Life at Home Upon Returning from a Theology and Arts Conference

“How was your weekend?” a co-worker asks. (I’ve just returned from a three-day Theology and the Arts conference at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.)

How to say… it was the most inspiring event I’ve been to in a solid five years, I watched some really important poets read verse that made me cry in its beauty and brilliance, and it was a ridiculous privilege to listen to the some of the brightest minds in theology and the arts today discuss Creation and New Creation. Instead, I simply nod: “It was great” and go about my office(ial) duties, all the while wondering to myself what is the definition of “eschaton,” “mimetic,” and “Principio,” and what is Judith Wolfe doing right now. And how my life is such a confluence of difference, how I go from squeezing in between MDivs and PhDs to find a seat, to speaking to someone about the dress code, watching 9th grade girls giggling in the corner, preparing remarks for conservative Mennonite patrons at PTF, re-stocking the toilet paper, and wondering how to get students to sign up for my newspaper class.

All the while my soul is literally mopping the floor in Goodson Chapel.

Ah well, I keep all these things and ponder them in my heart.

Every evening after school, I come home and put on some tea (a little pre-run caffeine), and sit down with Michael O’Siadhail’s new poetry book, The Five Quintets. In my bare feet and business-wear, I step out on my new, secluded, second-story deck (I just moved) and sip tea, and read some of the best poetry I’ve encountered. (I discovered O’Siadhail at Duke Divinity School’s DITA conference two weeks ago. After listening to a lecture in which he outlined his latest volume and then read to us, I’ve become completely enamored with his reliance on form, his grasp of language and philosophy, and for that matter, I suppose if Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes, introduces O’Siadhail as having written one of the most important works in the English language that will be published in our lifetime, one does sit up and take notice.) (Not only that, but order the poetry collection from Amazon immediately!)

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After tea and sonnets, we change into running clothes. It’s about 6:00 o’clock and it’s soon golden hour. The sun is moving toward setting, casting a golden hue through all the forest-green trees. (The running’s been so great in my new neighborhood, I’ve been leaving my iPod at home – it’s THAT good around here.) I found this excellent route with virtually no traffic and all the best scenery: muscular horses, a pasture of lambs, a lonesome swan, a miniature pony…

It’s amusing to me how fulfilled I feel living out in this part of Lancaster county. I never really took myself for a country girl, but I’m flooded with memories of my childhood on the Ohio plains. I remember my friends who milked cows and the way their clothes smelled, I remember playing with kittens in my friend’s haymow, rambling in pastures spotted by craggy oaks, taking long walks down farm lanes, bike rides with Dad, the miles of corn, the quietness, the solitude.

It’s been so long since solitude like this.

I pass a farm lane, and it occurs to me that everyone knows this lane. Everyone knows who has walked this lane. Everyone knows who drives this lane. Everyone knows how to drive down this lane. Everyone knows what goes on this lane. The ruts, the gravel, the weeds, the hat, the arm dangling outside the pickup truck… a cat picking its way along the corn… This knowing occurs to me, and I inspect it.

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I easily finish my evening run, ending with a negative split. After cleaning up, I pull out Bach and practice Singet Dem Herrn, plus more than a dozen other pieces for an upcoming concert. The Russian doesn’t come so well. There are more pieces, some German. I think of Papa, and my pronunciation of Herrlichkeit. Two hours later, I heave a deep sigh, and start cooking dinner.

I’m eating by 9:00 p.m., opened up to the Word, and soon I’m crying again. I’ve been crying nearly every evening at dinner since I moved to my new place. I’m so grateful for this space, a second-story apartment above a rambling country home, lightyears closer to work and church. I feel entirely lucky.

I think about the winding drive home from school yesterday, through fields bursting with life, and I think, “You know, on these roads I feel the most ‘at home’ I’ve ever felt since moving away from home in Ohio in 2013.” And I get this huge lump in my throat because some of you know how big of a deal that is for me.

There is a paradise this side of heaven that bursts softly through the clouds. It quietly rests on the most unsuspecting of us.

You know, Christian Wiman says, “All art is making visible what is not visible.”

