Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How Can I Keep From Singing?


I have had a number of people ask for the text of the homily I delivered Sunday morning during the annual music service at The First Universalist Church Unitarian Universalist of Auburn, Maine. Here it is in its entirety. 

How many times have I heard: “I couldn’t carry a tune if it was strapped to me.” “You don’t want to hear me sing.”Or  “I can’t (or don’t) sing.”? There are many variations on this theme, but the net result is always the same. For one reason or another, every person who utters one of these phrases has been told (or convinced themself) to give up singing. I often hear such things when I encourage people to join the church choir. I’m just waiting for someone to quote Jarod Kintz from his book “Who Moved My Choose?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change by Deciding to Let Indecision Into Your Life.” He wrote: “I only sing in the shower. I would join a choir, but I don’t think my bathtub can hold that many people.”

It’s only been in the last 500 years or so in western culture, and mostly in the last 100 years, since the invention of recorded music, that the line between audience and performer has crept into our social consciousness. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that most extant aboriginal cultures use the same word to mean “to sing” as “to dance.”

Our ancestors would not have been without music, and before the radio, before the phonograph, if you wanted music it was performed live, and nearly everyone was a musician of some sort or another. They would gather around fires or in kitchens with voices and instruments and some lubricating beverages to play, sing, and dance. It was fun, it drew people together, it passed long winter nights, it celebrated weddings and births, and remembered departed souls.

Sea chanteys were invented and sung by sailors to synchronize hard work on ships, like the pulling of ropes, or spinning the capstan, before the machinery existed to automate those jobs. When we sing these songs now, we tend to clap in the places when the work would have happened.

We’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot, and we’ll all hang on behind.

The songs were infectious enough that the men would sing them after the work was done during the mugup below or in the pub onshore. They’d make up more verses, sometimes very humorous verses. I still sing some of those old songs in pubs, and people still sing along.

Today’s music service theme is our church’s mission: “Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by our diversity, we equip ourselves to minister through the transformative power of Love.” We recently lost a man who lived out a similar ministry. Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by the diversity of the entire human race, Pete Seeger equipped himself with banjo and voice to minister to us all through the transformative power of Love. Pete’s voice fell silent last week. He entertained us and got us singing for most of his 94 years. He gave us the gift of timeless songs: “Where have all the flowers gone, Long time passing, where have all the flowers gone, Long time ago…” He gave us questions to ponder: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” He called us to arms and told us to peacefully go forth and sing to change the world: “Well I have a hammer, and I have a bell, and I have a song to sing all over this land. It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom, it’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

Wendy Schuman asked Pete his views on religion. He said: "I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.

I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together." That’s exactly what he did when he got people to sing together.

That’s what I try to do. In some ways, Pete gave me my career. He was the archetype. He set an example which I and countless others hold up now. It’s the reason I am the choir director at this church. It’s the reason I write songs and feel compelled to shout them out. It’s the reason I remind people they can sing—they should sing. We all should sing. It’s the reason I sing old songs which are worth remembering and handing down again and again like prized family possessions.

The voice is the only instrument we all can play, the only instrument that is hidden inside of each one of us, the only truly organic instrument. When we are born, the first thing we do after taking our first breath is to make a sound with our voice—our innate instrument. The cry of a newborn baby is music, just as the twitter of birds, the rumble of thunder, the babble of a brook, or the silence of the dawn. Every sound—every vibration moving through the air which meets the ear is music. The sound of a mother’s voice to her baby is music. The purr of a cat in your lap is music. So is the slam of a door or the whistle, clickety-clack, and rumble of a train. All music.

In 1952 Composer, John Cage, wrote 4’33”. It’s a piano piece in which the performer takes the stage, sits at the piano and proceeds, stop watch in hand, to not play the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, at which point he closes the piano cover and exits the stage. Many people have mistakenly thought that the piece is about silence. It’s not. According to Cage, the music is the sounds of the audience: occasional coughs and sneezes, shifting in seats, the rattle of someone retrieving an item from a pocket, and so forth. The point is every sound is music, and if we accept the premise, then every voice sings.

Singing feels good. It’s good for us. It releases endorphins in the body. It makes us healthy and happy.

