Vita Brevis, Ars Longa

“Miss Merritt has retired,” so the letter I received in the late ‘80s began. At the time, I was teaching at Jones County Junior College where my colleagues and I were enjoying Robert Fulghum’s bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

“I must have been a slow learner,” I told my coworkers. “I made it all the way to high school before I learned anything really useful.”

The news of Miss Merritt’s retirement only solidified my opinion. Phyllis Merritt directed the choral program at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Florida. As a singer in the auditioned group called the Rebelaires (later called the Escambians), I learned the simple axioms that transform ordinary experiences into life lessons.

Five days a week, choral groups numbering as few as thirty-five and as many as over one hundred gathered in one room, put aside cultural and political differences, and transcended personality clashes: you don’t have to like the people you work with in order to do a job well.

Her choral groups often sang pieces by such composers as Persichetti or Ives, whose notes sounded randomly selected, but were actually neatly arranged and organized on the printed score: what sounds like hopeless discord is often ordered harmony.

Her choice of choral literature often included texts in foreign languages and seemed composed on levels beyond traditional high school performance and understanding. We tackled Orff’s Carmina Burana, Schubert’s Mass in G, Berger’s Cantique de Jean Racineand learned to sing in German, Latin, Italian and French. My favorite was Faure’s Requiem, which we presented my freshman year. It was the very first large choral work I sang.

Miss Merritt booked First Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in Pensacola. My only singing experiences had been in Baptist churches that usually have the choir facing the congregation at the front of the sanctuary. Although that arrangement allows for facial interaction between the singers and the hearers, the sound has to transverse all sorts of physical obstacles before filling the sanctuary. These Presbyterians hid their choir and organ in the balcony, a location that added to the ethereal natural acoustics of wood, glass and stone. Instead of the choir projecting the sound forward and up, the harmony wafted downward covering the audience like a mantle.

Of the movements, for me the Agnus Dei holds the most magic. It begins in pathos and pleading repetition then abruptly yields to measured silence, like drops of holy water beading on a thurible. Motionless, we singers strained to continue, but waited on the conductor to give us a sign. Miss Merritt inhaled then nodded to the sopranos and the dawn of sound began. Their unison so soft and pure it seemed more felt than heard, these female prophets prophesied a single, rounded word: lux. And then as more voices joined, the luxexpanded into lux aeterna, a single spinning sound so bright the very walls shone with the sound, until the single note burst like a lush ripe grape into chords that seemed refracted into infinity: luceat eis. At that moment, I knew I never wanted the music to end. Later, as I moved away from home and became the new singer in community choruses, those same skills and literatures became my passport to membership: to have music is to be everywhere at home.

Almost everybody wants to be the soloist, (and managing the teenaged prima dona requires an extra dose of patience), but only one person can be the star. I’ve watched many so-called friendships irreparably rupture during auditions. A choir, however, requires many people. I am a non-musical “soloist”— as an unmarried, orphaned only child—I eat, live, and sleep alone (unless two Chihuahuas count). When I am willing to blend with others, however, as a choral singer, I always perform.

Often at choral festivals, several different groups would perform the same selections. Those groups who sang the same songs or had to follow the performances of Miss Merritt’s groups usually suffered from the comparison. In 1974, while at the Florida Vocal Association at Florida State University, I made a last-minute stop at the ladies’ room. I had just closed the stall door when two directors entered. I never discovered their identities, but their conversation left no doubt about whom they spoke.

“This is the third year my advanced kids have had to follow her group. Who puts the order together? My kids think they sound good until Phyllis’ choir performs and then they lose their confidence and don’t want to go on stage,” said the first director. “Seriously. You’re on the festival board. Can’t you do something?” I peeked through the space between the door and the wall; she lit a cigarette and took a long drag before handing it to her companion. “My god they win every year. Couldn’t they just perform without being adjudicated?”

The second director exhaled and fanned the smoke. “What do you want me to do? Nobody wants to follow her.” She returned the cigarette.

“You could always draw numbers for performance positions,” my mouth said, while my brain chanted,“Oh, damn.”

After a long silence, one of them said, “That’s a good idea. Now, what choir do you direct?”

I sighed. “I don’t. I’m in one of Phyllis’ groups. In fact, I’m supposed to be in warm up right now.” I flushed the toilet. By the time I opened the door, they were gone.

 When we reacted negatively to other groups that poorly performed “our” literature, Miss Merritt reprimanded our ridicule. If a singer didn’t get the hint, she made the singer sit out the performance or go home. After hearing the bathroom conversation, I understood her admonition: to be good, graciously.

