Heaven-Sent, Direct To My Mailbox

Those of you who are lapsed or non-Catholics might not know that this is the time in the liturgical year when the readings at church focus on the Second Coming. I figure that’s what’s prompted the mail I’ve just received from my Crazy Aunt.

Actual mail. She’s that nuts.

For five and a half handwritten, photocopied pages addressed to me by name in fresh ink at the top, she detailed what we should do now that we’re in the End Times. Apparently we should stock up on non-perishables because when Satan comes to try to reclaim the souls of the recently converted, all literal hell will in actual fact break loose. Also we need to find some blessed salt so we can spread it across the thresholds of our doors (don’t open them during the unrest, though) to keep Satan at bay.

If I had known that all it took was some blessed salt, I wouldn’t need to go to confession right now as she urges.

Does it have to be kosher salt?

My aunt, you may recall, sent out checks for a thousand dollars to each of her nieces and nephews last Christmas because it was the money my grandfather had left her and she thought he would have wanted her to do it. I think my mother did get her to understand that, if he had wanted that, he would have left it to his grandchildren instead of her.  Her response was that she was just trying to do the right thing.

Which is true, really. My aunt is an untreated mentally ill person who my social worker sister says would probably be classified as a paranoid schizophrenic with religious preoccupation if she would ever be willing to be diagnosed as anything. But she has a heart full of goodness and love and she just wants everyone to be saved. I don’t begrudge her that. I don’t begrudge anyone that, when it comes from a place of love. And she’s not dangerous; most mentally ill people aren’t. It’s far more likely that she’ll be the person who gets hurt – though she’s pretty paranoid and afraid of a lot of things, so she might never be in a dangerous situation.

One of the things she’s afraid of, apparently, is the Affordable Care Act. more colloquially known as Obamacare.

After the five and a half pages of her letter, she tossed off another paragraph on different paper (no lines) about how the law is against Christianity because it “pushes abortion funding and the implantation of the chip under the skin, which is forbidden in the Bible.”

Where to begin, eh?

Aside from the fact that a lot of things are forbidden in the Bible, like footballs and cheeseburgers, the ACA does not push funding for abortion. It provides members of Congress and their staffers the option, if they choose to be part of the health care exchange rather than private insurance, to pay a premium for insurance in case of abortion. They don’t have to pay into the exchange at all if they don’t buy that particular feature of protection. It’s like a la carte.

It also says nothing about chips.

What we have here, I think, is a bit of confusion on my aunt’s part, because the only CHIP to which the ACA refers is the Children’s Health Insurance Program. And it is not implanted, it is implemented.

Oh.

See, now I definitely don’t believe the thing about the salt on the threshold.

There is one thing, though, that I find to favor my aunt’s way of looking at the world: the 4×6 envelope in which the letter arrived bore no sign of the postal service. The stamps were not cancelled and no meter mark was affixed. There’s no date of mailing. It appears never to have been touched. I’m sure this is a miracle of postal delivery. Deliverance. One of those.

Heaven-sent?

 

 

Sunday (Observed), Bloody Sunday (Observed)

Sooo, today I had a lot of laundry that needed to be done. Kind of all of it, actually. Including underwear. So, okay, no biggie, I go without for a day.
 
 
I had both the 4pm and 5:30pm Masses to cantor, and I have to wear a dress to cantor because the music director hath ordered it so. Fine. I wore a black high-low hemmed shift dress.
 
 
After the first Mass, I go downstairs to use the bathroom, and suddenly realize — guess what has shown up! Early!
 
 
I go back upstairs, figuring I’ll just grab my purse and use one of the supplies I have in it. But when I open the door from the stairs to the sacristy, there’s Monsignor Armington, who’s supposed to be saying the 5:30 Mass, and he’s sitting on a bench with Father Jago (Filipino. And awesome.) standing over him going, “Oh my God. Oh my God. You are bleeding!”
 
 
I don’t know a whole lot about Msgr. Armington. He’s not a resident priest — he says Masses for us once in a while, but definitely not every week. Sometimes he’s a little unsteady. In fact, we had railings installed on the steps from the altar to the lower envelope because he’s come so close to falling so many times, and our pastor is getting up there in years, too. And now the monsignor is sitting on this bench looking a little… off.
 
 
I’m always taken aback a little when I hear a priest use the Lord’s name in vain the way Father Jago just did. But once I get past that, I realize the monsignor has fallen outside and whacked the back of his head on the concrete. The other things I know about Msgr. Armington are that he has heart disease and that he had a minor stroke a few months ago, so now I figure he’s on blood thinners. And he fell and hit his head. I happen to have my cell phone in my hand (because yeah, I was checking it while I was in the bathroom downstairs), so when someone confirms that the monsignor has fallen, I call 911.
 
 
Something like 17 questions later, I finally get to tell the dispatcher what happened (can I just tell you that third? First the address, then that I need an ambulance, and then “Hey, this old priest with a history of problematic health just fell down and smacked his head on the ground.” Because that would be faster, and the battery on my phone is pretty low.) I get off the phone and tell everyone that the ambulance is on its way, and then I start talking to Msgr. Armington again because Father Jago is being exactly no help.
 
 
Memo to the parish: Father Jago is not the go-to guy in an emergency. He freaks out.
 
 
So I ask Msgr. Armington whether he’s feeling dizzy, is he nauseous, what medications he’s on, etc. He pulls a teensy weensy vial out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket and tells me he has “this,” but he can’t think of the name of it right now, and somehow I remember that nitroglycerin is tiny, so I say that word, and he says, “Yes. For my heart.” And he says he’s on Plavix, which, of course, is the blood thinner.
 
 
He says he’s not going to the hospital.
 
 
“Oh, you have to!” says Father Jago. “You have to! You hit your head! You are bleeding! You could have a bleed inside your head and in 30 minutes—” he whacks at the air with a hand — “you go down!”
 
 
Monsignor looks kind of terrified.
 
Awesome job, Father Jago.
 
 
“Well, that probably won’t happen,” I try to say without directly contradicting Father Jago, “But you do have to go. Given your history and the medication you’re on, they’re going to want to check you out.”
 
 
The monsignor nods, wide-eyed thanks to Father Jago. We talk a little about exactly how he fell (he lost his balance coming up the three steps to the door, grabbed for the railing and couldn’t get it in time), and I go outside to meet the paramedics.
 
 
It’s raining, by the way. Big fat drops plopping on my head and penetrating my dress.
 
