Bad Songs Revisited

Last time I wrote about bad church music I said there was another song I wanted to write about but I couldn’t remember what it was.  I knew it wouldn’t take long before we sang it again, and sure enough, last week, there it was.  I’m sorry, again this is a song that everyone else seems to love, for whatever reason.  But I think it is AWFUL.
The tune is pretty, I’ll grant that.  The sentiment is nice.  But . . . but . . . everything else!  It’s got the congregation singing as God, which every expert informs me is a big no no.  But I can get past that, obviously, since I like some songs that are written that way.  It’s the poetry, if you can call it that, that I cannot stand.  Here again the composer bends the words to fit the music.   The use of passive voice riles the English major in me:  “Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown?”  Yuck yuck yuck!  It sounds whiny and weak.   If it were an essay it would have red pen all over it:  Will you show my life, teach my name, plant my life?  Well, that’s not a whole lot better, but at least it is stronger.
Here is a source for all the lyrics.  I could go through every line and complain but I will resist.   Just two more:  “Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen?”  My kids and I struggle not to laugh when we hear this line.  Besides just conjuring up a gross mental picture, this line is an example of poetry bending.  To stretch what should be “in secret” or “secretly” into “do such as this unseen”  would have Professor Strunk rolling over in his grave, frothing at the mouth and yelling “Omit needless words!”   And I don’t even know what to say about “Should your life attract or scare?”  I can’t sing it with a straight face, and believe it or not I really do try to sing every song at Mass, no matter how awful.
My advice to Catholic songwriters?  You are doing a lovely job with the tunes.  Go back to the Glory and Praise days and look for your lyrics in the Scriptures.  There’s no way you can go wrong with that.

