{a fable. a parable. or a true story.}

This is a 2017 post from my family blog. It seemed a fitting repost.

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It was the Mozart solo she’d had her heart set on. A simple kyrie, appropriate for ten-year-olds, but the rising descant over the chorus made her feel unnameable things, and she wanted to sing it with all her heart.

In parochial schools in those days, there wasn’t much else to do but participate in the arts. There was no prom king or queen, no dances, no competitive sports. Instead, the boys took piano, and the girls played the flute – or, at least it seemed like everyone in her grade did. Twenty-some girls on flutes, and not a one of them with the courage to do something original, like learn the French horn. But, it was what it was – middle school in the 80’s.

The Kyrie was the first real classical music they’d ever done, so out of the mundane realm of kids’ songs they’d done before. Everyone was aware that they were in the presence of Grown-up Music, and acted accordingly. Desire to show themselves as grown up – and sing that descant – was intense. Her choir teacher knew she wanted that solo, knew she was a soprano who could consistently hit the right notes, but, weighing his choice by scales she could not read said, “Well, sweetie, we’ll give this solo to Sheley. We’ll save a nice, juicy Spiritual for you.”

But, she didn’t want the Spiritual. She wanted the Mozart.

♦ ♦ ♦

In college, she was to remember this moment when visiting home on a weekend to sing with an ensemble. The rehearsal was early – the music was lackluster, and the director was getting desperate as the singers’ yawns increased.

“Sing it more black,” the director urged her, finally finding both scapegoat and fix.

She stopped singing altogether, bewildered. “What? What does that even mean?”

“Well… you know,” the director gestured vaguely. “More black.”

She vanished behind a brittle smile. “You mean, with more of a swing? With more of a backbeat? With more syncopation? What?”

She kept her voice even, because she had learned it did no good to scream.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fast forward to a progressive party in San Francisco, where, armed with cameras, teams of teens and twentysomethings were on a scavenger hunt. One of the requirements was for participants to take a picture of themselves on or near a stage. Half the group pressed to simply go to Max’s Opera Cafe and take a group shot with a singing waiter. Another vocal male found a jazz bar on one of the piers, and insisted she go inside, take the mic, and ‘scat.’

“Scat?” she echoed, for a moment setting aside the breath-stealing idiocy and horror of making an unsolicited performance in a private club.

“Yeah, scat,” he said, “Like Ella Fitzgerald. You know…scat!”

This time, embarrassment came mingled with humiliation, as the entire group began to wheedle. “No, you guys. Really…no.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Fast forward even further, to singing with a quartet, in which the music director and the pastor – both white males – donned sunglasses and capered to the spiritual style hymn in the style of the Blues Brothers. Fleeing during a break, she called her sisters, asking them what to do, how to act. They stood and listened while she laughed, tears streaming, down a face so hot they evaporated. “But, why am I embarrassed?” she kept asking. “They’re behaving like jackasses, and I’m embarrassed? I feel like they’re making fun of me, and it’s humiliating, but why am I the one who is feeling …stupid?

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The shame didn’t make sense, but by then she had learned that few things did, when microaggressions – casual racism – was added to the mix. Musically, it meant that people assumed she wanted – always – to sing gospel music, even though she did other music well. It meant that people assumed she could break into Janet Jackson improvised choreography, that she could imitate the vocal rhythms of Bobby McFerrin on a whim. It meant that instead of who was in front of them, someone whose eclectic tastes ran from the weird to the classical with many stops in between, all they saw was myriad aspects of what – The Other combined into a single person, on whom they could glue myriad of labels, none of which were hers.

It was exhausting.

