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 this was a choir, and these people never stopped singing, he lined a new song for us.

Every word thudded into my heart with its weight of import. 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

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.