Playing the Funeral Circuit

Why is it that as soon as I sink into a hot bubble bath I get ideas? But for you, I got out, tracked water and bubbles all over my carpet and passed by my window naked—hi neighbor!—to get this down because God forbid I relax when there’s an idea buzzing around my head. Here goes.

Most of you know I’m a musician. I sing, play piano and guitar and write the occasional song. I have played here, there and everywhere, but these days, in addition to playing the Masses at Sacred Heart Church, I play the funeral circuit. Most of your major showbiz performers play clubs, fairs and concerts, but funerals? Not so much. Me, I check the obits as soon as the newspaper arrives so I can plan my life.

I always hope nobody I know has died. Beyond that, I hope nobody Catholic has died. Lots of people in our rural coastal community are not having services these days. It’s expensive, their families live elsewhere, and who needs all that commotion? Many others opt for non-church functions, such as potlucks, barbecues and other gatherings at local lodges, restaurants, or people’s homes. I have played for funerals/celebrations of life at community centers and funeral homes, for the religious and the nonreligious, but with my music minister job, most of my funerals are Catholic. I always feel relieved when I read that the Baptists, Presbyterians or Lutherans are taking care of things.

I  usually have only a few days to plan, especially if there’s going to be a body in a casket instead of ashes in an urn. We start with a phone call. I’m always nervous about talking to the recently bereaved. I’m afraid they’re going to fall apart, but most of the time they’re calm and just want to take care of things.

Ideally, they either have a list of songs they have picked out from the church hymnal or they let me pick the songs. We have a pretty standard list to work with. Frequently, they want the dreaded “Ave Maria.” It’s a gorgeous song. I want it at my funeral, too, but it’s a bear to play, so I never suggest it. I cannot sing it and play it at the same time, and I have been saddled with soloists who come in at the last minute. It’s not always pretty. I still feel bad about the guy whom I assured I would lower the pitch and I forgot. That poor fellow was hurting trying to get those high notes out.

Sometimes they want a choir, sometimes just me singing, sometimes no singing at all. Whatever. I’m easy. Although the next time somebody wants me to play “Wagon Wheels” on my guitar at a funeral, I think I’ll decline. Or “You’ll Never Know.” Scratch that one, too.

I just did a funeral in Waldport at a tiny church that is not my own with a priest whose ways I did not know. The people planning it picked songs out of the air that I was sure the priest would veto. Nope. This priest is easy-going. I hit musicnotes.com, downloaded the songs and was half-way to learning them when the person arranging the funeral changed the song list. Yikes. “Wind Beneath My Wings” in church? Really? Okay. First time in history the bread and wine were consecrated to a Bette Midler hit.

Like mortuary workers, you have to have a funeral wardrobe to play the funeral circuit. Black is still the standard. I own a lot of black slacks, skirts, shirts, jackets and sweaters. In other performing situations, you go for the bling, but not at funerals. No sequins, red scarves, or sassy hats. The folks in the pews may wear anything from jeans to black cocktail dresses, but my job is to be invisible.

In a standard Catholic funeral Mass, I play about 12 pieces of music, including four or five full-length songs and various Mass parts such as the psalm, gospel acclamation, and Holy, Holy. Before the Mass, I play instrumentals for about 15 minutes, all songs designed to console the bereaved. Then the Mass starts with its usual sitting standing kneeling sitting kneeling bowing sign of the cross aerobics while the non-Catholics sit looking confused.

Funerals are naturally emotional. People may be crying, sobbing, fighting to hold back tears, or grabbing for the Kleenex box in the front row. More often than you might expect, they are calm, especially if the person who died was old and had been sick for a long time. The worst funeral I ever played was for a 21-year-old man who died of a brain tumor. His hysterical fiancée had to be taken outside, and the front rows were filled with sobbing young men. I struggled to keep my eyes on the sheet music and think about anything but death.

There’s usually at least one baby ratcheting from giggles to tears and back to giggles or a toddler running up and down the aisles. That’s okay. It helps us all know that life goes on. And yes, somebody’s cell phone inevitably goes off during the service.

