The Better-late-than-never, Thanksgiving 2009 edition of The Oakdale Volunteer Choir Newsletter.
A word from the editors: At the beginning of the winter holiday season, we are thankful for this choir and the opportunities it gives us to make music and socialize with all of you. Thanks to Dr. Cohen for leading us, and thanks to Bill Hilderbrand for supplying the turkey for this issue.—Mary Trachsel and Jen Gerbyshak
Rivers and Rocks
I’ve had a lot of feedback from the staff members. They really enjoyed the concert; they can’t wait for our next one in December. I thought the concert was very good on August 25. The support of the choir helped me get through my song. Even though we didn’t have as many choir members as in our first concert, we still performed the songs with a lot of heart and pride.
I felt the performances we gave in August/September were good, but not as good as our first performance in April. We didn’t have as much time to rehearse and sometimes lacking the presence of our director made a huge difference. Summertime is a difficult time, with so many things going on, but all in all, I felt we gave a strong performance and I liked the selections of songs. Our director Dr. Cohen is like a large magnet and we are all pieces of metal, and she just pulls us all together.
We’re all doing time
To do my own time, I try to stay involved with many different activities. Most of them involve helping other people, such as the Hospice Care Program, Music as Therapy, Chapel choir as well as the Praise and Worship Band and the Community Choir. On my unit there is a man about my age who cannot read or write. I help him when he gets letters from home by reading them to him and then help him by writing responding letters to his family. I’m also helping him learn to read and write. For me, helping people is a fairly new concept which I find to be fulfilling….All of the things I do here are to better myself so that when I get out of prison, I can be a better person and to live a more productive life in society.
Since I entered prison, I’ve made it a point to utilize my time the best way I can. I keep myself involved in different activities—for example Hospice, Hospice Music as Therapy. I joined Hospice 6 years ago so I could give back as well as help my fellow man, so that when they get near the end of life, they are not alone. You learn about empathy and compassion this way…and now I’m a member of the Community Choir on Tuesday evenings. I’m so busy that the time goes by fairly fast. I don’t have time to think or dwell upon my sentence
I have come across the idea of ‘doing one’s own time” before. The novel, American Gods by Neil Gaiman began with the protagonist, Shadow, in prison. He was getting to the end of his three-year sentence and thought a lot about doing his own time; there was no point in doing anybody else’s too. I am not incarcerated. But like Shadow, I’ve found the philosophy of doing my own time is useful whenever I’m faced with situations outside my control. In such situations, trying to bend the scenario or the people involved to my will only results in frustration, bitterness, and learned helplessness. I can be persuasive and I sometimes win arguments or arrange a few details my way, but in the end, the world is bigger than I am. I can’t win every debate or arrange the future to my liking. When I finally learned to give up fighting the world, to get off the roller-coaster, I found life easier to navigate. The Al-Anon word for this state is serenity, and I believe it can help everyone who experiences conflict, not just those affected by addiction.
Spending time with each other
Tonight was the first time since the choir started that I noticed my poems have become lighter in substance. Whether it’s because I’m happier, or my soul’s lighter, does mean a lot to me, but what means most to me is that it’s because of the choir. I tell many people of the personal growth I’ve had in the choir, but it took seeing it through someone else’s eyes for me to grasp how big it was.
I’m fortunate to be part of this community choir. I was very excited to have a chance to visit with all of the volunteers. I’ve wanted to visit with them ever since the choir started. I found myself relaxed and open to everyone….Hearing from the other volunteers reassured me of how much people really like what we are doing for the institution. The session helped me realize how good I feel knowing that people care about me and others. My goal is to sing as long as I can
I’m impressed by the IMCC men whose writings demonstrate that they are students of their lives and have asked themselves very painful questions, resulting in profound insights. They are on the road (figuratively and/or literally) to freedom. Such an achievement!
It was such a treat to sing the home-authored blues songs in the choir. What a great feeling to hear my own words sung by these people I’ve come to know. And the piano player! What can I say? The experience made me feel as though I am really a part of this community.
I was delighted to finally have a chance to learn more names and actually talk with some of the people I’ve only seen in previous sessions. There are a few shy volunteers, but there are some outgoing people too. It was great that even the shy ones felt comfortable enough to share how they felt about the group.
