God loves Evolution

Sermon for February 7, 2016, United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, CA:

Two weeks ago Charles Wei stood here to give a remarkable sermon, the first one I ever heard about a barnyard animal.  If you didn’t hear it, then corner Charles at the coffee hour and ask him to tell you about the chicken.

I just want to remind you of how Charles started out; he said that God has many facets, and he wanted to talk about one.  In other words, he was making a partial statement about God, a metaphorical statement.  In fact, everything we say about God is partial or metaphoric.  Nothing we say can possibly express the whole truth about God.  Our human brains cannot completely comprehend God.

When Groucho Marx was invited to join the Friars Club in Hollywood, he wrote to them, “ I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER.”  I would say something similar: “I don’t want to worship any God that my little brain can understand.”  There must be a bigger God, a much bigger One.

Maybe I caused a little stir some years ago by calling myself a Christian agnostic.  There is a footnote here:[Here I inserted a shtick of ostentatiously reading from a footnote:  “Footnote 1: An agnostic is a person who does not know, or does not claim to know.  A Christian agnostic tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, but thinks that the Christian tradition is not totally based on hard facts.”]

The very funny text that Curtis Rodgers wrote for a T-shirt mentions an agnostic going to church, and that might be me.  (For sure, my wife is the Jew.) [Here, I held up the t-shirt, which reads: “A Christian, a lesbian, an agnostic, a Jew, a gay man, a Buddhist, a Republican, and a vegan… walk into a church.  Around here… we just call that Sunday.]

Something has happened to me over the years and it came as a surprise.  I have become a lot clearer about what I believe.  The change has come about because of the visits that our congregation received from Rev Michael Dowd, who has spoken here twice, and because of the thoughtful conversations of our Monday Night Book Study.  We spent about a year discussing his book, “Thank God for Evolution.”

Michael Dowd introduced us to the Great Story, capital G, capital S, the story that stretches back over 13 billion years.  We believe it is that old because astronomers have calculated the distance to the farthest observable galaxies and calculated how long it took for their light to reach us.  The mathematics for that is dizzying.  You take the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, times the seconds in a year, 31,536,000.  That gives you the distance light travels in a year.  Then add 9 zeroes to get the distance light travels in a billion years and multiply that by 13.  The result will be supposedly the distance from here to the farthest galaxy.  Not star, galaxy.

Now some questions: Is our universe too big for God? [This got a big laugh.] Is God in it somewhere?  Or is God out beyond the universe, controlling it all and making it happen?   What does it mean to say “out beyond the universe”?  Michael Dowd’s answer is that the universe includes God and God includes the universe.  Every part of the universe is connected with every other part.  He calls that Reality (with a capital R).

At present, scientists [here, stick again, reading: “Footnote 2: Science means what is known about the physical world right now.  It is considerably different from what it used to be.  When I was in high school, only 65 years ago, there was no talk about DNA or plate tectonics or global warming.  Those things were all around us, but science did not know about them yet.  And when my grandson is 80 years old, science will have changed greatly during his lifetime.”].

At present, scientists who study the origin of the Earth believe that some elements that are essential to life were not originally present in our solar system.  One of them was oxygen!  Imagine the Earth without oxygen.  Those elements were created in distant stars and came to us across space.  We are, in part, star dust.

This idea allows me to feel that we are all connected to the universe.  We are only here because clouds of mineral particles came and are still coming from exploding stars.  Those clouds sweep through the solar system, dusting the Earth with essential elements. Furthermore, we are only here because some sea creature crawled onto land 4 billion years ago, found food and stayed.  We are only here because a great meteor wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, leaving room for mammals to become dominant.  And so on.  The Great Story of the universe, of the Earth, of human evolution– is that all accidental?  Is it all a matter of chance, of inevitable cause and effect?  Not at all, according to Michael Dowd.  Something drives the universe, in ways that we don’t have to understand, to create ever more complex structures.  It’s true that we see things die and decay and fall apart, but at the same time new things, new creatures come into existence in all of the dazzling variety and beauty that we can see in the world or on the nature programs many times a week on the TV.

For the first 13 billion years, so far as we know, there was no living being who looked around and asked the questions we ask.  The human eye and brain make this possible.  We are the part of the universe that is becoming aware of itself, studying itself, questioning itself, possibly for the first time.  The Great Story tells us that we are connected to the universe, to everything in it, and the energy that drives it, connected even to God.  We don’t have to define God or describe God.  I can’t tell you what pleases or angers God or what is God’s will for myself or anyone else.  Perhaps as good a statement as any about God is the great line from the Star Wars movies, “May the Force be with you.”

Especially during the coming week, leading up to Evolution Sunday on February 14, please remind yourself, at least once a day, of the Great Story.  If you are using a dustcloth, remember to be respectful of the dust that comes to Earth from the Universe.  We are at the leading edge of the Great Story that began over 13 billion years ago and is still stretching out toward the future, however long that may come to be.  And now and then, if we are open to it, we can feel in our beings the truth of what we sing with our children every Sunday, “God is in us, and we are in God, Hallelujah.”  Amen.

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1945, Remembering V-J Day

In the summer of 1945 I was eleven years old, just finished with sixth grade.  Summers in Pennsylvania grew long back then, isolated as I was on a farm two miles from the end of the city bus line.  Because I had two older sisters, the well filled bookshelves tended toward stories of girls.  For compensation I had the travel adventures of my hero, Richard Halliburton, and the delights of Stevenson’s Jungle Book, as well as whatever else I could find at the New Castle Public Library.  On hot afternoons, if nothing else appealed to me, there were always the volumes of The Book of Knowledge, with lots of pictures and short articles about everything under the sun.

During summers of World War II, Dad augmented his slim teacher’s salary by working in factories.  That summer, at age 51, he was working at Universal-Rundle, a manufacturer of washbowls and toilets.  Mimi, my mother, was visiting her mother in Texas for several weeks. We children were not told why, but Mimi was probably depressed and feeling lonely because of the isolation of life on the farm with gasoline rationing and only one car.  During those years Mimi was often in bed for weeks at a time.  I can remember weeks when I came home from school early to fix her lunch and my sister Ann cooked the evening meal.

Jean, my older sister, was already living and training at the local hospital in the nurse cadet corps, about which she has written a memoir.  Ann was at home for the summer, having finished her junior year of high school.

