Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Some Piping Memories from Funerals

This is a reprint of reflections originally written for 

I have played the great Scottish Highland bagpipes for hundreds of memorials over the years. It might seem like a depressing or morbid endeavor, but for me, it is a distinct honor to dignify someone’s memory by performing this noble music. The mourners always recognize me first. There is no place to hide when you are the only one in a crowd wearing the Scottish kilt. I enter this ritual event employed and invited to witness a person’s final chapter. I have the privilege to play a role in a moment that is about more than just music. By just being there, the piper lends comfort and strength in moments of grief.
To begin with, my arrival in Highland dress with a strange-looking instrument usually provides a welcome moment of levity. There are probably no piping jokes that I have not already heard. I recognize their value. Oscar Wilde had some superb quips about piping. Sometimes I share one that I remember. I have often exchanged a joke with formidable grown men wearing suits. They slap me on the back with a smile and offer me a glass of water or a stick of gum; later, they weep like little children as I play “Amazing Grace” alongside their dad’s casket. Human nature does not change. In the ancient world funerals were attended by professional mourners who loudly wailed to encourage others to release their own emotions. In Europe until the beginning of the 20th Century, another important profession associated with funerals was that of the Mute. The Mute stood silently as a type of symbolic protector of the deceased; normally stationed near the door, wearing black clothing and a melancholy expression. My role as piper is an enduring part of that legacy: to dignify the service by standing silently; when called-upon, to give voice through the pipes to the grief that is felt, enabling the survivors to begin to let go.
There is an almost typical, recurring pattern to most memorials, like a script, but there are also those exceptional situations. I remember some beautiful services where doves were released, filling the blue sky with an explosion of white wings while I piped. I recall a particular service that was held outdoors at night. On that occasion I played “Amazing Grace” followed by the famous pipe march, “Scotland the Brave.” At the start of the march, over a hundred people individually released large white balloons which seemed to shimmer in the darkness, rising in a symbolic farewell. More challenging are sudden tragedies like the death of a child. One such day lingers in my memory. The parents leaned against each other as if piled in a heap next to the little coffin in the children’s section of the cemetery. The wind came up as I played. I felt objects knocking against my ankles and strained to look down for a moment as I kept playing. The wind was blowing toys from the other children’s graves around my feet, entangling me. It was so bizarre that I wondered afterwards whether or not I could ever do another one. That was many years ago. My job, like that of the people I serve, is also to keep going and to let go. In all types of weather, you have to know how to set the reeds and maintain your instrument. You have to know things like how long to keep playing as the widow leans against her son after casting one last rose upon the casket now nestled in the open grave below. When I pipe for Jewish funerals I stroll behind the slow-moving hearse, playing as it courses a short distance to the grave from the cemetery chapel. The pipes truly belong to all cultures now. Much of the job of piping for funerals is standing patiently and waiting while loving tributes seem to flow like a never-ending stream. It is also my privilege to stand silently while the American flag is crisply folded for one more final presentation, on “behalf of a grateful nation.” Seeing tears does not make me happy, but I am pleased to think that my pipes are really singing well, that I am doing a good thing. At the end, I cradle the pipes in my arms and gently put them back in the case. I close it up, like a little casket that contains what I love so much along with my own memories of this passing moment, this final ‘Goodbye.’

The author is a professional bagpiper in Southern Arizona.
© 2010 William W. Don Carlos All Rights Reserved.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

A small step for life

I participated in 40 Days for Life in Tucson this month. It was a big step for me. I have long thought that one of the most barbaric acts remaining in the modern world is the murder of the unborn. The idea that the issue could be recharacterized as a feminist issue or a privacy issue seems ludicrous to me when the intentional caused death of a human being is the "elephant" sitting in the room. Going to actually sit with other peaceful protesters, to pray with them, to stare at a nearby abortion mill is an act of introducing the "elephant in the room." The location is a quiet street I have often driven by. The imagination staggers to think of human lives ripped from the mother's body nearby. It is impossible not to think of quiet German towns where the trains ran on time--filled with more victims to go to the death camps and all around people calmly went about their normal business. Perhaps one day, this murderous practice will seem as bizarre and anachronistic as slavery and many other ways humans have been cruel through history. Going and sitting there was a profound interruption to that habitual flow in my life...and I felt happy to be there. The people I met love God and love life and believe in life--the right to life for all. With that outlook I feel comfortable. So close to the location of legally sanctioned murder and the horror of the concept, I felt a real peace. It was a privilege to pray with the people who gathered there on the two occasions. There were not many people there and there was not a lot happening that can be seen by the eye. The tiny gesture to just show up and think about it and focus on it was for me a profound experience. It makes me feel compassion for the victims--both the murdered children and their mothers, rather than angry. It is such a trivial thing for me to come and sit by an abortion mill for a couple of hours. For them, the visit is a life-changing event.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Solstice Celebration in a new Festal Culture-Style

I'm Pipe Major of the Seven Pipers Scottish Society Pipe Band. www.sevenpipers.org

We are collaborating with Flam Chen for the second time on a 25-minute piece. That is a big deal wrapped in wool in Tucson, AZ on June 21st. Fortunately it will be at night. This also showcases the pyrotechnics that the dancers bring to the piece. Celebrating a solstice is controversial in the pipe band and one or two felt that the could not do it. I find it fascinating to be part of performance art and taking the pipes & drums to a new audience and contextualizing our traditional music in a different idiom.

The idea comes in part from a unique collective in Tucson: MMOS. You can see us in the earlier collaboration with Flam Chen for a chalk art festival almost a year ago:

This collective is intriguing on many levels and one of the splendid festal experiences they do is the "All Souls Procession" in Tucson every November.

Here is a picture of some of us at the first one we did two years ago:

So, come out and join us in the celebration of a solstice and of the ever-changing combination of music and dance in a new slant on a ritualistic experience.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Dove in the Desert

Going to Mass at San Xavier near Tucson, Arizona, USA.

It was a long time coming--I've lived here for years and never gone to Mass at this beautiful place. My wife's side of the family was with us. The interior is spectacular not because it is old but because it is otherworldly. The photos are my own from my cell phone.

It is the architecture of the Vision: what one understood about the universe when the world was what we now call primitive. It is a story of the world that has not changed. We have. It is a paradigm of absolute monarchy in a country that became a democracy. (The structure pre-dates the USA and perhaps will outlast it, who knows?)

The Queen of Heaven reigns and adores her Son: King of the Ages and this narration does not stutter as it passes to each new generation. Into the swirling cloudy hogwash or moral realtivism it answers Pilates question: "What is truth?" The woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12) who points humbly to her son--Really present...the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8)

What strikes me as somewhat "odd" is the Church's modern liturgy in this ancient space.

Christ in the Eucharist was presented with reverence and since it is received by the person with faith it must be seen in that light, i.e. (as once said by a New Age writer who was on to something) you will "see it when you believe it."

How I wish that the priest faced the altar and that the Mass was sung. I do not intend to critique the choir but there are enough echoes of the past in this place. How I wish that one of the greatest treasurers of the Catholic Church: it's glorious music was also preserved and restored and displayed in this spectacular place. Why must the great music of the church be mothballed or only typically performed in a secular concert hall? It is difficult to try to improve upon the glory of the past and that is one of the lesson's from the Dove in the Desert.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Willie's Last Flight

On November 10th Willie died. He was one of three Congo African Grey parrots with whom I've been blessed to share this life. My first one Penny--flew away accidentally when I was distracted to go play the bagpipes for a commemoration shortly after 9-11. The other two Willie and Conway belonged to my dad when he was alive so there was that connection to let go of as well. He started just getting wobbly on his perch and got listless and sleepy. I know that often by the time you see them ill they are nearly gone. The birds hide illness or weakness as a survival mechanism. The avian vet I was referred to did an excellent job in my opinion. He was there for both me and the bird. What looked like a calcium deficiency at the beginning was probably more like a pituitary tumor because of the rapid deterioration of neuromuscular control and seizures that began to manifest themselves in hospital. It was just the bad luck that sometimes occurs in life.

I remember the words from the "Little Prince" by Antoine De Saint-Exupery:
"Many have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." I did my best and in particular in the last few months I've really been conscientious about giving them a variety of fruits, vegetables, seed, etc. They were the picture of health and Willie was the "big eater." He loved broccoli. Hell--we'd all do well to eat like those birds ate. He weighed more than Conway consistently and I noticed a subtle reduction in his weight a week before he got weak and sleepy and wobbly. I spent a lot of time with him. The fact that Conway survived is an echo of the notion that "only the good die young." Willie was so gentle and craved just to be with me on my shoulder--a quiet presence in my noisy life. Conway may actually be more intelligent and certainly talks more, but Willie just loved to be with me. I drove to the hospital with Stephanie to say "goodbye" to him before he was euthanized. He would have starved otherwise. In his eyes, the "lights were still on." I buried him later that day with a lot of tears.

It is another opportunity for me to say "goodbye" to my dad. I wonder if Willie flew to meet him. I like to think so. I like to think that animals do have some place in the vast chambers of eternity. Jesus shows up in John's Revelation as the Rider on the White Horse, afterall. I remember when my dad's voice visited me in a profound dream after he was killed. His voice was like one who had just gently awakened from a beautiful dream and he told me that he could not describe what it was like on the other side except to say without giving anything more away, that it was "a lot like fishing." I'm sure that it is even better now that he has his buddy bird back. I like to think that dad will let me hold the bird again, someday.

Animals are a fabulous gift on our journey and I recognize that even as my life marches on. There are other birds to tame and with every goodbye, we learn. Knowing that all relationships can come to an end so fast is a real challenge to appreciate them here and now. At least it was not a human being, but the emptiness is nevertheless very real. I like what Corrie Ten Boom said: "Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. " Willie will always soar joyfully in my memories.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Playing the Bagpipes WITHOUT a Sombrero

I play the Scottish Highland Bagpipes for a lot of funerals, weddings, parties, corporate events in Southern Arizona. I always get asked about my surname and let them know that I do not pipe wearing a sombrero...not that there's anything wrong with sombreros. I'm always looking for a shady spot when piping outside in AZ wrapped in wool!

My surname 'Don Carlos' goes back to the royal family in Spain. At least that is the legend. What I do know is that I'm the seventh generation in the USA. The original boat landing was about 20 years after the Mayflower. Along the way Don Carlos' served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War (both a drummer boy and an officer under Gen. Sherman), and WWII. They also had the good sense to marry Scots, Irish, French, German, and English lasses, so my folk include both MacKenzie and Gilloogly, respectively as well as other influences. The Irish Gillooglys came from Co. Fermanagh because of the great potato famine in the mid-19th century.

It is interesting to think about how things such as disasters or a diaspora can present unlimited opportunities and benefits to those who can manage to adapt and survive.

I have always maintained that the mongrels are the smart dogs!

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

May 7th, 2005 First Post

Hey this is my first post. Feel free to compose a reply as I add to the rants & raves. There are a lot of topics I like to explore. After years of keeping a private journal, this is a new step. --Cheers, William