Let’s try something together. Let’s all take a slow, deep breath together, hold it for a couple of seconds and then slowly let it out by humming. This is not a recital, there is no wrong way to do this, so please just try it.

Did you feel that? That feeling of calm come over your entire body? That was a release of endorphins. It’s actually good for you. Laughing actually does the same thing (laughter is singing—it’s music).

OK, I admit it, some days I don’t feel like singing. Sometimes I don’t want to “go to work.” I don’t want to get in my car, drive to a pub, set up my equipment, and sing and play guitar. It’s a job after all. But after a few songs, after the audience starts to smile, clap, sing, and dance, I start to get into it. I start to become energized by the music, and suddenly I realize: I love this. I love doing this. I love making music, but most of all I love watching and hearing all those people singing timeless songs with me. And that is what places me in the great circle with countless other singers, the great circle that includes Pete Seeger; Woody Guthrie; Joan Baez; John, Paul, George, and Ringo; John Denver; my own father; and innumerable others who have stood on stage or in kitchens or in churches like this and encouraged a room full of people to join their voices together.

Stephen Sondheim said, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.” I certainly agree. When I sing, I feel like I am soaring. My troubles cannot follow me when I sing. It’s a true escape, but it’s an escape best shared. The shower is a wonderful place to sing, but that’s just the warmup. Be free with your breath, your voice, your music. Share it and feel the rewards it brings. Invite friends and family to your kitchen, tell them to bring guitars and fiddles, and start doing what we are wired at birth to do. Let’s start today, in this room, with our music service. Let’s enjoy the musical offerings this morning, and let them be the catalyst for a musical-spiritual experience.

Gangai Victor founder of the Indian Christian Blog, VotivePraise.com wrote: “It’s easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that’s worship!”

Let us worship.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cold Fall Rain

Quiet except raindrops,
The crackle of fire,
The chair creaks, straining under lazy weight.

Chill, the scent of fall in the air
Colors—orange, red, yellow
Mingle in flight, lighting on fields not yet fallowed by frost.

The world seems to slow,
Hot drink in a hand
The melancholy of fall rain envelops—

Steam in the nose rings the head
Pleasing and at once comforting
In the presence of the seasonal spirits.




Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Latest Song


Before anyone accuses me of taking sides, all I want to say is that I believe all politicians lie. Paul Ryan just has the misfortune of having done it recently and having a last name that rhymes loosely with "lying." All political songs have expiration dates, so enjoy while this is still funny….

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What the Republicans Should be Doing

If I listened long enough to you
I'd find a way to believe that it's all true
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried
Still I look to find a reason to believe
                         -from Reason to Believe, a song by Tim Hardin



Ronald Reagan was president during most of my formative years. I freely admit to admiring him as the Gipper. I came from a household of Reagan Democrats, though I didn't know that then. I really didn't know much about politics as a kid. It was not common dinner conversation in my house, and I was blissfully ignorant of the differences between Democrats and Republicans. It wasn't until the Iran-Contra hearings that I started paying attention. I remember watching Oliver North give days of testimony on TV, knowing that some bad stuff went down on Reagan's watch, then seeing the 40th President of the United States in the hot seat repeating his "I don't recall" mantra. Of course, knowing he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, that may have been true. Still I have never been a Reagan hater. I always liked the man as well as his successor, GHW Bush. I turned 18 during the first Bush presidency, though when I cast my first ballot in a presidential election it was for Bill Clinton. Of course during Clinton's presidency I was again enraptured with congressional hearings—this time not of arms for hostages, but discussions of what happened under the president's desk when the First Lady wasn't looking….proving to me once and for all that there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans and solidifying my status as an independent. Both sides are equally ready to screw with the other in order to be the dominant party. Throwing each other under the bus is just par for the course.

So here we are again, fourteen years after discussions of stained dresses and alternate uses for stogies, the RNC convention is going on in Tampa, Florida while the world watches; Mitt Romney has ascended to clench the top spot to run against the incumbent Democrat, Barack Obama for President of the United States. The economy is slowly returning after years of being beat to a pulp by the previous president, GW Bush, who famously thought the way to national prosperity was to remove regulation in order to allow business to flourish. Of course, what instead happens when regulations are removed is business will run rough-shod over the economy hoovering up every last dollar from every unattended wallet until businesses are fat and people are broke. Perhaps that was the intention. The Democrats would say it was. Romney is promising to undo everything President Obama has done if elected in order to "bring back the middle class," clearly missing the point. Obama is promising to continue trying to reinstate regulations in order to slowly pull money back out of the clenched fists of corporate interests and the crazy-wealthy in order to rebalance the distribution of wealth and reinvigorate the middle class.

