Monday, April 7, 2014

More Than I Can Chew

I am a diehard atheist, so it's especially remarkable when I say that I am honored and humbled by some of the things my church does.  Somehow the Unitarian-Universalists have room for this curmudgeonly antitheist, and it makes me glad.  It still surprises me that I enjoy so many of the services there despite my adamant anti-religious belief.  I enjoy singing in the choir and occasionally am invited into the pulpit to do a reading or share the atheist sensibility on a given topic.  But this month I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

Before my chronic health problems forced me out of it, I had a career as an actor.  Thanks to rheumatoid arthritis I can no longer dance much, but I still enjoy singing and in all honesty I'm a little vain about my speaking voice.  The wonderful Arthur Greene, voice teacher at the University of Virginia, took a nasal, flat-vowelled kid from New Jersey and taught him how to talk pretty good. Not quite the ideal Nebraska accent of Tom Brokaw and Johnny Carson; not quite the stentorian tones of James Earl Jones...but I do OK.  Whenever the church has something that needs to be spoken well, I'm usually on the short list and I couldn't be prouder.

Every year our wonderful music department designs one Sunday service from scratch.  It's called "Music For The Soul."  We have had a number of different themes over the years, always combining some fairly challenging choral music with appropriate readings, and it's usually well-received and well-attended by our congregation.  This year our music director realized that 25 years ago, Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum first published his best-selling "Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten."  So she decided to build this year's service around that, including a somewhat difficult reading.  Our director knew it was going to be difficult and at first tried to keep it in the family rather than impose it on somebody else, but their reaction was pretty much, "Oh, I can't do this."

So she asked me.

We are performing "Music For The Soul" twice this year, once at each of our two "campus" buildings. The first time was last week and the next and last time will be this Sunday.  Last week I barely got through this reading.  It's actually getting more and more difficult to get through it, and when you read it, I think you'll understand why.  It follows here -- words from Robert Fulghum:

"This is kind of personal.  It may get a little syrupy, so watch out.  It started as a note to my wife.  And then I thought that since some of you might have husbands or wives (or life partners) and might feel the same way, I’d pass it along.  I don’t own this story, anyway.  Charles Boyer does.

"Remember Charles Boyer?  Suave, dapper, handsome, graceful.  Lover of the most famous and beautiful ladies of the silver screen.  That was on camera and in the fan magazines.  In real life it was different.

"There was only one woman.  For forty-four years.  His wife, Patricia.  Friends said it was a lifelong love affair.  They were no less lovers and friends and companions after forty-four years than after the first year.

"Then Patricia developed cancer of the liver.  And though the doctors told Charles, he could not bear to tell her.  And so he sat by her bedside to provide hope and cheer.  Day and night for six months.  He could not change the inevitable.  Nobody could.  And Patricia died in his arms.  Two days later Charles Boyer was also dead.  By his own hand.  He said he did not want to live without her.  He said, “Her love was life to me.”

"This was no movie.  As I said, it’s the real story—Charles Boyer’s story.

"It’s not for me to pass judgment on how he handled his grief.  But it is for me to say that I am touched and comforted in a strange way.  Touched by the depth of love behind the apparent sham of Hollywood love life.  Comforted to know that (two people) can love each other that much that long.

"I don’t know how I would handle my grief in similar circumstances.  I pray I shall never have to stand in his shoes. (Here comes the personal part—no apologies.)  But there are moments when I look across the room—amid the daily ordinariness of life—and see the person I call my wife and friend and companion.  And I understand why Charles Boyer did what he did.  It really is possible to love someone that much.  I know.  I’m certain of it."

(Charles Boyer in his heyday.)

(Patricia and Charles Boyer shortly after their marriage.)

I don't know what the problem is.  Maybe it's because this year I'm celebrating 30 years of marriage to a woman I fell in love with when we were both 15.  (We lost each other for a while but found each other again at age 29.)  Maybe it's because too many friends are losing or have lost their spouses to illness now that I'm in my seventh decade.  All I know is that I start to lose it in the next to last paragraph and can barely make it to the end.  It's the phrase, "when I look across the room—amid the daily ordinariness of life—and see the person I call my wife and friend and companion" that really does me in.  Every single time, and each one worse than the last.  (I was asked to read it at rehearsals starting about three weeks ago so that the choir could get used to hearing it without being overwhelmed going into the next song, a beautiful hymn called "Dedication."*)

I'm told it doesn't matter.  I'm told it actually adds to the power of the reading, but I don't see how that can be when I'm barely choking out the words instead of giving them the justice and the power that they deserve.  I guess I just have to be glad that it speaks to people.

I know I'm glad I only have to read it one more time.

* Lyrics to "Dedication" by Andy Back, from the poetry of Friedrich Rüchert:
     You, oh you my spirit
     You, oh you my soul
     You my delight, you my sorrow
     My heaven, my heaven, you my heaven
     My falling tears, my joyful heart, my self
     You are the one who brings me rest
     You are the music I sing
     You are the world in which I live
     You're my everlasting peace
     My falling tears, my joyful heart,
     My better self, my love
     You, oh you my spirit
     You, oh you my love.

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