The Cardinal Who Sang Alto

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2008

I signed up this year to sing Messiah in the Mennonite Mass Choir. And, since I have always sung soprano, that is where I placed myself. But I soon discovered that Handel had something other than my voice in mind when he wrote the soprano line. I simply couldn’t reach some of the notes. Before I quit however, I was encouraged to sit with the altos for one week. To my surprise, not only did I find a home, but I wondered what took me so long to see how the alto line, although challenging, resonated with my whole being.

I often find myself telling visitors to St. John’s Kitchen that over time, I am drawn to stay because of the “off beat” nature of the place. In a world full of insistent social norms, accepted small talk, and mainstream thought, I fancy the perspective from the kitchen. It’s an entirely different angle, as if I’m on a moving staircase at Hogwarts or walking inside a cubist painting. The “kitchen” norm becomes something else altogether, as when learning a new language, not every word is translatable. At times entering St. John’s Kitchen is like learning a new language. And there is an 18% chance that the lexicographers of this new language will be left-handed, double the frequency found in the rest of the population outside of our walls. This is clearly not the melody line.

Although I haven’t asked him, I’m not certain my choir director would agree with my assessment that the alto line is off beat. I imagine he would remind me that it is called “harmony” and insist that it supports and works with the other voices. Thinking in terms of the offbeat is my own idiosyncrasy that suits me in those times when I can’t find my place in the world… when I recall that I came to St. John’s Kitchen mostly for my own need for healing.

People come to the kitchen, some stay, some go, some return, but many of the patterns remain. We are a constant stream of cardinals who feel that red is not our best colour.

For years I have been listening to the stories of a very wise man I met at St. John’s Kitchen. His favourite theme is the sad demise of incandescent lighting and the damage we may be doing to our mental and physical health because of the bright lights that essentially eliminate the much needed dark. Many, I suspect, would ignore his ongoing tirade. But whatdayaknow! The November 2008 issue of National Geographic has a cover story titled “Our Vanishing Night.” This story could have been written by my friend, but instead was written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a most offbeat writer who editorializes in the New York Times about the crops and the horses in his field. There sits his column like a sanctuary for the mind while other columnists on the same (but oh so different) page rage about the economy and the U.S. presidential election. I would rather hear thoughts that resonate with my soul.

Such as, when a woman recently came to sit in the office with us as we finished up our day’s work. She had just had a fight with her boyfriend and didn’t know where she would now spend the night. She made a few phone calls but mostly just sat thinking about her immediate future while we worked. Then her thoughts suddenly spilled with crystal clarity. With amazing insight she spoke of power struggles at every turn, of not wanting to be a pawn in someone else’s dream, of institutions that promote women’s rights but don’t heed their own words, and of the importance of sitting with one’s own pain. We stopped our work and listened since wisdom from the street (with its paradox and its accuracy) is always more interesting than words from those who already have a forum. In fifteen short minutes she spoke to the central dilemmas we face as a culture with more truth than any campaigning politician. There she sat, a solitary cardinal on her own delicate branch, singing her beautiful alto line with a vibrancy she doesn’t even know she possesses.

And now, as we approach a holiday season that is also acknowledged at St. John’s Kitchen in an atypical, often grudging manner, the song line that probably best suits the mood would be the one played at the funeral of a prominent member of our community this past year. While everyone else is singing Joy to the world, the cardinals of the Kitchen will be singing something more akin to the Rolling Stone’s Paint it Black. “I see a red door and I want to paint it black.”

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