Sunday, November 20, 2016


When I gaze into the night skies and see the work of your finger
The moon and stars suspended in space,
Oh, what is man that you are mindful of him?

I broke down and wept today.

Crying is nothing new for me.  In 4th grade, I received a grade of 'N' under the behavior heading of 'Self Control'.  'N' stands for 'Needs to Improve'.

It was true.  I did need to improve.  I was a wreck, re-integrating into a society from which I had been absent for two years while we lived isolated from everything on the Amazon.  I did not understand the rules of society, and any rules that I knew had changed since I left, halfway through the second grade.

My response to all of the stress was tears.  Crying because I did not know about a rule to one of the sports in recess.  Crying when I realized that show-and-tell had fallen by the wayside while I was out of the country.  Weeping in frustration, in fear, and out of uncertainty.  I remember particularly an incident where I wept over the request/requirement that I cut the edges off of the homework assignment before turning it in. Sobbing as I used my blunt-tipped scissors to cut the ragged edges off of the paper.

Over time, the tears became more infrequent.  By the end of the year, I no longer got an N, and it ceased to be a problem.  Mostly.  The truth is, I now no longer define myself by my tears, as I did that year.

When the tears start, though, it is far more memorable.  Failing my oral exams, and having David Anderson walking with me as I broke down.  An embarrassing moment in Yucatan when I had carefully laid plans for extended family waylaid by a parking attendant.  A moment of terror when I heard what I thought what I thought was my wife crying out in distress after her cancer surgery, and the scalding flood of tears that followed.

My tears don't come often, but come as a surprise when they come.

So today, when I walked into choir, and picked up the music, I was unprepared.  I was out of state this week for rehearsal, so I was going to be sightsinging the music.  The music - a piece by Tom Fettke called The Glory and Majesty of thy Name - was one that I knew, having heard it a number of times before.  It is based on Psalm 8, a lovely song attributed to David, that captures the amazing beauty and enormity of the night sky.

The story that I heard was that Dad had been on the USN destroyer vessel in the Black Sea, keeping a late night watch, looking at the enormity of the night sky, and found himself reciting the psalm.  Every time that his church choir sang this particular song, he flashed back to the unspeakable glory of that night.

The Easley First Baptist Church choir sang that song in the chapel after my dad died.

I had not heard the song again until the moment that I opened my mouth to sing it in the choir room. I made it about half way through, before I closed the music and cried.  The soaring Alleluias were what finally took me down.  It is a glorious, joyful, powerful piece, and I was helpless in its wake.

Music has done it to me before.  One week last year, it was a hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I Survey was a tune we sang every year in Glee Club at Wofford, and it was always one of the most intense songs in my emotional repertoire.  Singing the words, in unison, with 60 of the most powerful men I have ever met, blending my voice in full-throated harmony:

Were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
demands my life, my life, my all.

The words are powerful; the context even more so.  So whenever I sing the song, I am reminded of that setting.  Until....

Until I got into the middle of the song, and, like today, the tune hits the emotional center of my brain. The tears come before the memory of singing that hymn at my dad's funeral does.  And suddenly, I go from singing properly, with supported diaphragm, deep breaths, in my most powerful baritone (the tenor having long ago fallen into disuse) to being unable to catch my breath for the heaving sobs.

Worse, still, I had read the lectionary for the day.  So I was not only weeping in public, but I was weeping in front of the congregation.  Some odd/alarmed/concerned looks later, I had mostly gotten myself back under control.

So, today, after rehearsal, I explained to the choir what had happened.  The choir director, in total sympathy, offered to let me sit out if I needed to.  But I didn't.  Although it remained a powerful song that resonated with me on numerous levels, I sang with the choir, joyfully singing a song that had left me crying just moments before.

I think of my dad with joy and pride.  There is not a lot of residual sadness remaining there about his death.  But there are odd times when it does show up; when music serves as an emotional trigger.  When music has power over me that I can neither deny or defy.

And when it hits, I take a moment, reveling in the rarity of a moment of pure emotion.

Paying homage to the 4th-grade boy who struggled with control.

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