Friday, April 2, 2010

IF YOU WERE MINE COMPLETELY

In 2000 the Seatrek Foundation commissioned me to write songs for an oratorio. The foundation was planning a worldwide celebration called SEATREK 2001 in honor of the Latter-day Saints’ answer to the call to gather in Zion from 1840 through 1868. Over 85,000 converts from Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles left all that was familiar and dear to cross a treacherous ocean, after which they picked up handcarts or purchased wagons and travelled another thousand miles of prairie and mountains before they arrived at the promised land…a desolate desert. The foundation gave me a wide creative berth, which was wonderful and awful at the same time. Having unlimited creative options can be overwhelming.

I decided it would best suit our circumstances to tell the story of the actual people who made that decision, then made that crossing. The foundation had planned a three week tour where tall ships would travel from port city to port city. There we would have a large exhibit telling the story of the saints, along with entertainment and a travelling genealogy library so people could research their ancestors. In the evening the oratorio would play in whatever concert hall aligned with that city; in Liverpool it was the Liverpool Cathedral, in Portsmouth it was Guild Hall, and so on. After the show there would be a grand fireworks display. The songs I wrote were to be orchestrated by Kurt Bestor, who would compose the score to go with them. Soloists from the Metropolitan Opera and Salt Lake City would sing, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir would play and sing. Pretty big stuff. So I felt a great weight of responsibility. In fact, I felt wholly incompetent. It became a problem. I mean seriously; I don’t even read music. I am not proud of this. I wish it were different. But it’s not. I kept telling Mark Robinette, who hired me in the first place (this is when we first got to really know each other), that he might want to find someone else. In retrospect, he probably should have found someone else. But if all we really got from it was our good friendship and the open door to performing together, well…that’s enough for me. Mark just kept telling me he knew I would find the right lyric for the right stories, and the music would flow with the lyric.

“But I am just a folk song writer.”

“Exactly!” Mark replied. “Do what you do best. Tell a story that will reach the center of people. Kurt can do the big flowery stuff.”

So there I was, commissioned with this daunting task, overwhelmed with the possibilities in storyline. I began reading. And reading…And then reading some more. I read ships logs, old diaries and journals, letters. The more I read the more amazed I was. These were normal people, with fairly common lives and thoughts and families and situations. What in the world would compel someone to leave their place of comfort and join strangers in such a far away desert? Like I shouldn’t know this already?

I was never asked to leave my home, or my family. I did not have to quit my job or sell my most precious things to pay for the passage. I have lived in comfort with my faith, relatively speaking. Sure I had my share of oppression, having grown up in Pennsylvania where some of our teachers looked closely at the top of our heads to see if there were nubs of horns. We were not invited to parties, we didn’t date much, we lived far away from our fellow saints. I was one of two Mormons in my high school class, and the other one was not all that active. That was the extent of my sacrifice, however. I don’t know what I might have done if it came down to deciding between my family and my faith.

In the interest of time I asked family and friends to read with me. We studied many books, and we used the Mormon Emigration Index, available at the Church Distribution Center. It is massive! And so interesting. Family and friends fed me the stories that were most compelling.

Eventually I had gathered a stack of writings from various people. A certain woman’s writings always seemed to rise to the top of the stack. I could tell, almost just by the style of her writing, if a collection of words quoted by someone in some book was originally written by her. Something valuable was left for us through the eyes of Jean Rio Baker. Jean was the wife of a fairly wealthy London accountant. She and her husband had seven children. They joined the church, in spite of rumblings from her family, and decided to sell their two homes and most of their goods to go to Zion, the area now known as Salt Lake City, Utah. Before they could leave, however, her husband died. Jean then had to make the decision again. Against the wishes of her extended family she sold her homes and goods and boarded the George W. Bourne in London with her children. She was able to purchase space to bring her piano with her. It was the first piano to come to the Salt Lake Valley and can currently be seen in the Church History Museum.

I wrote a few songs specifically after journal entries written by Jean. The one that gets to me most was written in my basement after a long day of fasting for direction. I was just not getting anywhere with this assignment, and I had no songs. I had journal entries, and ideas, but nothing was coming that fit. So I went to my basement, asked the family to leave me alone, and I lit candles all around me so that all light was natural. It was just me and my guitar and the flickering candle light, a pencil and a writing pad.

Whatever vehicles the Lord chose to use to help me, whether it be angels, or whisperings of the spirit, or just my imagination, I finally found the seeds to a song in the center of one of those flickering candle flames.

Jean Baker had written about the death of her youngest son, Josiah. He was four years old. She did not say what took his life, though we know he had been ill. What she did note were the exact longitudinal and latitudinal points where they committed his small body to its watery grave. That specific was so telling, and so wrenching to me.

