Saturday, December 27, 2008

6. Yankee Stuffing

For nearly four decades my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners included a delicious roast turkey and cornbread dressing. The dressing, a mixture of cornbread with a little white bread thrown in, was cooked in a separate pan. The top was brown and crusty and the interior moist with broth, celery and onions. It had just the right amount of sage and, if my aunt had her way, chopped pecans. Invariably several “bites” were cut from the pan as the cooks finished preparing the meal.

I was taken aback at my first New England Thanksgiving dinner… the bird came out of the oven with something belching from its cavity. This soggy, gummy, tasteless mush is called stuffing and although I can pretend to like it, in my mind it’s always Yucky Yankee Bread Stuffing.

Yes, cooks here take pride in their stuffing, adding chestnuts, sausage, or oysters. Some try to make it healthy with whole wheat bread, apples, and walnuts. But this is supposed to take the place of cornbread dressing? Throughout my years in Maine I have tried to assuage my husband’s Yankee roots by making this bread stuffing on occasion. Although he appreciated my effort, my heart must not have been in it as there was never any raving about my stuffing and it was always the last leftover in the fridge.

This Christmas I put my foot down and decided to make cornbread dressing. Unfortunately, in all those years of having holiday dinners in Lubbock my mother never showed me how to make it. Yes, she gave me her “recipe,” which consisted of a little of this, a dash of that, just add some broth until moist: nothing very specific. I have tried it in the past, with little success at replicating her masterpiece. So this year I went to the internet and found what I thought was a similar recipe to hers, with precise measurements. Alas, it did not turn out the way I wanted! I’m afraid I need a hands on cooking lesson from mom.

Of course one has to have a turkey to go with the dressing and that’s never been my specialty either. I have tried roasting a turkey every which way and they have often come out dry or underdone. On Thanksgiving this year we went to some friends’ house and had one of the best turkeys I’ve ever had (don’t tell my mother). Doug was kind enough to give me his recipe and walk me through the brining method step-by-step. I followed his directions to a “tee” and it was fabulous! So moist and flavorful. Now if I can just get the dressing down I might be able to host a holiday dinner myself someday.

As the hectic month of December rolled on I began to question the wisdom of preparing such a labor intensive Christmas dinner. Work was a massive accelerando to Christmas Eve and I hardly had time enough to make out the grocery list and shop. Emily and I spent most of Christmas day in the kitchen, listening to Ella Fitzgerald as we chopped and sautéed. Having pulled into the driveway about 1 am that morning after Christmas Eve services, I was tired and briefly thought that going out to dinner might have been a good idea. But as we sat down to our beautiful meal complete with Christmas china and a fully lit Advent wreath I began to feel the stress of the past month melt away. I took a deep breath and a sip of wine and realized that I could now truly savor this day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

5. The Gifts of God, for the People of God

Many years ago, as I was running away from my Southern Baptist background, I was attracted to the Episcopal church. Its liturgy and deliberate emphasis on the Eucharist were like a beacon to my theologically confused soul. I began attending a local church and even sang in its fine choir for several months. But as I fell into my work as a church musician I kept getting hired at Methodist and UCC churches. Finally, in November of 2005 I fulfilled a long time dream and began working for an Episcopal congregation. It wasn’t many months later that I became an official member of the parish, receiving the Bishop’s anointing on my forehead.

I am intrigued with the idea of communion, as we called it in more “Protestant” churches. In the Episcopal church, as in Catholic and Lutheran churches, the Eucharist is paramount, the whole “raison d’etre.” Not the sermon, not the music, nor the social aspect of going to church: it’s all about the taking of the Body and Blood of Christ.

At my church I arrive each Sunday morning just as the first service, with no music, is finishing. If the sermon or scripture readings have been a bit long the early crowd is still in the midst of the service in the chapel. I quietly sit down in the church with a bird’s eye view of the small group of worshippers. It is very quiet: the sounds of shuffling feet, of the priest’s voice saying “the Body of Christ,” the “amen” responses. I like to watch the people as they return to their pews and sit or kneel while considering the sacrament they’ve just received. .

Recently I attended the Church Music Conference at Sewanee TN, which is specifically for Episcopal musicians. And I had the great privilege, and responsibility, of being a chalice bearer at one of the morning eucharists. Normally I don’t get this opportunity as I am doodling something on the organ during this part of the service. Even after receiving instruction from the priest on how to hold the chalice and wipe it with the white linen cloth, I was very nervous. Would I spill the wine down someone’s shirt? Would I drop the chalice? Would I forget my lines? “The Body of Christ; the Cup of Salvation.”

I was mesmerized: the humility, the need, the hunger of those who came to partake of the bread and wine. The power and mystery of these sacraments. The emotion welling up in me as I repeated my lines 50 or so times.

