Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“GOD, Who, in creating human nature, did wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully restored it….”

It can be very easy to judge a dead person when you have never met them and you are only formulating your opinions on the things that you are seeing and hearing at their funeral. They are actually the easiest target for judgment because you are never going to get their side of the story. Let’s face it, judging people and situations comes a lot more easily and with a greater deal of satisfaction than we all like or want to admit. Often times when I am in judgment mode it is because I am working overtime to divert attention from my own fears and weakness. For the better portion of my existence I was completely unaware that I was doing this. My conscious feeling was that I was offering a valuable service in so acutely pointing out the fallibility of others to my nearest and dearest. I was intuitive and knowledgeable! As I look back on my notes regarding a funeral for a very glamorous gal named Doris, I am forced to see right through myself on the topic of judgment: It was a spring day on the cusp of warmth and as I walked into the church, I remembered being told that this was a memorial mass. In other words, there is no casket or ashes and the mass is in the traditional format rather than the funeral text. This type of service is easier for me to sing because typically the family has had some time to process and it feels less like standing in a hurricane of grief. When I entered the church there, to my great surprise, was a massive portrait of the deceased set on a large easel in front of the steps leading up to the altar. This was not just a large photograph; it was a painted portrait with an ornate, gilded frame like ones that the Royals commission. She was a lovely looking woman of about 35 years at the time it was painted. Her features were clear-almost plain. Her grey eyes were fixed and stern and I surmised that she spent most of her days taking no prisoners. It was her red lipstick that gave her away completely. Full tilt glamour on a slightly curled lip that told the story that her eyes dared not tell. She was seated on a dramatic, chaise with carved wooden border. It was obvious that the portrait dated sometime during the days of Camelot, as her dark blond hair was coiffed like Jackie Kennedy and she wore a tailored, moss green dress that looked as if there would have been a jacket to go over her bare arms, but she chose not to wear it. She wore three strands of pearls and as I gazed intently at her face, I found myself fiddling with the heavy strands of faux Chanel pearls that I often don for these occasions. If I had to choose a few adjectives, on the spot, to describe my first impressions of this portrait I would have quickly said; authentically confident, bold and bewitching. But, at this point, left to my own default devices, my thoughts turned to how grotesquely showy and out of place it seemed standing in the humble church. I also remembered that her children picked the music for the service. How did a woman with four children find time to have a portrait PAINTED?! Could her husband have possibly thought that this was a prudent dispensation of family resources? I can’t find time for a mani pedi with two sons (and by the way, I color my own hair because it is too expensive) and this woman can sit for a painter? I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring-I know how long this takes! Then the real judgments roll in: she must not have been a very attentive mother or wife. She must not have pursued a career. She never learned to cook. When it came time for Doris’ eulogy, it was delivered by her widower who looked to me to be very well cared for, especially considering his age. He courageously delivered the words because, as he said, “nobody else could have”. It was a tender story of many years in love, raising their family and working together. Nothing fancy-just a great life. She had died suddenly without ever being ill. I heard nothing of the shallow woman that I had designed from looking at her portrait. She seemed to have changed all the kid’s diapers and cleaned her own floors. The only reference that I heard to Queen-Doris-of-the-Oil-Painting, was that she loved fashion and beauty, worked outside of the home and saved to have fine things. Go figure- A woman before her time that wanted her sense of worth and purpose to be reflected in a lovely outer appearance, rather than a fear-filled Diva, wielding a credit card, striving to create an image that had absolutely no inner reference point. It seemed, at the time, to be an irrefrangible rule of my profession: Fake it til you make it. That may have worked for some, but it could never actually resonate with me, no matter how hard I tried. After years of shooting in the dark on brightly lit stages, having a face down with my deepest demon of unworthiness was long overdue and it was going to happen in that choir loft. Whether many of us realize it or not, when we feel least deserving we are most critical. I spent many of my tender years of career building judging other people’s singing calling it discriminating and selective. But how many of us do this when we feel threatened, unworthy and just plain scared that there is no place for us? What I began to realize was that as the Funeral Singer I never compared myself to other Funeral Singers!! Every circumstance in which I found myself singing was perfectly and effortlessly designed for me to give my best-to open my heart and heal my corner of the world. It amazes me how we change everything when we offer our gifts with that pure intention- Showing up with our lipstick on (feel free to replace lipstick with whatever reflects your hit-it-out-of-the-park fabulousness) ready to give what we have without checking or worrying or comparing. Ego be gone! Now the challenge has become singing my other jobs with the soul of the Funeral Singer. As for Doris, when I was on my way out of the church the Funeral Director was collecting the portrait, as well as a collage of candid photographs that had arrived after I had passed before the mass. I asked if I could quickly survey the pictures. There she was with children on her lap, laughing with friends, dancing with her husband, relaxing in a lawn chair; looking different in every picture, yet so completely lovely and real that she could have jumped off the photo paper. “Beautiful.”, the Funeral Director said. “Yes she is.”, I answered. She was worth every drop of paint that it took to commemorate her time as queen of her life and she knew it. Wonderful, dignified Doris caused me to recognize that it is not only alright to love ourselves, but it is against our true nature not to. Not selfishness or self centeredness, but real, courageous self respect. It is the proverbial oxygen mask that gives us the strength to breathe life into our homes, relationships and professions. You may not ever catch me sitting for a portrait, but you will definitely find me in the pedicure chair.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

