Singing in the Secret Garden

I have survived my annual music marathon, also known as the Sunday of the Samaritan House Secret Garden Tour. Each year I seem to draw the short straw and end up leading and accompanying the choir at both Masses at Sacred Heart Church before rushing to my assigned garden with a car full of instruments and sound equipment to play music for four or five hours outdoors until the last garden junkie has examined every plant and posy in the place.

I’ve belonged to various bands, choirs and ensembles, but these days my non-church gigs are solo affairs. It’s just me and a ton of gear, moving from singing with steel-string guitar to playing instrumentals on classical guitar to mixing vocals with instrumentals on my electronic keyboard. Sometimes I play mandolin, recorder or harmonica, too, all in the interest of maintaining the voice and tender fingertips as long as possible.
Loading all my equipment into the car and getting it set up in the garden is an athletic event in itself, but that’s just the beginning. Every year on the day before the tour, I decide that I should not do this anymore. It’s been 10 years. I don’t get paid. It’s exhausting. People are walking around me socializing and talking about flowers. But when I start to sing out there for friends from all aspects of my life, I start to think well, maybe this isn’t so bad. Halfway through, when my voice is starting to go and my fingers are starting to complain, I wonder if I’ll make it to the end. But then I cross some kind of barrier and want to keep singing and playing forever.
This year I had the added worry of an aching right elbow inflamed with tendonitis. All week, I iced it, wore a brace and tried not to use it. I’m left-handed, but it’s amazing how many things I do with the right hand, how many situations in our lives almost require use of the right hand. Doors and cupboards open in your face if you use the left hand. The gearshift in the car is on the right. I can’t make the cheese slicer work with my left hand. I have discovered that every time I push myself off a chair or the floor or the bed, I use my right hand. The left one doesn’t feel . . . right. The whole thing has been a pain. Why would I antagonize it by playing music all afternoon for free?
Because it’s magic, that’s why. Because I love the sound and the feeling of making music in the garden. At these affairs, I can play anything I want. No need to be liturgically correct or please a picky audience. These people like it all, and there’s something special about acoustic music outdoors. It just sounds good.
This year the gardens were in Toledo, Oregon. I was stationed at the Cook garden, which overlooks the Yaquina River. What a gorgeous place, what wonderful people. Everywhere I looked were beautiful plants and the kind of quirky decorations I love. Flowers growing out of an old washing machine. A giant stone frog. Rusty pans, saw blades and shovel heads hanging among the green plants. The Cooks set up a cover for me to play in case it rained—it did a little, but Oregonians take a vow not to complain. Behind me sat a vintage Porsche. Across the driveway, two roosters crowed between songs. And to my left, the river trickled along, blue and wide.
The garden lovers came in their floppy hats and sturdy shoes, enjoying the gardens made known only to those who buy tickets to the tour. As they walked up and down the paths, taking pictures and gathering the names of their favorite plants, I sent my music into the air. How lucky I felt to be there.
The annual garden tour raises funds for Samaritan House, the homeless shelter in Newport, Oregon. Down-on-their-luck families who move into the shelter not only get a place to sleep but receive help finding jobs and planning their futures so that they can soon move into their own homes.
This morning, I’m tired, my fingers are sore, and my elbow hurts, but I’m happy. It was totally worth it. Again.
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