When you find it’s me you’re missing, if you hope I’ll return,
to your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, in the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end,
and the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.
Bind me not to the pasture; chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.
From “Homeward Bound” words and music by Marta Keen
The first time I sang through “Homeward Bound” I stopped at “set me free to find my calling,” unable to sing the rest of the words. You have to take a full breath when you sing, and often when I sing I’m reminded of the feelings I have been holding my breath against. My husband set me free to live away from him for almost five years. He, my family, and my friends set me free to find my calling. I have returned to them in the somehow of a life that keeps pulling me home.
Some singing buddies from the First Unitarian Church of Dallas invited me to be a part of the Turtle Creek Chorale’s (TCC) Partners in Harmony program. Partners in Harmony started several years ago when TCC invited choir members from local congregations that are open and affirming to join them for a concert. TCC is an internationally recognized men’s chorus, first made famous by the documentary After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. The documentary tells the story of how the chorus lost more than 90 of its members to AIDS and the role music played in their grieving process.
Each night of our concert the chorale’s director introduced the Partners in Harmony program to the audience, asking us to raise our hand if we had grown up singing in a church choir. Most of the 200 people on stage raised our hands. My first church choir experience was at the age of four. I sang in choirs until I was 15 when I left my parent’s church looking for a spirituality that was wide enough to hold my constant searching. I returned to church singing 15 years later and met Rodger Wilson, one of the founding members of the Turtle Creek Chorale. As the choir director of the small Presbyterian church I joined in 1991, Rodger would often invite members of the chorale to accompany our tiny seven or eight member choir. (Once I was identified as the “second soprano,” meaning THE second soprano not someone singing the second soprano line. We were small, but devoted.)
These memories accompanied me into my first rehearsal with the chorale. I had been set free to find my calling to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I moved away from Dallas, first to Utah and Idaho, and then to California. I’m back now because of a family member’s illness. I have returned somehow to a place filled with memories that float in and out with every inhale and exhale that pushes my body to grieve.
I came to ministry as a second career, pulling myself through seven long years in seminary while I worked and helped raise our children. The plan was that I would be set free to follow my calling wherever it led, knowing that my husband would eventually retire early and join me. I never expected to return home to Dallas. I never expected to stand in a room so filled with memories that I could barely breathe, let alone sing. When I left the church I served in California I thought I might have to leave ministry. I thought I might have to go back to the life I had before I found my calling. I didn’t know how I could continue to be paid for what I love; I just knew I had to be home to be with those I love.
Each week at rehearsal I sang, “set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.” When it came time for the dress rehearsal I had breathed through these words so many times that I no longer got caught by them. The words had become a fact in a long line of facts that create who I am. One fact that continues to breathe me is this: my calling stays with me wherever I call home.
The night of the dress rehearsal, I sat with friends watching the first act. In the middle of “Blue Suede Shoes” the director stopped the rehearsal, calling for help for the dancers. A man came on stage, knelt on one knee and proposed marriage to one of the dancers. It wasn’t until the stage filled with their family and friends that we knew this scene was not part of the show. TCC is also known for their campy additions to their powerful singing. This concert included the blue suede shoes dancers, a drag Patsy Cline who fell to pieces while singing “I Fall to Pieces,” and various comic representations of states while the chorale sang “This Land is Your Land.” The marriage proposal could have been just one more goofy element of the show. We weren’t quite sure at first.
Once it became clear that the marriage proposal had been arranged as a surprise (he said yes!), my friends and I found ourselves reflecting on how much has changed for the men of the chorale who were once known for how they grieved. We lost friends to AIDS too, including Rodger. On opening night, the chorale acknowledged the six founding members out of the original 30 who remain. We thought of Rodger and sought out one of the founders to tell him of our connection to their history.
As we talked, the members of the chorale portraying the states wandered by to get in place for the beginning of the concert. The best of them was a young man portraying Dorothy, Glinda and the cyclone all in one costume. At first, all you saw was the meshy contours of the cyclone twirling on top of Dorothy’s iconic blue checkered dress with high-heeled ruby slippers teetering across the stage. As the cyclone twirled, suddenly it was pushed down into a skirt to reveal Glinda the Good Witch with crown and scepter – all of this to cleverly represent the state of Kansas.
Sometimes change arrives like Dorothy’s cyclone. Sometimes change arrives more slowly. I grieve lost friends and celebrate with those who can now, finally, make their love public. It is good to be home both to grieve and to celebrate. It is good to be home to remember that there is no place quite like home.