Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Five: First Times

A fun play from MaryBeth:


Firsts. With so many folks starting school, college, seminary, etc. I've been thinking of a lot of other firsts in my life.  Share with us, if you will:

Your first "place" - whether it was an apartment, dorm room, or home with a new spouse, the first place where you really felt like a grown-up:


My first apartment, post-college--the one I got all by myself. The one where I kept a hammer under the bed in case of intruders. The one where a forgotten head of lettuce turned to soup in the crisper. The one that was over a computer-repair shop. The one where I went downstairs one morning to discover that my my car had been squished by a truck in the night (and the trucker left a note, shoring up my faith in human nature). The one that my dad helped me to wallpaper, instilling in me one of my first Important Life Lessons:
never, ever wallpaper with anyone you ever want to speak to again.

Your first time away from home. Construe this any way you want. College? Girl Scout Camp? Study Abroad?

 Oooooo...Girl Scout Camp! Many interesting things were discovered:
  • Oranges impaled on peppermint sticks, through which the juice was sucked out. Mmmmmm.
  • Cliques, which left several girls in tears...and me, just mad as I watched it unfold.
  • My first earworm in memory, sung repeatedly with Julie Elswick in our tent after lights-out (listen at your own risk):

Your first job in your field of endeavor (so, not babysitting, unless you are A Professional Babysitter today).


I had two church music jobs while in college; actually, I'd been leading since I was about 13, but these were my first steady, paid gigs. The real job was at a campus-adjacent church, where I led Saturday night Mass from behind a guitar, with a talented teenage girl singing along. That was fun.

Less fun was the situation with our college chapel services; our liturgist (who I adored) left over the summer, and she hadn't been replaced. The sister in charge of the chapel services fully expected that I'd lead the music in her place until such time as a new hire could be made...without any sort of compensation (my first experience of the "undervalued musician" dynamic). I tried to explain to her that I'd be happy to bring my gifts and years of training to bear on the dilemma, but that I'd like to call it a work/study situation (at the princely sum of $7/hour...quite a bargain was I!), as I needed to eat that summer. Otherwise, another paying job would need to take up the hours she was looking to fill with music. Let the record state that summer chapel services were music-free that year.

Your first time hosting. Again, construed broadly, this could be a dinner for the in-laws, your first time to have guests for a holiday meal, etc.


My best friend/roommate and I, post-college, decided to host our church "young adults" group for a sloppy joes/beer/movie gathering one New Year's Day. This was a particularly close group of people; we spent a great deal of our free time together (one couple had got rather publicly engaged at the Christmas party), and almost all of us lived within a radius of just three miles or so.

So, that morning, as I cleaned the apartment, Roommate went to the kitchen to start cooking. We had no ground beef.

No. Ground. Beef.

This made the planned menu rather difficult to prepare. So, thought I, "I'll just go over to the grocery store and pick some up." On New Year's Day. You can see where this is going...

So we got on the phone and called the guests, inviting them to bring a pound of ground beef along, if they had one.

Every party we hosted (or attended) that year, we were given ground beef.

Your first love.That can be a person or something else!!


I was absolutely nuts about my elementary school music class. Singing, playing instruments, talking about music...I was absolutely HOOKED. Mrs. Ewald (to whom I will always be grateful) made it so much fun! I loved "music stations" days, where we rotated around the room, trying out various instruments and music games. I loved that she got us to bring in the instruments we studied privately, to demonstrate for the rest of the class (my first performance experience!). I loved that we frequently sang this song (expressing my nascent inner hippie):

 ...and that, every Halloween, she got out crayons and drawing paper, and had us draw this music:

Besides being fun, it opened my mind to music as a vehicle for storytelling, art and other forms of expression. Well done, Mrs. Ewald!

Friday, August 2, 2013

75 pictures are worth 75,000 words

Same-sex marriage became legal in two more states yesterday: Rhode Island and Minnesota. As a Minnesotan, this is a Big Deal in my world, and in that of many of my friends.

Yes, Ro and I will make it legal (likely in October).
Yes, I'm so full of joy about this step that my heart could burst from my chest.
But I can't write about it. Not yet. My heart is too full.

So I'll offer this instead. The joy fairly leaps off the screen and into your own heart, no?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What I read on my summer vacation

I am rediscovering the pleasures of the essay.

