Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Mortal Life Also

I was fortunate enough to get to sing in church this past Sunday morning: I had a solo and a duet. I rarely feel that I've sung exceptionally well (I usually feel that I've sung competently, but I acknowledge that my standard for competence is very high.), but after the service, among the many compliments, someone told me that I was transcendent, and I think she was right.

I was recovering from some disappointing sex late Friday night when I saw Karma (previously discussed here and here and here) online and said hello to him. He asked me to come over, and we had a fantastic time on his air mattress and sleeping bag. There were, indeed, moments of transcendence.

My best guess is that the portion of the populace that thinks of profound religious and sexual experiences in the same terms is small1. Many believe that religion is profaned by the comparison to something as animalistic (and fun) as sex. Others will tell you that all religion is poppycock and that it's pleasures are entirely imaginary while the pleasures of the flesh are real. I can't tell you that the thrill I get from singing well is the same as the thrill I get from great sex, but I will say that the difference, for me, is quantitative rather than qualitative. Describing the difference is impossible. It is one of the great frustrations of writing The Neighbors Will Hear that I am so often trying to describe the ineffable. I come again and again to one of my favorite passages from the Bible:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
I suppose that one way of thinking about this topic is that when I'm having really good sex, the mirror that I'm looking into is a good deal less cloudy than it is in the course of my quotidian existence, and when I'm singing well, the mirror is clearer still. But it's probably easier, and no less accurate, to say that fucking well is a 6 and fucking really well is an 8, while singing well is an 8, and singing really well is a 10. They all tap into the same unknowable, unseeable infinite, but in varying degrees.

Even though singing delivers a higher score, it's a lot easier to find good sex than to find opportunities to sing. To arrange the former, you have to spend a few minutes online. To arrange the latter, you have to convince people that you can sing well, and then you have to get the singing scheduled, you have to get and/or keep your voice in shape, and you have to prepare and rehearse.

The preparation for choral singing is sometimes tedious, but preparing for solo work is a lot of fun. Not only do I get to choose my own pieces (with the service's theme in mind, of course) and make more of the choices about how I'm going to sing them, but I get to collaborate with other musicians and enjoy the evolution of the presentation. In this case, I was told that our intern/summer minister's topic would be "The Reign of God." This is an unusual topic for a Unitarian Universalist service, and the music director gave me permission to come up with something aggressively religious. I chose "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Martin Luther wrote both the words and the music, I am very fond of the melody, and there is probably not a single line in all of its verses (there are four verses, but I decided to sing three) that comports with my personal beliefs, so it seemed the ideal choice for the occasion. We played around with it a lot in rehearsal, until everyone was happy with it. It's not a terribly difficult piece, but the bulk of it lies towards the upper end of my range, where I can feel very exposed.

When Sunday morning arrived, I was feeling more exposed than usual. After having been up until about 3 am Friday night and almost 1 am Saturday night, I got up at 7:30 on Sunday morning so that I could be at church by 8:45 to sing for the 10:00 service. I was in not such a good place, vocally: I don't sing much during the summer, so my voice becomes unruly; I hadn't had enough sleep; and on Saturday evening -- when I was out to a friend's house for dinner and then a concert -- my throat had started to get scratchy. When I got home Saturday, and again on Sunday morning, I irrigated my sinuses and had my favorite throat-soothing beverage2, but as I was driving to church, my voice was unhappy, and I began to attempt to convince myself that if I sang competently, I'd be satisfied. After all, the last time I'd had solos, I'd gone somewhat beyond competence, and I was very happy, and, well, you can't win them all.

On Friday night, I had mixed feelings about messing around with Karma. He'd been a little demanding on IM when we'd been setting things up, prompting me to tell him that I was offering what I was offering, and he could take it or leave it. He doesn't do a lot of the things I like, but he's a great kisser, and what he does do, he does well. Besides, he'd said that he was really horny, and, where he's concerned, that tends to translate to an abundance of passion.

I parked my car behind his building, and he came down to give me a parking pass. He'd asked whether I'd molest him in the elevator on the way up, so I grabbed his cock, then grabbed his ass, then grabbed him and kissed him. We were in the door, naked, and on the floor pretty quickly after that, but I took my time making out with him, occasionally getting a fistful of his hair and pulling his head back firmly. Everything firm excites karma. When I took his plump lower lip between my teeth and pulled firmly, he kvelled.