Perhaps that is why I blog at all. Perhaps this blog (while you’ll have to pardon its “particularities,” and “definite pictures”) is a little temporary installation, lit up by that “Paradisal light.”

And so.

Here’s to art-making.

Poets, and Me, at Duke Divinity’s Theology and the Arts Conference

Spending 3.5 days in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, listening to some of the brightest minds discuss theology and the arts is among one of the finer weekends I’ve had this year.

A Conference

Duke’s Initiative in Theology and the Arts (DITA) exists to promote “a vibrant interplay between Christian theology and the arts by encouraging transformative leadership and enriching theological discussion in the Church, academy, and society,” and it does so by encouraging “rigorous scholarly work and effective, imaginative teaching that fosters the biblical vision of a new creation in Jesus Christ.”

You understand, then, why I was completely excited to secure my ticket months ago to its 10-year celebration this September. On Thursday evening, director Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke to us on the conference’s theme: Creation and New Creation, reminding us how this is the plot line of the entire Bible, whereby God makes and remakes (a process known by anyone who chips mortar, mixes paints, or plucks strings, over and over, hours on end).

The Mastermind Behind It: Jeremy Begbie

Begbie continues to be a leading figure in the field of theology and the arts, especially at Duke where he’s known for concert lectures, his theological lectures bring interspersed with piano performance. (You can get a sense for those here.)

Begbie quoted Rowan Williams who was once asked what it is that seminarians should teach, to which he replied, “I’d like them to sense the pressure out of which Christianity burst.” This kinetic pressure, so creational, lived in each of us this weekend, as we sat spell-bound to Malcolm Guite and Micheal O’Siadhail reading poetry, or to Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Awet Andemicael singing “Witness.”

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Notes from Begbie on Bach in the First Plenary Session

Bach is Begbie’s eternal hero, and Begbie spoke of the way that New Creation appears in Bach’s work, in which New Creation doesn’t flow out of the old; it is, in fact, new. He also remarked that the New Creation doesn’t flow out of artists living in the “cheerless gloom of necessity.”  (All the more interesting to remember, then, that Bach lived surrounded by death, as it were, as he buried 10 of his own young children.) (Also exciting to read these things into Bach’s Singet Dem Herrn, which I’m rehearsing for an upcoming concert.)

Begbie also encouraged artists to avoid reductionism, or to avoid that “nothing-buttery,” which is the tendency toward implying things be “mere” or “nothing but,” which breeds a sort of unimaginative skepticism for our enchanted world.

He also conceived artists as witnesses, witnesses to something they didn’t invent, or witnesses to Someone.

Everyone Meets Malcolm Guite, Inspired Writer of Sonnets

Before DITA, I had only heard of Malcolm Guite in passing, and I knew plenty of my friends greatly enjoy his poetry. To be sure, I wasn’t disappointed. Malcolm Guite’s morning homilies were an absolute pleasure, each ending with a transcendent poem. I do not know which it was that brought me to tears, the light of Goodson chapel, Guite’s bearing, or his enchanted verse – the kind that feature “an imagined world in which you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone.”

Guite’s first homily was a jolt, a spark, like the delight of passing through the wardrobe. He reminded us that anyone, at any moment, is in the first morning. In God’s grand picture of time, we’re so close to the beginning of things. God is creating at every moment, and in the scheme of things, the cosmos is just now being created.

Guite has finished a book on the theology of Coleridge, and he quoted Coleridge as saying, “The primary Imagination I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” Guite also imagined poems as a veil between the poet and the reader. He then reminded us how God lovingly brings us into the act of creation, and that the Principio is here, right now! (By the way, most of Guite’s poetry is available on his personal blog where you can listen to recordings of him reading his work. Try “Trinity Sunday” which he read to us on this first morning.)

Guite & Wolfe Discuss the Inkings

After morning worship, Guite was joined on stage by Scotland’s own Judith Wolfe, the inimitable Inklings scholar, for their plenary session titled “Inklings of Heaven: Creation and New Creation in the Work of Lewis and Tolkien.” Wolfe is the director of the graduate program in Theology and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, holds multiple degrees from Oxford, has published works on Martin Heidegger, and is the general editor of the Journal of Inklings Studies. (!) (Even better, she’s the most articulate woman I’ve ever heard speak, live or recorded.)

To begin, Wolfe borrowed Neubuhr’s notion of “metaphysical dreams” to suggest two compelling ways of intending the world which we see today in many political landscapes: conservativism (a dream in which we do not know the future, so we shore everything up for ourselves) and liberalism (a dream of progress, in which our world is eternally progressing, and it is the worst possible thing to be left behind). Wolfe suggested we raise two pillars over and against these dreams – Creation and New Creation – for a third way of intending the world. In this metaphysical dream, art, then, is one of the most basic human expressions.

Wolfe went on to quote Tolkien from his “Mythopoeia” poem which addressed C.S. Lewis in his state of unbelief in order to demonstrate Tolkien’s conviction that unless we see the world as created by God, we do not see it all. Our imaginations only come fully alive when we imagine a Creator, and become co-creators in his story. We do not see the reality of earth, unless we see the Person who created it.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Wolfe argued, then, that for Tolkien, the ability to see the world at all *has* to be through the imaginative.

Guite quoted Lewis’s “On Ways of Writing for Children” in which Lewis responds to the question: do fairy stories promote withdrawal and send “you back to the real world undividedly discontented, the pleasure consisting in picturing yourself the object of admiration?” “Do fairy tales,” asked C.S. Lewis, “teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment… instead of facing the problems of the real world?” Are fairy stories nothing more than compensation to which we run “from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world?” Guite, like Lewis, responded with a firm “no.” “By contrast, it is in imagined worlds that you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone. This is literature of the New Creation, not stories where we’re briefly compensated by shock, and, returning to the surface, we find ourselves unprepared to live life well.”

Creation and Creators in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Wolfe and Guite contrasted the dissimilar creation stories in Tolkien and Lewis, Wolfe citing Tolkien’s creation story in the The Silmarillion. While some of the creation work is reserved for Eru himself, some of the creation is Eru and the angels singing together. (It’s to be noted that song is a means of creation; he gives them a theme to sing, a sort of music that becomes the world.) So creation has two dimensions in Tolkien: some is reserved for God himself, but some is reserved for us. Wolfe notes how this preserves the freedom of the co-creators and the creator. On the other hand, Guite noted how Lewis worried of idolatry in the language of “creating.” Lewis does, though, like Tolkien, draw on the idea of song in his creation story in The Magician’s Nephew. (Imagine. Imagine Malcolm Guite reading you passages from The Magician’s Nephew on a random Friday morning.)

Wolfe expounded how Lewis shies away from particularities and the body, toward a Platonism, demonstrated in his remarks about Milton in his A Preface to Paradise Lost:

“The naif reader thinks Milton is going to describe Paradise as Milton imagines it; in reality the poet knows (or behaves as if he knew) that this is useless. His own private image of the happy garden, like yours and mine, is full of irrelevant particularities—notably, of memories from the first garden he ever played in as a child. And the more thoroughly he describes those particularities, the further we are getting away from the Paradisal idea as it exists in our minds, or even in his own. For it is something coming through the particularities, some light which transfigures them, that really counts, and if you concentrate on them, you will find them turning dead and cold under your hands. The more elaborately, in that way, we build the temple, the more certainly we shall find, on completing it, that the God has flown. Yet Milton must seem to describe—you cannot just say nothing about Paradise in Paradise Lost. While seeming to describe his own imagination he must actually arouse ours, and not to make definite pictures, but to find again in our own depth the Paradisal light of which all explicit images are only the momentary reflection. We are his organ: when he appears to be describing Paradise, he is in fact drawing out the Paradisal stop in us.”

This fascinates me as a writer and a poet, for writers constantly think of perfecting the image of a work, of recreating glimpses for audiences to carry with them, but Lewis here questions throwing one’s energy into that part of the work, and he does so due to a sort of Platonism. (Hmmm, what do I think of Platonism?)

