A Dream of a Feast

Some years back, a friend took me to Gallery Row in Lancaster and I was delighted to find the galleries of Liz Hess and Freiman Stoltzfus next door to each other. Fun, fun!

Liz Hess is an artist who incorporates a red umbrella in many of her paintings. Her style is whimsical, fanciful, and worshipful and I like it a lot.

Frieman Stoltfus tends toward abstractions based on classical music, European architecture, Lancaster landscapes, and his Amish heritage. I love the emotions in his abstract paintings and the grounded, thoughtful, pointed ideas in his realistic work.

In that first visit, I saw a small print of his The Last Supper and I told myself that someday I want that in my house. I started following the gallery on Facebook, and loved all I saw, but never forgot The Last Supper. Several years later, it was August 2020 and somehow I knew that now is the time. I perused the website but couldn’t find the painting, so I contacted the gallery’s Facebook page to ask about it.

Bethanie, the gallery manager, answered quickly and said she can get it printed for me. Which size would I like? Plus, all the prints were 20% off that month!  It came soon in the mail, and I carried it around campus to show people what I was so happy about. I love it so much.

It would seem that its title is an allusion to Leonardo da Vinci’s i but I always want to call it the Wedding Feast or The Marriage Supper of the Lamb because that’s what it is to me.

It’s framed now, and in our kitchen. I love to have people look at it and I ask what they see. They always mention the diversity of skin colors, ages, and cultures. They see the cathedral effect in the background, the record player, and the abstract yellows. There’s both definition and mystery.

I love the Japanese lanterns in the trees, the way the people are leaning toward each other in open body language, the groom’s hands are inviting someone outside the picture, and the empty chairs say there’s room for more. And it’s a party! There’s music and cake, wine and candles, and the night is still young. The celebration is going to go on for a long time.

                   

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get a little peek at this in real life, where there’s laughter, conversation, lights at dusk, diversity, music, and food. I have a palette of memories like this to treasure, a painting in my kitchen, and a great hope to live in.

Songs Stay On

It was a year, as everyone has already noted.

I don’t have words yet to talk well about it, and there are still clouds and questions with no answers. I am hopeful but not glib about 2021. Not chirpy, as my personality tends to be.

This not the place to list last year’s losses. That would take too long and be too depressing. But one immense loss has been choir, choir concerts, and formal and informal singing groups. I feel incredulous that last January, just before the year started unravelling, I went with friends to a packed auditorium in Cleveland to hear the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong. I still listen to some of the songs I heard that night. I’m not a gifted singer, but listening to songs and singing with people feeds me like nothing else does and I miss it terribly.

In the darkest, hardest parts of the year, when I couldn’t sing, I listened to others sing. Often it was “Jesus Strong and Kind.” Or “Sure on This Shining Night.”

When everything inside me feels scrambled, I listen to choral music. When I want to rest my soul, I turn on my favorites, this curated list of chorale gems. The voices, harmonies, and chord progressions soothe something deep in me. I start breathing deeper and my focus shifts from troubles around me to the shimmering melodies or words. This list has multiple arrangements and languages of the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23. Wonder how that happened.

This list are all my favorites depending on the moment, but indulge me while I share my exceptional choices:

  • Pieces from Stellenbosch Choir. From South Africa, they have a rare, winning blend of Dutch harmonies and African rhythms. I dream of hearing this group in person some day.
  • The first time I heard the stunning soprano lines in Arvo Part’s “And I Heard a Voice,” it took my breath away. Then I read the backstory to the song, and how he composed it in his native Estonian, and now I like it even more.
  • Sometimes I wake up with lines from Forrest’s “Come to Me” or Mealor’s “The Beautitudes” in my head, and it makes the whole day better.
  • Whenever I hear “Indodana,” I see the silhouettes of the women at Jesus’ cross, weeping with no words. I can’t listen to the song without some emotional fortitude because it’s so sad. But it gives voice to what was the most wrecked night of their lives.

I often think CCM has more honest lament than classical and sacred music does, so I find some CCM lyrics cathartic and healing, but I don’t find most CCM beautiful aesthetically. And beauty is what I need when I’m fragile or sad. Beauty (very loud or very soft) or silence.

Toward the end of last year, I got to sit in on the dress rehearsal for this recorded Christmas concert. The only thing that’s better than singing in choir is listening to your friends sing. While they practiced, I sat on the floor in the back of the gym in the dark and cried because it was so beautiful. Earlier in the year, some of them were also in on this virtual choir and I’m so proud of them.

Clearly, this is the era of virtual choirs. Even though it goes against most of what is true and enjoyable about choir, virtual choirs offer something better than silence and isolation. Last summer, I heard about Eric Whitaker’s “Sing Gently” virtual choir about two days before the tracks were due in. I downloaded the sheet music and the practice tracks, but didn’t have time to finish. That close, I would’ve joined over 17,000 singers to debut that sweet song, and it would’ve been a nice way to remember the year. Maybe another song, another time.

Hope wears thin these days, but in brighter moments, I believe that some day we’ll pack into auditoriums and sing again. I dream of attending a concert like this of Brahm’s “Requiem.” The European elegance, red and black formal wear, the singers surrounding the audience–I would be be in raptures.

Singing aligns all the parts of a person with beauty and goodness, which is one reason it’s so healing for me. In this fragmented, splintered, fraught era, we need more singing. We need songs everywhere. We need truth and beauty and goodness flung around in music and voices and community. We could never have too much.

Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

Taste and See

daisy-712898_1280We were getting ready to practice the opening song for our friends’ wedding. It was composed for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a sweet, simple melody: “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” You can listen to one version here.

Before we started, our director told us to get out our pencils and write across the top of our sheet music: Taste the graciousness. My cousin sang the soprano solo, soaring way up there so high, I don’t know how she does it. The song was over way too soon to suit me, but I keep mulling the words. Taste the graciousness. Blessed, trusteth, Him.

You could say Taste His grace but I like graciousness because it means the focus is on God’s essence more than on what He does or gives. I think about what it means to taste, and I want to it be the shape of my life–to savor, enjoy, affirm the goodness. This is not automatic behavior for someone like me who complains quickly and is constantly bumping into the reality of living on this side of Eden. Things are not as they should be, BUT GRACIOUSNESS IS ALL AROUND US! It takes my breath away. We should all stop and stare at the wonder of it all. The telling of it is like counting the pearls on a string or drops of dew on a blade of grass or tear drops on a cheek.

The billows of wildflowers lining the roads.

Laughter with a child.

Phrases of songs that replay themselves in my head, healing and comforting.

Simple food with a friend.

I wondered a little why David wrote that verse with the two phrases that don’t seem to have much connection with each other. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.” What does tasting have to do with trusting?

Then I remembered how Larry Crabb wrote in Inside Out: “Desire much and pray for much but demand nothing. To trust God is to demand nothing.” Tasting is savoring, keeping an open, soft heart, not demanding.

Picking a few daisies, not taking an armful.

Laughing with friends, not insisting on always laughing.

Savoring musical moments, not demanding a concert every week. Or a feast every day.

To taste and acknowledge the graciousness means trusting God for the places that still ache. To affirm the good things and trust God with the lacks and empty spaces and fractures, demanding nothing.

Those are high words to reach for, but I want it written across the top of my life: taste the graciousness!

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The Soloist, a review

I just finished reading The Soloist for the umpteenth time. In a friend’s house on spring break, the book called my name again. I drank iced tea on her balcony and soaked in the beauty of the story and the breeze and sun on my face and smiled and teared up and felt whimpery by turns.

It’s the true story of how Steve Lopez, journalist for the “Los Angeles Times” was looking for a story for his column and came across a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayres, playing his violin with 2 strings under Beethoven’s statue in Pershing Square.

