Monday, May 21, 2007

Oboe-lover's Guilt

"Which is more important - my jacket or my book?" asked my son as I reminded him to take all his belongings out of the car when we got home. Actually he prefaced the question with, "Mommy, can I ask you a question that just popped into my head?" and any time questions "pop" into his head we know we should brace ourselves for whatever his big little brain might put before us.

So I had a decision to make. Should I go with my completely irrational, from the heart, "Well, your BOOK, of course! Books are EVERYTHING!" or should I reign in my personal feelings, dredge up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and say, "Well, you do need clothes to keep you warm when it's nippy." *sigh* I dutifully went with Maslow. And he, logic-driven, scientfically-minded little boy that he is, replied, "I knew that. Because I was thinking if it were a house or a book that was more important, we would have to say house, because even though books give us knowledge, a house gives us shelter." Yes, O 6-year-old sage, houses give us shelter, but books give us HOMES.

The first thing we set up in the kids' bedroom, before beds and dressers and closets, was a reading corner. My warmest memory of moving into our current home was of our content little daughter sitting in her Colonial period costume in the reading corner with some papers, probably a play or song she had written.

Music and literature have been such a vital part of our family history. Music brought my husband and me together - his pick-up line was, "You have a lovely voice; you should join the music group" at church, for which he played guitar. Music is the heart and soul of our daughter's life; she has been singing since infancy, and now performs in a children's opera group and cantors with the children's choir at our church. My husband and his brother, their guitars, and the summer camp for inner city kids their parents run have a long, rich history together. My dad's family ties with the Manila symphony brought into our home a wealth of stories - like the time they hid all the instruments in the family distillery during the Japanese occupation - and friendships, like my dad's close bond with his late mentor, Herbert Zipper, a conductor and Auschwitz survivor (whose life is described in the film Never Give Up).

But is music so important?

Of COURSE I would say yes. But there's so much external pressure to say otherwise. Just recently our daughter was in a children's opera, Brundibar, that had been performed in the Terezinstadt, a survivor of which related that he told the Nazis he was a cook - something USEFUL - and felt it probably saved his life. Useful. Practical. Important. This is what we're supposed to be. I have to confess part of me did go into medicine not only because it was the kind of work in which my beliefs and values could come alive, but also because I was concerned about earning a living and supporting a family.

When I recall the publish-or-perish academic world I spent so much time in, and think of the nitpicky things high-achieving academics would be obsessed with, I remember thinking to myself, that guy in Africa I heard about on the radio, or that kid that came up to my car at an intersection in the Philippines, doesn't care about this stuff! For them it's eat or perish. I feel at times selfish being so in-love with something so "useless," or having such "impractical" interests. I'd love to explore a writing life, a life in anthropology or the arts, a world of ancient or modern languages, but how self-serving that would be (for me, that is, in my current situation, without the real commitment to make a life out of these fields of study). If I were a refugee in Sudan, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, I imagine I would be worried about the most basic needs: clothing, shelter, safety, enough food for my family. But I know of artists in refugee camps who still paint, musicians who sing. My friend's fiancé , Tha'ir Shafiq, an artist and humanitarian trapped in a squalid refugee camp, organized an ad hoc art class for the camp's children, to give them a way to express their feelings and hopes. He says pictures of their hopes are beautiful.

Herbert Zipper told me a story that I've never forgotten, of an experience he had doing hard labor in one of the concentration camps. He and his fellow-prisoners were exhausted and starved. Someone laboring near him began to recite Goethe. A few others who knew the work joined in. The power of Goethe's words sustained them, and they kept going. After he told me this story I remember him saying, "My dear, there is one word you must take our of your vocabulary, and that is fear." Coming from a concentration camp survivor this piece of advice hit hard. Zipper organized secret concerts in the camps. Even without adequate food, clothing, and shelter, music was important.

So what am I to make of all this? I have a self-centered dream, to learn to make music with an instrument that has enchanted me. I live in a cluster of towns where music and art programs are being cut from school budgets as nonessential and not reinstated, for political reasons, despite successful parental efforts to raise funds. I live in a society where it's good to be practical. I live in a world where inequalities are rampant and atrocious, and to which I bear a responsibility, having been given so many opportunities to educate myself and build a good life. But I also cherish a family life in which we can sit around our cozy wood stove in a cabin in the mountains, pull out our instruments, and sing together. I want to be able to making a living and, more importantly, make a life.

I don't have any easy answers for all the questions in my heart. For now I'll just keep practicing.

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