Journey Friends and Worshipers

I’m certainly no Wordsworth or Maya Angelou. While looking through some old papers the other day, I found this poem I wrote several years ago as I thought of friends on the journey. While I’m developing and putting together the next couple of blog postings, here’s something to chew on. (It won’t take long. Ha!)

Jou101435-334x335-Circleoffriendscandleholderrney-friends and Worshipers

The way is marked by journey-friends and worshipers
crawling, dancing, concentric circle-selves.
Time marked not by hours, but encounters
when the worlds of learners and sojourners intersect.
The ends are unpredictable, for all the undulations.
So hope, and play, and live, predicting only changes.

Journey, then, and worship!
Seek and celebrate the questions.
Journey, friends, and worship!
Sing and shout your adoration.
Journey onward, through the darkness;
cry and wail with desolation.
Meander, if you will–and flourish.
Hear the music of what happens.

Live on, journey-friends and worshippers.
Remember that the journey is the worship.
Celebrate your heartbeat,
and celebrate the rhythm of the love that gives you life.

I Think That I Shall Never See…

Another story from my Dad’s files. I hope y’all enjoy this one as much as I have…

I Think That I Shall Never See…

In 1985, I had only been in Monroeville for a couple of years and was still learning my way around the church and community. Our first months in town found my wife Sherri and I singing The Star Spangled Banner for Little League opening day—don’t laugh, it’s a big thing in small towns—complete with exhibitions, prizes, hundreds of hot dogs, and children running around everywhere. At a county-wide teacher institute held at the local junior college, we sang “Wing Beneath My Wings,” and we’d led a group of children in “We Are the World” at a local graduation. Love had lifted us up where we belonged at several weddings, and we had grown comfortable with the ancient, wheezing electric organ at the local funeral home. Nonetheless, I should have found an excuse when my friend Mamie Lou York, of the local garden club, asked me to sing for a meeting she was planning. I knew Mamie from church and so quickly I said (as I still do after thirty-some-odd years, without really thinking), “Sure, I’ll be glad to.”

I put the meeting on my calendar and basically forgot about the event. But amid her seedlings, clippings, and bulbs, Mamie did not forget. One afternoon closer to the day of the meeting, she came by the church to bring me the piece of music she had chosen for me to sing.

As a sidebar, I’ve been singing just about all my life. Up until my Garden Club debut, I thought I had sung every conceivable genre from gospel to high church, from show tunes to folk songs, and everywhere in between. I remember as a very small kid the time Ms. Oberon McConnell dressed me up and taught me how to play the snare drum for “The Little Drummer Boy.” I was only about six years old. It surely was one of my finer moments.

A few years later, the same sweet lady actually would teach me and three other little boys to sing four part harmony, and we often sang in church. One of our more memorable appearances occurred at the Rescue Mission in downtown Mobile, where I enjoyed going with my pastor and Ms. McConnell many times. As a teenager I used to remember it as “singing for the drunks.” In retrospect, that phrase seems quite derogatory and only partly true. The larger version of the truth is more complicated and heart wrenching, mainly because many of the men were simply down on their luck, looking for a hot meal and a place to spend the night. One of the few rules I remember from the Rescue Center was that in order to eat supper at the mission, you had to attend the worship service. Talk about a captive audience…

Brother Sam, my pastor and a dear family friend, would lead some hymns, have our children’s group or a soloist sing, and then he would preach. And boy, did he preach. Many folks have described his preaching as “hellfire and brimstone,” and he did it better than anyone I ever heard. He could keep those guys (and me) spellbound for nearly an hour as he preached through God’s word with such volume that no one ever even thought about going to sleep. That kind of preaching may not exactly be de rigueur anymore, but throughout his life Brother Sam told of the coming of God’s Kingdom with a passion and fervor that compelled thousands of people to follow the straight path through the little narrow gate. He was a bright light in so many lives, for sure.

After my little drummer boy debut and those repeat appearances at the Rescue Mission, years later I traveled all over the United States as part of a touring Christian band. It was one of the most incredible eighteen months of my life. It seemed incredible then, and now forty-something years later, it still seems incredible. I truly had been singing my entire life on that day when Mamie came to see me. My involvement with music spanned grade school, high school, and beyond. With college and seminary degrees in music, I surely thought I had seen, sung, or conducted at least a selection or two from every conceivable genre one could think of.

I was wrong.

Mamie gave me an old and yellowed piece of music entitled, “Trees,” based on a poem written by Joyce Kilmer in 1913 and set to music sometime shortly after that. I had never heard the poem, never heard the music, and never heard of Joyce Kilmer. In retrospect, I am so relieved that I didn’t rattle off about my ignorance, however, as later I found out that garden club circles held this little ditty in high esteem right up there with “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Amazing Grace.” As I read the words that soon I would sing before a roomful of Monroeville’s finest banqueting ladies, I found myself thinking, “What on earth have I gotten myself into?!”