Family members giving the eulogies nearly always choke up, which causes the rest of us to do likewise. I get teary, too, missing the person who died if I knew him or thinking about my own loved ones who have died or may die soon. I also get the willies when there’s a casket, usually placed very close to the piano. I start picturing the body inside.

When my husband died (five years ago this month), I sat in the front row while my choir and his friends from the barbershop chorus sang. I was dying to jump up and join the music, but my dad was next to me giving me the sit-and-be-quiet look. I would much rather be the musician than the bereaved. I don’t want a front row seat for that show.

The funeral circuit isn’t so bad. My name is on the program, I get paid, and sometimes at the reception afterward, I get cake. But if you’ve got a gig where I don’t have to wear black, I’m available.

 

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Tucson Festival a Writer’s Dream

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Books, books, book. Miles and miles of books. That was the Tucson Festival of Books, held at the University of Arizona campus March 12 and 13. Sun so bright we grabbed hand lotion and free visors at a dermatology booth. I never saw so many booths dedicated to books and authors. It was like a state fair that was all books instead of cows, quilts, corn dogs, and food processors. Oh, there were booths for community organizations and lots of food you could eat in a big tent where a woman with boots and a cowboy hat and frilly dress sang Patsy Cline songs and yodeled. But it was mostly books. Readings here, talks there, services for authors and books to buy everywhere. Nothing I’ve seen in Oregon is that big.

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Workshop leaders David Gessner, Luis Alberto Urrea, Bryn Chancellor, Joshua Mohr, and Lynn Cullen

I was in Arizona last week because an essay I entered in a contest won me a place in the master’s workshop attached to the festival. Two full days of lectures, workshops and readings, of bonding with my little nonfiction group and our leader, author David Gessner. It was held in a place on campus called the Poetry Center. A poetry center? Yes. A whole library full of poetry books and books about poetry and poets, a breezeway where we ate the most delicious sandwiches at lunchtime, a comfortable auditorium where we heard readings and talks, and classrooms where we hashed over each others’ manuscripts.

The University of Arizona Poetry Center, housed in the Helen S. Schaefer Building, includes a rare book room, a children’s program called Poetry Joeys, a collection of recordings made by visiting poets, and a Poet’s Cottage where visiting writers can stay. The center hosts readings and lectures, poetry discussions, workshops, and more. When I walked into that place, I thought, “If I could work here, I would gladly live in Tucson.” I’m not moving, but wow. I found a place where everybody speaks my language.

Most people I meet don’t “get” poetry. If it doesn’t rhyme, it isn’t poetry, right? Read poetry for fun? Are you crazy? You’re a poet? What does that mean? Bookstores and libraries rarely allot more than a shelf or two to poetry, but there is so much more.

Why is my MFA in creative nonfiction if I’m so fond of poetry? I wrote poetry first, but a girl has to make a living. I think essays and poetry live on the same spectrum of storytelling. Some essays are poetic and some poems feel like little essays. They’re all magic to me.

IMG_20160316_121740352It wasn’t all words this trip. I was blessed to be able to stay at the home of my late husband’s cousin Adrienne and her husband John, both delightful people I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. They volunteer at the symphony store in the lobby at the Tucson Music Hall. The night I arrived, they took me with them. I helped sell CDs and music-related items such as earrings shaped like treble clefs and mugs, bags, scarfs, etc. We also got to hear the music, which included the Tucson Symphony and guest artists The Mambo Kings. Fun! The day after the workshop, Adrienne and I toured the marvelous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which was loaded with cactus, critters and kids on spring break. And in the warm evenings, we dined in the patio and had great talks.

Then it was time to come home. It was 80 degrees in Tucson. When the captain on the plane announced that it was 43 degrees in Portland, Oregon, people groaned. The Oregonians laughed. Back to hoodies and raincoats with new books to read while the rain pours down outside.

Who’s Calling Me from Prison?

Last month, I started getting messages on a phone number I rarely used. Same female voice, same words. It sounded like “f— you.” Could also have been “thank you” or “press 2.” All through the Christmas season, even though my outgoing message explained who I was (and wasn’t), they kept calling. The ringer on this phone, which was connected to my cell phone company and which I used only to make long distance calls, wasn’t loud enough to hear if I wasn’t in the same room. The reception was terrible out here in the woods, but I was stuck on a two-year plan that the company wouldn’t let me out of. Anyway, I kept getting those messages. Finally one day, I answered it in time to hear “This is the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. An Inmate is trying to reach you. Press 1 if you will accept the call.”

