Sunday, February 28, 2010

Graven Images

Soft and low, like a muffled bass drum, the canvas has a voice.  I like stretching it across the pine slats, and firmly tacking it in place, mindful that the mesh pattern is square with the frame.  After a coat or two of gesso, it has that sound, soft and low.  I tap it with my fingertips, my ear held close as if listening to the heartbeat of an elk.

Music and art always competed for my heart, and I guess music won, but not without a fight. 

When I enrolled as a wide-eyed freshman at Taylor University in Indiana, I signed up as an Art Major.   The art department was chaired by a man whom I will call Jack Preston, an interesting and odd person, whose birdlike nervousness betrayed his sensitive nature.  A delicate soul with indelicate political views, Jack was the only person I’ve ever known to be a member of the John Birch Society. 

Of course, Jack’s viewpoints were not uncommon in Indiana in 1972, where billboards announcing “Get the US out of the UN” or "Register Communists, not firearms" were as common as cornfields.    How ironic that years later, his hero Ronald Reagan would slash government funding for the arts.

Politics aside, Jack Preston displayed a kindness which probably saved his job; he was an sincere Christian, and although he was of the fundamentalist stripe, he earnestly sought to understand and communicate with his flower child students, who seemed dichotomous to him. 

As he was the chairman of the art department, and the primary painting professor, I still am amazed that Jack was color blind.  He would often point to one of his portraits in progress and ask students if the colors were “right”.   The answer, though subjective art might be, was always “no”. 

Wisely, I waited for Professor Preston to take his sabbatical before I took any courses in painting.  

Through a visiting professor whose name escapes me, I found a style which was contrary to my haphazard way of life.  I painted in a very defined, almost paint by numbers, hard-edged motif, reducing images down to their most essential shapes and colors. 

I still have some of these paintings, and while I like them, I now recognize the fear in them.  Reducing a face to very few shade zones, much like a child’s paint by number painting, was my way of ignoring the details while still making good art.  I avoided the interplay of dark and light by reducing those infinite shades to one or the other.  The paintings were essentially pop art, and I was proud of them, especially my portrait of Truman Capote, which won a First Place ribbon in an art show at the university.   Nowadays, I wonder if I would have been far more satisfied with these pop works if I’d been equally adept at some semblance of realism.  None of my realistic work from that period enthralls me, while, admittedly my hard edge portraits of Truman Capote and bluesman Taj Mahal have places of honor on my walls.

Like my personality, my canvases were bold.   As much as I like those assertive, confident paintings, I wonder if finding such a style not only pleased my pallette for spice, but averted attention from the fact that I wasn’t all that good in capturing the details realism demanded.

You can only paint by numbers so many times before it becomes boring, so after graduating from college, I painted a few more times, got married, and then lost interest.  I kept my brushes and my paints, which eventually hardened in their metal tubes.   The old blue tacklebox, filled with brushes, paints, and linseed oil, followed the course of my life, always settling underneath basement stairs or the bottom shelf of a utility closet, unopened for over 25 years.  My heart was like one of those dried up tubes of paint; blue, most likely.

Not too long ago, I heard that familiar, soft and low bass drum sound, and found myself in step with its beat.

It started like this.  My southern born woman and I were relaxing under a wide, blue umbrella one sunny, scenic afternoon.  Reaching into her handbag for a book, she handed me a small set of watercolors and a pad.   I drew the yellow and grey beach house that perched over her right shoulder, as I listened to her read from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Gospel Medicine”. 

Then, I turned my attention to my reader, a reluctant subject, and painted her relaxed, graceful form reclining in a blue beach chair, her beauty crowned with a ball cap. 

Not long after that, I went on the road with Emmylou Harris, and along with a few books, I took a set of watercolors and a pad of postcard stock.

Our first stop was Monterey, California.  On a beautiful May afternoon, I walked along a pathway above the Pacific, photographing flowers and scenery.  When I returned to my room, I wrote a poem to my dearest companion, and adorned it with detailed paintings of the flowers.  Something stirred me, like a paint stick awakening a bucket of paralyzed paint. 

Our next stop was less quaint, but I was determined to find something worthy to paint.

I made a vow that I would search for beauty, no matter how bland the landscape or how dreary the surroundings.  I would photograph my findings, and return to my hotel room, and begin to paint.   As a way to keep my eye objective, I would often turn the image in my computer upside-down, which would force me to paint what I was actually seeing; right-side up, I might find myself painting what I thought I saw.  Oh, I’m not that clever; it’s a time-proven trick painters have employed for years.

In a grey-skied Kansas outpost, between two old abandoned buildings, I discovered a small Japanese zen garden.   As long as my inner eye was open, finding something to paint was easy.

That year, the band traveled the United States, Canada, and Europe, and my paintbox and camera were my quiet companions.  The solace that I experienced was soothing, and for the first time in all my years of being a touring musician, the hotel room television was left off.  

Back in Nashville, my dearest companion started receiving postcards or envelopes adorned with my findings- houseboats in Vancouver, a taco stand in Portland, a canal in Amsterdam, votif candles in a London cathedral, and serpentine steeples from Copenhagen.   Her favorite is a white cat walking across the top of a chair at an outdoor cafe in Brussels. 

These small paintings, the size of an index card, are detailed and emotional, unlike the large, loud, hard-edged paintings of my youth.   As she and I find so much commonality in art and literature, it's a fitting offering to send my woman; a postcard of my own making, telling her the obvious without so many words, and certainly nicer than a "Greetings from Des Moines" photo montage.

Working on such a small scale is somehow soothing, and the finish line is attainable.  There is a performance art quality in this process, a perceived drama, as the card makes its journey from somewhere on a map to Nashville, Tennessee.  So far, every card I’ve dropped in a mailbox has made its destination, like a homing pigeon who knows where it’s supposed to go.  The cards arrive slightly tattered and weathered, with various official markings from where they’ve come.   Some artists finish a painting by putting a coat of varnish on it; I finish mine by affixing a stamp to it and pushing it through a mail slot.

The postcard paintings are part of my touring routine.   Once I'm home, I resort to other means of creativity. 

Off the road, which is most of the time, I always have a canvas, stretched and waiting, on my easel in what is supposed to be my breakfast room.  Sometimes it will sit for days, white as a ghost.  Sometimes I'm inspired to paint; often I will paint to be inspired.

When I was working on the Ralston Bowles recording, he stayed at my home.  I rarely have clients stay with me, but he's an old friend, and it was my pleasure to host him, as well as to record him.  I warned him, though, that after recording together for 10 hours each day, we might want a quiet break from each other when the evenings came.

At the end of the second day of recording, he sat in my breakfast nook talking.  I think the chemotherapy treatments coursing their way through his veins had brought on a surge of verbosity, so I stood in the room, exhausted, wondering how to find the needed break without hurting anyone's feelings.  I finally said, "Sit down, and keep talking", and began painting his portrait as he spoke.   It now hangs in his home in Grand Rapids.

One of the most difficult things about painting on a larger scale is realizing when the painting is finished.  When can you let go and sign your name?  One of my paintings, Easy As Pie, is abstract, meaningless as far as I know.  Letting go and finding beauty in the shapes and colors and technique took some doing.   Yet, somehow, I find what I've done to be agreeable, pleasing to the eye, and filling me with a sense of accomplishment. 

I understand the concept of the eye needing to find pleasure.  As a child I would demand the blue plate, among the several choices in our every day china.  This brought my siblings and parents endless amusement, as I would invariably be handed the green or the red plate.  It's hard to believe I was ever that obsessive, but apparently, I was.   My eye still finds immense pleasure in all things blue, although my mother no longer has those colored dishes.

I think of color blind Jack Preston asking students if he'd gotten the tone of a face right, not having experienced optical pleasure for himself, but hoping to succeed in bringing it elsewhere.   He usually, if not always, failed to accomplish the feat of pleasing his audience's eyes.

What makes a combination of colors soothing and satisfying?  Why do some sequences of notes and tones please the ear while others seem random and meaningless, if not dissonant and unpleasant?   Why does the ear know the difference between the soulful lullaby of a loving mother and the nagging drone of a dissatisfied customer?

