have an example to put forward. Now I do. Longform chants in the Ryswyck ‘verse have plumb notes and refrains, and there is usually a lead cantor for the verses while the assembled sing the response. This piece evokes the tone better than I could have hoped.
And then there’s the actual theme, which is appropriate not just for Lent but for this particular constellation of events and decisions and griefs on earth, for this exploded diagram of a theological moment:
Maker of the world, King eternal, Have mercy upon us. O immense source of pity, Have mercy upon us. Drive off all our evils, Have mercy upon us. Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, Have mercy upon us. Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, Have mercy upon us. Keeping and confirming thy believers, Have mercy upon us. Thou and thy Father, an equal light, Have mercy upon us. We know that God is one and three, Have mercy upon us. Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, Have mercy upon us.
Last night I showed up at fencing practice to discover that I needed to practice something new for the next tournament: refraining from the handshake at the end of a bout. I shouldn’t have been surprised; protocols for containing the spread of COVID-19 have been circulating in all the other circles, church and workplace, that I frequent. And invariably, the question gets asked: if we don’t shake hands to pass the peace, if we don’t shake hands to greet our colleagues at a conference, if we don’t shake hands to honor our opponent on the strip, what do we do instead? Elbow bumps? Hip checks? Toe touches?
My immediate instinct was to lay my open hand against my heart, as my characters do. And I reflected yesterday, both in a work meeting and at fencing club, on how hard I had had to work while writing to push aside the echo of clasps and handshakes for greetings in my own world, how (worldbuilding often works this way) I had speculated that maybe unchecked epidemics in my ‘verse during the bad times had given rise to the no-touch greetings I wanted to depict.
And lastly in my exploded diagram, I voted in my primary the other day. I don’t often address politics directly in this blog, in part because I prefer to do it elsewhere, and also in part because unlike when blogging was new and I was younger, I don’t assume that political opinions are necessarily significant just because I have them. But here again is another enharmonic between the tones of the world I didn’t make, and the one I did.
You may guess I am less than enthused about having our field of presidential candidates winnowed down to two septuagenarian white men, not when we had multiple viable alternatives on several axes of value. But that’s democracy for you. When the other party has ejected all its reasonable and/or honorable people, those reasonable and honorable people have to go somewhere, and there’s no use pining after a parliamentary system where you can put party bulkheads between the groups within a coalition. Nope, the coalition is calling from inside the house.
I particularly regret that Team Warren (i.e., me and others like me) was not able to successfully make the case for her to the African-American part of the coalition. By and large, they’ve clearly chosen their guy, and I’d rather they hadn’t, but I get it. I spent one evening five years ago in the company of some friends — all white women, all reliable Democratic voters who espoused progressive principles, all people who understand what the word intersectionality means — and someone brought up the topic of the protests in Ferguson: and the things that started coming out of people’s mouths utterly appalled me. But I doubt any Black person would be shocked. So unless you win enough time and produce enough solid, present-tense deliverables, a movement is not going to get traction with African-Americans if its prime selling point is that the White Left really really likes it, even if the policy promises are good, even if the candidate has an admirable voting record. I know, I know, people are not their demographics. But the demographics are their people. And every part of the coalition is our people. Obviously, I’ve discovered I can’t speak for the rest of the White Left, but I’m convinced that we owe the first gesture of respect for others’ insights, rather than demanding acknowledgment of ours out of the gate.
Warren’s period of silence between Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign gave me a chance to recover my own equilibrium. And the letter she sent her supporters underlined my admiration for her, rather than dissipating it. All of it was good, but this was what snared my attention:
Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.
If Barack Obama was a pastor, Elizabeth Warren is a paladin. What else would you expect of a candidate whose supporters took one of her quotes about fighting for the CFPB (“I want…” either a good agency, “or no agency at all and a lot of blood and teeth on the floor.”) and spontaneously brandished the slogan, “Blood and Teeth!“
She’s got all kinds of plans for the symptoms, but her real lance is aimed at the disease: that complex of inequality, misogyny, the lust for domination, and fear that reached pandemic proportions long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. In that perspective, becoming POTUS was a modest aim.
And from my vantage, Warren’s campaign served as a laboratory for the counterpart of Ryswyckian principles of courtesy in the environment of middle-school meanness that infests our public discourse wherever it takes place. (But I was glad for the excuse to get off of Twitter again.) Would I have rather it prevailed? Of course. But the principle of “Smile. Bow. Hit them.” doesn’t promise victory. It only promises the chance to make a victory even of your deepest defeats.
