Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joy in the morning

If there's any better way to start a Saturday morning then to hear that you're going to be the grandfather to twins come January, I don't know what it would be.

My face is frozen in a semi-permanent grin, and my brain is famished for words at the moment.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A radiant indifference to words

From "Personal History: Altered State -- Pennsylvania, blackness, and the art of being foreign" by Andrea Lee in the June 30, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. The author is describing her experience as a fifth-grade student at Lansdowne Friends School when she and her classmates were called on to recite Psalm 19 at Thursday morning meeting for worship to the elders of the meeting and the rest of the school:

For a long time, things go without a hitch, but on the morning of Psalm 19 our class fails. First, the short, deep-voiced boy who is our bellwether stumbles over his verse and, purple-faced, shudders to a halt. And I, with gold ready to pour from my lips*, simply freeze. At Teacher's frenzied prompting, we burst into the chorus, about errors and secret faults.** But the words are a tripwire: somebody's helpless giggle becomes a rout. We double over, choking with uncontrollable laughter.

The beams of the meetinghouse ring with the echo of our debacle, and we wither under the sidelong smirks of the sixth grade. Still, after a minute, a curious transformation occurs. One by one, we are able to look up at the faces of the elders, which are not severe and condemning, nor yet smiling with the kind of amused indulgence with which grownups greet endearing childish mishaps. Nor do they display any desire to make this a character-building experience. Those old faces are simply present: alert; regarding us and the rest of the hall with a boundless, patient comprehension that raises us to their own dignified level. We let the silence flow back. And, gradually, something becomes clear: a kind of radiant indifference to words, mistaken or correct. What the elders, the Friends, pass on to us this morning is an inkling of how strong silence is. Essential; eternal. But common, in the best sense. Always there, if we can only listen for it. Inside or outside meeting.

* v 9-10: The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

** v 12Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Joy of Living

Immediately after the Gathering, our family of four drove to Colorado to join the rest of Lovely Wife's family -- two brothers, sister, spouses, nieces & nephews [except one] and partners: a total of 18 people. This reunion was planned last fall when we all gathered in Minneapolis for Lovely Wife's mother Barbara's memorial meeting at Twin Cities Friends Meeting. We so enjoyed being together that we planned to meet again in the summer, at which time we would attend to distributing Barbara's ashes in the mountains.

Both Barbara and her husband, Bruce, were born in Iowa but fell in love with Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when Bruce performed civilian public service in Denver during the Second World War. Later, after retirement, they bought a house next door to their eldest daughter and her husband, the Inventor, in Gold Hill, Colorado, a little mountain town about 3000 feet and 30 minutes above Boulder. The house was spacious and beautiful, facing east and south overlooking the cities of Boulder and Denver and the plains beyond. There they helped raise Sister Holly's three sons and hosted many family get-togethers.

When Bruce died in 1995, we all met in Gold Hill and buried most of his ashes in the town cemetery where we had a sweet and spontaneous family ceremony at the graveside. It was a beautiful, sunny April morning and we stood in a circle as we said a few words and sang a few songs after which Lovely Wife played her fiddle and led us in a procession down the hill and to the road. We then went to the Boulder Meeting's memorial meeting later that afternoon.

Later that summer, five of us (one son, Sister Holly's husband and two of their teenage sons, and me) took most of the rest of Bruce's ashes to the top of Gannett Peak, the tallest mountain in Wyoming, in the Wind River Range, which Bruce had never made it to the top of despite several attempts.

For Barbara, we originally intended to take her ashes to Mount Audubon, a 13,233 foot mountain that can be walked up in 3-4 hours without technical assistance (ropes, ice axes, etc.). But on Wednesday, the entire group walked up two other nearby 14,000 foot peaks -- Gray's and Torrey's -- and we realized that a 13,000 peak is a challenge to climb, even as a walk-up, especially for us flatlanders who hadn't gotten used to the altitude yet. All but two of the 18 made it to the top of one of either Gray's or Torrey's (one climbed both), but afterwards none of us were sure that we had it in us to climb Audubon just a few days later. (Photo on left is from the top of Gray's.)

So we changed our plans and decided to release some of Barbara's and some of Bruce's remaining ashes at Loveland Pass, on the Continental Divide that we would pass on our drive to Gold Hill. We arrived at Loveland Pass at about 11 o'clock and walked from the road up about 100 feet to the top of a nearby ridge.