If one of her choir’s pronunciation and enunciation sounded muddy, Miss Merritt stressed the importance of text. One memorable example concerns a choir director who, in malapropian fashion, confused “prostrate” with “prostate” and “calvary” with “cavalry.” An audience deserved the best of both pitch and text for complete meaning. Miss Merritt’s rule: if a song sounds harmoniously good but an audience can’t understand the lyrics, choose something else to sing.

Student body conduct and cultural disagreements in 1975 often diminished or canceled extra-curricular activities. Miss Merritt, however, believed that the rehearsal and the show should go on. One afternoon during class change, a fight broke out in the hall by the rehearsal room door. I watched, horrified, as a student swung a pocket knife and sliced Miss Merritt’s palm. Miss Merritt continued to get the singers into the choral hall and then she and another teacher bolted the door. Someone brought the first-aid kit, swabbed her hand with alcohol and an antibiotic cream then wrapped the wound. The rest of us absently sat on the risers.

“What do you think you are doing?” Miss Merritt said. She looked at us. “You’re not getting out of rehearsal that easy. Get your folders.” I know her hand must’ve hurt, but if she could make herself conduct, how could we not follow her lead and sing? In that incident, she modeled professional behavior: if others fail, don’t lower your own standards.

No one sings in a vacuum. The singer relies upon physics for harmony and pitch and acoustics, physiology for the mechanics of breathing and producing sound, mathematics for rhythm and beat, literature for text, linguistics for pronunciation and history for authentic performance: singing like the post-high school world we entered is interdisciplinary.

In 1973–75, the Rebelaires had the privilege of performing in memorable venues. When operatic bass Jerome Hines needed a back-up choir for his performance in Pensacola, we learned his music and shared his stage. Frank Sinatra, Jr. dropped by between gigs at the Municipal Auditorium. Much to the disappointment of other singers in town, The Rebelaires performed for President Gerald R. Ford and his entourage. The year had been not so pleasant for the President, who had only assumed office in August after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Our selections included “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “For All We Know,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Even now, none of the singers is sure whether the irony was deliberate or circumstantial. The President seemed unfazed by our choices. He thanked us for our contribution and gave us each an autographed card. The signature may have been the work of an automated pen, but I have kept mine anyway.

In later years, Miss Merritt has added another axiom to the mix: music is the great unifier and the great healer. We alumni Rebelaires proved this truth. We joined alumni of her various other auditioned ensembles to persuade Miss Merritt to abandon retirement and take up her baton to conduct us again. Her high school singers had matured into dentists, cardiologists, university professors, IRS forensic accountants, military officers (including two brothers who served at the Pentagon during the 9/11 plane crash), scientists, engineers, firemen, public servants, CPAs, teachers, graphic designers, and even some who became professional musicians. To our great good fortune, she said yes. This time we had no school mandated venue, budget, music, or salary. We underwrote the costs ourselves because we still believe in her unspoken but performed standards.

Most of all, we believe in performing. Because we are not all from the same high school, we put aside school rivalries and embraced a universal name: the Phyllis Merritt Singers. We have rehearsed in whatever venue will have us. We are the first group ever to perform in the Washington D.C. National Holocaust Museum. At first, our music shocked the workers, and they came forward motioning for us to stop. Then as they heard our texts in Hebrew by Jewish composers, they stopped and as they listened, they wept. When we finished, at first, no one moved. Then as we Gentile singers moved silently from the room, many in the audience reached out and touched our arms as we went by, a blessing for a blessing.

We are one of the first groups to sing in the Pentagon after 9/11. We sang about peace both in the interior mall and in the area surrounding the crash site. We sang “God Bless America” in the nation’s capital, a place which usually prohibits performance. Veterans living in the old Soldier’s Home (now called the Armed Forces Retirement Home) visited with us after our concert. When they heard we were singing at the World War II memorial, some gave us the names of their fallen friends to carry while we sang. The night temperatures quickly fell and the warmth of our voices made vapor, as if the songs released whatever ghosts might linger in that place.

An impromptu concert in the national cathedral stopped decorators preparing for Sunday’s hanging of the green. We sang two Christmas concerts at the Biltmore Estate. After each performance at least one person asked why we would travel so far to sing unannounced and unpaid, especially at places where music often seemed out of place, for people we didn’t know. Our answers, both personal and unique, remain known only to the speaker and the listener.