Look up the words for yourself sometime and imagine singing those words without laughing or at least bursting into a grin. This performance was not going to be my finest. As I began learning the piece, I decided I was going to need my sweet wife to attend this function with me, prop me up, and sing with me. My decision to invite her was a wise one. A day or two before the meeting, I read an article in the Monroe Journal that this meeting was not merely the local garden club, many of whose members worshipped with me at the Baptist church on any given Sunday. No, this was an important affair—a state-wide meeting of garden clubs from all over Alabama. Keepers of roses and tenders of vines from Florence to Mobile, from Tuscaloosa to Dothan, and everywhere in between were converging upon “The Hub City of Southwest Alabama” to celebrate all things green. The old Vanity Fair Community House, decorated within an inch of its life, was the only place in our little town that could serve several hundred people in such a formal affair.

My big day finally arrived. I got to the Community House and smiled at the sweet-smelling vision stretched out before me. Only a true southern gentleman, someone much more genteel than myself, could have imagined the picture of four hundred elderly blue-haired ladies awaiting their artichoke chicken and/or beef roulades and swapping stories of favorite flowers from the previous garden season. I was the only man in the room. It was a Southern Living moment, and I was a nervous wreck. I thought of Gomer Pyle, who said, “I’m sick as a dog, and having the time of my life.” Yes, I have performed for much larger audiences, albeit not exactly prophets, priests, and kings. Still, I’d never stood before such dignified, sweet-smelling little ladies. I barely touched my pristine lunch while waiting to be called to the microphone. Finally after what seemed like hours, Mamie Lou introduced me and Sherri as the newest staff members at her church. Her introduction came from such a deep heart of love and gratitude, the garden club ladies might have thought us her long lost children, home to participate in this long-awaited moment.

Sherri, truly my better half and the dignity and poise in our family, smiled and nodded gently in her sweet way as we made our way to the stage, counted silently through our introduction, and began singing. You really must read the words to the song. I still grin when I read them and remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that quickly subsided when the song ended. As I looked out on our garden club audience, I saw not a single dry eye in the room. These people didn’t just talk about flowers and plants and trees, they loved and lived for flowers, plants, and trees. Their thunderous ovation sounded as though they had been entertained by musicians from the New York Metropolitan Opera. I made my way back to my seat stifling a grin and wondering if I was stuck in a small town dream or another dimension.

I ate my dessert quickly and wanted to sneak away, but I couldn’t seem to settle on an appropriate time to take my leave. I sat through a couple of speakers who spoke about nothing that I will ever possibly remember. Then, then, they started giving away the door prizes. The meeting took a lighthearted turn as the ladies made their way to the stage to pick up gifts from an assortment of garden tools and potted plants. Then they moved to the gifts donated from the event’s corporate sponsor, Vanity Fair Intimates. I began to feel uncomfortable. It was okay for a moment as the bath robes and pajama sets were given away, then the old ladies started to giggle as the prettier and nicer items came up for the raffle. When the gifts finally digressed to a cute, tiny pair of red panties, I leaned over to Sherri and whispered, “Sugar, if they call my name, I will hide under the table or die of embarrassment.”

Not content to allow either of those things to happen, I leaned over again and added, “I’m leaving.”

My beautiful and gentle wife growled back at me. “Don’t you dare. You can’t leave right now!”

In a cold sweat over those tiny red panties, I quickly pushed my chair away from the table and shot back, “Watch me,” and winked as I slinked away.

I never found out which little blue-haired lady took home the saucy unmentionables that day, but you can rest assured that this young red-neck minister was out the door and into the parking lot long before those garden club ladies could hold them up and giggle.

I would see and visit with Mamie Lou many times through the years after that day at the Community House, but that would be my only visit with the Monroeville Garden Club and my only rendition of Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” I don’t think I’ll ever be too old to learn a new song, and nobody was ever too young to learn an old song. No matter how old I get, though, I hope I’ll always be quick enough to leave a party when things start to turn south!

In memory of Mamie Lou York.

NOTE: Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born into a wealthy New England family in the 1880’s, Kilmer attended Rutgers University and then later graduated from Columbia University. He wrote the poem in 1913 (one hundred years ago) and it was published along with several others in 1914 just as most of Europe was feeling the effects from the beginning of WW1. Joyce Kilmer was killed in France during that awful war by a German sniper’s bullet and was later buried in a memorial cemetery near Picardy, France.

“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

Swim with the Fishes

For today’s offering, here is another one from the vault–some recollections from childhood and my first day on the job long, long ago. TGIF, everyone!

