Monday, August 19, 2013

Musings at the UUA Musicians Conference

Angel deArmendi, UUCT’s music director, recently attended the Unitarian Universalist Musician's Network National Conference in Dallas.  He shares his reflections on that experience in the following blog.

It is 5:30 p.m.  All the buses have left for the hotel.  I stayed behind at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas to be able to play the beautiful Steinway grand piano in the Sanctuary.  It is Thursday.  I have not touched a piano since Sunday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee. The days have been crammed with countless workshops, choir rehearsals, plenary sessions, long classes.  I will forgo dinner to enjoy some privacy at the church. I want to practice the Intermezzo I will be playing for worship tomorrow to hundreds of UU Music Directors from all over the U.S. and Canada.  

“Around springtime, the Mexicans show up at first light to plant fresh flower beds all around the mansions of Highland Park.  The rich folks in Dallas want to enjoy a little springtime of their own even if by sunset the flowers are burnt.  It does not matter, the Mexicans will return the next day to plant fresh flowers; it is something you get used to when you live around here”. 

The organ starts rumbling.  I turn around just to see who is up there, and the FUCD Music Director waves.  He knows I am playing the Brahms tomorrow—his favorite piece—but he has to practice.  He is playing the postlude for the Saturday service.  The Sanctuary  looks a bit stiff with its long pews, but very spacious.  Did I just spot another Steinway in the choir alcove? Yes, it is definitely there in all its glory— five paces from the organ.  Two Steinways sit quietly while the organ is blasting away and I have no chance at either of them. 

“Have you tried the cupcake ATM?, cupcakes galore 24/7!”

The map by the entrance of the elevator shows a chapel by the side entrance. I check to see if they have a better piano over there, it is a chapel after all.  The door is locked; maybe that lady I passed by in the hall has keys.  Yes, she does.  It is a small chapel, intimate and austere… with an electronic keyboard in the corner.  Almost anachronistic, I always thought that chapels were more “traditional.” Well, it is almost 6:30, time to head back to the Sanctuary to practice the Brahms.  My stomach starts to growl. 

“Christmas is my favorite season in Highland Park.  The houses and trees are all lit up with lights, up to the tree tops.   Are you wondering how they get up there?  Well, you can earn $30,000 putting lights for just one house.”

Oh my, the church was empty but where did all these children come from?  They are all running to the apse, where  the other grand piano sits, about to be played by a lady who is announcing that the rehearsal will go on until 7:30. “We have just one hour, so let’s start.” she says.

“I really like it here, my father is English and my mother is Mexican.  I happen to have the Mexican look, which sometimes bothers me.  When I go shopping, occasionally employees tell me the delivery entrance is out back but I tell them I am a customer and they leave me alone.” 

It is 7:30; the choir rehearsal has just ended.  I am walking in with determination.  I have to practice the Intermezzo.  I suspect the acoustics are not the best with all the carpeting on the floor.   John Hubert, a Music Director from Colorado walks in and greets me. He is about to set up for the Singing Meditation service at 8:00 p.m., and asks if I want a program.  I give up and say yes.  Tomorrow will be another day.  I am exhausted from being up since 6:00 a.m., and very hungry. 

The service starts and the chanting is a balm to both my body and spirit.  I lose myself in the experience with a new-found thirst, and I let go of all the conversations about money and consumerism, about thousands of SUV’s parked outside, about George W. Bush’s neighborhood.  During the love offering, I light a candle to my mother.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Not Holier Than Thou

There are times when being a minister brings an abrupt halt to all conversation.  One of those times is when someone swears.  It goes something like this, “Expletive!”  Long pause, while speaker looks at me —often with a sheepish grin —“Sorry, I shouldn’t swear in front of a minister,” the guilty person apologizes.

Now, of course, all eyes are on me and it’s my turn to hit just the right note of saintliness. I’ve tried making a weak joke, something on the order of  “You’re forgiven…this time.”  I’ve ventured a brief version of the theological constructs suggesting that clergy shares a simple humanity with everyone else.  I haven’t yet tried responding, with a dead pan:  “That’s okay, I swear like a sailor myself.”

The truth, of course, is that I do swear, because I share humanity and basic biology with every other human being on the planet.  Nearly every language contains a compendium of swear words.  Swearing shares traits across those languages.  The two major categories for swearing remain constant:  they usually relate to deity or to body parts and bodily functions. For example, fans of the movie Gone with the Wind will remember the famous line Clark Gable uttered as he turned his back on the plantation.  “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”

This is, of course, a short version of the epithet which calls upon the deity to destroy forever ones foe.  Skipping across the generations to another memorable movie scene, those who absorbed the dark humor of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, may also remember the one word that echoed through the canyon as Butch and Sundance jumped off the cliff to the river below. (Sh---t). A third category of swearing relates to relatives.  I’ll let you recall an example of that on your own.

I swear, but, like many of you, I try not to let loose in public very often.  I do my really good swearing when I’ve botched up a project I’m working on, or when I’ve managed to slice my finger instead of the loaf of bread, or when I’ve just had it and “I can’t take it anymore.”  Oh, and especially when a computer destroys a half-written sermon, or otherwise makes my life miserable.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that most researchers think women swear less than men, and only a few posit the theory that women may swear as much as men —but, in more specific situations.  I was surprised to read that women swear in groups of women as a sign of trust. I can confirm that women swear more easily in a group of women.  I’d always thought of that swearing as a sign of feeling free from a male-dominated culture. I’d never thought of it as a signal of the bonding with the group.

Which brings us to the question of what purpose swearing serves— which also begs the question of whether good people, or those who are presumed to be saintly (like ministers), should pursue a cultural taboo against all swearing.  Brain biology suggests that swearing will always be with us.  Swear words are remembered and processed differently than other language.  The words themselves are remembered as whole units, and they are processed in the lower regions of the brain devoted to emotion and instinct. Some studies show that people who’ve suffered brain damage that left them aphasic (unable to talk) can still swear.**

It’s good to know that someday when my brain has dwindled to the size of a walnut, and when someone apologizes for swearing in front of a minister, I won’t have to search for a witty or forgiving response, I might just swear back at ‘em.

** Tracy Wilson, How Swearing Works, Accessed August 2009.