Is this discernment our Creator's DNA flowing through our minds and spirits?  Perhaps the urge to create and the ability to objectively evaluate what we hear, read, see, smell, taste, etc, comes from some primeval place, something beyond education and experience, yet from the very same place which spurs us to become adventurous and enlightened. 

Or maybe the creative process just comes down to one person letting another know "I'm alive!"

I am thinking of my scratched, blue tackle box with its hardened paint tubes and forgotten brushes, and how the lack of a soul mate rusted the hinges on that old case.   When love came to me, the urge to create goodness, and the desire to please another's eye, oiled my creative engine.  My heart opened slowly, like the first time I opened an old blue tackle box in 25 years.

And now it's beating, like an elk's.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


 Air blasts from huge pipes and fills Christ Cathedral with large, round, primeval tones, like redwoods reaching toward heaven.   The organist is far removed from sight, high on his perch in the balcony with choristers chanting hymns ancient and modern, performing unseen for an unseen God while the congregation below feebly sings along.


It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.   Ducking into the cathedral a few minutes late, we had missed most of the Scripture readings, catching a sentence or two of the Gospel reading as we took off our coats.  

The fact that neither my Southern Born Woman nor myself recognized the person preaching made me wonder how long it had been since I’d been in church.   The service program read “homily”, a reminder to the preacher to keep it short.  In an age where boundaries are few and anything goes, “Homily” is a word which pleases me.  As it turned out, the speaker ignored the written guarantee and delivered a sermon, which to my chagrin was a reminder that Lent is not necessarily a season of getting what one wishes for. 

Lent is a counterbalance to the calendar, forty days in which to remind one’s self that we are but mortals in the hands of an Almighty Immortal.  I’ve rarely done Lent like a pro; I’m a day into this season of fasting, and I’m still not sure what to give up.   Chocolate?  Facebook?  Red meat?   One year, I suggested to my friend Bryan Owings that I was thinking of giving up snide remarks.   He reacted strongly,  chortling, "Don't do it!", perhaps worried that I would shock my own system by avoiding what comes naturally.  

Growing up with a Baptist preacher for a dad and a Lutheran organist for a mom, I had a slightly more ecumenical experience than your average Baptist, but Lent was certainly not a part of our vocabulary.  Given the restrictions that many Baptists live by- no drinking, no smoking, no card playing, no movies, no dancing- I guess there was no need for a Lenten observation.  After all, what was left to give up?

Sitting in Mrs Putnam’s fourth grade classroom at West Barrington Elementary School, Ash Wednesday always surprised me.  There had been no Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper at Barrington Baptist the night before, no warning at all that half of my schoolmates would walk into our creaky old building looking like zombies, the cross of soot looking like an indentation in their foreheads.

By lunchtime, my Catholic classmates’ heads no longer had a visible cross, rather, a dark cloud just above the eyes, giving them an ashen, grave appearance.  I was pretty sure Catholics went to Hell, but to see them looking so ready for the casket gave wheels to my imagination, and I sadly realized that many of my friends would be in that number below.

Rhode Island being a predominately Catholic state, Fridays were fish days in public school cafeterias, whether it was Lent or not.  In those days, school was started with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer.  I remember intoning the Lord’s Prayer for many of my school days, and all these years later, it’s difficult to imagine prayer in school as something unquestioned and taken for granted.

By the way, I’m not one of those people who wants prayer back in school.  I think a person of substantial faith knows that anything done by rote usually amounts to nothing or, at best, lip service. 

My Catholic pals could rattle off 10 Our Fathers faster than I could say it once, and of course, the Hail Mary seemed creepy to me; the idea of praying to Jesus’ mom.    Nowadays, it makes sense to me to appeal to a person’s mother if you don’t feel like you can get his attention.  But in grade school, all things Catholic seemed taboo and dangerous to me.

To be fair, all things Protestant were even more frightful to my Catholic friends.  Once, Johnny Thompson, a boy who lived on my street, took a bike ride with me, and we stopped in at Barrington Baptist to say hello to my dad.  I went into the building, but Johnny waited outside, superstitious that entering a Protestant Church might damage his soul in a way which would play itself out in years to come.   Wherever he is today, I hope his superstition paid off.

When I was in the sixth grade, my friend Dickie Schmidt’s mother died of cancer.  Dickie had two brothers and a sister, all adopted, and all hellions.  Dickie smoked and cussed and stole money from his dad and Playboy magazines from the newstand in seedy Riverside, across the tracks.  Maybe it’s Dickie who influenced my ideas about Catholicism.

My parents and siblings were on a church trip, and too young to get to go along, I stayed behind with a church family, the Sharps.  So, on a Tuesday morning in 1964, Mrs Sharp and I entered St Luke’s Roman Catholic Church for Mrs Schmidt’s funeral. 

Gaudy and provincial, the interior of St Luke’s was cluttered with gilded saints, something Liberace might have dreamed up.  The smokey perfume of holy incence wafted between the pews, strange and unpleasant in its pungent chalkiness.  The celebrant’s voice rose with melodic uncertainty, uncomfortably singing in a foreign tongue.

The Latin service was unsettling and morose to my young ears, and, worse yet, something disturbing caught my eyes and wouldn’t let go.  A crucified Jesus hung high in the center of the church, with the most pathetic look of self pity one can imagine, crimson paint dripping gaudily from a crown of thorns.   This crucifix was not quite life size, giving Jesus the appearance of being perhaps four or five feet tall, and illiciting no pity from me. 

This was quite an inauspicious beginning for a future ecumenical.  I’m sure I’d been to other masses before, probably a Lutheran or Catholic wedding, but this is the one that I remember, perhaps because it was such a somber affair. 

In my life, I have been at some funerals which had been joyous festivities, full of certainty in the afterlife, the weight of loss counterbalanced by the joy of celebrating a life well lived.  My father’s funeral was certainly such an occassion, a common cup overflowing with sweet wine and salty tears.  But Dad was in his eighties; Mrs Schmiddt was probably not even forty.

There were no smiles exchanged at Dickie’s mother’s requiem mass, no anecdote-filled eulogies elliciting chuckles and nods, and the scent of wonder and hope did not quietly steal among the congregants, kindling a sense of hope and comfort.  Rather, the grey perfume of an apparently indifferent and unappeasable God stifled any notion that Mrs Schmidt was now resting in merciful hands.

As a child, I didn’t know that the requiem mass for Fran Schmidt was a vehicle in which to pray for her soul’s salvation from God’s terrible and swift judgement.

            Forgive, O Lord,
            the souls of all the faithful departed
            from all the chains of their sins
            and may they deserve
            to avoid the judgment of revenge by your fostering grace,
            and enjoy the everlasting blessedness of light.

Watching Dickie and his siblings and father file out behind Mrs Schmidt’s casket made me uneasy and sad for them all.  As I watched them, I worried about my mother and dad.  Quite suddenly, the possibility of walking behind their caskets with a churchful of onlooking mourners seemed viable.  It was odd watching Dickie, all dressed up, uncomfortable in a starched white shirt, his maroon tie clashing with his wild red hair.

The casket rolled by Mrs Sharp and me, and as I imagined Mrs Schmidt’s little body trapped within, I assumed that her soul was now in hell, unless, as Dickie had told me, the prayers his family had paid their priest to say might bring her weary soul into Purgatory.

This first Catholic experience was simultaneously my first encouter with human death and grief, something worse than the loss of Frosty, my mother’s canary, who was replaced by subsequent canaries, all named Frosty, as if he was never really flying off to that great birdcage in the sky, instead continuing to drop dead, illicit a few of Mom’s sentimental tears, then laying stiffly in a shoebox buried by our rusting backyard swingset, until returning to his perch as if he’d never left.  If I hadn’t been closely watching, Frosty would have made a solid case for reincarnation.

Lent brings me back to reality.  To dust we return.

At Episcopalian funerals, I am always touched by the opening words the priest says, following the casket into the church-

“I am the resurrection and the life,' saith the Lord; 'he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

It doesn’t matter who is laying in that rolling box; my eyes will well up, sad for the mourners, sad for the mourned, yet hopeful enough to be grateful.

