the light lit up the sky, a golden glow in a fog toward the heavens. it is one of the chicago botanic garden’s iconic displays, this tunnel of light, begging you to look up, be wrapped in its light, acknowledge the goose bumps. the luminous winter cathedral drawing people toward it. they stood, marveling, they strolled slowly, they posed for photographs, the millions of starry twinkling lights enveloping all.
i’m not much for cathedrals, really. i never have been; it’s nothing new. while i can appreciate their stunning beauty and the incredible feat it often took to build or install, they have never brought me closer to faith than any other place…outside, in the presence of others, at the piano, alone in wonder.
in my life – and in three and a half decades of my work life – i have found churches to not only house beauty. i have found churches to also house ugly. and so, i was relieved to read the words of john pavlovitz. it is important to distinguish the difference – the building is not God. and, sometimes, the best place to find the supreme deity you are seeking – no matter the name, no matter the denomination or affiliation, no matter the book of written word – is not in a place, not in a building.
the people – so many gathered there – under the arch of the winter cathedral seemed softer. the glow of light on their faces, they moved slower, offered to photograph others, gazed up. just as a community of people in a church often do, they seemed to come together, one of the benefits of “the building”. but, as i have found time and again – and, if we are to speak truth – those benefits sometimes run out. and people within become consumed by that which would never be considered a basic tenet of faith – the hypocrisies of power and control and discrimination and subjugation and competition, toxic things that “[don’t] feel like Love anymore”*.
as i walked under the night sky i knew that the cathedral would be close to the last installation on the guided path. i steeled myself for its overtones, even with its undeniable beauty.
we stood back and watched people enter it. in awe. it is truly glorious.
we approached and there was this tiny voice inside my head naysaying “church” to the other tiny voice exclaiming “wow”. both.
yet ethereal was there and it shone down on us as we walked through to the other side. and then we were once again under a night sky, full of stars we could see and stars we couldn’t see. just like faith.
“you are fully freed to run into the wide open spaces of this world, and to experience life and faith and beauty in ways you never thought possible…”*
“…and now, you’re here, in a world of hypocrisy and your love can heal us all.” (you’re here – kerri sherwood)
in a universe fraught with challenge, an overabundance of materialism, a shortage of generous kindness, with unprecedented division and bigotry and marginalization of people, it would seem that whatever deity to whom we choose to turn – by whatever name we choose to whisper in prayer or utter in beseeching voices – that, in our turning, we look for light. it would seem that our fervent wish be healing.
and here – another slice of the celebration of the season – from years ago:
and – in this week of preparation – i am reminded of previous years, many, many people gathered in community singing in celebration.
it is the work and the gift of a minister of music to help bring ancient stories to the hearts of people, to help those stories resonate – to help that which is not seen, that which is so mysterious, be felt – through music. we choose melodies that soar, harmonies that weep; we choose lyrics that tug.
my memory bank is full of solos and anthems and cantatas from decades of bringing them to congregations. this is an excerpt of narration and a song from a cantata i composed years ago called “the light is here – a christmas cantata”. this particular recording was performed by the choir of first united methodist church.
when i was choosing seats for the elton john concert in north carolina, the – predictably – least expensive seats were the ones with an obscured view. a pillar, a speaker, a wall…something was in front of the seats, not allowing you to see. or maybe the seats were behind the horizon line of the stage, the apron, making elton basically invisible.
clearly these seats – still dang expensive – weren’t right. i mean, if you can’t see him perform and you can’t really see the jumbotron why not just sit and listen to ej cd’s instead? clearly, that’s not the point.
so i stayed away from the obscured-view-seats and chose seats from which we could see all the action. high up, yes. but we could see it all.
we passed a sign in the chicago botanic garden, posted by a tiny trail. “by screening out views and creating hidden areas, this garden entices you to explore just beyond what you can see.” we couldn’t see into the garden…so we took the little trail in. it was beautiful and a little magical. a little secret garden. not obvious. beyond sight.
