Saturday, January 26, 2008

Anglican Idol

For most of my life I have been a closet singer. It is, of course, all quite Freudian. My father, Oedipus, has a magnificent, classically trained baritone voice. There are arias buried in the deepest strata of my memory that he planted there in the first years of my life. Che vuol ballare, Signor Contino ! from Mozart's Il Nozze de Figaro, Why do the nations so furiously rage together from Handel's Messiah, O, Lord, now take away my life ! from Mendelssohn's Elijah. He was a music teacher, and so was my mother; she was also a trained and skilled singer. I was surrounded by songbirds.

And me ? The assumption was, of course, that, as the child of talented singers, I too must have talent. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Hart, said as much as she assigned me a spot in the front row of the chorus. A week later she demoted me to the back row. "You don't open your mouth wide enough," she explained. Humiliated, I related this injustice to my parents. They were amused, and led me to understand that it probably wasn't how wide I opened my mouth, but what came out of it that had prompted my demotion. That was it. From then on I would simply keep my musical mouth shut.

And I did. Except to insert various clarinets and recorders, which seemed so much less risky and intimate. If there were squeaks, it was the horn and not me. One can blame a whole multitude of sins on a cracked reed or a spit-filled fipple.

So for my whole life I took as my anthem the little poem by Stephen Crane that begins

There was a man with a tongue of wood
who essayed to sing
and in truth it was lamentable.

When I started attending church 18 months ago the long-dormant issue resurfaced. There was that pesky little matter of hymns, the old making a joyful noise unto the Lord thing. Music was, if not the heart of the matter, at least the winding path into that heart. In the long months before my return I listened obsessively to Arvo Part's De Profundus; sacred music had always seemed to me to be a cry from the depths, a wordless petition of one's whole being to the Source, a prayer for mercy and forgiveness and of thanksgiving and praise.

So I cranked open my nearly ankylosed jaw, opened my too-small mouth and -- sang. Or perhaps that should be "sang." I'd forgotten the very real issue of my vocal range. I found I could sing comfortably from D below middle C to F above middle C. Only a little over an octave, and in a register more normally populated by tenors and baritones. No hymns, it turns out, have been written with me in mind. So be it, I decided, and brought everything down an octave.

After a few months I began to enjoy singing, to look forward to it. I was among friends, Christians, charitable folks. No one, yet, had turned to me with a Puritanical finger applied to their lips, hissing "Shhhhhh !" One Sunday during coffee hour I mentioned to M., a member of the choir, how I was surprised that I actually liked singing.

"Then you must join the choir !" she said, practically dragging me over to the director.

I had played instruments and could read music ? Great ! Sing down an octave ? No problem !

I was in.

So I muddled along for a few weeks, booming along in my vocal comfort zone, when the director, J., addressing the sopranos, said, "Feel it behind your nose."

Behind your nose ????

I've never been all that in touch with my body. I tend to inhabit a region about two inches above my head where body parts are merely theoretical constructs. I do remember several Aha ! moments in clarinet and recorder playing when matters of tongue, throat and diaphragm became suddenly clear. But I'd never particularly considered that there might be anatomic considerations to singing. So I turned to that 21st century know-it-all, Google. There was a head voice ? and a chest voice ? Who knew !

So, secretly, in my car or when the house was empty, I tiptoed up from my dank vocal basement into the dusty attic. There were notes up there ! G,A,B,C and, on a good day, even a D ! Notes that cracked like an aging boy soprano's, to be sure, but notes nonetheless, notes that, with work, might be coaxed into usability. Was I actually an alto ?

Our new choir director, S., had also been remarkably tolerant of my low octaves -- our choir is small, 5-7 members lately, and all women, including several absolutely angelic sopranos -- but on a recent anthem he said, "I noticed some of you singing down an octave, I'd like to do this one in unison." Some of you ? He is a kind man. I felt my cheeks redden. Was I opening my mouth wide enough ? This was a challenge. I would spend more time behind my nose.

So, during Advent, driving to work, I sang along with a recording of several of the Messiah's kick-ass alto solos: He is li - -i--- ike a refiner's fire !" I wailed, then O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion !

It was then that I decided I was actually a counter-tenor. If a guy can sing way up there in the sinus cavities, why not me ? So I popped a David Daniels CD in the player and memorized two of his tunes -- Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Linden Lea," and Henry Purcell's "Evening Hymn," both of which contain high D's. Day after day I traversed the roads between Waltham and Medford belting out these lovely songs, feeling more and more like a diva with every passing measure. It was great -- soaring and effortless as a dream of flying. Hallelu -u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u- jah!

From which one wakens on the floor by the bed. Tangled up in the lampcord. On top of the cat. The mezzo-soprano cat.

