Wednesday, July 20, 2016

{From My Commonplace} :: Thinking about Singing

It was lovely timing to happen upon these passages from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow a few months ago, just as we were finishing up our school year and my mind had begun thinking about the next.  Such an inspiring look at the how and why of a life enriched by traditional songs.

Wendell Berry on folk music:
"They would greet me and one another as they came in.  They took chairs, sat down, commented on the weather and other events, smoked maybe. 
"And then one or another of them would pick up his fiddle or guitar or banjo (you could never tell who it would be) and begin to tune it, plucking at the strings individually and listening.  And then another would begin, and another. It was done almost bashfully, as if they feared that the silence might not welcome their music.  Little sequences of notes would be picked out randomly here and there. (Their instruments just happened to be in their hands. The power of music-making had overtaken them by surprise, and they had to grow used to it.) 
"Finally Bill Mixter would lower his head, lay his bow upon the strings, and draw out the first notes of a tune, and the others would come in behind him. The music, while it lasted, brought a new world into being. They would play some tunes they had learned off the radio, but their knowledge was far older than that and they played too the music that was native to the place, or that the people of the place were native to.  Just the names of the tunes were a kind of music; they call back the music to my mind still, after so many years: 'Sand Riffle, 'Last Gold Dollar,' 'Billy in the Low Ground,' 'Gate to Go Through,' and a lot of others. 'A fiddle, now, is an atmospheric thing,' said Burley Coulter. The music was another element filling the room and pouring out through the cracks."
And on hymns...
"What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers; what I liked far better was the singing. Not all of the hymns could move me.  I never liked 'Onward Christian Soldiers' or 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'  Jesus' military career has never compelled my belief.  I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: 'Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,' 'Rock of Ages,' 'Amazing Grace,' 'O God, Our Help in Ages Past.' I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever.  Old Man Profet, who was a different man on Sunday, used to draw out the notes at the ends of verses and refrains so he could listen to himself, and in fact it sounded pretty.  And when the congregation would be singing 'We shall see the King some-day (some-day),' Sara May, who often protracted Saturday night a little too far into Sunday morning, would sing, 'I shall see the King some-day (Sam May).' 
"I thought that some of the hymns bespoke of the true religion of the place.  The people didn't really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world.  They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all if had given them, but they still liked it.  That they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another's help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude.  I loved to hear them sing 'The Unclouded Day' and 'Sweet By and By': 
We shall sing on that beautiful shore 
The melodious songs on the blest... 
"And in times of sorrow when they sang 'Abide with Me,' I could not raise my head."
Hymns and folk songs aren't just memory work.  They are memory work, in that we hope they lodge in our children's memories and abide there for always.  But the door to the memory isn't just the mind.  We aren't treating the memory as a faculty -- as simply a means to an end, something to use and exercise, with the goal being as much knowledge as our students' minds can hold.  We are treating memory as a gift, one that we may enter sweetly, gently, delightfully, calmly through the mind, but also through the heart and soul, the ear and eye, the community, our faith, sacred spaces, family moments, shared experience, relationship.

It is a beautiful thing, our memory.  As Robinson shares in Gilead, which I was fortuitously reading at the same time as Berry's book, memory is pure gift:


"I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own sort of mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a gracious reprieve." (emphasis mine)
In that vein, we can view hymns and folk songs as memory contained in song, and when we play them for our students, we give them the opportunity to enter into a collective experience of beauty in word and tune.  More than that, we can think of learning those songs as an invitation to add our own layer of texture to the song, as our family memories of singing them bind together with that collective experience and create something moving and special -- something new to us yet linked to all that came before us.

That is a powerful invitation and beyond anything a checklist can convey, no matter how masterfully crafted.  When we play, sing, or even just listen to a song, we open a space for the Holy Spirit to move and stir our soul.  It's a beautiful thought.

May we always think of memory work as a gracious reprieve!

15 comments:

  1. This is a brilliant post, Celeste. At the Deep in the Heart of AO conference Lynn Bruce talked about the value of exposing our kids to goodness via memory work and that we are shoring up a ballast for them for future hard times, and that in doing hymns, folk songs, poetry, etc we are in fact front loading them with things that are true and good and beautiful. This comes through loud and clear in your post as well.

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    1. Was that part of her plenary that the AA just made available? I bought it but haven't listened yet. :) Thank you for sharing that! I love that idea of "front loading," and I've experienced the blessings of that in my own life as someone who has always been drawn to truth, goodness, and beauty in education and then found solace in those stored up treasures in hard times. I am looking forward to hearing what Lynn has to share because I know she speaks from wisdom and grace!