If not for Miss Merritt, I might never have resolved some of my personal conflicts. Robert Frost said that he had a lover’s quarrel with the world. My quarrels are of a lesser scope yet equally as grave— I have had a lover’s quarrel with the church. Quarreling with an organization seems foolish, since organizations are nonresponsive and oblivious to individual remonstration. I had a pseudo-reconciliation with the church after Mrs. Griffith taught unison singing in my elementary school.  Once I reached the age of singing accountability and joined the adult choir at church, the experience immersed me in the whole body experience of multipart sacred choral music.

I had heard choral music as it moved through the sanctuary. Never before, however, had I bathed in its harmony, immersed from all sides by sounds so in tune that my baby fine hairs stood. That sensation evoked the same surprised visceral response as the only time I swam naked. In the middle of a hot muggy night, unnoticed but for the shadows cast by moonlight illumination, I slipped into an above ground pool. For the first time, I knew the physical shock of moving water against unclothed skin. Each experience, the water and the choral harmony, provided a moment of wide-eyed, involuntary, inhaled, “O!” The music provided an easy and long lasting peace, until I moved into high school.

The real quarrel started with the infiltration of new theology—much like the confusing “new math” of the ’60s or the common core curriculum today—with its edict of relevancy and influx of entertainment. For me, the church worshiptainment of Facebook discussion isn’t new and wasn’t spawned from praise choruses, musicals, or electric instrumentation. It began in the 1970s Southern Baptist Sunday school. In the11th grade department, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem not on foot and donkey, but in a shiny pink Cadillac convertible. The kids chosen to read the scripture passages did so seated behind the cardboard steering wheel. Who knew the Virgin Mary sold Mary Kay?

And that is when, much to my mother’s shame, my grandmother’s disappointment, and my father’s tolerance, I became a Presbyterian. I remained a Presbyterian until I could no longer stand the banishment of choral music in congregations who barely sang unison during hymns. After that, I determined church membership not for the preaching but for the music. For me, God is Himself a trio and has always been present in the harmony. The ensemble. Vocal or instrumental. Harmony allows freedom beyond. In my clichéd “heart-of-hearts,” I have never wanted to be a vocal soloist because most of my life, I’ve been a social soloist: I teach alone, live alone, sleep alone, usually eat alone. These characteristics are not complaints, just statements of the obvious.

So, perhaps for now, my lover’s quarrel has reached a stasis. I have made a place and from my vantage point a certain peace in a world where more or less I still move as “the other”—except for the rare occasion with good choral singing and I become part of an “us”—but that intimacy dissolves with the final overtone. From my position in whatever choir loft, whatever others’ motivations may be, I sing my part. I hope I have done Miss Merritt proud.

This year celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the opening of Escambia High School. The organizers of the events have asked Miss Merritt and the Rebelaires/Escambians who sang under her direction to gather on May 8 and perform works from the group’s repertoire. Selections include the “Star Spangled Banner,” “Alma Mater,” “God Bless America,” “I Hear a Voice a Prayin’,” “Flower of Beauty,” and “For All We Know.” If we are lucky, our audience will understand the power and hold a high school class taken at least forty years ago still has.                                                     



“I feel sorry for you,” the doctor says as he moves the electrodes over my bare chest, trying to find the optimal location above my breast to establish baseline heartbeat.

A thousand miles from this exam room in Miami, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. For weeks, I’ve done my best to ignore this hideous truth, but today, it’s impossible. This morning, the feeling of impending doom made it hard to get out of bed. If I didn’t have this echocardiogram scheduled, I’d still be under my covers with a pillow wrapped around my head.

At the start of the appointment, the doctor asked the compulsory “How are you?” His pause and inflection led me to believe he genuinely cared. I thought I owed the man who was monitoring my heart the truth: it had been a bad morning. In addition to trying to tune out Trump’s bloated face on every news channel and social media outlet, I hadn’t realized the sound I’d heard in the hours before dawn was someone vandalizing my car. They smashed the side window of my Hyundai to steal less than three dollars in change from the compartment between the seats. I drove here a few minutes ago delicately perched on opaque remnants, trying to avoid the biggest chunks that had congregated in my thigh indents on the seat.

The chest pains have been a minor concern for years. Intermittent arrhythmia left over from a childhood virus announced itself every month or so, then disappeared for no apparent reason. But a few weeks ago, while outlet shopping with my sister, the chest pains returned and have persisted since. I’ve been unable to find a correlation between potential triggers such as long runs, interval workouts at the gym, or even illness. Like so many other inexplicables, the cardiac occurrences have fallen into the category of “No known cause.” This makes me uneasy. There has to be a cause; every effect has a cause.