So last week that iconic TV extravaganza, American Idol, returned. Confiteor: I am drawn to it with a horrid fascination that shames me. To the spectacle of terrible singers who have no idea how awful they are. This year I brought to it a terrible trepidation: perhaps I am one of them, their Baudelairian semblable, and soeur. Shrieking out Ralph Vaughan Williams' tunes in my car, deluding myself that I can sing. Processing down the Episcopal aisle behind the crucifer, mangling the top notes of Hyfrydol with Saint (Simon) Peter and Saint Paul(a) sneering sardonic judgments from the stained glass.

Maybe I should return to the counsel of Mrs. Hart, may God rest her soul, and once again keep my too-small mouth discretely shut. Maybe I should simply settle for the small comfort at the end of the Crane poem and be content.

There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content.

As a child I memorized two psalms, the 23rd and the 100th. My mother helped me learn the 100th. I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, and it must have been a Sunday School assignment. I have a visual memory: as she coaches me I am sitting on the countertop of our little kitchen. Her hair is pinned up in brush rollers, and I am in my pajamas. It is dark outside, and the kitchen glows with cozy, yellow light. I am perched next to the shiny Rotisserie with the word Capri imprinted in longhand on the thick glass door. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord ! I recite, and It is he who hath made us, and not we ourselves. Not we ourselves, indeed. Thy will, not mine, Lord, be done.

I think I should preface each choir rehearsal with the words that begin the morning office: Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise ! That's a properly kenotic approach. No idols need apply.

In the 1980's my shrink once made me attend an EST-like encounter group. A woman stood in front of the group tasked to do what she dreaded most: sing. She squirmed, mute, unable to make a sound. I watched in complete empathic terror from my seat. That was me. Standing before my father, mouth open, paralyzed, dumb-struck. My palms began to sweat. What if they called on me ?

Then, I'd have probably fled. And now ?

Something (I'd like to think) like this. Bow tie and all !

Thanks be to God !

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Even in winter -- maybe especially in winter -- the community garden yields a rich crop of images. The going is tough between the little, fenced-in plots: boot-pocked snow, frozen slick and solid on the surface, collapses under my weight, and my gyroscope is in overdrive. The tangled remnants of plants, both cultivated and wild, weave through and overtop lopsided walls of wood and wire. I stop to rewind my scarf. I am a refugee in an abandoned shantytown.

It is midwinter. Daylight is wan and still brief. We gather indoors where it is warm and try to make the fall's harvest last. The world is cold, harsh and inhospitable. Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night we mutter at mid-day.

It's the season for lying fallow, for hibernating. I can feel it in my bones. At night I crawl under four blankets and read. I am slowly traversing the vast expanse of Moby Dick in my snug bed-boat; a cat, the largest, warmest one, sleeps at my feet. I feel her warmth through my socks, through four blankets. My nose is cold. I navigate Melville's majestic, complex prose; the surge and ebb of text lull me; I founder and sink, then float, weightless, on currents of dream.

How much sweeter it is than wakefulness with all its gravity and perplexity: to be free of both clinging and being bound. To fly, float in a medium of infinite, eternal buoyancy.

But, of course, it's a small respite: the cat leaves, Moby Dick falls off the bed with a leviathan thud, the din of the world muscles in with the sound of a million simultaneous crucifixions.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That thing that overtakes me, clutching at my heart and throat, that familiar thing that unpredictably overwhelms, that nausea, that vertigo it is none other than Timor domini, the nameless, prostrating awe that follows the slightest intimation of the presence of God.

It is a sensation of absolute contingency; how can we possibly venture the word "Love" for such a whirlwind ? Love calls us to the things of the world the poet said. The line shows up like a tether when things get too metaphysically windy, reminding me of the Down To Earth that is Christ. Bread, wine. Feed my sheep. Love God, love one another. Christ calls us to the the things of the world.

So I walk through the winter garden again taking pictures of weeds -- beings that have collapsed, grown smaller and simpler, drier and stiffer. There is a twinge in my left knee when I squat; the skin of my hands is chafed and dry in the cold air. Under the snow lies the frozen earth; in the frozen earth lie all manner of seeds and sleeping things.

Thank you for all the blessings of this life I mutter, morning, noon and night.

And even in midwinter -- maybe especially in midwinter -- there are simulacra of resurrections everywhere.

The Newborn sleeps in his manger, in a snug embrace with death; there is a faint whiff of myrrh in the winter air.

The husk of a flowering sun hangs above the low garden plots, stiff as a host.

Standing in the ruined garden, I turn and face what has loved -- what loves -- me into being. I turn and turn and it is everywhere -- in the blinding glare of the low sun in the west, in the row of leafless trees in the east, in the empty blue overhead, in the weedy snow underfoot. I stand, and look -- love -- back.