Oakdale Community Choir Newsletter—May, 2011
Thanks to all the writers who contributed to this newsletter. In this installment, I’ve divided the excerpts into five categories. In the first section, “Choir,” singer-writers reflect on the choir itself. The second section, “Concerts” contains choir members’ comments about past concerts; the third section, “Songs,” features responses to songs we prepared for our spring 2011 concert; the fourth section, “Musical Life,” contains excerpts from choir members’ musical biographies, and the final section, “Muriel Stackley: Keeping the spirit and passing it on,” contains choir members’ responses to the farewell letter from Dr. Mary Cohen’s friend, Muriel Stackley. I hope you enjoy reading these reflections from our spring, 2011 choir season.
Mary Trachsel, (Ed.)
The choir here at Oakdale provides a great opportunity for personal interaction. It is also a great forum for conveying values and exchanging perspectives. For some of the inmates here, it is the only personal interaction possible, other than with guards and other inmates. This lack of personal contact is not healthy, either socially, emotionally, or psychologically. Thanks to all who seek to breach the wall that isolation builds.
In 2009, I was asked to come to a performance by the choir here at Oakdale. I was impressed by the singing but wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved. That summer I joined the newly-formed Writers’ Workshop. I began to write prolifically: short stories, autobiographical pieces, poetry, and even some song lyrics. The following summer I joined the Songwriters’ Workshop. Then I joined the choir.
When it was time to take our places for our first song, that rush of excitement I always get before a concert came over me belatedly. Normally I’m so concerned with how I look as a performer that I don’t ever get to see the faces in the audience (this could also be because usually during a choir concert there are giant bright stage lights in my eyes). Usually I have t ask people afterward, “So, how did you like it?” However, at this concert I was lucky enough to be able to see what everyone thought and liked. I really enjoyed the personal interaction we had with the audience.
I wish that more of the insiders could have had family come to the performance like I was able to have my mom come. I did talk to the wife of one of the insiders afterwards as I was preparing to go home after the concert. She enjoyed the concert but again I was struck by the thought that she couldn’t talk to her husband immediately after the concert about the performance, just some stranger. As always, I enjoyed our pre-concert talks. I wish we had more time to talk. Even though my small groups often seem to lose some focus on the original topic, I think even our trivial conversations are meaningful and important in their own way. Before musicking with the OCC I never thought about being a parent in prison or how much I spend on little things, like pop or a candy bar.
My second concert with the choir was a way for me to not be so self-centered. I love all the fun that we have shared. I’m so glad that the choir has come so far and that I’m no longer scared to sing out.
Ensemble performance fulfills the deep need to be close to others and so connected in thought that you are standing shoulder to shoulder, aware of the very breath of your fellow performers, feeling a primal, emotional, human connection. Ensemble performance is at the core of what is best about our hearts, bodies, and minds, because beauty and truth from the human imagination are the results of it. By focusing on an organization larger than ourselves, we feel a commonality in the joys, sufferings and emotions that those who have gone before us have experienced, and those who will live after us will also know.
The song “Inside the Fences,” to me, is a sad song, because this is my first and last time in prison. I miss my wife terribly. I was thinking that in addition to the words, there might be another verse: maybe something like—“From the inside, I see the blue sky,/ Realizing that God created it for us/ And when I look into that beautiful sky/ I realize that the woman I love sees the same blue sky./ I wonder, yes, I wonder when I will be in my love’s arms again.
“Release the Darkness” hits home with me because I spent a large part of my life doing anything that occurred to me to do with no thought of how those things affected the people around me. I spent all that time trying to find things to make me feel happy and complete. Nothing I ever did accomplished that goal. Releasing the darkness for me was—is—the determining to not do, think, say, want anything that is not good for those around me.
“Release the Darkness” is a song about addiction and self-deception. As such, it contains many things I can relate to…. We can make excuses forever, justifying our actions and lying to ourselves. Even our memories of our pasts we often subconsciously alter to give us reasons for what we did or did not do. We conform them to show ourselves to ourselves in the best light possible. None of this is the truth.
“Release the Darkness” means to me: Growing up with alcoholics in the 50’s—their spending most of their free time and money at the neighborhood bar in the darkness, searching for that happiness.
It’s okay that Shay’s lyrics are not resolved. Because there is change, resolution is fleeting. It is in the offering and asking that something concrete is created. Awareness of the unity of human experience is what is constant when we share things through asking and offering. While that unity can seem fleeting, I think it goes into the bones and muscles and speaks in our gestures, even when we can’t bring it to consciousness. The opposite is true too. We can speak with acceptance and love, but our bodies will tell the truth, and they are open to everyone.
“Release the Darkness” is a really beautiful song—and it seems to speak of someone who has reached rock bottom. The old thinking, choices, patterns of behavior don’t work anymore. It’s a dark song, but I think there’s an element of hope in it. Often in the darkness and anguish there’s an opportunity to awaken in some way.