the work of an artist – of any medium – is like that. find the places just beyond. find the line of melody that tugs, that urges, that compels. bring those places to others so that they might explore them as well. past the horizon. past the stage. you can still hear elton from the obscured-view seats and you can still feel the energy.
in a thirty-plus year career as a minister of music i always felt that it was my job to introduce the obscured secret garden to others. for faith – regardless of denomination – is that which we cannot see, that which we cannot touch. my mission was simply to open hearts through music to see beyond what you can see, to explore beyond sight. grounding in the most basic of tenets – love, kindness, generosity, peace, embrace of all others, support, truth, fairness, equality, grace – i felt it imperative to offer music that might viscerally touch a person who might not otherwise be touched, to hold it all out there gently so that a soul could easily grasp it, hold it, be wrapped in it, be comforted by it. faith in something bigger in this universe is found in a river of changing times and circumstances and staying steadfast is like the path a leaf takes on that river, both raging whitewater and lazy currents. we open our hearts to explore, even though we cannot see.
it might be time to play my piano again. maybe. it’s been a long time – a couple years now, save for a few moments a few times. i haven’t been able to play it – the magic has been obscured from view – since, well, since i felt blindsided. but now…maybe now…finally…i can see the trail into the studio. maybe now the black and white notes lifting into the air – will heal hurting even just a little, will allow exploration and sight beyond the obvious tangible horizon, will open a heart again.
most of my friends who are my age are retired. they have had long and dedicated careers and, at the time of retirement, chose to retire and were ready to change directions and do something new.
some of them are grandparents now and wee babies and rambunctious toddlers, children growing, growing, take up their time. precious moments spent with these tinies, indelibly etched on their hearts, both.
some of them have chosen to spend time immersed in reading. they have cultivated friend groups who share their passion for diving into books, they discuss and ask questions and share.
some of them have opted for sizing up, adding acreage and livestock to their lives. i can think of no better example of this than linda who, with bill, has adopted multiple alpaca and a horse and a goat and the-most-adorable-donkeys.
others have elected sizing down, heading south, condos and pools and beaches and sun in their future.
some, like the wander women, have chosen a plan, shedding much of the life paraphernalia we all accumulate – absolute free and loose adventure in their sixties, opening themselves up to thru-hike and bike and camp and, inbetween, live full-time in their rv.
and some feel lost, trying on various hobbies for size, seeking satisfaction and fulfillment, an elusive goal.
i am not retired. i am no longer holding a we-pay-you-to-do-this-job but i’m not retired. i haven’t quite figured it all out yet, much like, well, probably, many of you. but i spend lots of time creating…writing, cartooning, writing. i have found birds and plants are speaking to me more these days and i have also found that i don’t require being around a lot of people. i guess i’m a little bit more introverted than i thought.
people have told me that – in losing my last position in a four decades long career path of music ministry – i can redefine. they, in all innocence and with sincerity, have told me that it’s an opportunity for a new beginning. i hasten to say that they might be sighing inside to themselves as they say this, grateful that they don’t have to start anew. we’ve all done it…sometimes it’s easier to be generously gracious when it’s not your challenge. nevertheless, it does feel like a new beginning, so that part is right.
but, in seeking inspiration, coming from life, from the universe, from reading an article, from a conversation, from moments blowing dry my hair, i realize that maybe in looking forward i am avoiding that which is obvious.
linda had more time to pick up knitting needles after she retired. she uses the wool from her alpaca, which she has cleaned and spins, to create beautiful knitted gifts. my favorite fingerless gloves, the ones that always remind me of the canyonlands with my beloved daughter, were made by her. she returned – in this time of a-little-more-space – to what she knew, what she loved to do.
the map of inspiration may bring me forward. but in its forward-ness, it may remind me also of what i know. the map might point out my waiting piano, the pencils scattered on the music stand, the boom mic stand in the corner. it might point out the pieces of writing i’ve started and put aside. it might point out the glee i get from producing our cartoon. it might point out the camera and the poetry and the ahhh’s they bring me. it might connect the dots back. to me.
i read it on a thread. someone commented to an author i follow. “never be shy about your work,” she encouraged. i took a screenshot.
never be shy about your work.
humility is a virtue, we are taught. desiderata reminds us, “if you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” always.
but somewhere in there – in the spectrum between meekness and arrogance – is the space to be proud of what you do, to stand in it, to share it.
