To sing or not to sing

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I’ve been told that a blog needs a focus- a mission statement, a raison d’etre if you will. As I look through the thirty or so posts I have put up here, I am laughing at how totally random this blog is becoming. Clothes and dolls and cooking and childhood memoirs- it’s all a hodge-podge without much aim. But it’s a pretty good picture of my life. I’ve always been a multi-tasker, so my blog should be too, right? Can I add one more thing to the mix?

It’s just that it seems strange to try and share the ways that God has worked in my life without mentioning music. I am a musician- a singer to be more precise. Yep, really. I have a piece of paper and the student loans I am still paying off too prove it.  But it’s not just a piece of paper. I was born into a rich heritage of singing. My mother and all of her sisters and most of my female cousins were and are strong alto singers. You should hear one of our family reunion hymn sings- so much harmony, very little melody. My father grew up with three sisters who used to travel and sing together and they could raise the roof off a church when they got going. .

I learned piano from my grandma, had music class at school, and I sang alto, and even tenor in school and church choir. I loved piano and worked hard to excel, but my fingers just wouldn’t do what I told them to do. When it came time for college, I thought about studying piano, but was afraid it would simply be too frustrating. Then a friend suggested I study singing. I thought it was a funny idea- to study singing.  I already knew how to do that- there would be nothing to learn, right? So I signed up for singing lessons as an easy option.

When I auditioned for college choral, I proudly wrote down my singing range as alto 2/ tenor 1. I sang a nice alto solo and showed off my impressive part reading on a few hymns. My teacher then asked me to sing the tenor part an octave higher, which I did, straining for the higher notes as I went.  When I finished, he simply said,  “Ah, that’s what I thought,”  and put me down on the roster. There was just one problem. He put me down as soprano 1.

Through the next four years I fought that designation as I struggled to stretch my range. I thought it was absurd. I was an alto. My teacher had clearly never been to one of my family hymn sings! But he persevered in asserting that there was a soprano buried deep in there.

I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a soprano. Soprano’s were warbly and shrieky, and, well, prima donna-y.  They sang opera and wore helmets with horns on them and they were showoffs.  I didn’t want to be classed with that type of person.  I was raised to play a supporting role- to be a strong and unseen foundation, not a diva.  But there was no denying my love of singing, and I slowly grew more comfortable with the high notes.  There were discouragements along the way, like the day I was practicing and a guy knocked on the door of my practice room.  He asked me why I made my voice all wavy like that. Embarrassed,  I asked him if he meant my vibrato. He said, “Yeah, that.  I don’t like it. Can you do something about it?”  and walked away.  I mean, sheesh!

Then I had a terrible misunderstanding with another teacher when I got lost on the way to a concert in which I had a big solo to sing. I never made it to the concert, and in the aftermath of that mistake he intimated that I was the most stuck up prima donna he had ever met and threatened to fail me.  I was crushed and I almost left the music department.  No matter how much I tried to the contrary, I was going to be branded as the self-absorbed diva.  I didn’t know how to reconcile the humility God demands of his children with my love of standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people and singing.

After college, I really struggled with decisions.  I was already married at that point, and I couldn’t figure out if I should continue on for my masters and teach,  pursue a career in opera, or give it all up and start a family.   Or maybe I should just be content to play a humble role in a struggling church choir somewhere.  But I had my diploma in hand and I figured I couldn’t just give up like that, so I started hunting around for auditions.

The first one I found looked really fun.  It was a local production of the Sound of Music.  I had been mimicking Julie Andrews since I was yay high, and maybe here was my chance!  I got to the auditions, but much to my chagrin, I realized that all the lead roles had already been cast.  I was told by a very snooty Mother Superior that I could play nun # 972 if they could find enough habits.  I wasn’t willing to spend all that time in a production if I wouldn’t even get to sing “How do you solve a problem like Maria” so I tried for option 2.