Liturgical Music V: Performance Issues

So I had to say it some time.  It’s not always the song’s fault.  The songs don’t pick themselves.  They don’t perform themselves.
No, I am not going to criticize individual choir members.  Not only would that be ugly, I don’t have the right to do that unless I am willing to go up there and sing myself. [edit: I did end up singing in the choir last time we had one–but I’m still not going to criticize anyone’s singing ability!] And besides the fact that I am needed in my pew to corral my smaller kids, right now I like to feel I am doing my part by actually singing (why do so many people–some of my family included–remain mute during the songs?).
But I am going to bring up in a general way some of my own pet peeves about the way music is chosen and performed in many Catholic churches I have visited.
We don’t sing the whole song.  I have been going on about this for years to anyone who would listen, including members of our choir at my parish.  I grew thinking this was normal, because we never sang the whole song except at Communion.  It was always the first two verses.  In fact, I know hundreds of hymns but lots of times I only know the first two verses (never knew all four verses of America the Beautiful, for example, until post 9/11, when suddenly singing the whole song was in vogue!).  But when I was in the choir at Georgetown we always sang all four verses of the final hymn, with a rousing “AMEN” at the end.  I realized that the songs were not just words, and that they made more sense when we sang the whole thing.  With some songs this is painfully obvious.    At Christmas, how much sense does it make to sing We Three Kings and just STOP after the verse of the first Wise Man?  Doesn’t it irritate anyone else when we are singing any of the many songs based on the Beatitudes and we only sing about four of them?  Am I the only one who feels a big let down when  we stop before the “I will give my Life to them” part of Here I Am, Lord?  Surely not.  And this leads us to . . .
We pick the wrong song.  Why do choir directors pick a song with two verses for Communion, and then have us sing the whole song three or four times (and then stop in the middle of it!)?  Why not pick a song with LOTS OF VERSES instead?  Why pick a LONG song for the Offertory and leave the priest up there twiddling his thumbs, or else stop without singing the whole thing? Why? Why? Why?  Why pick a song that is OBVIOUSLY meant for a certain part of the Mass and sing it somewhere else?  It might seem creative, but to me it just sounds stupid.  Hello, the songs are organized right there in the hymnal so that you can easily see when you should sing it.  One presumes the people who organized the songs had some idea of what they were doing.  Didn’t they?  They don’t just suggest that a song should be sung at Communion or Dismissal, they even provide thematic suggestions.  Which I think some choir directors need.  Because how often have you gone to a Mass and realized that the songs you sang had nothing whatsoever to do with the readings?  If you pay attention, you will see that the readings have all been picked to go together.  If your priest is a decent homilist he will also have directed your attention to this.  The songs should reinforce that further, and so often they just don’t!  Do choir directors choose songs they just like, or think the choir sings well, or what?  So often there are songs based directly on the Scripture for that Mass–they are practically crying out to be sung–and we don’t sing them! I cannot stand that!  Another thing–we MUST sing Joy to the World on Christmas and Jesus Christ Is Risen Today on Easter.  Music directors take note!
We sing the song wrong.  You know how when celebrities do a cover of someone else’s song, or sing the National Anthem, they feel like they need to put their personal stamp on it, so they hold some notes longer, and add extra notes, and fancy stuff like that?  Well, choir directors, you are NOT celebrities, and I don’t want you putting your personal stamps on the hymns.  I attended a Mass just recently (not at my parish!  I promise!) where the choir director was changing half notes to quarter notes at random.  It’s jarring if you already know how the song is supposed to be sung, and it’s irritating if you are trying to sing it by reading the music.  And if I had written the song I would find it very infuriating that a choir director assumes he can rewrite my music and make it better!
We sing the same songs.  Over and over and over.  And over.  There are SO MANY SONGS.  How many do you know?  I bet I can sing hundreds.  Maybe more.  Why not give us a chance to sing some of them?  Why not ask the parishioners what old favorites they’d like to see resurrected?  Sure, you can’t expect a choir to harmonize with them all, but you can expect a good organist to be able to read music so at least we can be accompanied.  Sometimes being at Mass is like listening to a Top 40 radio station.  They ruin good songs by playing them into the ground.   What songs am I sick of?  The Servant Song, Now We Remain, The Supper of the Lord, Now in This Banquet . . . hmmm. mostly communion hymns, probably a relic of the time when we were singing the same one EVERY SINGLE WEEK which was the policy of the choir director we had then.  I’m sure you have your own list, which I would love to read about in the comments, if you’d care to share!

Liturgical Music and Inclusive Language

When I was a freshman at Georgetown, Father von Arx, a history professor, handed back my first paper marked with the following:  “May I suggest you try using inclusive language?”  Now, I didn’t have the slightest idea what he meant by that, and I didn’t find out for years.  And a good thing, too, since that’s a suggestion I mostly don’t care to follow.
I tried to find a good definition of inclusive language but the problem is that the defnition is slanted based on the opinion of the source providing it.  I will attempt to be objective and say we use inclusive language when we use words like humankind instead of mankind, chairperson instead of chairman, and he/she instead of he (most people are resorting to using “they” as a singular, however).  Proponents of this approach say that women are excluded by the usual words, which are reflective of a male-dominated society.  Opponents say that inclusive language is clunky and sounds stupid and that these people are making a mountain over a molehill.  I say that even if we start using inclusive language from now on there is no reason to go back and rewrite old songs and even re-translate the BIBLE to fit in with modern ideas of what is appropriate.
And here’s some of what one of my favorite authors (Madeleine L’Engle) had to say:

[The] generic his and he, [is] not exclusively masculine.  I am a female, of the species, man.  Genesis is very explicit that it takes both make and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both . . .Therefore I refuse to be timid about being a part of mankind . . . Nor do I want to be stuck in the vague androidism whcih has resulted from the attempts to avoid the masculine pronoun . . . language is its own creature; it evolves on its own . . . it does not do well when suffering from arbitrary control.  Our attempts to change the words which have long been part of a society dominated by males have not been successful.  Instead of making language less sexist they have made it more so . . . To substitute person for man has ruined what used to be a good, theological word, calling up the glory of God’s image within us.