I have noticed this power with the children in the choir as they anticipate and take communion, too. Even though part of their excitement is related to tasting a drop of wine on their wafer, they also sense something deeper than their encounters in everyday life. Already it is the pinnacle of worship for them.

Several years ago, when I was working for a UCC church, I invited an Episcopal friend who was visiting the area to attend “my” church on Easter. “It’s going to be great!” I said, “Brass, majestic hymns, even Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. We’ll pull out all the stops!” She thought carefully for a minute, then replied, “That all sounds lovely, but do you have communion?” “No,” I answered, “that makes the visitors uncomfortable and the service too long.” Slowly she answered that on Easter she really must partake of the Eucharist. I was rather hurt and didn’t understand.

But now I do.

Eternal god, heavenly father,
You have graciously accepted us as living members
Of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
And you have fed us with spiritual food
In the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
And grant us strength and courage
To love and serve you
With gladness and singleness of heart;
Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

4. Leaving Lubbock

I have just returned from helping my mother and dad sort thru their belongings in anticipation of a move to a retirement community. I am weary of this chore…this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve gone to help them clean out their house of forty years. But this time it looks like they will really move; the plans are made for a moving truck and my sister has found them a nice place to live in the Dallas area, near her family.

Most likely this was my last trip to Lubbock until someone dies, and it was a bittersweet time for me. The house there has been an important part of my life since I was 13 and my mind is full of memories of all that has taken place there. One of the best of those memories is the smell of turkey roasting in the oven with a big Christmas tree overflowing with packages. When I think of that house the first thing that comes to mind is a crowded dining room table with a card table extension, and the generations coming and going: my grandparents, parents (my mother constantly running back and forth to the kitchen, never really having a chance to sit down), Aunt Dot, my siblings, their spouses and children, my husbands, and Emily. I wear a beautiful diamond band that was my grandmother’s 50th wedding anniversary gift: my grandfather gave it to her at that table during a special celebration.

I have “come home” to Lubbock under so many varying circumstances, and that house was always there, my base. My first husband and I would excitedly return there from Baylor, and before many years passed I was coming back alone. I remember some very difficult nights in my room then, unable to tell anyone what I was going thru. And then I brought Bill there and before long a new, precious baby. Even when our finances were extremely tight during our first years in Maine I managed to scrimp and save so that Emily and I could always go back at least once a year. And then there was the year I made that trip 5 times, due to my parents’ illness and my brother’s death.

To live in the same place for 40 years is in some way a great gift. To have a Christmas party with the same friends for decades, watching them age and struggle, watching their children grow up. To see your community change, and yourself with it. To know your plumber and appliance repairman on a first-name basis. To attend the same church for years, watching pastors come and go, witnessing babies baptized and friends buried. These things have not been a part of my experience. I have been so restless in my adult life, moving every few years to a new job and location. But knowing that the family home was waiting for me has been, in hindsight, a comfort.

On this trip I went to all the places that have become routine for me on my visits “home”: El Chico restaurant, Tom and Bingo’s barbeque, Mrs. Camp’s bakery, the sprawling South Plains Mall, and Barnes and Noble (in my mind, the intellectual bastion of the area). I walked every morning thru my familiar neighborhood, looking at all those ranch houses and their perfectly manicured yards for the umpteenth time, and drove thru the Tech Terrace area, where I would want to live should I be in Lubbock. I marveled once again at the vast campus of Texas Tech University and its beautiful southwest-inspired architecture. And this time I appreciated and enjoyed the big sky, refusing to let it pin me down, subdue me.

For the first time in years I visited the cemetery where both sets of grandparents and two great grandmothers are buried. These were all Lubbock pioneers in its formative years.

My mother broke down as I was leaving, grasping at any straw to stay in the house. “But we have been so selfish! What about you and Amy? You won’t be able to come back here anymore!” I told her that she and daddy were giving us a gift by not dying in the house and leaving it for us to clean out afterwards. I remained stoic as I got in the car, but as I pulled out of the driveway huge sobs rose from deep within and enveloped my entire body.

Goodbye, Lubbock.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

3. Requiem

Last Sunday afternoon, October 26, my choir performed John Rutter’s Requiem. We did the small ensemble version, with flute, oboe, ‘cello, harp, timpani and organ, and had 21 singers. The performance was beautiful and heartfelt…not perfect, of course…we made it successfully thru the chaotic introduction but dragged at times in Out of the Deep. The Sanctus was exciting and the ending of Lux aeterna full of hope and peace. I could tell that many in the audience were moved by the music.

I am not sure why I tackled this ambitious project as it made much extra work for me. But I knew the choir would ultimately love the piece as I do and would become a better ensemble for having worked on it. We had four “guest” singers who filled out our sound and indeed at times that sound was glorious.