♦ ♦ ♦

We fast forward one last time, but our time machine is about out of steam. Now see it has limped to a stop at chamber rehearsal, where a gleeful last-minute addition means another entry into the program, another song to be learned. “Oh, it’ll be quick,” the director encourages the panicky singers. “It’s just two parts, in Swahili. Uh, just read the pronunciation as is — I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“It’ll be fine.” A startling phrase, after the lengthy lectures about pronouncing German as to not “sound like hillbillies.” Unexpected, after the long-winded arguments about “church Latin” vs. classical Latin pronunciations. Jarring, after the many long lectures about pronunciation of Hebrew consonants vs. Yiddish, of Argentinian Spanish vs. Mexican. Shocking, that an entire language is mischaracterized (the people are Swahili; the language, Kiswahili) and shrugged off as “nothing to worry about.” As the translation was cooed over, in ways the translations of European languages were not (“Ooh, how sweet!”), she found herself… conflicted.

The composer’s name was American, and a thorough search uncovered no African translator. Deeper research revealed that the composer’s translation didn’t match a word-for-word translation of Kiswahili words, that the tune was from a Nigerian harvest song. There was no citation as to where the words came from, no African educator or musician listed. She feared that they were singing an imaginary lullaby, with imaginary text, the rocking 6/4 tempo convenient but false. This was music selected by an intentional community made up of good people, people whose stated goals were to bring parity, inclusiveness, and justice to the world – yet they easily diminuitized the importance of a tribal people and its language as “cute,” but ultimately too insignificant to merit concern or further study.

Perhaps, as was implied, it wasn’t that important, in a world where wrongs of greater significance loomed large. Perhaps it was merely good enough for an American winter festival – not exactly religious, Christmas, not exactly non-religious, Solstice. Not exactly meaningless… and not exactly meaningful.

Or, perhaps it was as infuriating and confusing as everything else she had ever encountered.


Edited to Add: PS – you will be gratified to know that speaking up helped a little. The director phoned a friend in Kenya, determined that the text is “maybe Nigerian” and not at all Kiswahili, and promised to do due diligence to find out what he could, and add his findings – or lack of such – to the program notes. Intentional communities such as choirs and churches – and libraries, schools, and other places – must be intersectional in their inclusivity, thinking through the many ways we as people can belong to various communities, and doing our best to come to each of them with thoughtfulness, respect and appreciation, thinking not just of our individual needs, but how to serve a whole, which is the sum of its parts. As has become so readily apparent, it is tricky, but if we draw each other back to the road when we wander off, it can be done. It must be.

{#winterlight: no such thing as lost}

I’m so glad many of us enjoyed the very succinct and on-topic poem yesterday. I was glad I’d come across it. Amos Russel Wells is actually a new-to-me poet as well; he was a professor of Greek and geology at for the first part of his professional career, and ended it as editor of a religious magazine. He was also a fairly dedicated Sunday School teacher, and apparently loved children. His book, Rollicking Rhymes for Youngsters, first published in 1902, is where today’s poem comes from. You can see the Sunday School teacher/hymn writer in this verse.

“Lost” Opportunities

Many words are lightly tossed,
   Only cowards mind them,
Opportunities are “lost” –
   Rouse yourself, and find them!

Some are lost for aye and aye,
   But the most are hiding –
*Cars the switch has found are they
   Take them from the siding!*

Past is past, the chance is gone? –
   Up, and follow after!
Many a noble race is run
   Despite sneers and laughter.

Opportunities are “lost”?
   Aren’t there legs behind them?
Boldly run, nor count the cost,
   Speed until you find them!

*”Cars the switch has lost” refers to train cars that are shunted to a different track when the switch is thrown.


This is a sort of bracing hope that is really old-fashioned and brought to you by people who lived through wars and upheaval and didn’t have time for self-pity. No such thing as opportunities “lost,” to them… just a need to be up and doing. Here’s to that bracing, gingery, spit and vinegar.

{#winterlight: country of freedom}

I’ve run out of words.

Fortunately, there’s poetry.

Poetry Friday today is hosted by Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children. Thank you, Sylvia.