I think about my own funeral service occasionally.   I have some sort of funeral plan tucked away in a bureau drawer, in the hopes that there will be enough twang and shuffle to send me out like it's Mardi Gras.  Whenever I attend a memorial service or funeral (which seems to be becoming more frequent), I revise the plan.    But hopefully, everyone who'll need to hear anything from me will have already heard it.  I should go up to my bedroom right now and tear up my plans, and trust my children and my dearest companion to make my funeral be whatever it needs to be for them.

Mark Twain tapped into a real human emotion in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Huck and Tom found themselves hidden in the balcony at their own funeral service, looking down at who cried the hardest and who missed them the most.

When I’m gone to where I'm going, it’s unlikely that I’ll even want to attend my own service.  But if I do show up, it will be with a new mind, a new heart, and no wear and tear on my old soul.  On some rafter, I’ll finally be enlightened enough to show up at church without judging, unbothered by the out-of-tune pipe organ, unaffected about who’s not mourning, who didn’t show, who sang off-key, whose homily turned into a sermon, or who didn’t carry out my final wishes.  Maybe I’ll tear up that piece of paper now, and let everyone off the hook.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The sound of the organ at Fenway Park swirled and vibrated far from home plate, gliding like a roller skater up to our cheap seats in the bleachers.  Dad brought my brother and me to the Green Monster a few times a year, sitting among the Philistines in our New York Yankee jackets and caps, taunting the Red Sox, who couldn't beat our Yankees.

We watched Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, and the rest of that golden team as if they were gods themselves, dusting Fenway's diamond with her own Red Sox.

My father was as pure a man as I've ever known, not a sissy, but a genuine gentleman.  I never once heard him curse, yet he seemed comfortable sitting among the rabble in the bleachers at Fenway.  As the Narragansett lager collected in stagnant puddles at our feet, we'd shell peanuts and drink Coke.

One Saturday, we drove up to Boston in his turquoise and white '59 Ford station wagon with a few pals.  I had on a pair of white "deck pants" which were popular with the sailing crowd in Rhode Island.  Once in the park, my friend Wayne and I explored the stadium, visiting the bullpen where Whitey Ford and Elston Howard were warming up, and making other stops along the way. 

By the time we got back to Dad and our cheap seats, my pants had collected all manner of filth, and were no longer blindingly white.  Dad smiled in surprise and said "Philip, how did you get so dirty?"  "Well, Dad", I said innocently, "It's a filthy place".  Like many other times, I had unwittingly given my father a sermon illustration. 

I've always thought that his simple farm life had given him a will to sink his strong hands into the rich loam of life, never shrinking away from those who didn't share his beliefs.  Rather, he enjoyed them and remembered the names of his mechanic, his barber, and anyone who he shook hands with.  (How ironic that this man with a memory for faces and names would eventually get Alzheimer's Disease.)

Both of my siblings named their sons David after that great man, and my sister's son inherited Dad's smile, right down to his handsome teeth.   Maybe there is a spiritual kind of DNA which will bequeath Dad's character to my nephew along with the heirloom of his beautiful smile.   So far, so good.

People who knew Dad often tell me I look just like him, which pleases me.  A while back, I noted to my mother that she is the one person who never remarks at the similarities between Dad's appearance and mine.  My postulation is that it might be hard for her to reconcile my Dad-like appearance with my un-Dad-like life, tainted by a failed marriage and a life in the marketplace of rock'n'roll, far from the hallowed halls of what she calls "full time Christian service".

Both of Dad's sons have strayed a bit from the cozy living room of Mom's Evangelicalism.  I'm told that "Dad would be mighty disappointed" that I don't define myself as "Evangelical", but it was his tolerance for change which most assuredly allowed his sons to feel safe enough to stray.  The way things have gone, I'm not sure Dad would be able to define himself with the E word, either, given the company he'd have to keep. 

I wasn't as successful as Dad was at living a pure life, but that didn't seem to affect his respect and regard for me.  His purity didn't arise from a sense of guilt or fear, but out of a genuine desire to please his god, and to walk humbly before him.  

The idea of being compared to Saint Francis would never have occurred to Dad, but indeed, he lived Francis' credo well:  Always preach the gospel, and if you must, use words.  Like the beloved saint, Dad loved animals and people, he loved working men and women, yet moved with a confident ease among the rich socialites of his town.   The reason for his relaxed stride in the halls of the wealthy was simple:  he wasn't impressed by status, wealth, or affluence.  Neither did he judge those things. 

He was his own man, motivated by his conscience and his principles.

Lest my accolades drip with too much perfection, Dad was human enough to be annoyed by the legalists, bigots, pharisees, and malcontents of his flock.  He didn't often voice his displeasure, partly because he wasn't particularly vociferous and partly because he wasn't prone to gossip.   I know he was happy when the spiritually superior would give up trying to change him, and leave for a loftier, "spirit-filled" church.   If he was intolerant of anything, it was pettiness.

Dad's upbringing among the Amish and Mennonite communities of his Pennsylvania home had indelibly marked him as a man of peace.  A strong man, I never saw him raise his fist or act in a macho manner.  In the heat of the Viet Nam War, Dad preached sermons which questioned the "Love it or leave it" mentality of many Americans.  Though his opinions occasionally went against the grain of his congregation, his loving manner was irresistible to most of his flock.

A trait which I wish I could say of other preachers was that he refused to let anyone know who he voted for or what party he was a member of, if any.  There were no bumper stickers on his car, which by the way, was usually a non-descript Ford or a Pontiac, never a Lincoln or a Cadillac. 

He owned one pair of dress shoes at a time, and when they were too worn to be respectable, he wore them when he painted the house, or mowed the grass. 

He never asked for a raise, and he and Mom tried to live frugally enough to give away as much as possible, a character trait which I both admire and mildly resent.   Enjoying a modest life, he rarely indulged in luxuries, thus yielding common pleasures that much more enjoyable.  He lived a healthy life.

Before he died, Mickey Mantle said "I'm no role model".  A self-acknowledged failure as a father and husband, his sports achievements paled as he looked back at years given to excess.  "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

Long after Mantle's legs had finally given out from under him, after the Bronx Bomber could no longer swat baseballs over the high walls of Fenway Park, Dad remained a hero to my brother and me, consistently batting close to 1000 in the game of life. 

Once in a while, a parishioner would tell me that I was going to be a preacher, just like my dad.  I knew this was never to be the case, and certainly hoped they were wrong about my vocation, but I knew I was the recipient of a blessing from the many who made this pronouncement to me.  In my soul, whatever remains of that boy still wishes, like all boys, that I was like my father.

I chose quite a different path that my father, and never felt worthy of his mantle.  I couldn't quite find a balance between vulgarity and grace, confrontation and passivity, and it took the severe mercy of divorce to bend my back far enough to let go of the burdens I had strapped to myself.

As I have aged, my search for a quieter expression of belief reminds me of Dad's quiet trust in the unspoken way of faith.  I remember him less for his words, and more for his actions, his humble and friendly demeanor, and his million dollar smile which betrayed the joy in his heart in a way that words could aspire to. 

My shoulders may never feel the weight of his mantle, but my soul will forever be lighter because of Dad.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Happy Feet

As teenage boys, my brother David and I had a Yuletide strategy.  Our shoulders shrugged with the knowledge that many of our presents would be mundane- socks, a tie, a tie clip, a devotional book from Mom, and Old Spice from Dad.  The usual stuff.  Thus, every Advent, we whispered what we each wanted from his brother.  It would always be a rock'n'roll recording, the one thing our parents were not going to spend money on.

Come Christmas, I would feign surprise, exclaiming "This is just what I wanted", as if he didn't know.

Our tradition was to open our gifts on Christmas Eve, as my mother's Swedish family did.  Santa never squeezed his jolly behind and beer gut down our chimney; Mom guarded our Christmas fiercely from commercialism by keeping our fireplace stoked and burning, lest Santa believe he was welcome at 22 Salisbury Road.

