Music is Change

Emily Bengels   -  

Back in the 1970s, I had a green and orange raincoat which I wore everywhere. You’ll see me wearing it in photos by the Venice canals, a sheep farm in England, and at my cousins’ house in France. Mind you, none of those photos were in rainy weather. Oh, no. And, much to my mother’s chagrin, I have always hated the color orange. So why did I wear that raincoat all the time?

The answer is simple: change is hard.

One day, the tattered raincoat was gone. Mom must have decided it no longer fit me or it had one too many holes and she decided it was time for me to move on. I wept with tears that are now all too familiar. I loved my raincoat, and it was gone. Life just isn’t fair!

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem called “Spring and Fall to a Young Child.” If you are not familiar with it, take a moment to read about Margaret and how she cries over fallen leaves. Hopkins shifts from scolding her for grieving over something so trivial to acknowledging “Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same…It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” A raincoat isn’t exactly the same as summer’s shift to autumn or youth’s shift to age, but change in all its forms rings of mortality.

I am a teacher and eternal scholar, so September is the time when summer shifts into a quick change of pace. There are new teachers, new students, new classes, new books, and yes, sometimes even new jackets. None of this ever comes easily to me. I always end up missing what was: last year’s teacher, last year’s class, last year’s schedule. Don’t worry, though. Within a few weeks, I always end up loving my new life with the same fierceness I loved my previous one.

Making music in the Old Stone Church is also an antidote to the sorrow of change. There is a bit of eternity in those stone walls which have held so many emotions, so many friendships, and so many wishes. Singing, though, is an ephemeral gift. In essence, music is constant change. Every millisecond matters; every breath counts. On the other hand, a building is made up of stone and mortar; the material world will decay over centuries. A song, however, can be passed down from generation to generation and weave its way into the soul of a culture. Whatever way I look at it (in any given, fleeting moment), this juxtaposition of eternity and transience is comforting to me. 

Recently, Deborah Goodsite and I took a drive to Columcille. The wise, ancient stones stood in circles and arches and we walked on pine needle paths and enjoyed a gentle breeze. I thought about how our services begin with a moment of centering and the ringing of the bowl, and I felt centered in that moment in nature. I realized that I’m learning to take the wisdom of our community with me. Days and months weave themselves into years, but the lessons I learn from all of you stick with me. I hope my songs and messages give you even an ounce of the comfort you all give me!

On the way home, I saw the horrific decay of ash tree forests throughout western Hunterdon County. For many of you, this is something you have witnessed for months now, or even years. For me, it was an awakening to tragedy. So many stories of sunlight and shade have become trunk skeletons. Some still stand and others are shattered branches, easily visible from the roadside. The Somerville area has been mostly spared this devastation so far, but I fear it is only a matter of time. With that understanding, suddenly my centeredness dissipated. How can I be so peaceful when trees are dying? For that matter, how can I be peaceful when there are wars still raging, new pandemics rising, and climate change threatening to ravage the Earth?

Yes, inside of me there’s still the girl crying over her trashed raincoat. It’s more than just the raincoat; it’s more than just ash trees. It’s change and loss and the need to help make things better in ways that are beyond my skill set. Luckily, my toolbox is much more versatile than it used to be. On the way home, I stopped off at FUUFHC and played “The Ash Grove,” improvising my own unique fantasy on it, sending grief and love and hope into the world through my art. I am not an arborist; my talents lie in translating, teaching, and creating. However, we have other gifted people who tend beautiful wildflower gardens and who research insects. Just within our community there are so many people with different abilities and passions. I don’t have to fix everything; I just have to do my part.

As we enter a new season, take time to celebrate what you do to make your part of the world better. Four years ago, a big change in my life was leaving the middle school drama program I was leading and joining the staff of FUUFHC. I did not know that I would also be joining deep circles of friendship, wisdom, humor, activism, and ubuntu. I did not know how much I would gain from this change. You have all done a great deal to make my world better and I am eternally grateful.

Change does not need to be something to weep over. Change can be beautiful. It can mean new beginnings, new friends, new ideas, and yes…new songs. Speaking of which…we are actively welcoming singers and musicians to join in with the choir! For a short or long while, consider celebrating the intersection of eternity and transience with other FUUFHC musicians. All are welcome.