Reading Evening

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It was a weekend of colossal snowflakes. Twirling, swirling, pirouetting, waving-to-the-audience snowflakes. So cute, you can’t stop staring snowflakes. Snow that puts the world on mute. Snow that drapes over every horizontal surface and beautifies barbed wire. Snow that provokes stillness. We stoked the fire and settled into a reading evening.

We submerged into our book(s) and sat in companionable silence. We forgot all screens and beeps malfunctioning computers. After an hour of pure silence, I put on a CD (remember those?). This set of four CDs has been one of the soundtracks of my life for the last twenty years. (A great score!)

Furiously reading Martin Gilbert’s Churchill, A Life, trying to finish the 1K book before the inter-library loan ends (this is how I do marathons), the mounting crisis of Hitler’s threatened evasion of Czechoslovakia was creating inner tension.

Slowly I became aware that the music playing was such a befitting accompaniment to the words I was reading. Minor key, evocative, simply sad music. Naturally, it was Chopin. Recorded by the Slovak National Orchestra.

 

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To Serve Music

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Q. What is it that drives you at this point?

A. The experience of making music — really, the joy of making music is what I was put here for, I believe.

And I kind of knew — I knew right away once I’d started to kind of get it right, in my teens — once I’d started to experience the joy of getting a result from practice — that this was my destiny, I suppose.

And I always thank God [I] intuitively knew that music was the most important part of it. It wasn’t what I could get from music, it was what I could give to it.

When you asked me the question ‘What is it like?’ — well, I wish people could experience what it’s like to be really focused on doing something musical and have it work and be in tune and harmony.  And that can only come, I believe, if I am serving music, rather than trying to manipulate it to my ends, you know.

Eric Clapton
August 14, 2004
Transcribed from the DVD “Sessions for Robert J”

Sailing Alone Around the Room

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In my ideal life, I would keep poetry on my nightstand. In my perfect life, I would read it regularly. Sailing Alone Around the Room  had been ensconced there nine weeks;* when I ran out of renewals I started reading.

Humor, the deep-from-within-the-DNA-funny, permeates this poetry.

The first poem places a neighbor’s dog in a Beethoven symphony,
while the other musicians listen in respectful 
silence to the famous barking dog solo, 
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

The poems centered around music (and their abundance) delighted me.

I swooned reading Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales that spoke of the power of gospel music on the radio to create a minor ascension. I’ve been in the car, I’ve been transported. I could hear the overtones; I became a church lady with a floppy hat and matching pumps calling out, “Yes!”

I was pleased to learn a new form of poetry (I won’t mention the name); I did a search to read more. Then I roared with laughter. The joke’s on me — this is a parody! It was a small consolation that book reviewers and other poets also missed the satire.

Another tickle, this in a title:
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles

Collins always surprises me. He twists words, insisting I see life from a changed perspective.

* How it got there: reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility  made me curious to see Walker Evan’s photography. In my library’s poetry section was Something Permanent, Evan’s photography paired with Cynthia Rylant’s poems. While my fingers trailed the bindings, I saw Billy Collins. Like ice cream, there’s always room for Billy Collins.

The title reminds me that I still have Joshua Slocum’s 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, on my To Be Read shelf. And also William F. Buckley’s sailing books. Also unread.

The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

Margaret and Music

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By Jim Harper

So, as you all— I am Jim, by the way, the middle brother —as you all probably know, music is very important in the Harper family.

When we were growing up, we were each either assigned or picked an instrument to play… some of us went further with this than others. (laughter) And I always sort of thought of it in my mind as the Bach Family Orchestra. I sort of thought that maybe Dad had so many kids to fill the gaps in the orchestra. But, that never panned out.

So, Margaret played the cello. That was her division, her instrument. And she also played the piano, just like Carol and Dorothy. But she also loved to sing.

She got together with Judy Petke and Rosalyn Hines at Bair Lake Bible Camp — we spent most of our summers at Bair Lake Bible Camp — and they formed a trio: The Bair Lake Lovelies. And they had wonderful harmonies.  And I think they even sang out here, in Lombard, under a different name: The Lombard Lovelies.

