I have been a follower, if not always an admirer, for many years.
Your change of heart, more quantifiable with each successive column I read from or about you, has touched me a great deal.
Suffice to say I weathered some of your former comments, written or on CTS, no worse for wear but, so convincing were you, I find I need to pinch myself to take in how you have changed.
I am by no means a model gay citizen. A recovering alcoholic, HIV-positive for 26 years, and a gay rights activist since 1981, my journey seemed to be at right angles to yours. I don’t know that I have ever scorned you in public but, to the extent that I have resented you, I apologize. I nevertheless admired the strength with which you held your convictions.
This spring’s presentation of the award in my brother’s memory will include a couple of firsts – two individuals are being cited and they’re from across the Canada-U.S. border in neighbouring Vermont.
To be more accurate, one-half of the couple of Dr. Delores Barbeau and Carol Olstad, R.N. will be honoured posthumously as Carol, who incidentally was a Canadian born in Alberta, unfortunately died last October in their adopted home of Weston, Vermont.
The two met in 1983 while working in strife-torn Bolivia, Delores as a Maryknoll nun-turned-physician and Carol a registered nurse working under the auspices of the Canadian Baptist Overseas Mission Board.
Delores had only lived and worked with Bolivians since 1969 and, given the political climate, knew how much safer it would be to avoid becoming attached to Carol.
Bolivian authorities were already suspicious, to say the least, of church aid workers in their midst (let alone white North Americans); not easily dissuaded from their presumptions of CIA connections. Imagine if they knew they were lesbians!
But the Bolivian Ministry of Health assigned the two to work together, within a year of their first meeting, in a remote tropical jungle.
Not more than a year later the government had put Delores on a hit list and the two fled Bolivia, travelling to Nicaragua to work for five years alongside the people defending their dignity and rights against American-backed rebel forces out to destroy the successful Sandinista government. (This corrects my earlier history-fogged equating of the rebels as the more courageous side to be on!)
In 1991 Delores and Carol returned to the United States, first New York and Massachusetts and then Vermont, sharing their lives openly as a couple while continuing to live the “social gospel” lessons of their respective faiths, even if no longer so affiliated. (They have since enjoyed the community of the Monks of Western Priory in Vermont where Carol was solemnly and happily remembered following her death in October of last year.)
In a letter to loved ones about her experiences, Delores concludes:
So. That was Bolivia.
What was it like?
It changed my life forever.
I learned to love.
I learned to look at things in a new way and walked in many different shoes.
I learned other definitions for family.
I learned that there were priorities.
I learned to dance.
I stood before mass graves, and buried many friends.
I learned what fear really felt like.
…and in all of this I never knew a time when I did not know God.
I know, I know – George Frederick Handel’s famous work is actually an Oratorio. (A musical would require lots of period costumes and at least one big dance number! Now imagine combining that with Mel Gibson’s gratuitously blood-letting Passion of the Christ. No, let’s not.)
This was the time of year, probably forty years ago, that I first heard Messiah performed. More about that presently. Contrary to common practice, when versions of the Messiah compete with one another in the city, the work was not written for Christmas. Only the first part of the composition has to do with the birth of Jesus. The second and third parts focus on the stories of his death, resurrection, sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and then the dream of a final resurrection of all believers. (Think of the overwhelming conclusion Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.) Handel’s masterpiece was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter.
The very next year a lasting tradition was born when, as the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus began during a performance on March 23, 1743, King George II rose to his feet. Speculation as to why have ranged from His Majesty needing to stretch his legs, his mistaking the opening notes for the national anthem, to his simply being so overwhelmed with the music that he felt compelled to stand. Nevertheless people the world over still rise at the sounding of the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus.
It was spring, before Easter, somewhere in the early 1970s that I first heard Messiah. Hardly a stellar performance, I’ve only enjoyed better and better renditions since. The venue was a United Church in Cornwall, an industrial place of about 50,000 just across the Ontario border from our home in (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield, Quebec. I don’t remember what sort of orchestra was involved, if any, and I would only be guessing if I called the choir The Seaway Valley Chorus, a combined choir from every church from Brockville to Lancaster.
A family friend, Robert, was minister at this church and he and his wife, Marilyn, and their children were back and forth with us three or four times each year. Unfortunately this was one of the last times we saw Marilyn, who died of cancer following a brain tumour.
Something eerily similar comes to mind as I listen to I know that my Redeemer liveth which comes right after Hallelujah. As organist and choir director of a very small United Church in Valleyfield, Mom was fortunate to have two very talented soloists. One of them, Martha, a contralto, sang this piece on a couple of Easter occasions before she died of cancer.
The sum-total of the music, combined with a great performance – either live or recorded – completely eclipses whatever bittersweet associations I have with the work from my early days of learning about it.
“I brought a book I think you’ll find interesting,” my cousin said as we sat down for lunch recently, handing me a paperback copy of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.
I believe, now having read it, that she might have been nudged to give me this book because she knows, perhaps as much as any confidant, “The Great Sadness” (as the novelist puts it) which has been stored, occasionally visited, and allowed to grow unchecked in my own run-down Shack. I’m guessing she might believe some of the messages of the novel could be applicable to me.
It is not difficult for me to imagine how wrenching it would be, certainly a step out in faith, to face those men I have written about who wronged me in my childhood and youth. At least one is dead and the others, well, I don’t even know their names let alone their current state-of-being.
That’s not the point. Were they to appear in my dreams I would almost certainly be forced to confront them. Would I, in such a dream, or do I now, in compartmentalized pain, feel willing – to say nothing of empowered – to symbolically release their throats from the anger of my tight grasp and hand them over to the power whose many names include God?
The message seems to be to trust that something beyond my judgment, my imagination – beyond belief often – is a better repository for my judgment (which I ultimately can’t inflict anyway) than am I.
Somehow, in releasing my grip, I imagine forgiveness looks more like letting go – leaving judgment to forces beyond me. The haunting “monsters” of my past, after all, are dead as far as I know so my preoccupation with holding on, even if it’s not uppermost in my consciousness, is clearly only hurting me. I get that. To let go completely, though, seems more than I can do – at least on my own. Another message of the book, then perhaps, is that I don’t have to do it by myself.
To the best of my ability I release my hold on these men, that in letting go of them their power over me will be lessened. I will not, however, shy away from using the experience – all of it – as best I can whenever I believe it might be of assistance to someone else.
“This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…”
There are people who cross our path at random and without knowing just how they transform us.
In the 1980s, a mysterious illness was striking the gay community in Montreal. Acquaintances were dying around me. I was terrified. At that time I was not “out”, essentially living in a gay underground. I hid because I was ashamed of who I was. I hid because I was told again and again that being gay was against nature, immoral, abnormal. Imagine being more affected by what was dubbed the “gay cancer.”
I entered adulthood marked by a childhood in the holy water, where the Catholic Church thought it was the only one which could possibly save me from eternal fire. I was influenced more by the existence of the devil, and fear of damnation, than by a God who loves unconditionally. At this time of my life, I was still marked by homophobic attitudes, having suffered beatings and taunts at school. I was so ashamed that for fifteen years I kept secret a sudden sexual assault in late adolescence.
My silence and my imprisonment in these underground confines led to hidden relationships – dangerous, anonymous, without boundaries and dead to any fear of taking medications, alcohol and street drugs to gild my non-existence. That led to a deep depression. Well-meaning Christians stretched out their hands to heal me, yet told me that marriage was the solution to my very gay problem.
I didn’t get it, seeming to sink further. Naturally! That God rejects and hates gays was well known. I did not deserve to live.
I met Marcel at a party. He told me his life story. He was one of the first I knew who spoke openly about his HIV status. Marcel was a believer and soothed by his faith even though it was very different from mine.
We did not get together too often. We met once by chance walking on Ste-Catherine. Pleased to meet and share some time together, without a pre-arranged date, we went to the chic restaurant “Cristal” in the gay village.
One day as I paced the streets, feeling out of it, at a very low point in my life, religious and social tensions at their lowest, Marcel accosted me with his big smile, hugged me and told me how much he loved me. There was universal love, unconditional. I firmly believe that his actions that day prevented me from throwing myself under a subway train. He was kind of my angel of the day.
Several years have passed since then. Today, I work for GLBT inclusiveness and I am aware of the realities of HIV and AIDS. I’m light years beyond the young man I was at that time. However, I am shocked to see that so much remains to be done in moving toward a society that’s more tolerant and inclusive. Unfortunately, prejudice remains and there is a rise of the religious right and those who would rather see the social exclusion of people with HIV, showing homophobic feelings.
When I see the repercussions in the media of intolerance and hatred on young people who end their lives or who are considering doing so, I ask myself many questions. I have to wonder if anything has really changed in forty years. Some narratives or stories that I hear have disturbing similarities to what I experienced back then. When a character like Benedict XVI speaks of homosexuality as an injustice and against the will of God it is really baseless, ideological bullshit.
Getting back to my friend Marcel, I saw him one fall evening, cold and rainy, in a restaurant. He was letting me know about his next stay in hospital. He gave me his phone number and told me he did not really like people calling it, except me.
After several attempts to contact him, I remained without news. Worried I returned to the restaurant to ask the waitress if she had seen him lately. She told me that he had died.
Every December 1, I think of Marcel and I thank God for having placed him in my path. I think of all those I knew or I know who live with the reality of AIDS. I invite you to do the same and perhaps contribute a donation to an organization or recognized charity.
For my part, in Montreal, I suggest you donate to Cocq-SIDA. I also invite you to learn about the new “Jasmin Roy Foundation” which works to fight against homophobic attitudes in schools. This is another reality which touches me closely and which unfortunately has been topical in recent months.