One day Dad told me that I had a chance to travel to Alabama to live for a month with my Uncle Joseph and Aunt Verna and their daughter, Eleanor Jo.  Always ready to go somewhere new, I looked forward to riding Greyhound buses and changing from one to another.  Essential clothing was soon packed into a suitcase made of hard cardboard, and we were off to the bus station.  I remember my ticket as a long row of tickets folded together, each one for a leg of the journey.

I boarded the bus in New Castle for a two hour ride to Pittsburgh, where I had my first change to make.  I can’t be sure exactly how many changes the whole journey required, but I recall changing buses in Louisville and Nashville.  Mapquest now tells me that my journey was 935 miles, with a non-stop driving time of 15 hours.  Add to that, bus changes, rest stops and meal stops, and at least one missed connection, and I feel sure that I spent at least two nights riding on buses and waiting in bus terminals.

Buses were crowded in those days, when Germany had already surrendered and we were hoping for the end of the war with Japan.  Service personnel in uniform had priority in boarding buses, and after them came whoever could get to the door of the bus. There were no organized lines, and when a bus swung into the loading lane the crowd would rush forward to board.  At those major hub points, every bus was loaded to capacity, even with standees and even in the middle of the night.  If I failed to get onto the bus, I had to wait for the next scheduled bus, perhaps several hours later.  I knew that I would eventually reach my destination, but there was no way to tell Uncle Joseph when to expect me.

It was in those southern bus stations that I first saw “colored” and “whites only” waiting rooms, rest rooms and drinking fountains.  Dad had warned me and cautioned me not to say anything about them.  I don’t know how “colored” people managed to get seats on buses, but I think a few seats were marked by a sign and reserved for them in the back.  Looking back at that time, I have to remember that there were no interstate highways; we were often on two-lane roads. There was no thought of stopping over in a hotel, so I rode through the nights, sleeping in my seat when I had one.  The bus would make rest stops every couple of hours, and I had a little money in my pocket to buy refreshments.

The final change was in Montgomery, and then there was the short run to Tuskegee.  Somehow the Hensleys met me and took me to their little home.  Joseph was a captain in the U. S. Army Air Force Intelligence, stationed in Tuskegee at the air base where colored soldiers were being taught to fly and maintain their own, segregated units of fighter planes.  Now the brilliance and courage of the Tuskegee Airmen is a well known and documented story, but I imagine that in 1945 Joseph would preferred some other post.  I was only in my uncle’s office one time, and from the window I saw the airmen drilling on a field.  That was the nearest I came to them, and I don’t know whether they ever came into the town.

As a married officer, Capt. Joseph Hensley lived off the military base in a rented house.  The rooms were easily counted: living room, kitchen, bedroom, bath.  Eleanor Jo slept in a child’s bed in her parents’ room.  I slept on the living room couch, except that if there were evening visitors, I went to sleep on the big double bed and woke up when Joseph walked my sleepy body out to the couch.

Taking care of the house would not have tired Verna out, but she followed local custom and hired a colored woman to clean in the mornings and fix lunch for us.  It was strange to me to see that while we were eating, the hired woman was waiting to eat her lunch alone.

None of us except Joseph had much to do.  Eleanor Jo was three years younger than me, so we were often at odds with each other rather than playing together, at least as I remember it.  (As an adult, she was a sweet person and a strikingly beautiful woman.)  I don’t remember any boys in the neighborhood.  While I was used to farm work and lots of outdoor life at home, I was a chubby boy and completely indifferent to sports. I remember Joseph making an exasperated remark about how I would be healthier if I sweat more.  Growing up with the Hensley brothers both older and younger, Joseph must have sweat plenty when he was a boy.

One book I pulled off of Joseph’s bookshelf was Hendrik Van Loon’s Story of the Bible.  That was my first exposure to the idea that the book of Genesis is not scientific and historical fact, and I laid the book aside with disgust.  I remember saying, “I don’t know why someone would write a book about the Bible when he believes so little of it.”  My fear of heresy outweighed my curiosity about new ideas.

One place I would like to see again is the little museum installed in the laboratory of Prof. George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University.  I remember it as two hot, dusty rooms filled with exhibits of the many products that Carver developed, chiefly from peanuts.  I was dropped off there and picked up later, so I remember being completely alone in the museum.

A lieutenant who served with Uncle Joseph was kind to me and took me to see the mansion where he rented a room.  Grey Columns was built in 1857, and it is now the home of the president of Tuskegee University.  Our friend, whose name I have forgotten, rented an upstairs bedroom.  What I recall about it was his collection of classical record albums, larger than I had ever seen.  He let me see the parlors with their antique furniture, and that remains my principal impression of antebellum life apart from the movies.

Tuskegee had fewer than 13,000 citizens, a large majority African-American.  The movie theater sold tickets to the main floor for white people and to the balcony for colored.  There was no cooling system, there or anywhere else, so the balcony must have been really uncomfortable.  A calendar of shows was posted outside the theater so that you could look ahead and see what was coming.  There was one movie I was excited to see, Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne, whom I had heard on the radio.  When I talked about it at home, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see that.  They only let the colored in, and they can sit on the main floor and the balcony, both.  It comes back every few months, just for them.”  That was a little taste of what it meant to be excluded because of my race.

At home I was used to the New Castle News, which printed maps of military progress nearly every day.  In Tuskegee I think the radio was our source of news.  The two atomic bombs fell on August 6 and 9, and we struggled to comprehend what that meant.  On August 14 at 7 pm, we heard from President Truman that Japan had surrendered.  Immediately the little town exploded with noise.  Cars ran up and down the street with honking horns.  We went out onto the streets like everyone else just to walk around in a mood of celebration.  My indelible memory is of a colored woman walking in the middle of the street and shouting in a high voice, “Thank God, my boy is coming home!”

Those are my memories from 1945, few but vivid.

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Travel Diary 2014, Togo and France

Day 1, Tuesday, July 17 –
The flight from LA to Paris is 11 hours.  We both slept fairly well, but there was not much darkness over night.  We got up to exercise a few times and Air France keeps juices available through the night.  We landed at Charles DeGaulle airport, Paris, at 11:20 am, a bit ahead of schedule.  We didn’t expect to go through security again, but we had to, and I lost three unopened liters of water that I had bought in LA.  We had plenty of time and did a lot of walking. CDG is lined with expensive brand name duty free shops, very few places for food.

