Dear Switchback Friends,
July 16 is my birthday. I happen to turn 55. For my birthday, my mother-in-law gave me an Ancestry.com DNA kit and the results came in. I am 53% Irish, Scottish, Welsh, 31% from Great Britain (meaning there may be some English, but again Irish, Scottish, Welsh) and 13% Iberian Peninsula, which takes in France, Spain and Portugal. This is not too surprising as most Irish descend from the Milesians (or the son of Mil) from the Iberian Peninsula. However in there is my French. French-Canadian to be exact. So, it is doubly accurate.
The biggest kick is the “low confidence regions” which are 1% each of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. My Austrian forebears must be rolling in their collective graves as they have been bred out by the Irish. But that 1% Viking! Low confidence, indeed.
For the most part, I am a Celt. Which is fine by me. My daughter Áine will have so much more fun with her DNA than myself due to her Asian lineage. And according to Ancestry, I am related to my brother Peter, which completely kills the hope that he was an aberration in our family.
So, here I am, 55. And I struggle as I reflect on the successes and the failures that so far have been part of this life. And though I now know with some certainty of what I am made of genetically, I always feel that pang of doubt as to what I am spiritually. I feel sadness as summer hits her height of glory and another year goes by.
However, such struggles lead me back to another July, years ago, when I was working as an usher at the Woodstock Opera House.
Richard Henzel, that great Chicago journeyman actor, was doing a one man show and I watched spellbound as he transformed into Mark Twain.
It was 1981. Henzel took the stage dressed in the iconic white suit and clenching a cigar, his blond hair powdered white and wrinkles drawn in with an eye pencil. Magically, for two hours, Twain was in our presence.
Henzel was a journeyman, like I was to become in my practice of music. And he would hold court over our audience of 150 members.
I now wonder if he ever felt like he, too, was struggling with the idea of whether or not he was doing everything he could do with his career. And if his career was the sum and total of who he was. And, most of all--did it matter? Hal Holbrook was already a cigar-chewing Twain and people flocked to see him. Here was this workingman Twain at this tiny Midwestern opera house on a hot, humid night in July. If he thought any of those thoughts as he assumed his character, I would not have known.
For the final act of the night as Twain, Henzel gave one of his most wonderful speeches. I can still remember the room getting quiet as Twain’s scratchy Missouri voice said:
Many & many a year ago I read an anecdote in Dana's book, "Two Years Before the Mast." A frivolous little self-important captain of a coasting-sloop in the dried-apple and kitchen-furniture trade was always hailing every vessel that came in sight, just to hear himself talk, and air his small grandeurs. One day a majestic Indiaman came plowing by, with course on course of canvas towering into the sky, her decks and yards swarming with sailors; with macaws and monkeys and all manner of strange and romantic creatures populating her rigging; and thereto her freightage of precious spices lading the breeze with gracious and mysterious odors of the Orient. Of course the little-coaster-captain hopped into the shrouds and squeaked a hail: "Ship ahoy! What ship is that, and whence and whither?" In a deep and thunderous bass came the answer back, through a speaking-trumpet: "The Begum of Bengal, 123 days out from Canton—homeward bound! What ship is that?" The little captain's vanity was all crushed out of him, and most humbly he squeaked back: "Only the Mary Ann—14 hours out from Boston, bound for Kittery Point with—with nothing to speak of!"
I remember laughing with the audience, and though I knew what would come next from Twain, as it did with every matinee and evening performance, it always came refreshingly new and beautiful. It was a lesson that I had drilled into my subconscious.
That eloquent word, ‘only’ expresses the deeps of his stricken humbleness. And what is my case? During perhaps one hour in the twenty four-not more than that-I stop and I humbly reflect. Then I am humble, then I am properly meek, and for the little time, I am ‘only the Mary Ann’ -fourteen hours out and cargoed with vegetables and tinware; but all the other twenty three my self satisfaction runs high, and I am that stately Indiaman, ploughing the seas under a cloud of sail and laden with a rich freightage of the kindest words that were ever spoke to a wandering alien, I think, my twenty six crowded and fortunate days multiplied by five; and I am the Begum of Bengal, a hundred and twenty three days out of Canton-homeward bound!
For my career, I have been the Mary Ann, heading to little ports of call around the world, bringing my wares to folks who have been most kind in accepting and, at times, even paying for them. The rusty little minivan instead of a huge tour bus. Schlepping my own equipment and with the eye on the clock, realizing that perhaps I will always be the Mary Ann. It is indeed humbling.
But during those shows, the love I receive and the friendship I have earned has made me feel, like Twain, as the Begum of Bengal. My own freightage carrying the years of stories, joy, laughter, love and support to the point that it overflows the hold, sits on deck and even hangs from the rigging. At those points, singing on stage, I need no other satisfaction, no other reassurance that I am on the right path. At that point of joy I, too, am the Begum of Bengal. Fifty-five years out - homeward bound.
American Roots & Celtic Soul