Country of Freedom

Country of freedom, be free in thy heart:
Free from the shackles of poisoning pride,
Free from the liar’s contemptible art,
Free from allurements that tempt thee aside,
Free from the crafty and treacherous guide,
Free from the ravening greed of the mart,
Free from the snares that in opulence hide, —
Country of freedom be free in thy heart.

— Amos Russel Wells (1863-1933)

{#winterlight: irony}

I found it just a bit ironic that I blogged yesterday about anger before I got on social media or read the paper, or heard anything about the attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol. After hearing nineteen million politicians blurt, “This isn’t who we are!” I feel like it’s a good day to resurrect a poem I wrote in 2017… after the first nineteen million times I heard politicians say this phrase, in defense of this indefensible presidency. Enjoy.

“…this is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.” – Ursula K. LeGuin, THE FARTHEST SHORE, Ch. 8

“you may experience feelings of momentary discomfort”

“This is not who we are,” good souls profess.
“This brief discomfort heralds changing views.”
The dream, America, is dispossessed.

And politicians wallow in the mess
Eyes rolling wild, while looking for their cues —
“This is not who we are.” Good souls profess

To understand the needs of the oppressed,
Who are not newly pressured, but eschew
The “dream America.” We, dispossessed.

“Just rhetoric and chatter,” pundits stress.
“A bigot’s dreams could never here come true.”
This IS. Not who we are? Good souls, profess!

Resist. Support, with dogged faithfulness
Those who, with courage march. We must push through
the dream and wake our country, in distress.

Distracted by your grieving? Reassess
Comfort you proffered those who are not you…
This. Is. Not. Who. We. Are. Good souls, protect
The dreamer, wakening, and dispossessed.

{#winterlight: rage epiphany }

I’ve blogged before about how many times girls are taught that anger is “being ugly,” thus setting anger as antithetical to being somehow properly attractive/womanly or whatnot. It’s always so bizarre when you don’t think you’ve been raised with any slant in particular, and then hear yourself prevaricating when someone asks you if you’re angry. “No, I’m not mad, I’m just upset. I’m a little vexed, yes. I’m frustrated. I’m aggravated.” Yeah. I’m also pretty torqued, ticked off, peeved, furious and properly raging as well – but it’s not nice to say so, apparently.

It’s always a little breath-taking to realize that you are mad about something when it’s deep-seated, private, almost even from yourself, and catches you off-guard. You stumble out of a conversation, panting like a marathon-runner, and wonder, bewildered, “Where did all this rage come from?”

I suspect the rage is a more common epiphany than one might think.

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Who Said It Was Simple

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in color
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

– Audre Lourde


Real life is distracting, contradictory, full of issues of competing importance, and thoroughly messy. This messy, conflicting ball of emotions is also worth examination, if one is to live well.

Good luck with that.

{#winterlight: my morning light}

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I love the National Cathedral, though I’ve only been there once. I’ve spent much more times in the cathedrals of Europe – and its small parish churches, and its village halls. I love old church architecture and interesting new twists on it. And it’s all equally, genuinely lovely first thing in the morning. That’s one of the best things – to be on a trip somewhere and to get up before the traffic snarls and the commuters are hurrying with their coffee, and just… look up. Look around. And see how the light changes things.

Morning

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

Read the rest here.

Good morning! May the light of the day put you in the proper mood to begin anew.

{#winterlight: shining on}

Last Thursday, I stood in a driveway – properly masked and distanced – with my mother and a couple of sisters, my brother, and nephews for the first time since March of last year. We all have different distancing protocols and needs, and it’s safest for us to be away from each other, or outside for fifteen or twenty minutes – but it was lovely to see them not on a screen. And it was still so hard not to hug… which is one of the other reasons we don’t meet often. Somehow, I ended up in a family of huggers.

I’d forgotten how fast boy-children grow, and was slightly horrified to see my youngest nephew the same height as his mother. I’d forgotten my mother’s penchant for wearing Ugg-adjacent boots, and laughed at the furry Muppet-style vibe she was giving. I’d forgotten how long my sister was growing out her hair – and that my youngest sister had stopped dyeing hers for a minute. It’s weird, what you forget when you’re not seeing each other every week. But, what we remember, of course, is obvious.