Swim with the Fishes

If I screw my eyes tightly shut and twist my mouth just so, I can remember the night when, at the age of about four, I came to understand the food chain in an all-too-real, meal-altering realization. My Baptist minister father and my pristine homemaker mother and I were eating dinner at a Red Lobster in Mobile, Alabama. I was an only child until the age of six, so I fancied myself a miniature adult.

Anyway, as we waited for the hostess to lead us to our seats, apparently my eyes roamed every surface and thematic element of the early eighties kitsch décor until I focused my attention on the bubble-front aquarium which housed a host of brightly-colored fish. The wood plank walls, the ship’s wheel hostess station, the hand rails fashioned from thick, rough rope, and the warm glow of hurricane lamps—these were all interesting, to be sure. But the fish captured my every thought—my parents had recently taken me to the New Orleans Zoo, where I squealed in delight at all the creatures, but wisely and carefully managed not to get my hands dirty.

“Mom, do you see those fish in that fish bubble on the wall?”

Never one to ignore a teachable moment, my sweet mother probably said something like, “Well, Matthew, that DOES look like a fish bubble, doesn’t it? Those are special glass houses for fish. We call them A-Q-U-A-R-I-U-M-S. Can you say, ‘aquarium’”?

“Of course it’s an aquarium, Mom. What, did you think I was three or something? They talk about aquariums on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood all the time. But I’ve got a question about those fish.”

“Okay, babe. Ask me.”

“Well, okay. Are the fish in that aquarium the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean?”

“Yes, Matthew, those ARE the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean. Isn’t that neat that they are living in that AQUARIUM right here in Red Lobster?”

“If those are the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean, are the fish on my plate the same kinds of fish that swim the ocean, too?

I’m not sure if my mother noticed the look of disgusted horror that had begun spreading over my small face.

“Why, yes, Matthew. Those are the very same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean.”

Surely I’ve taken creative license, but my mom does have a delightful way with little ones, as more than one generation can attest. Her creativity, patience, and sweet demeanor were a perfect mix to introduce me, my brothers, and now my nieces and nephews to the wonders of the world. Nonetheless, my memories are foggy at this point, likely due to the queasy shock that was spreading through my entire body. I’m sure my parents launched into a “Garden of Eden, Noah and the animals, God makes the animals to give us food” talk, but I was suddenly lost. I don’t think I ate any kind of seafood again for the next ten years. I was none too fond of chicken-on-the-bone, and luckily standing rib roasts usually were out of our price range, because it was just too much for my mind to assimilate when I saw a steaming plate of meat still in the shape of some kind of barnyard—or ocean-depths—carcass.

I remember fighting the urge to gag in Sunday School one day when the teacher started talking about the “Boy with the Loaves and Fishes.” I saw her move over to the electric skillet sitting on the piano bench and begin passing out her object lesson—fish sticks. I was in a second grade quandary. Do I risk hurting her feelings and not eating the fish? Or do I eat it and throw up all over the table?” I don’t remember how the situation resolved, but I’m sure I managed a politician-worthy smile and a “No thank you, Mrs. Betty. Thank you, though. What a neat lesson!” (Wow, did I ever lay it on thick.)

I finally acquiesced and began eating fish again in high school. In fact, lo these many years later, one of my favorite dishes to cook is a nut-crusted, pan-seared orange roughy with couscous, but you still won’t see me wielding a butcher knife and filleting it my own self. I’ve come a long way since then. I mean, recently I even roasted a whole chicken. I even managed to eat part of it at the flawless dinner party I was co-hosting. (It was great, but I’m just saying.) I still don’t like the thought of eating something with eyes still on it—whole fish, crawfish, head-on suckling pigs—these things are still beyond me.

*             *             *

With my less-than-stellar history when it comes to obtaining foodstuffs from the beautiful, briny sea, you’d think I would have noticed the ill omen when fresh out of graduate school, I walked up the hill to embark on an exciting new career—only to find that the place reeked of fish.

First, let me give you a quick crash course in the wild and wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. Intended for adults with chronic or severe mental illness and/or developmental challenges, these programs offer clients (or consumers, as the current literature dictates) a structured program of work tasks and recreational activities intended to help them transition back into society after hospitalization. Each member participated in work tasks depending on their interests and previous experience. The “Office Unit” answered the phone, made photocopies for therapists, and kept the center’s store, at which clients could earn points to buy candy, cigarettes, and other sundries. The “Activities Unit” planned and carried out bingo, karaoke, and other table games. The “Maintenance Unit” attempted to keep the premises clean…You get the picture. In addition to group and individual therapy sessions and administrative paperwork (all for which my schooling at least somewhat prepared me), each staff person was expected to lead one of the aforementioned “units.”

