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.

Embracing Now

This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side.  If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.

Returning to the Patio

I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together.  Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing.  But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me.  The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring.  While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.

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The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together.  We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then.  I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home.  Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors.  This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.

Wicker chairs

On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now.  Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together.  And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.

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Holding Back, Weighted Down

In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life.  Yet I’m already what most would consider old.  If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.”  I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly.  I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation.  It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least.  What am I waiting for?

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Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.”  Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.

You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness.  And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what.  Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.

Turning Blessings into Joy

I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests.  I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian.  I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient.  I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness.  I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces.  I have lines to master for the play that I’m in.  And on and on.  But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.

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When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage.  I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books.  I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment.  It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately.  And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.

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My mother’s apartment at Christmas 2010, eight months before we began sharing the apartment

Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings.  If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do.  I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.

Choosing Contentment

As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what.  And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face.  Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.

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Mount Vesuvius, near Naples 

And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy.  Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived.  Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality.  I now choose contentment and serenity.  And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.

Hearing an Answer to My Prayer

Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity.  In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real.  I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known.  And then my prayer was answered.

I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady.  (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.)  To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder.  Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC.  I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”

When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script.  And the singing voice is not mine.  To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer.  During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep.  Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer.  On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”  I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.

Glee Plays the Game Playbill
My mother, Doris Burgess (later Doris Burgess Hayek), was in the cast for this production at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College (now Eastern Kentucky University).

In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice.  Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard.  Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage.  How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in.  I am blessed by this gift beyond words.  I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible.  Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever.  And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.

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If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Answers about the Afterlife: A Private Investigator’s 15-Year Research Unlocks the Mysteries of Life after Death, by Bob Olson
Afterlife Communication: 16 Proven Methods, 85 True Accounts, edited by R. Craig Hogan
(The first chapter in this collection is “Voices of People in Spirit Recorded on a PC,” by Sonia Rinaldi.)
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec
(In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit.  I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Hello from Heaven: A New Field of Research – After-Death Communication Confirms That Life and Love Are Eternal, by Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenheim