Holidays. It’s the time when the university is closed, and to enter you need to sign in to security where they might check up on you periodically to make sure you’re not kidnapped. It’s the time when those lacking nearby family might feel the pangs of loneliness. It’s the time when people who do have family in their vicinity might be spiraling toward insane instability from their relatives. It’s the time when you’re supposed to be joyful because that’s the general instruction on the cards you receive either from family and/or your cell phone company. It’s the time when your alma maters ask you for donations before the end of the year, even if you still might have student loans to pay off.

Beckoning in the new year has always been a time about which I became excited because it’s a socially acceptable time to make goal lists otherwise known as New Year’s resolutions. Nothing stopped me from making the lists the rest of the year either, but I felt a special bond around this time to the community of people all making lists about how to improve themselves. Year after year I’d start getting into the New Year’s resolution spirit early, starting weeks before January.

I’ve been very goal oriented my entire life, but somehow, accidentally, this year I forgot to make my resolutions. I think I was too busy to realize the season had crept up. To be honest, I’m not even sure what my goals are any more. I’ve always been driven by goals and deadlines, but reaching these finish lines doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of one’s life, does it? Does achieving your goals make you happy? Do you know what makes you happy? I used to think my goals are what get me out of bed in the morning, but I have recently been revising my thinking. I have tried the same strategy to gain discipline over my various activities time and time again, to enforce minimum time limits of my pursuit of them. Albert Einstein has a noted quote that repeating the same strategy with expectations of different results is, well, not quite sane. I will be gentler and suggest that as scientists we should be able to predict if we repeat the same behavior, our experiment will yield the same outcome.

I’ve approached most of my life like it is an exam. I do my homework. I research and make study plans. I put in the hours. And generally, this approach has led to the realization of my goals. But what I had forgotten along the way included the forgotten lessons I gleaned from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. These lessons include having the courage to be common, instead of striving to overachieve, to detach oneself from the rewards of labors (which Salinger quotes from the Bhagavad Gita), and to put in the effort to do what you are meant to do for someone else, not for yourself (I advise reading the book for a more puissant, perhaps, though less sensitive statement of this sentiment).

I don’t really have any goals for the new year. I’ll write and read more blogs, novels, and interviews for Wellesley Underground because reading and writing are lifelong needs I’ve had and how I feel I can contribute perhaps in some small way to my community. It’s not a goal, just something I do. I don’t have a word count plan for each day to read or write. I’ll do my job to the best of my ability because doing science is also part of who I am, and research is fulfilling and advances our understanding. I’ll make an effort to do self-care like music and physical exercise, not with time limits, deadlines, or goals, but just to do some every day for nourishment. Is this a New Year’s resolution? Perhaps. But the difference is that in previous years I imposed rigid guidelines. I generally generate unrealistic lofty plans that leave me berating myself in failure. I think trying less and caring more might be healthier and place me in a better position to give more. I once had a piano teacher tell me that you play piano to give to the piano, the composer, and the audience. I must confess, my mindset often does not revolve around what I can give to others, even through my own self care, but about those fruits of the labor. I guess Wellesley had it right all along, “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare,” not to be ministered to but to minister.

Do I have a New Year’s resolution? I don’t have any set plans for this year. No weight or exercise goals. No word counts or paper quotas. No goals. I just have a general idea that I would like to live less that way and with a more philosophical, nourishing mindset. That I want to do a better job taking care of myself and those in my world instead of pushing myself to achieve.

What will you do this year to take care of yourself and the others in your world?


Marriage, Mistakes, and Mozart: The Manitoba Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro

Wolfgang Mozart, of Austrian birth, composed the music for The Marriage of Figaro, an opera set in Spain with an Italian libretto, which makes it truly a multicultural masterwork. From the opening memorable bars of the overture, audience members around me began to sing the familiar melody. Indeed, the Manitoba Opera’s recent production of the The Marriage of Figaro would inspire anyone, even if she were not inclined to classical music or opera, to desire to be part of the spectacle, which we were as we laughed out loud to the comic aspects and heartily added percussive clapping at the conclusion of each exquisite aria, duet, etc.