We have never been on a plane with so many children as the Paris-Togo flight.  They are noisy, whether happy or annoyed.  We had a pair of seats J-K on the west side of the plane, so we had our first view of the Sahara, endless reddish brown, the color extending by reflection up into the clouds so there was no horizon.

Getting through the Lomé airport took nearly two hours: filling out the visa application, waiting in a long slow line, paying $40, then waiting for passports to be returned outside the visa office.  Then we learned that one of our small suitcases will come on the next daily flight from Paris, that is, tomorrow.

When we emerged at 8 pm, Newlove came toward us with big hugs, also Joel and Kennedy, all members of People to People International, Lomé chapter.  We were all five loaded into a small station wagon/taxi, driven by Fofo, our driver of choice for the whole week to come.

We drove only about 10 minutes to the building where our rented apartment was on the second floor, side by side with another one.  We entered through the living room, where Mark was watching the FIFA World Cup game from Brazil on the TV.  In the kitchen, Chantal was cooking yams, etc., for our dinner.

We all gathered around the table in the living room and got acquainted.  Most of the conversation was in French, a bit difficult for us with their Ewe accent, but we can speak English with Newlove and with Kennedy, who is a student of languages.  (They met each other at an internet café.)

Chantal is a member of the PTPI chapter.  She works as cook and au pair for a Lebanese family, and she took time off to stay with us and cook for us.  She had prepared a fine dinner with fresh, peeled fruit, papaya and mangoes, raw vegetables (washed in a purifying solution because we didn’t trust the tap water), beans, salsa and yams.  There was a bottle of whiskey on the table when we arrived, so I had a shot of that in mineral water.  There was also red wine and waters, plain and fizzy.  Joan and I were able to add fancy Lindt chocolates from the duty-free shops at the Paris airport for dessert.

We had fine conversation, and I asked Newlove to tell me the story of the Amadenta school.  He had been riding a motorbike out in the country when he stopped at the school on an impulse.  He talked to the headmaster, who did not treat Newlove seriously because he was only wearing a T-shirt and jeans.  When Newlove returned a week later with a gift of school supplies, the headmaster began to believe that PTPI could help him.

The problem that Newlove laments is that the parents are “ungrateful.”  They do not like the school, do not think that anything can improve, so they are apathetic.  For instance, none of them helped with construction at the school, refusing to work unless they received $5 a day, which Newlove could not pay.  PTPI volunteers did the work.  Newlove doesn’t allow that disappointment to dissuade him, and their chapter continues to help the children.

About PTPI chapters in Africa, Benin has become inactive, but Ghana is still active.

The guys left at 10 pm.  Chantal stayed over in the second bedroom.

(About money:) I did not want to wait to change $$ after arrival, so I had wired $500 to Newlove, which he collected in the local currency, CFA.  From that I could calculate that 10,000 CFA worked out to $21.27.  Later I could use an ATM, but at only one location in the whole city.

Day 2, Wednesday, June 18 –
An amplified Call to Prayer from an adjacent mosque blared out through a loudspeaker at 5:15 am.  It sounded again soon after, a pleasant tenor voice, but still electronic.  Constant chanting began at 5:30, and I got up to investigate.  From the small window high up on the kitchen wall, I saw dark night, lights here and there, and a brightly lit space, roofed but open air, less than 100 feet away from our kitchen.  Men were approaching from all over the neighborhood.  Looking down at an angle to the lighted area, I could see men arrive, bow, then drop out of sight as they knelt to pray.  At 6 the amplified singing stopped and I went back to sleep.

I got up at 7:20 and took a shower.  There is only one water temperature, cool.  In this climate, who would want a hot shower anyway?  There are only 2 seasons: hot with rain or hot with no rain.  We experienced the former.

Chantal rose a little ahead of me, and after my shower she was mopping the tile floors of the kitchen and hallway with a strong smelling disinfectant.  She and the guys went to a lot of trouble to prepare the apartment.  The refrigerator is packed with food and beverages.  Under the sink is a pile of mangoes, papayas, and pineapples, artfully arranged as a still life with bananas on top.  They have tried to think of everything.

On one side of the hallway are the living room, bathroom and kitchen, and on the other side are the two bedrooms.  Room air conditioners service the LR and the two BRs.  All of the rooms have windows, but the LR window is not to the outside but to another hall, which has an outside window.  The walls are plaster (?), the ceiling plywood panels.

Breakfast was plentiful, featuring a thin, spicy round bread, spread with herbs, Lebanese style.  Again, lots of fruit.
Newlove and Joel came for breakfast around 11.  They took me out to shop, and we walked along the main street that is just outside of our bedroom window, Avenue de la Libération.  The street is rather recently paved, as Newlove says the broad major streets that connect parts of the city are progressively being improved.  Parallel to the street are water channels about one meter deep, and workers are installing heavy sheets of concrete over the channels to serve as sidewalks.  On both sides of the street there are narrow open front shops and merchants of all kinds set up on the walkways.

The guys asked me if I would like to ride a “moto” to the market about one kilometer away.  I agreed, thinking that they meant their own motorbikes.  Instead, I was coached on how to sit on the taxi-moto behind a stranger whom I had never seen or spoken to.  Off we went, starting with a U-turn in front of an oncoming heavy truck.  I focused on balancing behind the driver, and we got there alive.  After buying some produce that looked just like the produce closer to home, we had the same hair-raising ride home.

After lunch, later in the afternoon, we all went for a walk, including Joan and Chantal.  We made a big clockwise route around several blocks on streets that are partly paved, partly not.  The neighborhood is lively, walkers and children everywhere.  Women carrying loads on their heads are a common sight, but we also saw women carrying black plastic tubs of clean water and other things to their homes.

We had an ordeal at the airport, trying to pick up the small brown suitcase that did not arrive with us yesterday.  The luggage office is inside of a secure area, so we had to get the attention of a stolid, but stressed official to give me a badge to enter.  Then in the office I waited again– hot, crowded, no line– to get a lady to lead me out to where my bag was sitting, unguarded.
In the evening PTPI members came by to visit, all men, all single.

