The Rites of Spring

posted April 18, 2011

photo by Jim Henry

About this time of year, I find it necessary to listen to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, the 1913 ballet that caused riots at its debut in Paris. The piece depicts Pagan Russian fertility rites and supposedly features a girl who dances herself to death. I first heard the piece when I was a freshman in high school, where I promptly fell in love with all things early twentieth century, and choreographed my own version in my bedroom later that week. Each year, right around post-tax day, in the pre-tulip, pre-lilac, when it’s still red-bud April I need to hear it.

I am not alone in yearning for a reflection of the season. Last night Katryna and I played a show at Shelburne Falls’ Memorial Hall. In the green room on the second floor of that lovely old building, we looked out over the Falls and could barely carry on a conversation for the noise of all that golden snow melt cascading down, crashing over and churning it all up.

We played with a band called Flapjack Overkill, a stupendous student band directed by our own Dave Chalfant and fronted by three seventeen year old singers, who each possessed a lovely, unusual, gorgeous voice capable of sending the audience into riots of joy. The band was not what the promotor expected at a nice little folk show with Tracy Grammer & Jim Henry and the Nields. Instead, it was a 13 piece ensemble complete with horn section, keyboards and killer rhythm section who rocked the house. They joined us on “Easy People” and will remain one of my all time great musical memories. Something about the pure power of all that youth behind us made me feel as though I could handle anything this spring, even revolution.

By now it’s a cliche to talk about all the other kind of adolescent disruption that seems to take place so often around Hitler’s birthday which is April 20. April 19 was the day the 51 day Waco siege ended in fire, and a year later, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. April 20 was Columbine. April 21 was last year’s BP oil spill. Ugh. There seems to be something in the early spring when the sun is about to leave the first sign in the zodiac–the adolescent Aries, a ram kicking its heels into the air and butting anything before it with its blunted horns–and enter the more congenial territory of Taurus.
But before we enter the sweeter part of spring, I want to try to walk the razor thin line that runs between the intoxicating chaos of life coming back to life with the promise of all that energy I saw in the Falls and hear in the Rites and Slapjack Overkill, and the places where it threatens to spill over and engulf us all in the violence that I believe can only come from the same God that I worship as the gentle parent I know in my most quiet and centered moments. God is that big. God is that mysterious. God is that unfathomable.

Notice, PS, that there two other pretty large cultural/religious events that happen at this time of year: Passover and Easter. (Actualy, I am quite sure there are parallels in each of the major faith traditions the world over,and I invite readers to educate me about this.) In each case, life and resurrection, in the form of new patterns, new traditions, emerge out of shocking violence. Passover’s seed story is of “God” asking the Hebrew slaves to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb so that “God” can spare them the last of the ten plagues: the killing of all first born sons in the land of Egypt where they are enslaved. Easter is the story of Jesus being brutally murdered by crucifixion. And yet in each case, these events gave birth to the fundamentals of each religion. The Hebrews were able to leave Egypt in the wake of the “passing over” of the massacre of the first born, and eventually come to the land of Canaan. More importantly, Passover is seen as the beginning of Yahweh’s covenant and protection of the Jewish people. Christianity of course springs from the aftermath of the death of Jesus; his martyrdom inspires countless followers to go to any and all lengths to promote their faith.

Tom and I have a friend who is dying of cancer. We got a message last night that he has weeks to live. The doctors have taken him off chemo. His thirteen year old daughter has been told. This daughter, by the way, was adopted from China by our friend and his partner. When the daughter was five, our friend’s partner died of cancer. How can it be OK that a kid lose not one not two not three but four parents before she hits puberty?

Steve Philbrick, upon hearing this said a couple of things. One was, “That kid sure must need to be here, if they’re shooting out all the parents under her feet.” He also said, “It ain’t much of a God if you can easily discern His will.”

Oh, right. What kind of a God would it be if it all made sense to me? If it were all predictable? If we all knew for sure that when they rolled aside that rock almost 2000 years ago and saw no body, if a risen Jesus had appeared on CNN and granted some interviews, there would be no need for faith, or for a leap. Faith without a leap is just more of the information gathering we do anyway. Then faith is just the ability to Google.

I played the Rites of Spring for my kids the other day. I crouched down on the middle of the carpet where the pattern makes a circular design and the three of us pretended to be small plants just below the crust of the earth. When the music got loud, we jumped up and danced around. But then I made the mistake of pointing out that the drums and bassoon might be a bear. Jay jumped in my lap at that point. Elle stated, “I am not scared like Jay,” but then she too jumped in my lap. I abandoned our ballet to make tomato soup for their lunch and turned off the music, which I had decided was really about the same as playing them Marilyn Manson at their ages. Jay followed me into the kitchen. “Where is da beaw?” he asked. He wanted to see a picture of the CD cover. I picked him up and cuddled him and talked about how you can make up all sorts of things in some kinds of music and make pictures of them in your mind. He has been talking about the “beaw music” ever since.

Lots of good happens between April 19 and 21 too. Some of my favorite people are celebrating birthdays. Life is expensive, this period seems to remind us. In all the things we want, the things we fear, the things we push away, the places we grieve and mourn, we can forget that we have been given this most precious gift of all: awareness and a heart that beats. We don’t know for how long we get to have this gift. But spring gives us great hope that even when we are gone, the gift remains.

The Comments

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  1. Fantastic post, Nerissa, and not just because I’m late April Birthday. I too adore Stravinsky’s ROS and I love the idea of pretending to be tender shoots sticking up from the ground. Nice!!! I do wish it would hurry up and be lilac season, though.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer. In the original draft I noted that two of my favorite people were born on these days and named you and Dar Williams. Late April is a fabulous time to be born. And I loved your post on Russian Easter treats, esp. about HRH coming to the rescue with the hidden treasures. I see lilac buds. We’re getting there.

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