Nothing Special, Part 2: Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Another side effect of managing anxiety is that, apparently, I can also sing in front of people.

Actually I was singing for a little while before I learning about my anxieties, just not in front of people. When I was 19 I joined my local church choir, which had the benefits of having over 15 other people in it and being situated in a loft above the back of the church. We were the total opposite of ideal children: we were heard and not seen. My first Mass singing with them was Holy Thursday night in the year 2000, a Mass I had been going to with my grandmother since even before I became an altar server in the 4th grade. When I went up the stair to the loft that night she was so happy, and she was a one-man PR firm on my behalf for the next four years until she died. After I learned about my anxieties and started managing them, I started doing solo Masses and cantoring. And my confidence started building up, and then I started writing. My first original composition premiered – it sounds so weird to say that about church music – at the Easter Vigil in 2005. I now sing in two church choirs, and have written and arranged pieces for both, and am currently (perpetually, even) in the midst of writing my third Mass setting, which will also be part of a larger choral compendium of arranged standard hymns and prayers. I can tell you without a doubt that making music for the Church is the greatest thing I have done with my life…which is why it bums me out to no end to see shrinking choirs and tight-lipped congregations.

And I get it! I really do. Because, my fellow expert 20-somethings (or, like my mother, expert teenagers), one thing I have noticed over the last 14 years a common thread in people who don’t sing at Mass. I don’t mean people who can’t sing; there are some of those who just can’t seem to get it together as much as they’d like to. I mean those who don’t. I’ve been guilty of it myself, in fact, when I go traveling. There’s actually a joke that goes around Catholic social media circles any time there’s some sort of scandal involving singers lip-syncing to their own recordings during concerts or TV specials or outdoor performances. It usually goes something like this: “I don’t see what the big deal is about lip-syncing. We do it every Sunday.”

This common thread, by the way, is not lack of skill. I don’t want to hear about skill, or the lack thereof. I don’t care about skills. I’ve had a keyboard in my hands since I was 10 years old, I’ve been singing in church choirs since I was 19, I’ve been soloing since I was 22 (there’s that age again!), and I’ve been composing since I was 24, but I’ll be the first one (and maybe the last one) to tell you that I have no skill in music. I am so serious. To this day I never had voice training, I’ve never taken a music theory course, I’ve never formally studied an instrument. I didn’t even know until I was maybe 18 or 19 that there are people – forget schools and programs and places, but people – out there, and probably closer than you think, who offer to teach you or your children how to play musical instruments privately and relatively cheaply! I don’t know if my parents ever knew this, or if they did why I played basketball for two years – which I hated! – and then was handed a small electronic keyboard and silently wished the best of luck.

I say that, by the way, not to blame my parents for my (on-going) failure to learn how to play the piano. Because that would be stupid. Even if it was true, it would still be stupid. There is no stupider thing in living – and I am convinced of this! – than a grudge, and I try to hold them as infrequently as possible.

…Well, no, that’s not a true statement. I do bear all sorts of grudges. I just don’t bear normal grudges. I know some people think I hold grudges that I actually don’t, and others think I don’t hold any grudges at all (and as a result both parties are completely surprised whenever I do get upset about something). But no, I do bear grudges; I am just not a normal grudge-bearing person. It’s one of my many abnormalities. Here is the difference. Normal grudge-bearing people bear grudges against other people because of events that may or may not have happened. I, on the other hand, bear grudges against events that may or may not have happened because of other people.

Case in point: every year in grammar school, which I attended from grade one through grade eight, there was an art fair. Students made art, usually a picture, and there were 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes given out in each grade. There were very few things I wanted more back then than a prize in the art fair. Every year I’d agonize over what to draw, then agonize over drawing it. And every year I’d come away empty handed. Nothing was ever good enough, it seemed, be it the Statue of Liberty, a school of seahorses (thank you, Dad), Mount Olympus, a unicorn, a representation of the Trinity (yeah, that’s right, I drew a picture of God in a Catholic school art fair and still didn’t win) – nothing. And it really became a sore spot with me: not that other people didn’t deserve to win (they did), or that the judges didn’t know what they were doing (I have no idea), but that I wasn’t winning.

