My Ancestors, Singing, and Oasis Chorale

So the last three weeks have been FANTABULOUS.

I spent a weekend at a family reunion in southern Virginia. In case you don’t know, a Good family reunion consists of:

  1. Exquisite four-part hymn singing.
    How am I blessed with this heritage?

  1. Obligatory “Good” puns.
    “It’s ‘Good’ you made it.”
    “It’s a ‘Good’ reunion this year.”
    “These are my ‘Good’ relatives.”
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  1. Meticulous research and history prepared by our family historian, Evelyn Bear, who traced our family tree as far back as the 1500s to our Swiss roots THROUGH FOUR LINES (the Resslers, Goods, Brennemans, and Hubers). The Brennemans and Goods were Swiss Anabaptists who emigrated to America through Germany due to religious persecution, settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (of all places!), Melchior Brenneman in 1709, and 20-year-old Jacob Good on the ship Samuel in 1732. (Surprise, surprise, I now live in the land of my ancestors! Except both families moved to the Shenandoah Valley several years later.)
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Clockwise: My great-grandparents’ wedding photo (1904), their 50th wedding anniversary, my mother’s baby picture, my mother’s family in 1951, my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary.
  1. Fabulous coffee prepared on the spot by my coffee connoisseur cousin Paul Yates.
    Vanilla rosemary latte, anyone? (He creates his own rosemary syrup.)
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With my mama.
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There was also lots of niece-squishing.

I then drove north to the Shenandoah Valley to meet my favorite people, the Oasis Chorale, for our annual summer tour. This year we toured Virginia and the Carolinas and additionally recorded a second hymns project in conjunction with John D. Martin’s new Hymns of the Church. (Recordings will be available in October! Click here or here for up-to-date information regarding new musical releases.)

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Photo by Erin Martin.

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It’s no point trying to put into words what the experience of Oasis Chorale means to me, but I will try.

First, it is community. The more I sing with this choir, the more I come to love its individual members, the camaraderie that ensues, the spontaneous philosophical and theological discussions that we inevitably find ourselves in, and the way that we care for each other. People who aren’t conservative Mennonite may not be able to tell, but Oasis Chorale is actually extremely diverse. Our members come from a wide variety of Anabaptist, educational, and musical backgrounds, each with our individual experiences of Anabaptist communities and unique musical experiences within those communities. There is such strength in this diversity. For one, I think we are better equipped to minister to wider varieties of congregations. Second, it enables us to learn from and to support each other in our varying church, musical, and educational contexts.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that Oasis Chorale is not first and foremost concerned about performing choral music well. It most certainly is.


You better have your pitches and rhythms learned. Along with your consonants, vowels, body alignment, proper breathing technique, appropriate tone, lifted soft palate, sense of line, inflection, suitable syllable stress, bright eyes, all performed with a sense of wonder.

But to me, Oasis is more than just a choir that sings beautiful music well. It’s a choir that strengthens its members for service beyond just a two-week summer tour. It encourages and refreshes singers, musicians, song leaders, artists (also a huffing lot of teachers) to pursue beauty and truth the REST of the year. This happens due to having a visionary conductor who expects discipline and personal musical growth (which is possible both within and without the choir) and who regularly invites us to contemplate the poetry of musical texts and the truth expressed therein. This emphasis on discipline and thoughtfulness is a haven for me.

Getting to be immersed in this convivial, contemplative, Christian community is something for which I thank God.
Every.
Year.

As a choir, we visited colonial Williamsburg this year and performed a candlelit concert in the historic Bruton Parish church. Definitely a highlight!

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Performing by candlelight in the historic Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Erin Martin.

One line from a hymn we recorded this year captured my attention and expresses a very particular worldview which I personally think aligns with the mission of Oasis Chorale:

“Crown Him the Lord of peace;
Whose pow’r a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise.”

For these things, we sing.

Amen.

Family/Love/Miles

I’m continually amazed at how far-reaching family connections are. Perhaps it’s because I’m a part of the Mennonite subculture, but somehow I find connection to far away people through friends, places, and even objects.