The opera is of course about love, that of the enduring variety, and also about lust and sexual desires, as agrees Rory Runnells in the liner notes. The opera is about schemes, plots, jealousy, forgiveness, innocence, and purity. It is about marriage, lovers’ quarrels, sexual awakening, such as in Cherubino who sings the notable aria Voi Che Sapete. This aria’s title can be translated as “you who know” [about love]. Note the first two words “voi che.” If you remove the h, you are left with the English word for voice. Yes, I think the characters in the opera each find their voices by the conclusion of the work. I found the opera to be largely promoting gender equality as well. Not only were women featured in much of the opera, but they worked together to solve their problems born of a patriarchal society. Although the women were subject to the laws written by men, they schemed and worked within the system, using their wits to prevail and not to be subjugated by the men governing them.

The libretto, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, used language to convey precious concepts. I remember there was one line in which one of the characters asked, “Why worry?” [since it doesn’t do any good]. If only we could carry this as a talisman in our every day lives. Another line expressed the sentiment that “if we can get through this, we can get through anything.” What a message for any marriage of two committed people regardless of the length of their marriage. What a lesson for anyone who is struggling.

There is another poignant passage when Susanna’s identity is revealed to Figaro, and he admits he recognized her voice despite her disguise and that he loved her voice. I found this moment to be the most touching part of the opera. Susanna had a voice. And her husband loved her voice. Isn’t this central to love, to possess the ability to share and express oneself, and for one’s beloved to love, rather than reject or chide, that very voice which is the vessel of communication and emotion, the very crux of our humanity? Having a voice is central to being human, be it through song or the written word, be it through gestures, sign language, or dance. The voice of an individual embodies her freedom of self expression, to be heard, and to have her needs understood. Yes, the opera centered on voices. The voices of the four protagonists, Susanna, performed by Andriana Chuchman, Figaro, performed by Gordon Bintner, the Countess, performed by Lara Ciekiewicz, and the Count, performed by Daniel Okulitch, were clear and resonant with musicality. The voices were vibrant, alive with Mozart’s legacy of playful genius.

Going to an opera is a chance to time travel, to take you out of your situation and place, for a slice of time, and to awaken other sensory experiences. It is a chance to reflect on relationships and the themes of the opera. Seeing The Marriage of Figaro inspires us to think about our own situations and voices. Often in my life, as a child, as an adult in education or in jobs, I felt as though my voice were a mere whisper. My voice has often been muted by authority. Like Susanna, I have a husband who loves my voice and listens to me. I also have other people in my life who help give me the confidence and bravery I so often lack to sound my voice and even occasionally to value what it has to say. How often do we hear the voices of those around us? How often do we get caught up with the voices in our heads, the voices of our past, or the noise around us to really connect to listen to others’ voices? Music is about connections through melody and harmony, especially opera which uses the human body as the vessel for the instrument. I have heard twice now, through a post on the web and my voice teacher, that music is about saving lives. Lives are saved through connection, and music is an intimate means to touch another person, to inspire her, to awaken her out of a depressive sleep. Music has both the power to calm and quiet the very parts of us that make us despair and the power to excite creativity for new endeavors. And when we participate in music, either by being in an audience or making music ourselves, we discover nuances to our own voices and selves that might have lain dormant. In short, music is a conduit to help us develop our voice, one of the most profoundly influential and essential parts of what it means to be human.

I am confident that if Mozart had witnessed the Manitoba Opera’s production of his opera, he would have been exuberant with its execution; it felt like such a faithful rendering of his conception. It was an opera with beautiful voices about the beauty of voice, and in that transient music of the performance, Mozart’s irreverent, but passionate, voice was heard.