Friday, January 22, 2010

In the waters of baptism....

I am learning that being flexible is extremely important. This was never more clear than the day I sang, not a funeral in a warm church, but a graveside service in a snowy, New England cemetery in 19 degree weather.
At first, I was irritated and felt that I was being put on the spot when I was called by the Funeral Director who wanted to know if I knew ANYONE (hint, hint) who would be ( crazy enough)willing to come to the cemetery in Watertown and sing “Danny Boy” at the post-funeral –graveside- service of an Irishman. His family had desperately wanted this song sung at the funeral and it was not allowed by the priest who had a strict policy of only permitting hymns to be sung during the Mass. I must admit that I am always moved by heritage specific repertoire, but not generally so that it will drive me to want to stand in snow to my ankles singing into the unforgiving atmosphere. In any case, I was told to name my price. It was ridiculously high, as I held a secret hope that it would be rejected and I would not have to take another turn down this very strange road as a Funeral Singer. When it was accepted, there was no turning back; they must really want this song.
As I drove down the highway on my way to the cemetery, I was in utter disbelief at what I was apparently willing to do for grocery money (or a new pair of shoes) and could feel my pride blowing away with the snow off the roof of my car. Forty minutes and a few wrong turns later, I drove through the entry gate of the cemetery. I was a few minutes early, so I pulled my car into a spot where I would be able to see when the Funeral Director and her crew arrived. I reached for my book in the seat next to me, but found myself hypnotized by the grave stones surrounding me. I was absolutely fascinated that each one represented a life, or two, or six, depending on if it was an individual or family stone. Looking at the dates, I was relieved to see that most people had live a long life and were generally born around the time the Titanic sank. Some even still had dashes next to their birth date. This held for me, some strange assurance that I still had time to figure things out. I could not help but think about our own family stone back in Wakefield, which displayed the names and dates of some so dear to me. The dashes, in some cases held many years, but some-way too few.
Soon came the Funeral procession and I knew it was show time. After a few quick scales to warm up again, I emerged from the car into the bitter cold. A far cry from the heat of the stage-lights, the wind whipping around my uncovered head felt more like a baptism of fire. The bright sun seemed to mock me. I merged with the crowd approaching the casket which had, by now, been brought to its place to hover above the hole in the ground. Clutching my music, I found a place where I could survey the mourners until my services were needed. I nodded to the Funeral Director as her eyes fell upon me, so that she would know that I was ready for her cue. As the priest began reading from his large book of prayers, I waited and watched. There was now a group of about sixty people around the casket. I was blending into the crowd on the opposite side of casket from the deceased man’s family. His children were barely older than I. The widow was seated and her son’s hand was upon her shoulder. I fast forwarded in my brain to one of my life’s worst fears: being seated, crying, by a graveside with my grown son’s hand on my shoulder.
When it was time, I was summoned forward until I was wedged between the priest and the Funeral Director. The only thing separating me from the space that the widow inhabited was the mahogany box that housed her love’s body. As I began to sing, I heard her breathing become labored and broken. I heard subtle cries from her children as she grabbed their hands and then I could not look.
I stared at my music, taking in as much cold air as my lungs would allow between each phrase. Behind my sunglasses involuntary tears streamed down my face and liquid ran from my nose. I hoped that they did not notice, for I would never want them to think that I was so presumptuous as to join in their tears. I could not tell if it was the bitter cold or the sting of this circle of sorrow that caused this reaction; perhaps it was both. I could hear my voice being carried off by the wind. The only way that I could be sure it was heard, was by the deep, low, hum of the widow’s cry.
I don’t know that I will ever again experience such a close encounter with a sadness that is not mine. What I do know is that I was brought to a place that I truly believed that I did not want to be and while there, I found something for which I had desperately been looking-a question that I needed to be answered: What is the value of a song? In the time it took to sing “Danny Boy” I received an answer. It has been so different to sing this music that poses so little vocal or musical challenge in comparison to what I usually sing. Its simplicity has caused me to silently question its impact and value. The truth is that the merit of any song lies deep within the heart of its listener. A song is a lifetime in a moment. No song is better than the next. I am no better singing Puccini than I am when I am singing an old Irish tune. The singer must never believe that they are bigger than the song: that is the secret. This day brought to me such an experience of purification. All pride had vanished and for the first time ever, I was the song. Expression was not imposed, because it was born of the moment. I could not even hear it. I could only feel it.
I now understand that grief is a melody that the heart sings when it longs for what was. The theme itself assuages the pain and born from that moment are all things new. In this way, the widow and I sang together.
I can only hope that I gave enough to the woman who had paid so much for a song.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

...and take you to the Holy City.

Recently, I sang the funeral of a world traveler. The Eulogy was given by her niece who clearly admired her as an independent, single, woman who did, said and went, wherever she wanted. I was taken in by the account of her travels and the description that her niece offered of her both physically and personally. I drew a mental picture of a well-dressed, sophisticated woman, with solid finances and deep appreciation of all things cultural. I loved the fifteen minutes that I spent following her around this world that she had now left behind; imagining that she had the key in her pocket to some wonderful existence and that at any minute she would toss it over her shoulder to me. She no longer needed hers and I had my hands held out feeling that I had not found mine.
The interesting thing about these life summaries is that they are just that: a summary. Void of detail. There had to be days when her flight did not leave on time, or she was frustrated because she had never found Mr. Right, Wrong, or Indifferent to travel with her. She must have been lonely, at times, in Paris, Rome or Barcelona. Right? It must be terrible to have everyone in your family have a family, and you are left to run around the world chasing the light of great cities.
This brief train of thought, (in a surge of self awareness) I had to admit, was born of a deep, warm jealousy of a woman who was now dead. She reminded me of this great, jet-setting, dream-chasing gal, who’s only responsibility was to the love of her life, her career and her Holy City: New York. That would be me, circa 1991.
Just to walk around New York, live among the colorful citizens, eat her food, wear her clothes, was all I wanted. I had stayed, worked and traveled in beautiful places, but none better than New York. The mid-day bustle, late trains to auditions, quick burrito ( scratch that, only have time for a hot pretzel), street fairs, gypsy cabs, rehearsals, show, drinks with friends, dinner with colleagues, television on the couch, sirens blazing, home, home, wonderful home.
Then came the greatest adventure: After a trip to St. Luke’s Roosevelt, it was stroller up the stairs, down the stairs, grocery bags hung on the back of the stroller, treat us both to lunch at Sarabeth’s, get a babysitter so I can take the audition, find a school, we all make friends and live happily ever after.
After another trip to St. Luke’s Roosevelt, the story changed: Hot pavement to cool grass, Ollie’s Take Out to McDonald’s drive through and the 9 train to Volvo Cross Country. This is where the great woman being eulogized and I part ways. I had made choices that turned into more choices that left me, I thought, with no choices.
You may wonder why this funeral, out of all the hundreds of funerals that I have sung, merits this mentioning, since it seemed to have stirred bad feelings and throw me into a kind of torpor so deep that I almost could not sing “Jesus Remember Me”. Well the truth is, that in that very moment I heard the key hit the ground. The woman had tossed it from my imagination into my own magical existence and I was too enthralled by the light to catch it. I never wanted what she had or I would have chosen it. At every turn I chose, and lived and chose again. I have built my Holy City around me and it makes no difference where I go, where I live or what I do. I am so grateful that I was there to hear her story. A story that bore such stark contrast to the one that I have lived so far, that I was able to choose again.