 
So I give the medics the low-down on the way back into the sacristy, you know, age, heart disease, stroke, he’s on this medication and that medication, this is what happened, this is how he’s acting now, etc., etc. And we get back into the sacristy and like four people (including Father Jago) are asking me whether I’m a nurse while the medics are assessing the monsignor and getting him onto the gurney (he’s pretty shaky when they get him off the bench).
 
 
“No, I’m not a nurse,” I kind of laugh. I feel blessed once again in my life that I’m pretty good in emergencies.
 
 
“What are you?” Father Jago wants to know.
 
 
What AM I? I wonder to myself, because I still haven’t figured out how to answer that in my new job.
 
 
“I’m a writer,” I say.
 
 
“A writer!” he says.
 
 
“Well, I do marketing and PR.”
 
 
“Can you write me a song?” Father Jago wants to know. Father Jago likes to sing.
 
 
I officially no longer understand what’s happening.
 
 
“I can’t write music,” I tell him. “But I can write you lyrics.”
 
 
“Write me lyrics!” he says. “I’ll figure out the rest.”
 
 
Yep. No idea what’s going on.
 
 
The medics have to take the monsignor out through the sanctuary because they can’t maneuver the railing the way they came in while they have him on the gurney, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to say at the introduction of the Mass to tell everyone not to completely freak out about seeing Msgr. Armington getting wheeled through the sanctuary whilst bleeding on the sheet.
 
 
You would think that the bleeding would have been some sort of signal to me. But no. They get the monsignor out, It’s 5:20, I go back into the church and down into the organ pit to talk to the accompanist because she’s filling in and has never been here before and needs to back waaaayyyy off the organ volume for this Mass as compared to the 4pm, and then we’re about 15 minutes into the 5:30 Mass when I suddenly realize: Shit. I never grabbed my purse. 
 
 
And I am still not wearing underwear.
 
 
Ssssshhhhhhhiiiiiiit.
 
 
At the presentation of the gifts, while the substitute accompanist is playing a hymn more quietly on the organ, I slip back into the sacristy and back down to the bathroom for a quick clean-up. So far, so good. But I can’t exactly clench tissue without undies standing in front of literally God and everybody, so I just have to hope (pray?) this Mass gets done before I get hit with a sudden and uncontrollable uptick in the situation.
 
 
Five minutes later: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it,” Father Jago is singing at the altar (I’ve never known another priest to sing this part). “This is the cup of my blood…”
 
 
I’m kneeling on the envelope with my dress tucked around me. Ummmmm, don’t say “blood.”
 
 
I stand up to do the memorial acclamation, the Amen, the Lamb of God… and the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist I’m thinking, There is no time between now and the end of the Mass during which I can get away. 
 
 
Also, I cannot subtly stuff my black dress into a potentially helpful position because this infernal dress-like trunk-junk-holding sheath I’m wearing under my actual dress is in the way.
 
 
And because that would be super-obvious, since you can’t just stick your hand between your thighs while standing in front of the congregation.
 
 
Oh God, our help in ages past…
 
 
“The Mass has ended. Go in peace.”
 
 
THANKS BE TO GOD.
 
 
After trying to graciously and unhurriedly thank the substitute accompanist (who is a professor of piano performance at the college where I work, though I hadn’t met her before), I’m heading out the door when Father Jago stops me. “I have a question!”
 
 
Holy Mary, Mother of God…
 
 
“Do you have an allergy to gnats?”
 
 
Wait…what?
 
 
“Gnats?”
 
 
“Yes.”
 
 
“The bugs?” I ask, pinching my fingers together in the universal sign for tiny bug. “No. I am not allergic to gnats.” Is anybody allergic to gnats? Why is he asking me this?
 
 
“No no— N-U-T-S. Nats.”
 
 
Ohhhhhhh.
 
 
“Ohhhhhhh. No. I’m not allergic to nuts,” I say, thinking that this is exactly how Javier says “nuts” and wondering why I couldn’t understand it from Father Jago, even though they don’t speak the same language.
 
 
“Okay. Give me—” Father Jago looks around at the altar servers, the sacristan, the guy putting the collection money in the safe. “Give me wan minute.”
 
 
“Sure.” I sit on the bench where Monsignor Armington had been and intuitively monitor my vag. Which isn’t awkward at all in a church while waiting for a priest to return from the rectory he’s just rushed out to.
 
 
A couple of minutes later, he comes back and hands me a gift bag, folded closed. “From da Philippines,” he tells me. “Check it out.”
 
 
Nuts.
 
 
Also mango tarts.
 
 
Delicious!
 
 
And, by the time I get to address the situation, no stains on my dress.
 
 
Thanks be to God.

Day Is Done

The funny thing about the days afer a death and before a funeral is that we tend to sort of forget there’s anything happening. I mean, we know what’s happening – why else would I be spending so many days and nights at my parents’ house? But by day three, things started to get a little… odd.

The first day was the day after my grandfather died. I’d said my goodbye to him the Saturday morning before, believing he’d be gone within hours, and I drove the roadtrip back to work. On Wednesday, I’d just gotten to my desk when I got the call. But on Thursday, I’d decided to give my parents some time and space, since they had spent most of the last nine days – and some nights – at the hospital. When I called to let them know my plan, they were at the mall. A 93-year-old needs a new shirt and socks to be buried in.

Shopping for a dead person. Surreal Life Event #107.

The next day, Mom and I ran down to my aunt’s house to drop off some photos for the collage my cousin’s wife was making. My aunt, you’ll know if you read my last post, is just this side of certifiable. She lived with my grandfather and got the house in the will, and there is every chance she will turn full-on hoarder and begin collecting stray animals. Yet, somehow, she was the sanest of the sisters that day. The visit was blessedly brief, but when we got back in the car, my mother began an out-of-nowhere rant against President Obama that lasted 35 minutes. Captive in a moving vehicle, I could not throw myself clear. As we pulled into my parents’ neighborhood, she declared once more her insistent – and apparently persistent – belief that he is a secret Muslim.

I told her that I love her and we would therefore absolutely not be having that conversation, at which point she punted to his un-Americanness as indicated by his refusal to wear a flag lapel pin and the photo of him without his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance in 2008.

That got us into the garage.

There are many layers of madness endemic to families forced together by death.

That night, all my siblings and nephews came to my parents’ house for dinner. Mom liked the idea of having us all there, and since we all potlucked it, she didn’t have to do any work, which was a bonus. As the evening came about, though, two sisters got caught in rush hour traffic and wound up quite late. As it progressed, all three nephews engaged in various levels of meltdown, one of which was inflicted by a Goldfish cracker stuck in the toe of a pair of footie pajamas. By the time Sister 1 was deeply entrenched in a seemingly endless and mostly solo post-meal discussion about high school bullying, I was ready to check out. I was still abstaining from alcohol because of yet-unidentified GI issues, and frankly, I really needed a drink and was beginning to resent all those who were sipping on wine. Wine, I might add, that had come from my wine rack. I was completely socially unlubricated, and it was starting to chafe. It was 8:30pm and I felt like it was an hour that hadn’t yet been invented.

That was when Sister 2 put her head down on the dining room table. Didn’t say a word. Just rolled her eyes back and put her head down in a silent declaration that she was simply depleted of the emotional energy required for a conversation the beginning of which we couldn’t remember and the reason for which we presently could not possibly care less about, anyway.

Sister 1, not always good with the cues, continued the topic, which is a fine topic except it’s too heavy to go with grilled chicken, quinoa, veggies and dead grandfathers. So I got up and left the room to go watch “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” with the barely-conscious Twin Nephs. Solving color puzzles was about as much mental hurdling as I could summon the will to do at that point.

On day three, Saturday, my father told me that Mom wanted some quiet time to herself, so we were going to vacate the premises. Fine, I get that, and I’m ready to get out, too. We went to the mall to get Dad a tie (the man just retired from upper management, yet he needs a tie?) Then we went to lunch, and then stopped by Target to get Mom a flash drive since her laptop is threatening suicide. When we got back to the house after 2 1/2 hours, Mom hadn’t slept as intended when she went back to bed at 11am, but she was still in her robe. The only thing that got her out of it was Mass.

Mass on Saturday evening meant absolutely nothing to do on Sunday. Sunday was the day before the funeral. I’ve long since decided that the day before a funeral is the most surreal day of all. You know what’s coming, but you’ve sort of pushed the reason for it away from your psyche in the days since the death. It’s a vacuum, a kind of sensory deprivation day on which you realize you feel almost normal, but not quite, and you can’t seem to figure why. It’s a kind of numbness. You’re worn out despite sleep and bored despite company –  company that, at this point, you’d probably just as soon forego. There’s a strange sense of loneliness that settles in, of restlessness, being too long in each other’s space and not enough in your own, that leaves you feeling set apart and out of sorts and longing for the person not in your family who could hold you and comfort you the most and make everything fit in your head again if they were willing.

My proposed solution was to go to a movie. Dad didn’t want to come. As we arrived at the theater, Sister 3 said to Mom, “Do you know what the movie’s about?”

“George Clooney” was my mother’s answer, and I was satisfied with it.

Handy tip: if someone you love has just died after a tense time full of crazy people, endless communication problems, misdiagnoses and incorrect prognoses, questions about exactly what his advanced directive means, parsing of the difference between a DNR 1 and a DNR 2, and how the hell some total stranger’s signature wound up on an order you didn’t want that changed his DNR 2 to a DNR 1… don’t go see “The Descendants.”

***Spoiler alert*** The whole thing, turns out, is about how George Clooney’s wife is dying a slow and peaceful but tedious death in the midst of intractable family drama.

F@^% me.

I was surprised by how absolutely it appeared that this woman was truly dying, never speaking, never moving, never even with her eyes open, lying in a hospital bed connected to tubes and wires and wasting away, sallow and bent. Even the crust around her mouth looked like what had settled around my grandfather’s. Her whole look was stunningly similar to his. I was okay; I mean, I didn’t cry. Instead, I swore repeatedly in my head about the fortune of this particular film choice at this particular time. Sister 3 and my mother, they cried.

Good movie, though.

But then Monday came, and early rising. Showers and oatmeal and don’t forget the hymnal because “In the Garden” isn’t in a Catholic songbook, and it’s my solo after communion. Nylons and lint rollers and the tricky clasp on my grandmother’s bracelet. The viewing was only an hour, but felt like seven in the cold church. The American Legion representative played Taps from the back of the church. The accompanist was ridiculously late and practicing was nixed when she wanted to play over the American Legion veteran’s pre-Mass eulogy. Sister 3 started the first reading from the book of Ecclesiastes and immediately got hung up on “a time to be born and a time to die,” needing several moments before she could go on. Cousins and sisters presented offertory gifts and Bible verse, and a beautiful, delicate, quilt-pieced eulogy sewn from the memories my grandfather’s grandchildren had exchanged in the days before. It made me realize, only now, just how much I had learned from a man who was always so quiet.  It took me back to the childhood I shared with my cousins and let long-latent memories dawn anew.

I sang, and my mother’s cousins told me at the luncheon afterward how much the hymn choice meant to them – a credit that goes to my mother and aunt.  My grandfather was a gardener. He’d grown the food for his family as a teen and a Victory Garden after he’d returned from war, and he kept on growing vegetables and flowers until he couldn’t do the work anymore. It is because of his garden that I love roses and tulips and hydrangeas. And though his Episcopalian roots had long ago been tilled for his conversion to Catholicism, he had always loved the hymn I was honored to sing for him. I had never sung it before, but I haven’t stopped singing it since.

In the icy wind of a clear winter day, alongside the woman he’d missed so desperately for so long, we laid the last man of his generation to rest.

The next day, at work, my friends gave me a planter as a sympathy gift. They had no idea my grandfather was a gardener. I’ve given it his nickname. No gardener myself, I’m hoping he helps me keep it alive.

Mass Confusion

Creatures of habit and ritual do not generally react well to change. Oh, you should be with me when I cantor Sunday mass these days.

For those of you who aren’t Catholic (or are, but haven’t been to church in a length of time not to be judged or even discussed herein): there is a very set ritual of prayers we say during mass. Recently, the Church changed the words to some of those prayers. The whole Church. Every Catholic who goes to mass now has to say different words, no matter what country they’re in (presumably). It’s because Pope John Paul II years ago ordered a re-translation from the original language into all the languages of the world, because things strayed a bit too far from home and now not everyone was really saying the same thing. He spoke seven languages, so I guess he would know. And we’re all supposed to be saying the exact same thing. It’s about unity. One Church.

So anyway. The answer to a priest’s “The Lord be with you” used to be “And also with you.” Now it’s “And with your spirit.” We’ve been saying “And also with you” since 1963 when the Church ixnayed Atin-Lay, but now, holy hell, the words are different. We say “And with your spirit” no fewer than five times during a mass. For the first several weeks of the new translation, we took special care to remind people of this before mass started. It got to a point when sometimes we were practically yelling it.

~”The Lord be with you.”
~”AND WITH YOUR SPIRIT! I got it that time!”

I was incensed (haha, Catholic joke – get it? Incense?) when the most pious of our priests decided to sing a high mass a couple of weeks ago. No, high mass does not refer to too much incense. It’s when a bunch of the prayers are chanted. I actually gave him a dirty look when he started in. People weren’t comfortable with those chants before we changed all the words. Now, there’s absolutely no musical precedent for them. I don’t know what to sing. The people are all, “Uh, hey cantor, what do we do?” and I’m all, “Uhhh, just… wiggle your voice around a little.” I hope you’re happy, Father.

My music director wisely changed some of the prayers we sing to the new translation weeks ahead of time. The idea was that people would be comfortable with them by the time we got to the mandatory switch-over, and they’d sing them confidently.

False.

We’ve been doing the new music for three months now, and I still see all these people with their faces buried in the prayer cheat sheets. Where the music, which they know, is not written.

I don’t know why, but for a Church based entirely on believing what cannot be seen, these people have some serious trust issues.

I’m not even going to start on the Nicene Creed or how everyone panics every week because “maybe they changed the Lord’s Prayer, too.” (They didn’t.)

Catholics are accustomed not only to ritual but also to a certain rhythm. We have a way we say things, you know? A cadence. When they changed the words, the cadence got all screwed up and now nothing is said together. Which is ironic, given the purpose of changing the words. Now everything’s scattered all to hell, and it comes out sounding like, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive my roof under you, but only say the word and I shall heal my own soul or …something. *Cough.* And with your spirit?”

That bit gets said at the most important moment of the mass: the consecration. It’s the moment when the bread and wine is turned into the body and blood of Christ. This is a very holy moment. Which makes it an excellent time for Patrick, the deeply baritone and hard-of-hearing usher/sacristan, to hock up a crapload of phlegm on the other side of the altar wall, very loudly, out of sight, like the Voice of God has been stricken by post-nasal drip. He does it at the exact same time every week.

Priest: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father,–“

Patrick (off): “Aaachhhuugggllll!”

Priest: “–almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation–“

Patrick (off): “AAAYYYYAACHHHHUUUGGGGLLLLL. Uh-gull-accchhhh.”

Priest: “–that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.”

(I don’t have that memorized. I looked it up. I had the old prayer there memorized. But that’s gone the way of the backward-facing celebrant.)

Sadly, another fairly regular ritual at my church is the Fainting of the Faithful. The vast majority of attendees are seniors. And, God love them, sometimes they don’t have breakfast, or they forget to take a pill, or whatever, and boom. Down goes Mrs. Frazier. It’s happened so frequently that the parish has had to mark off a little connecting road between two parking lots with orange cones so that nobody (read: me) parks along the side of it because, if they do, the ambulance can’t get through.

I almost parked there yesterday, in defiance, because I was late and I really hate having to drive to the lower lot and hoof it up the hill to get to the church, out of breath just in time to sing the entrance hymn. Good thing I didn’t park there, though, because all of a sudden, right at the very beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the part leading up to that all-important moment of the consecration)… down went poor old Mr. McKinley.

I made that up, I don’t know his name.

Father saw it happen, and, when he finished the prayer he was on, he discreetly asked for any medical professionals present to attend to this parishioner. Apparently I worship at a very medical church. About six people rushed over. Had the choir been there, three more would have joined them. My church is, for reasons both spiritually and practically obvious, a pretty good place to lose consciousness.

This is always a very awkward thing for the celebrant. He has to continue with the mass. But he kind of doesn’t want to. He feels like he’s plainly ignoring the fact that one of his parishioners may or may not be dying about 20 feet away. Yesterday, because Mr. McKinley’s episode went on for so long, he calmly told the server girls as they prepared the altar for the consecration to go and get the other priest over in the rectory.

I remained prone, remembering I’m supposed to be an example up here in my lay ministry, kneeling as Saint Peter or whomever told us to do, but wondering what was taking the ambulance so long. They’re right across the street. Naturally, half the church was basically staring at the spot where Mr. McKinley had keeled over instead of paying much attention to that most holy of liturgical ceremonies, and I have to say that, as I watched the priest, he was a little distracted, too. It’s good, though, kind of, because it distracted everyone from Patrick’s lung evacuations.  And then, of course, the medics arrived exactly when the bread and wine were elevated for the big moment. (Former Catholics: think “ringing bells.”) You cannot pick a worse time to be disruptive.

(left): “Sir, are you having trouble breathing?”
(from altar): “Through Him, with Him, in Him…”
(off): “Ayyyucchhhhgggllll!”
(left): “Any chest pain?”
(from altar): “In the unity of the Holy Spirit…”
(off): “Bllluuugrrrghhuhgglll…”

Adding to all of this? The words to the hymn we sang at closing. “Let All Things Now Living.” Really? Oh, this is awkward. “Let all things now living (I hope) a song of thanksgiving to God our creator triumphantly raise! Whose passion has made us, protected and stayed us by guiding us on to the end of our days! (Which is hopefully not today)… Til shadows have vanished and darkness is banished as onward we travel from light into light!” (Go toward the light!)

I don’t know what happened to Mr. McKinley. The medics carted him off just before it was time to line up for Communion, with Father Pious High Mass tagging along.

I wonder if the prayers for the Anointing of the Sick changed, too.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

The twelfth day of Christmas is the feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic Church. And I had one.

I finally. Got. Wi-fi.

Epiphany!

Yes, that’s right. Since I moved into this place, 16 months ago, I have been chained to the modem via etherlink connection. The modem is in the only possible place it can be – on the floor next to the TV/cable box in my living room. Which meant I had to be on the floor to use the computer.

Yeah.

For the longest time, it was because they were supposed to set up wi-fi when they installed my cable, but they didn’t, and I just never called them to come back and do it because who wants to call the cable company and invite them over again? And then, one of my coworkers looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Just go buy a router, for crying out loud!”

Oh. I can do that?

We are not terribly technologically savvy here at thesinglecell. I’m not an idiot or anything – I just thought the cable company had to provide the wi-fi service and if I hooked up something else they’d know and accuse me of breach of contract or something. I totally made that whole thing up in my head, though. Turns out.

So yesterday, I got a router. It wasn’t hard. I told an associate at the store what I wanted, she asked if I knew what kind I wanted, I said no, she said she’d send someone right over, I stood in the aisle for five minutes looking at boxes, nobody came, I picked one that looked reasonable (Belkin 300 N with dual something), paid for it and left. The hardest thing about installing it was finding a place to plug it in. And now, I’m on my couch, under a blanket, with the laptop where it was made to be… and I’m online.

It’s like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from black and white to color.

Obviously, my regular readers have stuck with me through twelve days of the same title for my posts, except for one word that changed. I always celebrate the twelve days of Christmas. I don’t do pear trees or gold rings (note to self: find someone to supply gold rings for future Christmases) or drummers drumming, since they’d just make me nuts. But all my decorations stay up until the Epiphany, the celebration of the occasion when the three kings arrived at the stable to find the baby Jesus.

The little drummer boy may have been with them. I’m not sure.

Rembrandt's "Adoration of the Magi"

Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar brought the infant expensive gifts often given to kings, gifts that may have foreshadowed the path Jesus’ life and death would take: gold, because He was the newborn king; frankincense, which symbolized deity; and myrrh, an embalming oil associated with death. These days, two of those gifts are relatively obscure, and gold is no longer a gift fit only for kings. Most of the meaning has washed away.

It’s easy for us to forget the meaning of the little gifts we get on a daily basis. We are not royalty, not deities. But this year, for the twelve days of Christmas, I wanted to be more mindful of those gifts I receive every day, and how valuable they are.

The first day: Family.

The second day: Love.

The third day: Self-awareness.

The fourth day: Friendship.

The fifth day: Health.

The sixth day: Wisdom (and humor).

The seventh day: Contentedness.

The eighth day: Music.

The ninth day: Fruits of labor.

The tenth day: Freedom.

The eleventh day: Little pleasures.

The twelfth day: Connection.

By no means are these the only gifts I receive daily. There are so many more. Writing about these made me grateful for them, mindful of them. I hope I can continue that throughout the year.

Today, the decorations come down and get put away, and I yank a big, beautiful tree through a doorway nowhere near wide enough for it to pass through. After a considerable amount of vacuuming, my home goes back to its 11-month state, feeling bare and stark for a few days at first. I’ll consider keeping the Dickens Village houses out, at least, with their warm glow and old-world charm. And then I’ll decide, like I always do, that I might as well pack them away now so I don’t have to rejigger all the boxes in storage again when I eventually take them down.

There is no thirteenth day of Christmas.

But I still hope to receive a gift.

On the Eighth Day of Christmas

The eighth day of Christmas should have been sparkly and shiny and new. I should have woken up to find that all kinds of things were different and everything was positive and diamonds had rained down from the sky during the night. The eighth day of Christmas was New Year’s Day, and none of that crap happened.

None of it.

It was sunny, though, which was good for my fuzzy head. No, it was not fuzzy from a night of partying. (See previous post.) My head tends to get a little cottony on New Year’s Day, I think precisely because I expect things to be different and they’re totally not, except there’s a whiff of some sort of expectation in the air and everybody’s off and I get the feeling like everybody has something to do, and I feel bamboozled by the whole magic trick-that’s-not-really-a-trick. “Oh! Behold! A shiny new year!”

“Madeja look.”

New Year’s Day is a holy day in the Catholic church: the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The purpose is to honor the role Mary played in bringing about the salvation of the world. I’m not the most religious person – mild to moderate at best. But I am a cantor at my church, and I sang the noon mass. Just me, my favorite accompanist and the contemporary group, who showed up ready to really play. Music is an alive thing, breathing and morphing, and sometimes the group just doesn’t gel. But other times, it really gets into a groove. And the instruments tend to change from week to week, which keeps things fresh even though it’s mostly because someone flaked out and another person stepped up. (A violin this time!) As a singer, I get inspired by this kind of stuff – people who just know what they’re doing and don’t need much direction, who can look at the music and play, and elevate the experience without saying a word. When you’re Catholic and a music person and a good two decades younger than nearly all of the people you see in front of you, you will take every chance you get to change things up and get them out of the rut of the status quo. The people in the pews usually respond.

I think they respond because the music becomes a spiritual power boost, which everybody can use. It doesn’t have to be some big thing. It doesn’t have to scream “religion” or “God” or “miracle” at you. It can just be an old hymn you hear in a new way, by virtue, even, of where you do and don’t take a breath. Like reading a poem and not stopping your momentum at the end of a line. Oh! That’s what that means!

The mass was a minute from starting when I looked at the accompanist and pointed to sheet music that was sitting on top of the organ (which she wouldn’t play today – the contemporary group is more of a piano crew). “Are we doing this?” I mouthed.

“Oh! We can,” she mouthed back.

“Offertory?” I suggested. It’s the moment when the altar is prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the gifts are brought forward by parishioners. Technically, this piece is not liturgically correct to sing at that time, but it’s the only place to do it without making the mass longer. And nobody likes it when the mass is longer.

She nodded. “What key?”

“A-flat.”

The contemporary group zinged up the music enough that we were fairly enjoying ourselves from the beginning of the service, and I could tell the Frozen Chosen were, as well. Cantoring is like teaching, I think: you look out at a sea of dead faces and you’re trying to think of something that’s going to wake them up and bring light to their eyes. Music can do that if you play and sing it right. Even the old stuff. Plus it helps that we’re still in Christmas carols.

But when it came time for the Offertory, we took it down a notch. The contemporary group left their instruments. On the piano, the accompanist played the first few measures of Schubert, measures most people recognize very quickly. And I sang.

Ave Maria, gratia plena…

It is one of my favorite pieces to sing. The only trick is that it’s a bit of a pressure piece. It’s not something you sing all the time; it’s for special occasions. Weddings. Funerals. Feasts and solemnities of Mary. So when you do it, it has to be special.

It has to shine.

I sang the Ave Maria for my grandmother’s funeral in 2007. She had basically ordered me to do it, and I knew if I chickened out, or sang it badly, she would haunt me with murmured “That was nice, dear” sentiments that really meant, “I would have thought my eternal sendoff would be a bit better.” I was medicated and prayed to every saint I could think of for help as I climbed the stairs to the choir loft to sing it. I didn’t love how it went, but it was enough, thankfully, to keep my grandmother quiet.

I sang it for my sister’s wedding in 2002. Sister 2 played piano.

I sang it for my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s funeral two weeks ago. The family had requested it. They remembered it from the wedding.

It’s a piece that matters, that means something to people. A piece they close their eyes to. A piece that rings in their breath-filled chests when it’s over.

If you do it right.

For me, the only way to do it right is not to sing it myself. Rather, I have to open my mouth and let it come through me from somewhere else. Otherwise I worry too much about tempo and tone and where I can breathe, and it just doesn’t do. I run out of air, I go a little flat, I push a little. I make it about me, and it loses something. It loses shine.

On the eighth day of Christmas, I turned it all over to the gift I’ve been given instead of the brain I use, and I let it come through me instead of from me. I sang it for my grandmother all over again, for my sister and her husband, for his grandmother. The pews stilled. Eyes closed. My cottony head cleared.

It shined.

And a new year began.

The Feast Of All Souls

My grandmother visited me after she died.

I know that stuff is supposed to be for Halloween, but today is All Souls’ Day in the old Christian tradition, and Catholics still observe it. Today is the day when the Church celebrates the souls of all the dearly and faithfully departed. So my ghost story gets told today.

My grandmother died on Easter Sunday, 2000. She’d been sick for a decade: Alzheimer’s Disease and emphysema. And she’d never really had any medical treatment beyond the tanks of oxygen her brother-in-law, who was the only doctor she trusted, prescribed. He was a psychiatrist and he was eleventy-two years old, but he was the only one she trusted. She’d always been afraid of doctors, and years before, she had made my grandfather promise he would never put her in a nursing home. He never broke that promise, even though she was a mean Alzheimer’s patient. Her character had always been one of strength, fortitude and stubbornness. That was multiplied tenfold in her illness. It was a tragedy, but we found ways to laugh about it because we’d never stop crying if we didn’t.

Hey, she met someone new every day. Usually my aunt.

Anyway, she died at home on Easter Sunday. She was not the first loss in our family, but she was the first loss of someone to whom I’d been close. Frankly, as everyone in the family damned well knows, I was her favorite grandchild. So when I went to bed on that Easter Sunday night, I made her a deal.

“I don’t want to see you,” I told her spirit. “And I don’t want to hear your voice. I’m okay with other stuff, but I swear to God, I don’t want to see you. Got me?”

Deal.

Would that my mother had told her the same thing. One night, months after my grandmother’s passing, my mother was jolted awake because her bed shook. She thought at first that my father had twitched in his sleep, but no, she says… this was a more powerful, singular spasm of the mattress. She opened her eyes, and standing beside her bed was a whitish… something. It didn’t really have a shape, but it was there. Mom says she sensed right away that it was her mother. She rolled over quickly to wake my father, but by the time she turned back, the figure was gone.

This is apparently how my mother found a pair of tweezers she had been looking for for days. My grandmother, turns out, may or may not have shown up to put the tweezers back in the pocket of my mother’s robe, where they had not been the day before.

A few years after that, my parents were visiting a house they own at the Jersey Shore. My mother woke from sleep and looked down at the foot of the bed to find my grandmother standing there, in her trademark plaid pleated skirt, collared shirt, pullover sweater and brooch. She lingered a few seconds, then faded away.

Sneaky old thing.

For my part, my grandmother upheld our deal. I never saw her and I never heard her. At least, not while I was awake.

One night about a week after she had died, I dreamed of her. And not in a good way. I dreamed that my cousins, sisters and I were all gathered in the parlor of the funeral home where she had been laid out. It was the night before her funeral, and we were all, for some sick reason, spending the night there. My cousins and sisters were lying in sleeping bags at one end of the room, with all the flowers. I was on the other end of the room. And I was not in a sleeping bag.

I was in the casket.

With my grandmother.

I was lying on my side, knowing that she was right behind me.

Suddenly, the casket on its setting began to move. With increasing speed, it rolled toward the other end of the room. Terrified and paralyzed, I knew what was about to happen: the casket would crash into the pile of sleeping cousins and sisters, topple over… and my grandmother’s body would fall out on top of me.

I woke up before it happened.

A short time later, I dreamed that my parents, sisters and I were at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had just died. She was laid out on the couch, wearing the dress in which she’d be buried. I sat near her head and noticed her neck was at an odd angle. When I tried to adjust it, I felt something in her ice-cold skin change.

She began to wake up.

My parents and my grandfather were overjoyed, but I knew this was very, very bad. I scooped up my little sister and ran into the kitchen, where my other sisters were eating Chinese food.

What the hell? We never eat Chinese food.

In the living room, I could hear the cries of happiness. It seemed only I knew we were doomed.

The nightmares kept coming, for months. With each dream, my grandmother was more undead, more decomposed, and coming closer to catching up with me. In each dream, she would stare at me menacingly – from the dining room window of my old house. From the backyard of her home. From the curb as I ran to the other side of the street. The conscious part of my brain knew I was dreaming and tried desperately to wake up the rest of me, willing me to move a leg or an arm, something that would rouse me, but I was literally paralyzed with fear (and limbic sleep). I often woke up shaking, sweating, crying. Once, I woke myself up cursing her back to her grave.

It was horrible. Why was I seeing these awful things about my dear grandmother, who was stern, to be sure, but doted on her grandchildren and would stop at nothing to protect and care for them? Why was she becoming a monster in my dreams?

The Christmas after she died, we visited my grandfather. I made a point to have a picture taken with him, just the two of us. When I had it developed (developed!), I got doubles. I got two of the same pewter frame and kept one for myself, and sent one to my grandfather. He placed the photo on my grandmother’s dresser in their bedroom.

Sometime near the end of January, as I got ready for work, I walked out to my kitchen to get a drink, passing my living room on the way. Blind for want of glasses or contact lenses, I noticed something laying on the back of the couch. Puzzled, I walked over to it.

It was the framed photo of my grandfather and me.

It was laying face-up on the back of the couch, atop a handmade afghan.

It was supposed to be sitting on the end table… on the other side of the couch.

I looked at the cat.

The cat looked at me. “What?”

I looked at the end table. At the photo. At the cat.

“What?” she cocked her head.

I looked the photo – cat- end table – cat – photo – cat.

“Oh for crying out loud,” she seemed to say.

Could the cat possibly have dragged that heavy pewter frame across the back of the couch without disturbing the afghan or dropping the photo behind the furniture?

It was impossible.

Holy crap.

Shaken, I picked up the photo and put it back where it had been the night before. I finished preparing for work. “Stay,” I said to the photo aloud as I walked out the door to head to work.

But as I drove, I suddenly remembered a dream I’d had the night before. I dreamed of my grandmother. I realized I had awoken sometime in the night, once again terrified. But now, I could not remember the context of that nightmare. I couldn’t recall what had happened that had left me so afraid when I awoke in the dark.

Now, all I could recall was the way the dream had ended.

My grandmother had finally caught me.

And we sat together, and talked. And I told her that I missed her and that I loved her. And she hugged me.

To this day, that is the only part of the dream I can recall.

I suppose, for what would have likely been the only time in my life, I may have been sleepwalking that night. I suppose I may have gone out to my living room, picked up that photo of my grandfather and me, looked at it, and put it back where it didn’t belong.

But I don’t think I did it at all.

I think my grandmother came that night.

And I haven’t had a nightmare about her since. I have dreamed of her, yes. I have, from time to time, smelled her Ciara perfume (once, I smelled it while I was on a plane that was entirely too small, sharing a flight with a Catholic Cardinal I recognized. I smelled that perfume and thought, “Oh, we’re either really blessed on this flight or we are going down.” The airline lost the Cardinal’s luggage.) I sometimes hear an ice cream truck play “You Are My Sunshine,” the song she always sang to me when I was small. Last night, I heard my downstairs neighbor playing it for her baby boy. I always think of her and smile when I hear that song. But I have never seen my grandmother, and the nightmares have never returned.

And that photo, in its pewter frame, never again moved from its station. And my grandfather’s copy still sits, alone, on my grandmother’s dresser.

The Gift of Funerals

I went to a funeral today. It was for a gentleman with whom I used to sing, a sweet, kind, gentle, slightly pushy but never gruff man named Al.

Al wasn’t terribly young, but he wasn’t terribly old; I don’t know his exact age, because there was no program with the printed dates of birth and death on the cover, but I’d guess he was in his early 70s. He was a big man, but I didn’t get a chance to know how big until I went to the service this morning.

His family was small; his wife, Mary, their daughter Susan, her husband and their two daughters and one son. He had two brothers, and a best friend. A few nieces and nephews completed the roll, it seemed, and perhaps some cousins. But the center section of the church was nearly full, and before the first reading of the Mass, it was easy to understand why.

Albert had been a teacher; I knew that, though I can’t be sure what he had taught. Had it been music? Or English? I knew that my music director, Ed, had been his student. He had known Al since the age of 14. That was 45 years ago. Aside from the fullness of the church (something relatively unusual for an older gentleman whose family wasn’t very large), the first thing I noticed was the number of priests celebrating the Mass. This funeral was at my church; Al and I sang together in the church choir, and several fellow members had gathered to say goodbye to him. But there were four priests and a deacon on the altar. Two of the priests, I’d never seen before.

I came to understand through the service that one of them had worked with Albert at a retreat house for periodic weekends of reflection. The other had known him for years through a looser affiliation. The deacon was ours, and the pastor. The main celebrant used to be assigned to our parish and had been on the faculty at the school where Al had taught before he retired. I’m fairly certain he’d been a student of Al’s, as well.

When you get four priests and a deacon to celebrate your funeral, you’ve lived right.

The funeral began, unusually, with the eulogy. It was delivered by one of Albert’s nephews, a man I’d put in his late 40s. His name was Andy, and his writing was full of flourish. His delivery was firm and theatrical. It didn’t take long to realize that this was not necessarily because it was Andy’s nature (although I suspect it was), but because this was Albert’s nature. Albert was a man who loved the arts. Loved them. He surrounded himself with them, all kinds. Andy’s soliloquy was full of color – literally. He invoked all the crayons in the big box of Crayolas that most self-respecting men would never use in description of life: periwinkle, lavender, cobalt, light orange, fuchsia, and seafoam green.

He pronounced this last color with a great deal of weight and zeal.

Apparently Albert loved the color sea foam green, because his whole family laughed out loud.

Andy’s requiem for Al went on with demonstrative phrases about garden party invitations and what I can only assume was Al’s fondness for prompt guests who could handle being needled. It described him, I imagine mostly poetically but with a good deal of truth (indicated by the family’s laughter) as a man who literally commanded the flowers on how to behave. (“I can get the gardenias to sit up with just a stare,” he apparently mimicked.) He painted a picture of a man fond of “the show, the production;” someone who wanted things to be just right. In my several years’ knowledge of Al, I never found him to be prickly, but he was quite precise about how to pronounce the word “kyrie” when singing. He usually upstaged Ed to instruct the choir on it. At least twice a year.

It always made me smile.

Al smiled a lot. He had a sweet, round face- round everything, really – he was rotund – and incredibly soft and smooth hands. I know because every time he saw me he’d put out a hand to hold mine for a moment. He had a silky, sonorous voice that didn’t boom and wasn’t imposing, but could convey authority when called upon.  I got the impression more than once that being the former teacher was a bit of a struggle for Albert; though he was usually able to keep quiet and just follow along (often a bit behind the beat due to a loss of hearing or reflexive rhythm, either of which came with age), there were moments when he was inclined to lecture on the music we were singing in rehearsal.

It became apparent through Andy’s eulogy and, later, Father Jerry’s, that Al infused his life with the arts: music, theater, literature and painting. And through these words offered by these men who had loved him in different, but equally moving ways, I got a brighter, clearer picture of the man I had known, too.

The readings accomplished the same thing. Most Catholics are pretty familiar with the standard funeral fare, but these were not presented in the standard way, and, in one case, a reading was not the common fodder of funerals at all. Rather, it was the reading from 1 Corinthians, the one that so many people have at their weddings, instead:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What a thing to say at a funeral.

And how absolutely right it is to say it there.

That reading was presented – not “read,” no; presented– in a wholly unpretentious but beautifully intepreted way by Albert’s friend and fellow theater lover. Clearly this man was an actor, but he did not act this passage of scripture. He knew it. It’s not just that he barely looked at the text as he went; it’s that he felt the words as he said them. For 21 years, I’ve known this was important in singing: in order to convey the proper message in the sound, regardless of the language, you have to know what you’re saying. But I had never heard this rote reading presented in such a way.

And I never want to hear it any way other than this again.

Seriously, I’m flying this guy in to do it at weddings wherever I go.

Al would have adored it. He would have adored the harmony our altos and basses sang impromptu in the hymns his family chose – standard hymns for a funeral, as they generally go, but lovely. And apparently, he would have loved the fact that we sang “God Bless America” at the end. I was thrown when the organ started its opening strains; we had sung it at the end of Mass last week, and I was worried  momentarily that Holly, the accompanist, had spaced out and started playing something that had been left on her music stand in the organ pit. But  no, soon enough I realized this was quite deliberate. Al would want his funeral service to end with a blessing on the country he loved.

I wondered if he had served; there had been no mention.

So many times, I find myself leaving funerals wishing I had known the honored dead better in life. I have learned so much about them in that brief time sitting in the pew, listening to those who loved them most tell their life stories. I’ve learned about friends’ traits and characteristics, before then untraced to previous owners, and realized, “Oh, that’s where he gets it!” I’ve come to know friends better by attending their parents’ funerals.