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Travel Diary — Days 3 – 4, Togo

Day 3, Thursday, June 19 –
Chantal had a big breakfast ready for us, much more than we could eat.  Newlove says that is “the African way” to entertain.  He had breakfast with us, too, and his buddy Joel Panapesse, the program director of the Lomé chapter.

We have a 7-day visa, and our flight to France will be on the 8th day, so we had to go to Immigration to ask for an extension.  (I suppose there would be a fine or penalty if we tried to fly out with an expired visa.)  It was like the mess at the airport, only in the open air.  We had to submit our application with our passport and come back in the afternoon.

Newlove is intent on having us visit the U.S. Embassy, so we went there also, but it is only open to visitors from 1:30 to 3:30 pm. Mon-Thurs.

So we headed out to Amadenta to see the school that PTPI has been helping.  There was hard rain, and after we left the city all of the roads were unpaved.  Often Fofo had to drive his taxi on the left side because the right side was a deep pond.  Once he had to stop and ask for a detour because the whole road was submerged.  The trip took over an hour, but we arrived at noon to meet the headmaster.  Too bad, he apologized by cellphone that he had been kept at home by the rain.  But we could walk into the classrooms where the roof had been rebuilt, with half the funding ($535) coming from LA.  In those rooms, the floors are still dirt and no doors have been hung in the doorways.

Then we asked about another building nearby, much more substantial than the one we were in: three classrooms with lockable doors and solid construction.  Here’s the story: While the PTPI guys were working, a Swiss charity came by and were impressed by Togolese helping Togolese.  They decided to do the job better and contributed this whole new building.  We could not go in, but we could peek inside to see new wooden desks stamped in French, “Gift of PTPI TOGO” and “Gift of UNHCR.”

Not only that: A Turkish charity also came by and helped by drilling a well and installing a modern steel hand pump.  There is no electricity in the community, but now the children will have clean water to drink when school starts in the fall.

All of this happened because Newlove took an interest in helping the children back in 2012.

Back in Lomé, we realized that we could not go to the Embassy without our passports, so that has to wait until next week.  Newlove took us instead to a market area where small shops sell African souvenir products.  We admired the colorful cottons here, and I bought a shirt with an unusual pattern in narrow stripes of orange and black.  We met Kennedy’s father, John Owusuh, who has a delightful smile like his son, and we bought some necklaces from him.  He took us to Ken’s cousin Espoir, and from her I bought another shirt, blue and white.

During the evening, more PTPI members came by.  Max is a plumber who works at the busy shipping port.  Fafadzi, who stands several inches taller than me, owns a printing business which has produced the PTPI T-shirts and banners that show up at Newlove’s activities.  He took a close look at my wedding ring because he is planning to propose to his lady friend.  I advised him to bring her around to meet his PTPI friends and make sure that she is an internationally minded kind of person.  Also, that he should pay attention to the advice of a very old man.

Day 4, Friday, June 20 –
Fofo took us to Immigration, where we learned that passports are only given out in the afternoon, so we set off southward to the sea and then eastward in the direction of Benin.  We were on a smooth main highway that also extends westward into Ghana.  We passed miles of commercial development, a vast exporter of cement, large factories, and a storage yard for hundreds of stacked shipping containers.

A half hour east of the city, we turned left on a side road that brought us by accident to Hotel du Lac, a luxurious facility on the shore of a fresh water lake.  We walked in and had friendly conversations with a couple of employees.

Back at the highway crossing, we went south toward the sea and followed signs to “House of Slaves.”  It’s a large house built in 1830 for slave traders to stay on the main floor while slaves were held as captives in the area under the house, a dark space only four feet high.  The house was located about a mile from the sea and hidden by trees so that British military ships could not see it.  Slave trade was illegal by then, and the slaves were contraband.

All this was explained by a kindly man who then led us into the house to see the main central room and the trader’s bedroom.  The original safe is still there, never moved during many years when the house was abandoned.  He lifted a floor panel so that Newlove and Joel could climb down into the cramped slave areas to take pictures.  We made a donation for the upkeep.  When we left a large school group was coming in.

We stopped nearby to purchase some local tapioca and some palm fans that turned out to be very effective.  On the way back to Lomé we turned off to see a beach and drove through a refugee camp that is maintained by United Nations.  Newlove has worked here with refugees from the civil war in Ivory Coast three years ago.

Out on the beach we opened snack bars and fruit that we had brought from home and enjoyed watching the surf.  The guys preferred to sit over by a makeshift bar.  When we left, the bartender was playing country music for us, “Lucille.”   Newlove loves country.

Back at Immigration, we got our passports after more waiting, confusion, and signing of record books, and went home for dinner and a quiet evening.

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Travel Diary — Days 5 – 6, Togo

Day 5, Saturday, June 21 –
Joan is not well, all the signs of dehydration.  Newlove planned a trip to Kpalime, a nature preserve and tourist attraction, but Joan will not be able to go along.

Our party was Newlove, Joel and I in Fofo’s taxi, which in the end cost 50K CFA ($110) for the day, including all the gas for 4 hours of highway driving.  We set out at 9:30 and an hour later we drove through the gate of Kpalime.  (The K is not heard, but I think it prevents aspiration of the P.)  Then we drove another hour straight north, but with much less traffic than near the city.

Within the nature preserve there are homes, small farming, villages and even one or two towns.  At one village we stopped to meet Fofo’s mother.  He had telephoned her to come to the highway to see us.  She greeted me respectfully as “Papá.”

A little later we stopped to see a monument to the suppression of a coup d’état in 1969.  I walked over to a bridge to check out a medium sized river and there fell into conversation with a young man who said he is a drummer and an “arts man.”  Jamou is his “arts name.”  Newlove took up his offer to guide us to a waterfall and some good walking places.

I was eager to walk after the long drive.  We found a remote place, left the car and went single file through the bush.  We stopped to see stacked planks of several kinds, including mahogany.  We saw various trees I had never seen, coffee, coca, banana.  The path ascended steeply until we reached a goal, a cave where people have lived since ancient times.  I didn’t try to enter the cave.  To its right was a room-sized area sheltered by an overhead rock formation that projects from the side of the hill.  One wall of the room features an altar and a cross and half used candles were lying around.