On Sunday morning, I arrived at church, where B., the soprano, was tuning her guitar. We worked on the duet ("Shall We Gather at the River") for a while on our own, and it seemed to be going pretty well. It's not a difficult piece, and my voice was holding up. I grabbed a bottle of water as we returned to the sanctuary to rehearse with the accompanist. She wasn't playing during the duet, since we had the guitar, but she helped us arrange the microphone (for the guitar, that is: neither B. nor I ever requires amplification) and offered a couple of small suggestions, which we implemented.

Then B. worked on her solo (a thoroughly kick-ass version and performance of "City Called Heaven"), and I sat in various parts of the sanctuary to listen for balance and diction, both of which were spot on. I kept sipping at my water bottle and telling my vocal apparatus to stop being such a fucking drama queen, and when I ran my solo, it wasn't especially happy, but it put out.

After working Karma's nipples with unusual (and for him, unprecedented) vigor, I had him on his stomach. I'd been lying on him, at his request, rubbing my cock against his asscheeks, and I started to massage him. As usual, he kept saying "harder" until I was straddling him and pushing down with all my weight on my left palm, which was on top of my right palm hand, which was on top of his shoulders. I was worried about bruising him, but he just kept sighing happily. When I pulled his head back with one hand and squeezed the back of his neck as hard as I could with the other, he was practically purring.

I went down on him for a while. He asked me to suck his cock the same way I'd been sucking on his lower lip, so I took the generous foreskin between my lips and pulled it up and out before swallowing him entire (his cock's small), and repeated. I'm pretty sure that he was seeing God at that point.

I never see God, but I sometimes manage to feel my own personal conception of a non-personal God at church, which just goes to show that those people who think that a Unitarian Universalist church is the wrong place for religious experience because we're too inclusive and because we clearly state our lack of belief in traditional Christian dogma rather than mouthing that dogma and allowing, with a wink and a nod, adherents to think of it as metaphor if that's easier for them are horribly misguided. They may have a point, though, when they say that it's easier to feel the divine in an older tradition even if you don't believe a word of it. (I think that's mostly true if it's an older tradition you were raised in, but whatever.)

I felt something of the divine when we were singing our duet. We sang well, and the very simple guitar accompaniment and our languorous tempo made us sound like a couple of old Gospel singers. It very much drew the congregation into a sense of intimacy and set a tone for what turned out to be a very touching service. The (cute, gay, soft-spokenly linebackerish, vaguely asexual) minister read a piece about magicians from the New Yorker. It talked about how a magician's technique needs to be invisible for the magic to work, and I found in that a strong metaphor for singing. If you're appreciating someone's technique, she's not singing as well as she might. Fortunately, when B. sang "City Called Heaven," I just floated along on the music.

I'd been working on Karma's cock for a while, taking breaks to pull him into a bear hug or just hold him in my arms and kiss him gently. I reckon he's finally realized that firmness is more effective when it's alternated or combined with tenderness. After one of those interludes, he asked me to lie on top of him again so that he could feel my weight. I did, and he closed his thighs around my cock, and I aggressively pumped him, pulling his head back by the hair, and biting his shoulders.

I was already very worked up, but when I decided to work his back muscles some more, I pulled away from him. We were both covered in sweat, so when I put both palms down on his back and leaned, my hands glided smoothly across his back, putting great pressure along the length of his back. It felt like I was flowing into him, joining him, establishing the moment of greatest intimacy. We played for a while longer, and I eventually jerked him off to a climax as we were kissing. He then collapsed into my arms, where he lay, still, for a long while. That was very intimate, too.

At the beginning of the sermon, I was still feeling a bit vocally nervous, and I continued to take small, silent sips from my water bottle. I stopped before long, though, when it became clear that the minister was inspired. "Inspired," like "transcendent," is not a word that I use lightly or frequently. "Inspired" implies that the speaker is channeling energy from an external, preternatural source, and while the sermon had a sound grounding in logic and experience, the minister was projecting a vision of something beyond both logic and experience. I spoke with the minister afterwards (He pulled me into a big hug when he saw me. I generally only hug women at church, but if you have the chance to be hugged by a softspokenly-linebackerish, vaguely asexual minister -- of any orientation or level of cuteness -- I suggest that you take it.), he said that he's never sure whether people are really listening. I'm not sure how carefully I was listening, but I know that I received the message. He spoke about something that is often on my mind, about how people, particularly politicians, are so willing to accept the current state of affairs as the best we can do. About how it may be important to do the best with the world you have but how we also desperately need a vision of a better world, a place where the reign of (a non-personal, non-limiting) God is possible.