I didn’t know anybody in prison, didn’t even know where that particular prison was. If I could reach a human, I could explain that they had the wrong number. As I hesitated, the computer hung up on me. The next day, I got a different recording that asked me to punch in my authorization number, which I guess I would have had if I knew somebody inside. When I didn’t respond properly, the computer hung up again.

Another series of F.U. messages followed over the next week until on Christmas Eve I got a message with a name, Joshua D., and an 866 number. I wrote it down. They’d been preaching at church about mercy. Should I call Joshua to wish him a merry Christmas and tell him he’s calling the wrong number?

I didn’t call. The phone stopped ringing. No more F.U. messages. But I couldn’t throw away the note with Joshua’s number. I pictured a young guy in prison clothes, eyes filled with sadness and anger, nobody to talk to at Christmas. All I really knew about prisons was what I saw on the screen. Orange is the New Black. Chicago. That movie about the nun who opposed capital punishment. In those pictures, the criminals were always good people who got into trouble. Even the murderers and drug dealers loved their mothers and sisters, right?

I kept thinking about Joshua, wondering if he was waiting anxiously for a call from whoever I was supposed to be. I looked up Coffee Creek. It’s near Wilsonville, Oregon. Did you know you can Google prisoners online and get their vital statistics, charges and status? You can. After much clicking, I found a Joshua D., age 32. He was charged with possession of controlled substances. He had a shaved head and bags under his eyes. Status: released.

So, that’s that. If this had gone on longer, I might have called. The reporter in me would be too curious to let it go. But now we’ll never talk.

My two-year contract for the lousy landline finally ran out. Last week I disconnected that  phone and that number. But I keep thinking I hear it ring. I still want to know if she was really saying “f— you.”

If I Wanted to Slide Down a Hill, I’d Buy a Toboggan

I prefer my ice cubed and floating in a drink, but that’s not what I see this Sunday morning. As music leader for the 8:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, I need to leave the house by 7:30. I’m ready by 7:15, but it’s still dark. My indoor-outdoor thermometer tells me it’s 53 degrees inside and 30 degrees outside. This makes me nervous.

At 7:30, I see a glimmer of daylight. Time to go. I know this trip is going to be tricky when I set my foot on the sidewalk to walk to the garage, and it slides—the foot, not the garage, although in view of recent events, that could happen, too. I walk on the grass, say a prayer and back the car out at 1 mph. Okay . . . now down the road, make the turn, make the next turn. Whoa! The road to the highway slants downhill. Suddenly I’m flying. Press the brakes. Crunching sound, no stopping. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Here comes the highway. Can’t see whether anyone is coming, but I am. I can’t stop.

I spin out onto the road, chanting Oh God, oh God, oh God. Nobody else is fool enough to be there. I right myself and aim the car north toward Newport. Everywhere I look is a sheet of ice. Living here on the Oregon Coast, we get used to looking for patches of black ice. It’s all black ice. It’s a skating rink with not a Zamboni in sight. Just get me into town, Lord, just get me into town. Please don’t make the stoplight red, it’s green, whew, cross the bridge, now I’m in town, still icy, going slow, going very slow. Oh God, I have to stop and turn left into the church. Parking lot is sheer ice. I land in a spot next to Father Palmer’s car. Shut off the engine and send up a thank you prayer. My hands are shaking. My whole body is shaking as I hold onto the car and inch my way to the back door of the church.

The church is nearly empty. I’m surprised that I have three brave singers for the early Mass. All everybody is talking about is ice. I’m thinking I might stay in town until it thaws, whether that’s in a day or six months. Over coffee and donuts between Masses, I mention to the burly guy serving that I have chains in the car. Maybe I should put them on for the return trip. Won’t do any good, he says. I have four-wheel drive, I say. Useless with ice, he says.

Okay. Shoot. A person can’t even walk home because the sidewalks are, to use a popular local saying, “slippery as snot.”

