Wednesday, December 23, 2009

22. A Funeral

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God...

The Book of Wisdom

In my work as a church musician I find that I prefer to play for funerals rather than weddings. Before I am accused of being macabre, let me explain. Many couples come to Bar Harbor for "destination weddings" and treat the music for the ceremony as peripheral to the bride's gown, the flowers, the dinner and all that. Often the entire wedding party just seems eager to get to the reception afterwards and I end up feeling like the "hired help."

A funeral or memorial service is a different story, however. Music here is traditionally used to set a somber, soothing tone, and also allows mourners to recall memories of the beloved. But most of all it is able to express bereavement beyond words.

Last week I played for the funeral of a 20 year-old boy from Mount Desert Island. Benjamin had been at a party, drinking, and wandered outside where he passed out and died from exposure. From reading his obituary I determined that life had already thrown this sweet young man some hard knocks and I was captivated by this line: He will be missed by his canine companions Zoey and Danny.

About half an hour before the service I walked into the church to organize my music. Already there were two pews filled with stone-faced young women, staring silently ahead, full of grief and disbelief. Gradually the church filled to capacity with friends and relatives of this lobstering family, who was now facing the unthinkable. I played Bach and Brahms. Despite knowing that these works were most likely unfamiliar to the listeners, I played them anyway, confident of their ability to offer solace and comfort.

Our rector Jonathan tackled the circumstances of Benjamin's death head-on. He did not mince words about dying and acknowledged the questioning of God that was surely going on among the congregation. Why did God not save Benjamin? How could God let this happen?

Most of us have wondered the same... I grew up with a theology which encouraged me to believe in an all-powerful, omniscient God. This God had his finger on the world and controlled everything. Tragic events were somehow "God's will" and good people were rewarded with loving families and material success. I started the painful, never-ending process of questioning these beliefs while in college. And I see now that one's theology is never concrete; it ebbs and flows, expands and contracts, with the experiences life provides us.

It seems to me that what I call God is with us, period. In the bountiful times, the ordinary times, the horrific times, the brokenhearted times. There is nothing or no one who can protect us from life or death. We live, with all that encompasses, and we die. In the tragedy of Benjamin's young death my faith allows me to be comforted in knowing that in that cold, dark woods he was not alone.

Monday, December 7, 2009

21. A Texas Thanksgiving

It's that time of year again- snow boots down from the attic, frost on my car windows in the morning, hardening ground underfoot, growing darkness on both ends of the day. The leaves are off the trees and now one can see the houses, barns and clutter that have been hidden all summer. All these signs point to the November-December holidays. As an exile in Maine I have always found Thanksgiving to be the most difficult holiday to be away from Texas. Not Christmas, you might ask? No, Christmas is mostly about work for me- there's no time to feel homesick.

It's turkey day that gets to me. After living in Maine for 16 years we have never established our own Thanksgiving tradition. Several times we have had friends over and often have been invited elsewhere. We've tried restaurants and have gone to Texas once or twice. But I just can't get away from the feeling that Thanksgiving is really about sitting around a big table with my family and stuffing ourselves with a Butterball bird and cornbread dressing.

All of this should take place, of course, at my family home in Lubbock, and therein lies a new wrinkle in this year's celebration. It has now been a year since I have been to Lubbock: the family home has been sold and my parents have moved to a suburb of Dallas. And despite agreeing with the Dixie Chicks' view of my hometown- Dust bowl-Bible belt-Got more churches than trees- at times I find myself longing for the wide open spaces, dazzling light, and big, big sky.

When I learned that Emily would not be coming to Maine for Thanksgiving I just couldn't stand the thought. So I immediately started searching for affordable flights and a Sunday sub and Bill and I made plans to head to Texas for a week. We stayed with my mom and dad in their retirement apartment in Irving, visited some friends, heard the Dallas Symphony and enjoyed sunny, warm weather. But most importantly we had Thanksgiving dinner around a big, jovial table, surrounded by family.

Last Decemeber I wrote about my struggles with Yankee stuffing and my frustration at trying to replicate my mother's cornbread dressing. Well, I had a hands-on lesson from her and now I can do it! The torch of hosting Thanksgiving dinner was officially and successfully passed to my sister Amy. It wasn't Thanksgiving in Lubbock, but it was close enough.

I suppose many of us in our 50's question some of the choices we've made: leaving home to go to college, moving to the big city of Dallas, finally settling down in Maine. I can't help but wonder what it would be like to have my parents hear one of my recitals, to see my niece and nephew on a regular basis, to enjoy family gatherings frequently instead of twice a year. (And yes, I know those get-togethers can be burdensome.) My career and a treasure trove of good friends and memories are here in Maine, but I am sometimes lonely for those blood-ties.

This fall I've become well-acquainted with a musical setting of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken by composer Randall Thompson. For many children memorizing this poem is de rigueur in elementary school, but thanks to this wistful, poignant song I feel that I have at last, as an adult, heard the meaning of Frost's famous words.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost