Singing with the Choir (A Story of Minor-League Baseball, Music, and Joy)

The Church of the Holy Child Choir, in which I am an unremarkable second soprano, sang “God Bless America” just before the start of the Friday evening, July 12, Wilmington Blue Rocks game.  The Blue Rocks are a minor-league baseball team affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.  On July 12, their opposing team was the Salem Red Sox, from Virginia.  Ninety-one of us from our church, including the choir, made the trip from the church parking lot to the Daniel S. Frawley Stadium on two sleek Delaware Express coaches.

Frawley Stadium, by RevelationDirect – Own work, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Many of the bare facts of the evening would not lead you to think that I loved it, but I thought ahead of time that I would, and I did

Rocky Bluewinkle, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

In the moments before we sang, the Blue Rocks’ mascot, Rocky Bluewinkle, posed with us for pictures.  Mascot Mr. Celery made no appearances during the game because the Blue Rocks didn’t score any runs.  They won the makeup game—needed because of the prior day’s storms—played just before ours, but until after the conclusion of that makeup game, our choir was cloistered, standing on the side of an access road outside a fence separating us from left field.  Our “green room” was a sunbaked, chewing-gum-infested patch of dirt and grass from which we could see the high overpass carrying I-95 but see nothing of the action on the baseball field.  It was possible, however, to see the scoreboard over the fence and so track the makeup innings moseying past.  Our buses arrived at the stadium about 6 p.m., and we finally took the field for our brief performance about 7:30.

Other than a slight case of indignation, I didn’t much mind the long, uncomfortable wait because I knew our fun would eventually arrive.  But the long time standing in the heat and humidity caused two women in our choir to come close to fainting; one was unable to recover in time to sing with the group.  When you weigh our discomfort against that of, say, refugees who, after traveling many hundreds of miles, must wait for days in the heat at the U.S. border only to be herded like ill-treated cattle into holding pens, the comparison is between our grain of sand and their mountain.  I will say, however, that the existence of situations infinitely more difficult than ours didn’t give our hosts justification for keeping a largely senior-citizen choir waiting on our feet in the heat for well over an hour.  Fortunately, on arrival, our church members who were not in the choir were able to take seats in the stands.

While we waited outside left field, our wonderful young choir director took us through a few warm-up drills, and we sang a practice “God Bless America.”  I chatted with some of the other women and stood a while with my own thoughts.  I was determined not to feel like the odd-woman-out, in spite of my being a newcomer to the church, and I didn’t feel like an outsider, in large part because of the friendliness of others but also in part because of the resolve within me to love the evening entirely.

Finally the time came for us to line up.  We hurried—trying to keep our two parallel lines in a semblance of order—past third base and home plate until we took our places on the field between first base and the stands.  Rocky Bluewinkle knelt in front of us; family members and our priest—who had been standing outside the fence with us—snapped pictures; our director took his place, blew an F on his pitch pipe, and cued the singing.  We opened our mouths and vocal chords for the brief climax to it all.  Here we were, after months of anticipation, after rehearsing our parts in our choir room, after selecting our sizes for the golf shirts our priest ordered for us with the Church of the Holy Child 50th-anniversary logo on them (“Rooted in Faith – Growing together” and a tree with spreading branches and roots), after donning our shirts at home, along with the khaki pants we had each come up with to wear.

I sometimes struggle to stay in the moment, as one is advised to do to keep life from skidding by and to arrest consuming worries over the past and future, but I was absolutely in the moment as we sang in Frawley Stadium that Friday evening just after 7:30.  The next day, the wife of one of our talented tenors shared a video.  Watching myself, I’m reminded of an excessively enthusiastic kindergartener who plants herself in the middle of the front row and emotes during her class’ special concert.  The cheerful tension in my body as I face and lean toward our director would have worked well had I been preparing to win the 100-yard dash.  My mouth opens wider than anyone else’s on every note.  The video continues a moment after the conclusion of the song: most choir members look relaxed and relieved; I keep grinning.  And throughout the brief song, I felt as thoroughly happy as I looked.

I should explain that I am less affected by the heat than many.  After our singing, once I’d located my seat in the stands, I found the weather pleasant—warm and humid, yes, but with a slight breeze.  For several minutes, the Sun shining on our section of the stands hurt our eyes.  But once the Sun dropped below the stadium walls, the air softened into, for me, an embracing summer night.  The Moon, three days past its first quarter and kept company by Jupiter, floated above the stadium behind us.

Another evening with a just-past-quarter Moon

I had trouble following the game.  The section I was in was nearly directly above the patch of field where we had sung, but the cage around home plate somewhat obscured the action there, and not a lot of action was to be had.  A few of our Blue Rocks players looked especially small and young.  Before boarding our Delaware Express coach, I’d known nothing about the players or their team’s fortunes, and I hadn’t learned any more by the time the coaches dropped us off back at the church about four-and-a-half hours later.  I like baseball, but the game itself that night was for me a stage set, a context, rather than the main event.

The extravagant fireworks display following the game was worthy of a major city’s 4th of July extravaganza.  Children’s races and birthday celebrations between innings, less than spectacular ball playing, long lines for food (which I did not attempt to procure)—not to mention our choir’s pregame “green room”—did not lead me to anticipate the evening’s culmination in magnificently layered chandeliers and exploding stars.

Another view of our “green room”

Overall, some might call the evening uneven, but I call its gestalt glorious, with each element contributing: our boarding the comfortable coaches, our bus’s route past my high school and the neighborhood where I grew up and lived in recent years, the races and other antics staged between each inning, the uneventful game unfolding on the field, my sitting in the stadium with folks whom I have come to care about from seeing them at Mass or in choir practice, and even our long exile outside leftfield.

The entire evening is bathed in the joy of our singing.  I have always loved to sing.  When I was an elementary-school child in the Wilmington Friends Meeting, a woman named Evie Young, who was somewhat older than my parents, played the piano every Sunday morning for us children to sing hymns and other songs before Meeting for Worship.  Evidently I practically drove my parents out the door if I thought we might be late for the singing.  Throughout my life, singing has been one of my favorite activities—singing at camp during meals and around a campfire, singing with my parents around the piano, singing in a congregation, singing in a choir, singing and playing the guitar or piano with friends in college and in recent years.  And here we were singing at a baseball game!  It wasn’t Citizens Bank Park or Fenway Park; the ball players weren’t the Yankees and the Dodgers, but I was doing something special I had never done before.  I was singing at a ballpark with the choir I now love, and my joy overflowed.

I had no trouble in singing “God Bless America” with feeling.  Our country—the entire world—is profoundly in need of God’s blessing, given through each one of us filling our nation and planet with kindness to all people everywhere, with an absolute commitment to working together for the common good of all, and with an unrelenting dedication to healing the Earth.  How could I not have sung “God Bless America” with sincerity and enthusiasm?

Irving Berlin, the composer of “God Bless America,” photograph by Unknown – book: Irving Berlin’s Show Business, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Landmark moments, such as Friday night’s, trail after them other life moments with which they are kin: seeing my parents holding hands as we walked through the Montreal baseball stadium on our way to an Expos game, watching the Moon rise behind the fireworks on the miraculous Labor Day my parents and I spent together at Winterthur, playing softball in the yard behind our house and hitting the ball far beyond the reach of the boy with whom I was playing, watching game 6 of the 1975 World Series, the game when Carlton Fisk hit a home run to tie the series for the Boston Red Sox.  I was watching with the couple who shared dorm-parent duties with me at the Maine boarding school where we taught.  After the game, the couple and I drove around Augusta in a celebratory excursion with no destination and no purpose other than happiness.

Trying to will oneself into happiness in the middle of pain, crisis, or loss may be impossible.  But Friday night showed me once again: deciding that a potentially pleasurable experience will, in fact, be filled with pleasure and interest can help me ride safely across small rip currents that otherwise might drag me down, if not into unhappiness, at least into disappointment.  The resulting pleasure is genuine, not forced.  The real joy inherent in the experience has been uncovered and released.

On Friday, I was not in the least disappointed, and I am blessed with new happy images to add to my long life’s vast collection of memory keepsakes.

Changing the Past

This is a long piece because it is a working-through-a-question effort.  If you choose to read the post, you will probably want to do a lot of skimming!  I’m including the piece in case any of the issues resonate with you.  The change in point of view comes when I consider what wiser voices than mine would tell me.

Just now, as I glanced through sheer curtains to the sunny morning and waving shadblow outside, I felt for a dreamlike moment the veiled scene was our backyard in Wilmington.  When I have a difficult spell, I sometimes say aloud, “I want to go home; I want to go home.”  “Home” is the little white house my parents and I shared, the home I pray they have found again in heaven.  I am not asking to join my dear ones in heaven yet—when my time does come, I beg to be with them for all eternity.  Instead, I am longing for us to return to our earthly little white house, for us to relive the joys and for me to be a better daughter.

Our little white house, drawing by Mason Hayek

What can I do to make up for the mistakes I have made that hurt those I love and others?  Can I revise, even now, the times I might have offered encouragement and loving understanding but, instead, turned away in hurt, anger, or frustration—not even understanding myself?  Can I in any way rectify the unkind things I have done?  Even though I can’t recall hurting another ever to have been my goal, it has too often been the sad result of my deficiencies.

Dear guides and loved ones in the Light, how can I make up for the unkind things I have done?

You wish with all your heart, with all your soul, you could take back the hurts you have inflicted, from your teenage years when you dreaded school and cried for loneliness to a few days ago, when you sought the cause for your not writing in external conditions instead of within yourself.  Before giving three responsibilities in “making up for” regrets, we’d like to offer a small but important and perhaps unexpected perspective on what some call “sin” but we prefer to call “mistakes” since the behavior grows out of a mistaken sense of oneself.  We would like to ask: have you not learned from the mistakes of others, from the times they hurt you through their own deficiencies?

Others’ growth from your mistakes is, of course, deeply insufficient reason for spreading sadness and dismay, but it is an outcome of which to be aware.  It is a small bloom accompanying the understanding you must seek of why you responded as you did to the confluence of facts and forces—some objective, many misread—leading to your being other than you wish to be, for the sake of others and for your own peace of mind and growth.  We mention the tiny flower of wisdom purveyed through mistakes to give you a measure of serenity as we begin our lesson.

When you are unkind—whether this unkindness is inadvertent or emerges out of your own sadness, whether you are missing an opportunity to encourage, or whether you are otherwise nourishing hurt where you might nourish love—you have three responsibilities.  The first is to figure out why you acted as you did and to grow so that you do not repeat your mistake.  Meeting this responsibility is a lifelong journey.  Our mistakes tend to sprout from the same deep roots within us.  Replacing these roots with healthy plants and tending them so their leaves and flowers thrive takes great reflection and wisdom and is gardening for a lifetime.  God gives us our lives in part in order for us to nurture and tend our souls through living, through surmounting our own mistakes and the mistakes of others.  When we acknowledge our weaknesses in a spirit of hope and then find our way to doing better, no matter the byways and detours, we are following a part of God’s plan for us.

Speaking to you individually: you have had a recent reminder of your need for the courage to mention small discomforts or concerns as they arise.  You fail to speak up because you think you may be wrong or unjustified, worry that your comments will ruffle the otherwise tranquil surface of a relationship, or, above all, fear you will be rejected or thought less of in some way.  But you know through repeated experience the answer to this question: Is it better to mention small issues calmly as they arise or to wait until a time of vulnerability and frustration blows the top off the mountain?

The fact that you have suffered (and caused suffering) all your life from your desire to please, to be perceived as each valued other would have you be, is not sufficient reason to let this problem continue to taint your days and your relationships.  Once a problem is clearly identified and understood, excuses for changing fall away, no matter how frightening the leap into change may feel.  Jump off the high dive into the beckoning, life-giving waters of growth.  Your diving may be awkward at first, and you may occasionally balk at the plunge, but to turn away is to fail to make your mistakes meaningful instead of purely cause for recurring regret and remorse.

For you another deep need for change has been within your creative life and your quest for a sense of purpose and meaning.  We will cover that challenge as part of the second responsibility we have in working with our mistakes.

That second responsibility is toward those we’ve harmed.  No matter what the hurt, we can show through both words and actions that we love and care for the other or others, sincerely and profoundly regret our hurtfulness, and have learned from it.  Words, no matter how sincerely spoken, are a beginning but are not enough.  We most honor those we have hurt, as well as ourselves, by changing the patterns that caused the unhappiness.

Words can express the content of the heart and spirit and can presage and reflect change.  About your recent emotional outburst to your dear friend over your writing, you might say to your friend (and yourself), “I have been greatly frustrated by my inability to work on my writing in any consistent way.  As you know, I place meaningful writing on a high pedestal and judge my life as severely defective if I am not able to leap high enough to reach it.  Throughout the years, I’ve sought the reasons for my not writing consistently, trying out one reason and then another, begging for insight and a way forward.  At the time of my recent outburst, my ongoing frustration with my writing linked with fatigue and an episode I felt confirmed the meaninglessness and unacceptableness of my writing efforts.  Still looking for reasons for my intense, fifty-years-in-building distress, I landed on my old standbys: inferiority in the eyes of others and failure to feel whole.

“As I emoted, you were intensely kind to me—in spite of the onslaught, in spite of my flinging out complaints.  Your kindness has given a gift of serenity, serenity enough for me also to recognize your wisdom: I’ve been trying too hard and so destroying the peace I require to write.  Others have said the same to me, but I have never, until now, been able to accept alternatives to striving, begging for insight, and praying in desperation for inspiration.

“The epiphany came last night: Write for the pure joy of writing, for the pleasure of arranging words and expressing thoughts, for the bliss of exercising a God-given skill, no matter its scope.  Write because, as you, my friend, wisely said, good thoughts flying out into the world—even those unheard or unread—help to create a better world.  We are literally all connected; consciousness is one; how can the thoughts and words of one soul not affect all others?  And through being written down, thoughts gain clarity and strength.  Writing matters to the world even when the words live only between the covers of a journal.

“After searching all my adult life, I have stopped seeking the writing route to finding my place and purpose.  And writing for the joy of writing brings with it time to write.  Before the long-sought epiphany you helped to gift to me, my ‘time to write’ meant all the details of my life were perfectly aligned and I was buoyed by ideal energy, inspiration, and the assured attention of others.  Of course, it is surprising that ‘time to write’ ever came at all.  When I’m not trying too hard, times to write become rampant.

“While I understand now why my fifty years of building frustration erupted in one more lava flow, as you witnessed, I ask your forgiveness for the distress I gave to you and all I said that felt unkind.  With all my heart I wish I could remove the pain I gave to you.  What I can do, must do, and will do is, with gratitude to you and to God and our loved ones in the Light, remember and practice what you have helped me, finally, to see.”

You can share these words with your treasured friend face to face.  In much the same way, you can share newfound understanding with your parents and those others in heaven whom you pray to heal from your hurtfulness, from the hurt or hollowness within you that erupted to scald them or fail to bolster their courage and joy, honor their wonderful strengths, and help fill their own hollow places.  By your words written and spoken to those who have gone to the Light, you can share your insight growing out of experience.  They hear you.  And above all, they see your growth.

And what of those in this life with whom we have lost touch or severed ties?  We can speak or write to them, too, even when we know they will not directly hear or read our words.  As you and we have said, healing words and thoughts put out into the world, through prayer or through any sincere expression of meaning and emotion, touch every other soul because all of us—on Earth and on the other side—are linked through the unified consciousness pulsing through God’s creation.

Our third responsibility in the face of hurtful mistakes is to deny ourselves the right to wallow in remorse.  While we are actively mourning our past behavior, we are holding back our ability to change in the present.  The goal is not to forget the regretted past; the requirement is to understand it, release (as best we can) the regret we feel into the river of life, and renew our place in Ongoing Conversion, as the Franciscans describe the God-given river of life’s ever-flowing, ever-nourishing offer of learning and growth.

Finally, we would like to mention a difference between Earth time and God’s time.  We on Earth view time as linear, with an unchangeable past and a relentlessly approaching future.  In God’s time, in which our loved ones in the Light share, the whole is visible: all you are; all you can be; your hurts and your hurting of others; the vast love, joy, and kindness you give, have given, and will give; the lessons you have learned; the ways you are continuing to struggle; the glorious soul you are; and the unwavering brilliance of your spirit even as you feel your light has dimmed.

So go on with optimism, courage, and peace of mind.  Even on the other side your spirit will continue to evolve.  Along with releasing the reasons for failing sometimes to make the world a better place for you and others, release the remorse you feel for your lapses, even the most distressing.  Never cease to learn, never blame others for your not growing, and strive never again to be unkind or unloving.  But let the pain you feel dissolve in God’s endless river of life—helping to guide your journey but not becoming boulders and rapids hindering your way.