It's nothing like the grievous drudgery students often feel at an English teacher's request for three pages on the use of symbolism in "Jude the Obscure" (which request, I confess, never seemed to bring me down as it did my classmates). Nor is it about Ralphie's sly ambition, hoping that a school writing assignment will fortify his case when asking for a particular Christmas present.

I'm talking about the simple joy of listening deeply to another person speak fully about something/one that matters to them, or about an event or place they've astutely observed, or about a question pressed hard against their heart/mind/spirit. (Listening as you are now, Gentle Reader. Thank you for your generosity.)

Anyway, as you know, there's joy to be found in making that quiet connection, in reflecting on what binds us, on our common experience, our shared pain, our human aspiration. I've laughed and cried with Anne Lamott often, and chuckled at the mordant Bill Bryson; however, I've always thought of myself as a fiction reader. One of those limiting labels, I guess.

I've serendipitously been nudged toward three particular literary features in the last couple of weeks, and each of them has moved me deeply. They're not just non-fiction; they're about what's true.

First, NPR correspondent Scott Simon's Twitter feed this last week, which comprised the last days of his mother's life. Simultaneously aching, gorgeous and tender, they're like grief haikus. For all its strengths and influence, I never thought of Twitter as a vehicle for beauty, until now. Read them; you'll see what I mean.

Secondly, my fiction-junkie side has been aware of Chris Bohjalian for years; I've enjoyed many of his novels, including (last month) The Sandcastle Girls, which takes place during the Armenian genocide in Syria in the early part of the 20th century. It was a great read, and it led me to look for more Bohjalian I found Idyll Banter. It's a compendium of his columns for the Burlington Free Press between 1992 and 2004--observations of life in small-town Vermont. Part history, part social commentary, all of it his lens on his life and the lives of those nearest him. One of these pieces, "Losing the Library," was particularly touching to me. His small-town library was drowned by the overflowing New Haven River during a storm. In eight short pages, he packs town history, literary history, meteorology, and reporting...all tinged with grief at the loss of a beloved town resource and the hope that underlies its rebuilding:
By their very nature, libraries are generationally democratic. They cater to everyone. School and work or classes and clubs may separate us, segregating us by interest and age. But libraries remain one of the few places in this world that still bring us together...on the morning after the waters had drenched much of the library and the town gathered to try to save what remained, I saw dazed adults crying softly as they worked...not for the roads or the bridges that had been lost...but they did cry for their books...

Stories like this are generously augmented with lighter pieces such as "Dead Cluster Flies Serve As Window Insulation for the Inept" and "Surly Cow Displays No Remorse," in which he and his wife, driving on a country road near their house, are pinned down by a herd of cows. They try to chase them back toward their corral, and
a number of times I even explained that I was a vegetarian, but obviously these cows were female, and they knew they were in no danger of becoming Quarter Pounders.
His columns are condensed generosity, humor and honesty, fortified with interesting reporting and observation. Well worth a look!

Finally, and most auspiciously for me as I plan for a new choir season, I found Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others." Author Stacy Horn is a 20-year veteran soprano in the Choral Society of Grace Church, NYC. For the most part, each chapter is grounded in a major choral work; within that frame, she explores her life, the history of choral singing, the foibles of a community choir and its directors, her soprano psyche...
Jesus Christ. How am I supposed to count this? It's in seven. Is that even rhythmically allowed? 
...and the magic of finding such beauty and shared humanity in the simple act of opening your mouth and making a sound.

I actually read most of a chapter aloud to my wife, who grinned at Horn's horror-turned-to-wonder as her conductor switched her from soprano 1 (melody) to soprano 2 (harmony): after some disorientation and paddling around in the music,
I was feeling harmony. Not just singing it, but physically feeling it. It was a rush. You don't experience this when you're singing the melody. I was completely in the power of the sound we were making together and I just stood there, afraid to move, thinking, Don't end, don't end, don't end. And it took nothing. A couple of notes. A D against a B flat. That's it. Two notes and I went from a state of complete misery and lonesomeness to such an astonishing sense of communion it was like I'd never sung with the choir before.
If you've ever sung in a choir, read this book. You'll grin in lots of places, learn some things and generally enjoy the ride.  If you haven't, read this book. You'll be auditioning for choir by the weekend...and I have some openings! :-)