Thursday, August 6, 2015

Always on the sunny side: Linda Creamer Kidd 1/8/1954(?) - 8/5/2015

As we passed the jewelry kiosk in the mall that day, we just had to stop to look at the earrings. Linda was a fiend for accessories, the sillier and sparklier, the better.

I picked up an oval-shaped, flat pair of earrings that looked just like tiny door-knockers and quipped,

"Here, Linda, don't you need a new pair of knockers?

"Well, of course", she chortled, "seeing as how God didn't give me much of a pair in the first place !"

She bought the earrings amid gales of laughter and a slightly confused look from the kiosk clerk. 

Shortly afterward, she greeted one of our friends with "So, how do you like my knockers?" 

Our conservative, polite, soft-spoken Southern Baptist gentleman friend gave her a puzzled and slightly panicked look that defies description.

Linda and I howled. 

Linda was like that -- always ready for some harmless mischief.  She was not a drinker, so I can't blame any of our rowdiness on alcohol or any other mind-altering substance.  Nevertheless we DID get rowdy.  In fact, we had a habit of going places and getting silly enough to draw dirty looks from shopkeepers.  My memory might be a little fuzzy on this, but it's possible that we might have gotten thrown out of Neiman-Marcus Last Call in Austin, and at least one fussy little handicraft boutique in Bellbuckle, Tennessee, for laughing too hard at the merchandise.  And that was AFTER she bought (at a deep discount) the pillow that we dubbed, "Pee-Pee Kitty" because of the combination of decoration and desecration that it had already suffered before she bought it.  A couple weeks ago, in one of our last conversations, Linda admitted that Pee-Pee Kitty still graces her livingroom decor.  I neglected to ask about the knockers, darn it. 

I met Linda more than 20 years ago at a graduate student fellowship event at University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.  I was a 22-year-old, newly-transplanted New Englander, a stranger in a very strange land.  I knew no one, but I'd stumbled into attending the church, and found my way to the grad student fellowship.  Linda was 30-ish, and not a graduate student, but that did not seem to matter. She'd found friends and the group was home to her.  Linda had the ability to make friends everywhere, and she had the most amazing knack for making sure that every friend she met, met every other friend she met.  She was an expert at adopting "strays" and turning them into family.  As I've been reading her Facebook page in the past couple weeks, I've noticed a number of people who referred to her as "Auntie Linda", as well as the names and photos of a number of people whom Linda frequently mentioned in conversation, as if I'd know them.  After all, in Linda's world, all her friends were connected to all her other friends, right?

And in Linda's world, all those who lacked family were invited to participate in the holiday gatherings of her own family.  When Linda adopted me, I actually gained an entire family.  Her mother, father, siblings, and assorted pets (many of them also strays who somehow found themselves adopted) became my home base in this strange country of Texas, so far from where I'd grown up.  "Daddy Bill" even taught me how to make biscuits from scratch, a recipe known as "Angel Biscuits" that are still my own kids' favorite.  On the day, several years later, when I packed up my U-haul to leave Austin for my first real job, Daddy Bill's "TWABBs"(The World's Absolute Best Brownies" )  were in a brown paper bag in the front seat -- a little loving sustenance for the long drive to Nashville. 

Also in my car on that long, hot drive from Austin to Nashville was Linda herself.  You see, as soon as I announced that I'd landed a job and was moving out of state, Linda cleared her calendar, and announced that she would use her precious accrued vacation time to drive with me to Nashville and spend a week helping me get moved-in and set up. For anybody else, that trip would have been mostly work, but Linda was determined to find the fun.  She took pictures of us at truck stops, where we stopped to pour water over our heads to beat the sweltering August heat in Memphis, after my air-conditioner quit.  She hooted as she pointed out a truck for the South East Express fruit-shipping company, a truck painted with "SEX -- Eat More Bananas", and when we found that truck in the next gas-station stop, she had me pose for a photo in front of it.  She navigated, and sang along to the radio, and scheduled stops for refilling the ever-present mug of ice and Diet Pepsi, and kept up a steady stream of funny stories about everybody she'd ever met. And she arranged our necessary overnight stop to be at the home of a cousin in Texarkana, saving me the cost of motel room overnight.

Another remarkable thing about Linda was her ability to manage a crisis when she needed to, and to turn it into a hilarious story for re-telling at parties years afterwards.  Shortly after we arrived in Nashville and began unpacking my stuff, I suffered a bloody accident involving a frameless mirror that somehow dissolved into shards into the side of my hand.  I looked at the blood, started to feel dizzy and sat down on the lid of the toilet in my tiny bathroom, calling out for Linda that we might need to find the local Emergency room.  Linda called 911 for directions to the ER and was told that the operator could not give directions; she could only dispatch medical help or not.  Within minutes, there were 2 large, muscle-bound firemen squeezing themselves into my bathroom which was no larger than the back seat of an average car, trying to figure out what damage I'd done to my hand and whether or not they'd need to perform life-saving maneuvers.  It turned out to be a nasty cut to the side of my hand, needing stitches, but not life-threatening. Linda's friendly chatting-up of the firemen led to them offering to LEAD us to the emergency room, rather than transport me in the ambulance, saving me at least $500 in medical costs.  There was a six-hour wait in the emergency room, due to the busy holiday weekend, and I ended up having my stitches done while sitting on a gurney in a corridor, with a policeman holding my uninjured hand as the doctor stitched my injured hand and I whimpered at the pain. 

Linda's re-telling of the story starts with "Do you remember when you ended up with two hunky firemen all to yourself in the bathroom, and then got to hold hands with a cute cop? " 
Armed with maps and yellow pages (in those pre-internet days when information came from paper), Linda helped me find all the vital stuff in Nashville.

A few hours later...
A couple years later, Linda used her vacation time to fly to Nashville with another of our mutual friends to spend an entire week before my wedding, finishing the last-minute shopping and preparations, and finding ways to get into memorable silliness during a week that could have been nerve-wracking.  It is because of Linda's gift for recording and memorializing fun times, that I have photos of us horsing around at Uncle Budel's Biblical Mini-Golf, and mugging for photos in silly hats in the hand-craft stores in Bellbuckle and War Trace, Tennessee.  Linda had a gift for finding the special moment, and making sure that people felt included.  She made sure that she introduced herself to and spent time with my fiance, my family members, my bridesmaids from out of state, my friends and work colleagues.  All these people were strangers to her at the beginning of that week, but not for long.  Linda recorded the week of fun in photos.   This was in the days before digital cameras-- each click of the shutter cost you something.  From that, she crafted an album that captures that week leading up to the big day itself, along with shots of the wedding reception from her own fun-filled perspective.  I am eternally grateful that others occasionally grabbed the camera and made Linda pose in some of the shots as well.
Linda spotted the odd moments with a smile

More oddness that day, with a smile.

Who else would capture normally dignified New Englanders getting down with their bad selfs?  :-)

My students and colleagues not exactly posing for the camera

Only in Nashville: playing mini-golf amid wooden cut-outs of Biblical figures

Linda either created the silliness or just captured it. 

Note that there are only 2 beers on that table, and neither are Linda's.  Her brand of fun didn't need any accelerants :-) 
These two shared a bond of an eye for beauty.  Little flower-girl Nikki left this earth far too young a couple of years ago, but at least she's there to offer Linda a flower on her first day in Heaven. 

Linda made her own bridesmaid's dress for the wedding, but saved the fun of hemming it until she had help. 

These two who had never met before the wedding, serenaded me on the way to church with "Goin' to the Chapel..."

This hole was "The Fruit of the Spirit"... love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness and self-control... Well, we got most of them, right? 
Losing Linda yesterday made me glad that we'd had a few conversations lately in which I got to tell her how important she is to me, and how much I loved her.  No one had any idea, even after her cancer diagnosis in May, that she'd be gone so soon, but in true Linda style, she'd wasted no time in making sure that her friends and family knew how much she loved them, too. 

Linda was one of those important "structural" friends for me -- I was a late-bloomer to life, and she taught me so much about navigating those young adult years, building networks of friends, reaching out to people on the edges, making sure that fun times were recorded.  In my second chapter of life, finding myself again as a single adult, but this time with kids to raise, Linda's lessons of looking on the bright side even in dark moments, recording the fun, and being intentional about networking people together are priceless gifts that I try to use every day. 

See you 'round the 18th hole of the Biblical Mini-Golf on the other side, Linda. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Practicing Joy

It's Wednesday of Holy Week, and I've been feeling like there's something seriously missing this week -- actually all of this Lenten season.  For my non-churchy readers, the 40 days before Easter are known as "Lent".  It's a time of preparing, of spiritual practices, of getting ready to mark the final week in the life of Jesus, the occasion of his death, and the celebration of the resurrection.  It's a time of reflection for many Christians.  Some people give something up (chocolate, TV, Facebook...) and other take something up (waking up early to pray, paying for the coffee of the person behind you in line at Starbucks,  working at a soup kitchen,  writing in a prayer journal,  etc. ... I even have a friend who decided to trudge through the 108 inches of snow this winter to feed the birds in his yard, as part of his Lenten practice this year.. sort of St. Francis of Assisi, Boston-style).

And my Lenten practice, for more than the last 15 years, has been literally "practice", choir practice that is.  For me, the Lenten season has always involved spending at least one night a week in my seat in the soprano section of the choir, with the words and notes of a major work of sacred music working itself into my every pore.  By the time Holy Week rolls around, the texts of the Latin mass (set by Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven), the English texts of John Rutter's Requiem, or Brahm's German Requiem, Handel's "Messiah", or Haydn's "Creation", to name a few, have become part of my breathing, my falling asleep, my waking up.  I live in the music and the text, sometimes using my drive time (I'm a minivan-driving mom in the Bay Area  I have a LOT of drive-time), to listen to the work that I'm studying; working those elements even deeper into my soul.  

Here's a sample of what I end up meditating on:

 "Out of the deep, have I cried unto you, O God.  Lord, hear my prayer.  O let thine ear consider well, the voice of my complaint"  (to listen to this as it's set by John Rutter, click here.)

"You now are sorrowful.  Weep not.   I shall again behold you and then your hearts shall be joyful, and my joy shall no one take from you. "  (This is my wonderful community of choir folk in 2010, singing the Brahms setting of this text)

"Sanctus, sanctus, santus.  Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tuam... (Holy, holy, holy.  Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.)  (Here's how Beethoven set this text in his Mass in C major)

"I heard a voice from Heaven, saying unto me, 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors... "  (Here's a totally fearless, fabulous soprano, with my beloved choir folks, singing a setting of this text by John Rutter, from his Requiem)  

But it's not just the music and the words that go deep, refreshing and often challenging me in my spiritual walk, but it's the experience of spending that time, drinking-in that music in the presence of about 75-100 of my closest friends -- my fellow choir members.  There is a presence of the Holy Spirit that shows up in the community that is a church choir, particularly the one that I have called "home" for the past 16 years.

We've been led, for longer than I've been there, by a man who has turned a choir director's job into a Minister of Music vocation.  He's been our teacher, our coach, our pastoral leader, our Court Jester, and the father-figure for the lovingly imperfect, sometimes dysfunctional family that is a choir. 

Throughout its existence, our choir has aimed for musical excellence, not for its own sake, but for the sake of what that excellence points to -- an endlessly creative and creating God, a loving and redeeming being who touches hearts and minds and souls through many different routes.  One route, for some of us, is music.  The music has drawn people who might not otherwise darken the door of a church, to start spending time there, either as audience members to our concerts, or as participants in our music-making.  And it's not just singers who are drawn in.  There are a number of professional instrumentalists who showed up for what they thought would be "just another church gig" and ended up having their spirits fed and watered by their experience with us.  I particularly love the story of one such musician who pulled the choir director aside after a concert and handed back his union-scale paycheck, saying that we wanted to donate his time to our concerts from here on out, because he'd experienced something that he could not quite name, something powerful, that made him want to keep coming back.  He has donated his time to our concerts ever since.

But what makes our choir special is not just the music, or even the musical excellence:  it's the love and fellowship that we've experienced in our time together.  We held a post-wedding reception for a choir couple who sneaked off and married eachother after 20 years of being best friends.  We've sung wearing silly hats, tacky sweaters, and jewelry that blinks.  We've sung the Rice Krispies jingle and the Star Spangled Banner.  We've gathered to make a personalized chemo quilt when a choir member had cancer.  We have held baby showers, bridal showers, and a dinner to share remembrances of a member who died suddenly and unexpectedly.  We've celebrated birthdays and sung at memorial services.  We've walked together to raise money for AIDS treatment in Africa, and we've sung a concert to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we ended our rehearsal standing in a circle, singing this lovely piece by Mack Wilberg as our benediction, unsure of what our nation would be facing in the days that lay ahead, but counting on the presence and provision of God in whatever would come next.

And during each Advent and Lent, both seasons of preparation, in the church calendar, we've engaged in the Practice of Practice, which for me, has been the practice of Joy. There's an excitement to that final pre-concert Saturday, the rehearsal with orchestra, that for me has always been the highlight of the season.  In that rehearsal, we put it all together.  We singers surf the glorious waves of orchestral sound and experience that coming-together of precision and passion that turns into the practice of joy.  The words become real in a new way, the presence of the Spirit is palpable... and three hours later, we're exhausted but energized.  The following night, we share it with a congregation of church folk and non-church folk who walk away changed in some way, if we've done our jobs right.

But this Lent, there was no preparation for a concert.  It is quite possible that my choir as it exists now, will not exist in the future.  Things change.  I could say more about this, but maybe in these last few days of Lent, I'll practice the discipline of  not saying too much.

I have heard people say that "Life is not a dress rehearsal",  but I LOVE the dress rehearsals.  It's where the performers get to practice joy, in preparation for sharing that joy with others.  Tonight was a regular rehearsal for the choir's Easter morning music, and just before the choir rehearsed, I shot a couple seconds of our director, working with the brass... They're rehearsing, "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee".   Practicing joy, if ever I heard it.

A few weeks after Andre's death, I sang a duet in church with my buddy Laurel (the fearless, fabulous soprano in the video I shared earlier in this entry).... The lyrics feel as true now as they did then: 

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth's lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it's music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

How, indeed?                  Sing on, friends.