Details... and the Matters that Matter

Westminster Abbey was the first significant thing I saw in London when I spent a semester in England during my junior year of college. I got off the tour bus with my classmates and was immediately accosted by the Abbey’s West Towers. It was the first time a building quite literally took my breath away. As everyone else streamed past me off the bus, I stood still and whimpered, “OhmyGod. Oh, my God. Oh. My. God.”

2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis—an author and thinker who has perhaps had more influence on my inner world than anyone else save people I’ve actually personally known. To mark the occasion, a stone was placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in his honor. I will confess that before this event I had not been aware of the existence of Poets’ Corner, but knowing that Lewis was going to be honored in the Abbey was enough for me. I requested and received permission to travel with a wise and wonderful friend, and I began to make preparations for the both of us.

I take preparation very seriously. My preparations for this pilgrimage involved hours of poring over various web pages seeking lodgings, hunting down public transportation options, using Google Maps for things I had never before known it could do; exchanging emails and phone calls with people thousands of miles away to make sure that every detail was as close to being in place as I could make it from another continent.  Those preparations boiled themselves down into a spiral bound book—nearly sixty pages of plane tickets, bus tickets, maps, walking directions, hotel confirmation pages, and the addresses of a dozen good restaurants within walking distance of each venue.

Eventually, these manic preparations gave way to actually getting on a plane and going to England. After getting settled in London, my wise friend and I spent a couple of hours wandering the Abbey the day before Lewis was to be honored so that we could be overwhelmed by one thing at a time: first by the Abbey itself, and then by the momentous event. So we paid 18£ each and slipped inside. I wandered west down the nave, passing tombs or memorials to people like Neville Chamberlain and Isaac Newton. I examined the famous grave of and monument to the Unknown Warrior from World War I; I sat still for a few moments before the choir screen.

Then I followed the nave back the other way, passing the choir stalls and the altar to the eastern end where the monarchs are buried. Edward the Confessor; Henry V; Elizabeth I; Mary I; Mary Queen of Scots; myriad others. As the voice of Jeremy Irons (who narrates the audio guide) told of the horrors and excesses and intrigues and births and beheadings and conniving political maneuverings of those interred there, I shivered and was so grateful not to have lived during their lifetimes that the whole great bubble of my gratitude wouldn’t fit inside me, and I had to walk on.

I turned into the south transept, and there before me was Poets’ Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer’s tiny coffin on my left. On my right, the marble statue of William Shakespeare. A memorial to George Fredric Handel on the opposite wall. And affixed to a pillar at my side, a glowering bust of William Blake kept vigil over a place on the floor covered by a tarpaulin where something was being installed.

It was only then that the full significance of the event really hit me, because it was only then that I really took in what Westminster Abbey is. As presumptuous as it may be for an American woman with barely more than a quarter century of life under her belt to offer an opinion on the purpose and identity of what is arguably the most magnificent gothic cathedral in the world, I do think I have a sense of what Westminster Abbey is. Westminster Abbey is the repository of the crown jewels of British history and culture. Yes, the actual crown jewels are kept in the Tower of London. But the crown jewels of, as it were, the corpus of quintessential Britishness—the best and brightest and wisest and most influential; the most famous (or infamous) of leaders, thinkers, writers, artists, scientists; the cornerstones of the palace of the history of that proud and ancient and magnificent nation—those jewels are memorialized (if not actually interred) in Westminster Abbey.

And therein have they now memorialized one Clive Staples Lewis.

Many Americans’ reaction to this revelation of mine might easily be, “Well… duh.” But I suspect that relatively few of the many Americans who have read something of Lewis really have a sense of the antagonism much of Great Britain has exhibited toward Lewis (during and after his lifetime). I heard a story in the midst of the proceedings at the Abbey about an author who, at first, sold remarkably well in Great Britain, only to have those sales plummet when a critic referred to him as “the next C. S. Lewis.” So truly, his memorialization in Westminster Abbey—this jewel box that holds and represents the best of the best of what England has offered the world—was (and still is) a miracle. A miracle I crossed a continent and an ocean to witness—only to realize I hadn’t understood its full significance when I set out.

