Sunday, January 20, 2019

Grieving Tom Lansdale Through Song

So already, Tom Lansdale died peacefully but too young on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. It was singing that first brought us and so many of our friends together as college students. And now it's song that's helping me to know, to express, and to live with what I feel. Tom did that, too, especially during the last ten years of our forty-plus year friendship.That's part of why saying good-bye to him is so hard for me. We had one of those good, durable college friendships that actually became stronger after college.

On Bastille Day (from a Bernie Kreger photo)
Tom and I met in the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and were among the crew who repaired regularly to Father's Six (now Grafton Street) after rehearsals in that era when the drinking age was eighteen. We were both part of the HRCM group that made our musical way across England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Monaco during the summer of 1976 as representatives of the American Bicentennial Abroad.

Tom is one of the Kroks singing here.
Tom was also a baritone in the Harvard Krokodiloes, and because the Kroks helped select the first cohort of Radcliffe Pitches--I was one of them--we had even more that bound us together. We always helped each other out. When we both took "Gas Stations,"* which met at 9:00 three mornings a week, my job was to wake Tom at 10:00--he was juggling singing with the Kroks, singing with the Collegium, and writing a senior thesis**--so he could go on to his next class. When I needed to  wear a tuxedo because the Pitches were spoofing the Kroks singing "House of Blue Lights," Tom lent me his.

We stayed in touch after college, even sang together in another Boston-area choir for a while. Regardless of where we were and what was going on, we always talked about music--from our pasts, in our presents.

Cambridge Rindge & Latin School
Ours was a solid, enduring friendship. Then it began to mean more. Its transformation began when Tom, eager to be a better father to his much loved, then-teenage daughter Olivia, reached out to me for insight and advice: because I'd taught high school English for eons, he reasoned, I must have some understanding of young women. I loved that he valued my experience with adolescent girls; I loved that he was truly open to changing for his daughter's sake.

The transformation of our friendship was complete a few years later--again, thanks to Tom's efforts. Because one of my professional roles was to support teacher colleagues, I had gotten into the work habit of listening a lot to others and saying little about myself. Over time, however, this professional habit had made its way into my personal life. It wasn't that I said nothing personal; it was more that I pared down what I could have said, tied up its loose ends rather than exposed them, and often got myself out of the conversational way as quickly as I could.

Tom and Scott in Annapolis
My edited encapsulations weren't enough for Tom, though. Regardless of how much he needed to talk, regardless of how complicated and harrowing his own situation was medically or emotionally, he insisted on knowing not only what I was up to and how Scott was doing, but what was really going on with me, how I really was. I wasn't allowed simply to listen to the latest installment of his story, mirror him back to him, and suggest other interpretations and possible next steps.

At the time, I didn't realize how much Tom's refusal to accept my succinct "I'm fine; we're fine; nothing much to say, really" was helping me out. By pushing me to say what I doing, really thinking, and really feeling, Tom, unknowingly, liberated me from that narrower, non-disclosing place into which I too often easily, comfortably slipped. I soon found myself saying more about myself to other people who also cared about me, often more bluntly and emotionally than I would have in previous years, but also with greater confidence that our relationships would withstand--and maybe even become stronger as a result of--this bolder kind of sharing.

What a gift. And therefore what a loss. 

That's why all those songs the Kroks and the Collegium Musicum sang about dead or soon-to-be-dead young men have been playing in my mind since last Tuesday: the traditional "Danny Boy," "Momma, Look Sharp" from 1776,  William Billings' "David's Lamentation"---and, most of all, "Anthony O'Daly," the second of Samuel Barber's Reincarnations. I'm not sure if it's the wordless wails or the the last three lines of its text*** that most make "Anthony O'Daly" the invisible musical badge I'm wearing this week: " . . . , after you/ There is nothing to do,/ "There is nothing but grief." But I keep hearing it in my mind's ear. 

Two days ago, when I began writing this blog, I'd imagined ending it right here with "Reader, 'There is nothing but grief.'" But then came yesterday, and another transformation, this one through song.

The Boston Synagogue
I went off to synagogue yesterday morning glad that I would be able to say the Mourner's Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, in the company of others. Almost immediately I was struck by how much the liturgy mentioned songs and singing: had it always been there, and I just hadn't noticed it before, I wondered.

A short time later, the rabbi mentioned that the Sabbath we were marking was known as "Shabbat Shirah," or "Sabbath [of] song" שבת שירה because the triumphant song the children of Israel sang after their successful flight out of slavery and Egypt was included in the day's Torah portion. Since the children of Israel almost immediately began complaining about their plights as non-slaves in the wilderness--"'If only we had died by the hand of LORD in the land of Egypt, . . .! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve . . . !'" (Exodus 16:3)--the rabbi wanted us to consider when songs express faith that already exists, and when they help move people toward the faith they don't yet have. 

By Scott Ketcham*****
As the rabbi spoke about the children of Israel's resistance to the new wider, freer lives they had just begun, having escaped their constricted lives as slaves, I recalled the meaning of the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim: straits, tight spots, narrow places--and suddenly had this vision of Tom as having emerged through the constriction of disease into this wider place of freedom. In that same moment, I remembered an email several of us had received from Tom's pastor**** just before Tom was to undergo a risky heart procedure in 2016. He'd recommended that, regardless of our spiritual beliefs and practices, we "imagin[e] . . . holding . . . Tom in a field of light and love - a place of healing, a state of lowered anxiety."   

Imagining him in that "field of light and love" back then had made me feel I was actually doing something for Tom. Imagining him there now reminds me that he's moved beyond the clutches of illness and disease into a place of peace and love. I don't like his being gone from my life, from our lives, from this good, beautiful world any better; I probably never will. But at least now, "Anthony O'Daly" is alternating with "Goin' Up Yonder."****** It's a start.

* I can't remember the actual name of this great course taught by J.B Jackson about the American visual environment. 
** Tom was a History and Literature concentrator writing about Thomas Wolfe--I think specifically about You Can't Go Home Again, but I'm not sure.
*** The text of "Anthony O'Daly" is a James Stephens poem by the same name. 
**** I actually mentioned this in a blog post I wrote some years back in which I talked some about Tom, though not by name: 
****** Neither the Kroks nor the Collegium ever sang this song, but Chaka Khan did at Aretha Franklin's funeral.