In the eighth grade I took mental stock of other things that had won when mine had lost – because now I was 6 years old with 7 years experience – and I realized that this art fair had somehow turned into a craft fair, because the things that were winning – like, for example, cardboard shaped into a house with candy glued all over it so it looked like a gingerbread house – weren’t art so much as craft. So if I wanted a chance at winning in this last year, I was going to have to be crafty. And I made the entry that, of all eight, I was and still am least proud of. I made the Pyramids – or rather, I cut and folded poster board into the shape of pyramids, glued those to another piece of poster board and covered that piece of poster board with glue and sand. Then, because I still wanted to draw something, I drew the Sphinx and taped it to the wall behind the display. I hated it. I won 2nd place. I finally had my ribbon, and yet won it with something I hated because, to my mind, it wasn’t art.

Flash forward many years later. In my office at work we used to have a baking competition around the Christmas holiday, which was always won by my coworker Maryanne. And this was a running gag that had gone on for a few years, and the fact that Maryanne is an absolutely beautiful sweetheart of a person made it even funnier. I’m not going to say she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but you would probably have to do some work to find it. Anyway, I entered the competition a few times, but not to win it. Because Mayanne always won it. And the things she made were fabulous. Lemon blueberry pie. Pumpkin trifle. Apple cheesecake. F A B U L O U S. So I was in it for a little no-pressure holiday fun.

One year Maryanne got another job and she was leaving the week after the bake-off. So the powers-that-be, unbeknownst to us, decided that the time had come for Maryanne to lose. The entrants were me, Maryanne, and a woman who made cupcakes decorated with handmade snowflakes. And the judges decided to declare this other woman the winner because the handmade snowflakes were so clever and impressive. Maryanne took it in good humor. I was livid – because now, in my mind, I’m back in my grammar school art fair, which has now become a craft show. And so I took it upon myself to avenge this miscarriage of justice at the next year’s bake-off – not just for Maryanne, but for those eight years of art fair ribbons too! (You know, to this day, I still don’t know if those snowflakes were edible.)

This time I made something I could be proud of. I made something very simple: cookies and milk – or rather, peanut butter cookies with cinnamon and nutmeg, and honey-sweetened milk. I set it up on the table for the judging in the manner of cookies and milk left out for Santa, complete with a “Dear Santa” letter which itemized the ingredients. Both tasty and clever, I thought! But the prize that year went to another woman who made two desserts. Yes, it seems the first thing she made tasted great but didn’t look great, so she made another thing that looked great but didn’t taste as great as she wanted, and being unable to decide between the two she entered them both. The judges took both desserts and combined the scores, giving her an almost perfect 10. She was horrified. And I, again, was livid.

So really, holding a grudge against events rather than persons is just another way of saying that the only person I hold a grudge against is myself. For not being good enough to learn the piano. For not understanding enough how to win a ribbon at an art fair, or first prize in a shady bake-off. For just not being worthy enough.

Interesting word, “worthy.” We use it in the Mass, don’t we? Right before Holy Communion, we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Because what if all this really is, in fact, true? What if Jesus really is God? What if that really is Him in the Eucharist? What if I really am taking Him “under my roof” when I eat the bread and drink the cup? “Gosh, I might actually have to prepare my body and soul to come to Mass! Even worse: I might have to sing! Wouldn’t that be adding insult to injury?”

That’s the common thread: fear. We can say it’s time, commitment, skill sets, level of either engagement or boredom, or whatever, but at the end of the day if we weren’t afraid of it, we’d open our mouths in public and give it a try. But what if I get lost trying to follow it? What if I don’t sing as well as the person next to me? What if I sing louder and it sounds awful? What if I sing louder and someone hears it and looks at me strangely? What if this is, in fact, all real and I screw it up?