In playing around with the Luther hymn, we'd come up with what I thought was a very sensitive, effective, and dramatic interpretation. I told the accompanist what I was trying to accomplish, she suggested appending an Amen. I agreed, eagerly. The music director heard what we'd come up with and suggested that we go even farther. In the end, we decided that I would sing most of the first verse as a recitative, with almost no accompaniment. Then I'd grow, pull back, grow again, and end with thunder. It's not a traditional approach, but it forces people to pay attention to the words:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate
On Earth is not his equal

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us
We will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him
His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure
One little word shall fell him

That word, above all Earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth
The spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also
The body they may kill, God's truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever

I had been thinking about the details for most of the morning. There were spots where I had occasionally flubbed the words, and other spots where I wasn't sure I sounded quite right. But, fortunately, inspiration is communicable, and as the minister approached the end of his sermon, I was entirely calm, and when he nodded to me, I walked up to the music stand, and the accompanist gave me a very soft chord, and, well, there are two problems: a) I don't really remember many of the details, and b) we're up against that whole ineffable thing again. I know that I sang it the way that I'd meant to, and I know that I didn't have to look at the music at all, and I know that by the time I got to the last verse both I and most of the congregation were transfixed, and I know that it was I who was singing, but it wasn't I who was singing.

I can think back now on that short period of ecstatic joy and profound peace and recapture something of the feeling. It's an echo now, but it's a very good echo. Definitely a 10. There have been times over the past few years when I've felt like giving up singing, but who's going to turn his back on the chance to experience a perfect moment?

I sometimes wonder whether the fact that I like singing better than sex doesn't just mean that I haven't had the right sexual experience. I don't think that's the case, but who knows? And who knows what I'd have to change to get there? Part of what makes singing so powerful is that even while I feel like I'm standing alone in the presence of God, I'm really sharing an enormous intimacy with a room full of people, and I just don't think it's logistically possible to have sex with a hundred people at once, especially since I'm not the least bit interested in exhibitionism. But an 8 is still very good, and given the relative difficulty of achieving the 10 and the relative ease of getting to 8, I reckon I'll keep on pursuing both.

1On the other hand, after I wrote that sentence, I took a sick day this week, and I spent most of it in bed watching Angels in America, which makes the connection very clearly, so maybe more people think in those terms than I realized. I'm still thinking it's a small minority, though.

2Squeeze half a lemon or lime in the bottom of an oversized coffee cup, add a generous squeeze of honey, and three or four ounces of red wine. Stir, then fill with near-boiling water. Float a sprig of fresh rosemary on the top and sip slowly. The rosemary is not really there for flavor, but the essential oils begin to evaporate in the hot water, and the little cloud of rosemary aroma invigorates the nasal passages, as the red wine clears -- and the honey soothes -- the throat.


Lewis said...

hey now, that drink sounds pretty damned good.....even if i'm not having throat troubles. and,no pun intended, but you're singing my song with all of the "oldies but goodies" hymns. born and raised on them. but i am wondering, where did that pretty churchy picture go at the top of your showed up in my feed reader but not on your site. hum.

Will said...

Yes, we're in the minority, but you know I think that way. At least I find the connection between sex and spirituality. I'm not a fan of organized religion--ANY of them.

John said...

This is a splendid post, TED. Thanks. Beautifully written. As to the notion that you have not had the right sexual experience yet, I wonder what you feel you might have missed up to now, or what combination of elements would make the top of your head pop off. Meanwhile, you might want to take a break from struggling with the ineffable and roll around with the ineluctable for a day or two. Again, though: beautiful post. Thank you.

Anon in Paris said...

I'm a top and religious paintings of mystical extasis often remind me of the facial expressions of guys with my cock inside them.