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Tolkien, though, sees creation as a much more humble act, as described in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

A strong claim of Tolkien’s, despite his cautious moments: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien thus departs from Lewis’s misgivings of the created (seen in the scene of the painter arriving to heaven in The Great Divorce, in which Lewis’s character rebukes the eager painter arriving to the heavenly scene, eager to paint, and the heavenly character indicates that, no, “looking comes first,” to which the painter, not a little miffed, says that he isn’t much interested in a place where they haven’t got much use for painting.) You see, for Lewis, the imagination is a means by which to break out of this world which is unfinished. (Why would one need to paint, then, once in the presence of the Real?)

But for Tolkien, he sees the imagination and creating as an act by which we usher in the New Creation: “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the happy ending. …[I]n Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

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Next We Meet Micheal O’Siadhail – Ireland’s Poet

Mind you, this was one whirlwind of an hour, after which the intensity quickened, for Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar Richard B. Hayes introduced Ireland’s Micheal O’Siadhail, who according to Hayes has recently published the most important work in the English language that will be written in our lifetime. It is hard not to scoff at such grandiose magnanimities, yet he went on to describe the scope of O’Siadhail’s work: “In his poetic work, he holds a conversation with the key figures in art, politics, economics, science, and philosophy of the last 400 years of modernity in order to answer the question, ‘Where are we going?’” Me: THIS IS NO SMALL TASK, ARE WE SERIOUS HERE?

O’Siadhail took to the stage and outlined the utterly dazzling structure of his 600-page tome. Riffing on Dante’s three cantos, he chose instead a five-part structure (in part because T.S. Eliot has already done The Four Quartets) and besides, O’Siadhail needed a fifth circle. There are five sections of the book, each outlining significant figures in the five disciplines of the arts, politics, economics, science, and philosophy.

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Each quintet is then divided into five cantos. These cantos and their characters represent for O’Siadhail movements within modernity: Canto 1 characters are traditional figures (Milton, Ruben, Handel, and Donne), Canto 2 figures are those liberated from traditional strictures (Goya, Wordsworth, Beethoven), Canto 3 (representing hell) are those characters fixated on ideologies and “isms,” exacting extreme control (Margaret Thatcher, Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, and Stalin), Canto 4 characters are those who envision a new future, who try to fix things and seek a new direction, however imperfectly (Dostoevsky, Rothko, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot), and Canto 5 represents perhaps a bit of the New Creation which the entire conference celebrated – those saints and stars, and the New Creation of heaven itself (Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marc Chagall, and Messiaen.)

O’Siadhail thus creates conversations between these characters and himself as he questions them on their life and work. And of course, each quintet celebrates its own poetic structure, the first being sonnets interspersed by haiku, or “saikus.”

After O’Siadhail read his epigraph, a poem to Madame Jazz (in the manner of invoking the Muses), he read to us from various characters, after which Hayes questioned him regarding his work. Among other things, he asked:

“Who is Madame Jazz?”

“The life force that we all want to dance to.”

“Perhaps the Holy Spirit?” Hayes smiled.

“That, too,” O’Siadhail replied.

Hays specifically asked O’Siadhail where it is that Jesus appears in his work, since O’Siadhail seems to envision the New Creation, and had even remarked that T.S. Eliot belongs for him in the fourth canto category because “he gets the fire, but the not the Resurrection.”

O’Siadhail responded, “Christ is not there overtly, but I allow every character the last word, which is their redemption, and my compassion. That is my Catholic faith.”

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The conversation quickly turned to O’Siadhail’s use of form. O’Siadhail remarked that he used tradition and innovation, which is what we need in our world today. “Form is freedom.” There is tradition and spontaneity, and O’Siadhail remarked that it is very American to think that nothing is authentic unless it’s spontaneous. (!) He also explained, “The Beatniks allowed us to leave and now return to the form.” Besides the patterns of feet and rhyme, O’Siadhail also remarked that using persona poems in some ways allows us to say what we could not say. “Truth,” he quoted Coleridge, “is the divine ventriloquist.”

Friends, we’ve only arrived at lunchtime of Day 1. As I’ve said before: this event was a match that sparked something inside me that hasn’t burned for some time. It was completely humbling to sit at the feet of these scholars (in such an intimate space – maybe 300 guests), and in another blog post, I’ll chat a bit about Christian Wiman, Bruce Herman, Natalie Carnes, and that other great old chap, N.T. Wright. Stay tuned!

