Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Member of the Choir

celebrating 25 years flyer1For the last four or five years I have sung with a community choir called the Sterling Singers. It is a non-audition choir, which means that anyone with experience can participate—including me. I’m quite musical, but I would say my singing voice is merely adequate. What I lack in talent, I try to make up by practicing. Recently, the Sterling Singers was one of three choirs invited to sing at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. For this concert, we were given cd’s with our individual parts emphasized over the accompaniment. I spent quite a bit of time singing to my computer screen as I listened to the cd. I’ll never be a soloist, but I’m pretty good at being a member of the choir.

The Tabernacle is widely known for its great acoustics. The building is designed so that all the sound funnels towards the audience. You can literally stand at the back of the hall and hear a pin drop from the stand; I know because I’ve heard it. While the acoustics are great for the audience, it’s a different story for the choir. Because all of the sound is going forward, the singers can’t really hear each other very well. About the only people you can hear while you are singing are those standing on either side of you and perhaps the person behind you. It almost makes you feel like you’re singing a solo, an alto solo in my case—mostly harmony, little melody. I once saw a skit on the Carol Burnett Show where Carol was supposed to be singing a duet. The soprano didn’t show up, so she sang just her alto part—lots of “oo’s,” “ah’s,” and “doo-doo-doo’s.” It was pretty funny as a comedic presentation, but feeling like you are singing an alto solo for an audience who has come to hear a full-voiced choir is rather disconcerting. Besides, I’m used to hearing all of the parts of the choir. We practice on Sunday evenings at a local chapel, choir members sitting in the pews and the director leading from the stand. For our Christmas concerts we usually have about 350 members, but for this most recent concert our numbers were down to somewhere between 200 and 250—still a pretty good-sized group. Because we have so many members and we practice in a fairly enclosed space, I’m used to being part of a big sound instead of feeling like I’m almost all by myself.

Another challenge associated with singing in the Tabernacle is the fact that, like the voices, the music from the organ is funneled toward the audience. As singers, we don’t hear the organ until the sound has bounced off the back of the hall and echoed back to us. Thus, if we are trying to follow the organ, we are behind the beat, not by much, but definitely behind.

Fortunately, our director used to belong to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and was well aware of both these acoustical phenomena. Consequently, he warned us numerous times that it would be absolutely imperative that we watch him closely. He was in front of both the choir and organ and could clearly hear the singing and the accompaniment. In order for the audience to experience the full impact of the music, we had to follow him and only him, not our neighbor, not the organ. As you might imagine, it was no small feat for a group that size to stay focused for the entire hour-long concert, but I think we did pretty good.

During our dress rehearsal earlier in the week, our director told us that he wished each of us could be in his position and hear what he was hearing because it was so wonderful. One of the things he, our associate director, and the organist had been worried about was whether or not the choir could match the output of the organ. The Tabernacle organ is magnificent, and at full volume shakes the building like a small earthquake. Of course, the organist could have played softer, but that would have limited the effect of the musical piece as a whole. Our director and associate director took turns during the rehearsal to sit in the back of the hall to check on the balance between the choir and the organ. Happily, we received a thumbs up from both of them.

The night of the concert we were all there—the ladies in matching black velvet tops and jewelry, the men in black suits with white shirts and a black bow tie. Concert goers filled all of the center section on the floor of the Tabernacle with others scattered along the side sections and in the balcony. I’m guessing we had about 1000 attendees, maybe more. All of the music we sang was religious in nature; however, it ranged in style from “Zadok the Priest” by Handel to a gospel spiritual, from the traditional “Consider the Lilies” to an American folk song. We sang in three different languages: English (of course), Latin, and German. The audience was appreciative and responsive with their applause, but I knew we were succeeding when I saw both our director and our associate director with tears in their eyes as they led us.

Singing in the Tabernacle has made me think about my own part in the grand choir of humanity. I must confess that I often feel like the wallflower I was at the junior high dances—on the outside looking in, desperately wanting to participate in the enjoyment. I’m sure that perception is rooted in depression, but knowing that still doesn’t make me feel less alone. However, my Tabernacle experience gives me hope that, although I feel like I’m singing solo, in reality I am part of a grand whole with the common goal of doing good in the world. The director leading this group is, of course, God. He hears both the instruments and the singers and knows how to blend all things together to make majestic heavenly music. My responsibility is to follow him, and him only, instead of listening to someone else or doing my own thing altogether. When I think of life this way, I feel like I am a contributing member of the human race. I might not hear all the voices, but I know that I have a part to sing. And as long as I practice, follow the Director, and do my best, I belong.

“I” Diving

According to my three-year-old granddaughter, Grandma Eileen went “eye diving” a couple of weeks ago. I’m not quite sure what she thought I was doing; it sounds like something ghouls would do at Halloween instead of bobbing for apples. While I haven’t been diving for any eyes lately, I have been “I” diving, or soul-searching, quite a bit.