Sorry for the long quotation, but I certainly cannot say it so well.  I don’t think of myself as a typical feminist.  Men and women are not equal.  If I had to pick a superior sex, I’d pick the female, frankly.  We have proven ourselves capable of doing just about everything men can do just as well, and we have more endurance, are emotionally stronger, AND bear children.  Men are physically stronger and can parallel park better.  No contest, right?  I don’t see how being referred to as “he” or part of “mankind” diminishes my power in any way!
But a lot of people feel that way, and have convinced others that this is the “politically correct” and “sensitive” way to feel.  They are in the ascendance, and they have changed our songs.  They have, in my opinion, mutilated our songs, changing not just words but meanings and turning some of them into nonsense.  Let’s look at a few, shall we?
Let There Be Peace on Earth is one of the few songs I remember fondly from the 70s–it’s so fun to sing, especially as it crescendos dramatically toward the end.  I chose it for the recessional at my grandmother’s funeral.  Needless to say, we sang it the “right” way.  The line that was changed originally read: “With God as our Father, brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.” (Okay, the poetry was never the best.)  The powers that be changed it to “With God as our Father, neighbors all are we.  Let us walk with each other . . .”  I think we can all agree that brother is a stronger word than neighbor because it implies a closer, familial relationship.  But what is even more annoying to someone who delights in the English language is that the new phrase is nonsense.  Having God as our Father makes us brothers, or brothers and sisters if you must, not neighbors.  Therefore I have spent the last ten or more years singing (under my breath) “With God as our Landlord, neighbors all are we.”
Apparently someone finally realized the problem and attempted a new rewrite.  Newer versions say, “With God as our Father, we are family.”  Come on!  Can anyone take this seriously?  Is there anyone who doesn’t think of Sister Sledge when they hear that?  It takes me right out of the song every time.
Here’s another one that has been ruined.  I Am the Bread of Life is hated by the people who make the worst hymns lists anyway, because it features the people singing the part of God, apparently a big no-no.  But it’s biblical, and the congregation sings it loudly and well, and I always enjoyed it pre-change.  Now I dread it.  Why?  They replaced every instance of the pronoun “he” with “you” but that’s not the worst of it.  I always loved this line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father draw him.”    I loved it because of the oh-so-rare use of the subjunctive mood, even though most people substituted “draws” in practice!  Here’s the new line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father beckons.”    Am I the only one who sees a problem here?  Aside from the lost subjunctive, isn’t it obvious that “draw” and “beckon” don’t mean the same thing?  The original line connotes the power of God pulling one toward Him irresistibly.  The new line is more like, “Yoo-hoo!  It’s Me, God!  Come on over here if you feel like it.”  Yuck!  Can you tell I feel strongly about this?
How about Be Not Afraid?  This is not the only change, but the line that once read “and if wicked men insult and hate you” now reads “and if wicked tongues insult and hate you.”  One amusing thing is that when other parts of this songs were changed, this line was originally left alone, as though it were okay to specify “men” as long as they were being wicked!  But eventually someone must have realized that wasn’t really fair, so now we have this nonsense.  I’ll buy tongues insulting, but hating?  What, do Christians taste bad or something?
These three are the worst examples that come to my mind, but inclusive language subtly changes the meanings of many songs.  I just discovered that The Servant Song, sung ad nauseam at my parish, loved by most and loathed by me, wasn’t quite as bad before it fell prey to inclusive language.  It used to be “Brother, let me be your servant”  instead of “Will you let me be your servant.”  See the difference in tone?  And in the second verse it once said “We are brothers on the road” where it now says “We are travelers on the road.”  Lots of people are traveling on the road.  So what?  Saying they are brothers makes ALL the difference and then the following lines make sense:  “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (Sadly, it doesn’t help the poetry or the icky way the words don’t go with the music, but that’s the subject of a different post!)
Finally, worst of all are the songs that have eliminated the use of “He” to refer to God, awkwardly saying “God” over and over again to avoid it.  For crying out loud.  Do any of us really think that God is an old man with a beard?  Don’t we all know that God must have feminine qualities if all of us are made in His Image?  Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself called God Father?  Do we really need to change “I am He that comforts you,” to “I am God that comforts you” to make some point? (If we really want to change those lines from Turn to Me–which has inclusive language tampering in almost every line now–we’d do better to exchange “that” for “who” to make it grammatically correct!)
Plainly, I could go on for days on this topic.  I probably will return to it from time to time.  Please feel free to share in the comments your feelings about the changes in your favorite hymns.  And look with a more critical eye at the changes the next time you notice them at Mass.