Because Kansas

Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)

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For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.

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Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”

While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.

Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.

I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.

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The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.

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Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)

How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)

Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.

Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”

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pc: Jason Martin

And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!

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Meeting baby Holly for the first time.

We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.

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A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.

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Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.

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Not a painting; a literal mosaic. (!)

Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.

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The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.

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pc: Wikipedia Commons

Not one sparrow is forgotten
Even the raven God will feed
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father
In thy mercy have a share
And through faith and prayer, my Savior
Rest in thy protecting care?

Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)

Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)

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The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:

“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”

At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!

One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are bruised
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

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It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”

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Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.

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The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.

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Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.

Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.

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My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.

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My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.

The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.

In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.

With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.

I Cooked Rice at 10:00 p.m. and Other Confessions

Hi friends. You’ve been so much on my mind, and I finally have a chance to catch up with you.

Here’s the deal: Nicaragua / camera stopped working / phone crashed / deleted all my photos / got new phone/ realized old phone was just backing up my photos to Google drive just for funsies (while also dying and deleting 15% of my best photos) / Google is evil / phones are evil+expensive / so backing up all old photos because #fear / external hard drive from Amazon stops working / Amazon=evil / garbage disposal stops working / license expires / must re-test in state / must change car registration / must change car insurance / must now pay annual car inspection fees / first time for everything / aaaaand Monday is my first ROOT CANAL / literally all my dirty laundry

Now, let me tell you what’s going RIGHT in my life.

  1. I just spent a WEEK in sunny Nicaragua. It’s dry season, and the sun shone every day. I wore flowers in my hair, took pictures of adorable little girls playing with chickens, climbed a volcano, and spoke all the Spanish.

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But really. It was all about these kids. Pretty find humans right here.
  1. Even though I haven’t properly blogged my Nica experiences, timing was pretty tricky this year because I got off the plane from Managua, walked into a Lancaster County snowstorm, turned on the heat in my 50-degree apartment and began doing laundry to leave the very next day for Oasis Chorale rehearsal! I am honestly one of the lucky ones to sing with such talented friends every year. Talk about luxury to spend an entire spring weekend basking in chords! (In case you didn’t know, my choir makes videooooos.)

 

  1. I played with this lil buddy all Easter long.

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  1. I cooked rice at 10 p.m.

I am honestly so sick of excuses. (You too. Stop it. Stop making excuses.) Get up early. Be polite. Be kind. Read your Bible. Care for your friends. Work harder. Put your phone down and read a book. Exercise. Practice your music. Do the dishes. For Pete’s sake, cook once in a while! (You all know how much of a trial this is for me.) Stop complaining.

This weekend I finally got over THIS THING, this icy grip winter has on me, and I’m finally blooming once more. It’s as if this week, I’m growing. This week started off with a bang: I had motivation for… a day.

And on that day I was still going strong at 10 p.m., so much so that I started cooking rice, SOMETHING I’M EXTREMELY BAD AT. (You can ask me how it turned out.)

You know when you feel like a total failure? Like despite the fact that you’re surrounded by so many people but you can’t shake the feeling of isolation and you kick yourself for every single tiny mis-step that you take? (Who am I kidding, now I’m just talking about introverts.) You know when people ask you how you’re doing and you respond sincerely, “I’m good!” but an inky black bunny, hopping up and down, robotically condemns you in your mind, “THAT IS COMPLETLEY FALSE. THAT IS COMPLETELY FALSE.”

Okay, what I’m trying to say is that even though I’m extremely bad at rice-cooking, and this week could honestly be labeled Week of Teaching/Friend/Human Person Mistakes, it doesn’t matter because I have so much hope AND I’M GOING TO MAKE IT.

For crying out loud, I WANTED to cook rice at 10 p.m. WANTED to.

