Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Yo-Yo Ma Makes Me Cry

A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled when my on-screen guide announced that the PBS Great Performances series was airing a show with the New York Philharmonic playing Carnegie Hall. I hit the record button faster than you can say Yo-Yo Ma, who was one of the featured artists. When, at last, I had time to sit down and give the recorded concert my full attention, I was not disappointed. Ma would be playing Beethoven, one of my favorite composers, who managed to incorporate every instrument in the orchestra, no matter how large or small in both bold and subtle ways.

Alan Gilbert is the New York Philharmonic's current conductor. He's engaging and drew me into the music immediately, both as a listener and as a musician. I began taking piano lessons when I was four years old and studied until I graduated from Connersville Senior High. I was one of three pianists in our orchestra all four years of school and enjoyed every minute of it. You wouldn't think it, but an orchestra has a smell. It's a combination of rosin, different kinds of wood, metallic brass, the musty smell of old sheet music and people all packed into a sound proof room. The music conjured up that happy memory. I love the idea of all the individuals, each with their own personality, talent and ability, forming the whole of the orchestra to become one.
As I was savoring the music of Beethoven, I was brought back to those high school days with their joy and sense of belonging to a like-minded community.
I was adrift in that reverie when Yo-Yo Ma appeared on stage and then things got even more magical. He began playing and my whole being was riveted to the television screen. His eyes were closed and his entire body took on an other worldly aura. He wasn't just playing the music, he was in the music. The music wasn't coming from his cello, it was coming from his core, his very essence. Yo-Yo Ma was smiling and crying at the same time. I realized I was crying too, because I knew that this is what bliss looks like. The bliss of doing what you love to do best, perhaps, what you were put on this earth to do.

I haven't played the piano in years, but when I'm writing and really lost in the words and the story, I feel blissful. I don't know if it shows outwardly, but I certainly feel it inside. It is a precious gift. My hope is that after we die our energy transforms into a state of bliss, whatever that bliss is for each of us.

Rebekah for The Poplar Grove Muse


Saturday, June 11, 2011


Today, in Bloomington, someone’s daughter is missing—a slight, blonde, lively 20-year-old with a heart condition who believed she could navigate the night on her own and was overtaken in ways we do not yet, and may never, understand. Bloomington knows this scenario all too well, lived this nightmare with a local family as eleven years of hell have unfolded, offering only a tantalizing bit of knowledge about the end of a life of infinite possibility we will never have the privilege to witness.

As the mother of two daughters, the sister and friend of rape survivors, a woman who has lived her life with unwelcome caution—based on the experience of the latter, operating always, in the back of my mind, so that, should anything unfortunate happen, at least stupidity wouldn’t have been the last thing I was remembered for—I am living in suspended animation along with an entire community.

The outpouring of concern, and even more impressive, volunteers willing to walk through heat and unfamiliar territory with faith and hope, is heartening.

It is literally difficult to breathe, at times, while awaiting news. I know that countless others in the community are experiencing this same breathlessness, difficulty in thinking of anything else, A week has passed, and the heaviness grows. Hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to write.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Of Governors and Governesses

When I was fourteen and first read Jane Eyre, I was completely immersed in Charlotte Brontë’s story of the young orphan who endures years of mistreatment at the hands of her callous relations and teachers before embarking on a new life as a governess. I enjoyed the book and liked Jane. She is plucky in a beaten-down kind of way, and she never indulges in self-pity. A worthy heroine, she thinks for herself and triumphs on her own terms. So I was pleased when I read about the new film adaptation of the novel, and one Friday night I indulged in a rare solo trip to the movies to see it.

It was a fine plan, and the seven other people in the theatre, all of whom were women of a certain age, reacted at all the appropriate places and seemed quite engrossed. However, I could not enter Brontë’s world this time. I stood apart, like Jane outside the door of Moor House, peeking in but never crossing the threshold.

Here’s why. You should never go to see Jane Eyre the same week that Arnold Schwarzenegger reveals that he had a child 13 years ago with his housekeeper and that International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is hauled off to Rikers Island, charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid. It ruins the story.

I could not see the romance between Jane and Edward Rochester as anything but inappropriate and sinister. What business does a smart, clear-headed young woman like Jane have with a manipulative, controlling employer who fails to communicate even the most vital information—my crazy murderous wife lives upstairs—but expects her literally to put out the fires and clean up the evidence? What does she see in a boorish, inconstant man who flirts with her but prances off without so much as a farewell to visit the beguiling Blanche Ingram? Edward Rochester is needy, gruff, and deceptive, a bully who carelessly exploits—at Jane’s expense—the privileges his status and gender confer.

During the movie, the imbalance of power undermined any possibility of ardor. I could not feel the story’s passion because I was preoccupied by the ominous sense that nothing good could come to Jane from a relationship with a man who pays her—and then only when she demands her overdue wages.

(It is the same icky feeling I had when I first saw The Sound of Music as an adult and felt viscerally that Maria should hightail it back to the convent while the Reverend Mother sternly explains to Captain von Trapp that it would take an act of God to transform a governess into an equal partner.)

Amazingly, something good does come to Jane. An inheritance. Newly-discovered cousins. A fire that destroys dark old Thornfield Hall, dispatches the crazy wife, and blinds Rochester.
When Jane hears a voice calling to her over the moors, I kept hoping it would be Judi Dench—as the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax—telling Jane to take the money and build a progressive school for girls where she could be headmistress. If Edward Rochester wanted to brush up on his social skills and present himself on her turf, she could entertain any proposals. At the very least, I hoped Mrs. Fairfax would take Jane by the shoulders and tell her that she had to stop calling him “sir.”

Charlotte Brontë could not bring herself to do that for Jane, to choose freedom and integrity over companionship and love. It should be a terrible, false, obsolete choice, but as the week’s news reminded me, clichés are tenacious. What could be more banal than powerful men who treat the women in their domestic lives—from wealthy and powerful spouses to low-wage immigrant employees—like useful but stupid oxen? And what could be more trite than women who imagine that such a union is a good wager?

In the end, Charlotte Brontë endowed her heroine with the upper hand: desirable choices, real agency, and the necessary resources to make a good life. In both the movie and the novel, this sudden transformation requires a suspension of disbelief, but I can overlook the great stretch to find a satisfying ending for Jane. The disbelief I cannot quite suspend is that the heirs of Rochester carry on, as if Thornfield Hall had never been gutted.

Dana for the Poplar Grove Muse