Meanwhile, choir members for the 10:30 Mass are texting en masse. Not coming, too much ice. I prepare to do a solo act. But two singers do come, two good ones, both from my neighborhood. The roads are slightly better, and the sand trucks have been around.

I keep asking the usher if he’ll go defrost the parking lot. Not his job. But it turns out there are bags of sand in the gift shop. Somebody pours the sand around. So far, no broken hips.

The Mass is good, the music is good, but all I can think about is the ice. How will I get home? How will I get up that hill I slid down? Oh God, my cell phone is now saying we’re going to have sleet. It’s snowing in Portland. Wasn’t it enough punishment to have 26 inches of rain in December, almost an inch a day? God have mercy. I’m from California.

On the way home, the roads are not so shiny. Plus there’s a layer of sand. But it’s only up to 32 degrees, and something wet is falling on my window. All I can think is get home and stay there. Defrost the dog, eat lunch, build a fire and hibernate until spring.

For the last two days, when Annie and I walked our wilderness trail, the ground was oddly crunchy. Ice crystals everywhere. The dirt caved underfoot. All the puddles left over from the rain had frozen. I touched one to see how solid it was. Annie jumped on it with both feet. It cracked into shards, like broken glass. I’ll bet it’s still there, but the puppy and I are not hiking today. We’re staying in and drinking something with ice cubes, which is how ice should be formed at all times. Note that as I slid past Hoover’s Bar at 7:44 a.m., I saw several cars in the parking lot, no doubt locals getting ice in its proper form.

A day later, the ice is gone, and the temperature is up to 39 degrees when I get up. Hallelujah. Unfortunately, other parts of Oregon are still iced in. Oregon weather is always interesting.

God be with you, whatever weather you’re having where you live. Do you have weather stories to share? Feel free to add them in the comments.

 

We pause between holiday church music marathons

Whoever decided to put Christmas on a Friday was not thinking about church musicians who would be thrust into a marathon that would leave them with shredded voices, weary fingers, and monotonous Christmas carols playing endlessly in their heads. Four days in a row of church music! This week we get to repeat the exercise with Masses for New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Saturday vigil and then Sunday. If this doesn’t get us into heaven, nothing will.

Unfortunately, we have a memorial service this Wednesday right in the middle of it all. Tom Taylor, a longtime choir member and wonderful human being, died suddenly last Monday of a stroke. He and his wife Sally were getting ready to head to Washington to spend Christmas with their children. She went out for a little while, came back and found him on the floor. We will miss Tom terribly, and we hurt for Sally. It’s definitely a lesson that we never know when God will call “Time!” and all the earthly stuff we put ourselves into a dither about won’t matter.

I won’t be at the service. I’m having an endoscopy, a procedure in which the doctor sends a little camera down my throat into my guts to see what’s going on in there. I’m thinking he’ll find a pile of musical notes, with the edges of all those sharp notes poking my stomach.

Meanwhile, back in California, my family saw the advantage of having a judge living in the house. On Christmas Day, my brother the judge performed a marriage ceremony for his son and his fiancée right there in the living room. Total surprise to most of the family. Congratulations, William and Courtney.

Christmas wasn’t so happy for some families living at the north end of our little town of Newport. With the ground saturated by record-setting rainfall (25 inches so far just in December), portions of two houses slid into the ravine behind them, and several others may slide off, too. The residents of the damaged and endangered homes were evacuated with no chance to grab anything or make any plans. Luckily, no one was hurt. These houses are across the street from a friend’s house. I saw them on Christmas Day. Wow. Again, you never know when everything will change in an instant.

All those Masses were exhausting. So many songs, with a varying cast of singers who may or may not have known the songs when they arrived. Sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, chanting, praying, communions, collections. Red and green clothing everywhere. Between Masses, gifts, wrapping paper, ribbons, cookies, chocolate truffles, bourbon balls, singing the same songs again and again, hearing them on the radio, on the TV, in the stores. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, elves on shelves, lines at the gift exchange counter.

Then bam, it’s over and we’re back to walking the dog in the rain and hoping the money lasts until the end of the year—which is this week! For some, the events of the last two weeks have changed their lives forever. For most of us, we’ll be trying to shake “Jingle Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” until Valentine’s Day and trying to get back on our diets to lose the extra pounds we’ve gained.