I imagined having to do the same. I wept in the imagining. Sobbed, to be exact, there in my flickering space. Sometimes a good imagination can be so painful. And yet I read subsequent journal entries by Jean, and I could tell how she dealt with it. Her determination and her faith were unwavering through the whole journey. Despite her great losses, she still maintained her wonder at everything…the beauty of the stars at night, the quest for a bit of refinement in an unrefined setting. I was charmed by the fact that, when she was crossing the prairies in the Midwest, she would spy a farmhouse off in the distance. She would turn the reigns over to one of her sons and run up ahead, tea bags in hand. She’d knock on the door, hoping someone might be home for a mid-afternoon respite. “Would anyone here care for a spot of tea?” I can hear her say with her British accent, facing a wide-eyed farm-woman. She had no apologies, and she moved with grace and energy through more dirt and rawness than she might ever have imagined. I loved her. I felt like I knew her. When I imagined how she might have responded when her youngest son was taken from her, this is what I came up with:

If You Were Mine Completely

If you were mine completely
If you were mine alone
I would not let you leave me
I could not let you go
And Hope and Sorrow
Would not be so entwined
Oh, if you were mine completely
If you were only mine

Instrumental with voice over journal entry reading

Straight from your home in Heaven
Into my arms you came
How could I keep you here when
We heard them call your name
Now Hope and Sorrow
Cannot be taken away
Even if you were mine completely
I would not make you stay

No Hope and Sorrow
Would not be so entwined
Oh, if you were mine completely
If you were only mine


I believe that same faith that compelled Jean to leave her native land, to take company with strangers from different countries and different classes, to settle in a desert with little her money could buy…that same faith told her that this boy was not being left alone in a grave of water. He had gone back home, from whence he had come to her. He had once belonged to another, and he still belonged to another. He was not hers completely, though he was surely hers to love.

Hope assured her that she would see him again. Hope can abide alongside sorrow. It makes sorrow bearable. Mothers who have lost children know this. They are a distinctly noble group of people, being able to understand each other without a word. It’s a club no woman wants to join. But if there were some sort of support group for mothers who have lost children, it would be led by Mary. The same Mary who wrapped her baby in swaddling clothes; who took him dutifully to the temple; who kissed his cheek in a tender farewell when he left to enter the desert for 40 days and nights. This same woman stood by and watched as history turned on is side and changed the fate of mankind. I can hardly bear the thought of her kneeling at the base of the cross, her shoulders curled in around her heart, wondering herself why the Lord of all would not change this course. I can feel John’s arms wrap his cloak over her back as these words were spoken from the cross: “Woman, behold thy son…behold, thy mother.”

This song is for Jean Rio Baker. But today, this Good Friday, it is also for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Surely she knew that He was not hers completely. He belonged to God. And He permitted himself to belong to all of us. He is the giver of that Hope, and the comforter in that Sorrow. And because of Him, we are… none of us….completely our own.

**************

Following are from two separate recordings: The first three are narration, journal reading, and song from our Live Unplugged stage show, which we do occasionally with my folk artist friends. It’s pretty raw, and very “unplugged”. Following that is the oratorio version of the song, sung by Jennifer Welch-Babidge. Kurt asked me to write a preface for that, which you will also hear.

By the way, all that was imagined about the Seatrek adventure…the tall ships, the port city celebrations, the shows, the fireworks…it all happened. We had a glorious adventure travelling between cities for each show. Who gets so lucky to do this kind of thing?






Here, as if you had not read enough already, is an article by Janine Creager in LDS Living Magazine about my writing of Saints on the Seas: http://ldsliving.com/magazine/show/2386/Saints-on-the-Seas

3 comments:

  1. i love this song. i love it as jean rio baker. i love it as mary. all of your songs seem to have a much deeper meaning than appears on the surface. it is that which sets you beyond being just a good writer to being a superb writer. it's just up to us to "get it". and if we don't...well it's still a good song! :)

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  2. I was lucky enough to take part in Sea Trek and since then your music has brought back great memories of that experience. Thanks for sharing this memory that I can combine with mine.

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  3. I am so late. Sitting in Texas with my father. Finally reading at least one of the last Lent pieces.

    I will admit that I have not gotten close to this body of work because my relationship with Kurt has been so seriously strained. We've made it up a bit in the last year, but when you did this, I couldn't look at him. I'm sorry about that.

    The writing here: yes. The price of imagination.

    "But if there were some sort of support group for mothers who have lost children, it would be led by Mary. "

    Oh, what you do as you follow the flow of your thoughts.

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