A Place in the Choir

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I attended Mass last year at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Before Mass started I noticed a young woman had walked into the church with a service dog. The two sat in the front of the church – I sat in the back and a lot of people sat between us as the church was full that morning.

At the conclusion of the Mass, while we congregants sang the recessional, I heard a strangled cry, a sort of moaning, echoing from the somewhere in the church. Having worked in health care for thirty years, my emergency response adrenaline kicked in and I searched the church for who might be in distress and may need help immediately. “Call 911” ran through my mind as I stood up in the last pew with my phone in hand, ready to go to someone’s aid. Then I caught sight of the service dog at the front of the church and realized it was this dear canine servant who was singing along with the rest of us, howling away, happily joining in. As the dog yowled merrily, I recalled the lines of a folk tune written by folk musician and singer-songwriter, Bill Staines:

“All God’s critters got a place in the choir

Some sing low, some sing higher

Some sing out loud on the telephone wires

And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got, now.”

And some merrily howl along during the recessional at church. True story.

“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”

Music, minor miracles, and more

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My cousin Randy Plut (pronounced “ploot”) came for a three day visit last weekend – it has been twelve years since his last trip to Minnesota. Randy has always been an amazing guy. He is the oldest of my close-in-age cousins. His brother Rick and sister MaryAnn made up the trio of cousins with whom my sister Margie and I spent most of our time. Randy, Rick and MaryAnn had myriad talents, not the least of which was a great sense of humor – among the cousins, it was always thus. Their dry wit, an eye for weird comic situations, and impeccable timing made being with them a whole lot of fun. It was at my cousins’ home that Margie and I met many of Randy’s high school pals, one of whom was John Swartzwelder, who would become the legendary writer of the animated sitcom, The Simpsons. I think an off-kilter sense of the comical is part of what drew Randy and his friends together in high school. I recall great conversations and laughing many an evening away with my cousins and their friends in Aunt Lillian and Uncle Bob’s living room.

Greater than Randy’s talent in humor is his talent in music. Before he was ever a witty teenager, Randy was a serious and accomplished musician. His instrument is the piano, which he plays like a wizard, shape-shifting without a pause, by memory alone, from classical pieces to country western to ragtime to the Beatles, the tip of his tongue poking out between his lips from time to time, the only evidence of the intense level of his concentration. It has always been thus for Randy, with family members and friends watching and listening in wonder over the years.

Randy is also amazing for having recently survived a cardiac arrest that was as near fatal as it could be. He survived it because, by the grace of God, just as Randy collapsed, his sister MaryAnn came to his house, understood the situation and called 911 for help. Randy spent quite a while in the hospital and has no recollection at all of the entire month of January 2013, the month his heart attack occurred. In fact, it was a great surprise to him to learn, as he improved during his hospital stay, that he had a new job! He had applied for, and won, a new position just prior to his heart event. Randy now has a pacemaker, an incredible invention in its own right, and one that should help Randy avoid another cardiac collapse, may it ever be thus.

We spent the last night of Randy’s visit to Minnesota at the home of one of my nieces, Michelle Rogers. Michelle and her husband Bill  graciously invited my husband, John, Randy and me for dinner.On entering Bill and Michelle’s home that evening, Randy noticed the piano in the living room, so after we enjoyed a delicious meal together, he offered to play the piano for us. We were all delighted to be a part of the audience, and Randy did not disappoint – he was phenomenal! It is a very rare thing to witness the level of skill and creativity of an artist like Randy, say, at a concert hall or on TV or the internet, but to experience performance mastery of Randy’s kind in the intimacy of a family home is mind-boggling. Bill and Michelle made sure their three children were part of the experience, and the kids enjoyed Randy’s playing along with us. Randy asked them if they had any songs they would like to hear, which he then played for them without hesitation, sheet music or batting an eyelash. We adults were astonished at Randy’s skill, whereas the kids took things in stride. What? Wait a minute – wasn’t this a minor miracle occurring before our eyes? But kids are kids. How could they gauge how remarkable Randy’s performance was? I know I was pretty oblivious to Randy’s immense talent when I was a youngster. I took his proficiency at the piano for granted and had no way of knowing the rarity of Randy’s gifts. Understanding of this kind only comes with maturity. It has always been thus, I believe.

There was another member of the audience who did seem to understand the unique quality of the evening, though. Max, the family dog, knew something special was happening. He sat by the piano, listening attentively while Randy played, and a after the recital was over, he left one of his favorite toys at Randy’s feet as a token of his appreciation. Is this a typical occurrence? Has this always been so, that dogs are aware of and admire the finer things of life?

On the ride home from Bill and Michelle’s, after saying our farewells to Randy and wishing him the blessings of health and happiness for the future, I thought about the wonderful evening we had shared, about the passage of time, and the sparing of Randy’s life in 2013. Life is an extraordinary gift, and the gifts God gives to us as individuals are also extraordinary. This is something that I want to grasp more completely. But perhaps one has to pray for the ability to comprehend this, … perhaps it has always been thus.

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” Psalm 139:6