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Nothing is Lost by Addition: of Cherubs and Anthems
Forty years ago this month, I had my first argument with the first girl I ever loved. On the very same afternoon she gave me my very first real kiss, Bettina Sonnleithner told me I had terrible taste in architecture.
I was 16, spending a month visiting my Austrian grandmother in Vienna. My father’s mother gave English lessons, and she asked a series of her students to show me around the city over the course of my visit. Bettina was the second of those students I met, and after a day with her, I had no desire to meet anyone else. Bettina was a few weeks my senior, and I was instantly smitten. She was less enraptured, but I managed to win her interest, at least for a few happy days.
Bettina and I explored museums and churches and cafes. We talked politics and music and art for hours, and she somehow indulged my pretentiousness and bravado. Bettina drew a line, though, when I pronounced the Peterskirche to be the most beautiful church I’d ever seen. Vienna’s Peterskirche is baroque at its most extravagant; its interior is often cited as an outstanding example of rococo design. Everything is gilded, everything is over the top, and having stuffed the nave and apse with angels both painted and sculpted, the builders looked and said, “You know what, Eckhart? We need like nine more cherubs.”
It is too much, but I made it clear I thought it was perfect. Bettina was not having it. She mocked me in two languages and declared the obvious superiority of the austere and the gothic. I stuck to my guns, rare for me with anyone I liked, and eventually the girl decided that if I bought her ice cream, she’d forgive me. “Only something sweet can make me forget your bad taste.”
In my family, we have many mottos, some of them contradictory, and we deploy them as needed to justify our choices. One of my favorites is “Nothing is lost by addition.” My American grandmother said it often to justify one more ornament on an already encrusted and groaning Christmas tree, or one more stone rabbit in the ranch garden, or one more distant cousin showing up unexpectedly at the Fourth of July.
The fun thing about this particular motto is that it is so obviously wrong. Something is very much lost when you add more people to the lifeboat than it can safely hold; something is lost when you add a new lover without telling your partner; something is lost when everyone who shows up to run the race gets a first-place trophy.
And yet, I like to say it about some things, particularly cherubs in churches or lights on a tree.
I thought about the motto last Friday, at my son’s fifth-grade culmination. My younger child is off to junior high next year, and his elementary school held a fine ceremony to send off the bunny and his classmates. We had coffee and donuts for the parents, we had Elgar playing on a loop as the culminating children marched to their seats, and we rose and sang the national anthem.
The principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker an instant after the final “brave.”
“Please remain standing for the Black National Anthem.”
Sure enough, we launched into Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. Once that was completed, we sat. (One other musical note: the new culminants recessed out to “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz. Older Gen Xers and Boomers can picture Michael Jackson’s elasticity.)
I like Lift Every Voice a lot. The first time I ever heard it paired with the Star-Spangled Banner was at the Bill Pickett Rodeo, and it is a good tune – though the chord change halfway through is a bit of a stunner.
The real question is the obvious one: is something lost by adding the second national anthem? Is the Black National Anthem different from the Israeli National Anthem, which my children sang throughout their earliest schooling experiences, attending a strongly Zionist Hebrew day school? Lift Every Voice is a different song to honor the same loyalty, while Hatikvah, in all its stirring beauty, is sung to celebrate another nation.
Is something lost to love both Israel and America? To have dual citizenships? To call many places home?
Is something lost when you put the Pride flag on the White House next to the Stars and Stripes?
I suppose that many of our most impassioned debates in this country track with the substance of my argument with Bettina. What are the additions that enhance our common life, and what are the additions that fragment it? When is one more cherub on the ceiling, one more stripe on the flag, or one more anthem at the school too much? What are the additions that become subtractions?
I have no answers, but I think these are worthy questions.