Biblical text of the day
Today, the biblical text is not that suggested by Taizé as I usually do.
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
The family piano is on its way to southern Ontario from Perth, having been wrapped in quilts with care this morning, under Mom’s watchful eye, and loaded into a moving van. It is about to find another appreciative home at my sister’s where my young niece and nephew are at a good age to learn to play it.
To me, given my way of waxing hyperbolic, this is no ordinary piano. Mom and Dad bought it, nearly new as I recall, more than fifty years ago taking it from Perth to (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield’s three residences and then back to Perth when they retired.
Due to their towering height, these instruments usually had string lengths and musical capabilities equal and often superior to actual grand pianos, thus being labeled “Upright Grand”, “Cabinet Grand” or “Inverted Grand” by their manufacturers.
Heintzman of Toronto was the manufacturer of this instrument, the company name and “Toronto” stenciled on the shimmering wood centered above the middle C. It’s been interesting just to read up on this company’s history at its website, so familiar – and greatly changed – are its former Toronto addresses.
The “Pledge-shine” piano always enjoyed a prominent place in the living rooms of our homes, except in the last couple of years of Mom, Dad and Janice living in Valleyfield when it was moved into an otherwise empty bedroom. The only times the keys were covered were when it might serve as an elbow rest for untold numbers of house guests, such as we experienced at holiday choir parties. Said guests would likely be sitting on the matching bench (two slender bums could share it), a bench full of all sorts of things over the years. There was sheet music, of course, complete books of music as well, partial pages of various stickers Mom employed to encourage her students, pictures (both framed and unframed), diplomas sometimes, a tattered hymn book or two, perhaps some gift wrap. Well, I’m sure that paints an adequate picture. It has always been the go-to place when we couldn’t find something – such as last Thanksgiving when I was searching for a biography of my grandfather which an aunt had typed many years ago.
Things atop the piano changed depending on the circumstances, except for the ever-present light over the open music – family pictures, a little clock, and, when teaching was in progress, a metronome (which spent its off hours in a cupboard), a wind-up gizmo that counted the prescribed beats of a given piece of music.
Oh the stories these pictures-within-a-picture can tell! (click to enlarge)
A crowd of faces flashes through my mind when I think of the piano students Mom taught over the years, not the least of whom were her four children – with varying degrees of interest and success. As I progressed (and wanted more time) I was farmed out, as I saw it, to one of her senior students. Neither of my sisters took much interest in the piano but Craig, bless him, learned to play by ear which pissed me off to no end as I methodically plunked out the notes of whatever I was learning.
Craig’s gift came in handy when, as pre-adolescents, we played church (that’s a variation on playing house). Craig took the dual role of minister (long before he felt called to do so as a vocation) and pianist. I was the soprano soloist since I was able, with rather surprising ability, to imitate one of them from our own church – complete with impressive vibrato. My sister was responsible for taking up the offering (of which there was none) – all of this being played out before the birth of my youngest sister (or, at least, before she could participate). Craig might have baptized her, I don’t remember! The piano bench served as altar until it was needed, of course, for its intended role to support the pianist.
There’s a picture somewhere, which I’ll seek out at Christmas, of Janice sitting at the piano on Craig’s lap. Mom was delighted that Janice could carry a tune before she could even talk properly. I remember a little ditty she and Craig would sing together, to commemorate the arrival of K-mart in Valleyfield: “Let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, ‘Tay-mawt, Tay-mawt’ Department Store.”
Another legend I have codified, inasmuch as I’ve put them in a music list for my hypothetical memorial service, revolves around the painstaking process (for those who overheard it as much as me) as I learned two difficult pieces of music – and not just “easy for piano” knock-offs, either, but the original scores. I don’t remember which was first (they seemed to be my two-song repertoire ad infinitum) – “The Homecoming” by Hagood Hardy, made famous as the background music for Salada tea commercials and “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, a much more complex piece which was the theme from the 70s flick “The Sting”. Weeks of work leading to months of practice and even years of play – both on this piano and on the green one located where I used to spend my summers.
It was while Mom was trying to teach after-school piano lessons that Lynn and I would arrive home ready, if not always willing, to deliver the now-defunct Montreal Star, the afternoon newspaper competitor of the morning Gazette (which is still going strong). We each had routes of about the same size which brought in a little spending money. There were occasions when the distributor left us one newspaper short which led to, above the melodic plunking of the piano keys at the other end of the house, a row over who would have to go to a store to pick up the extra copy (and, being an English paper, our options were limited somewhat). Nine times out of ten it would be yours truly who went, usually to O’Neill’s on Boulevard du Havre until a new little book-store opened up in the shopping centre, about the same distance away.
I have digressed.
This piano was where Mom transcribed the Sound of Music wedding processional. It was where Craig rehearsed for at least a couple of friends’ weddings.
I know that many more stories will come to mind, which I will add, as the piano – absent in one home, present in another – continues to be a beautiful part of our family’s collective memory.