Jamou directed Fofo to drive us to a waterfall nearly 50 feet high but it is fenced off from the road.  I could see it, but to go near it Newlove paid 10K CFA to a tough guy.  I didn’t much like that, but I admit that the area was clear of trash that might have drifted there.

Driving back down the hill, we stopped at Jamou’s “village,” a complex of simple structures connected by paths.  He made a point of showing us his “house,” a single room with a curtain in front of it.  Three guys were lounging inside.

Jamou directed us to a bar a little way from the highway for lunch and a rest room.  It was clean and quiet and had a decent washroom.  Newlove bought drinks for us all and I supplied snack bars for a light lunch.  When we said goodbye to Jamou, Newlove gave him 3,000 CFA, which he took agreeably (I thought it was too little).  Newlove also took his cell number in case he wants a guide in the future.

Along the return trip we stopped to photograph some huge ant hills, one of which is still swarmed with living ants.  We bought a whiskey bottle full of peanuts for the coming party.

At home we all needed to rest.  After a quick shower, I ate an early dinner so that Chantal could be done sooner.  Joan was still not well, and she said that Chantal was an angel to her throughout the day.  We finally remembered that we have oral rehydration salts (ORS), brought along on Virginia Christie’s advice.  Joan started drinking the salted water and felt better quite soon.

Minutes after Newlove and Joel went home, Kennedy showed up and spent a half hour or so with me.  The little shop where we met his father has been the family’s complete support.  “All my education till now came from his shop.  I’m full of respect,” Ken said.  Ken studied Chinese, English and French at the University of Togo.  He lives with his employer, a businessman who speaks only Chinese.

Day 6, Sunday, June 22 –
Every breakfast is a little different.  Today, a baguette sandwich with veggie filling.

Newlove’s friends often call him Bob (for Bobson, his middle name), and I got used to that, too.

Setting out with Fofo, we reached the orphanage before 10.  A teen-aged girl, also an orphan, let us in. We took pictures in the courtyard with our gifts of a 50kg (110 pound) sack of rice and the little brown suitcase of health supplies that we were donating.

Right at 10 the children came through the gate on a break from church.  Last came Mlle Dorcas, the owner, beautifully dressed and polite.  When we were all seated she asked me, “What is the purpose of your coming?”  Newlove later explained that point of African etiquette: Even if everyone knows why you came, the question must be asked so that you can answer in your own words.

Dorcas spoke Ewe with Newlove although she often understood what I said in English.
She told us that when she was in school she already had the idea of owning an orphanage.  She got commercial training and business experience before starting her orphanage in 2002.  She visits villages to find children who are abandoned and takes them to her orphanage for shelter and education.  They are different ages, 1 – 18, girls and boys.  We saw about a dozen kids, all well behaved and quiet, and we took a lot of pictures.

We showed her the contents of the little suitcase: Bandaids, wet-wipes, child aspirins.  I opened the bottle of multivitamins disguised as gummi bears, and she allowed me to give one to each child.  At 10:30 we all left and the children returned to church.

Near our apartment we shopped at a supermarket for the party at our apartment that night.  I picked out dates, tortilla chips, paper cups, and a few other things.  We were also contributing the second box of Lindt chocolates that we brought from the Paris airport.

By the way, every few days we pay $21 to keep the electricity going– not included in the rent.

Joan felt much better after taking the ORS.  We rested a bit, then guests began to arrive at 3:30 for the 4 pm party.  I wore the white suit embroidered with blue that Newlove sent to me last year and Joan wore a new green dress, made for her by Chantal’s sister Marthe, who is a professional seamstress.

We had snacks and plenty of drinks.  We rearranged the furniture to open up the room.  A couple of non-members came so there were 10 guests beside Joan and me.  Everyone was taking pictures.  During the evening I spoke for about 20 minutes, bringing greetings from the LA chapter and mentioning what we could learn from Togo, namely local activism and charitable efforts.  It was a great party.  Folks left before 8 pm.

A difference from Los Angeles: Close to the Equator days and nights are nearly equal all year, just as the seasons do not change much.  Dark night arrives by 6 pm and cars are driving with headlights.  There are two seasons in Togo, either hot with no rain, or hot with rain.  We had a taste of the former.

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Travel Diary — Days 7 – 8, Togo

Day 7, Monday, June 23  –
Chantal went back to her employer this morning, leaving fruit prepared for our breakfast along with muesli and soya milk that I bought on Sunday.

Newlove visited and then went across the border into Ghana, his native country.  He believes that the best chocolate in the world comes from Ghana, and we must not leave Africa without a good supply of it.  When he came back, he brought us three big jars of cocoa and 20 bars of milk chocolate.

Newlove insisted that I must go with him to the U.S. Embassy, although I had low expectations for any result.  After I explained to a receptionist who we were, the head of the visa division came to the window and I explained all over again.  She called the development officer, Mr. David Meron, who actually came out into the lobby to talk to us for about 20 minutes.

Mr. Meron was amazingly candid with us: The Embassy has money to give out for projects that are in the U.S. interest, including economic development and social justice issues.  We described Newlove’s idea for a sewing school and Newlove was told to develop a proposal and call back for an appointment.  We left feeling that something good really could come from this visit.

From the Embassy we went across Boulevard Eyadema to the University of Togo.  Fofo drove us in his taxi through the north and south campuses, which are separated by agricultural land.  The roads are unpaved, not much better than village streets.  We stopped at the University hospital and went in and walked through the corridors, past patient wards of six or more beds.  The hospital does not feed the patients, Newlove says, so their families must stay nearby and some of them camp on the floors of the corridors. The two stories of the hospital are connected by a long, curved ramp to allow for moving beds without an elevator.  The corridors are open air, the buildings have open courtyards, and the campus is extensive.  No one bothered us as we walked around.

The most impressive university building was “Institute Confucius,” the Chinese language department where Kennedy studied.  The other humanities looked small and poor, and we did not see an arts building at all.

After the University, Newlove took me to the PTPI office, a borrowed room behind two other rooms that are occupied by an electronics repair shop and a driving school.  The PTPI office has a wall of photos of their past activities.  Sylvain was there, a member I had not yet met. The office will soon be moved to a different location.