Occasionally, Dad would sign a gift tag "From Santa", but that was all the fantasy we were allowed on this holy night.  He didn't seem to have a problem with the fantasy and the Reality coming to terms with each other, but our mother's scruples ruled the Holiday.  I didn't care if Santa wasn't real, but it would have been fun to pretend that someone beyond ourselves knew our secret wishes, and I never understood the harm of writing a letter addressed to the North Pole, which would have wound up in a drawer in the east bedroom instead.  She may have been guarding her children from The World, but I'm more inclined to believe that she was protecting the Infant Jesus.

Such was the religious fervor my mother approached Christmas with.

Nonetheless, the ghosts of Christmas Past continue to visit me with beautiful memories of joyous times with my parents and siblings.  The scenes are vivid and indelible, backlit by warm candlelight.

My mother's liturgical background artfully enhanced the spirit of worship at the Baptist church Dad pastored.  And there was no greater expression of this art than in our Christmas Eve service, behind which she was a driving force. 

In anticipation of Christmas, our church celebrated Advent, foreign to most Baptists, something that those lost Catholics do.  This was my mother's influence; she understood that Christmas was best celebrated as a climactic moment which comes but once a year.  So, leading up to Christmas, we sang "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel" but waited until Christmas Eve to sing "Joy to the World, The Lord is Come".  I'm sure many folks thought, 'what's the difference', but all these years later, my Southern Born Woman and I quite agree that Christmas can only be Christmas for a few beautiful moments.

Between all the shopping, baking, preparing for guests, getting the house decorated (which my mother did exceedingly well), the focus for my parents truly was the Christmas Eve service.  There were choir rehearsals, a sermon for Dad to write, a sanctuary to decorate, and music to be chosen.  When I became an adult, one of my great joys was my father's annual request that I write a song for the service. 

One year, the Muse gave me a new understanding of the Incarnation:

As if the sculptor could be come the scultpure
As if the writer could be come the book
As if the painter could become the painting
the Creator has become part of what He's created!

(from Some Kind of Love ©1981)

As a child, I just wanted to get the service over with, and get home and open presents, but as I matured, the Incarnation became central to everything I believed, and the Christmas Eve service at Barrington Baptist became a warm comforter that I wrapped around my faith on the coziest night of the year. 

Amazingly enough, with all the preparation for the service, my mother would have our traditional Swedish meal prepared, and we would enjoy this before heading to the church.  Our meal consisted of Swedish meatballs, korv (potato sausage), and lingonberries, and to this day, I carry on that tradition, even to the point of buying sausage casings and making my own korv.  For one day of the year, my house smells like the cafeteria at IKEA.

With little time to appreciate the wonderful meal we'd just enjoyed, we would drive through the snow, up Salisbury Road, north on Washington, East on County, and so on, until we got to the church, a mile away from home. 

The sanctuary was nearly pitch black when the service started, no light apart from the smallest glow from an illuminated manger scene.  The first sound you'd hear was my father's beautiful baritone voice humbly singing "He shall be called wonderful...", from Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah.  Then my mother joined in with her tenor- she had a low but lovely voice.  Then the choir, and then the congregation, until the room was fulfilled with the words "Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace".   I am moved by this memory even as I write. 

My father's sermons were gracious and moving, naturally geared to the "Christmas and Easter" visitor who perhaps didn't believe.  (All these years later, I'm somewhat of a "Christmas and Easter" visitor who still believes).  Dad always spoke of Jesus as a lover of the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, and the loner, reminding Christ's followers that believing the Gospel meant doing the Gospel. 

The service would eventually come to a beautiful close, and we would be the last to leave, laden with gifts of cookies, fruitcakes, and other such fare from members of the congregation. 

And finally, home.

Opening our gifts on Christmas Eve gave us the jump on all our friends, so we quite enjoyed it.  As a boy, I wanted what any boy would want- to cut to the chase and open my gifts.  Of course, before those gifts were torn into, we had a family prayer time.  My mother's fixation on the waiting game ofAdvent was excruciatingly drawn out until the last possible second. 

We would drink a punch made of that Evangelical staple- ginger ale, with vanilla ice cream and egg nog, accompanied many of the baked goods we'd received from the parishioners, chief of which were the spinster Mabel Matthews' chocolate chip walnut cookies.   Finally we'd settle in to opening gifts.  My brother or I would be designated the "Santa", truly the only time the old saint's name came up in our household.

One year, I happily unwrapped a copy of "Buddy Miles: Them Changes", a recording which I love to this day.  I went through my tired but effective "how did you know?!" act, and David returned the performance upon opening whatever recording I gave him.

Buddy Miles was a drummer, as was I, and on the cover of this 12" vinyl disc, he sat his obese yet hip visage behind a set of Rogers drums, psychedelically painted in red, white and blue, like our nation's flag on acid.  The music was soulful and bluesy, and Buddy ably kept time while singing in his beautiful black voice, squeezing thick tenor notes through a grinder, the way Santa wanted to squeeze his unwelcome ass through our chimney.

Christmas morning, while the rest of the world's children were discovering what Santa had brought them, we had a leisurely breakfast, opened our stockings, and played with our presents.  On this particular morning, I put Buddy Miles on the Zenith stereo, and sat in our living room,  transfixed and air-drumming. 

Mormor, which means "mother's mother" in Swedish, sat across from me glowering, upset that the Lord's birthday would be ridiculed by the Devils' music.  In her immigrant accent, she finally hissed, "What do you think Yeesuss thinks of that music?!", as if the Lord's taste in music was identical to hers.  I hissed back, "I think He's in heaven tapping along!".

I had no love for this woman, who had none for me, and I recoiled from her lame faith which happily celebrated a neutered Christ who gazed incoherently and unemotionally from the pictures of pastures and maelstroms that hung on her apartment walls.  She was dismissive of anything secular; her compartmentalization of faith and life made her dreary to be around.  I hoped that Jesus wasn't anything like her image of Him, and I imagined Him being bored to tears by her religion.

I believed in a Jesus I liked, and I credited my father for presenting an earthy Lord to me, a Jesus who wasn't constantly policing my mind, and shoving himself into the middle of every celebration or situation.  Jesus might be God, but He's no narcissist. 

For all I know, Emmanuel, "God is with us", was indeed tapping along to Buddy Miles' music that Christmas morning in our living room.  Isn't that what Christmas is all about?  The Divine intersection with our profane, fallen lives,  Jesus coming down from heaven and dipping his bare foot in the muddy water of the deluge, swimming with us, pulling us by the scruff of our necks over the crest of a wave, his strong body ferrying weary souls to an eternal shore? 

That alone makes my feet tap.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Salisbury Road

I’ve been back to Rhode Island only a few times since my parents moved to Connecticut, once for Dad’s funeral, and then a few short visits to the beach with my daughters.

On every visit, I have driven down Nayatt Road, under an archway of elms, past the vistas of Narragansett Bay, and taking the long way so that I see the lighthouse at Nayatt Point.  I take in the water view sentimentally, and then head north on Washington Road, a long thoroughfare from which small streets hang like teeth from a pocket comb. 

I pass the woods on my left, full of childhood memories, and St. Luke’s Catholic Church on the right, full of childhood mystery, and then I take a left on Salisbury Road and pass a few small homes until I reach number 22. 

I’m always surprised at its small size.  I didn’t realize how tiny it was until my parents sold it, and I saw the specs- 1200 square feet.  I didn’t know five people could live that comfortably in such a small space.  I like seeing the site of many good memories, wonderful meals, and happy times, and I am warmed in those memories.

My favorite room in our house was the living room, where our piano sat, and where we spent most of our family time together.

I picture my father taking his Sunday nap on the living room floor, his head strangely comfortable at rest on his grandmother’s low milking stool.  HIs white shirt from Sunday morning’s service, unbuttoned at the collar, and his tie loosened, eventually, he’d have to rise and go back for the evening service. 

I picture Mom sitting in the reupholstered wing chair, reading the Providence Sunday Journal and remarking to no one in particular about who was in the obituary pages this week. 

She has an amazing memory for dates and times, and I don’t think she ever has opened a newspaper without stating the day’s date and then announcing something that happened on this date in years past.  “February 10- that’s the day Leland Jones broke his arm” or “May 23- that’s the day in 1954 that we moved from Gonic to Barrington”. 