“what do you do?” people ask. many people can answer that in a word. as artists, it often takes a paragraph, all run-on sentences with no breath so as not to get that lost-in-space glazed look on the asker’s face.
when i broke both of my wrists, the medical staff wrapped up both of them, casting and explaining the possible ramifications of the breaks “at my age”. when i fell the second time on a wet floor and re-injured my right wrist to the point of it having a frighteningly small amount of range of motion, the specialists asked questions and each politely said, “i heard you play the piano” as if i sat around noodling, surrounded by porcelain figurines and teacups, playing chopin-light or maybe little easy-piano-pop-hits. i was literally hesitant (!) to speak and qualified my statement-to-come by saying, “i’m not saying this to be self-aggrandizing, but….” and then i continued, “but because it’s a fact that i have 15 albums out in the world and piano is my major instrument and this could change my life work.”
those specialists had no qualms about saying they were specialists. none. i wondered why i hesitated, why i was apologetic.
never be shy about your work.
i have worked hard in my area of specialty. i have struggled like any artist, have written on scraps of paper and flimsy napkins, have squeezed out time in-between everything else that takes time, have stood in the rain playing and singing on flatbeds, have lugged boxes and boxes and boxes of cds. i have also sold thousands and thousands of albums and have millions of streams. it doesn’t equate to any kind of riches except the kind that is the deep satisfaction of doing something you love.
i used to be much more aggressive – and assertive – about “getting the word out” about my music. though i recognize that vocal styles come and go, instrumental piano is not irrelevant…it has no shelf life. it’s just as peaceful and evocative today as the days i composed it, the days i recorded it. so that would mean that 14 of these 15 albums still have some sales merit, not just the $.000079 cent so “generously” royaltied by online streaming.
never be shy about your work.
in the last church position i held, i was in a meeting with two of the leaders. they were streaming the services and i was commenting on the level of professionalism we needed to try to achieve. i wasn’t willing to link my personal and professional social media to this online streaming until the sound quality (in particular) was indeed much better. one of the leaders stared at me, clear disdain on his face, and told me he had no idea why i would say such a thing or hold such a stance. i explained that i am a yamaha artist and that only PART of my work in the world was the job (which he deliberately pointed out was part-time) i had at that place. for the umbrella of my life i was an artist and that i have always strived to bring the best quality to my work. i told him that it was important to me to make sure that nothing i did musically in the public arena was schlocky (including at that place) and that, as a yamaha artist with fifteen albums, i would hold to my position of not-sharing until there was something more professional to share. i would not undermine my own artistry because mediocrity was ok with him.
never be shy about your work.
he – eventually – found a way to fire me. in the deep dark cloak of covid. with no one really knowing why, including me. well, except, maybe, for retaliation. que sera.
never be shy about your work.
i am proud of the albums that will eventually find their way into antique stores around the country. i see them on resale sites now.
but i also know that – from time to time – someone writes to me. and in their writing they tell me that my music has meant something to them. my music has helped them, given them a sense of serenity, made them think, made them dance.
and that is what counts.
so before the vintage-store-influx i guess it’s my job now to not be shy.
i am a composer. i am a pianist. i am a singer-songwriter and recording artist. i am a writer. i love being on stage, telling stories, playing music. i love the feel of wood under my feet, a boom mic in front of me. i have fifteen albums and a few singles. i’m researching how to get more out of pandora and itunes and all the streaming devices out there. i’m 63 but i’m thinking i might still be relevant. i may need your help because no one gets anywhere in a tiny bubble; no one walks this path alone.
every sunday morning for years and years we have sent a photograph to each other. every single sunday, mostly without fail. there might be one or two we missed, but no more than that. it is a cherished tradition and i envision us as little old ladies still sending texted photos on sunday mornings.