The doctor stops moving the transducer. “I really do feel sorry for you,” he repeats.

I say nothing because I don’t know how to reply to a statement like this. It implies an understanding he hasn’t earned, ownership of a chain of events that has preceded the here and now. Proclamations such as this take a person out of a context of her life. Even my parents, who perhaps understand my causality better than anyone, refuse to say “I’m proud of you” because they insist it isn’t their place to take credit for my worth.

“It’s not my first break-in,” I tell him.

When I bought my house, I didn’t know that a month down the line, on a rainy morning before work, a tall, homeless man in a yellow rain slicker would stare back at me from outside the French doors in my living room, hands cupped, scoping out the interior. I didn’t know that a week after that would be the first robbery: laptop gone from bed, iPod and camera gone from living room. I didn’t know that two years later, a man would walk on my roof one night, depositing stolen costume jewelry and foreign coins he couldn’t pawn. I had no way of knowing that on year three, there’d be a call from ADT when I was an hour away at work, telling me that the robber had cut the power to the house, taken my roommate’s laptop, kicked the dog, and left a trail of blood along with a wailing alarm. When I signed the deed to the house, I never suspected that on Christmas morning, seven years later, a burglar would be in my bedroom nosing through my jewelry box. Or that just three weeks thereafter, on Inauguration Day, I’d be cleaning broken glass from my driver’s side passenger window, wondering why someone steals pocket change and leaves both Garmins.

“If I were you, I’d take precautions,” the doctor says, his eyes oscillating between the screen, my chest, and my face. “With your house.” Before I can interject, he offers me the same to-do list so many others have provided: Install cameras. Put bars on the windows. Get a dog. Buy a gun. I try to shift my attention to the computer screen a few feet away or the framed pictures of flowers to my left. Instead, my eyes settle on my “Not My President” t-shirt balled up with my bra in the corner.

The doctor tells me where he and his wife hide their jewelry. How robbers know to look in kids’ rooms first for valuables, so they store them in a file in the office desk. He says he can monitor his house remotely with his phone. This approach has worked very well for him and his family. His house, for example, has never been robbed. None of the houses in his gated community have.

The thing is that the doctor isn’t me. I don’t live in a gated community and likely never will. I live near a busy intersection on the “good side” of West Dixie Highway, in a house whose selling price was reduced because it sat empty and in disrepair for so many years. My neighbors on both sides, who have bars on their windows and expensive security systems, have been robbed more often than I, despite the ever-growing cop presence in my neighborhood. This doctor doesn’t know the ongoing investment I’ve put toward home security or how with each improvement comes a new robbery. I’ve already purchased a comprehensive security system. I installed a PVC fence too tall to jump over. I own two dogs. And there is a gun here, in case it comes to that.

I wonder if my unease with the trajectory of the conversation is registering electronically. Is my heart betraying this angst? The more he talks, the greater the disconnection I feel— not just from the conversation and the exam room, but also from everything that led me here today.

I think back to the places I’ve been hiding my laptop when I leave: in the cooking supply chest in the family room, packed in a fold in the Papasan chair, or under a cushion on the couch. Spots that anyone wishing to steal things would most likely immediately fish out as obvious hiding places. Previous break-ins have taught me that robbers open drawers, look in closets, and retrieve items from blankets on beds. Prior invasions have indicated that there are no good hiding spots in a house like mine or in a neighborhood like mine, which is constantly being scoped out and monitored.

Maybe it’s this root vulnerability that robbers sense—this uneasiness I have about being observed. I wonder if this is why my house and car have been targeted so often. Anyone who has known me for even the slightest amount of time can perhaps sense this vulnerability, despite my efforts to cloak it. Maybe I advertise it as blatantly as I do political slogans on shirts. I can’t help but shiver, my nakedness registering the cold exam-room air.

“From what I can tell, you’ve got the heart of a twenty-five year old,” the doctor says, his face now committed to the EKG screen. He’s referring to the once-upon-a-time self I was a decade ago, back when I truly felt in control of my body and my life. The self I was a year before I decided to stay in Miami. The self I was a year before I bought my house.

“But we’ll know more when the full results come in.”

“Why the chest pains?” I ask.

His shoulders dip into a slight shrug. “Stress?”

While stress could definitely be a trigger, it doesn’t explain everything. “If it’s stress, then why am I not getting chest pains right now?” I ask. I’ve not had a single pain all morning, despite Trump and the window.

“Stress can be stored in the body,” the doctor says. Which, he tells me, is why the episodes don’t always correspond to upsetting events, like driving here an hour ago.