Of course, what is missing here is the audio presentation of my mother’s voice and her distinctive New England accent.  She has always spoken in very emphatic tones with an accent that makes me smile to this day.  The absence of the letter R, and the emotion with which she will deliver a sentence is quite entertaining, particularly when she is annoyed or confused.

“Where AH my glasses?”, she’ll nearly sing.  “THAT is OOHWICKED!!”, she’ll opine vocifericely, giving the letter W extra emphasis.   The overwhelming favorite of our family has been when her compassion rises within her about some pathetic character, and she will gush, “The poor thing!!”, but it’s really pronounced “The Poe Wuh thing!!”.  This is her version of the Southern “Bless her heart”, which means “What an idiot”.

The passion with which my mother has lived is remarkable, and I need only visit my childhood home to remember many vividly played scenes from its walls. 

I picture her inside singing her heart out while playing a hymn on the piano, her canary Frosty singing at the top of his infinitesimal lungs.  I honestly believe that her exersize wasn’t about hearing her own beautiful, low voice, but truly about the notes and words that she was offering to God Almighty.

I picture her marching out the front door with deliberate steps and a stern face, ready to take on our crabby neighbors, the Perrys, who were the meanest folks in the neighborhood.  You couldn’t breathe the air drifting from their yard into ours without being screamed at.  Sometimes Mom’s passion came in handy, and I’m thankful that she occasionally gave them ‘what for’.

Yes, I can speak of the constraints of religion and the unwillingness of my mother to ever be wrong, but I have to remember that life was pretty good in my corner of the world.  Mom felt the good things as much as she felt anything else.  And one of the things I have to remember while weighing the things that have disturbed our relationship, is my mother’s great passion for life. 

She would read AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh to us as if it were Charles Dickens.  And she read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” with a grave sadness, reflecting on its tragic protagonist, Sidney Carton, and grieving his sacrificial heroism.

Dad and Mom were both very affectionate with us, and we couldn’t leave the house without hearing the words “Love you”. 

There are two other rooms that I think of when I drive down Salisbury Road.  One is the dining room, the site of family discussions, political and social, religious and emotional; as Annie, Dave, and I grew older, this room became more and more special. 

We had many wonderful meals together at our small dining room table.  My mother was a good cook, although not notably creative, and great care was put into whatever was placed before us. 

We had many a laugh around that table, often at Mom’s expense.  She was an easy target; her passion made her buttons easy to push.  Once, when I thought I had gotten the best of her with a juvenile prank, I left the table laughing so hard I had to expel my food.  When I returned to the table, I looked at my plate, and sitting among the creamed onions was Mom’s glass eye.  She wasn’t helpless, after all.

I also remember sitting around the table, expecting Annie’s future husband  to arrive.  We’d never met Jim, and Annie was convinced that her uncivilized brothers would give Jim reason to have second thoughts.  As she frantically expressed her worries, Dave and I began chewing more and more loudly, mouths agape, taunting her to believe that indeed we would make the worst impression possible.  When our visit with Jim was over, a ring was on Annie’s finger, and a tear was in my father’s eye.

The other room was our screened-in back porch.  We took all our summer meals on that little porch.  Whenever we had summer guests, my parents would boil lobsters, clams, and sweet corn, and we would share the bounty of New England.  I loved sitting there with melted butter on my fingers, and a pile of empty clam shells on my plate. 

After we’d all grown up and left, it was fun to return with our families to that porch, and crowd around the table, and celebrate being Madeira's.  My only regret is that my children were born too late to remember those days, and too late to have known my father when his mind was sharp, and when the smile on his face was one of loving his family. 

We lived well in those 1200 square feet.

I slowly drive past, wondering if the echoes of happy times still softly resonate in those small rooms at 22 Salisbury Road.  I look in the rear view mirror, until all I can see of my past is a green mail box.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I walk at a local nature reserve called Radnor Lake, where I enjoy the subtle changes the seasons bring.  I walk there year ‘round, often with my dearest companion, my Southern Born Woman who, unlike me, can tell one tree from another.  She, whose soul is keenly aware that the voice of God has many shapes, songs and sounds, makes for a perfect companion in this undulating, breathing cathedral.

One spectacular Spring evening, she and I were on the east side of the lake watching the sun set, when some natural phenomenon occurred and a cross appeared inside a circle formed by the sun.  We notice these things, she and I, wondering at creation’s constant declaration of glory.   These moments can make you feel infinitesimally small or startlingly significant.

In early Spring, I like looking down from high on the Ridge, where all manner of green things are sprouting.  The forest has yet to become thick with growth, so one can look far into the woods, as the liveliest hues of green scatter joy across its floor. 

With the approach of Holy Week, the wildflowers spread a majestic purple carpet deep in the woods, and thoughts of the Resurrection drift into my consciousness, reminding me of the Impossible Things my heart believes in.

In May, new fauns are getting used to their spindly legs.  By June, they’re nearly eating out of your hand, which, of course they shouldn’t do; there are all kinds of signs saying “Don’t Touch The Deer”, but in a much more verbose fashion, giving scientific explanations for why you’ll kill them if you touch them.  A bit dramatic, but I suppose it works.

My Southern Born Woman and I enjoy our June walks at Radnor, noting the many turtles sunning themselves on protruding logs, wondering how they climbed to their perches, and chuckling when we hear the splash of one dropping back into the cool water.  The Canada Geese are plentiful, and occasionally we see a heron, moving stoically and deliberately, waiting for an unsuspecting fish.

Early one June evening, as we were coming to the end of our walk, we noticed a silent and still owl sitting on a branch near the edge of the woods, as if to acknowledge two pilgrims at a journey’s end.  I’ve never thought much about owls 'til recently, and it was this dusk sighting which intrigued me, so intent was her stare as we gazed upon her.

Owls move silently and swiftly.  There is no rustling of feathers as they spirit themselves about the nocturnal world.   Their night vision is Sheffield sharp, and nothing is hidden from them.  As she looked at us, I wondered if she was looking into us.

By July, the lake is covered with a thick coat of green algae, and the wildlife has disappeared from view.  A rank stink rises from the lake, and it’s clear that Summer is here to stay.

Eventually, Autumn leaves are falling, and the crisp air returns, and the trees cut stark silhouettes against the November sky.  And thus it remains until Spring breaks her silence and yawns.

And so on.

Sometimes I walk alone.

My hike is  comprised of two essential loops, first the lofty and solitary South Cove Trail, and then the low country Lake Trail.  I always start with the South Cove Trail which brings me to the top of a ridge, and in the process, gets my heart pumping and my brow sweating small beads. 

I eventually descend to the lake trail which is an easy hike, thus more populated. 

Recently, I was walking the Lake Trail, and passed two young teens who were reciting the Rosary, repeating the Hail Mary, and fingering the glass beads to keep count, I suppose.  They seemed fourteen and wholesome, like girls who might aspire to become nuns one day.  The oddness of the moment made me consider the religious nature of my regular Radnor walk.

There are certain landmarks on my trail which I liken to the steps through the liturgy, places which always call to mind those whom I love, and my hope that God cares to draw them into a circle of peace.   One of these places is a hairpin turn in the trail, overlooking the lake as I descend from the Ridge.  This is my Kyrie Place, the bend in the road which turns my heart to my Dearest Companion, and reminds me of the good graces which brought me to her table.  My prayer is silent and steady, until the earth flattens for a moment, and then drops to the road below. 

I inhale “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhale, “Have mercy on me, a sinner”.  

Minutes later, on the Lake Trail, I take a slight detour to the right, where in spring the purple wild flowers are draped like royal robes across a shaded meadow.  There, I find a bench with a name on it, and the dates of the short life that the name belonged to.  Often, there are two or three crosses fashioned from twigs placed on the bench, next to the name.  Sometimes a small wreath of wildflowers withers next to the twigs.  I gather two small sticks and make a cross on a log which lies just beyond the bench. 

My little twig cross is meant to announce “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again” to anyone looking for a little cross sitting on a decaying log.  I gingerly make my way back to the main trail, praying for my children and hers, and anyone else who comes to mind.  I ponder my journey, sometimes retracing my steps with remorse, sometimes planning my next step, and hoping  that little broken crosses availeth much.