Take it from someone who fights the demon anxiety on a daily basis: there are worse things to be afraid of than singing to God.

Next Time: Heights, Depths, and Everything in Between


Nothing Special, Part 1: We All Begin Somewhere

How does one usually start these things?

Because that’s not how I want to start this thing.

I suppose I could go the David Copperfield route and state, for the record, that I was born on a Wednesday, the seventeenth day of December, at Boston in the Lord’s year nineteen hundred eighty, and – much to the physician’s chagrin – at two minutes past the twenty-second hour. Yes, I’m told that my mother was in end-stage labor for several hours, and at one point my father said to the doctor, “How much longer is this supposed to go on?” And the doctor said, “Well, I know this: it won’t go past ten.” When at last I did emerge the doctor looked at the clock, then looked at my father and said, “So sue me for two minutes.”

But no, I don’t want to start this like other people do. Plus, the actually interesting stuff doesn’t happen until much later. If I’m going to talk about nothing special, it should at least be something interesting. Let’s see… Continue reading

Demon Castle Concerto: The Wizard’s CastleVania Top 25 – Part 5 of 5

“Returning to life time and again since the ancient middle ages, the evil lord Dracula has driven people to terror. Each time Dracula returned from the dead, the Belmont clan fought him in the shadows, wielding the holy whip.”

Without further ado, the top 5! Continue reading

Demon Castle Concerto: The Wizard’s CastleVania Top 25 – Part 4 of 5

“Ravaged by hideous plague and dire famine, the people’s hearts turned black and murderous. The weak were slain without pity, while the land was pillaged and scourged without remorse.”

If this were just a list of my 25 favorite pieces of CastleVania music, this list would look very different. Number 1 on the present list would probably still be in the top 10, but Number 21 would be in the top 5. It would probably also be a list that changes frequently; I could do a top 25 of that lost every month and end up with mostly the same pieces but in a different order each time. That’s one of the reasons I love context: it saves me from my own subjectivity (though maybe not entirely!).

With that said, on to the top 10!

Continue reading

Demon Castle Concerto: The Wizard’s CastleVania Top 25 – Part 3 of 5

“Now you’re in the misty midst of Dracula’s less than welcoming lair. There’s no place to run, no place to hide. The only direction you can go is dead ahead into the darkness that is CastleVania.”

Let’s get straight to the countdown this time, because sometimes the music just speaks for itself. Continue reading

Demon Castle Concerto: The Wizard’s CastleVania Top 25 – Part 2 of 5

“All is still and quiet. Only the call of a distant crow stirs the cold night air. Suddenly thunder rolls out of the Morbid Mountains and into the village of Warakiya. Like the yell of an angry giant, the terrible sound shakes homes and shops as if they were sapling branches.”

I have too many memories of this series to keep track of, whether frustratingly playing through the unfortunately mysterious Simon’s Quest and having a ball at the same time, or playing Lament of Innocence or Curse of Darkness when I was home from work with the flu, or staring in awe at the first 3D manifestation of Dracula’s castle in Symphony of the Night, or concealing my jealousy as my friends played Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis (since I was a proud Nintendo kid!). But one memory common to all the games is spending several extra minutes lingering in certain scenes or areas just to hear the wonderful music play over and over. Continue reading

Demon Castle Concerto: The Wizard’s CastleVania Top 25 – Part 1 of 5

“Step into the shadows of the deadliest dwelling on earth. You’ve arrived at CastleVania, and you’re here on business: to destroy forever the Curse of the Evil Count.”

