me + the piano + (Obscura’s) church, or: Uncertain ground
Moving back has surprised me in one key respect. Dad has abandoned regular church-going. He says the new sound system at church interferes with his hearing aid, but I suspect the decisive reason is that Flower doesn’t go. She’s not baptized and doesn’t believe in (a) G-d. Dad always did church as half of a couple or father of a family, and I think he doesn’t know how to do it as a single. I was also initially surprised that he isn’t dating someone from church (there are plenty of options), but I think I get it.
I find the sudden non-presence of church in my life here, beyond making sure that we make the weekly donation, disorienting. But I confess that I don’t miss being there — apart from the residual religious aggravation, it’s a place where I can’t stop myself thinking about mom. My grief still hovers surprisingly close to the surface. I struggle to tame it when it bursts through. Church was really “her place.”
Something’s jumped in fill the hole, though. Obscura‘s son, Showbiz, is an accomplished singer and sometimes sings at their church. Lately, she’s asked me to accompany him, once for a funeral and this morning, for morning services.
It’s a bit a of a shaky surface for me to stand on. I spent much of my childhood and youth in a particular church, but Obscura’s church doesn’t feel like a church to me. (She’s heard this from me before, so you don’t need to jump to her defense.) It has the traditional architecture, but it’s a very low church kind of place (using the Anglican term loosely here as it’s not an Episcopal church). Her father was usher this morning and he wore shorts. There’s almost no liturgy in the sense of a regular order of service at all. The language of the service has all been updated and seems (although gender-sensitive) at times brutally unpoetic to me. The pastor is very crunchy.
In a way, this very concrete way of doing church makes it easier for me to be there. I can sing one of mom’s favorite hymns
and not tear up, because all the words have changed. “Without our aid he did us make” is now “he formed us all without our aid” and “approach with joy his courts unto” is now “with joy approach the temple walls.” I get a little jolted when they say “debts” and “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer instead of “trespasses” and “those who trespass against us,” as well. They say “The peace of the Lord be with you,” but it feels weird in this context to say “and also with you” in reply. “You too” and “good morning!” seem to be the standard phrases. Passing the peace is for some reason one of the most uncomfortable moments in the Christian liturgy. It seems to work at this church because almost everyone knows everyone else and has for decades.
It’s church, but somehow none of my church behaviors apply. I said to Obscura’s mom this morning, “So I see you can wear shorts to church here” and she said, “Why can’t you?” and I said, “I hear my mother’s voice.” I wore jeans and a black shirt which would have felt rebellious at “our church” — but not here. I’d have to work awfully hard to feel rebellious in Obscura’s church. Although I do sense they could get into doctrinal fights, it would probably be about which is the best flavor of soup to choose at their annual soup fundraiser. Chili with noodles, or without? And the youth group would still sell out of all their entire supply.
The other surprising aspect of this is the accompaniment part. I used to play the piano well enough to be paid to accompany voice majors at recitals in college, but it’s been a long time. I haven’t played regularly since 1993 and I hadn’t touched a piano in quite a while before January. I had thought I might play here more often, but our piano is in such a state of disrepair that I need to schedule a major intervention. Obscura’s church lost their organist a while back and I offered half-seriously to help out, but I didn’t anticipate she would take me up on it.
Piano is connected with church, in that I’d been accompanying various musical groups there, too, since I was twelve or so. So in a way, sitting in a church, waiting to play an accompaniment, either near the front of the sanctuary, or at the side of the altar, is a solid return to things I did regularly until I was eighteen but not much after. Most synagogues I’ve attended don’t have instrumental or choral music during services. You halfway listen to the sermon (Obscura’s pastor is not an impressive homileticist, unfortunately) but you’re thinking about that accidental in the introduction and trying to remember that you’re going to ignore the fermata on the third line and accelerate the accompaniment just slightly to get the vocalist through it quickly because the note right on his passagio and you don’t know what will happen to it if he’s marooned there for more than a second. Momentum. The whole shape of the song. And so on. It holds my attention more actively than Na’aman’s long-forgotten leprosy. Though I laugh when the pastor mentions that all of ancient Israel was smaller than Lake Michigan.
There’s nothing stressful here, either, behind the piano, under the vocalist. Showbiz does not have the typical anxious, needy vibe of many youth vocalists; like his mother, he doesn’t take himself very seriously and lacks the perfectionist streak that I had as a musician at that age. I’m almost envious. Obscura finds me sheet music in keys friendly to the less adventurous pianist and the church has a transposing piano, so if I wanted, I could play everything in the key of C. Public domain accompaniments usually don’t have harmonically complex arrangements so I’m basically just covering I – IV – V7 combinations. “Accidentals cost money,” I said jokingly to Showbiz this morning. He is not moved; he has a better ear than the average seventeen-year-old I’ve met.
It’s not bad. It’s just weird. My fingers shake a little. My attention is all over the place. It’s not steady ground, not yet. Which makes me wonder if it ever was, if I just ignored all of the indices of insecurity around me, three decades ago. Obscura’s mom says “you’re a real professional” and I think about that — if it’s just, in the end, about ignoring all the noise.
Perhaps the most surprising thing to me is that I can still sight read. Still. That amazed me. A postcard from the 90s: perhaps not all that I have neglected for so long has been irretrievably lost.