Often on the Ridge, the least traveled part of my regime, my inner dialogue is loud enough to wonder if my lips are actually moving, like those little Catholic girls who pray to Mary.  Nearly like a dream, where the people you recognize might not look like themselves, my dialogue isn’t articulate or poetic, but perhaps more like the call of a wild goose or a lone owl, symbols of Spirit winging through my mind like glossalalia, haphazardly acknowledging broken promises and lost relationships, unresolved conflicts and unsolved mysteries, the sad scars of what is and of what never will be; love, peace, joy, life and death, and the certainty of resurrection.  They are both a feather on the wind and the wafer on my tongue. 

Recently, I was having a conversation with my friend Dave Perkins about Radnor Lake.  Dave is a bona fide rock’n’roll guitarist, one of Nashville’s musical treasures, yet he’s also on his way to getting his doctorate while studying religion and culture at Vanderbilt.  As if that’s not enough, he is also a cancer survivor.   Dave is my kind of saint, a man who can rip your jugular vein with a slashing blues riff, or talk about the peaty taste of his favorite single malt, and eventually get around to discussions of God and philosophy.  Together, we have shared stages, bottles, and ideas for many years.

Like me, Dave grew up in a pointedly religious home, and has never been able to shake Jesus, but has certainly shaken many of the notions that Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism had foisted upon him in his formative years.  His inability to “shake Jesus” comes across in his music, and in his living, and in the very essence of conversation with him.  While he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, sooner or later, the Word appears, as if carried on the unheard wings of an owl in the darkness. 

We talked about Radnor on this recent occasion, and I told him of the liturgical path that unrolls before me every time I begin my ascent up the South Cove Trail.  I spoke of the Catholic girls reciting their Hail Marys, and of the crosses left anonymously on a memorial bench, of my Kyrie and my dreamlike prayers, randomly uttered, much like the pebbles rolling off my soles, or the beads of sweat serpentinely running down my brow. 

Dave says it’s the same for him, coming to Radnor to commune with God.  I like how he puts it, “It’s all over the place, man.  A lot of people go there to get their work done.”  I think he’s right about that, although the thought never occurred to me until I passed the future nuns, passionlessly (so it seemed) reciting their prayers in an eerie monotone.   The energy level must be something with all these pilgrims stirring the same mystical cauldron with petitions, prayers and praise, brokeness, fullness, joy, sorrow, emptiness, hoping, hopeless, despairing, longing, exulting and expectant.  How divinely human.

And what of that owl at the edge of the forest, at our journey’s end?  A good omen?   A rare sight?  Perhaps she’s a faithful watcher of souls, gathering up a thousand prayers from the forest floor, and bringing them to the arms of Mercy at the day’s end.

Forest painting by Phil Madeira.   Owl illustration by Merrill Farnsworth.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow Angels

Snow rarely falls in Nashville.   Every 7 or 8 years, we get hit with a modest yet incapacitating bit of weather, maybe 4 inches of fluff. 
These days, technology sees it coming, and a day or two before the winter storm blows in, grocery stores are filled with those who know just how crippling a few inches of snow can be in our town.   There is a collective bracing of ourselves, as we wonder how many days of school will be canceled, and how long will it take for the sun to do clear our roads, as there is reportedly only one snowplow in our fair city.   Faucets are set to drip, so that pipes don’t freeze.  Whether you own a cat or not, a few 50 pound bags of kitty litter are placed in the trunk of your car, for traction.

Winter in Nashville is complicated.

On one snowy Friday evening, my dearest companion and I were having a glass of Bushmill’s when I got an emergency call from my nephew Dave, who told me that my good friend of 3 decades, Tom Howard, had died moments ago.

Tom, a Minnesota native, had been walking in the snow with his wife and some friends, when he fell back, and dropped dead.  One of the friends told me it was the most horrible thing she’d ever witnessed- a man down, his wife begging him not to leave her, and helpless friends standing by as the snow quietly covered any sign that they’d been there. 

Tom and I met in Boston in the late 70s, when he was a “Jesus Music” recording artist.  We immediately had a rapport, two funny guys riffing off each other like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.  His personality was a mix:  brooding genius, swarthy gentleman, extroverted absurdist, and stressed out milquetoast.  Over the years, we’d run into each other at various concerts or events, until we finally became neighbors in Nashville. 

We became Wednesday evening regulars at the same pub, The Sherlock Holmes, where Guinness was on tap before it became a household word.  Our Wednesday gathering was usually quite large, requiring several ample tables, tended to by one barmaid, whose name was Moira.  Moira was the widow of Nicky Hopkins, the famous session player, whose piano work graced recordings of the Rolling Stones, the Who, The Beatles, and a host of British Invasion rock groups.

Wednesday night at Sherlock’s was as much a given for me as Wednesday night prayer meeting had been for my Baptist father.  Smoke rings, darts, and fish & chips were nearly sacramental, and as a night wore on, and inhibitions wore down, our little congregation lifted jokes, arguments, discussions, and diatribes with the fervor of lost Pentecostals.

One night, Bob Saporiti, then a VP at Warner Brothers Records, started passing a guitar around.  Bob wasn’t a part of our group, but on this particular evening, the guitar floated from table to table, group to group, where anyone who was willing could sing a song. 

It was an opportunity of sorts.  In a room full of songwriters, here was your chance to get the ear of a Nashville power broker.   For once, the expensive pints might prove to be a sound investment, if only Bob Saporiti handed you his card, saying “Give me a call tomorrow when you've sobered up”; perhaps it would lead to something.

The guitar finally came to Tom, a musician of considerable talent.  Tom waited for the room to quiet down, and started playing “Blowing in the Wind” in G.  With an angelic expression on his face, Tom sincerely looked each of us in the eye,  and then he did something that is nearly impossible for even a good musician to do.

He began to sing in G sharp.

Most of the room buckled over in laughter,  as he maintained the simultaneous, clashing keys with a completely straight face, earnestly singing Bob Dylan’s most famous song.  A few drinkers were miffed and upset, as if Tom were a Nashville Robert Maplethorpe, dousing Dylan’s sheet music in urine, but Tom sang the entire song without cracking a smile.

When he was done, Saporiti took his guitar back.

That was the last time anyone ever passed a guitar around Sherlock’s.

One of Tom’s greatest gifts was laughing at himself.  There was a klutz-proneness about Tom, an extraordinary ability to spill wine on your carpet, set fire to your shirt, and put a hole in your guitar. 

All in the same evening.

He would regale friends with outrageous tales of his faux pas, like the time he slipped and accidentally bloodied the lip of a woman hosting a dinner party, or how he feigned spraying beer all over the same party’s guests, and then realized the bottle wasn’t empty after it was too late.  

By making himself so very vulnerable to people, Tom had a lot of friends.  He was generous to anyone who knew him, offering a hand, encouragement, and good faith to everyone he encountered.

Once, I told him that I had never used my garage as shelter for my car.  I explained that there was too much junk in it.  He offered to help me clear out the mess, and so we rented a pickup truck one day, and got the job done.  As we worked, our conversation digressed from life's crises to theology to gossip to humor.

Another trait of Tom’s was to believe for the best until the very end.  When marriages were on the rocks, he would proclaim that “they’ll be back together”.  Sometimes he was right.  He had a gift of faith.  I remember protesting to him, "But she's so much better off without him!"  Tom just wanted things to work out for everyone.

Being in an industry that works like a poorly maintained roller coaster, Tom often encouraged me in my career, saying year after year, “This year’s gonna be your year!”  When I had victories, he would smile and say "I told you so", smiling like an older brother.

Once, I was hired to play at a gala honoring Emmylou Harris.  At the rehearsal, I had trouble with the piano intro to “Sweet Dreams”, which Elvis Costello was to perform.  Elvis wanted me to play it like Steve Nieve had played it on their 1981 recording.  My awareness that I was not Steve Nieve led to my dialing Tom in the late evening the night before the show.

"I'm out of my league, and I need to practice on a real piano.  Can I come over?"