As the newest staff person and thus the low man on the totem pole, I faced a completely unexpected joy for which I was neither prepared nor particularly suited—the “Kitchen Unit.” On my first day, after introductions to clients and staff, the director smiled at me with an odd little smirk and led me into the kitchen to meet the client who served as the head cook. I met a lady, who I’ll not describe here for the sake of confidentiality, other than to say that she was a delightful, talented, witty, and intelligent person who had faced a series of difficulties in life that I can scarce imagine. All of that I would learn later—but on this day, I must admit that she seemed like Attila the Kitchen Hun, bedecked in her plastic apron and hairnet.

My eyes were watering and my stomach quivered at the noxious fish stink, but Attila grinned and told me the day’s menu: Tuna Fish Salad Sandwiches with Potato Chips. I had to completely step outside myself as I snapped on a pair of yellow elbow-length rubber gloves. Holding my breath, there was nothing to do but dive arms first into the enormous vat of oily tuna, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles. Apparently, when one mixes tuna salad for fifty, one finds it easier to use his or her hands. And said tuna salad leaves an odiferous lingering au de sardine that lasts all day, pervades car interiors, and causes roommates to exclaim, “My LORD, where have you been today? Good grief, go take a shower!”

Given my early horror at the eating of fish and my lifelong distaste at getting my hands dirty, I’m surprised that I lasted as long as I did in the wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. For a year and a half, in addition to therapist, confidante, cheerleader, and encourager, most importantly, I became chief menu planner, grocery shopper, and Attila the Kitchen Hun’s sous chef.

So…if you need tips on feeding 40-50 people, 5 days a week, for under two hundred and twenty-five dollars, I’m your man—as long as you like tuna fish salad.

Notes on a Small Southern Town

I have about three lines in Theatre Tuscaloosa’s current project, Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Nelle Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Just the other day I told our executive producer that I’m just glad to be along for the process, since this story means so very much to me. Having grown up in Monroeville, I’ve  known Ms. Lee only to see her and say “hello,” but many of her contemporaries have been dear friends to me for as far back as I can remember. When I see the scenes unfold onstage, in my mind’s eye the story unfolds on the familiar streets of my hometown. When Miss Maudie tells of her “tired old town,” I listen with tears in my eyes, because she is talking about home. The past week reminded me of a blog post I wrote several years ago on another website, and the words seem fitting today as I think about my town. Here’s to you, Monroeville…

Notes on a Small Southern Town

It could be any town, really. My hometown is but one of many Southern gems, much like an aging Southern socialite who still dresses to the nines, teases up her ever-thinning hair to extraordinary heights, and pulls moth-ball scented furs from the cedar chest every fall at the first glimmer of frost. To be sure, wrinkles and crows feet are making their presence known on her proud face, but this lady still walks proudly upright on perilously high-heeled shoes, all the while resting on the laurels of countless Garden Club “Yard of the Month” awards, decades of dinner parties beyond compare, and car loads full of fresh-faced grandchildren spread throughout the South. Perhaps the lady is a bit past her prime, but life is still sweet and good.

My hometown is really no different. In the past two decades, this delightful little burg has bid farewell to life-giving (not to mention revenue generating) industry, weathered scandals in local politics and public office, wept over tragedies–both man-made and preternaturally apportioned, and has even passed a much-debated town referendum allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages within the city limits, as long as the liquor stays far enough away from the churches and the schools. As for me, I say, “Bring on the cocktails.” But that’s another matter entirely.

Despite these storms–and many more private anguishes tucked away behind immaculate white picket fences and meticulously manicured privet hedges–time marches onward. All the while, my town seems to age like fine wine.

Bubba and the Pink Pony Pub

Another story from the treasure trove of tales from my Dad…his voice, my editing, and our family’s laughs over the years. Enjoy, y’all!

Bubba and the Pink Pony Pub

When I was a child, my family vacationed often at Gulf Shores, Alabama. My daddy had a co-worker with a small house just a couple of miles down West Beach Boulevard, and we spent many, many fun weeks of our summer childhood going there. The little house was quite simple compared to the posh condos of vacation seekers these days, but it was on the beach. As I remember, it was built up off the ground and had a huge deck on the side that that faced the beach. The house was small, only two small bedrooms along with the kitchen, TV room (before the days of cable or satellite), and bathroom. What do I remember most about Mr.  Furr’s house? The little cinder block structure’s simplicity was emphasized by the utter lack of air conditioning. Open windows and large window fans were the only means to keep us city boys from certain beachside misery. We never noticed the lack of AC during the day because we were outdoors literally from sun up to sundown. Oh my goodness! We did some playing, and my daddy always had extra fishing gear for us to use. I don’t remember catching many fish, but we had fun trying. Fish, swim and eat snacks; we repeated that formula for hours on end. Nighttime was a bit un-comfortable at times, but the only AC at our home was an old window unit. Being at the beach without air conditioning was not the end of the world.