Case in point: My parents were visiting me this weekend, and instead of getting a hotel, they stayed with my father’s long-lost cousin about 30 miles away. (They happened to be out of town and loaned my parents their house for the weekend.) I buzzed up to spend the night, and my mom and I were giggling late at night, in the kitchen, eating peaches. Above the kitchen sink was a simple photograph of a sunset. On the frame was a tiny gold plaque dedicating the photograph to “Frieda.”
“Nice photograph,” I said aloud to my mother.
“She was a good friend to me,” my mom said.
“Wait. Who?” I said.
“Frieda. The mother of the cousins. She helped me in the kitchen when I lived in Michigan after we were first married. You know my salsa recipe? …She was a wonderful woman. A very mothering kind of person.”
I stared at the sunset photograph. Frieda.  It was nice to meet one of my mother’s old friends. I didn’t expect to meet anyone in this empty house—this random house in northern Indiana.
Later, I lay down on a little foam mattress with a very old quilt that had been left out for me. As I fell asleep, I lay thinking: “If pictures in this house are old friends, I wonder who this quilt is…”

Speaking of cousins, I’ve met a long-lost cousin of mine here in the area, and I was able to have dinner with her and her family. They and their young children and I gathered around a large dinner table to a summer feast of garden-fresh sweet corn, tomatoes, potato casserole, and blueberry cake. We talked about the kids’ school, the sprawling farm, and the remodels done to their farmhouse. I asked how long they’d lived there:
“Fifteen years, at least. We’ve lived here all our married life and probably always will!” My cousin and her husband shared a smile.

Roots. I’m not sure I can imagine such permanence. In some ways it’s wonderful. I think it’s a beautiful thing that few young people today have a concept of—that of plugging into a community long-term. I think the thing that surprised me was that the couple was relatively young to be making such a statement. I think many people today live with less permanent mindsets. Most people my age expect at some point to live somewhere exotic. “Just for a little while.” “Maybe in the city for a few years.”

Or maybe the permanence is a bad thing. Maybe we all need to be more willing to move away from our cushy country lives… to trailer courts. Or to the inner city. Maybe God is calling us out of placid pastures to unknown suburbs or secular cities. Or to cross-cultural settings in foreign countries.
I’ve not decided.
In any case, I was certainly struck by the young family contentedly enjoying life on the farm in rural Indiana.

Speaking of children, I had this curious baby moment last weekend. I had the privilege of participating in the Oasis Chorale Choral Festival in Ohio. I cannot possibly describe my excitement for choral events and the community and fellowship that I feel at events such as these. And the musical talent of Oasis and the reunion choir was really quite stunning. That’s all I will say.

The concert experience was amazing, of course, but one of my favorite moments was during rehearsal on Saturday. We were having timing issues with Rene Clausen’s “All That Hath Life and Breath.” So all seventy singers spread out in the church for a sort of kinesthetic body-timing exercise where we moved, and sang,  becoming this marching line of sound around the rows of empty pews. Our director stopped us short, giving us several more directions. I happened to glance down at the empty pew in front of me, and I almost jumped! There was this thing, this infant, this person lying there! The baby was wrapped in a white blanket, sleeping peacefully on the padded church pew.

I regained my composure, and we marched again, our wall of sound increasing in intensity. We ran the entire piece, and by the end, I had filed back around to the small child again.
We held the final chord, fortissimo.
And the child slept peacefully.
How lucky this baby is, I thought. Think of all the pain and suffering in this world, and this child sleeps peacefully to this beautiful music. How blessed is this child. And to know that this child’s parents will raise this child to honor and fear the Lord

Sometimes I’m amazed at my heritage of faith. While I do not ignore the spiritual deficiencies that can be found in Anabaptist congregations, I thank God for the family love that runs so deep. It’s so real, it can almost be touched. Or felt. Like layers of line-dried cotton.

If I Wrote a Novel

If I wrote a novel, (it would be a miracle because (1) I have a short attention span, so I cannot imagine ever finishing a long piece of work, and (2) I’m terrible at dialogue. I hate to say it, but I’m just not weird enough to be a novelist. Good story writers are truly weird, and I am honestly jealous of them. But, I should blog, so: should I ever find myself in the luxurious state of “having time,”) I might organize my novel something along the lines of this.

Chapter 1: I’d take a cue from Charlotte Brontë and begin with my main character’s younger self. She would be precocious, wild, and weird. Her imagination would be puzzling at times. She’s a little suspicious. She has a conspiracy theory that, kind of like the people who live in the garage opener, there are people with video cameras outside all the windows, and that’s how videos in the world are made. Once they get an interesting story, they make it into a movie to sell. This is why she hates going to the bathroom at night because the small window has no shade.

Throughout the novel, I’d try to weave in some over-arching themes of Mennonite culture. I want the novel to be very meta, very self-aware. So I’d weave in genealogies, responsibility to future generations, connection to the land, displacement, the internalized stereotype of the Dumb Dutchman, the German work ethic, persecution, nonresistance, community and discord, engagement and separation.

Chapters 2-3: I have always said that children’s rights will be the next “political freedom” movement (since we’ve already “freed” everyone else), and we really seeing a push toward that in current politics. Since the politics of children is a big deal right now (at least in English classrooms at very liberal universities), and I would love to build relevance for Anabaptist practice in modern culture, I would demonstrate how our Mennonite children are already acting within a political identity, because, in a sense, Anabaptism IS a political identity. (Has anyone ever read The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder? I haven’t. Should I?) Anyway, I would show the importance of children’s integration into most aspects of church life. They are rarely left out or set aside. Very simply: babies and kids belong in church. (That is why it is unthinkable to leave babies at home when there is, say, a choral concert.) I see this as very different from Middle class America where children are “put away” into daycares, school programs, and after-school sports. I would emphasize over and over again the “togetherness” of families whose children who grow up Mennonite. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: togetherness, every day, three times a day. Normalcy.

In Chapter 4, the main character gets environmentally conscious. This chapter also begins the character’s world travels. First, she goes on a school trip to Costa Rica. Besides zip-lining through the jungle and soaking in natural hot springs, she goes to the jungle for several days and meets a missionary doctor who’s trying to teach the indigenous people better farming techniques. The doctor might even have a biodigester under her pig pen, catching poop, turning it into methane gas, and pumping it up to the thatched roof house for cooking. In the jungle, the main character might also get bitten by the missionary doctor’s pet monkey. Something crazy. You know. Not true to life.
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Next, the character travels to Luxembourg and Germany. In a Luxembourg hotel, she’s intrigued with the way the lights automatically turn off (to save electricity) when she shuts her hotel room door. Also, in Germany, she’s struck with the aesthetics of the nearly universal ceramic tile roofs. Green roof regulations from 100 years ago.

But just when everyone thinks the main character is me, I’d throw everyone off with an obvious clue: a short-lived romance with a Turkish boyfriend.

Turkish Boyfriend

Chapter 5: The Jane Austen Dance and Mennonite Mating Rituals: In which I write a scathing satire of every Mennonite girl’s reality: the Jane Austen complex at a volleyball game. The couple meet at a fancy ball (or a volleyball game). The Turk’s eligible friend invites him to the dance (or tournament), and to everyone’s surprise, the dashing young Turk does not play (er, dance). He prefers to… do whatever it is that Turks do, while the main character dances (plays some really great volleyball), all the while trying to ignore her loud family who is match-making (or raiding the pizza table). The Turk and the character have words (at the snack table), and later (behind the bleachers), the main character and her friends discuss the eligibility of the Turk, the Turk’s friend, and whether if either of them have a “quizzical brow.” At this point, the Turk’s friend returns and asks the main character’s friend for a dance (really, another game) and the Turk is left to himself. The main character tries to convince him to play, to no avail. Finally, he joins in the last game. Suddenly, he and she are the only ones in the room (or on the court). No one present can miss the ELECTRICITY of the high fives, and the SINCERITY of the passing on of the score, and the perfect timing of a couple’s dance… the bump, the set, and spike. The dance ends, applause erupts (everyone gives high fives. The main character even gives a high five to twelve year-old Rudolph, whose pimple-pocked body smells like cheetos, so that she can honorably exchange fives with the Turk.)
Pride and Prejudice 2    Pride and Prejudice 3