it started because most people we know are not sitting on a pipe organ bench first thing on a sunday morning. since we both were, we shared “this is where i am in the world right now and i am thinking of you” sentiments, knowing, without saying all those words, the other would completely understand all that meant.
for over a year now i have continued to receive them: benchviews, a slice of her church, a close-up of a pew or ornate woodwork, a candle, linens draped on the chancel, flowers, registration stops of the organ, piano keys, measures of music – all while my photos to her have dramatically changed.
instead, my early sunday morning photographs include various quilts, coffee mugs, shadows playing on the wall or on the fence, views of snow falling between miniblinds, the backyard, airbnb’s where we have awakened, out-of-town-out-the-window, glorious breakfast, and dogdog. the rule is – where you are right now – and since that is no longer at a church my view is sometimes narrower and sometimes broader, both.
not working at church every single sunday has given me much to think about. at first i really missed it. truth, for a long time i really missed it. thirty-something years is a long time. i was devastated by the loss of our community-family and a job i loved. i missed the organ bench and knowing which pipes were ornery and the choir and the ukulele band and those hauntingly beautiful handbells. i missed the curmudgeon of a piano. i missed dueting with the guitarist – boom mics and cables and the occasional feedback. i missed the tiny pew up front and the familiar musty smell of the balcony.
each church i worked at through the years has had its magic. but each church i worked at through the years has also had its toxins. not unlike -really- any other place of employment, being on the “inside” affords a different view – snapshots of the good, the bad and, definitely, the ugly. churches are not immune to that. and that’s the stuff i don’t miss.
because in our hearts, the one place we go that we would expect to be consistent, certainly not divergent, with mission – of kindness and grace in some manner or form – would be the religious institution we have chosen to be part of. we would expect the people there – whether in leadership or in congregation – to go the extra mile, to set an example, to navigate and solve difficulty, to negotiate differences, to reject-forswear-renounce personal agenda, to seek unity and transparency, to sort to love.
seeing – up close and personal – that isn’t the case is a rude awakening. no, we don’t expect perfection anywhere. yes, we do expect trying.
i adore seeing susan’s from-the-bench pictures, all so viscerally intimate and always part of me. and i love sending her my view as well. so, as it has been for over a year now, she’ll continue to get photos off-the-bench now. it’s not what it was.
dogga laid tucked in on the quilt next to me as i sipped coffee and watched the light gather in corners of the room. sunday morning. i took this picture to send her.
and i realized that i – finally – don’t miss that organ bench anymore.
in her gravelly voice, from the back row of the choir room, i heard one of the bass singers say, “i used to be a soprano!” everyone laughed and laughed. and then we sang.
laughter was a dominant force in that room. there is nothing quite as motivating as laughter-punctuating-work, nothing quite as unifying as laughter, nothing quite as joyful as the laughter of others. we had no shortage of laughter.
for in the choir room, the ukulele band gathering, the handbell practice, the worship band rehearsal, with soloists and in ensemble, laughter and joy were how i led.
linda was the council president when she hired me as the minister of music almost a decade ago. they never saw another president who led with her understated panache and wisdom and authenticity. “a pillar of the church,” someone said. yes. a powerful woman – who was who she was.
the first time i met her – at my interview way back when – she arrived late, disheveled and with a dirty t-shirt on. i wondered who that woman was. i wondered why she arrived looking like that. as it turned out, she had been cooking for the masses – it could have been ten thousand for the enormous heapings of food she would prepare – and she had been in the basement kitchen. she pitched in, in every way. her presence – in all ways – was a given.
there is much i never knew about her, but i knew this. she was honest and blunt and generous. she was kind to everyone, adored her family, and she stood tall as she faced down loss and serious health issues. she was straight-up, as they say.
years ago she asked me to sing, on some eventual day, at her memorial service. i first waved off her thoughts of mortality – for a woman like this is needed in this world – and then i agreed. “of course i will,” i said to her, “it would be my honor.”