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    2. You are certainly in for a treat once Lynn's plenary is available, Celeste. Unless I missed it I haven't seen it up yet. Donna-Jean's wonderful talk was the first one released. If I missed Lynn's please direct me to it!!:)

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    3. You are right, of course! I'm not sure what I was thinking! :) I will be snatching up each one as it's offered, though -- I haven't heard a less than inspiring word about any of the talks given there. :)

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  2. Truly thoughtful. This is what I want memory work to be. The phrase that keeps coming to me is equipping my kids to be "beauty bringers" - this is the type of beauty I want them to relish, grasp and share. My 6 yo was in the hospital and they had music station choices and I wanted to look and see if they had a station with instrumental hymns - how healing that is for some people who have been "front loaded" (he of course wanted to watch all the movies). My Aunt who recently had a stroke only becomes lucid when hymns are sung and she joins in. There is something so much more and these passages capture some of that. I love how he highlights singing together, in community, where you can really hear other people. I want that - not a clean performance from stage - in my worship. An aside, I love his comment about "Jesus' military career has never compelled my belief". I love his understated humor.

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    1. "Beauty bringers" -- I love that. That reminds me of the Restful Teaching video series I just watched last month. Andrew Kern talks about "incarnating the logos" (little-L logos, meaning all those truths that point us toward Truth) to our students through our own modeling and through the "artifacts" we introduce to them, and he says that one way we can see that our students have taken in the lesson is that they then incarnate it themselves. To use your term, they see that beauty and then bring it themselves. It's a lovely thought! Beauty touches us in different ways than knowledge. And how wonderful when when we can present knowledge clothed in beauty. :)

      And yes, Berry has a way of inserting little chuckles into his writing. :)

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  3. Beautiful. And I loved Gilead too. So much food for thought.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! I would never have chosen to read Jayber Crow and Gilead at the same time because they are similar in tone and in message, and I usually attempt more variety in my fiction at any given time. But Jayber Crow ended up taking me six months, and I picked up Gilead during Lent, which fell within that time period...and I saw so many intriguing parallels between the two writers that got me thinking deeply. It was a lovely reading experience and I had lots of fodder for my commonplace. :)

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  4. Love the Gilead quote on the bottom! I listened to you today with Mystie and it was helpful, Celeste. I also use the whole day for our learning, so I really loved hearing how you used nontraditional times for stuff!

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    1. I'm glad, Amy! I think using non-traditional chunks here and there are very helpful when you've got little ones you are building your day around. If I were trying to fit our schoolwork into a small box in the mornings we wouldn't get nearly as rich or varied a feast as what we're able to enjoy by sprinkling. :)

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  5. I love these quotes and reading your thoughts, Celeste! I was just reading the chapter in A Touch of the Infinite about folk music (no, not that far in, just skipped ahead...) and there's so much resonance.

    My aunt recently broke her leg hiking and had to wait about 40 minutes before help came - the first 20 minutes she was alone because my mom had run out to the road to call for help. During that time certain scripture verses and verses from the psalms were coming into her mind, but she was a little embarrassed when she was telling me about this because she couldn't remember where the verse was from. But it isn't the chapter and verse that comforts us and brings us into God's presence, it is the words themselves that touch our hearts! We can lose so much - perhaps everything - if we place our focus on the pat answers and the structure instead of the beauty.

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    1. Wow, what an ordeal for your aunt! But that truly is a beautiful testament. After years of praying the Divine Office, I find that snippets of psalms come to my lips in difficult moments. I certainly don't know book and verse, but they strike me strongly and I'm always blown over by how perfectly they fit my experience in those times. (And I really hope your aunt is okay. I can't imagine being stranded and in pain like that!)

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    2. Yes, I have had that experience many times with passages from the psalms. I love how that practice of praying the morning office has gradually written so much beauty on my heart and mind.

      And my aunt is doing well - she ended up being airlifted out and having surgery to set the bones, but she is recovering and in good spirits. She's a woman of deep faith and I admire her greatly. She's hoping next week to start physical therapy so she can begin the process of walking again. She's had to be completely off that leg for 8 weeks now!

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    3. That sounds just awful. I will be praying for her recovery!

      Some of the more repetitive prayers that Catholics hold dear is part of what drew me to liturgical living. I noticed right away in devotions like the rosary and the Divine Office one of the big elements I had been missing in my spiritual life: stored-up beauty to fall back on in times of difficulty. I had memorized verses and short passages during my time in the evangelical world, but when I became Catholic, I started lectio divina and memorizing prayers and the Mass -- it was just so beautiful and I hadn't realized how starved I was for it!

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  6. Loved your thoughts here, Celeste & enjoyed reading through the comments, too. X

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