From the office we walked about 30 yards to visit the courtyard where Newlove lives.  There is a low wall at the street; we climbed up a dirt ramp to go through a gate and down again to the unpaved courtyard.  There are 12 units, some with as many as eight people living inside.  Newlove’s is the farthest to the left, and we entered through a narrow, shaded passageway.  His single room is divided by a curtain and crowded with his belongings.  In the first space are a sofa, a storage cabinet, and a refrigerator (empty, not in use).  Behind the curtain is a bed and a dresser.  Newlove showed me something I had sent him, a calendar with pictures of the Virgin Mary.  He said his friends ask him why he lives in such a place, but he is happy to spend so little, 10,000 CFA ($21) a month, as he had told Joan.

Newlove can walk a few blocks to his church, which we visited next.  Like Catholic churches everywhere, it is open every day.  I missed the name of the church, but we went inside, where a few people were praying.  The floor plan is semicircular, with a semicircular balcony.  I would estimate that it seats about 1,000 people, and Newlove says it is always full for masses.  I didn’t comment out loud, but I was sorry to see that the representations of Jesus showed a fair-skinned man with light brown hair.

We let Fofo go and traveled by moto to Fafadzi’s printing shop, arriving just when he did.  He looked sharp, as he said that he spends his days marketing his services to businesses.  He has two employees sitting at computers.  We didn’t see printing going on, but Fafadzi showed us completed projects, printed vests that he has done for UN agencies.  Newlove picked up six blue and white T-shirts, the kind that his members wear when doing their projects.  He is giving them to the members of our LA chapter.  I planted an idea with Fafadzi that Newlove needs business cards to introduce himself as President of PTPI-Togo.

In the evening yet another PTPI member stopped by, Koumavi, a older, married man, who had been sick over the weekend.  After going out for awhile, Newlove showed up again with a surprise for me, another African suit in black and orange.  The top looks great, and the pants are going back to the tailor for adjustment.

We are meeting fewer than 20 active members of PTPI.  Newlove said that in earlier years there were as many as 65 members, but many were not really helping.  Prospective members now serve for a time before they are accepted as members.

What does Newlove do for a living?  He has commercial education and he has told me in the past that he does a little import-export business.  I didn’t learn any more than that.  He mentioned a project that has not worked out yet, to import used cars.  Nearly all cars in Togo are used cars from Europe, and the law allows them to be filled with other goods with no additional duty to be paid.  He doesn’t have capital to do that just yet, and whatever else he is doing for himself was put on hold for the week that we were visiting.

Day 8, Tuesday, June 24
After a muesli breakfast we spent the morning packing.  (We gave away a lot of gifts, but we also acquired a lot.)  I went out for a walk and happened to pass a store that sells treadle sewing machines, made in China, at prices around $100-120.  Newlove showed up with my pants fixed to fit better.

Joan made a great lunch for us out of things that Chantal had left behind.  We ate with Newlove, Joel and taxi driver Fofo.  At 1:15 we arrived at the orphanage, Orphelinat Cador, and were welcomed by a helper, Mlle. Vivienne.  We brought a gift of a great bag of laundry detergent.

After we had a nice formal visit, I proposed to teach the children the hokey-pokey.  They loved it, Joan got involved, reminding me how it goes.  After we played it twice, Joan wrote words on the blackboard and had the kids practice them (they do not have English in school).

Just then, Mlle. Dorcas came in, and the party went on.  Three boys went out to a storage site and brought back their drums.  Joined by a fourth boy with an iron bell, they made a fine drumming ensemble, one that has won competitions, we were told.  Several girls and a tall boy danced for us, and we heard that the same boy had done some fine pencil drawings on the walls.  Dorcas joined the dancing with joie de vivre.

The children wanted to show us some games they play.  One was slapping hands around a circle to a spoken rhythm; then, at the end of the count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (in English), the last child to be clapped (acclamé) is eliminated.  They played to the end, to a final winner.  In a second game, a player tags each person around the circle until a certain count, then dances with that person, and that one is then “it.”

We had a grand party and we gave out wrapped candies.  Dorcas asked Joan to give her a blessing before leaving, and we both took part with genuine emotion.  An amazing lady.

At home again, we made an extended effort to read my email on Newlove’s computer, but failed.  I learned that if there is something important to say, it needs to go in the subject line.  I could read my subject lines but not open any messages.  When Ken came, he tried with his smartphone and also failed.  Newlove said it can take him three days to open his emails.  But the owner of our apartment in Paris called to say that she will be at the apartment at 8 am tomorrow, and we can move in at 9, as we wish.

Chantal came in the last few minutes to say goodbyes, which became quite emotional.  Fofo’s taxi took Newlove, Joel and us to the airport.  We had our last embraces outside.  Newlove phoned in to an acquaintance of Ken’s who met us inside and helped us through the departure process.  Waiting rooms were air-conditioned and much nicer than the chaotic arrival space we saw a week ago.

On the plane we had a nice talk with some Catholic girls who had helped a priest in a small village for two weeks.  Then we settled back for the overnight flight to Paris.

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Travel Diary — Days 9 – 11, Paris

Day 9, Wednesday, June 26  – Day 11, Friday, June 28
Our days in Paris were restful and much needed after the exertions of Lomé.  The grandiose and modern airport at Charles DeGaulle struck us both as the embodiment of the prosperity and power of France, which after all drew a great deal of wealth out of its colonies in Africa.

Through www.airbnb.com we rented a private apartment in Montmartre, an area well served with porno shops.  Our place was clean, newly re-decorated and marvelously quiet, being in the rear building, away from the street.  The owner may be out of town, but his representative welcomed us, showed us the ropes, and even helped us over the telephone when I couldn’t make the TV work (I had forgotten all the instructions she had given us).  By applying for a card at a nearby public library, I got use of free computers to check email.

An average tourist would undertake much more than we did, but we have already seen the main sights of Paris and didn’t feel a need to rush.  We enjoyed fixing our own meals, including the frozen entrées.

Discovery: Museum of the Romantic Life was only 3 blocks away from our place.  Secluded from the main street, it is one of only a few fine homes of its vintage, 1830, in Paris.  It was the home of a painter, Ary Sheffer, who excelled in portraits and “historic” scenes.  Think of his art as what the Impressionists were rebelling against.  But he was a generous host with great friends, Rossini, Chopin and Sand, Liszt, Gounod, and one of my heroines, singer and composer Pauline Viardot.  There was piano music by Chopin playing quietly while we looked at paintings and memorabilia, including a plaster cast of Chopin’s left hand.