But I came across this quote by Garrison Keillor, who I think Margaret enjoyed listening to, from a piece he wrote, Singing with the Lutherans. And I presume by that, he meant Singing with Sanctified Brethren, because that’s who he grew up singing with.

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

So, when we turned off life-support for Margaret, we sang her into heaven. She lasted two songs, and her heart stopped.

::     ::     ::     ::     ::     ::     ::

Here is my playlist for the prelude with some choice lyrics. One of my favorite piano quotes is from my sister Dorothy: Play the words.

Sweet, Sweet Spirit  — Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

King Jesus — For He opens doors for me, doors I’m not able to see, That’s why I say King Jesus will roll my burdens away.

He’s Able — I know my Lord is able to carry me through.

Softly and Tenderly — You who are weary, come home.

There Is a Fountain — Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.

I Will Sing of My Redeemer — How the victory He giveth over sin and death and hell.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say — I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad. I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.

Wayfaring Stranger — I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.

Come Thou Fount — Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.

Abide with Me — Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

My God Is Real — [written by Mahalia!!] His love for me is just like pure gold, My God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.

Come, Ye Disconsolate — Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Blessed Assurance — Angels, descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

 

 

Come Rain or Come Shine, The Book

I once prayed, Lord, please let Jan Karon live long enough to get Dooley and Lace married. The answer to that prayer was a whelming flood; I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way—punctuated by laughs—to the final page. Redemption, benediction, healing, holy amazement, connection. Reading this brings the satisfaction of resolution, the “two bits” after the “shave and a haircut”.

Weddings are my thing. Joyful solemnity, giving, sharing, joining, celebrating, laughing, crying, hugging, singing, dancing, rejoicing, thanksgiving. I love a good wedding and I’ve been to a few profoundly remarkable ones.

There was joy in the air; you could sniff it as plain as new-cut hay.

The focus of Come Rain or Come Shineis on the month before and the day of The Big Knot. Dooley and Lace want a small, intimate ceremony at Meadowgate Farm. Karon enjoys poking fun at the myth of a ‘simple country wedding.’  There are obstacles and annoyances. There are secrets and surprises. There is the unrelenting pressure of diminishing time to get the place wedding-ready.

DSC_0964The main character is Lace Harper. Her journals reveal her heart, her hopes, her fears, her loves. She wants to find a wedding dress for under $100; she is thankful for the callouses which document her hard work. She wants to get it—this whole starting a new family—right. I appreciated the ways Dooley and Lace honor the memory of Sadie Baxter (benefactor) and Russell Jacks (Dooley’s grandpa) in their wedding. Fun stuff: there is a Pinterest page for Lace Harper’s wedding!

Jan Karon and Wendell Berry are both skilled at portraying a community where giving, helping, and reciprocating are the norm. In their novels they don’t cover up the hurts, the anger, the tensions, the troubles. Weddings can be awkward with family drama. Karon handles the presence of Dooley’s birth mom, Pauline Leeper, in the same room as his siblings with utmost care. There is no easy resolution, no instant reconciliation, just baby steps, tiny beginnings towards the on-ramp to healing.

I connected with this book in many ways. This summer we went to a small, simple country wedding (see picture above) in a pasture. My son and daughter-in-law have a wind storm and fallen trees in their wedding story, too. I know what it is to be gob-smacked by blessings, reduced to silent tears of joy. Live music is the best for dancing the night away. I love the song in the title.

‘Why can’t life always be lived under the stars,’ she said, ‘with great music and family and friends?’

♪♫♪ Come Rain or Come Shine ♪♫♪ is a standard (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics Johnny Mercer) that has been covered by scores of recording artists. I used it ten years ago when I made a PowerPoint slideshow for Curt’s folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. In the course of my work, I listened to B.B. King and Eric Clapton on endless repetition. And I can honestly say, I never tired of it. But there are so many recordings of this song, that I put my listening of them in this post.

This book.

I finished it last night. I started it again this morning.