Liturgical Music III – The 80s and after

Continuing with my post about the development of my own perspective on liturgical music brings me to what seemed like an exciting time to me music-wise:  the beginning of the Glory and Praise years.  For us at St. Joseph this actually began, I’m guessing, around 1978, when a group of UT students began coming to our morning Masses to lead the music with guitars and harmonizing vocals.  The opening hymn was Blest Be the Lord; the Communion hymn was Earthen Vessels; the closing hymn was Though the Mountains May Fall.  Always.  Every single day.  For weeks.  We did not care.  We loved this new music, performed well by people who were enthusiastic about it.
Although I did not know it at the time, all three of those songs were St. Louis Jesuit compositions.  And by the 8th grade we were singing more of their songs; I remember especially our enthusiastic renditions of Lord of Glory and And the Father Will Dance.  Then at our Masses at Knoxville Catholic High School we had On Eagle’s Wings, Be Not Afraid, You Are Near–if you are Catholic and you were around then, I don’t need to list them for you.  We loved them.  I still love most of them, better than the current popular Catholic hymns because they mostly paraphrased the Bible so how could they go wrong with that?
At Georgetown, which boasted seven or more masses each Sunday, I joined the 7 p.m. Mass choir.  We had a whole book devoted the the St. Louis Jesuits and I learned more of their songs like City of God, Only in God, This Alone, Take Lord, Receive.  But our choir director did what I think we should be doing–she did not limit us to one type of music.  We almost always closed with a traditional hymn–singing ALL FOUR VERSES, a revelation to me (more on that later).  And we did chant, and sang in Latin, and incorporated some choral music from Protestants as well.
After graduating, getting married, moving back to Knoxville, and having a baby, we settled back into Immaculate Conception which was about a decade behind and just embracing the Glory and Praise songbooks (which contained three bird pictures I found useful in entertaining baby Emily).  It doesn’t seem to me like it has been that long since we finally retired those hymnals, but many of the songs are now so mainstream that they have found their way into the regular hymnals right alongside Stabat Mater and O Sacred Head Surrounded.  Which is, I think, as it should be.
My review of a lifetime of attending Mass and listening to church music suggests to me that the 70s and 80s were a period of experimentation in different kinds of “new” music and that now 40 years later we have reached some sort of synthesis.  Contemporary Catholic music is no longer written just for guitars.  Nothing against guitars, but variety is good.  However, I find myself preferring the St. Louis Jesuit songs from the 80s to many of the hymns we are singing today.  Although they are fun to sing and sound pretty, those that stray too far from the Bible often have lyrics that are nonsense, heresy, or just bad.
To be continued . . .

Liturgical Music II – The 70s

Before I expound further on this topic I thought it would be appropriate to set the scene with a brief background of what my experience has been with church music.

If you, like me, were born in the late 60s, you will probably relate to this.  If any pre-Vatican II folks are reading, I wish you would chime in with your experiences and observations.