He plays as if he’s a student, oblivious to everyone around him and this is a practice session.

How can I tell you the story without telling the story and spoiling it for you? It’s about music, creative genius, and friendship, and schizophrenia, and homelessness. About two lost men who inadvertently help save each other. Some name dropping here: Ayres and Yo-Yo Ma played in same concert orchestra at Julliard.

In a crazy, surprising way, I found myself identifying with Ayres and his ramblings. The way he would burst out passionately and eloquently about Beethoven and LA and “people who destroy themselves with the drug known as tobacco.” And interspersed were phrases that broke my heart: “I can’t believe how beautiful that sky is—can you believe it?” The only difference between us is that I don’t (usually) say my lines out loud because, well, I don’t like the blank looks I get when my spaghetti brain becomes verbal. I have this fear that my friends get tired of me exclaiming childishly about the beauty that’s stunning me, but Ayers just let it all out. “I cannot believe how gorgeous that concert was tonight. Did you see how perfect Mr. Hong was? It was absolutely flawless. How could he do that? I don’t want the concert to ever end.”

Lopez, a genius in his own right, tells the story with utmost sensitivity. Maybe the story moves me so much because of how fragile I feel even on the best of days. Like Nathaniel Ayres with his colorful, clumsy grocery cart of belongings that he couldn’t possibly let out of his sight even when he went to a concert hall, I have my own issues of letting go and trusting. His story reminds me of how crumbly the edge of mental health is, and how unpredictably the slide down can happen.

One of my favorite parts of the story is a conversation between the journalist and a doctor who’s seen it all at the homeless shelter. I think I like it because it’s an accessible, simple approach to the complex issues they’re discussing:

Let him find his way. Be patient. Be his friend. Relationship is primary. It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his chemistry by being his friend.

Disclaimer: In case you’re sensitive to it, there is rough language in some of the dialogue.

Story of a Hymn

George Matheson went irreversibly blind when he was 20. His fiancee said she could not see herself be the wife of a blind man. So she broke their engagement shortly before their wedding date. From that point, his younger sister helped care for him and George went on to become a pastor and seminary lecturer.

Twenty years later, his sister was to be married and would leave him.  On the eve of her wedding while he was alone and his family was celebrating in another house, these lines came to him.  He said the words came quickly, as if inspired. They reveal a broken, weary man’s agony. The only thing in his heart that was larger than his pain was his deep, sure faith in God and His promises; He was confident that things wouldn’t always be the way they were now.

Mim, this post is for you. Sorry you had to wait this long for it…

 

1. O Love that wilt not let me go, (there once had been a love that did let him go)

I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give Thee back the life I owe,

That in Thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be. (he knew God would value his contribution; he believed he had something to offer)

 

2. O Light that foll’west all my way,

I yield my flick’ring torch to Thee; (a reference to his blindness)

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be. (again, he had something to give God—a humble, faithful act of offering)

 

3. O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to Thee; (it is easier to close your heart in the presence of pain)

I trace the rainbow thru the rain, (in his blindness, he couldn’t see it, except through his fingers and then only in faith)

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be. (his faith knew his what his sight couldn’t: that sunshine comes after rain)

 

4. O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from Thee; (the human response to pain is to fly from it)

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be. (his faith knew there would be color someday)

 
Lyrics: George Matheson
Music: Albert Lister Peace, arr. by David Phelps

Redemption Keeps Its Own Calendar

Some years ago, my pastor and his wife would frequently invite a depressed, lonely lady to their house. Her husband was an alcoholic and life was dark and difficult on every level for her. They would sit at the kitchen table and listen to her talk, and tell her about life in Jesus, and then they’d sing “God Will Take Care of You.” She’d  cry, and they’d cry with her. It was her song, the one she always asked for.

Now she’s my friend, my Polish mom, and more importantly, God’s child. We laugh and cry together a lot, but mostly laugh because her joy and peace is so effervescent.