One more good thing happened recently. A new book called Biting the Bullet: Essays on the Courage of Women came out on Dec. 19. It includes an essay of mine titled “Tubes.” You might want to buy a copy.

I hope your holidays have been happy and full of blessings, and that 2016 is a fantastic year for all of us. Feel free to share your holiday experiences in the comments.

Native American party shows true meaning of generosity

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In this season when people seemed to be obsessed with gifts and kids are encouraged to makes lists for Santa Claus demanding all the things they want, an event last weekend showed me the joy of giving and receiving in a whole other way.

The occasion was my friend and fellow author Dorothy Black Crow Mack’s 80th birthday party. She had what she called a peschelt, more commonly known to us white folk as a potlatch. Instead of receiving lots of gifts, the honoree gives gifts to her guests.

We gathered at the Newport Visual Arts Center. As I walked in, I saw Dorothy in a black sweater with a big red sun in the middle, a long black skirt and bright red socks. A red bandanna barely held back her waist-long hair. The guests, a mix of Native American friends, poets, artists, quilters, and family from all over Oregon and across the country, stood in line to hug Dorothy.

Chairs were arranged in a circle around the room. Framed William Stafford poems sat on the edges of the windows, which overlooked Nye Beach. The ocean was wild and frothy from recent storms.

Stretched across the room were blankets covered with brightly colored scarves, tablecloths, pillows, and more blankets. White candles flickered in the middle. Clearly Dorothy had been doing a lot of sewing.

Tables were laden with all kinds of food, including fry bread, dips, salmon, beef, salads, desserts, rice, puff pastry and more.

Spiritual leader Johnny Moses blessed the food and burst into song. Others joined him. They banged drums and rang bells. This first of many songs was repetitive and easy to catch the melody if not the words. It went on a while, sometimes very soft, sometimes surprisingly loud, with a hypnotic feeling. A woman across from me raised her hands up like they do in some Christian churches and rocked, eyes closed as she sang.

After we ate, the giveaway began. Dorothy and chosen people distributed the gifts to everyone. You could not refuse. Soon we were all sitting with stacks of pillows, tablecloths, scarves, oranges and chocolates.

When they got down to the blankets, Dorothy picked up one end of the first one and mutual friend Teresa Wisner picked up the other. Several people fell in line behind them. They paraded around the room three times before wrapping the blanket around a chosen person. Music played the whole time, the drums, the chanting, the bells. After each awarding of a blanket, the men roared in a low voice, and the women answered in a high yipping call. They did this many times, I’d guess 10, until the blankets were gone. I received the final blanket, gray, brown, and white striped. I felt honored with a connection that needed more than words to express.

Several people were chosen as “witnesses.” A $20 bill was pinned to their shirts. They got up and talked about Dorothy. Meanwhile, Dorothy held a basket. We all lined up and circled the room to drop money in the basket for Dorothy. I wish I had known to bring more cash.

It was a reverent, loving occasion that made my Mass at Sacred Heart afterward feel flat and mechanical. People sit in their pews and do nothing. At the peschelt, everyone was singing, dancing, and giving. No one was allowed to just watch. No one demanded what they wanted. They accepted what they were given with gratitude.

I never felt so white. Back in San Jose, I went to a lot of Mexican and Portuguese fiestas, but that was a whole different thing. I’m beginning to realize that my heritage may be Latina and Iberian, but I was raised fully in the Anglo culture. It takes more than knowing a few words of the language.

It occurred to me that I was descended from the people who took the Native Americans’ lands and lives. Yet here I was sitting with a pile of gifts on my lap. So much love.

Dorothy is a gringa by birth, but she married a Lakota medicine man and lived on a reservation for many years. She adopted the culture as her own. As a sister writer, she has been my teacher and critique partner for a long time. Her novel The Handless Maiden: A Lakota Mystery came out this year. It is so good, and there are more books to come. People like Dorothy are a gift to us all.

I feel like I already had my Christmas.

