A celebration in song

Your author coming home from the hospital, held by my father, March 1958

It’s just about 65 years since I entered this world, and without my planning, but noted nevertheless, this happens to be my 65th post!  For some reason, this birthday is considered more significant than 57 or 66 or 82 – but all are cause for celebration and reflection. Perhaps a handful of what I’ve shared here the past three years has had an impact for a few readers along the way, but I’ve accepted that the process of writing my little reflections and observations is alas, primarily selfish. In sorting through the maze of my life, the daily frustrations, the questions that seem to elude answers with any sense of finality, I am looking to just find my way through.  My family history explorations remind me that to have made it to this time in my life is a gift many did not have any opportunity to enjoy; and I am aware, regardless of how much I want to avoid dwelling on it, that life is fragile and unpredictable, a delicate mist which might evaporate at any moment, without announcement or forethought.   But, this moment in time feels like it deserves a pause, if not to sum up “my story so far” like some Netflix miniseries, at least to glean some insight, feel a momentary glow, and acknowledge the awesome gifts that life offered me, and – to then again, push forward.   

We aren’t planning any big parties.  I have enjoyed doing that for other events – but it’s not where we want invest our time and resources at this stage; I don’t want to be exhausted!  I am looking forward to some special moments with my husband, and we have had a few recent opportunities to see loved ones and hear about their lives, their dreams; more lie ahead.  But I do want to let my heart speak to you who read these words, now or at some point ahead, even though our paths may only cross on this digital path through the sometimes confusing, seemingly random or chaotic events that face us as residents of this globe for a short time.  

And so – I’d like to sing for you. 

Fear not, I won’t subject you to actually hearing my voice, but I can still “sing” with the voice of my heart though my slow fingers tapping on these keys; very different from the black and white  keys of the upright piano my grandmother gifted my mother long before birth, these plastic keys are laid out like the heavy metal typewriter of my junior high classes in the 70s where we would tap out letters as the little metal stamps would slam the rolled paper through the ink ribbon.  In those long past days I sang in the school choir, and my church; later, decades later, I stood in public with hundreds of men singing in the gay chorus.  I treasure those moments as gifts. But today’s song selections will be solos.  

Music has always lifted my spirit.  I cannot pretend to have that wonderful gift of creating song; matching words and melody to let the colors of my soul rise into the light and burst like a shower of butterflies into the bright sky.  But my ears know when the truths others have put to music resonate in pulse with my own heartbeat; too many songs to remember, echoing in my memory, peeking out unexpectedly from years past then fading again like the stack of neglected old photos shoved into a drawer, too treasured to be lost but lacking the room in the gallery of my imagination to have them on permanent display. Perhaps we all have a never-ending playlist stored in dusty mental archives, and a part of us presses “random” to bring them to consciousness when we have those too rare quiet moments to really listen.  

“Maxence” as portrayed by Jacques Perrin in “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

I made some time to listen in the silence and await whatever lessons might faintly be heard by my waiting ears. My program for you as I take this little stage consists of three songs that say perhaps more about my life, my heart, than any blog post I might ever create.  I cannot say exactly why these 3, out of all the intricate melodies that I have heard in six plus decades, speak to me above others at this moment – but somehow, they rise to the front of the line.  My first song was not even known to me until my music service “suggested” it a few months back, only to have it haunt me ever since. It’s not particularly famous; more than a bit wistful; it wasn’t originally written as a popular song, but as a film theme for a most unusual movie by French director Jacques Demy, after he had an “art house” success with “The Umbrellas of Cherboug”in 1964.  Composer Michel Legrand scored “The Young Girls of Rochefort” three years later, as a follow up of sorts.  In the original film melody, “Maxence’s song”, a sailor earnestly seeking the embodiment of his vision of beauty, but those lyrics are not the basis for this English translation, credited to Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The longing expressed in the original music and revised lyrics is most beautifully captured in a musical collaboration between Tony Bennet and jazz pianist Bill Evans from 1976. May I present – “You must believe in Spring”.   

When lonely feelings chill
The meadows of your mind
Just think if winter comes
Can spring be far behind?

Beneath the deepest snows
The secret of a rose
Is merely that it knows
You must believe in spring

Just as a tree is sure
Its leaves will reappear
It knows its emptiness
Is just a time of year

The frozen mountains dreams
Of April’s melting streams
How crystal clear it seems
You must believe in spring

You must believe in love
And trust it’s on its way
Just as a sleeping rose
Awaits the kiss of May

So in a world of snow
Of things that come and go
Where what you think you know
You can’t be certain of
You must believe in spring and love

“You Must Believe in Spring”, music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, 1967.

For my second number, I offer something a bit older, one of many hymns that used to be standard inclusions in church services.  I was raised in a small Methodist Christian congregation, but this particular hymn wasn’t one I remember from those days. I heard it later, a world ago seemingly in my 20’s, on an album produced in that time when Christian records became more commonplace after the evangelical movement portrayed in the current film, “Jesus Revolution”.   The attributed author of the hymn is a 19th century preacher, Frederick M. Lehman, whose work on it is best described in this blog post.  I draw your attention to the third and final stanza as that which speaks to me most deeply, and if you read the previously linked reference which is much more thoroughly descriptive than anything I might research, you will learn that portion actually originated from a form of Jewish poetry more than 1000 years ago! Like many spiritual practices commonplace in our time, was – adopted? Reappropriated? – by Lehman for his heartfelt song because it captured his own sense of truth. Here is “The Love of God” – 

The love of God is greater far
  Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
  And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
  God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
  And pardoned from his sin. 

O love of God, how rich and pure!
  How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
    The saints’ and angels’ song.

When hoary time shall pass away,
  And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray,
  On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure,
  All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
  The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
  And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
  And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
  Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
  Though stretched from sky to sky.

“The Love Of God”, Frederick M. Lehman, 1917 (Final stanza derived from 11th century poetry by Jewish rabbi).

“Nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky”

My third and final solo is probably the most familiar; I have often told friends and family is my favorite song.  Surprisingly, it too was written originally for a film now mostly forgotten – “The boy with green hair” in 1948.  Written by “eden ahbez”  (his chosen name was in lower case), who reputedly was an early “hippie lifestyle” practitioner, it became a huge hit for my favorite vocalist, Nat King Cole, and has been covered by countless artists; it more recently has been popularized as a featured song in Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” film and stage productions. May I present – “Nature boy” –

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far
Over land and sea

A little shy
And sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
And while we spoken of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me

The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved in return

“Nature Boy”, eden ahbez, 1947

Click here for more info on “Nature boy”,and eden ahbez

My musical “performance” has concluded, but we have time for an encore of sorts – my closing monologue. I do wonder if anyone out there has heard all 3 of these before; more likely, some or all are “new” to you, readers. They are all, of course, songs about love; in a way, most songs are ultimately about our shared quest for love.  “You Must believe in Spring” captures our deep yearning, our inner drive to believe that in the darkest, coldest time, a season of promise and hope lies ahead, and the possibility of love – a quest our souls share but pursue in different ways, perhaps only fleetingly fulfilled.  The closing stanza of “The Love of God” echoes a rabbi’s writings from centuries before, a person of faith looking beyond the known to the immense wonder of that which is beyond our comprehension, beyond measurement – a greater love that shatters boundaries of time, that asks us to simply let it be and to trust that it is, and that we are loved.  Finally, “Nature boy” is my heart’s anthem – an expression more of the person I wish I was, my aspiration, and yet acknowledge I will never fully become. In a way, my lifetime has taught me, we try our best yet fail, as we cannot fully embody what somehow our spirits sense. That yearning, woven into our inner spirits from the moment we enter this planet, drives our desires and seeds our dreams – to know that ideal, that ultimate source of all love. 

Last week, I sat with my older niece, sharing some of the family stories and mementos, photos and letters that I have inherited over the years.  I see some ironic humor in the observation that as a childless gay man, I have been entrusted with the memories and mementos of those who came before, who lived and loved long before my entry on the scene; but their words, their faces full of life, speak deeply to me.  These faded artifacts are priceless treasures – witnesses not only to history, but to what it is to live, to be human, to seek answers and hope.  Yet, my connection to them, and to others entering into my life for periods short and extended, is deep. I am far from alone in my wondering; humans have over many thousands of years and countless cultures and faiths tried to establish systems and practices to try to “make sense” of life.  Although my peculiar little path has been very different from theirs, I am a part of a tapestry whose whole will only be revealed in eternity. But I sense there is an artist there working through each of us; the hues in their pallet used to express the immeasurable expanse of love unlimited.  I am in awe when I catch a glimpse of that working in and hopefully through each of us. 

Whatever captures our attention and energy in life, brings us delight or promises some relief from the pain of disappointment and exclusion – in the rear-view mirror, what we hold dear is the moments where love carried our spirits to a place beyond. Our hearts long, we awaken, we forgive and struggle to push to a place of acceptance and peace.  However varied our upbringing and tradition, we are born with an awareness of the eternal, of something many call sacred or holy, but we each encounter it in different ways, and in this relatively short lifetime perhaps the greatest lesson we learn is indeed how to love and be loved in return. Love has surrounded and embraced each of us from the moment we emerged into light. Today I recognize my shortcomings in living out the love I sense and desire; I have many lessons ahead before I can claim to have any real wisdom to offer anyone , and I know I am graced to have my husband, family and friends continue to share love with me as I work to let that continue on through me.   I have come to believe we all have the same questions, the same hopes, ultimately, just in different forms, with mountains and valleys that are uniquely ours.  Perhaps we also must discover our own answers which reveal that greater love’s truths to us in each chapter of the journey called life.  

The author at the Sea of Galilee, age 25 in 1983 – where did 40 years go???

Thank you, friends, for taking time for my musical musings as I pause to look back and forward from this birthday pause. If I could create a song of exultation that could somehow capture the multicolored hues of emotions and memories, hopes and regrets that make of 6.5 decades of life so far, I would dance in the sunlight and say to the stars, I am thankful, I am blessed, the dark and the light, the bitter and sweet all blending into a waltz of forgiveness, acceptance and an emerging joy. I invite you to join in the dance, with those before and yet to come. This birthday anniversary, this moment of awareness as time continues to flow through me and all of us towards some amazing future we cannot see, is just a moment to catch my breath and be thankful, and humbled, for the amazing gifts I have received and those that await me – and all of us – every day, anew.  I’ll see you along the way.