This morning in church our pastor’s family was gone. One of the ladies in church, Maria, couldn’t come to church because of her high-risk pregnancy but was listening to the service via Skype. Maria’s husband Nate led songs and asked for suggestions from the (small) group. My Polish mom said she wants us to sing “God Will Take Care of You” especially for Nate and Maria.

As we sang of course I cried, because I saw it had gone full circle. What she had been given years ago, she is able to give to someone else now.

When I talked with her later about it, she said she doesn’t remember the words our pastor said in her visits to their kitchen, but she remembers their warmth and what they sang.

Eternal God

It was a day when good and bad mixed in a crazy way. There was sunshine and belly laughs and sunglasses to hide tears. The day ended in a deliciously serendipitous way–choir friends crowded into a room, spilling out of chairs and sofas, beside the fireplace and on the floor. I sat on the floor, knees pulled up to my chest, sandwiched between 2 friends who sat tight beside me.

Our conductor told us stories about living and teaching in Kenya. How he would line the songs–the words and the harmonizing notes for each part–and his Kenyan choirs learned all their songs that way. And because we were a choir, and these people never stopped singing, he lined a new song for us.

Every word thudded onto my heart with each word’s weight. Tears dripped off my chin and the friends beside me squeezed my hands.

Eternal God, faithful and true, All of our longings come home to you. All of our longings come home to you.

You are our strength, You are our stay–Go now before us, show us the way. Go now before us, show us the way.

That we might have power to see God’s love so wide and deep, so strong and free–God’s love so wide and deep, so strong and free.

Eternal God, faithful and true, All of our longings come home to you. All of our longings come home to you.   — James Croegaert

Edited to add:

Several years later, I was privileged to sing this song under this director. That recording is available here: https://christianlearning.org/product/eternal-god/. I still listen to this CD often. I’ve sung the song many times since, but the wonder is still new.

A Story of a Whim

Last November, two of my friends and I went to Warsaw. We had a free day from school, so we went just because we could. One friend knew Warsaw better than two of us, so she took us here and there, to an elegant coffee shop, then the place with the best ice cream, and we meandered down old streets and posed here and there for photos just for memories, not for being photogenic.

On a whim, she took us into the church where Chopin’s heart is buried. (He died in Paris, but they sent his heart back to his birth country.) Poles are proud of this relic, and can’t understand why most Americans think it’s gruesome and strange.

In the back of the church was a bulletin board and a poster announcing a chorale festival the next week. I took a photo of it with my phone to be able to retrieve the details.

The next week, knowing the time and place of the concert, my friend and I went back to that church to listen to two youth choirs, one from Germany, and another from Sweden. It put me  into raptures and we arranged to go to another church the next night to hear the last of the choirs in the festival.

It happened to be a church on the outskirts of Warsaw, and after the girls choir from Russia sang and the next choir on the program didn’t show up, our small group stayed to chat with the priest. He told us this is the oldest church in Warsaw, and his warm, grandfatherly spirit made it easy to talk and ask questions. We asked if we could sing a song for him, and we formed a small half circle and sang “Amazing Grace” in Polish.

As we left, we said to each other, “We have to come back here with Hope Singers!”

In time, the  right contacts were made, and August came,  and Hope Singers came to the church’s door, but the priest didn’t really remember us and wasn’t sure why we were there.  We felt a little unnerved, but certain that we were there for reasons bigger than ourselves.

It was the last program of Hope Singers 2012. The acoustics  were good, the small audience warm and responsive, and we prayed to be able to spread light and life to what felt like a dark place. At the end, we stood around the auditorium and sang an African song that carried us away with the words “Satan has no power, he flees far from us, hallelujah!”

It seemed that light had penetrated the place, and the priest told us that he’s never been with Americans where he prayed the whole time. He welcomed us warmly to come back,  and that he would publicize it next time.

You never where a whim will take you. That’s why I like them.