Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Song We Sing/The Life We Live

The Song of the Lark
by Willa Cather

I paraphrased the title of this post from the title of a book that Indigo Girl Emily Saliers wrote (A Song to Sing, A Life to Live). I have not read the book, but the title intrigues me. I do not think that the protagonist of Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg, would say that there is any distinction between the song we sing and the life we live. She becomes so absorbed in her art and in reaching the pinnacle of her potential that her voice is her life and vice versa.

I loved The Song of the Lark. From a purely literary standpoint, no other book I have read recently has moved me like this one, just for the sheer beauty of her words and descriptions. It is not a thriller type of book, not a gripping page-turner, but when I was reading it I did not want to stop. When it was over, I had that temporary feeling of sadness and letdown, as if a group of friends had moved away.

Fundamentally the book is about passion and calling, about an opera singer pursuing her craft so intently and striving so hard for perfection that she has room for little else in her life. Thea's relationships with family, friends, and lovers suffer because of her devotion to her work. I would think any serious artist, be it performing arts or visual arts or whatever, could relate to the single mindedness, the sense of purpose, with which Thea pursues her vocation.

On the one hand, Thea's dedication and especially her intensity made me uncomfortable. I was (for the first time) almost glad to not have any major artistic talents so that I would not have to live under the pressure that Thea places on herself. If I did have a gift like Thea's voice, I am not sure I could cut myself off from roots and family, as she does, for the sake of the art. We talk a lot about "balance" between work and family obligations in our postmodern culture, but in Thea's world balance is not even an option. One senses with Thea that it is all or nothing. That could be related to when the book was written (The Song of the Lark was published in 1915), when women did have to make such choices. For Thea, there is no choice. She cannot NOT sing.

On the other hand, though her intensity can be hard to understand, it would be wonderful if everyone had the passion for their calling that Thea does. I am blessed to be engaged in work that I really love, but so many people are not. My heart goes out to people who count the days until they can retire and who feel no sense of purpose in the way they make a living. Thea's voice is so clearly a gift from God, and she is lucky enough to be able to use that gift to earn her living. So many people have to do things that they are bored by or even hate, just so they can pay their bills. In a perfect world, everyone could have the opportunity to discern their gifts and the things for which they feel genuine passion, and be able to use those gifts not only to make a living, but for the common good as well.

I also wish for the day when people of faith feel the same commitment to following Christ (or Buddha or God or whomever) that Thea gives to her singing. After all, should discipleship and development as children of God not be the primary vocation for all of us? So often our faith life gets placed on the back burner because of the distractions that surround and seduce us. How awesome would it be if our faith took first place and inspired us as music does Thea? If it were not an ancillary part of life, but life itself? Now that's a song we could all sing!

It was a couple of readers of this blog who encouraged me to read some Willa Cather. I am so glad I did - she was one I had just never gotten around to before. I can see now that I am going to have to read lots more of her. Anyone else out there a Cather fan? If so, what is your favorite? I am especially interested in My Antonia, O Pioneers!, Death Comes for the Archbishop, One of Ours, and The Professor's House. Stay tuned!

Reverent Reader


At 1/25/08, 9:44 AM , Anonymous Erin said...

I read Death Comes for the Archbishop years ago and really don't remember it...but you've inspired me to reread it and to read Song of the Lark! I remember reading quite a while ago the definition of vocation as the place where one's great joy and the world's great need intersect...hope to get there myself someday!


At 1/25/08, 10:25 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

E - I am going to read "Death Comes for the Archbishop" soon because we have Ed's mother's copy. "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers" also seem like obvious choices because they are so well known. My interest in "One of Ours" was piqued when I saw that she won a Pulitzer for it in 1922, and Doris Grumbach (who wrote the forward to the edition of "The Song of the Lark" that I read) considers "The Professor's House" to be Cather's masterpiece. That is kind of the synopsis of why I am particularly interested in those. L.

At 1/29/08, 4:00 PM , Blogger jbl said...

I have read The Professor's House, and attended a lecture last week heard a lecturer's analysis of her style, using that novel as an example,contrasting it to the style of painter Edward Hopper. He offered that both Cather and Hopper looked out of or into windows of the "usable past" in order to convey their literary and artistic feelings. Hopper uses windows in much of his art, people looking out of them or sunlight shining into them; Cather uses the imagery and description of Lake Michigan, being able to see it from his house's top floor study, and how he sees others and how others see him from his vantage point, living alone in the house. Interesting comparison and contrast. This lecturer also thought the Professor's House to be her best work. I still like song of the Lark the best, however. I am hooked on Willa Cather, as you might know. I have recently finished a book, Uncle Valentine and Other Stories", her short fiction from 1915 - 1929 are just as strong as her novels.


At 1/29/08, 6:28 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

J - that lecture sounds really interesting. I am definitely going to have to read "The Professor's House" now. It sounds like a sad one, from what little I know about it. Better brace myself.

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