Late in the week, usually on either Thursday or Friday night, we had our one night out. Parents would take us to the hangout to play at the amusement park, and we would always be given a spot of cash for that one cheap souvenir we had been dreaming about all week. One of the places/landmarks that I remember from those early days in the late 50s was a place called the Pink Pony Pub. It may have been the only bar on the beach at the time. Whether or not it was the only one, it was easily seen and observed by anyone near the hangout. On stilts near the beach, it sat less than a block east of the main intersection of Highway 59 and the beach road. Because my parents were such teetotalers, I think it was even off-limits for us to even look that way. Drinking, smoking, gambling, and what my church labeled “mixed bathing” was all strictly forbidden in my little churched world. I always wanted to sneak a peek at the place to see what kind of worldly people would dare go there, but I was afraid my parents would see me looking and punish me.

Old habits are hard to break. Even in my teenage years when I would visit the beach and indulge in a few beers with my friends, it was always in an out of the way place on the beach where no responsible adults would have seen. I dared not try to enter the infamous Pub; I had a deep and abiding fear of being checked for ID at the door and then quickly whisked away to the local jail for entering a bar underage. Yep, even during my rebellious teen years I missed the Pub. I married at 21 and was a daddy at 25, so my trips to the beach still veered away from the rowdy Pub. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was anything less than a fine, upstanding husband and dad, so our trips were always to a more family-oriented part of the beach. I think the Pink Pony Pub was destroyed during several hurricanes, but the pub business always seems to rebuild, even if other businesses fail. Today, 2013, the bar still stands in the same place I always remember, with a garish and fading pink coat of paint that always looks in dire need of an update.

In September of 2013, Sherri, Matthew, and I spent a few days at the beach near Fort Morgan. It was a fun weekend in spite of the fact that we were missing children and grandchildren. There really is nothing like the beach. I have often said if I had unlimited money, my first purchase would be a place at the beach for Sherri.  She does love the beach. Because our crowd was small, we decided early on to cook less and eat out more, and we did. The first night we ate at Lulus, one of our very favorite places at the beach. We had a table near the water and yet not too far away from the stage. It seems there is always music at Lulus, and the guys that night were really played some of our favorites. I always did like “Brown-Eyed Girl.” The food was good, too.

On SatuPink Ponyrday night Sherri and Matthew wanted to go to the Pink Pony Pub. Oh my goodness, did I dare tell them I had never been there, wondering if the ghosts of my parents or long-deceased youth minister from the late 60s would come back to haunt me? After all, it is still a bar. No amount of thinking or rebranding will ever change its status in my mind, and people all over this part of south Alabama know it for what it is. However, they do actually serve food. My friend Betty Allen has been quoted as saying the best burgers at the beach come from the Pink Pony.

Matthew and Sherri ordered the famous burgers. Matthew also ordered some strange iced tea from Long Island, but it didn’t taste like any iced tea my mother ever made. Me? I ordered unsweetened iced tea—much to the dismay of the server who surely makes more money off the drinkers than folks like me. I also skipped on the burgers and instead sprung for the raw oysters. They were great, the tea was good, and the burgers were great. Since we were actually at the world famous bar called the Pink Pony Pub, Sherri enjoyed her rare moment out from under the 40 year old cloak of my Baptist church work. It was a fun night. The pub is still a bar, still crowded, still unfit for children, still needs painting, still has smelly bathrooms, and still serves much more alcohol to its patrons than it should, but after nearly 60 years, I have finally been there. I did stand at the door for a moment, looking out over the parking lot just to make sure my parents, Hub and Audrey, weren’t
peeking out from behind the clouds bearing looks of disapproval. Seeing nothing but bright sunshine, I then looked around at the parked cars, hoping that none of my deacons were there to observe. Not to worry, no deacons there. They must have all been down at the Florabama. Only a few seagulls rounding up stray French fries, calling across the waves about my night on the town at the Pink Pony Pub.

Bubba Goes to the Opera

My dad doesn’t blog, but he is a terrific storyteller and writer. Every so often I post some of his work here. He and I really do want to write a book together. This is his story in his voice. This time I’m just the editor. I love you, Dad!

Bubba Goes to the Opera

While I have a college degree in music and also a graduate degree from a Baptist Seminary, I am still for the most part the redneck that I have always been. I might have to wear a suit and tie most Sunday mornings and sometimes a robe for weddings and funerals, but my general approach to life, community, and family is generally laid back and relaxed. If I ever actually retire I suspect my daily wardrobe will consist of Levis, t-shirts, and a well-worn pair of deck shoes without socks. During my college and seminary music days I was required to attend many different musical events: recitals, orchestra and symphony concerts, choral programs of every size and flavor, and musicals of various types. Students were required to participate in many of those events, whether singing or playing, but some of the events required only our attendance. After all these years I am still amazed that I went through those several years of undergraduate and graduate work without actually attending an opera. I am sure the requirements were there, yet somehow I managed to save all my class cuts for those foreign language events that so few of today’s listeners seem to appreciate. Rest assured, I did manage to skip them all.