The way the doctor describes stress reminds me of how squirrels store nuts. Like squirrels, we dig little, convenient holes. We squirrel away our stress, knowing at some indefinite point in the future we may come back and do something with it, like digest it or hide it in a better, farther-away spot. Eventually, we lose track of some of these nuts, which is okay. We leave them in the earth, where a few will go on to sprout unexpected growths. But other times, we become impatient and begin to crave the crops we sowed. Despite knowing it’s best to leave some nuts buried, there are times when we end up unearthing the harvest without stopping to think about what we’ll do with it when it has been dug up.

“We’re all done here,” the doctor says. He switches off the machine and removes his gloves. “Good luck with—with everything,” he adds. Then, he leaves me alone in the exam room.


I gently open my car door, hoping the lingering pieces of glass will remain stuck to the window frame during the drive home. I switch on the ignition and switch off the radio. Some things are important to ignore. Others must be dealt with. The hard part is my knowing the difference.

As I drive in silence, I recall when the chest pains began—the morning after Christmas. Not even twenty-four hours after my house was broken into. Christmas morning, as we were halfway through opening our stockings in Pittsburgh, my parents’ home phone rang. An unknown number popped onto the TV screen, and the Christmas carols that had been previously playing were muted. My dad answered. ADT Home Security had phoned my parents since my cell phone went to voicemail. The alarm was going off in my house, twelve hundred miles away. The North Miami Police had been notified and were on their way.

I think back to my parents’ expressions, the familiar combination of worry and indeterminate upset. The same look from all those years ago after the first break-in—the look of wanting to help but having no clue how and the facial struggle to tame the futility of these feelings. As I stood outside in the frost-tinged Pittsburgh morning making phone calls to friends in Miami, the rest of my family waited patiently for me to come back inside so that we could finish opening gifts and drinking mimosas. I stayed calm, even though the front window to my house had been pried open and the person who broke in had been in my bedroom. I had no idea what had been stolen or how long the house had been compromised before the cops arrived.

Stress can be stored in the body.

As I accelerate down Biscayne Boulevard, a large chunk of glass falls from the back window onto the foot mat. I will have to file a police report today—one more for my file folder that in another life could be housing hidden jewelry. I’ll have to hire someone to replace the car window. Then, I’ll have to trim back the tree under which I park. Once that’s done, I’ll need to find a way to secure my home window, which had already been repaired a few weeks before the intruder found a way to push it open. I wonder if the chest pains will continue as long as the stress does. What if they keep up until every variable manifests? Until I finally cave in and decide to sell my house?

What I don’t know as I drive home is that later this evening, my car will be broken into a second time—that someone will go in through the shattered window and again fish through the road maps and old CDs in search of drug money or something to pawn. Or that in the morning while my friends, family, and coworkers are marching at protest rallies around America, I’ll be taping plastic bags to my car window, hoping to protect the cloth interior from the impending weather front. I don’t know as I avoid the most glaring bumps and cracks in the asphalt that in a few days from now, I will get into a fight with a student after a tutoring session, that we’ll exchange heated words in the parking lot at the university—that I will leave her in tears after we shout at one another over her love of Donald Trump, a man she used to date and truly believes will make our country great again. And I don’t know that a week from now, the doctor will call to tell me he found an accumulation of water surrounding my heart—a slim buffer, a trace layer protecting my most valuable possession from the threat of the exterior.

As I drive home amid the crumbled glass, what I do know is that something has shifted internally. In the middle of the plane of my chest is a point at which the personal and mass vulnerability intersect, where the beyond registers at forty-eight inconsistent beats a minute. In this spot, my chaos collides with Miami’s chaos and crashes head-on into the collective chaos of this country. This plane—this sheet of glass my coordinates occupy—seems to be lode bearing. It tries to remain intact but senses compounding stressors that are beyond its control. Cracks form, then spread. The center does its best to hold. And when the damage can no longer be ignored, the shatterproof glass finds a way to crumble.

As I pull into my driveway, diagonally to avoid the sprinkling of glass, it occurs to me that it can no longer be inside and outside, mine and their. Internalizing the upset hasn’t worked. Neither has locking and sequestering. Instead, what I plan to do is the opposite: from now on, I’ll leave the car unlocked. That way, if someone wants to take what’s in it—which they will—they can do so without $340 in damages. This is not a decision to stop fighting but instead a plan of action to fight a better kind of fight. It’s a choice that anticipates the unavoidable. It’s knowing when to protest and rage on, and when to take a deep, calming breath to unlock and accept the inevitable.