I love music. I love the CastleVania video game series. And I have a ‘blog. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I raised my hand and chimed in with my thoughts on the excellent music in this series of games. I kid you not when I say that this series and the Final Fantasy series were big musical influences on me, and have definitely shaped my approach not just to the types of music I enjoy but also to my styles of performance and composition. Continue reading

Ask the Wizard, Part 1 – Nothing Ever Ends

I’ve always been curious as to how you got the name “The Wizard.” And I know you are not from Oz. – Diane
Oh good, this one’s fairly easy! My dear-dear-deardeardear-dearly beloved friend David starting calling me Gandalf about ten years ago after I walked into his store (he worked for Starbucks in Boston at the time) wearing my long black coat, my brimmed black hat and my big gray scarf. Soon he got his fellow partners to start calling me Gandalf, and when he got his own store he got his employees to call me Gandalf as well. For a few years it was the only name I was known by. A while later he introduced me to his new boyfriend as both Gandalf and my given name, which just got him confused so he inadvertently called me Dangalf – which I actually liked better! And after trying to get David’s employees to call me that instead, one lovely woman by the name Cynara got confused and started calling me Randolph (which she continued to do adorably for a few years until she watched Lord of the Rings one night and made the connection). Finally, one of his staff, a beautifully no-nonsense woman by the name Irene (which, of course, means “peace” in Greek), had had enough and started calling me simply “The Wizard.” And so I’ve been, in some capacity or other, ever since.

What’s your perspective on what Christ would be like if He lived among us today? How would He dress? What would some of His habits be? Where would we find Him, where would He hang out? What would He like to do for fun, both as a boy and an adult? Would He go to college and, if so, what would He study? What would His occupation be? Would He have a website? Would He play in a band? – Kathy
…What do you mean “if”?

As a non-Catholic Christian, I don’t really understand Catholicism as I have been exposed to it and I don’t quite agree with a fair amount of it. I also see a lot of “Catholics” practicing a watered-down version of the faith compared to those I know to be devout. What do you feel is the most important thing that I should know about your faith? – Taknika
I wrestled with this question a bit after reading it, because there are so many important things for both “outsiders” and “insiders” to know about it. But I think all of them can easily be subsumed under one very important thing that is so under-realized about Catholicism itself, and that is how real it is. Most Christian churches or sects like to promote that Christianity is a relationship first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus the God-Man. And I do believe that premise is correct; Christianity is centered not on an idea or a philosophy or a system or even a doctrine, but on a person. All the other elements revolve around the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the One God Incarnate – without that, all Christianity falls apart and we’re all just playing dress-up. Now: accepting that premise as a given, I think Catholicism is one of the few churches/sects that takes that relationship seriously. Because relationships are hard. They are messy, complicated things that require commitment and dedication and discipline and acknowledgment and honest communication and a mutual leaning on each other, whether it’s with family or friends or co-workers or spouses or significant others. So why would a relationship with Jesus be any different? Why else would He make Himself so present to us in such a perceptible way? All those who see the material beauty of the Church as obscuring a greater spiritual “correctness” miss part of the point of an earthly Church. Why wouldn’t a relationship with Someone Who is both God and Man be just as physical as it is spiritual? Why wouldn’t He span the boundaries of the dimensions to be within history itself, within the tangible signs of Himself we call the Sacraments, within the very food and drink in which He literally enters into us both physically and spiritually, and within each other as all adopted children of the same Father because His Son eternally shares our very DNA? That’s what “Catholic” means – in accordance with the whole. What affects one affects the other – indeed, affects all others. And why wouldn’t it all be as beautiful as we could possibly try to make it? Don’t we like to make beauty for those we love? . Go back through the Church’s history: its best and worst moments happen based on how much we recognize we’re all in a real relationship with Jesus. All its Saints, all its dogmas, all its problems and solutions are “from the ground up” stories, not “from the top down.” It’s rooted it messy, complicated physicalness balanced out by a union with a mind-blowing, transcendent spiritualness that doesn’t cancel out the mess but transforms it. All the Church’s beauty, mysticism, logic, complexities, teachings are ultimately explained by the fact that it is so ridiculously (and sometimes terrifyingly) real, because it’s a religion that is a relationship and relationships take work. Understanding the Catholic Church correctly – and even the ancient Orthodox and Coptic Churches – starts there. And I don’t care if you’re reading the creed of Nicaea, the canons of Trent, the constitutions of Vatican II, the letters of Saint Paul, or the witticisms in the back of the bulletin; if you’re not trying to see the Church as proclaiming a real relationship, you’re not going to understand the transdimensional balancing act Catholicism really is.