In the winter of 2015, our oldest son was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and had found his spot in various musical circles. He was a faithful member of his church choir, he had played the lead role in a community theater production of Bye Bye, Birdie, and he had participated in community choral events, but this was to be a first for him as well as for Big Bubba, as the grandchildren call me. Matthew was to sing in the chorus for the University’s production of Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni. Early on he gave us the dates and purchased tickets for me and Sherri to attend the big event. Oh my! “Country comes to town” is an understatement in regard to my first trip to the opera.

Through all of my coursework for a BA in Music and then a Master’s in Church Music, I was almost certain I at least had come in contact with Don Giovanni in years past. Nonetheless, just to be sure, before our trip to Tuscaloosa I decided to Google Mozart’s famous opera. I quickly realized that I had obviously skipped Music History class the day we had discussed the classic opera. Nothing in the short synopsis was the least bit familiar other than the fact that the opera was based on the old European legend of Don Juan, the famous lover, who according to legend, had relationships with over a thousand women during his lifetime. Don was a busy man for sure, and “relationships” might be a bit of a stretch, if you know what I mean.

After arriving 30 minutes early in order to find our seats, we visited with Jonathan, one of Matthew’s friends who had been nice enough to pick us up and drive us to the music hall. Jonathan is a good friend and a good chauffeur, as well as a pretty good local historian. He showed me the building where George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in the 1960s in his attempt to keep young African Americans from enrolling in the University. Incidentally, the weekend of the opera was also the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Our little state in the middle of the Deep South is known for several outstanding contributions to national history.

But now back to the opera. The venue was part of the recent purchase of the old Bryce State Mental Hospital by the University. What used to be the chapel for the hospital now features a beautiful stage and hall that seats perhaps 350 people. Much work has been done in the old facility, which has made it a beautiful setting for such events. I kept pondering the contrast between polished University students’ setting of this famous opera and the chapel services in years past for those who had been placed in the mental hospital. Surely some of those chapel attendees were destined to spend their entire adult lives in this sad place. The old buildings from the hospital are still standing, waiting I suppose for the final drawings of the planners who will decide what will happen to these relics from the past.

Finally the moment arrived and the orchestra began the music for the night. Great music I might add; a timeless musical score by Mozart and outstanding players from the University School of Music. I have loved music as long as I can remember, and this night would simply be one more night adding to a lifetime of beautiful musical memories.

The opera opens with Don Giovanni doing what he does best—chasing women. He has plans to make Anna his next conquest. Anna is a beautiful and yet unsuspecting young lady who quickly falls for the womanizer. However, Anna is different from many of the young ladies in the life of Don. Namely, this woman still lives under the protection of her father, a wealthy old nobleman referred to as the Commendatore. The Commendatore refuses to let this scandal take occur and actually goes to his daughter’s defense only to be killed in the heat of the moment. While Don quickly moves on with his life of love and lust, seeking new conquests, I suspect somewhere deep in his vain and selfish heart perhaps a small sliver of hope and worth allowed him never to totally forget his dastardly deed, the murder of the father of Anna, simply one name on a long list of many young brokenhearted lovers of the Don.

The opera continues as Don’s exploits carry him in and out of hundreds of relationships. His trusted friend and valet Leporello spends his entire life helping, hiding, and generally trying to make sure that Don stays one step ahead of the latest lover in order that none of the ladies will ever find out about the others. Too many lovers (one extra is too many) makes for a slippery path where honesty has been forgotten and where virtue and character have been ignored.

Poor Zerlina is actually engaged to be married and in fact on her way to the wedding party when she falls under the spell of Don. Her fiancé, (or husband—I may have missed something in the translation) is almost destroyed by Don’s daring and black-hearted move toward his sweetheart. He wants desperately to fight for Zerlina as well as for his own honor, but he is no match for the handsome and stronger Don. He quickly falls by the wayside as Zerlina comes under the spell of the Italian version of Don Juan.

Many other ladies fall prey to the Don. At some point Leporello actually unfolds a long list with names of over 1,000 lovers. The valet must have been as busy making notes as Don was finding new lovers!