Chapter 6: In which the Turk comes calling. Somehow he gets the main character’s dance card. (I think, what normally happens, is that after the game, everyone goes out for coffee, but the Turk is “new” and “doesn’t know where the coffee shop is” so he gets the main character’s number “just in case” he can’t find the coffee shop.) However, after the fancy ball (read: volleyball game after a well-attended wedding), the romance comes to a screeching halt. At the coffee shop, the Turk comes out:

“I’m Baptist.”

The main character manages to retain her composure. Later, she facebook friends him just to be nice. At least the volleyball was good.

Chapter 7: In this chapter, I would talk about the character’s social experience at public colleges and universities. I would demonstrate one of the biggest culture shocks for the Mennonite young woman: strong language. I would probably include overheard dialogue in which literally every other word is the F-word. I would write about the character’s reaction the first time she saw the “bruhs” from the hood, walking down the sidewalk, rapping and talking to themselves. Absolutely DYING freshman year, sitting through a sex-ed class in college orientation where the teacher handed out papers of “all the different kinds of sex” and had volunteers organize themselves in line, holding the papers, from “most likely to get an STD” to “least likely to get an STD.” I’d write the mortification, the awkwardness, and the young gentleman who sat beside the character and muttered under his breath: “Like this will ever be a problem for me.” Bless you, young man.

Chapter 8: A chapter of questions and answers, in which the main character is not Jewish, Mormon, or Amish, black is just a personal preference, coffee is fine, but no to the drinking, and “I don’t eat fish” means “I don’t like it,” you dummies, not that I’m not allowed to eat it. (Honestly!) Of course the answer is Jesus. But sometimes they can’t see past my culture. (Or they choose not to.)

This is a good start for now. But I still have no plot. And I need some more chapters because I don’t want it to be a coming-of-age novel! Because I hate coming-of-age novels.

Homemade Christmas

To whomever decided that we should do “Homemade Christmas” for this year’s family gift exchange, I’d like to say a big fat hairy, “Thank you.”

At least that’s what I was saying, through gritted teeth, as I was finishing up my gift on Christmas Eve. Not to mention that I had known for a year that I was supposed to make my gift. And I only started making it the week before Christmas.

Whose idea was this anyway?

Oh yeah, that’s right. Mine. Heh heh.

It wasn’t SO bad. Last week we all began to encouraging each other, desperately… with old Christmas adages. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (RIGHT?!!) “It’s the thought that counts.” (RIGHT?!!)

I loved the responses I got when I told people my family was gonna do Homemade Christmas. An older couple who came into the restaurant declared, “That’s a WONderful idea! What are you going to make?” They were clearly enamored with the idea of a young person bothering to make something with their hands.

A young coworker of mine heard about our idea, and he asked what I was going to make for my sister. I tried to play it cool, “Oh, you know, well, my sister’s married now, so… you know, I thought I’d make her some pillows for her couch. Yeah, I wasn’t really sure what to make… you know.”

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I walked back out to the dining room, and I heard him exclaim to the servers around him, “Dude! That would SUCK!!!” (I think he meant that he couldn’t imagine having to make a gift. Or having to receive a home-made gift.)

But you know what? Who really needs another gift card, you know? Do you ACTUALLY need that new Hollister hoodie? And a new video game? Really? Little children are starving in India. If we raised money to send them money for food, they couldn’t even keep it down because dysentery plagues them because of the dirty water they drink due to bad sanitation. But, yeah, I mean, I want a new membership to Urban Active, too. Really?

So, I whipped out the (quite hidden) Pinterest-y me, bought some pillow forms, and ransacked some local thrift stores for some cool material.