My earliest memories of Mass, as I mentioned in my last post on this topic, are of John XXIII, the university parish, even though I was baptized by Bishop (not then he wasn’t, but it sounds nice to say!) Shea at Immaculate Conception and have been a member there my whole life.   John XXIII (now St. John XXII) was brand new in 1970 which is about when my memory begins, and it was very modern, with hard yellow plastic chairs and banners hanging from the dropped ceiling panels.  And the music was new and modern too.  At some point I “borrowed” a songbook–mimeographed sheets of paper in a green plastic three-ring binder—which I still have [edit:or did, until my house burned down], although I’m not going to dig through the boxes in the garage looking for it right now!  But I do remember the following songs were included: Sons of God (my favorite), Of My Hands, Men of Faith, All That We Have, They Will Know We Are Christians, and (I swear to God I am not making this up) Blowin’ in the Wind.  Judging from the difficulty I had finding lyrics to share here, most of these went by the wayside years ago.  The only ones I still hear are All That We Have and They Will Know We Are Christians, and those rarely.

Around the time I started first grade, we started going to I.C. regularly once more.  I was exposed to two distinct sources of liturgical music:  what I heard on Sundays and what I heard at daily Mass (yes, we went every day back then!) at St. Joseph.  My earliest memories at I.C. are pretty grim.  Valiantly, our organist attempted to adapt to the New Order by pounding out Gonna Sing My Lord and Kumbaya.  We continued to sing a lot of the old hymns like Now Thank We All Our God, God’s Blessing Sends Us Forth, Holy God We Praise Thy Name, The Church’s One Foundation (that was my favorite), Oh God Our Help in Ages Past (I could go on, but you get the picture).  There were other songs in the hymnal that were the popular songs of the day, and I’m sure I could sing them if I saw them, but absolutely the only one that comes to mind right now is Prayer for Peace.  I have not heard that in years, although it stuck around long enough to be subjected to the curse of inclusive language (more on that soon, I promise!).

In the meantime, I was exposed to another kind of  music at St. Joseph.  Early on, I remember the “Hi, God!” albums, with the Rev. Carey Landry’s compositions predominating:  Great Things Happen, The Spirit is A-movin’, What Makes Love Grow, Only a Shadow.  I’ll bet you remember them and that you haven’t heard them at Mass in twenty years or more.  Later we used soft-backed hymnals with a bird on the cover that were, I believe, a precursor or perhaps a first installment of the Glory and Praise series.  From these, I remember especially Blessed Be God Forever, I Believe in the Sun, Welcome In, For You Are My God.  At some point another series was introduced–there were tapes from which we learned the song, but the only words were mimeographed in folders and included such gems as Come Along with Me to Jesus (sung in a round), Thank You Lord for Giving Us Life, and If I Were a Butterfly.   (Would you believe that song has its own Facebook page?)

Besides the songs geared especially for children, we also sang from a regular missalette, so thankfully we were still being exposed to some traditional hymns like Immaculate Mary and Hail Holy Queen and To Jesus Christ our Sovereign King and O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Sister Georgeanna and Sister Janice were so dedicated in their attempts to make sure we sang at Mass, often keeping us in the cafeteria afterwards to practice.

And as I look back and can see that the songs from the 70s weren’t particularly good songs, while it may be fun to be snarky, it’s important to remember that people were doing the best they could without much guidance to come up with new songs for the new liturgy.  And as for me, even if the songs were “bad” I loved singing them and remember them fondly.   If something like I’ve Got That Joy Joy Joy Joy Down in My Heart or His Banner Over Me Is Love (complete with hand gestures) keeps kids engaged in worship to the point that they are still interested enough in the topic to make fun of the songs when they grow up, that’s something, isn’t it?

P.S.  Well over ten years ago I wrote an X-Files fanfiction story which I entitled But Then Comes the Morning, after a song I have not heard sung in Mass since the 70s.  I have seen it excoriated in lists similar to the one I wrote about in my last post. Yet TO THIS DAY I get emails from people who only found that story because they were googling that song, which they remember fondly from their own childhoods.  They are always hoping that since I quote briefly from the chorus at the end of the story that I might know all the lyrics (I remember only snippets).