Matthew and ElviraOne more woman in the opera deserves mention. Her name? Elvira. Let me digress for a moment from the moment of serious music to one of my other musical loves: country music. One of my prized possessions is the Oak Ridge Boys Greatest Hits album. Yes, the vinyl album. I do have a CD copy, but I still have the old album that my sweet sister-in-law gave me for Christmas many years ago. Do you see where we’re going yet? Elvira was one of The Oak Ridge Boys’ biggest hits. There cannot be any coincidence that the country song title and the character from Don Giovanni are the same. They are one and the same. Watch the opera and then listen to these words written by Dallas Frazier and recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, and draw your own conclusions.

Eyes that look like heaven, lips like cherry wine,

That girl can so now make my little light shine

I get a funny feelin’ up and down my spine

‘Cause I know that my Elvira’s mine.

So I’m singing

Elvira, Elvira, my heart’s on fire for Elvira

Giddy up, Oom poppa Oom poppa Mow Mow

Giddy up, Oom poppa Oom poppa Mow Mow

High-o Silver get away.

Tonight I’m gonna meet her at the Hungry House café

I’m gonna give her all the love I can

She’s gonna jump and holler, I’ve saved up my last two dollars

We’re gonna search and find that preacher man

Elvira, Elvira, my heart’s on fire for Elvira

Giddy up, Oom poppa Oom poppa Mow Mow

Giddy up, Oom poppa Oom poppa Mow Mow

High-o Silver get away.

If the opera is ever put into a country setting, they surely would have Donnie Gee singing this great hit to his lover Elvira. If I don’t quickly find an end to this story, it will be as long as the Mozart opera. (Remember to set aside at least three hours if you want to experience Don Giovanni in its entirety).

I had read just enough about the opera to know the gist of the story, and I also had read enough of the New Testament to remember the verse from Romans that says, “the wages of sin is death”. After 2 ½ hours I began wondering and waiting patiently for the end to come for Don. It came quickly.

Don and his friend Leporello are in a cemetery when they see a stature that looks eerily like the Commendatore, the father of Anna whom Don had murdered earlier in the story. Don convinces Leporello to invite the statue, the Commendatore, for dinner. I wonder how many of us in our lifetimes have made pitiful decisions simply because we were afraid to stand up to a trusted friend In a weird but incredible moment, the statue speaks to Giovanni and agrees to have dinner with him that very night. Perhaps Giovanni never bothered to ask about the location for dinner, but the last scene of the opera shows him descending into the furnace of hell. Giovanni’s death, a dismal and pathetic ending to a life of intoxicating indulgence in personal fantasies.

My night ended on a better note than Giovanni’s. Far from hellish roasting, Sherri and I shared a late dessert with Matthew and several of his friends from the cast, laughing and telling stories late into the night. Yes, two degrees in music and 30 some-odd years as a musician, but Bubba went to the opera for the very first time that night!

Giovanni Chorus

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 400 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Give Back the Music

This month I am trying to be more mindful of practicing gratitude. Today I focused on how grateful I am for music in my life, and naturally so many people came to mind. I am so thankful for my parents, gifted musicians who sang and played with me from as far back as I can remember. So many other memories fill my mind with song–choir teachers like Ms. Sherry, church musicians who play with such sensitivity and grace, and college professors and colleagues who challenged me. And of course I thought of the one who helped me see the magic, the mystery, and the transcendence of music so early on in my life. Here is a piece I wrote several years ago about her, my dear friend Saranne.

*          *          *

As I meet children through my work, through church, or in my community, I hope for their sake that somewhere in their little lives they might find a living, breathing guardian angel like mine. If only they could be so lucky to find a muse–a safe place wherein lives the keeper of the magic of childhood. My dear, sweet, beautiful friend died many years ago, but her music, her laughter, and her magic lives with me still.

Our time together was full of beautiful moments, moments when the music of life and the peace of Divine Love seemed to emanate from her rambling house on that quiet, shady street in south Alabama. Moments of music, moments of beauty, moments of teaching, moments of laughter, and moments of simply “being” were hallmarks of our time together and were so formative in my young life. These are moments of eternity for me, times when I realize that she is ever a part of my life.

Each time I sit at a piano and lose myself in a Chopin prelude, compose a simple melody, or even belt out a passionate torch song while driving my car in city traffic, I smile and thank God for the music that my angel friend gave to me. I tasted the early thrill of performance on a makeshift carpeted stage during our no-pressure, high-energy annual recitals. We played and sang, danced and laughed, living out the music of childhood without pretense and without care.

Now as an adult, complete with the trappings of job and mortgage, I somehow still find myself returning to this blissful state of unabashed creativity. Through the music that my friend offered to me, I can release angst and tension, express my innermost yearnings, and even worship my Creator. I remember many times when I grew convinced of her magic as she intuited the condition of my inner world just from the way I played her shiny, black grand piano. There surely were many days when my piano lessons and practice sessions ending with her quiet reassurances…”Matthew, why don’t we hear this next week. Let’s go get a Coke. Tell me about your week…”

As Lou Gehrig’s disease began to slowly rob her body of the freedom to move, swallow, and blink, I wrote a song for her. I composed the song while under her tutelage, but the task of actually transcribing the notes and measures seemed too daunting at the time. As her illness progressed, however, I found my muse once again. I painstakingly wrote my song, “Saranne’s Song,” on manuscript paper and played it for her during a visit, as tears of grief and thankfulness coursed down my face.

