Virtual Choir

As I listen to the organ introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful, I’m nervous, as though I’m about to launch into an aria from the Messiah. My singing voice, mostly unused since March, sounds dry and pinched against the subdued strains of the organ coming through the headphones. It’s like an athlete gone to seed, sitting in the bar reminiscing about the good old days when it was scoring touchdowns.

I struggle with all this equipment needed to record. I simply cannot keep those damn little earbuds in my ears, so I appear in videos with gigantic headphones looking like I’m ready to flag planes into the airport. I open sound files on the phone or laptop while my husband operates the high-tech recorder we bought so these home productions would have a decent quality. I listen to the introduction, make sure I’m on the correct verse, and try to time my entrance to coincide perfectly with the accompaniment, which doesn’t always happen. The recordings are merciless—they expose me in all of my musical ineptitude. I sing alone without the comfort of other voices blending with mine in the sometimes flawed, yet glorious tapestry of sound that is choir. And then there’s the uploading of files– are they going to the right place and will they open and, if they do, can my mistakes be edited out?

As I record carols that are as familiar to me as my own name, I try to picture the church on Christmas Eve instead of worrying about the dog barking or singing the wrong words. The jostling bodies and excited anticipation of lining up at the back of the sanctuary as sneaker-clad acolytes light the tapers and the crucifer stands ready, waiting for the precise moment to lift the cross and start up the aisle. The procession moving past pews packed with parishioners and their family members home from afar along with those who only show up twice a year. Our voices, perhaps tired from earlier services, but still singing festive anthems with gusto. The banks of poinsettias and candlelit Silent Night and a few of us altos bravely scaling the heights of the soprano descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

This year, hearing those carols through phone and laptop speakers will have to suffice, and I suppose in time I will become less anxious and more adept at singing virtually. We’ve ordered Bluetooth earphones that may fit me better, and I could (and should) practice more frequently to keep my voice in condition. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me I can get used to almost anything. It’s also taught me how much I took the gift of singing with others for granted. I’m tired of singing alone into a machine. I will be so grateful when I can raise my folder, take a deep breath, and see reflected in the eyes of my fellow singers, the joy of once again making music together.

I Need an Advent Calendar this Year

I think I might need an Advent calendar this year. Not those lovely ones made for adults that hold tiny bits of chocolate or miniscule bottles of wine behind each door. I mean the old-fashioned kind, with doors opening to reveal a simple toy or Christmas decoration printed on tissue thin paper—the ones that don’t provide a tangible reward for getting through another day. The kind with beautiful snow scenes showing rosy-cheeked children gathered around the village Christmas tree or manger scene.

When I was a child, Advent calendars taught me patience and the value of waiting. Now that I’m many years a grown-up, I need to be reminded of those lessons. This has been a hard year of waiting. Waiting for our political issues to resolve, waiting for relief from the terrible scourge of this virus and as the holidays approach, waiting for the time when we can once again gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate and break bread together.

This year’s holiday season looms like one long Advent. In order to be safe, we must keep our lamps lit to prepare for the coming of better times and they will come, but not as quickly as we would like. But for now, we have to rely on opening doors to the simplest pleasures—an outdoor visit with old friends on a balmy November day. An unexpected gift of freshly baked bread from neighbors we barely know. A new appreciation for having fewer places to go, although I long for the days when we can once again roam freely without fear of infecting ourselves and others.

I will cook a small Thanksgiving dinner this week, we’ll deliver it to a relative who lives nearby and then all eat together via Zoom. There will still be the smell of roasting turkey and grace said and conversation at our respective tables. We will still decorate for Christmas in our usual over-the-top way even if no one sees it except us and the pets and the neighbors. We will surround ourselves with beautiful Christmas music although the day I can once again put on choir vestments or concert attire and sing with others will be one of pure joy. We will still celebrate Christ’s birth although this year it will be from our living room in front of the TV instead of in a packed candlelit church.

I see all of these little scraps of normalcy as gifts hidden behind the Advent calendar doors. They’re just pictures and reminders of the real thing, but they are enough to get us through and give us hope. I still think I want a calendar this year, though, because every time I open a door, it feels like progress toward something better.

A Tale of Two Shoppers

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I was in a retail clothing store and that was only because I had to return items purchased online. The store was following all the protocols—limiting capacity, masks required, hand sanitizer everywhere. I noticed a woman loaded down with clothes approach the dressing rooms. One of the sales associates gently reminded her that she needed to wait to be assigned a dressing room. They were keeping every other cubicle vacant and wiping down surfaces after each customer. The woman replied, with a condescending sneer on her face, “Yes, I know. I don’t agree with it, but I know.”

I wanted to haul off and smack her. I thought to myself, “How dare you?” Here we are privileged enough to be out shopping on a Friday afternoon in a store that’s doing everything possible to keep us safe, and you cop an attitude because you have to wait five minutes for a sanitized dressing room. I admit, these days I find it increasingly difficult to keep my anger on a short leash. This never-ending parade of daily atrocities is just pushing me to my limit. When I got up to the counter, I muttered something about having to deal with rude customers, and the woman at the register looked up and said, “Every. Single. Day.”

But there was another customer in the store yesterday afternoon. She was a petite elderly lady, with beautiful white hair and wearing neatly pressed capris and a stylish sailor top. While I waited for a dressing room, she was engaging the associate managing that area in a lengthy conversation about the recent death of her husband, The associate listened with patience and compassion. I suspect this was the first time this woman purchased clothes her husband would never see her wear. The clerk gave me an apologetic look over the woman’s head, and I indicated I was in no hurry. Later the employee at the register explained to the woman how she could pay her bill online or bring a payment into the store. Apparently, her husband had always paid the bills, and she was worried about doing that by herself.

I crave these moments of kindness and decency. So many are trying so hard to do what’s right under circumstances that none of us have ever had to deal with before. There are going to be mistakes and there are going to be challenges and frustrations and can’t we just suck it up a little? Can’t we take a breath and pause before we lash out with a snarky comment or post a rant on social media?

I have never felt such anxiety, and anger about a future I cannot control except through my vote, which I hope and pray will be fairly counted. But sometimes what worries me most is how this me-first mentality manifests itself. It has become a badge of honor with some, including those who hold positions of leadership at all levels. Would we have survived World War II and 9/11 with this kind of behavior and reaction to decisions, that for right or wrong, are being made to protect us?  Have we lost all sense of what it means to sacrifice for the good of all, even pushing back against something as minor as wearing a mask or waiting a few minutes for a dressing room?

I’m grateful for the employees in that store and the thousands of others putting themselves out there and taking risks, so that we can live in some semblance of normalcy. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear that elderly shopper tell her story, reminding me of what really matters.

Constancy of Crisis

Some days I feel like the pandemic has dropped a screen over my life or perhaps, more accurately, a cage. I go about my business while straining to see through the filmy mesh of worry and fear, trying to finagle my hand through the bars to reach some vestige of my previous life. I cherish what remains the same about summer—the taste of fresh corn on the cob, the pleasant exhaustion from swimming laps in the pool, the August song of insects heralding the start of another school year.

I can count the times my husband and I have eaten at a restaurant on one hand and then it’s only been outside. I enjoy cooking, but there are days when I just Can’t. Come Up. With. Something. For supper. Again. I rarely wear anything other than shorts and tee-shirts. Or put on real make-up. Most of what I buy, other than groceries, I order online, and unlike most years, I haven’t hit the stores for sales on summer clothing and sandals. I miss meeting someone for lunch without careful planning. I miss the exhilaration of being out in the world, of having a reason to dress decently or buy something for a special occasion. Like the upcoming wedding of my best friend’s daughter which we may or may not  attend, depending on what the virus decides to do in October.

I think it’s the relentless constancy of crisis that wears on my soul. When the calendar is blank except for zoom meetings, it’s hard to find something to look forward to. I am blessed and grateful not to be thrust into the fray of horror in our hospitals or managing a business or dealing with the anger of the unmasked. I can hole up in my house, safely removed from the front lines. But knowing the pandemic is always there with no end in sight, at least for now, eats away at my energy and enthusiasm. The checking that we have our masks, the wiping of the grocery cart, and the hesitancy about doing anything with other people makes me feel like I’m walking down a darkened street, always listening for threatening footsteps coming up behind me.

But there are bright spots. We zoom (a lot) with the musical organizations that we love, trying to figure out how to help them survive until this is over. We strategically see a few friends in outside settings. My husband teaches private lessons with a homemade Plexiglas screen separating him from his students, but once school starts, he will go back to virtual lessons. I putter in my garden and kitchen, do little projects and clean-outs around the house, read, swim, and watch good television in the evenings. Next week, I’m doing a virtual live writing class with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite authors. This Sunday, we will go to church, for the first time since March, at the local ballpark. We will sit at socially distanced tables in a now-unused picnic pavilion, but at least we will worship with other people instead of from our living room.

Years ago, I took a seminar on classroom discipline taught by a distinguished retired administrator. I remember him walking in the first day, stepping up to the podium and saying to us in a gracious southern drawl, “When you’re given a bad situation, you have two choices. You can make it better or you can make it worse.” So many times in my life I’ve hearkened back to those words. An over-simplification? Perhaps. But right now, all I can do is choose to make it better for myself and for others, by staying away from the world and much of what I love and by learning to do things in different ways. For however long it takes.