The feedback session was great (although loud!) especially for this reason: it aided me in connecting names and faces of the insiders during this one-on-one conversation. I’m not great with names and faces, unlike our beloved Dr. Cohen, who seems to have perfect pitch when it comes to connecting names and faces. And the Ids worn by the insiders don’t help, because they display in prominent type the surnames. I’d prefer to know them by their given names….When I learned that one of the inside members would be leaving us, I felt a sense of loss I hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps in his next placement, he can act as a catalyst for creating a choir. I love his enthusiasm for the day that he can volunteer as a community participant of a prison choir. I hope I’m still singing when he returns.
How would this choir help or hinder how I do my own time? It could hinder because it would conflict with my gym workouts and the chance to play softball, which I love the most. It also makes it harder to make it to Catholic Church service, and other prisoners will make fun of me for doing such an unmanly activity as singing in a choir. But it will help me develop friendships with other inmates and volunteers that I may not otherwise have. It will help me grow in my musical ability to read music…and build a better relationship with my family because I will be able to send them a CD of our concert. I’ll have something “new” that is enjoyable and exciting, plus I don’t have to worry about what to do on Tuesday nights, so I can stay out of trouble.
The choir feeds me with hope and energy to go from day to day. It also confirms to me that some people on the outside of prison have a heart and care about our rehabilitation—that when we get out, there are people who will give us a chance to become productive citizens.
In response to Bo Lozoff and the Dalai Lama
I’m not sure how a Christian could believe much of what Bo says in his book….One cannot take a little bit from three or four religions and try to please everyone.
I know the hybrid religion Lozoff offers in this book disturbs some people who are strongly committed to Christian doctrine that denies the validity of any other way. I think Lozoff is trying to say that the Christian truths are recognized as truths in other traditions as well—several different traditions express the same things in different ways. His central message—of mindfulness of self and others—doesn’t’ seem any different from what I learned in my Christian upbringing. The golden rule of Christianity, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems to hold up in Lozoff’s text.
One of my favorite sentences from the Dalai Lama is “It is futile to harbor hatred and ill-will toward those who abuse us.” That can be a difficult thing to do. Those who abuse through mental or physical means can create deep, ingrained scars. Can the abused by healed through the development of love and compassion? I would say that developing love and compassion is rare on an isolated journey, but is more readily attained through ubuntu and a community.
I disagree with the Dalai Lama’s first statement. I don’t believe the primary reason for religion has anything to do with making people better human beings. The primary purpose of religion is to help people reconcile the totality of their lives, their own piece of the human condition with God’s existence and the purpose of creation. Becoming better human beings may come out of the self discovery process, but whether people become become good, tranquil and compassionate or not may have nothing to do with the ultimate truth of God.
When reading the foreword, I found myself shaking my head yes to what the Dalai Lama was saying. Whenever I get mad at someone and hold onto that anger, it only gets worse and makes me feel bad….However, the end of the quote, “even toward those who abuse us” is where I can’t fully agree. Yes, you should love your neighbor and forgive, but what if the sin is too evil to forgive? In my mind, I would say forgive and love, and be a good person to anybody. But in my heart, I wonder what if something was so heinous, so terrible, how could you forgive? And I don’t just mean forgive the person. Sometimes it’s being angry with God or yourself, or maybe your parents—whoever taught you something that was wrong. It was so much easier as a kid to just forgive a friend for hurting your feelings. As an adult, things are much more complicated.
A lot of stuff I own…gets in my way of seeing the “wider wondrous world” the author speaks to. When the possessions elicit memories, I wallow in the past; the next moment my mind jumps to a possible future need for the next item. Wading through my stuff can be quite uncomfortable, and I get stuck and quit, but then start up again, sorting and moving it out. The sense of security that seems to be offered by owning so many things if fleeting and burdensome.
When our children were small and my husband was away, I often felt overwhelmed, especially in the evenings when everyone was cranky and he wasn’t there to help. I felt like a victim! But my attitude changed from just trying to get through the evening to seeing that even bath time with cranky children can be a spiritual time if I viewed it as a privilege to love and be loved by these three charming little ones, to serve and be served through the mother-child relationship. My whole perspective changed when I started to pay attention to the spiritual side of motherhood.
When Lozoff says “pay attention spiritually,” he means to always be in a state of mind where you’re not completely caught up in the chaos of the world around us. Be sensitive to the still, small voice of your spirit (what Christians call the holy spirit) so that life doesn’t become a series of overwhelming activities, but instead, a calm sequence of situations that are easily or responsibly handled through out each hour of the day. In doing so, we can feel good about any situation we encounter, because it’s a matter of acceptance rather than a need to control.