We’re all still here. So I guess it worked.
So it’s back to persistence. I still want more people to read Ryswyck — it’s obviously becoming more relevant than I ever dreamed; or wanted, let’s be real — but even so, the persistence of dreaming and writing has freshly become an end in itself. I make the world, and the world makes me.
The snow came as promised, and justified our book club’s decision to cancel this evening’s potluck feast. It also put paid to my plans to go to church this morning, but a couple of phone calls confirmed it was no scene I should be driving in, and whoever made it to church would fill in for my duties. So, it’s a snow day.
I went out for a walk, as one does, enjoying the hush — though the bars are still open, with the Chiefs game turned up loud as I passed them. Otherwise it’s quiet. I saw only one person walking their dog, and two kids progressing down the street toward the park with a sled in tow.
If we get enough accumulation, I’ll make some snow ice cream, because Past Me thought ahead and stocked up on Eagle Brand. But for now, I think I’m just going to make some hot chocolate and watch a cozy murder mystery. I leave you with some meditative organ music for your Sunday.
Inevitably, any Advent calendar of mine is going to contain a number of my favorite choir pieces. Here is my favorite Palestrina introit, “I Look From Afar.”
It’s part of the nature of Advent, too, that looking from afar is both looking at the past as from the far future, and looking at the future from an always-incipient present. Like gestalt arrows, it’s both at once: that on-the-cusp feeling belongs so completely to no other time.
A friend once observed of me that I want to “save the world,” and they weren’t wrong. Something in me is a perpetual paladin, and whenever I do something that matters to me, it matters because of that. Advent taps into and intensifies a feeling I have year-round, that there are lots of reasons not to act, not to do a thing — but if you’re going to do it, then do it.
I don’t mean do it perfectly, though. Long ago, a (different) friend was lamenting their depression and how it was causing them to “half-ass” their last semester of school. I said: “Sometimes half an ass is all you have,” and the other person in the chatroom suggested putting that on a cross-stitch sampler. But that’s exactly what I mean. If half an ass is what you have to give to a thing you want to do, then give half an ass.
I try to remind myself of this antidote periodically, because I too fall prey to the feeling that Advent (and Lent, too, often) got started before I was ready and I’m in a futile scramble to catch up. It’s not Fear Of Missing Out, it’s Fear Of Missing In, fear that I will have “had the experience but missed the meaning.”
But Advent is its own antidote. The answer to FOMI is to plant your feet, and your ass — whole or half — and look from afar.
Honestly, as weekends in November go, this one wasn’t bad.
I got a scene finished in Chapter 3 of The Lantern Tower and started another. I’m introducing two new POV characters in this book, one of whom had a throwaway mention in Ryswyck which interested me enough to pull his thread, so now he’s in the story. I haven’t got round to the other one yet, but I’ve got lots of dialogue sketches socked away for when he appears.
This is not, as I may have mentioned, my optimum time of year, either creatively or mood-wise, so having produced two and a half chapters so far is rather a cause for cheer. Also, we’re off Daylight Saving Time, so getting into the last trough of time toward winter solstice is progress, of a sort.
Meanwhile, the new season has opened at the symphony, and I went on Saturday night with the usual suspects — three of us are coincidentally former senior wardens of our church, and perhaps less coincidentally, we have dinner beforehand at some place where we can drink well. I had a house Manhattan that was chalked up on their blackboard as “ABV = a lot” — so I only needed one.
And on the program this weekend was Bruckner’s Seventh. After Erica’s friend mentioned it as the background to her enjoyment of Ryswyck, I was curious to be in the same room with the piece. I think my main takeaways are: 1) yes, it’s long 2) if I am going to be hearing an extended restatement of several themes, I’m not sorry it’s these ones 3) Bruckner may have adulated Wagner but I know who I like better 4) it’s all still Very German, which is confusing to my Very Yorkshire genes 5) the program notes said that the third movement was based on the laendler and I was like, I don’t remember the Captain and Maria dancing to anything like this, are you sure? 6) I kind of like Wagner tubas however 7) the piece afforded some awesome opportunities for sections to play in a rich unison, showing off how well they blend, which means that 8) the KCS played it very well indeed. Someone yelled “BRA-VO” before the reverb of the last note cleared, and one of the violas bounced in her chair at the end, obviously having fun.