Tom opened his door to me at about 11 pm and let me sit at his beautiful grand piano for the next hour until I had assimilated Nieve’s intro.    Tom had a natural gift for encouragement.  A couple of years later, I was asked to join Emmylou's band, and who knows what might have happened if I had botched the intro to "Sweet Dreams", a song she has performed for years.

Often Tom would remind friends, “I’m praying for you.”

Cut to the snowy evening in Nashville.

My nephew’s words, “Tom is dead” brought light tears to my eyes, and yet, a smile to my lips.  I knew Tom.  Tom was one of the few people in my life who could leave his friends behind with little doubt of how he felt toward them.  Maybe it was time to be riffing with his Maker. 

I called my kids and told them Tom was gone.  Then I turned my phone off.

The snow bogged Nashville down for about four days.  No one was going anywhere. 

When Sunday evening came, my car was stuck a few streets from the site of Tom’s wake, so I donned my boots and trudged across crunching snow and skidded on black ice until I found myself standing in Ben Pearson’s kitchen with a glass of cabernet.

I looked around the room.  I saw old friends like fellow bluesman Dave Perkins and painter Dorsey McHugh, whose name alone could make her lovable.  Jimmy Abegg, my long time friend and fellow traveler, embraced me and kissed my cheek.

I was approached by “frenemies” dripping with toxins as they extended hands I didn’t refuse, finding myself internally recoiling.  Yet, we were all there for the same reason; we loved this great man who had been taken by stress or a bad heart, or by an impatient God Almighty.  Like God Almighty, Tom loved everyone in that room. 

As the snow that covered Tom’s last footprints, Tom’s love was able to cover a multitude of weaknesses, burying the staggered footprints that our errant feet had tracked through each other's lives.

Eventually, I approached Dori, Tom’s widow, and embraced her.  She whispered assuring words of comfort to me, and then cracked a joke.  “She’s in the Mercy Time”, my dearest companion later remarked, noting how often the bereaved will find themselves in the role of comforting the less bereaved.  When things settle down, the real grieving will begin, I thought.

Shunning my extravert skin, I hoped that the evening would stay intimate, and that there would be no speech making.  When someone whistled for silence, people moved toward the whistle.  I backed away from it.   Not long ago, I would have been an enthusiastic participant at such an event.  Now I watched as a toast was offered up by a pair of well meaning and inebriated friends of Tom.

Plastic cups of wine were raised for a moment, and people went back to the conversations they had been having.  I was glad that the moment hadn't snowballed into a round robin of oration, feeling that the quiet reminiscences were purer and more trustworthy than the performances speeches would likely turn into.

I finally put on my overcoat and gloves and headed for the door.  I thought about the wide landscape of Tom's friendships as I left, warmed by Dave’s smile, Dorsey’s affectionate remembrances, and Jimmy’s pledge that he and I were “friends before we ever met.”

As I walked past Belmont Baptist Church, the moon shone bright and full, illuminating my snowy path with blue light, emphasizing the melancholy emotions that hummed behind my heart.

My ears reddened in the frozen air, and I picked up my pace.  I listened to my racing heart and I thought about Tom’s approaching funeral.  I wondered if it would bring closure to those of us who missed him.  I hoped it would be about Tom, not about those who loved him.  I thought about funerals past, particularly my dad’s, which seemed hijacked by good intentions and abject neediness.  I knew that truly saying goodbye to Tom meant finding a quiet place, even quieter than the moonlit path that lay before me. 

As I walked, it occurred to me that we can never really say goodbye to those who die before we do, and that the silence we seek is found only in the presence that embraces the departed, with snow white wings.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wonder Bread and Tombstone Blues

I was doing the dishes when the kitchen phone rang.    Mom’s faltering voice signaled that something was terribly wrong, and in those milliseconds I wondered what tragedy had befallen us.

When she told me that her mother had passed on, I was relieved.  I was glad it wasn’t Dad, or cancer, or another unmanageable curve ball thrown by fate at life’s thinly padded catcher’s mitt.

I cautiously weighed my words, expressing to my mother that I was sorry for her loss, while in no way sharing the sense of loss.  I was not sorry to see my grandmother go.


At 102, Mormor (Swedish for "mother's mother") had overstayed her welcome.  Many years earlier, I had asked Dad how long it would be before she passed.  He answered, “Buddy, she’s gonna outlive us all”.

It was my father who had told me the simple, inane reasons for my grandmother’s hostility toward me.  I was eighteen, and we were walking west on Goosewing Beach the day I asked him “Why does she hate me? What did I ever do to her?”.  As the sun burned our eyes, he looked straight ahead, squinted and said that it was really what I hadn’t done that had earned her ire.  I hadn’t been baptized as an infant.  I hadn’t been born on a lucky day.  Her misunderstandings of me were all wrapped up in superstitions, like a mix of Swedish Lutheranism and the Brothers Grimm.  Grim, indeed.

I remember that day at Goosewing Beach, and the afternoon sun drying our skin and swimsuits as we walked.  The gentle incline of the ocean floor made me feel like my right leg was longer than my left as we ambled along talking.  The gradual curve of the shore gave it a slight arc, thus it was named after a goose wing.

When Dad told me why he thought my grandmother had been hard on me for all these years, I was outraged at her stubborn stupidity.  I was also somewhat relieved to know that there was no logical basis for her to be unkind to me, that it was all just crazy stuff with nothing reasonable attached to it.

I appreciated my father’s candor in this matter.  He must have thought I was old enough to know the truth, and mature enough to know that he was my ally.  Realizing that he understood how ridiculous this person was brought me closer to Dad, and made me grateful that he was a witness to the way things really were.

He and my mother were quite traditional and respectful of their elders, thus I never heard them address my grandmother about her ill treatment of their youngest son.  Because I never felt defended against her craziness, I’m sure there was some small corner of my heart that believed they must have agreed with her, that is, until that day Dad and I strolled down Goosewing Beach.

Years later, I was told that my mother and Mormor often argued about me.  I was glad to know that my mother had defended me, but I think things would have been better had I been a witness to a few of those arguments.  It would have done me a world of good to know that my mother didn’t agree with my grandmother.

In the last years of Mormor’s century on this planet, she had gone senile and forgotten who I was.  When I was in town, I didn’t like visiting her, but my mother’s insistence upon it was formidable, so I would eventually cave in and make the drive over to the East Side, the classy Providence neighborhood where she waited for The End. 

The Christmas before Mormor died,  Mom and I got into the familiar, exhausting  discussion about why I should visit my “poor sweet Grandmotha who asks for you all the time”.  By this time, my mother had expunged Mormor’s record of abuse, and just wanted me to remember her mother as the typically wonderful grandmother that most kids have.  I couldn’t do that.  I wanted to forgive the woman, but I wasn’t about to rewrite my own history.

To present an example of how my mother tried for years to present her mother as the quintessential grandmother, I will cite what was known as “Mormor’s Bread”.  My grandmother made an amazing loaf of oatmeal bread; I know of no other bread this wonderful.  What I didn’t realize until I was grown, was that "Mormor's Bread" was a recipe my mother had discovered on a box of Quaker Oats.  It was my mother who, hoping to give us a reason to appreciate her mother, taught Mormor to bake oatmeal bread, and bequeathed it the title “Mormor’s Bread”.  Thus, the only thing I ever liked about my grandmother was concocted by my revisionist mother.

Anyway, appeasing the powers that be, I headed to the East Side, over the Washington Bridge, skidding through snow down the exit ramp, and negotiating a right turn onto Gano Street.   I drove past Revolutionary War era homes, past the Dunkin Donuts, past the Portuguese Club, and eventually parked in front of the nursing home.  I sauntered through the automatic doors, scrutinized by several old-timers in the lobby, who perhaps wondered if I had come to visit them.  The smell of urine and old age was everywhere.

Mormor seemed to know who I was, and was happy to see me.  She repeated her questions every two minutes, and I would repeat the answers, realizing that she had some memory of who I was, but lacking the ability to retain new information. 

When she asked me what I did for a living, I told her I was a musician, to which she responded, “Oh, what kind of music do you play?”.  Wanting to see if she had any of her sauce in tact, I said, “Jazz”, believing her mind was too far gone to relate to the term “Rock N Roll”. 

