Something New at Forty-Two

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and was intrigued when she related how her mother-in-law, Anne, suffered a severe stroke and subsequently made a remarkable recovery.   I made the acquaintance of my friend’s octogenarian mother-in-law over five years ago.  For a year my wife and I participated in a Shakespeare reading group that she organized at our church.  Unlike every other reading group I’ve attended, this one was actually about reading.  We met every few weeks and simply read through Shakespeare plays as a group.  We were not there to “discuss”: in fact, Anne’s personality made me feel a bit reticent to put forth any insights I might have regarding the play of the week.  Her decades of teaching high school English and Latin shone through as she lead us to eschew discussion and read, laugh, and read some more.  Quite a few people attended, which is saying something for a Shakespeare reading group meeting in a church room at 7 pm on a weeknight.  After Anne’s stroke, the reading group fizzled.  To my sorrow.  My friend told me, however, that though Anne slowed physically after her stroke, she nevertheless regained most of her sharpness of mind despite every expectation to the contrary. “The doctors,” my friend explained, “think that her years of teaching of Latin helped her to recover. They don’t know exactly why, but one theory suggests that foreign language acquisition helped to develop a part of her brain unaffected by the stroke.” As I reflected on this conversation later, I began to think that while Anne’s experience gives reason enough for continuing to learn as we age, perhaps an even better reason has to do with our place in God’s creation.

Lots of medical and scientific authorities encourage you to learn new material in order to keep your short-term memory sharp or to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or, as in Anne’s case, to help you recover from a stroke.  But as a person who witnessed Anne enjoying As You Like It, I am certain that she would not say that the greatest benefit of her years of teaching English and Latin is her recovery from a stroke, but rather the world opened to her by her knowledge.  Particularly, her knowledge of the arts of language enabled her to love the works of Shakespeare and others.    

A learning experience of my own has lately impelled me to reconsider the connection between learning and love.  At 42, I have begun formal voice training for the first time in my life. I have sung in church and school choirs since I was a boy and have received formal training in violin, piano, and guitar. As I am discovering, however, my musical training in other instruments is only a partial help in learning to sing. Singing requires fine-tuned coordination of the diaphragm, mouth, and larynx in ways I had never imagined. Many people, including myself until four weeks ago, do not know that singing requires a different kind of breathing than what is natural. It also requires a sensitive interpretation of the lyrical lines, coordinating the poetic meaning with the musical whole. Fine singing engages the imagination in unexpected ways. For instance, I must learn to hear the notes before vocalization in order to shape each phrase. On top of these challenges, I have to learn vibrato and how to use it properly. (Who hasn’t suffered through the over-trained voice and the painfully wide and liberally applied vibrato?)

Singing is an extraordinarily complex activity, and—amazingly—it is only one art among countless others.  Languages, singing, textile arts, carpentry, billiards, for goodness’ sake—all of these arts are complex activities that require years to master.  As I learn any art, I discover something new about the Creator of all arts through His creation. I do not need a scientific study as an apology for my new pursuits; learning is its own reward.  It confers understanding of the beauty of God and, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, the world He has “fathered forth.”  And learning an art is particularly rewarding for it allows the learner to participate in that beauty.

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