I am reminded of another song, a song my dad wrote in her honor and sang (and wept) at her funeral. “I sing with the angels when I praise His name / I sing with the saints in heaven / And they know / I must give back the music / That He has given to me / I cannot silence the sounds of praise that are ringing in my heart.”

My dear friend gave back the music even as her own song–and her own life–was stilled. The magical songs of acceptance, creativity, faith, and joy that she sang over me, over generations of students, over her church, and over my family continually reverberate, and the music is effortless and sweet. Oh, that I might continue this song…028

All Good Gifts

Recently I was invited to write a short piece for my church’s Advent Devotional Guide. I just finished editing the entire month’s worth of entries, so I thought I would share my entry here. I’m thankful for the many ways God has provided for me and for my family through the years. The following story tells just one of those “miracle moments” that formed me.

*        *          *

“Listen my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5

I remember thinking it odd when I walked in from school to find a brand new car in the driveway and my parents sitting inside, their eyes shining with tears. With voices shaking, my parents explained that the local dealership had called to say an anonymous friend had purchased a new vehicle for them. Unbeknownst to anyone else in town, at the same time my dad had felt compelled to give the family minivan to some missionary friends recently home from overseas. While my parents waited to work out the details, all of the variables fell inexplicably into place.

Compared with television news images of sufferers the world over, my family was wealthy. Still, we were a one-income family in those days, and as the eldest child, I knew money was tight. Even then I had a deep awareness of God’s care and indeed his sense of humor. Time and again, God’s goodness proved the only explanation for vacations, unexpected mission trip sponsors, cars, and college scholarships.

To be sure, life would have fewer moments of finger crossing and bated breath if God met needs with bigger paychecks and thicker portfolios. In Bethlehem, if God had announced his coming through the king’s elite rather than through the rag-tag band of shepherds, perhaps Jesus’ birth would have been celebrated with more royal pomp and circumstance. Nonetheless, without our own neediness—and without those shepherds, we just might miss the magic of Christmas.

Today may we see the needs of others, may we sense our own areas of need, and may God remind us of the gift of Christmas.

Being, Doing, and Listening

Here’s another piece from the vault. It seems applicable today, as I think about the aftermath of yesterday’s elections that seem to divide rather than unite us. No matter our political affiliation, I’m hoping that today as I work with clients, interact with loved ones, and dance with the never-ending “To-Do List,” I can find a balance between being and doing. Maybe that balance involves listening more. These words type easily, but they’re harder for me to live, especially when the object of said listening is a 9 year old with ADHD and ODD and very little conversational ability. I need well-developed hearing, watching, seeing, and knowing in order to really listen. May it be so.

Is prosetry a thing? Or maybe poese? I’m not sure where the following words fit in, but here they are from the vault:

*          *          *          *

Harmony vs. dissonance. Stillness vs. busyness. Silence vs. conversation. Introvert or extrovert. Type A or Type B. Yin and Yang. War and Peace. Mary and Martha. You get the picture. All too often, we see these dual states as some sort of false dichotomy. Sometimes we celebrate one side of the equation and vilify its apparent opposite. As I sit with the tension, I’m reminded of the 1965 classic by the Byrds–“Turn, Turn, Turn [To Everything There Is a Season].” The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote the poignant text, but Pete Seeger set it to music and introduced it to a whole new crowd. (Does this mean that Seeger’s music is inspired? Hmmm. Something to think about.)

This week I’ve thought a lot about this delicate tension. I wrote these words as I pondered…

Stillness (with pacing)

Always thinking, “I’ve got to do something!”
Maybe add an org chart
or a detailed action plan to my agenda.
But then I see another word—just a tiny helping verb.
Righteous fervor has its place, but just “to be” is fine, I guess.

Let’s sit down—I want to look you in the face
and eventually give you and me some space
to hear you say, “be still, you’ll see.”

Want to argue? I’ll say something:
“There’s neither male nor female,

Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free.”
But we still wear the labels.
I’ve heard their music charmed the nation,
but when they sing those words, I change the station.
I don’t want to hear them sing, “Let it be…”
So I’ll sit down and give you and me some space
and hear you say, “be still, you’ll see.”
Maybe I can let it be.

So I’ll sit down and look Jesus in the face
just to give you, and him, and me some space
to hear him say, “Put down your nets, lists, and regrets, and follow me.”