As we had done before, we set the two boxes with ashes on a rock and stood in a circle around them and held what amounted to a brief meeting for worship. Everyone had the opportunity to say some words, and when that was done we each took a handful of the ashes of each and released them to the wind, which was very strong and immediately scattered them in the air along both sides of the Divide. (The family at Loveland Pass is on the right.)

Lovely Wife then led the procession down from the ridge playing "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" on her fiddle. I brought up the rear of the line. As I got to the parking lot, there was a family there sitting on some rocks, and one of the little girls was singing "She'll be coming 'round the mountain" to herself as I walked by.

On Friday, after arriving in Gold Hill, we planned another ceremony in the cemetery. Lovely Wife wanted there to be a bench at the gravesite, which is at the upper end of the hillside cemetery, so that visitors can rest and contemplate after making the climb.

The plan was then made to go out and find a large flat rock plus two smaller ones to make a simple, rustic bench. The Inventor and I scouted for the rocks about 10 miles from town at a place where he had scavenged some flat rocks years ago, and he identified the right one for the seat -- but it weighed upwards of 300 pounds and the two of us couldn't carry it the 200 yards to the road. So we went home and brought back a crew of six or seven men and a wheelbarrow, and together we carried it (and two smaller but heavy granite stones for the upright supports) to the car and brought them to the graveyard.

While we got the stones up the steep hill, we dug and found the box that contained the urn that held Bruce's ashes and pulled it out of the ground. The rest of the family joined us and once again we had a spontaneous ceremony. We poured most of Barbara's remaining ashes into the urn to be mixed with her husband's, and then we poured out tears and words of remembrance, gratitude, and love. After a while, we closed the urn, put it back into the ground, closed the box, and filled in the hole. One again, Lovely Wife played her fiddle as she led everyone down the hill back to the road.

Some of us men then re-climbed the hill and dug the holes and assembled the stone bench. As it happened, one end of the stone has two small, natural depressions exactly the size of the average human buttocks making it amazingly comfortable to sit on. By the end of the day, it was done and was deemed satisfactory by all.

Here's the view from the bench:

There was something very blessed and sweet about these two ceremonies. The pattern was set spontaneously thirteen years ago after Bruce's death, which Lovely Wife found surprising at the time because neither parent talked much about death (each had lost their same-sex parent while teenagers) and they were never "taught" what to do when a loved one dies. But somehow -- mainly through deep and abiding love -- they taught their children just what to do, and how to do it themselves without professional assistance. It was a blessing to be part of it.

Thirteen years ago, I sang a favorite song by Ewan McColl, "The Joy of Living", at Bruce's graveside and at the memorial meeting. Bruce, like Ewan, was a large, hearty man, and the song perfectly matched his spirit. This year, I just sang the fourth and final verse for Barbara on Loveland Pass:
Take me to some high place of heather, rock, and ling,
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind.
There where I will be part of all you see,
The air you are breathing.
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milk-wort and the sundew hung with diamonds.
I'll be riding the gentle breeze as it blows through your hair,
Reminding you how we shared,
In the joy of living.
(Listen to Ewan and Peggy Seeger sing the whole song here. Better get a hanky first.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Quakers' historic testimony against music and other frivolous entertainments does not apply to singing from the Sacred Harp

While catching up on the blogs while I've been away, I found this one from Martin Kelly discussing Thomas Clarkson's explanation of why early Quakers testified against music.

Martin quotes or paraphrases four reasons cited by Clarkson and correctly comments that the objections are valid concerns:

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless.
* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing (we've really decontextualized: much of the music played at orchestra halls is Masses; much of the music played at folk festival is church spirituals).
* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening.
* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion.
The point is that the early Quakers' concerns with music wasn't based on an ideological or theological construct, but was rather observations on concrete, practical effects of music on the spiritual life of individuals and meetings.

I'd reinforce Martin's observation that these concerns are valid and legitimate and that any Quaker involved in music should take them seriously. I'm therefore happy to report that Sacred Harp singing is not susceptible to these criticisms and may therefore be embraced by Quakers without fear for their souls.

* People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless. One beauty of Sacred Harp singing is that it is entirely group-oriented; there is simply no opportunity to show off as a soloist and a very strong social pressure not to do so even if you could. (There are some singers who succumb to the temptation to show off a bit as a leader, but in my experience this is uncommon.) The entire ethos of Sacred Harp singing is to experience the singing as part of the singing community as a whole. Ego satisfaction is therefore of minimal concern and is actively resisted.

* Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing. While there are instances of Sacred Harp singing at folk festivals and other venues as a demonstration, and by formal choruses in a commercial setting, by and large Sacred Harp singers consider singing to be a form of worship (non-sectarian to be sure, but worship nonetheless) and is respected as such. This is especially true of conventions and day-long singings but also for many smaller, weekly and monthly singings.

* Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening. Another of the beauties of Sacred Harp singing is that it does not take a lot of time to learn the rudiments; most people can learn the minimum basic skills with an hour or two of instruction; from then on it's learning by doing. And even less time is spent in "listening" passively to it -- it's meant to be sung, and even singers who may listen to recordings of singings end up singing along. Some singers may be accused of spending more time singing (or writing about singing. . . .) than certain family members may thing they should, but the risk is low and easily remedied.

* Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion. Sacred Harp singers take a kind of ironic satisfaction in the unfashionable nature of our singing. Self-gratification may be a little more of a potential problem -- but again it isn't the individual "self" that is being glorified.

Martin also offers this quote from Clarkson:
Music at [the time of early Quakers] was principally in the hands of those, who made a livelihood of the art. Those who followed it as an accomplishment, or a recreation, were few and those followed it with moderation. But since those days, its progress has been immense. . . . Many of the middle classes, in imitation of the higher, have received it. . . . It is learned now, not as a source of occasional recreation, but as a complicated science, where perfection is insisted upon to make it worth of pursuit. p.76.
The early singing school teachers and shape-note tunebook writers would have agreed with this criticism. Their aim was to demystify the professionalization of music and to return it to the masses and therefore is consistent with the concern expressed in this criticism.

I am therefore more confident than ever that Sacred Harp singing has a place in modern Quakerism; in my personal experience, it has not only not led to the dangers cited by Clarkson but has led me back to Christ and a more authentic Quaker world view. Some of you know I've been "working" on an article discussing the many similarities (and some contrasts) between Quakerism and Sacred Harp singing, and when I finish it, I'll have more to say about it here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Singing at the Gathering

I started writing this from my dorm cot on the last night of this year’s FGC Gathering, and am finishing it from an apartment in the mountains near Keystone, Colorado. We (Lovely Wife and our two teenage children) drove the 1525 miles or so from Johnstown, PA, to here in one very long and one somewhat less long day. (I had a couple of manic hours where I though I could drive the final 7 hours through the night but a wiser head prevailed and we got a room in Kansas and slept from about 1 to 6 am.) We made it safely and timely, but it was at a cost to my sleep, and I am exhausted. So I've stayed home while the other 18 relatives (of Lovely Wife's family) are out on some kind of hiking adventure and I'm working on some writing projects.

The Gathering on the whole was a very positive and productive experience for me again this year, especially after the first two days when I was also exhausted from a long drive from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. Unlike last year, I did not take the time to post periodically during the week, but I have taken some notes that I hope will help my memory. I’ve decided to make several smaller posts and I’ll start with a report on the singing I did at the Gathering.

The fundamental lesson I learned is that singing is the only remedy for my depression that always works. I have known this for a long time, but haven't acted on it as diligently as I know I need to do. The singing I enjoyed was in three contexts.

For the first time in many years, I participated in the noon-time singing from Rise Up Singing, led this year by one of its co-producers, Annie Patterson. I've gotten a little tired of Rise Up Singing after many years singing from it for so many years, but since it was convenient for me to play with the small group that backed Annie up as she played guitar and led the singing, I gave it a go. The group had persons playing guitar, flute, tin whistle, clarinet, accordion, and violin in addition to my banjo. The instrumentalists were skilled and didn’t overpower the singing as sometimes happens and enhanced the singing experience.

And the singing was good -- high spirited, enthusiastic. The group numbered about a hundred most of the hour each day. For the songs that were easily sung by a group and that lent themselves to harmonies (e.g., This Land is Your Land, There is a Balm in Gilead, Goodnight Irene, Happy Wanderer, etc.) the singing was excellent with energy and joy.

But sometimes someone would select a song that they loved – for example, Thanksgiving Eve by Bob Franke, or Kate Wolf's Give Yourself to Love – that are beautiful songs, but are simply not good for large group singing, and it the energy would fall for a bit. Annie showed great equanimity and skill, however, in leading each one, knowing it was important to the person who chose the song.