Dear readers, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a new year full of blessings. As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

The ‘Gilmore Girls’ ate my weekend

I awaken to rain pattering on the roof and gushing over gutters full of gunk. It’s 7 a.m. and still dark. I turn the radio on. Politics. Weather. Highs in the 40s, lows in the 30s. Rain continuing forever. I groan and burrow back under the covers. But I have to go to the bathroom. I see in the mirror that my eyelids are swollen and my hair barely resembles hair. It’s 59 degrees in the house because the pellet stove quit during the night. Christmas and music materials are scattered everywhere I look. The dog staggers in, stretching. She’s hungry. I cross yesterday off the calendar and declare today Saturday the Sequel. I need another day of weekend to catch up.

You see, I’ve been on a binge. No, not on booze or drugs, but on “Gilmore Girls.” It’s a TV show that ran from 2000 to 2007 about the lives of single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory, who live in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. I never saw it the first time around. Thanks to Netflix, I have now watched all 153 episodes, inhaling the last 22 in the last week. It was my guilty pleasure. Almost harmless, compared to drinking, overeating, or online shopping. Or is it? The show is in my head all the time, and I find myself talking in Rory’s voice. I’m losing touch with reality.

It started innocently enough. Back before I had the streaming service, I ordered one DVD to see if I would like the show. I loved it. I ordered the rest of the first season. There was some control then. I could only have two DVDs at a time, plus there were decent new shows on TV to watch, instead of today’s reality shows, holiday specials, and dramas full of murders and monsters. But one day I decided I couldn’t wait and signed up for the streaming service.

Watching on my laptop was cumbersome. It took forever to boot up, the battery lasted about a minute, and my Wi-Fi at the time was flaky. Still, it was “Gilmore Girls.” A few months ago, I changed my Wi-Fi service. It became quick and reliable. And then, I bought myself a Kindle Fire HD. I could curl up on the loveseat with Annie, hold the tablet in my hand and watch one episode after another. The picture was clear, the sound brilliant, and Netflix didn’t allow much time to say no. An episode would end, then 5-4-3-2-1, the next one started. Oh well, I’ll watch another one, I’d tell myself, singing along with the theme song, Carole King’s “Where You Lead.”

Last night, I watched the finale. I had to know what was going to happen, and I had to get off the Gilmore binge. It’s like eating the last chocolate candy and swearing not to eat anymore. The show ended well. I cried. Afterward, I Googled everything I could find about the show and its cast. Netflix is planning to make a reunion show, four 90-minute episodes. But do I want that? All the actors will be older, and the magic won’t be there. Plus, I‘ll have to watch it all, every minute. It’s like somebody bringing me a cake the week I start my diet.

What is it about “Gilmore Girls” that attracts me? The same thing I found in previous binges with “Little House on the Prairie,” “Thirtysomething” and other shows. It’s a comforting substitute for real life. While I suspend all responsibilities, I move into a community where all the people are beautiful, no one is ever alone or without help, and you know there’s going to be a happy ending. It’s not raining day after day in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. There are no terrorists. Everybody who wants a job finds one. All babies are born healthy. Love is everywhere. Sure, there are misunderstandings, but they always get resolved. Who wouldn’t want to live there? There’s even a guitar-playing troubadour. That could be me. Or maybe I could work at the Dragonfly Inn with Sookie and Lorelai. Or on the Stars Hollow Gazette. Yes, I could be the editor.

Ah, but it’s over now. I can watch all the episodes again, but now I know what happens. Netflix suggested some other shows, but they would not be the same.

I could tell myself I’m studying these shows to help my writing. Sure. Just like eating that red velvet cake in my fridge helps my cooking.

What will I binge on next? Well, I played about 20 rounds of Spider Solitaire after I watched Lorelai and Rory ride into the sunset. Had to keep playing until I won. I’m a binge-y kind of woman.

But no. I’m done. The house is a shambles. When I wasn’t watching Gilmores, I was playing Advent and Christmas music at church and other places.  I have songs to learn for this week at church, Christmas presents to wrap, cards to finish, clothes to wash, rooms to clean, bills to pay, and a dog to walk. I hereby declare it Saturday. Again.

What’s your guilty pleasure? What grabs hold of you and won’t let go?