Sun-Down Shining

I forget these things –
   where a trail begins,
   where a trail ends.

I forget these things –
   white of dawn,
   and sun-going down.

I forget these things –
   hunger for piki,
   thirst for the springs ….

But I forget not you,
   O beloved,
   with the night.

– William Haskell Simpson

{#winterlight: poetry friday, early in the year}

This is going to be a year absolutely packed with literature.

It’s going to be a year of taking risks with writing, including no longer dipping a toe into fantasy and fairy tales, but diving in, and also… taking my poetry writing seriously. I’m not fond of calling myself a writer, much less a poet… somehow the idea of A Poet seems much more deep and knowledgeable and serious than my iamb-counting, form-conforming, rule-bound, doggerel scribbling self. How do people become poets, anyway? In the same way that we become writers – by doing the thing, I’m told. So, I will be doing the thing, taking serious study with a textbook and instructors and all, and with scheduled practice time.

It’s… a little terrifying, honestly. But, it’s also very hopeful and anticipatory – much like the 365 neat, blank squares marching importantly through our calendars. So many things cluster close to our imaginations, tugging on our fine hairs, breathing into our ears, “Maybe this year! Maybe this year!”

Well? Maybe it is all going to happen this year. But, how will we find out if we don’t start?

Poetry Friday is hosted by Ruth, all the way from Haiti, at There Is No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town. Have a lovely, restful weekend – because Monday’s the day we jump in and make it all happen!

{#winterlight: exercises}

I know that the title to this poem specifies that these are exercises for a nature writer, but I think they’re worth being revisited in this liminal space at the New Year. Dress for the weather. Ruminate. Hold your boundaries and walk your fence lines. Work through what is troubling you through serving something else. Make space for life to slip through.

I don’t bother with many things – making resolutions being one of them, as it tends to be about making myself “better” based on a set of external guidelines rather than the interior work of self-investment which pays dividends that the world cannot always see. Yes, one could always make better habits, take up decluttering, eat more veg, or lose a pound or two, perhaps, but I categorically refuse to allow that to be your business when it’s my own, and certainly not during the month of January when people demanding others change are most obstreperous and vocal. I believe it a useful exercise to anticipate growth – not to pretzel oneself into growing into the expectations of others’ – so I will set my mind on that tomorrow, perhaps. However you complete this page of the calendar, I hope you do it warmly ensconced and centered in your own heart. Happy New Year.

{#winterlight: walking away}

I have an older friend whose somewhat disorganized chaos of an orderly life by turns astounds and horrifies me. She is on too many committees, does too much volunteering, and works too many hours – and puts up with too much. In this year of abrupt reversals and sudden losses, what I have learned at least faintly is how ludicrous it is to keep on living that way, when so much is lost so soon. I want to tell her “Choose what you love, and walk away from the rest!”, but the things we do are nine-tenths habit, and one-tenth cement, and change is hard. So, I gentle my words, and bite my tongue. But this poem made me think of her – and all of us – walking in circles this year. May this coming year we wend a path through the year, out walking only regrets and hurrying toward what makes us shine.

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Heaven’s Gate

In her nineties and afraid
of weather and of falling if
she wandered far outside her door,
my mother took to strolling in
the house. Around and round she’d go,
stalking into corners, backtrack,
then turn and speed down hallway, stop
almost at doorways, skirt a table,
march up to the kitchen sink and
wheel to left, then swing into
the bathroom, almost stumble on
a carpet there. She must have walked
a hundred miles or more among
her furniture and family pics,
mementos of her late husband.
Exercising heart and limb,
outwalking stroke, attack, she strode,
not restless like a lion in zoo,
but with a purpose and a gait,
and kept her eyes on heaven’s gate.

– Robert Morgan