Hi. I’m Hal. Thank you for being here. I hope you’ll click the PLAY button above to listen to the Podcast version of this publication. (11 minute listen) Also, feel free to share this post with a friend. Credit goes to Brad Bolton for the photos of the UU Church of Kent musicians in today’s post. Enjoy!
This morning, I wrote a resignation letter for my position as the music director of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent. This afternoon, I delivered it by hand to the desk of the Ministerial Executive Team. After more than 25 years as the church musician, this letter signifies the closing of a major chapter in my life. The reality of the resignation breaks my heart. It came so much sooner than I had ever hoped or expected. Here's what I wrote:
It is with a great deal of sadness that I offer my resignation from my position as the music director of the UU Church of Kent. With the current state of my health, I'm unable to perform adequately the duties of the job.
It has truly been my honor and my joy to serve in this capacity for all these years and I will miss the work greatly. Please let me know what I can do to best support the music life of the church for now and in the future.
After 25 years on the job, there's so much more that I could say, but for it's purpose, the letter says enough. I've been on unpaid leave of absence for over a year now, so I've had time to get used to this idea. But seeing it in print makes it real. The fact is that I'm not well enough to do the job and it's time for me to let go.
After I composed the resignation, I took my scooter over to front campus and I poured out some big tears. It wasn't supposed to go like this. I loved being the music director at that church. It was a perfect fit. I mean I was supposed to turn into an old man doing that job. I imagined myself someday celebrating 50 years of gathering around the piano and leading the Kent congregation in all our favorite hymns. I figured they'd have to pry those black and white keys away from my piano playing hands before I'd be ready to go. But ME/CFS had a different plan. I'm 56 years old and just as I was coming into my stride, the illness brought me to my knees. I'm disappointed, I'm angry and I'm sad.
The best thing about my work at the UU Church of Kent is that often, it didn't feel like a job. For me, it was more of a lifestyle. For the last 25 years, I'd just show up week after week to do the thing that I enjoy doing the most -- making music with others. The music ensembles were like an extended family. The church building was like a home away from home. There's no doubt that I'm gonna miss those weekly rehearsals and the after hour visits to the sanctuary, but I'll be forever grateful for the way that church gave me a chance to grow into the musician that I am today.
I realize that at some point, everyone has to retire. Everyone has to clean out the office, pack up their stuff and let the next guy take over. I suppose the lucky ones get a farewell party with gift cards to congratulate them for a job well done. But when the party's over, eventually everyone has to go home. No matter who you are, in the end, you have to fade off into the distance. I just didn't ever imagine that it would be me... and at such a young age.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, I'm not planning on fading off into the distance any time real soon. I have a creative spirit in me that just won't quit. Though my music is much quieter these days, I'm still an artist. I'm still a musician. I still wake up every day with all kinds of big ideas going around in my head. No matter the illness, I can't imagine ever retiring from that.
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In 1995, I was living in Kent and teaching "movement" part-time at the Spring Garden Waldorf School in Akron. Shannon and I were living in a little off-the-grid bachelor pad called the coop. It was just a two minute walk to the Kent Natural Foods Co-op, which was my other part-time job. One afternoon, I was at the KNF eating maple almond granola right out of the bulk bin when my dear friend Jan Olds stopped in to say hello. She let me know that they were looking for a musician down at the UU Church of Kent. I was certainly familiar with the UU's, but I'd never been in the sanctuary. I'd taken a few Tuesday night yoga classes in their basement and I knew the congregation to be some real good folks, so I agreed to show up the following Sunday to play a few songs. After I played, they hired me right on the spot and I've been there ever since. After a couple years as the official "church musician," I was eventually promoted to the title of Music Director.
I appreciate the organic way that the music program developed over those many years. When I started, it was a one man show. I was a pot smoking folk singer who luckily had taken 10 years of piano lessons as a kid. I struggled to play the hymns as they were written, so I quickly learned the faking technique. In the early years, I would choose the music for the day on the drive to church that Sunday morning. I honed my improvisation skills and I used them to cover my ass for my unpreparedness. Except for a few outspoken critics, the congregation was incredibly accepting of my unconventional and folksy ways. We were a good fit.
One time, Rev. Julie-Ann pulled me aside to let me know that a few congregants were concerned about the holes in the butt of my pants. They wished that I would put more care into the way that I presented myself on Sunday mornings. I came back with a self-righteous and defensive response. I let her know that in the spiritual realm, the clothes that I wear don’t matter. I was above this concern for the surface of things. In truth, I was too overwhelmed with life and too hungover from marijuana to go buy some new pants. It wasn't until years later that I discovered the joy of dressing up on Sunday morning and wearing pants that didn't have holes in the butt. I'm sorry to say that with this illness, all my nice clothes are hanging in the closet and I spend most of every day in my pajamas.
After a couple years, we started a choir. Week after week, we turned that choir into a family. Over time, I learned how to run a rehearsal and the choir learned how to follow my waving arms. I've never taken a conducting class, but I learned ways to connect powerfully with the choir from my place in the front. There were many times when our singers took up the whole front section of the church. We filled that sanctuary with a huge choral love that came deep from the heart. I'm so grateful for all the choir members who came through the doors for those Sunday night rehearsals. I'm especially grateful for the core group of singers that stuck around for many years. You know who you are.
Time went on and I cleaned up a little bit. I got myself some new shirts and new pants and the music program continued to grow. We started the Fallow Time Folk Orchestra, the Golden Tones of Real Beauty and the UUCK Tone Chimers. I learned the powerful joy of being prepared. I discovered that when you show up week after week to rehearse, amazing musical things can happen. From Thanksgiving to Christmas and from Easter all the way to Music Sunday, the musicians and the singers in that church showed up to rehearse. Those folks made my job so enjoyable and so satisfying. Though I did get better at planning, the members of the ensembles got used to the fact that sometimes my best ideas happened at the last minute. They didn't always love me for it, but we always survived. We usually just laughed it off and set our minds toward the following Sunday.
As the music director of the UU Church of Kent, one of my greatest joys was working with the wonderful ministers of the church. I will forever be grateful to Rev. Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn, Rev. Melissa Carvill Ziemer and Rev. Steven Protzman for challenging me, ministering to me and encouraging me in the work that I loved so much.
They say that when one door closes, another door opens and I'm trying very hard to believe it. I wonder what door will open for me next. As I lie here in this bed, I stare at the same door all day long and it's usually wide open. But with this illness, at times, it can be a challenge to put on some shoes and just walk through the door. The limitations that ME/CFS offers have been disheartening, shocking and painful. But I must say that I'm grateful for what I've been able to accomplish from this office in bed. Maybe I'll write a book someday. Maybe I'll call it "Living in a Body." Maybe I'll touch a few hearts and maybe I'll inspire thousands. Or maybe I'll learn to be satisfied with being just another angel in this human choir of life. I can't wait to find out.
These days, on a good day, I'm glad to say that I can get out of bed and make it to the church on Sunday. I remain seated for the hymns and my lungs aren’t strong enough to sing along, but I'm grateful to have somewhere to go on Sunday morning. I know the church will be there for me as long as I need it. Thank you to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent for having given me so much.
Thank you so much for reading. As always, enjoy living in that body of yours. Have a great Saturday. ❤️ Hal
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