Knowing what to focus my attention on is an ongoing challenge to me. If I try to pay attention to too many things at once, I end up paying not very good attention to any of them. I learned an important lesson about paying attention in my early days of motherhood. I was fortunate to be able to stay home with them full time in the first year of their lives. Although this was a blessing to me, it also bothered me and made me anxious that while all my peers were heading off to their new careers, I was spending all my time with babies and their laundry and many service needs. I’d feel as though I should be accomplishing something else. Whenever I started thinking like this, my attention would stray from my babies, and everything would fall apart. I learned to make distinct separations between paying attention to my kids and paying attention to my career. I learned that when I was with my kids, I had to be 100% with them—present to them and myself in the moment.
Finding Peace, Making Music
Having the opportunity to have a choir at Oakdale has helped me pass my time peacefully and positively. Having the sense of oneness when we perform has been very special to me. Just knowing I can be part of something like this helps me plan for my future. Being with the volunteers has helped me greatly because of the respect they have given me.
Where will I go from here? That I will answer. I’m going back to society with my head held high. I’m bringing with me the gifts from this choir to use in hopes of helping others.
For me to be at peace with myself is being strong in my Christian faith and coming to terms that I can’t change the past, but I can change the here and now, even in this place.
An unsettled mind can rob us of our peace and of our rest. I’ve spent so many restless nights fretting over things that simply worked themselves out in the end. Desires too can drive us to excel or can drive us to destroy all we hold dear.
Bo mentions that lasting peace is part of a mystery, but there is no mystery for me. I never had lasting peace with myself until I came to prison. So this incarceration has turned into the best spiritual break of a lifetime for me. This is where I came to know what lasting peace is, and the peace I now have is the lasting peace I’ve been longing for my whole life.
The songs we sing
The phrase that best captures the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is “deliciously evil.” While it doesn’t actually condone or promote the moral failures of the Grinch, it seems to revel in enumerating them. Syncopated, with triplets, slinky clarinets, sneaky plucked strings and brass szforzandos, it’s all kinds of fun. Add to that the rumbling bass vocalist singing creative Seussian lyrics, and you have one swinging song! I must state for the record, though, that I miss some of the lyrics in our version. There’s a line that says, “You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Grinch. Given the choice between the two of you, I’d pick the…seasick crocodile.”
Whenever we sing “Mr Grinch” in rehearsal, it stays lodged in my head all week. It’s especially relentless at night when I go to bed. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep because my mind is playing snatches of the song over and over again. Especially “You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel” and “Your heart is filled with unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk.” These are not lyrics that lull a person to sleep. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, hearing those lines in my head…and I feel haunted by the song.
The song “Keep your lamps” means we should always be spiritually ready because we never know when we will pass or the end of times will come. If we’re not prepared, we’ll be passed by; however, if we are prepared, we will join our Lord Jesus.
“Keep Your Lamps” is a very appropriate song for this time of year. As we get closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we need to keep our candles lighted. The light helps us remember that he was the great creator. We’re all God’s children, and need to remember he loves us all the time.
“Go Light Your World” reminds us that we all have special talents within us….Without trying, we will never know whether we could or couldn’t accomplish our goals. The spirit in us is part of God’s wonderful power, igniting us in ways to help our sister and brother that we don’t really understand…When we run to the darkness, we can spread good news and help people know that they are just as important, even though they feel they have failed.
“Cover Him Joseph” is a simple song that reminds us that even a savior start out as a small child who needs to be taken care of. When a parent is put in prison, the child loses a caregiver. They lose a champion. No loss to an incarcerated person ever rivals the loss of daily contact with our children. For many, no pain is as great as being unable to help and comfort them as they grow.
“Cover him Joseph” is an all-time favorite of mine because of the message it brings. When we learn about Jesus, we learn that he covers us and answers our prayers, but we see in the song that Joseph had to cover him. Everytime I sing this song, I’m happy because I know he loves us all.”
“Celebrate me Home” means more to me now than ever. In my mind it’s a plea to God to reunite me with my family, as if the act of celebration can transport me back home. It’s a sad, yearning, but also hopeful song. The close we get to the holidays, the greater the sense of loss and separation for me. Part of that is from knowing my wife is alone and lonely through the holidays. We both know we’ll survive the separation another year, but each year seems harder than the last. That’s most likely an illusion of proximity; last year’s aches have subsided. Still, we’re aging, and it seems to me that my wife is struggling harder than ever. I want so much to comfort her. So, please, celebrate me home.