In my previous post, “Rough Roads and Shock Absorbers,” I mentioned that I have been reading Kristin Neff’s book on self-compassion. I have to admit it has caused me to re-examine some of my perceptions about myself and life in general—definitely not an emotionally pain-free exercise. In the book, she describes three “doorways” into self-compassion:

  1. You can give yourself kindness and care.
  2. You can remind yourself that encountering pain is part of the shared human experience.
  3. You can hold your thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness. (Neff, Kristin, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, p. 102)

The mindfulness doorway is one that I can easily buy into, but I have to admit I’m having trouble with the other two, especially the encountering pain part. The following paragraph resonated with me.

Everybody makes mistakes at one time or another, it’s a fact of life. And if you think about it, why should you expect anything different? Where is that written contract you signed before birth promising that you’d be perfect, that you’d never fail, and that your life would go absolutely the way you want it to? Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the “everything will go swimmingly until the day I die” plan. It’s absurd, and yet most of us act as if something has gone terribly awry when we fall down or life takes an unwanted or unexpected turn. (ibid., p. 11, italics in original)

I suppose that after experiencingDCIM100GOPRO many of life’s unexpected twists and turns, especially in the last few years, it would be logical for me to give up the unrealistic idea that my life should be unfolding in the easy ways I expected. My skydiving experience is an example of this difference between expectations and actual experience. Before I went skydiving, I imagined the experience as hanging beneath the parachute’s canopy, lazily floating to the earth while taking in the landscape from, literally, a bird’s-eye view. What I didn’t envision was the almost violent intensity of hurtling through the air at 100 feet per second in free fall before getting to the floating part.

I’ve decided my life has been a lot like skydiving, only backwards. For the first 30 years, I did a lot of floating beneath a rose-colored parachute. Things certainly weren’t perfect, but life was progressing pretty much as I expected—graduate from high school, have lots of fun in college, graduate from college, get married, teach English, have children, make lots of little crafty things for my family and my home, be involved in church and community, and live happily, or at least without major complications, ever after. While that was pretty much the script for the first 30 years of my life, the second 30—the time when I was supposed to be living happily ever after—have been more like a skydiving free fall. Just as I didn’t have any idea of what free fall would be like when I went skydiving, there was nothing in the first half of my life that prepared me for the second half; I honestly expected my life to go “swimmingly” until I died.

ParachuteIt is totally illogical, but there’s a part of me that still expects my life to be like floating through the sky. You would think that after living through my husband’s cancer, my father’s traumatic brain injury and dementia, 30 years of mental illness, and numerous other difficulties, including those my children have faced, I would have figured out that floating along isn’t what life is all about. In fact, Dr. Neff asserts that imperfections and difficulties are the very stuff of being human, and the only way to find peace within ourselves and our lives is to accept these things as the inevitable substance of life.

Choosing to change my perspective regarding what to expect from life is, for me, a daunting task. I can see that I only make things harder by continuing to expect my life to be easy, or, at the very least, that I should be able to manage difficulties and trials effortlessly. The danger in my thinking is that, while one part of me is living in this fantasy la-la land, the part that knows that free fall may be just around the corner is terrified. It is really rather paradoxical that the best way to get rid of, or at least reduce, my fear and anxiety is to just accept the hard things as natural threads in life’s tapestry and learn to flow with life’s circumstances rather than fight against them. Life is as it is, and no amount of insistence on my part that it should be otherwise is going to change that reality. However, trying to put aside my idea of what the world should be is like trying to detach myself from the grip of an octopus. Once I get one of its arms removed from my psyche and start on the second, the first one wriggles its way back in and reattaches itself.

To be honest, I don’t like having to do hard things. But we don’t always get what we want, thank goodness. You see, there is another way that my skydiving adventure reflects my life experiences. Even though I have gone through the forcefulness of life’s free fall over and over again, and likely will do so in the future, I know I’m not doing it alone; the Lord is always with me. Just as Casper, my tandem master, instructed me how to position my body during free fall and knew when to pull the rip cord to get us safely to the ground, God is teaching me how to endure my trials well and gives me what I need to succeed when, where, and how I need it. And though I hate to admit it, experiencing the hard things is making me a more competent and compassionate person.

As far as I am concerned, this “I” diving thing is a whole lot harder and scarier than skydiving will ever be.

Rough Roads and Shock Absorbers

Many years ago, my parents were driving their pickup truck down State Street when my youngest sister, Emily, who was about three at the time, threw her shoe out of the window. Of course, my parents turned the truck around to retrieve the shoe. It just so happened that the shoe landed right in front of a business that sold truck campers. My guess is that Mom and Dad had already been thinking about getting a camper, because not only did they return home with the discarded shoe, there was also a new camper nestled in the bed of the pickup.