The second important singing experience was with the Nightengales (which is how they spell it), a group of Northern and Illinois Yearly Meeting Friends who have been singing together for more than forty years. (I was introduced to them in 1980 and have sung with them often ever since.) We sang one night in a two-story, highly resonant lobby of a building and it was lovely. In recent years, they have sung exclusively a capella (which was not so much the case when I started singing with them), and it worked really well in that room, filling it with harmonies. The only downside was that, in such a large, resonant room, we had to sing slowly which depressed the energy in some of the songs, but overall it was excellent and beautiful. There were lots of tears which, as the Nightingale in Hans Christian Anderson's story tell the Emperor, are "the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart."

Singing with Nightengales these days always carries a particular poignancy as our older singers become disabled or pass away, and many songs carry a particular memory of them. This year, we were mindful of one Friend in particular who we know is dying of ALS and who was not able to attend either NYM or the Gathering.

But as much as I enjoyed these singings, the afternoon shape note singing was the most satisfying singing at the Gathering this year. We were once again given an space outdoors under an overhang, and while it was adequate, it was not as satisfactory an outdoor venue as in the past two years. One difficulty was that it was outside rooms in which various groups were trying to meet, and it was across a short way from a dormitory where some people tried to nap during our afternoon singings. After being informed (politely, but pointedly) that our music was not as appreciated as we thought it might be, we decamped to a log cabin at the other end of campus where we didn't disturb anyone but the bears, birds and rabbits in the surrounding woods.

Each afternoon, we had five or six singers on each part with a particularly large number of altos. The range of experience was mixed, but there was always enough experienced singers on each part. (It not being a workshop, we weren't prepared to provide more than a bare minimum of instruction to new singers.)

I was touched by the number of singers who first learned to sing Sacred Harp in one of the workshops I’ve co-led over the years who came to each afternoon singing (a few of whom who have attended three of them!). I don’t know why I’m surprised that others have come to love this music as much as I do, but it is satisfying to know that I may have had been able to transmit the depth of love and joy I get from singing from the Sacred Harp to others, especially my Quaker Friends with whom I share a bond even more deeply than I do with other singers.

The quality of the singing was generally good, though it varied. Though there was some excellent singing each day, the last day (Friday July 4) was clearly the strongest. Perhaps because it was the last day, we had a larger than normal group of singers, and that larger number, the improved acoustics, and a week's experience of singing together made for a powerful singing. There were several times where I felt it was truly a covered singing.

During the quiet worship we entered after our last song of the day (and of the week), I spoke to one of the parallels I feel between Sacred Harp singing and Quakerism, and that is that the quality of our experiences vary from time to time, but that if we persist we will always get back to that unity that we have been looking for and which we have been promised.

Some parts of our singings during the week were kind of rough -- we just couldn't find the right pitch or tempo, or hear the other parts, and some songs sounded pretty awful. Maybe we were simply tired, or maybe we bit off a little more than we could chew, but whatever the reason, we went through some pretty rough and unsatisfying spots.

I then noted that this same thing happens in meetings for worship. Often we come to meeting with as open a heart as we can manage, but nothing happens; there's no real unity and we leave without any sense of joy or elevation.

The important thing in both cases is that we return and try again. We go on to the next song, maybe choosing a less-challenging one or take a break, but we keep going and soon we're back in the groove and we're singing beautifully and powerfully again.

And with worship the same thing. We keep at it, coming back week after week, doing what we can as individuals to improve -- paying better attention, preparing more thoroughly, centering more deeply -- the worship experience. After some time, usually not too long, we will experience a genuinely covered meeting that will be felt by all.

The important thing in both contexts is that we keep at it and eventually, as we pay more attention to the true leader of our worship and of our singing, we will be brought back into harmony and unity with each other and be witnesses to the power that is over all.

* * * *

I'm glad I attended Gathering this year; I had originally intended to skip Gathering this year and to attend Camp Fasola in Alabama this year for some advanced instruction and learning in the Sacred Harp. But when I learned that Camp Fasola was going to be aimed at adults for only three days and for youth for the rest of the week (a decision I support but wasn't aware of until later), I decided I didn't want to sacrifice Gathering for such a short time of singing. In retrospect, I did the right thing. There was a lot of enthusiasm expressed for another Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop at next year's Gathering, and I'm going to give that serious consideration over the next few weeks.