Sunday, September 16, 2012

To the greater glory…

            I go to church to sing.
            There it is. I know I will be struck by lightning. For our family, God does not work in mysterious ways at all. Nope. He acts quickly and clearly.           
            Example:  My mother and my grandmother (her mother-in-law) were never very fond of each other. My father’s sudden death at age 54 left my mother, in her grieving and upended state, to be the one to keep a daily eye on my grandmother since my father’s sister lived 1,000 miles away in Florida. My mother religiously visited Grandma, who lived only minutes up the street from us. This was hardship duty, but she did it without a whimper. I was in college at the time and what I heard most often was how much my mother admired (not to say coveted) one of Grandma’s china lamps. After 3½ years, at the age of 82, my grandmother died in her sleep. My aunt came up from Florida, the estate was settled, my grandmother’s house was dismantled, and my aunt was fine with my mother taking the china lamp. By this time, I was home following graduation and my mother enlisted me to drive while she cradled the base of the lamp in her lap, with the lampshade, protected by a blanket, sitting safely behind us on the back seat. Not having decided yet the best placement for the lamp, my mother put it down in the basement on the floor so that there was no danger of its falling off a table. Less than two weeks later, a freak storm of nearly hurricane intensity sprang up and a mighty gust of wind blew open the cellar door. SMASH went the lamp. My mother told this story in a matter of fact way: it was not mysterious at all that God would frown on her taking possession of this coveted lamp once owned by a woman she did not like. A devout Episcopalian, my mother understood the message immediately and had no hard feelings toward God.
            Now back to me and church…
            I have been singing Episcopal hymns in Episcopal churches since I was old enough to stay “up” in church for the service instead of going “down” to the undercroft (read “basement”) for story time. And for decades I was singing from the choir stalls. Choirs, especially good choirs, are regularly reminded that they are not performing. Choir music is part of the service. No applause, no encores, no “bravos.” (Even if you happen to have done a fine job as soprano soloist in Schubert’s “Mass in G Major.”)
            But that was okay. During those decades, concurrent with singing in church, I had other singing opportunities that were performances. Applause welcome. (Plus any individual words of praise.). At Hollidaysburg Junior High I starred in the 9th grade operetta, “The Man from Venus.” In high school, the Baldwin Trio were featured at chorus concerts. (See “Harry Goes to Hollywood.”) In college, my rendition of “When I’m 64” was preserved for posterity in the first recording of my women’s a cappella group. As an adult, I sang with a number of organizations, from 150-member volunteer choruses that performed Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Philadelphia Orchestra to a 16-member professional chamber choir that performed Thomas Tallis in local churches.
            Once our children were both old enough to stay “up” in church, I stopped singing in the choir. I had all those other singing outlets and I wanted to sit in the pew with my family.
            About 13 years ago, I gave up even my extracurricular singing. Kids’ school events and our work schedules were just too tight to jam in any rehearsals. My only outlet for singing was from the pew on Sunday mornings--and that is not performing. I confess that sometimes I would get carried away, especially at Christmas, as I knew by heart all the fancy descants which I would then belt out with gusto. This led to embarrassment on the part of my children, but also, often enough, to someone turning to me and saying, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Then the kids grew up. Going to church on Sunday has become less compelling then doing the crossword puzzle.
            However, when we were last up on the Cape driving to dinner in a new area, Jon pointed: “Look, there’s an Episcopal church!” He had struck a chord. I had been feeling like I was missing something. So the Sunday before Labor Day I went off to church. Seating no more than 125 souls, the building was a small jewel, with white-washed walls, dark wood beams, and brilliant stained glass windows. And they had a great music program. At the 10:00 a.m. service I was so happy to be chanting the liturgy and singing the Navy Hymn and “Come, Labor On” (hymns, coincidentally, from my father’s 1970 funeral that still make me tear up). When the service concluded, two people sped toward me, one still in her choir robe.
            “I heard you from the choir stall. Next time you are here, please come join us.”
            “Oh, that’s what I was going to say! You should be in the choir!’”
            And from the trim gray-haired woman in the seersucker suit who had been sitting in front of me, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Ah. That’s what I’d been missing. Adulation…of me!
            I am a vainglorious creature, and fully expect to be a pile of ashes momentarily.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Moon

August 31, 2012: Cape Cod, MA

The end of August really annoys me.

It’s not so much that September is around the corner and the next step means back to school. Although I do work for a university, I’m on an administrator’s schedule, so September is no different for me than July. And I genuinely enjoy the changing of the seasons. It’s just that the end of August is so sudden about it.

Consider the transition from fall to winter. When does that happen? No set time. There can be snow on Halloween and t-shirt running weather on Christmas. The leaves take forever to come down. Week after week of raking. The township makes leaf pick-ups from November 1 through December 10. There’s a gradual building up to the holiday madness from September on; the winter solstice doesn’t take anyone by surprise.

And consider February. I’ve always thought that February gets a bum rap as the dreariest month. In fact, February has as many daylight hours as October. It’s just that nobody notices. And the first snowdrops come up in February to make way for crocuses in March. All giving us time to prepare for April and the early forsythia and daffodils before there are even any leaves on the trees. So when did winter end?

In late April we might put in the screens on the side porch and get out a couple of chairs. Three weeks later we might retrieve the grill from the garage, then wait another week before planting the impatiens. And we can even wait another week or so before we buy the hanging baskets for the front doorway. Summer comes that gradually.

But the end of August slams into summer like a hurricane making landfall. No subtlety about it. Almost overnight the world seems to go from daylight and birds chirping at 5:00 to dark silence as late as 6:00 a.m. In my morning run, I’m loping past the tidy landscapes of Plush Mill Road when I smell it: the pungent odor of decaying leaves. The impatiens that were perky just a few weeks ago now look sallow, with snubbed nodes on their stems instead of incipient buds. Recognizing the inevitable, I’m tempted to stop my rounds of watering. Why bother? Can’t stop the decline now!

Take the last couple days. We arrived on the Cape Thursday afternoon, having left only 10 days before. The end of August had done its damage here as well. 

Our planters and baskets of flowers that had thrived all summer through extended absences and benign neglect now look like props for the Addams Family, dead stems collapsed over the sides of their containers. Our neighbors returned to Albany only a week ago, yet their black-eyed-Susans that had reigned in glorious sunny gold for three months now stand stiff with nothing left but charred tops. Although the thermometer said it was 82°, an undercurrent of chill raised the hair on my forearms and Jon wanted to know if he could build a fire. The scrub trees edging the pond are pock-marked with leaves the color of dried blood, and at our favorite farm stand pumpkins are pushing aside the peaches. There is no more reading on the deck until 7:30 p.m. -- we can’t see the pages of our books. And we have to turn on the lights to eat dinner.

All of this change in 10 days.

In defiance of the end of August bearing down on us, tonight, August 31, Jon and I put a steak on the grill, boiled up some corn, and had a salad with native tomatoes. Afterwards we walked down to the landing of the pond. The breeze was now soft and the moon was shining so brightly that the water shimmered silver and we could see our shadows.

The moon wasn’t really blue, but we were. Good-bye, summer.