A small local opera house was putting on Madame Butterfly.  The main lead was already cast, but I thought I might have a shot at one of the minor roles.  Ah naive child that I was!  I dressed nicely in slacks and a blouse, grabbed my folder of music and headed to the audition.  I got there early, so I was able to realize my folly to its fullest extent as I watched each subsequent soprano come through the doors in satin and sequins and fake jewels, followed by a harassed looking agent in a black suit, carrying her portfolio full of glamour shots and talking rapidly on a cell phone.  I wanted to sink through the floor.  When they called my name, I could feel all of those false-eyelashed and scornful eyes burning into the back of my Target clearance-rack blouse as I walked past.  I was nervous as all get out, but once I started singing, things went a little better.   Even so, as the song ended, and before the judges started talking, I knew the answer would be no.   More importantly, I wanted the answer to be no.  I thanked them for their time, sneaked out the back door and laughed at myself all the way home.

I decided for the time being to find a struggling little church choir, or maybe teaching wouldn’t so bad.  And hey, at the very least I could now sing the melody at family reunion!

Story Time

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I started this blog to sell some clothes, and I warned you I didn’t know where it would take me.  Every time I have started to post some pictures of my son in a dress, or to share a favorite recipe, I am tempted to forget about it and just tell you a story.  I like telling stories.  I think I get it from my dad.  I remember every night when he would come home from work, he wouldn’t just tell about his day- he would weave a thrilling tale of restaurant management intrigue or hilarious wait staff ineptitude.  There were tales of how he once dropped an ice cream sundae on a bald man’s shiny head, or a skillet of sizzling mushrooms in an old ladies lap.  Once, because his boss had told him to at least pretend like he always knew the answer to a customer’s question, he promptly responded  “oyster’s eggs”, to  the question “what is a caper?”  Before dementia began to set in, he could make a great story out of the most mundane things, and when he shared stories of the things that were important to him, his passion was infectious.   He loved history of all kinds and could tell the tales of men and women dead and gone just as easily as if it had been his own story.  He wanted us to remember what they had done. He didn’t want us to forget where we came from.

I have been thinking a lot about my dad lately as his memory falters and he now finds it difficult to string a cohesive sentence together, let alone tell a tale of his childhood.  My older sister has asked us to compile a list of all the things dad taught us about life for his birthday in a few weeks.  My dad taught me that it is important to know your own story.

I grew up in a great church, and our pastor was, and is, an amazing preacher.  I still listen to his sermons as often as I can via podcast, and I heard one the other night that struck the same chord. It is important to know your own story.   The sermon came from an unlikely passage- Numbers 38.  You know, one of those passages of Scripture that you breeze  past to get to the more interesting stuff?  It is just a list Moses was told to write of 42 places that the Israelites camped at as they made their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  I would post the entire sermon here if I had the space, but in short, he asks the question, “why is this list in the Bible? Of what use is it to us?”

He makes the point that though the list of places means little to us, many of the places meant a great deal to the Israelites.  Here the Red Sea parted, there the water poured from a rock, and over there, they bowed down to a golden calf.  God wanted them to remember what they had learned in these places.  But there are also places mentioned where we have no idea what happened, and as far as we can tell, were not memorable to the Israelites either.  He continues-

The significance of this too is not so difficult to grasp.  Life is like that, is it not? A Christian life is always like this, a pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world. We can recall  times of the Lord’s drawing near, of leaps forward in  faith and obedience. We remember those crises in our lives:  when we were converted; when we met the man or woman who was to become our husband or wife; when we sinned in some shameful way; when we experienced the nearness and power of God in some  great measure; when we were overcome by joy.

But as soon as we look back upon the moments that are indelibly inscribed in our memory, we realize that the rest of our past is mostly a blur. We cannot summon it up so well. Our past is punctuated by noteworthy moments but  those appear in our memory only as events separated from one another by long periods of forgetfulness. Most of our life is not a mountain top; nor is it a deep valley.  It is neither euphoria nor despair, but simply the living of days during which nothing significant seems  to happen.