I’m beginning, just a little, to recognize how true this is of absolutely everything in my life. I set out thinking I know what’s going to happen; how I’ll deal with it; how I’ll get from point A to point B; thinking I actually know what point A and point B are. Thinking I have some degree of control. And then, sometimes, I get a fleeting glimpse of the big picture. And sometimes the big picture has very little to do with all the details I’ve been trying to have under control.

Getting the details lined up is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s a thing I would like to continue doing as much as possible, thank you very much. But I’m learning that in life, as in Westminster Abbey, it is important to slow down and suck the marrow out of what’s right in front of me. And to do this often enough to make a pattern of it—and to leave enough space in my life for those things to be used to clarify my understanding of what’s real and what matters.  

Another thing I’m learning is that, for me, part of how this happens is through writing. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Putting the moments of life into words is one way to force myself to pay attention to what’s real and what matters; to find shining fragments of what’s real and what matters scattered throughout what would otherwise be a mass of black-and-white details. So while I set out to write a blog about music when I was preparing to launch my album (another detail, ha-ha) I think the purpose of these pages is changing. Music will still be part of the discussion, because the tapestry of my life is richly woven with music of many kinds, and music—and art in general—does fall under the umbrella of What’s Real and What Matters. But it’s not all that does. There are a lot of other fibers in this tapestry that are worth examining; a lot of other matters that matter. 

So to whatever degree I do this henceforth, I will hope to find What’s Real and What Matters in the midst of the details. And when and if I find it, I will announce it… At the Top of my Lungs

More Loud and Deep

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

God is not dead nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail,

The right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.

My dad is a gifted storyteller. One of my favorite stories he tells is about his college roommate, Richard Zeller. As I understand it, Richard and my dad sat up late one night talking in their dorm room, and somewhere around 1:00 am, a disgruntled neighbor from three or four doors down banged on their door to complain that he had clearly heard every word Richard said for the past several hours, and could they kindly please shut up and go to sleep.

As you’ll know if you followed the link above, Richard Zeller is now “one of America’s foremost baritones.” He’s got a resonant and glorious instrument in that barrel chest of his. And that instrument is the reason his voice carried through three cinderblock dorm room walls to disturb his neighbors. One of the occupational hazards of having that kind of lung capacity is that you don’t always recognize when you’re emitting sound waves strong enough to knock out a musk ox.

I’ve been asked to lower my voice at least twice a week since I was a small child. Not in a nasty way or anything. But there were many occasions when I was asked to stop shouting when, from my own perspective, I obviously wasn’t, and it did happen often enough that I’m still pretty sensitive about it. Case in point: just yesterday, I was dropping something off at my parents’ house and was standing in the living room talking to my mother, and one of my brothers made a comment to the effect that he already had a migraine before I started talking. I may or may not have stomped out of the house.

Granted, things did get better for me once we all understood that, in my mother’s words, I have “Richard Zeller lungs.” In other words: my inherent volume issue it not just an obnoxious and useless personal trait. It’s an obnoxious personal trait which ensures that, most of the time, my voice reaches every seat in the house without a microphone. When the house is a theater or a church, this is a spectacular asset. It is a slightly less spectacular asset when the house is somebody’s actual house… especially when one of the residents of that house already had a migraine.

Another of the stories I’ve heard my dad tell is Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice. In it, the loudest voice belongs to Shirley Abramowitz, a young Jewess cast as the narrator in her grade school’s Christmas pageant (because of her particularly resonant instrument) much to her mother’s consternation. There’s a scene wherein her father says to her mother, “Does it hurt Shirley to learn to speak up? It does not… she’s not a fool.” To which Shirley replies, albeit not aloud, “I thank you, Papa, for your kindness. It is true about me to this day. I am foolish but I am not a fool.”

I can’t help being naturally resonant. I can’t help being a bit foolish. But I try not to be an all-out fool. So about ten seconds after stomping out of the house, I went back and tried to patch things up… and lower my voice. Well. I did at least manage to patch things up. But rather than get discouraged at my inability to modulate my volume, I am making a choice right now to be grateful that my big voice, like Shirley Abramowitz’s, will soon be used to tell a story—a story that deserves to be told out loud. 