There's only one problem with the promises of the candidates, only one of them is believable. President Obama has been doing what he says he's going to do. Mitt Romney's only experience as a public leader was as Governor of Massachusetts where he famously did at the state level most of what Mr. Obama has done as president, and now he's got to profess that he'll do the opposite if elected in order to make the constituents of GOP happy. He's not believable. The rank and file Republicans know this, but they are lining up behind Mr. Romney anyway under the assumption that, as a Republican, Mr. Romney will surely be better than what we have now. The only problem with that is there is no proof: no proof at all that the former Governor of Massachusetts will actually be effective as a leader. All he's done so far is impugn his own credibility by running away from his accomplishments in order to get the Republican nod. In other words, he appears to be a desperate man who will do or say anything to become president. And now that he's done/said what is required to become the Republican nominee, he is going to try to do that in the general election. The Republicans have a problem, and his name is Mitt Romney.

Of course, they could have elected to circle their wagons around Ron Paul, but the problem with Ron Paul is he is incorruptible. He will not say anything to be elected. He is willing to speak what he considers to be the hard truth, and no one wants that. Mind you, I do not agree with Mr. Paul on a lot of things, but I do believe he's a man of integrity. Mitt Romney clearly is not. And now the Republican party has even changed the rules of the convention to push Ron Paul out of any possible contention. If they did that the year Abraham Lincoln was nominated, we would have had a different 16th president. The Civil War may have had a different outcome (or never happened at all). The Republican Party should have let the rules be and should have played by them. Of course, the uncertainty of doing so was likely more than they could bear. The Grand Old Party has now shown itself to be spineless. I'm disappointed.

I think they need some help. I think they need some advice. I think they need to return to their core values as a party. Here's my advice to the GOP. Stop it. Stop ignoring fact. Stop pandering to religious interests. Stop listening to the ramblings of all those drooling, unstable Tea Party types. Stop being so stubborn. Admit it, there sometimes is good reason to raise taxes. Ronald Reagan knew that. He raised taxes. George HW Bush knew that, even after saying, "Read my lips: no new taxes," he was convinced he made a mistake by saying that and raised taxes. Of course, that very fact was one of the main reasons he was not re-elected, but it was a risk he was willing to take as an honorable patriot. The Republicans could use a few more like him.

My main bit of advice to the Republicans though, is to forget this election. Mitt Romney has already lost. Unless President Obama makes some dastardly error, Mitt Romney's dreams of becoming the next president are hopeless. The Republicans should concentrate their efforts on maintaining their majority in Congress and retaking the Senate. Don't waste another minute or dollar trying to get Mitt, whom the Republicans are lukewarm about anyway, elected. Line up behind the Republican congressional candidates and try to continue doing what has been done for the last two years, which is to say disrupt Washington, and ruin any chances Barack Obama has of being remembered by history as a great president. Actually, I was being a bit facetious with that last bit. If the Republicans do receive another chance to lead the congress, they should seize that opportunity to start forging compromise with the Democrats. As long as we are divided, the people of the United States are the one's who lose. One of the reasons Reagan was a successful president despite his troubles is because he worked with the Democrats when push came to shove. He didn't just disagree with them on principle. The current crop of Republican legislators will not do anything the President would like because they don't like him and don't want to see any success on his watch. Stop that too. It's not patriotic to be obstructionist for political purposes. Ron Paul has the right idea: speak the truth as you see it, even if it's an unpopular truth. If more candidates did that, our country would be better for it.

Finally, a bit of advice to the victors of this election, whether Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, Independent, or otherwise: you are being entrusted with the People's work. This is a sacred trust. Do well by us, or we'll vote your ass back out. We're sick of lying politicians. Don't be one. Learn to get along with each other. Your predecessors did it. You can too. If you can't figure it out, we will find someone who can. 

Friday, August 24, 2012


Someone posted this photo on a Facebook page of a conservative friend of mine to tweak his nose a little. I'm sick of this bull. This photo denigrates the symbiosis between our government which allows for profits (try that in a communist country) and corporations which are privately owned and perhaps doing work for the government (try that in a communist country). We can get all blustery about "I built my business with my own two hands, without government help," (which is sort of the other side of the coin this photo is referencing) but that's also not the point. The point is that only HERE is that even possible, regardless of which party is in power. The differences between Democrats and Republicans has been seriously overblown to create divisions, and we argue about picayune stuff, but in the final analysis, it doesn't matter. If there was a better place to be, most of us would have found it by now. We'll never agree on everything, but we're all Americans and we all benefit from what it means to be American. It's the checks and balances that make it work. Some of those checks and balances were put in place by liberals and some were put in place by conservatives. Suck it up. We're all in this together. What a stupid place we've arrived when we are arguing about who built a stadium. 

Oh, and by the way, more to the point—we built this. We built it all. Not just a stadium in Florida, but all of it. All 50 states. All the cities and all the towns in all the states. That didn't happen by arguing semantics. That happened by people of all stripes working together. I'm a moderate, which basically means I piss everybody off sometimes, but I have to say that when I was in school as a kid I didn't know liberal from conservative, and as an adult I'm astonished by all the bickering over little stuff. I have my own views, which I share when I think they will do good. My main view of the world is that regardless of who you are talking to, we have more in common than we don't. I don't understand the anger. It didn't exist 25 years ago when half my family could have been referred to as Reagan Democrats. Civility has been lost, and we've forgotten that we only became great because we worked together. It was not all wine and roses between our founding fathers, but they had a common goal to emancipate us from the crown. We have common goals now, but we fail to work together. Instead we quibble and question the integrity and patriotism of those who think differently, despite common goals (we mostly argue process, not outcome). That's wrong. That's unAmerican. Americans find the common ground and capitalize on it. That's what made us great. It wasn't conservative values or liberal values that made us great. It was the fact that we didn't let little things like ideology stand in the way of doing great things together. I fear that is lost now.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

It's Time…

The Blog—the epitome of new media to the extent that even its name is a new paradigm reduced from the combination of two words, web and log, neither of which do a single moment's justice to what they reference in their diminutive combination: BLOG. I'm not a writer by trade. I don't pretend to have pithy "Ideas worth sharing" (to quote those crazy TED types). I do have an opinion. One man's opinion. 

My good friend, Robert Skoglund, A.K.A the humble Farmer, famously said to me in a private message, "You write extremely well and should be contributing to a good newspaper on a regular basis." I thought he was kind to say this to a piker such as myself: a life-long moderate who is only truly bothered by extremism of all types and believes that there is a special corner in hell reserved for those who eschew the use of deodorant. I'm not a professional commentator. I'm not a journalist. I have no interest in elucidating anything, but I do hate the way communication in our modern world has been reduced to a collection of sound bites. I hate the way conservatives and liberals have religiously taken up their mantles, giving up the possibility of common ground as politically inexpedient, instead opting for division and derision: the fuel of the 24 hour news cycle. If you are looking for constant blathering on ad nausem topics aplenty from yours truly, I respectfully submit you've started reading the wrong blog. If you are looking for my opinion on a given topic of my choosing at the time I deign to write about it, fair reader, you've come to the right place.

This blog will be sporadic. This blog will be timely (at least when written). This blog will be fair. Most of all, this blog will happen whenever I damn well please, so don't come complaining to me when I haven't commented on the latest happenstance with the Olsen twins.

So to my good friend Robert, I say "thanks for the confidence. This is the best I can do." To the rest of you, I say "stay tuned." I'll get my undergarments in a knot sooner than later and will feel a need to express my feelings in prose. When that happens, I'll post it here first. Then I will let all my Facebook friends and Twitter followers know via a very self-congratulatory post. In the meantime, don't hold your breath. Great art takes time, and nothing I write here will qualify to be "great art." My next post may not happen until sometime after the fall of the Jamaican Empire (oh, it will happen, don't you worry, man), but if it does, you'll be among the first to know.