Saturday, October 31, 2009
Post Mission, the PLU years: Chapter 3
It was hard letting go of the mission experience before it was my time to be done. I knew I was under the scrutiny of other missionaries, but several of my close friends in the field knew it had to be done. It was not the place for me to be and should I stay things would probably only get worse. But that wasn't nearly as bad as the fears about what people would say back home. As many know you don't leave a mission early, you just don't do it.... That is unless you've committed some grave transgression and are returning home to be excommunicated or something. There are days where I wish it would have happened that way since it would have made all that followed a little bit easier.
I didn't know what else to do other than move on with my life as I had wanted to in the first place. With the help of my dear organ teacher at that time I quickly got back in shape learning new repertoire and preparing for my auditions in to the Pacific Lutheran University School of Music. Even though the man I wanted to study organ with was no longer around after his tragic murder on campus, it still seemed like the right thing to do. Little did I know the good that would come out of this new chapter.
I started to avoid the church scene but was still going on occasion since it was what I knew. Being in a new town to go to school gave me a chance at a fresh start but one cannot run away from their problems. And my past was catching up to me. I don't know what it is about people in the church where they just feel compelled to ask about where you served your mission and all of those little details. I wanted to forget my mission ever happened. I was burned by the church and was trying to let it go. When I realized that just couldn't go back to the way things were I had to start making some choices. I knew I couldn't blindly follow the counsel of the brethren as once before. Doing so led me in to the pit of despair and depression. One cannot argue around the "spirit led inspiration" that just doesn't come true or does not yield the promised blessings. I had few alternatives than to start thinking the church wasn't what it claimed. So I stopped going after already making a name for myself in the stake as an exlemplary musician and organist. My heart and my spirit were broken from Mormonism.
I dove in to my studies. As a new student I was, by some miracle, fortunate enough to make in to the top choir of the university, The Choir of the West, without having gone through the hoops of other choirs. It was a little difficult getting acclimated to such an intense musical surrounding but I face the challenge head on and succeeded. Choir was tough, it was the most I had worked before, but I loved every minute of the hard work.
I can remember just vaguely, since I was still on the medication prescribed on the mission, one of my first positive spiritual experiences outside of Mormonism. Every fall choir would go on a brief over night retreat to a Christian camp (Camp Cispus) up in the Cascades near. Mt. Rainer. We would have fun, play games, and do get to know you things. The pinnacle of the event was the circle of light. Essentially we would all sit in a dark room with an unlit candle. We would share what it was that being in choir, this choir, meant to us. After doing so our candle would light the candle of the person next to us and then they would share their thoughts and feelings. And as each shared their story the room would begin to glow with the light of ourselves and dare I say the light of Christ within us. I don't remember exactly what I shared but I do remember bearing enough of my soul amongst my new found peers to put myself and several other in tears. I can remember getting a few hugs afterwards. I can also remember something said at the end about how alone it is sometimes hard to light a big room, but together, we an accomplish amazing things. Which did indeed come true. Choir became my family.
Most of the strong and close friendships I have have come from being in Choir. Our director, a brilliant musician but certainly a little nuts made things difficult. We were always being challenged musically - that was expected, but sometimes the problems caused in the department by our director would ripple in negative ways. No one would doubt the brilliant woman had issues, but it was through the struggles of figuring out how to deal with this person where many of us came together to form lasting relationships. She was always making passive aggressive relationships with her students and other faculty. One day she was your best friend and wanted to give you everything to succeed. The next day you were her worst enemy and your other professors were wondering if the stories they were learning about you in faculty meetings from this director were true or fictitious. Many of us had love-hate relationships with our choir director and went to each other for support when we happened to be a target, but we put that aside to make the most incredible music together. We were able to touch the lives of those we performed to, they touched our lives, and more importantly we touched the lives of our friends.
I can remember I was the subject of conjecture at one point. A roommate came to me and had to tell me that our dear director was concerned about "my sexual identity issues." Apparently she was asking friends and other faculty trying to find an answer about me. I was outraged at the time, the whole gay thing was not even remotely in the picture for me in those days. But that's who she was. Many others were the targets of her inquisitiveness or wrath. But we leaned on each other when she was pissing us off and making life in the music department difficult.
Despite the drama in choir during my time there we achieved near legendary status. Making recordings that while not the most professionally done did capture our immense ability as a vocal ensemble.
We were able to stand next to the power houses of other colleges like St. Olaf, Luther, and Concordia and be on equal footing. Different in choral approach perhaps, but just at talented and passionate. The highlight of the choral experience was being at the 2005 National Convention for the American Choral Directors Association in Los Angeles. We made it part of our tour that year. For us to learn that there were hundreds and hundreds of choral professionals leaving their tracks and workshops just to her us perform was a momentous achievement. We were able to pack the LA catholic cathedral for the last of our performances of the convention just due to rumor about this "amazing Lutheran choir from Washington." The CD released after, God is our Refuge, shows the tangible ability of the friendships forged in those days.
To this day I find it hard to get through one of our signature pieces with out getting choked up, Beautiful Savior arr. Christiansen. For many of us it was music and the savior that brought us together. And it was genuine love that kept us in the palm of God's hands as friends
My organ and other music studies were also intense. I was very proud of my achievements my senior year and performed a stunning capstone recital that now I regret not having recorded. It was difficult being the last of the "organ mafia" on campus. The 3 of us guys who were organ majors all at once had a possee that was called the mafia. The grand pipe organ of PLU draws many Ooos and Ahhs, but for several of us, it brought friendship. We were inseparable music nerds as were the crowd we rolled with.
My dear friend and fellow ExMoHo Jon who is finishing his DMA in organ has returned to PLU as visiting professor of organ while the University Organist is on sabbatical. Such connections could not have happened at any other place. Other friends have gone on to some degree of fame and notoriety including national opera companies.
My time at PLU was one of the most influential, spiritual, and rewarding chapters of my life. The music making that occured in those years has yet to be rivaled by anything that has followed. The friends I now consider family... we were all students together finding ourselves and our paths... not completely alone.