encounter

I feel like I’m already betraying the spirit of this blog with this post, even though we didn’t give it any specific type of spirit. It just seems like cheating to post about something that happened a few weeks ago and that I’ve already told some people.  But it was one of my more exciting-in-a-way-you-can-tell-a-story-about recent experiences, so I’m posting it anyway:

At about 11:30 pm, the Friday before last, I decided to go for a run around campus. “Dead Week,” the week before Princeton’s Reunions, when campus is nearly empty, has been an odd few days for me both this year and last year. With so few people around, I sing more words than speak them, and float around in a generally spacey state.

That night, I ran more slowly than I felt I should have been going and wished I had something to galvanize me, some goal or even past memory that would make me sprint until my calves ached. Thinking about this made me run a little faster, but it was no substitute for the actual idea that something cool was happening and that everything was turning poetic and that I could think of my running as “swift” rather than just “fast,” making it worth doing…

After about half an hour, I ended up in front of the chapel, out of breath. One of the big wooden doors stood open, so I went in. From the narthex, I scanned the nave. Most of the lights were off, but it was bright enough for me to be pretty sure the church was empty. I got excited. Ever since I’d sung my solo at the Chapel Choir’s winter concert and heard the way the echoes expanded and carried my voice for seconds, I’d wanted to sing there by myself again.

I walked down the central aisle, trying to think of something to sing, and feeling out of place in my t-shirt, running shorts, and tennis shoes instead of the black robe and orange stole I wear for Chapel Choir. A velvet rope barred off the choir’s seats and the altar, so I stopped on the steps on the nave-side of the rope and turned around to face the empty pews. I’d decided to sing “Am I Born to Die?” It was appropriately religious, a song that I love, and one that I can sing well.

I was still out of breath from my run when I started singing, but my voice sounded enormous.

“And am I born to die? To lay this body down?

And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?

I had to slow down my tempo so one phrase wouldn’t bleed too much into another. My singing wasn’t perfect, but it was eerie and loud and good enough to make me pause to smile.

As I started the fourth verse, I heard shuffling from what seemed like the back of the chapel. Embarrassed, I rushed down the steps, across the transept, and into the foyer at the side of the chapel.

As I hid in the dark, it was hard to hear whether the shuffling continued. I waited there a few minutes, feeling idiotic for singing, and idiotic for having been caught. The movements stopped echoing in the sanctuary, and I was about to come out when a man started singing. His voice seemed to come from the back of the chapel. It was husky and rich in a way that members of my a cappella group would describe as “soulful.” It didn’t take me long to realize he was singing “Angel” by Sarah Mclachlan, which was both appropriate and out of place, especially when sung by this deep male voice. Coming after my own song, and a little out of tune, it felt a little cheesy, but poetic. I stepped back into the transept, but I didn’t see anyone. I took a few more steps toward the center of the church, but I still couldn’t see him.

As he finished singing, I inched down the transept a little farther until I could see him. He was standing not in the nave but in one of the choir’s pews, on the other side of the velvet rope. He was tall and blond and wore a green shirt, but I couldn’t see well enough at that distance and that dim light to tell much more.

“You have a nice voice,” he said.

“You too,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. “I used to sing a lot, though I don’t much anymore.”

“How long have you been in here?” I asked.

“About half an hour,” he said. I raised my eyebrows. I had assumed he had come in when the shuffling started. I’d also thought the singing had come from the back of the chapel, not behind the rope.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

I looked at my watch. “Less than ten minutes.”

“Are you going to do anything?” he asked.

“What?” The way the chapel echoes is good for carrying songs, but less good for clearly transmitting speaking voices. I also didn’t know what he meant.

“Are you going to do anything?” he said.

I shrugged. “I just thought I’d come in here, because I’d always wanted to sing in here alone. I’m in the Chapel Choir. Sorry – I can’t see you very well. I don’t know if I know you.”

It occurred to me that he might be in Chapel Choir – except that he’d said he didn’t sing much anymore. Then again, we have a lot of slackers in choir. I couldn’t see well enough to be sure.

He tilted his face mysteriously, in a melodramatic way that might have irritated me, except that the situation and my mood were unusual enough that it seemed appropriate.

“Do you come in here often?” I asked, realizing it was an odd question to ask about a church.

“Sometimes,” he said.

After a few moments, he sat down on one of the choir pews and clasped his hands together as if in contemplation or prayer.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll let you get back to it.”

He nodded. He started humming lightly as I walked slowly back down the aisle. In the narthex, I stopped and looked back. He was probably there for prayer, and I had disturbed him. He clearly hadn’t been singing when I came in, so it seemed “Angel” was a response to my song.  That and now his humming seemed signal that he didn’t mind being disturbed.

As I waited there, stopped humming and said something. I think it was, “Are you still here?”

“What did you say?” I asked, but he either didn’t hear me or just wanted to start humming again.

I left through the heavy wooden door I’d come in and had no problem inspiring myself to run at full speed back to my room. (I think only part of the reason was that I’d had time to catch my breath.)

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3 Comments on “encounter”

  1. Hannah Says:

    I admire your use of the proper architectural terms in your description of the chapel.

  2. Jean Says:

    i miss chapel choir! subscribing to your blog on my google reader =)


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