NDJ:6 Madeline Karpel, MSW

It’s Our Breath

I look up at the moon through the tall window of the Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on a frigid mid-January afternoon, late. The moon is luminous through the bare tree branches in the deepening blue of the sky. The warmth of the large room presses against the weather outside.

I am a Jew who has spent many Sunday afternoons listening to music in churches. Sometimes it is religious music, a Mass or a Requiem, an organ recital, but often, it is not. Today it is a violin and piano recital: Bach, Beethoven, Franck, Ravel. Two hours of music my husband and I listen to sitting on a hard wooden pew. There is a cushion on the seat, but the wood is uncomfortable against my back, a painful reminder of my body as I try to focus only on the music. The church is elegant and spare. The walls and columns and moldings are the color of cream in a bowl. The high arched ceiling is soft gray stucco. The sun plays around the edges of the heavy drapes that have been drawn against it. The bright beam of light is blinding and I close my eyes. In any case, this is how I prefer to listen.

We are used to sitting next to each other like this, listening to music. Over the years there were so many hours in recital halls or school auditoriums or churches. Sometimes I feel very close to him as we listen together. Sometimes I feel alone with the music. Sometimes I imagine the audience is a congregation whose members share a fundamental belief in the transformative power of music. The musicians are deep in their wordless conversation. We are all listening. The music holds us.

The musicians play and the light in the room slowly fades until finally the chandeliers and sconces are lit. I listen, eyes closed. I try to listen only, to clear my mind, to lose myself in the music and let it carry me along. I am surprised when tears come. There are no sad thoughts, no memories. I am moved by the yearning I hear in the violin and the piano, but the tears also feel like a response to the beauty of the moment. Being with my husband, the music, the church, the bright winter afternoon. I hope that I am not alone in what I feel, but maybe he is thinking about work, maybe the others are composing shopping lists or worrying about their children, as I sometimes do.

After the concert, while I wait for my husband in the side aisle of the church, I gaze out at the night, admiring the moon that glows coldly in the winter sky. People are buttoning coats and pulling on hats, getting ready to step out of this bright warm space into the icy evening air. A man approaches. He looks as if he is at home in this church, as I am not. He is tall, silver haired, wearing a suit and wool overcoat. “It’s our breath,” he says to me as he passes. I feel confused; I don’t understand his meaning. Embarrassed, feeling like an interloper in this church, which I assume is his church. I try to make sense of his remark. Maybe it is an aspect of his religion I don’t know about. Something about the breath of the spirit present in the beautiful music we have just heard? Or had he also heard a mourner’s sob in the first chords of Bach’s Chaconne?

He says “It’s our breath … the moisture on the windows … it’s our breath that fogs up the glass.”