What do you think of G. K. Chesterton? Are there any other modern Catholic writers you’d recommend to people who are agnostic? – Albert
Chesterton was brilliant, and had a compelling way of presenting his point of view on the things he believed in. I think his biggest problem – and this is true of apologists in general – is that he was offering answers to people who either a.) weren’t asking questions or b.) were asking questions they really didn’t want answered. Some of the most enduring works about Catholic life and spirituality were written as reflections on their own lives and spiritual practices. So there’s at times that lack of personal touch in his non-fiction writings, I find. As far as other modern Catholic writers, look into the works of Bishop Robert Barron if you want a sense of what Catholicism really is underneath it all, and J. R. R. Tolkien if you want to see a genuine Catholic influence on modern literature. (I know you mentioned C. S. Lewis, and as much as I love him, he was an atheist convert to Anglicanism and Roman Catholic as his outlook got over time he couldn’t resist beating you over the head with Jesus sometimes – so it’s probably best to ease into him after an initial exploration!)

As a Classicist, what’s your response to this article [How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor]? – Albert
The paradox of Classics academia continues to baffle me. We have so much information about the foundations of the West – including, by extrapolation, what to do to avoid a Dark Age! – and yet our every invocation of Greco-Roman culture and civilization, on both liberal and conservative sides, is so unbalanced that it makes me wonder who’s trying to convince whom of its value. It makes me think of the ongoing post Vatican II wars between the trendy eclectics who regard church like a yoga-alternative, the liturgy as optional and the precepts of the Church as suggestions, and the radical traditionalists that imagine the Church burning with eternal hellfire without a full restoration of the Tridentine Mass and the papal tiara. On the one side you have the “spiritual but not religious” crowd who regards all that happened before they were born as interesting data points on the way to intuiting ways to move beyond it that so far have not worked in any viable way, and on the other the “religious but not spiritual” crowd that must restore the old mechanics at all costs or all is futile because the stuff matters more than the reasons and the need for the stuff. So in my opinion, the alt-right’s citing Scripture for its purpose wouldn’t be any sort of credible threat if the Classics intelligentsia had been doing its job all this time teaching the lessons of the history of the West instead of presenting it as a quirky hobby that’s only really useful in crosswords and on Trivia Tuesdays.

Why are Catholics called to work for peace and justice in this world? – Larry
Because we are called to love each other as Jesus loves us. Don’t you want those you love to “be still and know that I am God”?

As far as goals go, where is your focus right now? – Taknika
My main goal is to get at least one other person to come to church with me. I’ve been trying to do this for the last several years, and it is beyond doubt the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.

What would you say to people doing good works who are simply exhausted, physically and spiritually, at doing an endless and thankless job? – Taknika (Jennifer seconded)
Remember: we don’t do it for thanks; we do it because it’s right, and doing right by others is a job that never ends. And as exhausting as that can be, it’s even more exhausting trying to do the wrong thing all the time.

Thank you for your questions. Please keep them coming!

A Meditation on the Joyful Mysteries on the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary

“In all my temptations, in all my needs, I shall never cease to call on thee, ever repeating thy sacred name: Mary, Mary.”

Hail, favored one! So spoke the angel to you, almost fearing to greet the Mother of his Lord by her name. Only once did he speak your most holy name, to bring you the same reassurance that your name now gives to all men. Simeon saw the sword pierce your heart, but did not know your name. Anna the prophetess told all the city of its coming redemption, but would not utter your name. Not even your divine Son would speak that sweet and wondrous name; obedient to you even in His Father’s house, He calls you Woman and Mother as long as He lives. Now, as His Father’s house, we are privileged to keep within our hearts the sweet name that showers awe upon the angels and solace upon men.

Help me, O Blessed Mary, never to lose the grace of the gift that is your most holy name, even as I ask, with your cousin Elizabeth, “How does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”

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