Every single remembrance of nine eleven that I have ever read, I swear, begins with a description of the sky. Clear. Blue. Perfect. Cloudless. Cerulean. We expected some kind of warning. Mother Nature’s failure to acknowledge the evil that loomed was a cruel trick.
This morning in church, we had a celebration for the director of music. Last week marked his twenty-fifth year of service to the church, and they selected today’s 10:30 service to honor him. He honored himself, actually, by hiring some brass and percussion players and magnificently directing them and the choir in the Rutter Gloria.
The first movement opens instrumentally, a page or two of triumphant horn work before the choir comes in on beat three of a four:four measure. We all waited for our cue, watching our Fearless Leader closely as he directed the brass. When the point of our entrance drew near, we all heaved deep breaths and prepared to let out a mighty roar of a B flat. Our Fearless Leader gave us a cue to come in a full two beats too early, and half of us did, while the rest came in on time. We faltered badly, confusing the brass, whose confusion confused us further. The song nearly derailed, but our director knit it back together quickly, and within a measure or two, we were all back on track.
For the remainder of the movement, our confidence was shaken. The trumpet players flubbed a few times. The very loud, operatic alto behind my left ear missed a number of entrances, cut off her loud consonants in incorrect places, kept whispering “sorry” in my ear. We knew the movement well, but our leader’s misstep made us lose our own footing. It is a terrible responsibility, to lead.
This summer, I worked with an absolute peach of a man, a first year lawyer who I utterly adore. I’ll call him James. James and I are nearly exactly the same age – our birthdays are six days apart. I spent my years “off” between undergrad and law school in various jobs, traveling various places, living abroad when I could, taking what acting jobs I could find. James spent his pre-law years as a member of the Special Forces deployed in Afghanistan, posted for a long while in a particularly isolated little fortress, carrying a grenade in his pocket at all times as a “last resort.” (You pull the pin and then hold the grenade’s detonator between your fingers, a sort of dead man switch – in particularly dire straits, you can sometimes use this tactic to buy your way out of a sticky situation.) James is not without a sense of the dramatic, and he told us that grenade story (and a few like it) over the summer. But he kept his stories light. They are about near-death experiences, or about the dearth of life’s luxuries during deployment, or about boredom on the Afghan frontier – there is never any real blood. He is politically liberal, but staunchly patriotic and, as is to be expected, fiercely loyal to his buddies in arms.
James has a little wooden box on his desk, with some Greek phrase branded into the top of it. I can’t remember the phrase, or even what it means, though I did ask and he did tell me. Inside the box is a pen that was made from a shell casing. When he showed me his pen, he said that it, and many like it, were made by his buddy’s father. Special Forces veterans got a special version of the pen, made with gold in-lay I think. Regular, less expensive versions of the pen go up for sale, with proceeds going to serve veterans in need. Inside each wooden box is a small slip of paper with the name of the creator’s son, James’s war buddy, who died there in Afghanistan instead of coming home. I have a hard time hearing about dead sons.
James is gay. He volunteered to serve in the era of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. He was awarded a purple heart. Politically liberal. Staunchly a patriot.
After the choir and brass had finished the first movement of the Gloria, the pastor began speaking, and our Fearless Leader called our attention with his hands and silently mouthed “I am so sorry. It is ok. You sound beautiful.”
The sermon was stirring. Our pastor talked about nine eleven, and New York, and about New Orleanians’ ability to empathize because of their personal experience with sweeping tragedy years later. He talked about Muslims, religious tolerance, conservative pastors’ sermons of hate, and the preposterous notion that Katrina was God’s vengeance on a city full of gays, that nine eleven was God’s vengeance on a country that had angered Him. Several minutes later, after he had finished, we began the second movement of the Gloria.
We sung it note-perfect. There is a moment in the piece when the choir and brass begin at a low rumble, but quickly swell in volume and intensity, growing and growing until the unbearable half second of silence while we all take a breath, and then a glorious, angelic, terrible “Rex caelestis, rex caelestis, rex . . .” King of the heavens, king of the heavens. What a blessing.
After church, Liam fell asleep in the car during our one mile drive home. I made hamburgers under the broiler. Jack has just left on a walk with his dad, off to fly a kite, while I work on school work. Myriad mundane blessings, given to me on another flawless, blue-sky morning in September. Whatever comes tomorrow, today I’ll remember to be especially thankful for them.