Rough roadsThat camper served us well for many years as we explored the marvelous wonders of Utah’s outdoors. It wasn’t very big, but it served our needs. My sister Barbara and I slept in the bed above the cab, while Mom and Dad slept on a bed made by putting the top of the kitchen table on runners placed along the front of the table benches. My brother slept on the floor under Mom and Dad’s bed, and Dad made a removable hammock for Emily to sleep in. I don’t remember it as being tight quarters, but I suppose it was.

When we went on a trip, Mom would load all the food into the cupboards and small refrigerator. The kitchen area was very small, so she would try to cook as much food as possible before we left. That way all she needed to do was heat something up. Dad would make sure the truck was gassed up and ready to go. Then we would all pile in and take off—Mom and Dad in the cab of the truck and the kids in the camper. In some trucks, the rear window slides so you can open it. We didn’t have that luxury, plus the corresponding window in the camper didn’t slide open either. To get our parents’ attention, we would have to pound on the camper window until they stopped the truck and came back to see what the problem was. We were typical kids, so more often than not, the “problem” was a fight that needed to be refereed. Mom has confessed that there were many times when they simply pretended not to hear our pounding on the window.

Shock absorbersMany of our excursions included traversing rutted, bumpy dirt roads through the mountains to some secluded spot my dad knew about. At one point my dad installed some super-duper shock absorbers to make the ride smoother. They worked out great—for Mom and Dad. The ride in the cab was almost like going down a paved road. What Dad hadn’t counted on was the effect it would have for those of us in the camper. Instead of the normal drops and slides we typically experienced as Dad drove down a dirt road, we were bouncing around like flubber balls. I was on the top bunk trying to read, and I remember actually hitting the ceiling as Dad went over a particularly big bump in the road. Of course we tried to get Dad’s and Mom’s attention by pounding on the window, but this was one of those times they chose to pretend they couldn’t hear us. The jarring ride continued until we reached our campsite. Once there, we strenuously complained to our parents about our experience. Dad must have believed us because as soon as we got home he had the new shock absorbers removed and the old ones re-installed.

Just as our ride as children was different from that of our parents’, each of us experiences traveling through life differently. We might be traversing what appears to be the same path, but for some the road seems smooth and easy while for others it is rough and difficult. My recent skydiving adventure is a good example of this. I’ve had numerous people tell me they could never do what I did. Now, I don’t consider myself an especially adventurous person, but I honestly wasn’t nervous about any of it. I will admit I was taken aback at the intensity of the freefall experience, but I wasn’t afraid. So, for me, standing at the open door of an airplane flying at 13,000 feet was an emotionally smooth drive—as long as I was firmly attached to someone who knew what he was doing, that is. But sit me down in front of the computer to write one of these posts, and my stomach turns into one huge knot of anxiety. Put me in a college classroom as either the student or the teacher, and I am one little happy chickadee. Contrarily, on days when I wake up in the morning and have lots of things I could do with my day but nothing I really have to do, the thought of trying to decide the best way to use my time makes me want to just crawl under the covers and hide.

Sometimes, especially when we feel our path is particularly grueling, we look at others and wonder why they can deal with their experience so much more easily than we can. The ironic thing is, they are likely thinking the same thing about us. It’s not that either one of us is putting on a false front, it’s that we can’t see the turmoil going on inside the other person’s heart and mind. Comparing responses to difficulties is a dangerous pursuit. Too often we end up disparaging ourselves for our inability to simply glide through trials as others seem to be doing. We beat ourselves up for not having sufficient emotional, spiritual or mental strength, faith, or courage.

The truth is, no one gets through this life unscathed. We all struggle with disappointment, discouragement, and downright fear at times. We do ourselves a tremendous disservice by aggravating our suffering when we judge ourselves as being less capable of enduring trials than another. Recognizing that I’m an expert at this kind of comparison, I’ve recently begun to study the literature on self-compassion, a quality which I am woefully lacking. As I’ve been reading, I’ve realized that self-compassion can be like a shock absorber for those times when we are traveling roads with more ruts, ridges, and potholes than smooth surfaces. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who pioneered the study of self-compassion, puts it this way:

You can’t always have high self-esteem and your life will continue to be flawed and imperfect—but self-compassion will always be there, waiting for you, a safe haven. In good times and bad, whether you’re on top of the world or at the bottom of the heap, self-compassion will keep you going, helping you move to a better place. It does take work to break the self-criticizing habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day, you are only being asked to relax, allow life to be as it is, and open your heart to yourself.”(Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, p. 15)

I must confess that I’m not sure I can learn to “relax, allow life to be as it is, and open [my] heart to [myself].” Nonetheless, it is a direction that seems useful to explore, even if the road is rough. I’ll let you know what I discover.

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Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_vladru’>vladru / 123RF Stock Photo</a>