Through “Tapestry” we can experience a sense of the rhythm of the eternal living of life. The lyrics illustrate the unique as well as the day to day experiences; the beginnings and endings; the passing on of genes. The music evokes a sense of a room full of looms, shuttles flowing, dully or excitedly clicking away.
The chorus says we can’t do it alone. We have to weave it all together.
What I remember about “Tapestry” weaving in college is… that it required attention to detail and it also allowed creative freedom in the process. I had a direct sense of drawing with the yarn. Layers can be built up over layers. There is an intensity of color and texture in stitches. It’s a celebration of the weft, since the warp is usually totally covered, but with care, one could choose to leave areas of warp exposed—the raw bones, you could say. The surprise is, if a cloth has been sewn on the back to help the tapestry keep its shape when it is hung, after years, when the back is exposed, the color of the yarn will be as intense as when it was first woven. I guess you could take any part of this and apply it to the tapestry of your life.
Introductory scene for “Seek to Serve”: A young soldier sits on a hillside in Vietnam, lonely and alone. He cries when he thinks of his month-old daughter and his wife at home…this day he turns 21. He “seeks to serve” his country.
“Freedom Come”: Sitting outside drinking iced tea, to watch the sunset pleases me/ But aside from watching old westerns, free is what I’ll be.
As a teenager, I was a geeky kid with no social life, and Beethoven’s Sonatas were my life—that and the church songs. Much later, I was a small-town piano teacher in a remote part of West Virginia. I saw a newspaper ad for a church organist. I told them at my interview, “I’ve never played the organ in my life, but I’m a pretty good pianist…They said, “You’re hired.”
I was a member of the cast for the community production of Fiddler on the Roof. I played various (solo dance) parts: as a Russian soldier, villager, and bottle dancer in the wedding scene.
I sang in church and in the children’s choir from the start. I couldn’t have imagined not singing. In the fifth grade I started the clarinet. I played all through school and still play today, but never applied myself enough to be very good at it.
As long as I can remember, music has been a part of me. Mostly country music. It stayed that way until I joined the choir. Now I find myself listening to Iowa Public Radio classical. And enjoying it very much, especially the masters.
When my sister started piano lessons at age seven, I, age four, stood behind the teacher, memorizing the songs.
Muriel Stackley: Keeping the spirit and passing it on
I’ve read the letter from Muriel Stackley through many times now and sent it off to friends. I imagine the people who have read her words as her time on earth was coming to a close. I began to wish I’d had a person such as Muriel to give me a vision and guidance as a young person. But by sharing Muriel’s thoughts with us, Mary has given all of us a mentor—a caring teacher, a loving mother, a wise grandmother.
It is inevitable that as we age we become the older generation and we pass to the younger the torches we have received from those who came before us. Even if we lit a new torch in some area of endeavor, we still stood on the shoulders of people who came before us. We are caretakers during our time. It is our responsibility to do our best in the various areas of our lives and to share our endeavors with those who follow.
Only one word is sufficient to describe Muriel’s attitude toward life and death. That word is “grace.” Grace to accept the future. Grace to put away the past. Grace to “pass the torch” instead of clinging desperately to the things f this world. Grace to see her place in God’s great plan and be satisfied with it. Amazing grace. An image of Christ on the countenance of man. An inspiration.
It’s always sad to get a last “keep the spirit” letter from someone like Mary’s friend, but very inspirational and encouraging too. By coincidence, I received a “Keep the faith” email from a friend from Uganda this week. His name is Hosea, and he’s a gardener at a chimpanzee sanctuary on an island in Lake Victoria. I weeded pathways and planted seeds with him the first time we visited in 2006. At the end of our visit we planted an orange tree together and I said I would try to come back and see it growing. When we returned in 2010, the orange tree had died. We planted a jackfruit tree and my husband and I said we would try to come back in another four years. This week Hosea wrote to say that things were going well in all sorts of ways except one—there has been “too much shining” at Ngamba, and the jackfruit tree has dried up. In its place he has planted a mango tree, and so far it is doing well. At the end of his email he thanked me for “keeping the spirit.”
Muriel does balance reality with hope. She knows she will be leaving this life, but sees visions of eternity, with hope. As a parting gift, she offers…words of encouragement and advice. Even though I don’t know her, I want to listen to her words as a reminder that even if my life is filled with good things and positive activities, I must take time to “love one another,” to “work together to form lasting peace” and to “sing out daily with …joy,” and to love my friends and family generously and uninhibitedly…and let them know.
As a human family, we are linked together through time and common experiences. As musicians, what we can give to the next generation cannot be underestimated; more than ever we are needed to fulfill the deep need by facilitating a true connection to others, for teaching that process is just as important as product, that the spiritual rewards of cooperation that result in astonishing beauty are worth it…
If God gives you a gift, you have to use it and trust that somehow you serve both Him and the world.
[Muriel’s letter] is beautifully written. It gushes with not only love but acceptance; accepting the final call as well as the graciousness of accepting a good-bye. …though I don’t know this woman, I feel as if she’s giving me a chance to release her while holding on to all things she keeps dear. It’s beautiful.