You will make it too. But you better light a candle, calmly read Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” and start changing the world one English lesson at a time, read thought-provoking BBC articles about the American criminal justice system, start following Jada Yuan on Instagram, the writer that the New York Times hired to visit 52 world-class travel spots in a year and write about each of them (we are all jealous), and remember that for some people dreams really do come true, and that you must do today what will get you closer to who you want to be tomorrow. Finally, remember that not everything is about you. Stop worrying that people might think you’re weird. “Nobody ever changed the world by worrying about people’s opinions of them.” (Lecrae’s Twitter this week.)

  1. Last thing that’s going right: spring running season is upon us!

Announcement: the season is going to be about hurting.

I have a confession. When I run, I never hurt. I am the world’s laziest runner. I keep my paces comfortable because I don’t know, I have rules about hurting? And distance does not bother me physically. Distance for me is only a mind game.  I would rather run 5 times a week than even TOUCH an indoor workout. Why? Because cardio HURTS.

Painless running? Not anymore. Last fall’s marathon was a goal of a lifetime, and I completed it conservatively, fearful of reinjuring myself. Now I’m setting my sights higher, possibly returning to the half marathon, going for a sub 2. IT IS GOING TO BE PAINFUL. I’m giving myself plenty of time, looking for a fall race, but I’m already picking up the paces this spring, and I’m loving it.

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See you at the races!

Why Matt Redman’s “Never Once” Should Be a New Hymn

The term “new hymn” may sound like an oxymoron. Certainly, an a capella hymn-singing tradition is uncommon in contemporary Christian church services. However, in conservative Mennonite churches today, four-part acapella hymn singing persists as the prominent music style of choice. You might ask: how does this tradition continue?

Mennonite churches seek to celebrate and to further this special tradition though the use of hymns in weekly services or in annual “hymn-sings,” which build in singing practice and promote familiarity with canonical hymn texts.

The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches
The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches

One important factor of this tradition is the careful selection of which hymn books will be placed in the church pews. Currently, a newly-published purple hymnal is popping up in conservative Mennonite churches (to include certain northern Indiana Mennonite congregations and schools). John D. Martin spent twenty years compiling the new Hymns of the Church, which features 65 Anabaptist composers. What sets this hymnal apart is that it features hymns that specifically cover Anabaptist themes: the Lordship of Christ, discipleship, obedience, cross-bearing, separation from the world, nonresistance, and the present Kingdom of God.

The a capella hymn-singing tradition is also promoted to Mennonite young people through choral singing opportunities at winter Bible schools. After high school, many Mennonite young people attend Bible Schools before starting a full-time job, starting college, or getting married. Most Mennonite Bible Schools have choirs in which young people practice and memorize a capella choral pieces. These newly-formed choirs then embark on tours across the U.S., visiting various Mennonite communities, churches, nursing homes, or even state prisons. It may seem unlikely, but most Mennonite young people have sung with some sort of touring choir, whether it was a church youth chorus or a Bible School choir.

(This is not to say that conservative Mennonites solely prefer acapella hymn-singing, but it is an unmistakable part of the conservative Anabaptist experience. What I mean is: my young Mennonite students still like their mainstream Christian pop and, gasp, even a little bit of country.)

Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010
Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010

Another way that Mennonites promote hymn-singing is through music education. Within conservative Anabaptist communities, there is a renewed interest in music education, and this is seen through the recently formed Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, which is held annually in Virginia and Ohio. Conservative Anabaptist music enthusiasts, song-leaders, worship leaders, and youth having been attending these summer camps since 2006. The camps feature classes in musical development, choral conducting, congregational music, and composition. Conservative Mennonites are beginning to see the need for education in order for this tradition to continue.

A capella hymn-singing is also promoted through the composition of new hymns. For one example, for the past several years, the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp has been commissioning new hymns through its annual hymn contest. The camp accepts submitted poetic texts and chooses a winning text. Then, conservative Anabaptist composers (amateur and trained alike) go to work. These composers submit their own musical version of the text, and another winning selection is made. The new hymn is sung at both the Ohio and Virginia camps.

Recently, the idea of new hymns has been on my mind, and I have thought: is it possible to arrange Christian pop songs into sing-able a capella arrangements? It’s been done before. Larry Nickel, a Canadian Mennonite composer, beautifully and effectively re-arranged the Christian worship song “In Christ Alone” to a choral acapella setting. (And where did I first hear that arrangement? Last month at a service in Nappanee featuring a Mennonite Bible school choir.)