her service was last friday – a week ago now – and i was not there. the church to which she had dedicated her energy and love had fired me – over a year ago now. (i mean, who gets fired from a church??)
i don’t know if she knew much about that, for her world had become smaller in her struggle for health. i do know that, had she still been in the position she was when i first arrived, i would still be there. for linda had a way of making sure others had perspective, that balance was achieved, that agenda was dispelled, that conflict was resolved, that transparency was paramount and that the best interest of the whole was held in open hearts.
alas, that wasn’t the case.
i was unable to sing for her service and, much like the service for H, i was unable to be there.
we lit a candle for linda on friday. we talked about her. we told our favorite stories. we laughed. i posted a thought on facebook. it was important for me to acknowledge this amazing woman, the bass-who-used-to-be-a-soprano.
and now, the whole wide world is without her. and as the whole wide world looks on, filmy incandescent threads of her, her spirit, her dedication, her fortitude, her voice weave around us.
i have asked more than one person if they feel as i do – like they are living in an alternate reality.
from the moment i broke both my wrists to now, the smack-dab middle of the pandemic, it has felt that way – like we are in some kind of alternate reality. a reality with different rules. a different set of mores. different judgment. why?
when i used to be a minister of music, way-back-when in florida over 30 years ago, i worked with a wonderfully-southern georgia tech pastor, kirk. we had a long tenure together and implicitly relied on each other. at a distinct point in time, he decided to turn over all the wedding rehearsals to me. i remember the moment of that decision, the moment he sighed, exasperated at the disrespectful lack of regard for simple guidelines.
the rehearsal ahead of time went well. we lined up the wedding party and they walked up the aisle to their chosen music, went through the faked vows and such and then walked back down the aisle. kirk, in his treasured drawl, slowly reiterated the guidelines to them about the next day – their wedding day. the guidelines were common sense: reminders about what to do or not do and how to be sure that this very-important-day would escape judgment by the perspective-of-time years later.
they did not heed his advice.
instead, the groom showed up inebriated, as did the videographer.
the groom stumbled multiple times over his vows, and, literally being held up by the bride, finally punted out, “forever and ever, till we die” in lieu of the more delicate loving words of the standard vow. the videographer vaulted over the stationary communion rail in the front of the sanctuary and sprinted to the back of the church in an effort to beat the wedding party there and film their exit. it was a circus. i wonder how they view all that now, decades later, with judgment-as-it-passes-through-the years. did it stand the test of time? i wonder if they ask, ‘why?’
we are living this now.
we have a choice.
to decide to prevail by the pandemic safety guidelines and be able to look back with clear consciences, knowing we did all we could to heed advice, or to throw caution to the wind and see what happens.
looking around, watching as people react and push back against this very-important-time, i suspect judgment will not be on our side; it will not stand the test of time.
no one else. there was literally no one else i knew who took organ lessons. eight years old and i was the only one. everyone else i knew took piano lessons. they went to the new local music store –munro music on larkfield road in east northport – and had lessons in itty studios downstairs and came back upstairs to pick out sheet music from a big wall featuring the latest hits and books of collected artists, written out for various levels of piano-playing ability. me? i went to mr. i-never-knew-if-he-even-had-a-first-name sexton’s house (now, think about the torture my peers had with that name) and took organ lessons in the addition adjacent to the garage. there was no wall of sheet music, were no cool guitars hanging up begging to be purchased, no amplifiers or drums. just that one organ. no windy or ode to billie joe or i’m a believer easy piano for me. it was beautiful dreamer and long, long ago. and hymns. lots of hymns. but i had been asking for lessons since i was five and the little chord organ that was my grandmother’s was moved aside and a ‘real’ organ with two manuals (keyboards) and real pedals and cha-cha button settings was added to the corner of the dining room that was next to the kitchen and the living room.