We remember occasions of grief and a sense of the Lord’s mercy that came to us in our time of  trouble. But, of course, we are consuming fifty-five gallon barrels of the Lord’s mercy and grace every day of our lives. We remember his answering our prayer to give us that good job, but, of course, he has provided for us what we  need for life and happiness every day of our lives.  The crossing of the sea, the water from the rock, the quail  for the complaining people, these simply  illustrate in memorable ways what is always happening and what is always true in the life of God’s people.

I’m not sure why these 42 place names made the  list and why others did not. But I think it is beyond doubt that the list was composed for the sake of Israel’s collective memory.  In the Bible memory is a spiritual  duty and forgetfulness is a principle sin of God’s people.  You are not going to behave the same way, or believe the same way, or love the same way, if you have an active recollection of those times of the Lord’s great work in your life. You must remember what the Lord has done for you.  It is how  faith is kept fresh and powerful in the heart.

It is remembering the journey that keeps the journey of your life a living thing in your mind. Otherwise it is apt to become nothing but a meaningless succession of days and nights. And believe me, parents especially, nothing is more fatal to our children than for their  parents to think of their lives in that utterly uninteresting way.

Every moment of your life is chocked full of real consequence, supercharged with eternal significance. It is the active recollection of where you have gone and what God has shown you and what he has  done for you and how he has loved you and provided for all you need, that turns your daily round into a  great story of a pilgrimage, a great adventure full of exploits, over which and through which is found the presence of the Living God.

You do what Moses did and write up your list and read it again and again until you know your own story and you find it rising up to meet you at every turn in the road as you wend your way through the wilderness of  this world to the Promised Land.

I would like to take up that challenge and maybe share a little of it with you.

Ponder Anew What the Almighty Will Do

Life rolls in stages.  I write a lot about my past on this blog, mostly because I had a very happy youth and I like sharing it with people.  That happiness was due in great measure to the fact that I was a child, and didn’t register that things weren’t always perfect.  But even with that blindness, there were times in the life of my family that truly were happier than others- long stretches of sunny weather with hardly a cloud in the sky.

I haven’t written much about my present, other than my feeble attempts to start a business, because it has been a stormier season of life.  I have four healthy boys, and a wonderful husband.  We live in a comfortable, albeit tiny, house, and we have plenty of food on the table. We have lots of good friends and are members of a great church.  I write that list easily because I run it like a litany through my head every time I get discouraged about the circumstances of my own and my larger family.

The past five years have been no picnic.  The house we were renovating and hoping to move into before my third boy was born fell prey to the economic crisis.  We still own it, but it is sitting empty, a roost for pigeons and an easy target for anyone looking to tear the wiring out of the walls.

My dad was diagnosed with dementia, and we are now witnessing the gradual disappearance of his memory and functionality.  I say witnessing, but for us it only hearing, because we live far from the rest of my family, and that is a trial in itself.

My husband lost his job two years ago, and we have been trying to get back on our feet ever since.

We have dealt with mental illness, and the sudden loss of my brother-in-law a year ago. We have walked with my sister in her grief as she moved here to start a new life.  But she is moving on again, leaving us this week.

When she first told us she was moving on, I felt like it was the last straw.  It has been so wonderful having a sister in town.  It felt like the beginning of better times.  Now that was going to be gone too.  It was time to resign myself to the fact that things would never be sunny again, and let pessimism reign.

But now there is a fresh wind blowing.  A sudden and unexpected gust that has me trembling with hope and a joy I haven’t felt in years.  I am seeing that God can tear down our walls without warning and build them up again just as quickly.  I can’t spell things out yet, and I don’t really know what is going on. But  I can share with you my favorite hymn, the words of which have been bursting out of me with tears of joy, startling my children and no doubt making them think mommy is crazy.

Praise to the Lord, who with marvelous wisdom hath made thee,

Decked thee with health and with loving hand guided and stayed thee!

How oft in grief, hath not he brought thee relief,

Spreading his wings to o’er shade thee.

Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper they work and defend thee!

Surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;

Ponder anew what the Almighty will do,

If with his love he befriend thee.

Catherine Winkworth

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