To be continued . . .

Doctor Elvyn "Doc" Davidson 1923-2010

After Bob Dewine died at Easter, I was talking to his son-in-law about how sad it was to see many of the pillars of our church community growing older and leaving us.  I knew then that Doc Davidson had not been doing well, and I was dreading his loss.  I’m not sad for Doc, who lived a full and happy life, and who is surely in a better place now.  But I’m so sad for his loving family and for his extended family–the members of the Knights of Columbus, the kids at St. Joseph School and Knoxville Catholic High School, the parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church, his Sunday School class at Mt. Zion, the black community and the medical community of Knoxville.  He enriched the lives of so many people.
I remember Doc in his 4th degree regalia leading the KOC at the Martin Luther King parade and the March for Life.  I remember him in his white doctor coat in the clinic at St. Joseph.  I remember him in the football ticket booth at KCHS (he’d done that for over 30 years!).  I remember him every Sunday at 11:30 Mass serving as usher at Immaculate Conception and often serving pancakes afterwards.
Doc had already had a full and interesting life before he ever set foot in Knoxville.   I recall him telling the story of the time he was working in an emergency room in New York City and found that the stabbing victim he was treating was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Just yesterday I googled his name and found a bonanza:  a transcript of an interview of him for a Veterans’  History Project that covers his life from his birth in 1923 up into the 60s in Knoxville.  Included are stories of growing up in a mixed neighborhood in New York City, his military service including the shock of segregation, his memories of the civil rights era in Knoxville, and much more.
In his own words, Doc was a staunch Catholic, and he was honored by Pope Benedict for his service to the church.  No one could have deserved such an honor more.  He was also honored in the secular realm when a community center in East Knoxville was named for him.
And Doc was a gentleman.  My husband said this morning that he never heard Doc say a harsh word about anyone.  His was a calm voice of reason at KOC functions and Pastoral Council meetings:  he spoke with wisdom and everyone respected as well as loved him.
The family will be receiving friends this evening at Unity Mortuary.  The funeral Mass will be celebrated tomorrow morning at I.C. at 11 a.m.  And Doc will be laid to rest at Knoxville National Cemetery.  May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.  Amen.

Good morning, Baltimore!

Baltimore, Maryland was not a place I ever thought much about growing up.  I doubt it was on my list of places I wanted to visit.  But I married a man who was born and raised in Baltimore, where his mother and other relatives still live, so I have spent a lot of time there in the past 23 years.

John and I both went to Georgetown University, an hour away from Baltimore barring traffic mishaps (there are almost always traffic mishaps), so when we were dating, and then engaged, our visits there were frequent.  And we lived in Alexandria, Virginia for the first year of our marriage, and continued to be able to make it to town for holidays and family events, or just to visit.  Even after Emily was born, for awhile we made it up three times a year or more.

Moving seven people over 500 miles and paying to feed and house them for a week is a more difficult and expensive proposition.  For many years now our visits have had to be limited to once a year for the most part.  We have learned to avoid holidays, which are stressful and don’t make for the best visits.  So now our yearly summer vacation is spent in Baltimore.

Being the thrifty homemaker that I am, I discovered Hotwire years ago and can almost always score motel rooms at $50/night, usually at the same Days Inn in Glen Burnie (just outside the city) that has become our home away from home, with its big pool (yes!) and free breakfast (essential).

Because John’s mother lives in a small rowhome and our big family can be overwhelming in such tight quarters (okay, anywhere, really!) our visits have evolved to our spending the day doing something fun as a family and then meeting the Baltimore folks either at a restaurant or at the house for dinner.  They especially enjoy sharing new restaurants with us, but one evening must include crabs.  Even Lorelei is happy to pull the legs off her crab and use the hammer to smash the claws.  Picky William ate four crabs last night.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is loaded with fun things to do, like the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Aquarium.  We’ve also visited the Walters Art Museum and the grave of Edgar Allan PoeFort McHenry is a great historical site, and the kids enjoyed seeing the tanks at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on this trip.

Baltimore is a Catholic town, so we also enjoy the great variety of churches to choose from when our visit includes a Sunday.  We’ve most frequently visited Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, which is close the the motel we stayed at when the kids were small, but we’ve also been to St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, the Basilica of the Assumption and a Tridentine Easter Mass at St. Alphonsus.

Growing up in Tennessee, which takes eight hours or so to drive across, it’s hard for me to get used to how close together everything is up here.  But it makes vacation even more fun, with access to all the attractions in D.C. like the Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo, and the three hour drive (theoretically) to the beaches of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.  Over the years we have hit Wildwood, Ocean City (both of them!), and Rehoboth Beach.  We drive to the beach in the morning, swim till we are tired, then walk the boardwalk before driving back to Baltimore.

The neatest thing about our visits, though, is seeing the relationship the kids have with their family here, especially with John’s paternal grandmother, who is 92, looks 72, and is in complete possession of her feisty personality.  When I asked William what he was looking forward to about vacation, he didn’t even mention the pool or the beach.  He said, “Seeing everybody.”  It warms my heart to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when we walk into their grandmother’s house.  Even seeing family here so seldom, our children have a bond with them.  You would think they might “get crabby” about vacationing in the same place every summer, but they don’t; they enjoy it.

Check out this link for more tips on fun in New Jersey–100 of them, to be exact!

Ascent into Hell

photo by Paul Schmidt

It was with great relief that I walked into the air conditioned church this morning, but I remember when it wasn’t that way.  Summer at Immaculate Conception meant that the stained glass windows (now permanently closed and sealed with protective outer coverings) were pushed up to let in the breeze, and we sat fanning ourselves with Rose Mortuary fans.  I don’t remember being uncomfortable, or even thinking about it; it was just the way things were.
After all, we didn’t have central air at home, either.  My parents had a window air conditioner and there was one in the dining room, too.  The rest of us made do with open windows.  We were outside almost all the time anyway.  When we came in we would stand in front of the dining room unit and let it blow right on us at the coldest setting for awhile.
St. Joseph School was un-airconditioned then as well.  The windows were kept open, and if you were lucky you got to sit in the first row and have the box fan blow on you.
Our Victorian house had central air–two units in fact, one for each floor.  And the house was built for coolness back in pre-air conditioning days, with its high ceilings, large windows, and transoms above the bedroom doors.  But the windows were mostly not operational, the air conditioners were old and not up to keeping the temperature down, and most summers we lived there one unit or the other would be down at least part of the time.   We were used to the termperature downstairs hovering around 80 by the worst part of the summer.
I don’t think we even noticed our current house was without central air until we had already made the decision to move in.  It’s a split level and the bottom floor has a unit that cools the den, bathroom, and four bedrooms there.  But the middle floor with the kitchen, dining area, and kitchen, and the upper floor with two bedrooms, the office, and bathrooms, are devoid of that modern necessity, the air conditioner.
There was a time when I opined that we have all been spoiled by air conditioning, that we should expect to be warmer in the summer and colder in the winter, that air conditioning keeps people inside instead of outdoors exercising, enjoying the sunshine, sitting on the porch, and visiting with the neighbors.  With nostalgia have I read the following passages from A Death in the Family, lamenting the passing of the Good Old Days:

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
. . . It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street  . . .Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. . . .
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. . .