So, clearly I owe N. a Belfry Manhattan (ABV = a lot), not just for adding enjoyment to my musical calendar, but also for reccing Ryswyck in multiple venues. She’s responsible for more of my recent sales than I am, I’d judge!
Tune in next time for…I don’t know what. Probably I should wrap up the Alter series before the year ends. We’ll see how many brain cells I can scare up before solstice.
It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.
I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.
It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.
But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.
But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.
And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)
As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.
A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.
The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.
In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.
The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.
And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.
So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!
Well, not completely: music and art make their way into my blogging on the regular, and there are plenty of interesting things to post about.
A couple months ago I bought a 24-pan set of watercolors, because I wanted to reproduce my cover-art concept for Beth Leggett. This is the best view of the result:
But the upshot is, I have new watercolors. Yay! So every now and then I pull them out and practice.
Ultimately I’d like to produce an image strong enough to cover “Household Lights,” but that stage is a ways off.
Meanwhile, I have discovered some new music! First, a piece by an Icelandic artist that crossed my path in a Lenten devotion, which informed me that “brot” means “bread” in German and something like “torn” in Icelandic, making a cross-lingual Eucharistic pun of sorts.
And last weekend I was at the symphony (no, I didn’t light my cell phone and call for the Widor Toccata — Carmina Burana was the featured piece and that was quite enough to be going on with), and the opening piece was a new one by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Something for the Dark.
None of my companions liked this piece, but I found it moving and interesting. The reflective motif introduced by the flute in the middle has a strong delicacy that is attractive in itself; and since my head’s been full of Ryswyck since ordering the proof, it made me think of Speir and her perspective, how it gets fraught by events; how it perseveres. If I were making a Ryswyck playlist, I would be tempted to put this piece on it.
Up next on my art-and-music docket: fun with photography. We’ll see if I can get a good walk in between thunderstorms.
Once, watching a friend create a delicious meal in her kitchen, I observed a distinction that I had often had in mind about creative endeavors: that there is a difference between a person’s art and their craft. Craft, as I feign it, is a thing you can learn, become enthusiastic about, even take to a satisfying level of mastery. But art is more than that. It’s the ability to take that endeavor’s internal rules and see how to bend them, even break or replace them, to make something unscripted, something previously unimagined — by one’s self at least.
For my friend in the kitchen, cooking was her art: she could follow a recipe, but she could also reverse-engineer one. She could take what she had mastered about cooking food and do something new with it; she could create, with joy and (sometimes only medieval words will do) maistrie in her own domain.
Cooking is not my art. I have managed to develop some craft, but the kitchen is not what I would call my natural domain.
All the same, it’s stimulating and salutary to take up crafts from time to time, new and old. I immersed myself in two crafts this weekend, and it was a great deal of fun. I joined my friends and their baroque jam band for a Beatles-themed Christmas concert; and while I was at it, I borrowed a friend’s camera and practiced composing shots of my friends playing while the chorus (me) was resting.
Neither music nor photography is my art. I’ve been a player of flute and piccolo, an ensemble singer, a self-appointed rhythm section in church (friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3!), but despite all those years of practice and effort and enjoyment, I don’t have the ability to intuit a musical situation and jump into it the way my musician friends do. My musician friends don’t go off-piste: the piste is wherever they say it is. And it sounds wonderful.
I’m not a photographer either. But recently I’ve been so sick of my crappy phone camera that my friend (possibly to stem the tide of recreational complaining) lent me his camera to practice taking shots with. I got a few good ones and probably a large number of unremarkable ones; photography as a craft, for me, is pretty satisfying.
Writing is what I consider to be my art. I work at craft, refine it, revamp it, but in the domain of words, the piste is wherever I say it is. Of course, unlike with music and photography and the visual arts, everybody speaks a language — and everybody has an internal world that they believe contributes to the sum total of positive meaning in the universe. Which it does. So to jump into the situation and start articulating what it means, besides being a creative enterprise, is a very brash act.
I’m not a particularly humble person, but there’s a point where ego simply gets left behind and what remains is a realm of divine stubbornness. I think every person who has discovered that divine stubbornness has found their art: regardless of whether they achieve recognition or confirmation of their quality. The rest, as the poet says, is not our business.