VARIATIONS ON A THEME
There is a niche in the panoply of human suffering that is little recognized. And even when it is, it’s misunderstood – actually thought to be a blessing. I know. I myself am tormented by this affliction.
I refer to having a happy childhood. Believe me, it’s not the unqualified benison it’s thought to be. To tell the truth, it’s kind of embarrassing.
Here’s how my childhood was.
I had a grandmother who would crush me in her bosom when the family would arrive at her house for a visit (thereby making up for my parents’ undemonstrativeness). She called me “sugar.” She provided a model of unqualified love.
I had all the friends I could keep up with. Of those still alive, many are still friends
I had a church experience that provided above all an affirming group to be part of. Little is more important to a young person. In a way that transcends the passage of time, John, Jim, Bruce, Allen, Paul, Patty, Gwen, and Sybil are still a part of me, for which I’m grateful.
It was also enlightening, a sort of petri dish that grew self-discovery. At church one afternoon, I attended a presentation by a couple of college students describing their experience with Church World Service at summer work camps in India. As they talked and went through their slides, I became aware in large measure – I can’t find a better way to put it – of who I am. I didn’t understand the message at the time, and I’m hard-pressed to articulate it even now. Nevertheless, it gave me a grounding that made being an adolescent (and an adult) less arduous.
And joyous. Church was all about singing – hymns, gospel songs, camp songs, and anthems by the choir that I was part of from sixth grade until I left for college.
In church and out, music was as natural as breathing. For lack of resolution, I never mastered any of the several instruments I tried (ukulele at six, piano at seven, then violin, then French horn), but the effort was enjoyable and beneficial anyway.
After three operations on my shoulder ended the possibility of Friday-night heroics, the high school band director issued me a bass trombone and later an E-flat horn (not used much anymore) and said “march!” because he needed the slots filled. I sounded a few notes, but pretty much played “dummy bugle.” I suppose Mr. Whedbee put up with it because I stayed in step.
Nevertheless, all that, plus the singing, added up to being able to read music well enough to sing in choirs as an adult, and it gave me a start on recognizing the difference between a bunch of notes played any which way and a line that is musical.
I made some money on my own so that I was able to buy a 1932 Studebaker on my fourteenth birthday and have nice clothes and go out with girls and have fun.
It was an innocent time, and that kept me – all of us – mostly safe from harm. Recreational drug use was unheard of. So far as I knew, almost no one was sexually active. I sure wasn’t. (I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.) I didn’t drink beer, though some of the boys and the more daring girls did. I didn’t smoke cigarettes. There is much to recommend such a “Leave It to Beaver” life.
I had a stay-at-home Mother who was energetically engaged in whatever my brother and I were doing. She was nothing like the helicopter moms or tiger moms of today; she just enjoyed and supported our pursuits, academic and extracurricular. (And she was never “Mom” with it’s connotation of being a pal; she was always “Mother.”) While setting clear though largely unspoken behavioral limits, she and my Dad gave us the necessary space to become who were becoming. Mother stayed busy with a variety of activities (playing violin among other things) in addition to her calling as a homemaker, but except for a couple of times when she was in a hospital, I don’t recall ever arriving home and not finding her there, waiting and interested.
My Dad was dependable in that same way. He was always at the door at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning when I finished my paper route.
It’s difficult to complain about such a growing up, but I accept the challenge.
Here’s one unwelcome outcome. A childhood without suffering makes it difficult to achieve commercial success in the kind of writing I’m drawn to. Publishers and agents have an overriding preference for work that’s about overcoming hardship. They dream of little else than finding the next Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes.
I’ve examined carefully the details of my early life in coastal Texas in an effort to find something painful. The nearest I’ve come is the discomfort of being hot and sweaty for much of the year and sleeping pressed against the screen next to my bed hoping for the cool breeze that has yet to blow and waking in soaking sheets. Not exactly McCourt-level suffering, is it? And McCourt is what the literary bosses must have.
But even if I were not compelled to be an essayist/memoirist/novelist, even I were a postman or an accountant, a happy childhood would have another unwelcome effect. It takes away any excuse for bad behavior and for failure. The rule is “to whom much is given, much is required.” No exceptions.
So, if I do things other people might not remark – say, enjoy a delicious, not-good-for-you meal of fried chicken with biscuits and gravy or go out on my boat without using sunscreen or buy a lottery ticket and fail to win, I suffer remorse for which a sufficiently painful form of self-flagellation has not been invented. I’ve let down the people who reared me so lovingly, I’ve not been worthy of the blessed childhood the Almighty granted me.
Take it from me. Growing up pain-free is not all it’s cracked up to be. We who had stormless childhoods are people who walk in darkness, unhappy about not having anything to be unhappy about.
(First published as a “View from the Porch” column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on February 9, 2016.)