So I thought we would fling open our windows, be grateful for the many shade trees, enjoy cool breezes on the patio, and embrace the warmth of summer.  What with the whole house fan to circulate the evening’s cooler air, we did all of that and made out okay until a few days ago.  The past two days, the outdoor temperature has reached at least 95 and there is not a breath of air anywhere.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 90 in the main parts of the house.  Even going outside brings no relief, unless a steambath is your idea of relief.   When you walk up out of the air conditioning, it’s like ascending into Hell.
Taken by surprise by this heat wave, we had not yet set up all three of the portable units which came with the house.  I have to give in and admit I am as spoiled as everyone else.  I now have one of them more or less trained directly on me as I write, and I am feeling very grateful for modern technology.
EDIT: That house BURNED DOWN.  Although it was not spontaneous combustion caused by the lack of air conditioning, as I read this post the irony is not lost on me.  We now live in a very well air-conditioned home and I am grateful.

The Circle of Life

Here’s a column I wrote in August 2007, that seems especially appropriate today.
The circle of life” isn’t just an idea dreamed up by Disney. Every day we are confronted with its reality–births, deaths, and every stage and milestone in between. Rarely, though, has it hit me so hard as this past weekend.
On Friday morning, I remembered that a dear friend, with whom I have kept in touch since high school, would be in the hospital having her first baby that day. Kris and her husband, Colin, live in Florida, so I knew I’d have to wait for the happy news, but I thought about her and the baby throughout the event-crammed weekend.
Saturday was a particularly busy day, with celebrations of two of life’s milestones. That morning, I attended a Memorial Mass for Dr. Tom Ryan. I knew Dr. Ryan in recent years as a fellow parishioner at Immaculate Conception and organizer along with his wife of the monthly Book Swap which serves to feed my family’s book-collecting addiction. But I’ve known the Ryans since I was a little girl because their children were at St. Joseph when I was and Mrs. Ryan was my high school speech teacher, guidance counselor, and drama club sponsor.
Dr. Ryan planned his own Memorial Mass, and the celebration in the Parish Hall afterwards was lively, with Irish music, mimosas, and laughter as well as tears. His five grandchildren and the stories shared by his family were vibrant reminders that we live on in our descendants and in the memories of those we leave behind.
Only a few hours later I found myself at a wedding. My husband and I were married just out of college and before most of our peers, and for many years after our marriage we were attending weddings of friends and family frequently. Then we moved on to baby showers. In recent years we’ve attended lots of funerals. Now, apparently, we are entering a new stage–the weddings of our friends’ children. For those of you who have not yet experienced it, nothing will make you feel older than watching your date to the Junior Prom walking his 20-year-old daughter down the aisle on her wedding day!
The bride’s mother and I spent many hours together at Knoxville Catholic High School, between Drama Club, Mock Trial, and the Green and Gold newspaper. We’re the kind of friends who go years without a word and then run into each other in Kohl’s and talk for an hour (to the disgust of any children accompanying us). Seeing her as mother of the bride was surreal. But it was a lovely wedding, and Emily was the happiest bride I think I’ve ever seen–she never stopped smiling. We enjoyed sitting across from her new mother-in-law, who was holding the beautiful newborn daughter of a relative and talking about her own soon-to-arrive grandchild, the son of the groom’s older brother. “I’m not going to let anyone spoil my grandbaby,” she announced. “I’m going to hold him 24 hours a day to make sure.”
I remember two-year-old Emily charming us all at one of my own wedding showers–a time very much on my mind because this Sunday was our 18th anniversary. We had planned to celebrate as we usually do, but in the end we had to postpone our plans because we were too busy with arrangements for another big day–the first day of school for my own Emily and her brothers Jake and Teddy (William already started last week). We spent all afternoon and most of the evening buying school supplies and helping Emily with the finishing touches on her summer assignment for AP English.
The children all finally in bed (way past the appropriate time, naturally), I finally had a few minutes to sit down and check my email, and was thrilled to find one from my friend Kris’s mother, announcing that baby Andrew had arrived Friday afternoon. A birth, a funeral, a wedding, and an anniversary–it sounds like a movie but it’s really just Life, isn’t it?
EDIT: Kris has two boys now, and the “newlyweds” are the proud parents of two boys and a girl.