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For this one, I sewed up an old pillowcase and then printed a giant Times New Roman initial. Next, I raided my vintage button collection for old red buttons and sewed them on in the shape of an “M” for several hours. (I made it through THAT monotony by listening to Father Gilbert.)

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I created this pillow from a refurbished extra-large Old Navy polka-dot top.

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Abigail had passed on this awesome skirt to me several years ago, but it never quite fit me, so I cut it up and sewed it into strips. Once I had one long strip of fabric, I sewed up the pillowcase. (This is SO hilarious, because I cannot sew at all!)
My *favorite pillow is: the sweater pillow. I took a second-hand Lands’ End sweater, hacked off the sleeves, buttoned it up, flipped it inside out, took in the sides, measured the pillow, and sewed up the top and bottom. Then I unbuttoned it, flipped it inside out, and covered the pillow. Viola!

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After I finished making it, Mom was flipping through the January issue of Good Housekeeping and found the exact same pillow (well, one that was designed by Laura Ashley anyway) and it was listed for $74. I think they copied me. I should probably sue.

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Not only was I wielding a needle and thread this Christmas, but someone actually caught me in the kitchen. (Shocker, I know).
A highly inaccurate domesticated image of myself: here I am making scrambled eggs for Christmas brunch. Oh… what? Egg shells?

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These next photographs demonstrate the healthy holiday eating habits of our family. (You ARE ignoring the piles of Christmas cookie containers, there, aren’t you?)

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After brunch, carols, the Christmas story, and sharing together, we came to the revealing of The Gifts, Which I Made Everyone Pose Awkwardly With.
1) From Abigail to Mama: a Precious Moments counted cross-stitch.

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2) From Mama to Papa: a denim blanket (made from his old jeans), and framed photographs of The Ancestors.

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3) From me to Abigail: couch pillows!

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4) From Josh to Rachel: a wedding website! Cool.

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5) From Jeremy to Josh: eight hours of manual labor on “The Man Cave.”

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6) From Rachel to me: a sister bag! (She chose some of my favorite pics and then used iron-on transfers.) (I also got an iTunes gift card for the win!)

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7) From Papa to Jeremy: a hand-made wooden shelf (classically wrapped in a sort of hipster, masculine design with newspaper, electrical tape, and yellow ratchet straps). Thanks, Dad-in-law-to-be.

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And that, folks, was my family’s Homemade Christmas gift exchange.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Great Aunt Edna Revisited

It’s that time of year, you know. For traveling. Visiting relatives. Spending your whole Christmas vacation with family and friends. Whether you’ll celebrate close to home, or travel far away, you’ll stay at Great Aunt Edna’s. You know you will.

Let’s start in your sleeping quarters.

The first indication that you are at Great Aunt Edna’s is the inappropriately fuzzy cat on your bed.

Or the feline icon staring down at you while you sleep.

Perhaps your favorite piece of art, bringing you many hours of personal happiness, is the glittery, golden, sequined cat tapestry.

Great Aunt Edna has an affinity for cats, you see.

And monkeys?

Surprisingly, Great Aunt Edna affords several unique (random) holiday touches.

There’s also a china doll on your bed. One that you can’t wait to sell on ebay.

Anyone, though, can appreciate her anti-Barbie, genetically-appropriate body sizing.

Check out those gams.

The bedroom gallery includes a street chalk drawing of a vague ancestor.

There remains, though, several artifacts worth rummaging for…

Big Ben, West Clox. This clock is older than me. No batteries, no electricity, you wind it. Why don’t they make stuff like this today?

Found these in their original packaging in the closet. I probably wouldn’t pair them with a housecoat (as originally intentioned), but I LOVE THEM! (I am honest, though. I did not sneak them out of the house.)

Other random items include… decorated hangers…

“Hey, Edna, want to hang out this Friday night?”

“No, I’m decorating my closet hangers, and I just haven’t quite finished them all yet. Maybe another time?”

🙂

Merry Christmas to you and yours.