We visited my favorite music store, Arioso, and this time we met the owner, M. Peyrotte, who asked about my publisher, Morty Manus of Alfred. And we went to the famous cemetery named for Père Lachaise to honor the graves of Chopin and Poulenc, the former decked with fresh flowers and the latter sadly neglected.

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Travel Diary, the yoga retreat in Montbron, France

Day 12, Saturday, June 28 – Day 18, Friday, July 4
At the Montparnasse station we easily found most of the members of our yoga group, who spent the following week with us.  We were more than an hour early, but the track number of our train was only announced 20 minutes before departure, so hundreds of people streamed down the track at once.  This was one of the famous high velocity trains (TGV), but boarding was worse than anything we underwent in Africa.  Every seat was taken, and there was not nearly enough room for all of our baggage.  Some suitcases had to be left sitting in the entrance way, to be moved into the coach as passengers got off.

But the ride going southwest to Angoulème took less than 3 hours, as we joked that the champagne cart must be coming any minute.  Our yoga teacher Wendy met us along with Bruce, our friend from last year in Chichester, England.  They drove two vans so there was plenty of room for the 40 minute ride to Montbron.

We ten yoga students all lived for the week in the home of Bruce and Sally Woodhead, a stately building at one end of a town square that is lined with linden trees, blooming fragrantly at the time.  We had a large bedroom overlooking the extensive gardens behind the house, really six areas each planted with distinctive color schemes.  The house is loaded with antiques and books, and in one living room are two grand pianos.

At 4 pm tea, Bruce introduced us to a local sweet white wine, pineau.  Sally’s cooking deserves a Michelin star.  I noted the menu every evening, but here I will just list the first dinner: salade niçoise and a mélange of grains, including quinoa, with cheesecake for dessert.

Wendy offered an hour of yoga each morning and an hour before dinner.  I was the only one who did all 14 hours in the week.  Bruce remodeled a shed into a yoga/art studio perfect for our classes, except twice when we enjoyed yoga on the lawn.

Our outings on different days: We went to a village swap meet where I bought some gifts and we watched rival villages compete in stunts like a three-legged race or rolling a hay bale.  The castle of the Duke of Rochefoucauld (rosh-foo-koh), the 43rd generation of his family to own that property.  We did not meet him, but his grandmother, who lives there, spent 90 minutes with us, showing us the rooms and telling us the history.  She made the point that people who are born in castles don’t care about them; it is people who marry into the family, like herself, who keep them going.  In Montbron we visited another swap meet and the local museum of prehistory, which stretches back past the Druids all the way to the Neanderthals.

We skipped a couple of outings and took time for Joan to practice Chopin and for me to read.  We all enjoyed a trip to nearby Brantome, where a natural spring supported settlements from the earliest times and a prosperous monastery in the Middle Ages.

Day 19, Saturday, July 5 – Day 20, Sunday, July 6
Returning to Paris by train, we found our reserved hotel on the Left Bank: tiny rooms, but a view over the street from the 6th floor and helpful staff.  We chose the hotel because it is on Rue Monge, one block from our favorite shops on Rue Mouffetard.  At dinner time we walked up Mouffetard to see the apartment building where we lived for two months in 2004.  The owner of the nearby CD/LP store remembered Joan and confirmed for us that our corner was indeed where Woody Allen filmed the magic taxi that picked up Owen Wilson every night in Midnight in Paris.  We had a wonderful pizza for dinner.

And Sunday was the day of our smooth and happy return home to find a happy dog and the house well cared for by our friend Mariana.

Thanks for reading.

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My teachers’ teacher

Someone kindly asked what insights I might have about the teaching of Anna E. Schoen-René, my vocal grandmother.  I put the question to two other singers who studied with Julius Huehn at the Eastman School of Music.  Both answered that they did not recall that he ever quoted her.  One wrote, “I remember Papa Huehn mentioning Schoen-René, but I couldn’t say that I remember anything specific that he said about her.  Can we assume that he took on her methods of teaching?  Who knows?  I think we all create our own methods of teaching, don’t you?  He used the Vaccai exercises and gave us each a repertoire list that he felt was appropriate for us to accomplish in a semester.  He inspired us to be interpreters of the songs we sang.  He expected that we would be true to the music and the text.  He was a very special person and his students all loved him (but I doubt that Schoen-Rene had much to do with that!)”

I agree that “we all create our own methods,” and I never pretend that either Viardot or Schoen-René would approve of my singing or my teaching.  Still, I want to tell you what I can as the former student of two Schoen-René students, Sonia Essin and Julius Huehn.

I began at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music as a student of Franklin Bens, a young man at the time.  I now think that he was a good teacher, and many years later he was the principal teacher of Kathleen Battle.  But for obscure reasons, I changed teachers midway in my sophomore year.  That turned out badly, and I finished the year with shattered confidence.

I went to Miss Essin as a junior, and her strongly positive approach to life and to singing saved me.  The bedrock of her teaching was “abdominal support,” which she definitely attributed to Schoen-René.  “Take a full breath and then push down on the abdominal muscles” was her frequent admonition.  I was to sing with a firm, constant legato, vocalizing always on “open O,” as in German offen or French objet.  The corners of the mouth were drawn in toward the center, the mouth opening had a vertical feeling, and the preferred tone was somewhat dark.  As a contralto, Miss Essin had sung probably more oratorio than opera, and she encouraged me to sing Bach, Mozart and Schubert, especially.

After my two years of military obligation, Miss Essin was disappointed that I did not return to her but comforted that I went to another Schoen-René singer.  At the Eastman I studied with Papa Huehn for five semesters, earning the master’s degree and performer’s certificate.  Miss Essin had known him when they were both students, but they did not keep in touch after he went into the Met at an early age, singing dramatic baritone roles until World War II, when he served in the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific.

In contrast to Miss Essin, Mr. Huehn said nothing that I can recall about how to breathe, except that he reminded me to keep the chest high and broadly open.  His first concern with me was to re-establish legato and then to extend the range in full voice.  His tonal preference was exactly as I described for Miss Essin, moderately dark, based on “open O.”