Let Nothing You Dismay

God rest ye, merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember, Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy;

Comfort and joy

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

My first paid singing gig ever is a month away. I’ve been hired to sing a dozen Christmas songs arranged especially for me by Jimmy Mac (who is the best ever) at my uncle’s church in Palm Desert. I will be, essentially, a headliner. Three hundred people will have nothing to watch or listen to but me… for forty-five minutes.

I’m just the tiniest little bit… terrified.

Don’t get me wrong. Performing is nothing new to me. I started singing in the eighth grade when, for no reason except that it sounded fun to me, I joined the school choir and went out for the spring musical. What I found out years after the fact was that this caused something of a stir with my family, who had no idea that I had a voice. But they never said anything until long afterwards, and the question of whether or not I could sing was not on my mind when I signed up.

That year I was voted choir president and got a lead in the musical, and I’ve been studying voice privately ever since (with a few breaks between teachers). I learned to bend my knees and elongate my neck and never move my shoulders when I breathe. I’ve played Fantine in a youth production of Les Miserablés, a nun in The Sound of Music in college, and, this past year, was a Narrator in a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I sang second alto in college choir and first soprano in church choir. I’ve sung in churches, schools, and theatres, as well as at weddings, memorial services, and once even a naval pinning ceremony.

All this to say: this isn’t my first rodeo, but I’ve never had to hold an audience’s interest on my own for this long. I’ve never had to come up with clever and engaging things to say between songs before. And I don’t have the kind of gregarious, larger-than-life, rock star personality that thrives in that kind of an environment.

After I agreed to do the Palm Desert gig—and after Jimmy agreed to play with me—the whole thing snowballed. What started out as “show up at our church and sing for us” quickly became three gigs, plus an album (In the Bleak Midwinter, available for purchase December 2013) and even something vaguely resembling a marketing and branding campaign. I’ve got coordinated fonts and images and art (designed by AlarmCat, which is the best ever); a carefully thought out CD table, mailing lists, emailing lists, a Facebook page, this blog, and a mongoose whose pelt has been genetically engineered to match the album art. Okay, maybe not that, but the rest of it is true. God help me, I’m even considering joining Twitter.

And then, about a month ago, as I made lists and wrote emails and spent hours in Jimmy’s studio recording, panic started bubbling up in me. I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m approaching this as though I have something to say to these people; something to offer them. I have nothing to say. Everyone is going to get there and take one look at me and know I’m a poser. Merciful God, why did I sign up for all this?!”

Then, about a week ago, I went to church with a friend and Jimmy Needham played during the service. He was onstage less than ten minutes. He spent about two of those minutes talking and played two songs and then he was done, and when the service was over, I all but ran to his CD table, paid no attention whatsoever to the way it was laid out, and bought every album he had to offer. I almost bought one of those rubber bracelet things too, but I managed to remind myself in time that those things look trashy on me and so saved myself the $5.00.

Why did I do this? Jimmy Needham has a great voice and excellent musicianship, but so do lots of other people. That wasn’t why. The reason I ran outside and dropped $35.00 for five CDs—an extravagant buy for a woman who takes eons to get into new music—lies within the two minutes he stood there talking. I started out listening to him thinking, “Good, this is good; maybe I can figure out from this guy how to talk to a crowd between songs.” But I forgot about picking up speaking tips approximately ten seconds later—not because Jimmy Needham is the last word in eloquence, but because he made me feel so comfortable in my own skin. He wasn’t some big rock star. He was just a guy talking about an experience he had—trying to earn God’s approval by doing stuff, failing miserably, and then realizing, oh, right; that’s not how this works—and then singing a song about it. He was gentle, soft-spoken, unassuming, and had me on the edge of tears in under two minutes.

Walking to the car with my friend, I realized that I had been thinking about this all wrong. Christmas music might well be my favorite music of all time. It is immensely meaningful to me and I get no end of pleasure from singing it—in the car, in the shower, on stage; it doesn’t matter. I love it. I do not need to approach any of these gigs in schmooze mode. All I have to do is stand up straight (with slightly bent knees and a long neck and unmoving shoulders) say, briefly, why I love the song I’m about to sing, and then sing it.

My mother put it this way. “If you can stand there and love people, you won’t need to do anything else.”

I may not be rock star material. But with the right help, I think I can do that much. And if nothing else, I know that if I remember why I’m there, I’ll be much less dismayed.