I’m flashing back to a night in the fall of 1979, and I see myself in a suburban home outside Historic Billsburg, one of a dozen students from the College of Knowledge gathered at our professor’s home to watch a live broadcast of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." I have only the dimmest memory of the music and the plot. I remember the Alabama Song, because how could you forget it? I remember Jenny’s solo, "As You Make Your Bed." Tonight, Patti Lupone and Audra MacDonald and a lot of enormous men are singing those songs on "Great Performances," and I realize as I watch how little of the story, and how little of life, I understood at 18.
I wonder if my children would be more awake to the themes than I was? They have grown up listening to complex music and talking about theatre and film the same way I watched college basketball with my daddy and talked about the latest players on the U.Va. team. The meaning of life, the condition of the world, the way these questions and problems are expressed in art of one kind and another–they think about these things!
Oh, they also think about GameCube, don’t misunderstand me. But they experience things at a deeper level, or in a more conscious state, than I remember doing.
At my professor’s house, I believe my great interest was sitting close to a boy named Jim, who I thought might like me.
He did, but not in the way I hoped. Later that year I sat in a deli with Jim and watched him tear a paper plate into nervous pieces while he told me about the boy he loved and his struggle to accept himself. It wasn’t the first time someone had confided in me about something with which I had no experience. Perhaps I was beginning to find myself, as he was trying to do, learning that being a person of evident compassion meant something, maybe just as much as understanding how to score a tennis match or the best way to polish silver or how to draft a legal brief or hem a skirt or iron a shirt just right.
Patti Lupone is singing. Every note that comes from her throat references depth of memory and meaning. How many times have I listened to the recording of Evita? #1 Son played one of a chorus of children in that show 11 years ago, and it remains lively for me with its study of poverty and ambition and immorality and manipulation and celebrity worship. I know how to hear certain themes in its music because of that class I took long ago, 28 years ago. On some primitive level I managed to grasp the theme of the class, to find the ways that masculinity and femininity might be expressed in music. I remember stumbling through one paper and then another, trying to understand what the professor was seeking. Finally, I got it, or pretended to, and wrote a paper about rhythm and dynamics and themes and the ways in which they illustrated and developed characters.
I remember we laughed at that professor and his affectations, such an obvious opera queen. We snickered at his bluestocking wife and her chain-smoking, and their absolutely victorious brutality at duplicate bridge, which some of us played against them at the weekly game at the Alumni House.
I wonder if they ever had the same sort of conversation I had with Jim. Did they allow themselves to know each other, or did they maintain the sort of careful pretense that mirrored characters in an opera or a musical?
Whoever they were to each other, he planted in my only moderately willing mind the idea of looking deeper to seek the meaning, the patterns, the motifs not just in "West Side Story" or "La Boheme," but in life. He taught me, whether I wanted to learn or not, to take life as a text and reflect on it.
I wonder if that wasn’t the best preparation for theological reflection anyone could have given me?
My bed is made with music and words, with contemplation and conversation, with questions that birth more and deeper exploration. I must lie there.