With undergraduates Mr. Huehn used the Vaccai exercises.  We graduate students did elaborate technical exercises from Shakespeare’s Art of Singing, some of which were drilled for speed while others were slowed to stretch the breath line.  He was adamant in training long legato phrases; physical necessity was never an excuse for taking a musically or textually inappropriate breath.  He expressly rejected the notion of “placing the voice.”  He used the image of an open throat: “It’s a big pipe.”  I understood from him that the resonance sensations one feels are the result of singing well, not a reliable goal in themselves.

Regrettably, I seldom wrote down any notes directly after lessons, and even those few I cannot find now.  When I began to teach, it was frustrating to have few memories of how my teachers had trained me.  I have tried to apply their tonal ideal without many specifics about their methods.

I have one anecdote about Schoen-René.  In Cincinnati I had a few lessons with Laura Mae (Mastin) Titus.  She had taught Clifford Harvuot before he went to New York.  When he was studying with Schoen-René, Mrs. Titus visited New York and Harvuot invited her to sit in on one of his lessons.  She told me that during the lesson, Harvuot sang one aria after another without comment, until Schoen-René stopped him once and said, “I would not sing that in my neck.”  Apparently, he was able to repeat the passage and correct it to her satisfaction.

I don’t know whether Mrs. Titus would agree, but my interpretation is that Schoen-René was not about to give away secrets to another singing teacher.  Nor could she let unhealthy singing pass by her without commenting on it.

In my student years there was no evidence of a spirit of sharing knowledge from one studio to another. Also, NATS in its early days was not just national but nationalistic.  Non-citizens were not admitted to membership, and I believe that even foreign born U. S. citizens were not welcome.  Miss Essin told me that Schoen-René counseled her not to join NATS, and Miss Essin later regretted accepting that advice.

Also, in my student years, falsetto and yodel were dirty words.  I was told that they were dangerous and would weaken or harm the full voice.  What I learned about the falsetto voice was entirely self-taught.  Now we understand that these techniques are not vocal malpractice, but vocal choices, possibly useful in teaching.

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Mozart’s Exit Music

This week I taught a master class at Vanguard University (Costa Mesa CA), where a delightful young soprano sang one of Despina’s arias from Cosí fan tutte.  Near the beginning of Act II, the maid servant exhorts the two sisters who are her employers that they should enjoy life and take some new, temporary lovers while they wait for their fiancés to return from military service.  It’s a fun aria, giving Despina lots of opportunities for lively miming.  She is frankly bragging about her knowledge of men, and no one doubts that her knowledge is based on experience, even if Despina may be no older than the more elegant sisters.

As I restudied the aria, what struck me was an odd piece of musical invention right at the end, the music by which Despina walks off the stage.  Characters do not always exit at the end of their arias, but in some cases that I could remember off hand, Mozart provided exit music that was melodically new, even contrasting with the musical materials in the arias.  I thought of the aria that I have performed more than any other, “Il mio tesoro” in Don Giovanni.  That aria is a semi-martial one, in which the Don Ottavio promises that he will defeat Giovanni in a duel.  At the end, Ottavio has 9 measures of music to leave the stage:
two measures of new, but still martial music;
one measure of a downward drooping scale;
two measures that were heard earlier in association with comforting his mourning fiancée;
two more measures of martial music; and
firmly reiterated tonic chords.
So, in Ottavio’s exit music we have heard his courage and determination, as well as his tender feelings for the woman he loves.

Another postlude came to mind, one from The Magic Flute.  After Pamina sings an ineffably sad lament because she fears that Tamino no longer loves her, there is a beat of silence and then the orchestra plays music that is completely new.  What is striking is that although the aria is in 6/8 meter, the exit music is not.  The written notation looks like 6/8 meter, but the music is audibly in 3/4. with 6/8 returning only for the repeated tonic chords of the final measure.

What happens at the end of Despina’s aria is still more odd, more original.  And it is comical, I’m convinced.  At the beginning of the aria, Despina advised the sisters about how to handle men and then she sang an aside to the audience: “They seem to like my teaching.  Hurray for Despina, who knows how to be a good servant.”  After the aside, she reviewed all of her earlier advice and went on to a vigorous affirmation that women need to behave as queens, demanding obedience from their admirers.

Despina closes her sermon with repeated cadences and a flashy high note, giving her as big and emphatic an ending for her aria as if she were a noble heroine (as she thinks herself to be).  Then something very odd happens: the orchestra starts to reprise some of her music, but plays only one measure and then stops dead.  After two beats of silence, the music starts once more and Despina sings along, repeating the words of her self-congratulatory aside.  Why did Mozart write that false start for the orchestra?

A great operatic composer is constantly visualizing what will happen on the stage.  Here’s what I think Mozart may have imagined: Despina ends her advice to the sisters so brilliantly that the audience bursts into applause.  She may even take a bow.  The conductor cues the orchestra and they start playing exit music.  But Despina stops them!  With an imperious hand gesture, she takes control of the situation and signals the orchestra to begin again, this time while she sings along.  She sings her own exit music, reaching the wings on her last note, in control to the end.

An ambitious graduate student might make a study of Mozart’s exit music.  These three examples make me think that there must be many more such postludes that are intriguing or touching or hilarious examples of his boundless imagination.

Now a bit of trivia for whoever has read this far.  Have you thought about the names of the women in this opera?  Nice Italian girls should have saints’ names, like Maria, Susanna or Clara.  The sisters in this opera are called “Beautiful Gold” (Dorabella) and “Lily Flower” (Fiordiligi).  Their names are a clear sign that this opera is not about real life (any more than what we now call a “reality show”).  Despina’s name is another that is not in found in real Italian families.  Does it mean anything?

When I went to Greece on vacation, I took along a book of useful Greek phrases, such as “Where is the nearest laundry?” and “May I reserve a room for tonight?”  There among phrases you would use in a hotel was the word for “maid,” “thespina,” spelled with theta, θ.  Remember that when Italians try to pronounce “th” it will turn into “d,” and you know how Despina got her name.  I don’t know whether Mozart knew any Greek, but Da Ponte had a theological education that must have included a little Greek.

So Beautiful Gold and Lily Flower had a maid named Maid!

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