* * *
BUT FOR JOSE
Josemaria Gonzalez has enriched my life to an extent that is beyond the telling of it, but I’m going to try.
Jose was organist and choir director at Austin’s All Saints Episcopal Church from 1969 to 1990. I absorbed his influence while singing there under his direction and in the years since as a friend who has grown constantly more dear.
Choir rehearsal was on Thursday evenings. We met in the parish hall in a room just big enough to accommodate an upright piano and fifteen or twenty singers. We’d sing for an hour, take a break for coffee (Jose may have loved coffee as much as he did music), then sing some more, and I’d go home filled with music.
If memory serves, we would start by running quickly through the hymns and service music for the coming Sunday. Most of us were well acquainted with both, but to Jose there was always room for improvement. It also served as a warm-up for the serious work of learning the greatest of Anglican and Catholic anthems from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.
Ceremonially, All Saints was mainstream Episcopalian – not happy-clappy but neither were there sanctus bells, asperges, holy water font, or the angelus. I would have preferred it to have all of the latter elements and the solemnity that goes with them. I infer that Jose would have also, but we never discussed it.
We did sing traditional responses, canticles, and other service music. They were mostly by Merbecke, a contemporary of Cranmer, the sixteenth-century architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or Healey Willan, an early twentieth century Canadian-English composer with a conservative bent.
The Jubilate, Venite, and the creeds became a core part of my being. Not just the words and notes either, but the rendering that Jose insisted on. Occasionally, one of those responses shows up in a service I’m attending, and if it isn’t performed in the Jose way, it’s more or less unsatisfactory.
The choir had one or two professionals in each section. A few others had some vocal training. Many of us were just people who could read music and enjoyed singing.
So far as I know, auditions were not required. You just showed up and started singing. (I doubt I would have passed an audition, so I’m grateful for that.) Nevertheless, I recall only once when someone made an unacceptable sound or had an intonation problem or difficulty with entrances.
A new tenor showed up one evening. He was clearly a trained singer, but his default style was theatrical and loud and featured a wide vibrato. Not long into the rehearsal, Jose looked at the guy and with obvious irritation almost shouted, “No. Don’t do that.” He rarely displayed such harshness, but he wanted a chamber-choir sound – not Robert Shaw, not Mormon Tabernacle, certainly not show music – and he was going to have it.
In all, we were not a promising lot. It’s testimony to Jose’s directorial art and hard work that we still managed to make a joyful noise that was artful and refined. The recordings of our annual concerts testify to this, especially performances of Rossini’s operatic Stabat Mater, the romantic, at times dreamy, L’enfance du Christ by Berlioz, and the other-worldly grandeur of the Mozart Requiem.
Here’s how the luminous soprano Joyce Wead characterizes Jose’s directing.
“I had some experience by [the time I began singing at All Saints] with other wonderful musicians …in the episcopal church, choral music, opera, orchestral music … Margaret Hillis, Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini, Fisher-Dieskau, Joan Sutherland.”
That experience “just helped me recognize that with Jose we had a director who knew what it took to make beautiful, meaningful music. And he would never settle for anything less than the most beautiful lines we could produce.
“A line is when you connect notes, not only in phrases but from note to note, wedded to the breath, filled with the meaning, the spirit of the words. Even in the most complex of choral pieces, with five, six, even eight parts, if you make sense of each line, the whole piece will come together.
“Finally we had to…just make it beautiful…Bach, Handel, Mozart, Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Bernstein. And chant. I had done chant, heard it done very well, too. But never like what Jose got out of us.”
To Bert Meisenbach, soloist and anchor of the bass section for the whole of Jose’s tenure, Jose’s direction was “nuanced, full of feeling, romantic, kindly. In the final analysis, the spirit was what counted.”
Regardless of this spiritual basis, Jose never offered overt theological or liturgical instruction. I don’t know why. Perhaps he thought that if we internalized the music that would take care of itself. It did for me. It’s a process that continues to this day.
We were, in Carl Sandburg’s words, “people singing: people with song mouths connecting with song hearts.”
Beyond musical instruction, Jose gave me much just by being who he was – kind, interested, highly educated, devoted to his beliefs (which are also mine).
But for Jose, I would not be the person I am. My life would be less full, my days less bright, my religious devotion less nurturing, and music would be far less meaningful and rewarding. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
It’s been a long time since I went to All Saints on Thursday evenings to be instructed by the master or joined in the Sunday morning celebrations there, but from time to time, a bit of that life comes to me with the refulgent pleasure of a surprise visit from an old friend.
A few years ago, I was hiking in the Swiss Alps on a beautiful sunny day. I was transported by the splendor of it, and the Willan setting of the Jubilate suddenly emerged from its dormant state. I sang it, sweating and panting, for the next few miles, then it withdrew to await its next summons.
O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.
That’s what Jose did. That’s what he led us all in doing.
Thanks be to God.