…let us console one another…

One might think that routine exposure to death and dying would trigger chronic feelings of depression, fear, loss of faith and grief; especially when you have sung a string of funerals involving the death of a young person or those who seem especially beloved. In my experience, this has not always been the case. Taking a peripheral seat, as I do, often causes me to ponder the role of humor, both in the initial stages of grief and in the overall healing process. For example, one of the most significant losses in my life was that of my Aunt Josephine who was a matriarch and source of comfort love and wisdom throughout my young life. Quite frankly, she was like a caricature of the Italian Old Maid (house coat and all) who shoveled pasta and broccoli rabe down our throats with a full dose of old world advice and religious (Catholic of course) perspective. She had no filters when offering commentary on anything from someone’s physical appearance to their ethnic background. (Didn’t you know that Italians are the only honest, smart, productive, good-looking people on this planet??) I would forgive every word of blatant offense and political incorrectness, because, well….she was so damned funny. Her habits, idiosyncrasies, the things she saved, the things she cooked, the things she said, as I think back and write this now, make me laugh out loud. She knew not what she said and was really only offering up the world as she saw it through the sieve of her gigantic heart and very narrow life experiences; colored only by inferences of cultural traditions, family demands and pride. Perhaps this unspoken understanding of love, tradition and family prepared my sister and me for the day when we would be hired to help at a funeral where we did not play or sing. In fact, we did not understand a word of what was going on. It was the funeral of an obviously beloved family matriarch of a Vietnamese family. The church had hired us to be there “just in case” we needed to jump in and help the full staff of family musicians all prepared to sing, play the piano, guitar and whatever else they had there that day. The loft was packed with cousins, granddaughters, brothers-in-law-you name it. It was My Big Fat Vietnamese Funeral in the making and my only assignment was to shut the microphones on and off. I was feeling useless and out of place; at least let me sing an Alleluia for my fee! I could hardly keep a straight face looking across the loft at my sister by the piano, who had to basically speak sign language to be sure to get them all the music that they needed for the traditional parts of the mass, only to come to understand that they came replete with their own Vietnamese versions of everything. Squeezed by the crowd into a tiny spot in the corner next to the control box, I pressed the button on and off as each song sprung forth from the makeshift choir of family love. They cried as the hundreds (I mean hundreds) of family members processed into the church behind a man carrying high a huge portrait of the deceased. They sobbed as three of the younger members of the choir sang the Psalm in the most raw and dulcet tones with complete reverence and passion for the words that I could not understand. The communion song went on and on for at least 15 minutes, soaring repetitively on the wailing wave of sorrow. Boy, I thought, could anyone be missed as much as this woman? Every time I pressed the microphone controls on or off, I received such looks of indescribable gratitude; as if I had given the choir a box of gold. The entire time, my sister and I shared glances of disbelief trying so hard to hold back the laughter that can threaten to erupt in any situation where you feel uncomfortable, foreign, useless or stupid. When everyone was settled after communion, a man approached the lectern with what looked like twenty pages of paper sure to be the eulogy. I braced myself for the wailing. At first, I found myself frustrated by the fact that I could not understand the story that he was telling. I wanted so badly to know what she was like, what she did with her time, her profession, her likes and dislikes; all the reasons behind this fanfare and homage. Initially, the crowd was quiet-a few sniffles here and there. As the man continued, his seemingly unintelligible words evoked giggles; the kind of giggles laden with fondness and reminiscence. Then, a gradual crescendo erupted into full on uproarious laughter. My sister and I could not help but join in release of all the bewilderment that we had experienced over the last hour. We looked at each other and laughed, as if we had held on for dear life and could finally let go. We could dissolve into our own memories. The miracle occurred when members of the choir put their hands on our shoulders and laughed with us, as if my sister and I spontaneously understood Vietnamese. We were all laughing together for all that we understood and could never understand. Laughing in celebration of our relatives who may not always mean to make us laugh, but do. Most of all, we were laughing at ourselves laughing-lost in the humor and connectedness that we share, even when language fails us. The memory building power of fun and laughter is stronger than just about any relationship fiber that I can think of. Joy will penetrate the darkness of loss, if you have spent enough days in laughter with one that you love. That day, laughing amongst those whom I had never met and did not understand, I could see the face of my sister engaged in the same type of laughter that we share with our family; in spite of some of our people taking parts of our joy away with them. It was magnificent to share the happy part of remembering along with our momentary family in the choir loft. We may not have been laughing at the same thing, but everyone understood the involuntary force of solace cutting through the center part of mourning with every story of the beloved that was imbued with the perfect memory of what it felt like to be near them. It is the same for all us-whether or not we share country, language or creed. Aunt Josie said it best: “We are all God’s children.”