I’ve written a eulogy or two, and delivered them, and I’m sure that those who didn’t know my honored dead the way I knew them left feeling the same way. But I’m not saddened by the lost chance; Al and I didn’t come into each other’s lives until about eight years ago. Rather, I’m so happy to know that those who knew him best got to live his love for life through him so boldly.

What a gift a funeral is.

I’m so glad I went.

Long may you rest, and well, Albert. I will miss your smile and your softness, and I will think of you, as I do so many others, when I sing.

“The Gift of Love” by Hal Hopson
This is not our choir’s recording, but it is a piece we have sung many times, with Albert in the tenor section.

Music Monday #7: Working the Steps

Today I’ve decided to post on a piece I’m actually working on right now, as opposed to something I’ve sung in the past or with which I’m familiar. It’s an Italian aria (aria=opera or oratorio solo, usually focusing on one particular theme) called Selve amiche, written by Antonio Caldera.

No, you should not know who that is. But so that you will: he grew up in Venice and was a choirboy at a basilica. He became the conductor at the court of the Duke of Mantua (you shouldn’t know who that is, either). Two years later, at the age of 31,  he wrote an opera now referred to as Opera pastorale. Of interest in this opera is that it uses the same libretto (lyrics) as La costanza in amor vince l’inganno… which was another opera written by Caldera. But he wrote it all to different music for Opera pastorale. 

Why did he do that? Well, La constanza was written for a public theater in Macerata, with paying guests who bought tickets. Anybody who wanted to see it could see it. What’s distinct about Opera pastorale is that it was performed in Rome in a private theater with invited audience members… and that meant (drumroll, please) women were allowed to perform in it. The character who sings Selve amiche is called Sylvia, and she was played by a woman in Opera pastorale. That wasn’t allowed in Rome’s public theaters at the time, which is how we wound up with a bunch of eunuchs singing soprano.

Poor guys.

Selve amiche is very short and not terribly broad-ranged. It only covers an octave, and a moderate one at that. My voice teacher let me choose from three pieces to study next, and I chose this one for two reasons: I need to work on getting more resonance in my middle range, and I need to work a little more on the close intervals that this piece exhibits in its “runs” (phrases containing a string of relatively fast-paced notes). You don’t care about why I chose it, but I wanted to show you the value in a piece that’s relatively simple, even in opera. They’re not all unapproachable and complicated, and since this aria’s quiet plea is simple, I think its composition matches it well.

Apart from that, it’s just pretty. In the opening scene of the opera, Sylvia is struggling with matters of love, and she wanders into the woods to try to find some solace.

Lyrics and translation:

Selve amiche, ombrose piante, fido albergo del mio core,
Friendly woods, shady trees, faithful shelter of my heart,

Chiede a voi quest’alma amante qualche pace al suo dolore.
This loving soul asks of you some peace for its sadness.

With that simple request, in this simple piece, I ask that you simply close your eyes and listen to Suzana Frasheri sing. Happy Music Monday.

—————
Featured image from www.hockinghills.com

Music Monday #4: Holy Commercial

Last week, I regaled you with the amazingness of the Flower Duet from Lakme’ and mentioned how it’s been used in commercials. I think it’s sort of bizarre when commercials use classical and opera pieces that are seemingly completely unrelated to the product they’re pushing. Case in point: this week’s Music Monday sampling.

I have Comcast cable, and the monopoly company has been running an ad lately in which people and objects sort of jump out of a television screen at a viewer who’s rather blown away by the whole thing. Nevermind that I don’t want that to happen in my house, ever, and I find it to be a fairly meaningless ad. The reason it caught my attention at all is because of the music it uses.

It’s the “Sanctus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem.

Ah, Mozart’s Requiem. I said in my first Music Monday post that I have had a love affair with it for years. I sang it in France. I’m letting that sentence fall flat because of the link; I don’t want to launch into the whole thing right now, so you can read a bit about it in that previous entry if you want. Point is, the Mozart Requiem is a very well-known work in choral circles, and it absolutely rings and echoes and soars in French churches, be they made of marble or humble stone with dirt floors. We did it in both, plus a more modern, plaster-walled place, just because we could.

The work has a back story that’s almost mythical: Mozart was commissioned to write it for the late wife of a stranger. Our Wolfgang and his wife Constanze were desperate for money and she was getting increasingly anxious about it. (Wolfgang was a bit devil-may-care about things like this; he had other things to worry about, like the Emperor.) But Mozart was becoming increasingly ill, and seemingly going mad; he felt the work would kill him.

He was right. Though he wrote the foundation of the entire work and had completed parts of it, he died in the middle of writing the “Lacrimosa” movement (coincidentally, the only movement in the work that concentrates on grief).

With her husband dead, Constanze was left to search out someone who could finish the commissioned piece so she could get the much-needed payment. Constanze was not a gold digger… she was just really strapped for cash, with mouths to feed and a husband dead at 36. Eventually, she convinced one of Mozart’s associates, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the work.

That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

The “Sanctus,” for those unfamiliar with the Catholic rite of worship and, more specifically, the funeral mass (which is what a requiem traditionally is), is the part of the mass that translates to the Holy Holy Holy. It beatifies God during the consecration of the bread and wine, in the liturgy of the eucharist. It’s a song of praise, and Mozart makes it triumphant in the midst of mourning and fear and heartfelt requests for the forgiveness of sins… but it still has plenty of the darkness that comes with the fear of God in that moment when a soul hovers between Earth and either Heaven or Hell.

Which is why I find it odd that Comcast uses it in their commercial.

There are so many beautiful moments in the work, it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but the “Sanctus” movement is one of mine, for the sake of one single line. Throughout all the rehearsals and performances of the Requiem, I was next to my friend Bill, who has a gorgeous tenor voice. Every time we got to this one phrase, when my soprano part dipped lower and his complementary tenor part soared higher, it was all I could do to keep my sound going; the phrase just takes my breath away. It boils down to one note, really, but Mozart was so brilliant in the way he structured the chord that it just opens the whole thing wide. Below, the link to the movement, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. I regret that I do not know which choir he is conducting or when and where the recording was made. The phrase I adore begins at 1:09, and the tenor note to listen for is at 1:14-1:15. As usual, I encourage you to find better quality recordings on your downloadable music provider of choice; if you do, I suggest a recording on the London Digital label, of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti and featuring Cecilia Bartoli, Arleen Auger, Vinson Cole and Rene Pape as soloists, with the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoperchor. (That’s a choir.) It was recorded live in Vienna in 1992, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. If you want to buy the CD, the cover looks like this:

 

Apart from checking on the time for that tenor note… close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Mozart Requiem, K 626, V. Sanctus