She frowned and said “I thought you played heavenly music” and I said “Well, it is heavenly”.  She quickly said, “How do you know?  Have you been there?”, amazing me with her wit, on one hand, and reminding me of days long gone on the other.  I told her I assumed she’d find out sooner than I would, and she surprisingly said in a matter-of-fact way, “I suppose you’re right”.

She kept forgetting who I was, and it became difficult for me to remind her that it was Philip, expecting her to express displeasure at the mention of my name.  “And whose son are you?”   “Anna-Lisa’s, your daughter’s son.”  “You are?”  “Yep, that’s me”.

The litany of ask, answer, repeat continued for the entire visit.  I just wanted to get to the benediction as soon as possible.

When I got up to leave, she reached out her hand and clutched my wrist, protesting, “Don’t leave me!”.  It was the first time I’d ever heard this voice express any desire for my company. 

I pulled the clamped fingers apart, and escaped, troubled by her kindness to me, a stranger.  When the elevator door closed, I gasped in a brief, tearful moment, a moment rife with irony and sadness.  Now that she had no memory of me, my grandmother had been more or less kind to me, wanting me to stay.  She was fully capable of kindness to this strange man whom she didn’t know, and I experienced a sadness and jealousy of sorts, having experienced my grandmother the way any alien might have.  Thus, her withholding of decency and love for all those decades became more acutely mean.


Thus, upon hearing the words, “Your grandmother has passed away”, I felt no sorrow.

After the initial formalities had been exchanged, my mother told me she wanted me to be a pallbearer, to which I had no easy way of responding.  I didn’t argue, but wondered how I would gracefully escape this task.  Carrying that casket would implicate me as one of the bereaved.  It felt dishonest to me, like pawning something off as Mormor’s Bread.

Mom and I hung up, and I called my brother.  Neither he nor I were particularly sad about the recent departure of our maternal grandmother.  I made comments which made him laugh nervously, as if a lightning bolt might strike me, and then carom through the phone lines and dispense with him as well.  The gist of my remarks was “Thank God she’s gone.”

Eventually, I told him of my uneasiness about being a pallbearer for a woman whom I was reputed to have little patience or love for.  David said he’d take care of it, and we said goodbye.

A while later, my mother called back, her voice quivering with tears, yet demanding an answer for my decision to bow out of the pallbearer role.  I explained that I was truly sorry she’d lost her mother, truly.  But likewise, I said that I wasn’t sorry for myself because I hadn’t lost someone who was dear to me, rather, “With all due respect, Mom, she was never nice to me.”  I explained to her that in asking me to pretend I had any regard for Mormor, she was asking me to deny the many years of mean-spiritedness I had endured.  I felt as if I was being lured into a trap of grave consequences (pun intended).

My mother’s ability to over-dramatize a situation produced a memorable line, framed in her New England accent:  “IF YOU COULD SEE HUH PAW, LITTLE DEAD BODY!!”.  That didn’t help her cause and I stuck firmly to my guns.  Disgusted with my lack of flexibility, she hung up.

A while later, Dad called.  Please remember that my father was the least manipulative person I’ve ever met.  Dad truly had no self-promoting agenda, but in this case, his words shocked me and betrayed a sense of desperation which I’d never seen in him before or since this moment. 

“Buddy, if you won’t do it for Mom, will you do it for Jesus?”


I was stunned.  I quickly gathered my wits about me and said, “Dad, I’m not doing this for Mom, and I’m not doing it for Jesus, but I will do it for you because if I don’t, you will hear about it until the day you drop”.

So, on a cold December day in Cranston, Rhode Island, under unspoken protest, I joined the grieving heirs of a woman who gave me no reason to mourn her passing.  I sat, emotionless, through the prayers and eulogies, puzzled by my sister’s tribute to the woman who had taught her to embroider, and saddened only by the knowledge that quite a different kind of investment had been made in my sister’s life than in mine.  I listened to the Swedish hymns of her Lutheran faith, but didn’t partake.  It was difficult to imagine that she and I worshipped the same God, and I wasn’t about to pretend that she was my sister in Christ.

After the service, we brought her “poor little dead body” to the cemetery, and lowered it slowly into the barely thawed ground.  I felt a genuine sense of relief as the casket sank, yet also aware that something like her ghost would probably be around for years to come.

Back at Bethany Lutheran Church, the cousins, aunts, uncles, and an ex-aunt gathered around several tables in the basement.  We drank coffee and ate little sandwiches, cut into small triangles of Wonder Bread with tuna, chicken or ham salad only detectable by their slightly varying hues of beige or pink.   Let’s not forget the large plastic bowl overflowing with Hawiian Punch.  It was as if the reception was being catered by a few old Swedes from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.   

One thing I don’t miss about the Evangelical stream of Christianity is the clumsy use or down right absence of alcohol.  Bring on the wine for Communion, champagne for weddings, and whisky for funerals.  I like to think that Jesus did no less.

The triangular sandwiches were piled high on two platters under a ceiling that hung low, fluorescently lit with a nauseating glow.  Kind words awkwardly expressed obligatory remembrances which only a few believed, while the truly bereaved smiled sadly and choked back genuine tears.  I felt sorrow for my mother, a good woman trying to do her mother right, but there was nothing to say.  I just wanted to leave.

My brother’s son David Ward, about 5 years old, came over and took my hand, and proceeded to lead me to an old grand piano in the corner.  “Uncle Phil, play the blues”.

I sat, and started playing a shuffle in the key of C.  My left hand played a walking bass line, while David Ward began repeating a bluesy riff I had taught him on our last visit.  Gradually, family members encircled us, until the entire party of relatives completely surrounded us.  One by one, my cousins and siblings requested songs.  I obliged, playing into the late afternoon, bidding farewell to a woman who hated the music which serendipitously closed down her funeral party.

Later, I was entertained by two ideas.  On one hand, I had just danced on my grandmother’s grave by playing my music, not hers, at her funeral.  I was warmed by the idea of having had the last word.

But there is another side to me, a side which is haunted by goodness, permeated by what I believe to be true about Christ, the resonant idea that His gospel is one of reconciliation, mercy, and peace.  The better angels of my nature beckoned me to listen to what beauty might have been present when my nephew asked me to “play the blues”.

I pondered this woman of odd faith, superstition, sternness, and joylessness.  I reckoned that she really did believe in Jesus, although not in any kind of generous way.  Yet, what if she had been enfolded into the arms of a waiting Father on high?  What if she had beheld His light, as I hope to behold it one fine day?  Furthermore, if she was in that ‘cloud of witnesses’, wasn’t it fair to assume that a bonus therein was for her to witness her own funeral? 

Assuming her spirit was with us in some form or fashion, and assuming the cloud on which she was eternally perched (and harping, no doubt) was in close proximity to the church she’d worshiped at for decades, it wasn’t hard to imagine her being present in the basement of Bethany Lutheran when I started playing requests.  Maybe the intermittent buzzing in the fluorescent light fixture was the protestations of her ghost.

In my more generous moments, I like to think that she was looking down with her newly enlightened mind, and the she got it, got me.  And if that truly was so, then, she might have finally been able to celebrate the lives of people she didn’t understand.  Perhaps, as an enlightened soul, she understood all her heirs in a way that we couldn’t even comprehend until our day of going Home.

I’ve always been grateful to my nephew for his innocent request to jam with his uncle.  It didn’t change my relationship to Mormor; I couldn’t erase her presence in my life as a crucible of sorts.  However, our little jam session did afford me the opportunity to ponder her as an eternally forgiven soul, whose road brought her to the literal end of herself, and to a resurrected goodness and unconditional lovingkindness.  

That’s where I want to go.  Until then, if you want, I’ll play the blues.
Mormor's Bread
Pour 2 cups boiling water over 1 cup rolled oats and let stand for one hour.
Dissolve 2 tablespoons yeast in 1/2 cup warm water.  
Add the oats, 5 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon shortening, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 teaspoon salt.  Knead.  (Add or reduce flour amount according to dough consistency.)  
Let rise one hour.
 Punch down and shape into loaf.  
Place into two greased pans.  
Let rise 1 hour.  
Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes.