Saturday, July 07, 2007

Safe at home

We got our tents and gear packed up and all got home at about 2 pm. It was a blessing that we lived so closely. I'm not as seriously tired as Only Son, but I would not have looked forward to a long drive home. The house was quiet, with Lovely Wife in Brussels. Her sister and mother are coming here on Tuesday, with a visit to the doctor set for Wednesday; we may learn more then.

Our Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop concluded on Friday morning. It was a sweet and tender time as it usually is. Participants were very generous in their gratitude, and Carol and I were genuinely pleased. This was the most successful of the four times I've led this workshop in terms of the strength of the singing, which started strong and got stronger each day. No one seemed to be frustrated or left behind, mainly because we listened to the two or three participants last year who felt we moved too fast and we kept things at a very steady but slower pace. We taught each part separately, for example, all the way to the end, until I led Northfield (#155), which is relatively easy and a lot of fun to sing, and which the class sang without review of the individual parts. Otherwise, we were happy to teach each part, and as the week went on it got better and better.

We ended the workshop by singing Parting Hand (#62). This is often used to close a convention, but is difficult because the practice is, after the notes are sung, to set down your book and walk around the square shaking hands with the singers as you sing the first verse or two. It's awkward to carry your book with you, glancing into it as you are supposed to be looking into the eyes and shaking the hand of your friends at the same time. So we taught the song earlier in the week, and for the closing sang the notes and first verse, and then la-la-la'd the music as we walked around shaking hands, after which we returned to our books to sing the second verse.

It worked well. The melody is a dance tune with a kind of lilt to it that leaves one with a different, perhaps happier feeling than the closer I usually use, Raymond Hamrick's incomparable Christian's Farewell (#347) which always brings the tears.

The afternoon shape note singing also had its best session on Friday. A few experienced singers who hadn't been with us earlier joined the group, and those who were learning were far enough along to make a strong class. Good choices in songs were made, mostly ones that we had done earlier in the week so newer singers weren't starting each song from scratch.

And the intonation was extraordinary. It is a funny thing about Sacred Harp singing that I've never understood that some singings are consistently out of tune and others involving the same singers seem to hit it right on. Among the variables I've noticed is pitching and the nature of the room. A pitcher who consistently pitches too high or too low invites singers to bend the pitch to a more natural key, which is usually done inconsistently and results in a muddy sound. An insufficiently resonate room also makes singers over-sing in order to be heard, and this tends to make them go flat. Since we were singing in the same outdoor space as we had each of the other afternoons, the pitchers much have been more accurate. Whatever the reason, the singing was very strong and I was proud to be there.

The evening plenary with George Watson was also an extraordinary experience.

Prior to the program proper, the Nightingales led the Gathering in singing. There were a number of details with how this would happen -- would we sit or stand? on the stage or on the floor? what songs? what verses? -- some of which weren't resolved until we were ready to begin. One detail that I am so happy did get worked out was to delay singing our closing song, There are Angels Hovering 'Round, until after the pre-speech business of introducing next year's Gathering clerks and an FGC Development Committee skit. Angels is a lovely song that also creates a kind of tender feeling that would have been lost if we hadn't waited. My thanks to Jeanne B for noticing the problem and solving it.

At any rate, after the first songs, the introductions, the skit, and Angels, Bruce Birchard introduced George Watson. George is a 92-year old Quaker elder who is best known, besides his own considerable work as an able administrator and clerk, as the husband of Elizabeth Watson. The two of them formed a team for seventy years, speaking, writing, traveling, and otherwise working with and among Friends. They are exemplars of the kind of liberal Protestant point of view that has characterized our branch of Quakerism for the last century or so, and they are the kind of people that gave it a good name.

George, who is nearly blind, spoke for two hours. His daughter, Carol, who accompanied him on the stage and throughout the week said he arrived on campus with four hours worth of material.

To a disinterested observer, George essentially reminisced about his life with Elizabeth. I can imagine that some found it tedious. But to me and many hundreds of others, it was fascinating to hear how these two people worked as a team to serve the Society of Friends and beyond during perhaps its most vibrant times during the last two-thirds of the 20th Century. The audience listened with a lot of love as he told the story, long though it was.

He was reminded to dismiss those who had to care for children or others who had to leave at 8:45, and then continued a full 45 minutes before he finished. And then, after two hours of essentially historical and personal information, he concluded something to this effect: I have something to thank Marcus Borg for besides speaking as the Elizabeth Watson memorial lecturer. At the age of 92, and having read as much as I have, I seldom find anything new in my reading. But I did find something new in one of Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity, the idea of the "thin place" where the border between the spiritual and material worlds is thin. Jesus represented a thin place, as did Mohandas K Gandhi. I now realize that I was privileged to live my entire adult life in a thin place as the husband of Elizabeth Watson.

He stopped with that. Bruce came to the stage and stood quietly behind the podium. Given the time, it seemed certain that he would not entertain Q&A, but it also seemed that he didn't know quite what to do. The room sat in rapt silence. And then a woman started to sing in a thin voice, "There are angels hov'ring 'round. . ." and the entire crowd arose and joined her, singing strong and in harmony. It was amazing. A good friend was in tears afterwards after seeing the many elders standing there who will soon be hovering around us, unseen.

I was stunned. I had worried that George's talk would be exactly what it was, a mere reminiscence without challenge to the Gathering or relate to our theme (". . . but who is my neighbor?"). But what I hadn't reckoned was how inspiring it was to hear it. As a friend who knows the Watsons well told me, "I love the Watsons, but I am not a Watson worshiper; I know their flaws all too well. But what well-spent lives."

I realize that these have been lengthy posts, and yet they convey only a sliver of all the things that happend at the Gathering this year. They're only a sliver of the things that I experienced at the Gathering. But I wanted for my own reasons to write as much as I could remember contemporaneously, without post-hoc perspective and before the tricks that memory plays on me. All I can say now is that I am very happy to have had a part in organizing it and to have attended it.


Kenneth said...

Paul, thank you so much for posting about the Gathering, and particularly for this post. Even your brief description of George's plenary brings tears to my eyes.

Chris M. said...

Paul: Yes, it brought tears to my eyes as well. I'm glad to have your report, because I didn't go to that plenary so as to be able to spend time with my boys and get them washed up before we left the next day.

Thank you for the prompt blogposts! I wasn't able to do much on the spot blogging, because of other responsibilities.

Thank you again for leading the afternoon Sacred Harp sings.

-- Chris M.

Paul L said...

Yes, there were a lot of tears that evening, too. I think the word "tender" gets overused a bit these days in Quaker circles, but it is exactly the right word for the feeling in the room, certainly at the beginning, but especially at the end.

And, thank you, Chris, but I should make clear that either Robert or Robin were the official coordinators of the afternoon singings. The only thing I did worthy of thanks, and for that you're welcome, was to bring the 14 loaner books. Otherwise, like all Sacred Harp singing, it was a community thing with shared responsibility.

Suzy said...

I enjoyed the plenary with George Watson, but from a listener's point of view, felt it got bogged down a bit in "It was in 1947 ... no, 1948 ..." But, I believe that is the perogitive of a 92 year old. "Angels Hovering Round" is one of my favorite hymns, and brought me to tears.

On a different note, I loved the Sacred Harp accompaniment to the children's play. It was lovely.

Caitlin said...

Thank you for sharing this plenary. This is the first time in 10 years that I did not attend Gathering, and this moment has reminded me both of what I missed and of what I have gained from many years of attendance.

It also brought tears to my eyes.