when i was ten i tearfully played the pipe organ for my brother’s wedding, the processional as my sweet sister-in-law walked down the aisle to my big brother. yesterday i was talking to john whelan, a master celtic accordionist the exact same age as me, and we talked about the first real gig we did. his was at 12 and he actually got paid. mine was this wedding and, for obvious reasons, payment was out of the question. i got to wear a really pretty peach-colored party dress and white shoulder stole and wept my way through the difficult piece.
after some time, i somehow convinced my parents that they needed both an organ and a piano and they signed me up for piano lessons. joan ostrander, the very chic music teacher, was my first piano teacher and i adored her. she pushed me and i adored that too. i spent long hours practicing on the piano bench with my dog missi sleeping underneath, my dad whistling in the background.
in years to come i studied with the teacher-of-all-teachers alan walker and was convinced that the piano and i were kindred. i taught more piano lessons on long island (and later florida and even wisconsin) than i can remember, back then driving from one house to another, delighting in each student’s joy playing the piano and progress no matter the pace, hoping to emulate the teaching style of this amazingly kind man. after lessons we talked life and ham radio and ate open-faced crunchy peanut butter sandwiches. music is not just about music, you know.
during my undergrad, i studied piano in college with one of the professors but kept bringing in pieces of original music and kept veering off course from assigned large scale pieces, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
as no real surprise, i majored in music composition, the first (?) step toward living as an artist, the first step in a road that leads to here and now. so much in-between. the gigging composer music timeline is filled with albums, concerts, performances, cd sales, radio and tv, qvc appearances, barnes & noble and borders, listening wall placement, phone calls, yamaha, traveling, shipping and more shipping, recording labels, carrying boxes, standing in the rain on flatbed trucks playing and singing, driving, driving, driving, press releases, graphic design, writing, recording, supportive family and friends and coworkers and a person named hope hughes.
but that organ. it has kept on re-appearing. somehow it is one of the threads that has woven its way through my life. there aren’t that many of us out here: people who play the organ, who can finesse a chosen timbre through the pipes and who can actually play lines of bass notes on the pedals. those lessons from the very beginning somehow set the stage for me to work for three decades already as a minister of music. conducting choirs and handbells and ukulele bands and worship bands, choosing music for services and performing groups, leading and shaping worship and, yep, playing the organ…it has been a constant. there are days that i will pull out all the stops and play as loud as the organ pipes will allow. its bellowing echoes through the sanctuary and i giggle as i think of my ten year old self, sitting on an organ bench in williston park on long island and crying.
what would i have thought if i had known that fifty years later i would still be sitting on an organ bench?
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we can never repeat it. that piece we played together during a quiet moment in the service. moments where notes suspended, combined with hearts and lingered in the air. we noodled our way through it and, even just after it was over, we could not speak to how it was shaped or where it went.
it is my absolute joy to work with someone who can join me in this. jim, our beloved guitarist, is a ready partner. hand signals of the key, head nod count offs and we are on our way. sometimes the noodling takes us to a more intense, busy place and sometimes it is the stuff of nirvana, peaceful, thoughtful serenity. always it is rewarding for both of us; we share a smile when it’s done and know that the ethers now own that piece of music. never to be repeated.
improvisation is a driving force – we play at least seven pieces of music every service. with skeletal lead sheets we choose how to perform each one. sometimes we liken our performance to ‘how it was done on the recording’ and sometimes we have our own agenda, working it into the style or feel we wish it to convey. but, because we don’t simply read every note on the page (since they aren’t on the page), we know the performance of each piece will also never be repeated. it is not likely that most realize we are drawing from deep inside, from knowledge or experience, from heart, when we play. they likely think we are reading music that is all written out. i don’t suppose it matters what they think as long as we deliver what we intend. as long as we shape the service emotionally, for that is what the music is all about.
as a composer, my favorite moments, in addition to those sweet moments of harmony when we, with our respective instruments sing and can hear the lining up of the stars, are those moments of noodling. we have no fear of what’s next. we have no preconceived notion of where to go. we just start. and we follow where the music leads us. it’s ephemeral. it starts from the dust and returns to the dust. and is never to be repeated.