This I remember distinctly: I could study for hours to music. In fact, I felt I needed music in order to concentrate. I had a group of records upon which I relied, a curious cocktail of unconnected sounds: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and also his Seventh; Stravinski's Symphony of Psalms and Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Haydn's Creation and Handel's Messiah, Vivaldi's Gloria and its much younger sister, that of Poulenc. But I also studied to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, to Simon and Garfunkel, to the original cast recording of Hair and Nino Rota's soundtrack for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet.
And for a long time, I could pray to music, too: I would set myself up in the wee hours of the morning, candles lit and Gregorian chant in the background, creating a little monastery chapel in my office each morning, into which I could enter before turning to the work at hand.
I don't know when I began to notice that the music was getting in the way -- it is a recent development, sometime in the last three or four years. I do recall that I was alarmed by this, and disappointed in myself. How was it possible that music could be unwelcome anywhere, when I love it so? I campaigned briefly to tough it out, to make myself able to divide my attention as I had always done, before accepting the fact that I simply could no longer do it.
Immediately, I realized something about my beloved Gregorian chant: it's not background music. It was never intended that way. Sacred chant is prayer on its own, not an ambient soundtrack to another kind of prayer. You enter chant with your whole self. You become it. Multitasking does not add value to prayer -- it subtracts it. It was time to slow down and do one thing.
New Yorkers hurry through their city, hurtle for miles underground, stride briskly along their sidewalks. We do not say "Good morning" to our shopkeepers and bank tellers -- there is no time for pleasantries. Instead we plunge ahead, baldly demanding what ever it is we need in a manner disconcerting to visitors.
But there is time. It is we who have manufactured the urgency for which we are famous. We have created it whole cloth out of our imaginations, and have come to believe that it is real. For much of my life, I realize, I have prayed like a real New Yorker, not resting anywhere because I have thought I needed to be everywhere.
But I can't be everywhere. Let me just be somewhere. Let me consult the greater wisdom of my changing body and mind. Let me learn to do one thing.