Although I often dreaded the intense score study necessary and the drudgery of going over voice parts yet again, I began to relish the intimacy with which I came to know the music. And the feeling of standing on the podium, baton in hand, all eyes on me, is powerful. I love leading others to communicate a piece of music, to opening their souls to its meaning.

This experience of all our rehearsals and the performance last week has once again made me aware of the unifying force of music. My choir consists of rabid Republicans and Democrats, well-to-do and struggling, young and old. Yet here we were, together, making music. In this time of daily disastrous financial and world news, working on the Requiem soothed our souls and helped us focus on the spiritual. And I believe that we gave that same gift to our community.

Thank you, John Rutter, for Requiem…and thank you, choir and orchestra, for your beautiful, expressive performance of this music.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

2. October 18, 2008

Making Music

During the summer I played several solo organ recitals, one of which was at First Parish Church in Brunswick. When I was asked to do this last fall I was flabbergasted: “Me? Play on THAT organ at THAT church! You can’t be serious!”

Shortly after moving to Maine in 1993 I began studying organ with Ray Cornils, Director of Music at First Parish. For my audition I played Bach’s Little Prelude in F Major. I certainly could have played something a bit more advanced and I don’t know why I didn’t. I do remember being extremely nervous: Ray and I are exactly the same age and he is quite the organ figure in Maine. At the time I was a nobody.

I continue to take the occasional lesson with Ray: these periodic events encourage me to tackle new and difficult music. Yet throughout all these years of studying with him I have been completely intimidated by that organ, an 1880’s 2 manual tracker built by Hutchings and Plaisted. I have always depended on him to choose registrations for me and have frequently told him to “Take something off! It’s too loud!” I claimed the organ was “unforgiving,” with every mistake filling the vast space of the church sanctuary.

So the prospect of actually playing a recital there terrified me. But for some reason at this stage of the game I am willing to take on these professional challenges, and most of the time I’m glad I do.

I spent the better part of two days with this organ and it grew on me. As I tried out the individual stops I became aware of its beauty and power. I fell in love with the expressive swell pedal. And slowly I began to feel comfortable and know that yes, I could make music on this instrument.

On the day of the recital the usual butterflies were present. I arrived early and calmly climbed the long staircase to the organ loft. Slowly I began to warm-up, reacquainting myself with all the sounds of this amazing instrument. My stop-puller Steve arrived to review the registration changes with me, and then, it was time to start… I was clearheaded and focused and played well. I made music.

That’s what it’s all about, for me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lost in Maine

1. Lost in Maine

Most days, it seemed, the weather announcer would drone “winds, 15 to 25 mph, with occasional gusts and blowing dust…”

Lubbock, Texas sits isolated in the middle of nowhere, in many ways cut off from the world. Although the internet has changed that somewhat from when I was growing up, one still cannot buy a daily New York Times there. In a strange way, its isolation is its greatest strength: a strong, towering presence, it is self-contained and cares little of what the world thinks.

Resilience…the mere geographical location of Lubbock brings that to mind…on land that is as flat as a table, stretching as far as the eye can see and buffeted by strong wings and swirling dust. It is dry, but the land is supported by an underground aquifer that is being drained with population growth. Because of this water farms of cotton and grain override the desert atmosphere.

Despite the big, beautiful, Georgia O’Keefe sky, I often feel claustrophobic when in Lubbock. For many years I asked myself how can that be? The vistas are enormous with no mountains or forests to make one feel penned in. There is a Wild West mentality of anything is possible. So how can one feel claustrophobic? Eventually I realized it was the deeply entrenched conservatism found there, spearheaded in my day by the Southern Baptist church The long list of do’s and don’ts permeated my life, penned me down, and skewed my world vision until I finally managed to escape, in fits and starts.

After college I worked as an accompanist at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Although I had made numerous tries, that was my first successful attempt to leave Lubbock behind. Despite being recently divorced, I arrived at Interlochen quite innocent of the world beyond the Texas plains. There I had my first open talk with a gay man and befriended a couple living together but not married. In 1979 those things were under the table in Lubbock. At Interlochen I was subject for the first time to some anti-Southern prejudice from a prima donna soprano who did not want me to play for her because of my “hick” accent.

Interlochen gave me a chance to see that the world did not revolve around a church or particular religious belief. The most important thing I learned there was that one could be both a good person and NOT a Christian.

Living in Dallas for 10 years with my husband and our daughter we visited Lubbock several times a year. I didn’t really think much about it…it was where my family was and that’s where I expected to spend holidays and birthdays. And then we moved permanently to Maine and I began to see my hometown with different eyes…

For fifteen years I have been struggling to make Maine my home. I have raised a daughter here, touched many people with my music making, and matured well into middle age. Yet the vast, dusty plains of West Texas still call, beckoning me back. Is that really still my home? Am I always to be a stranger in Maine?