It worked wonderfully, so I have decided that I want someone to re-set Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” Matt Redman, a Grammy-award-winning British Christian song-writer wrote the Christian pop song “Never Once” in 2011. This anthemic song is a Christian declaration of the presence and the faithfulness of God to humankind even in life’s toughest moments.

Why did I choose “Never Once” to be a new hymn?

First, it’s anthemic, musically.
Its simple tune and repetitiveness qualify it for the serious tone and chant-like treatment of anthems in contemporary classical music. (Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli and all that.) Personally, I think there’s tons of room for Eric Whitacre cluster chords. (Don’t laugh. It will work.) Its declaration of an aspect of Christian belief (the existence of God) defines it as a credo and also qualifies it as an anthem. Mixing all these elements means that “Never Once” qualifies for new hymn material.

Second, it’s accessible (textually).
One of the problems of hymn texts can be accessibility. The antiquated language and difficult (culturally irrelevant?) metaphors are obstacles to enjoying beautiful hymn poetry. (For instance, in old hymns, there are a lot of “anchors,” “billows,” and “stormy seas”. Personally, as a Midwesterner who happens not to own a yacht, these aquatic word pictures are a little vague as best. But as Emily Dickinson would say: a good imagination can fix that: “I never saw a moor / I never saw the sea; / Yet know I how the heather looks, /And what a wave must be.”) What I’m arguing: unless a congregation is filled with singularly imaginative folk, hymn texts can be hard to relate to. I run into this problem with my junior high students during hymn-singing time. (Oh, that’s another place that Mennonites sing. Elementary school.) Sometimes, these students lack the critical thinking skills to access the complex poetry. However, this would never be a problem with adults because we all learned to love the study of poetry in high school, right? (Ahem.) Understanding poetry, then, is necessary for the accessibility of hymns. However, while “Never Once” uses poetic metaphor, the metaphors are not obscure. Life is compared to a mountaintop and a battleground, and those metaphors are accepted generally. Thus, the “Never Once” text is accessible and congregation-friendly.

And finally, it’s communal (textually).
The diction of the personal pronouns is communal. “Never once did we ever walk alone.” This communal diction works for an a cappela choral arrangement; a hymn is meant to be sung in community. Redman’s piece, then, once rearranged, is conducive to be sung in a group, at least textually.

And perhaps that is why Mennonites prefer hymn-singing in the first place. A capella hymn-singing is community. And in our swipe-screen, social-networking solitariness, isn’t community what we all long for?

Beethoven and Football

*waves hand. Hello! I’m still here!
Due to Pertinent University Demands, I’ve been noticeably absent, but here is a little update of a few of my recent shenanigans.

I had the particularly unique experience of attending the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth one night and going to a Buckeye football game the next.
(Ahem.) Quite the juxtaposition.

Ohio Theatre’s twenty-foot chandelier

I was privileged to have my mom join me for CSO’s season-opener. The symphony and chorus performed Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus. K.618,” and Beethoven’s Ninth.
The chorus entered powerfully on “Zadok,” and the dark tones of “Ave” were full of artistic integrity. (I love that Mozart piece!) (*fist to mouth. *MUAH.)
And conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni danced for the entire length of Beethoven’s Ninth. The audience could barely contain themselves in eager expectation of the familiar tune, “Ode to Joy,” and the feather-soft introduction of the celli and double bass was, I thought, highly effective.

This was all followed closely by: THE college football experience, which I can sum up in one word: MEH.

Okay, so OSU football is a really big deal (or, rather, more like a SINCERE HOLY RELIGION) to A LOT of people. Whatever. I grew up listening to the Saturday football games on the radio while my mom made cinnamon rolls and I did the dishes. For a while I was really caught up in the Buckeye fever. (If you’re not from Ohio, you wouldn’t understand.)  Then I moved to Kansas, and I was like, wait, what? You guys don’t care about football? You play what…? What is this… this basketball?

Now I could really care less about football, but since I’m an official Buckeye now, I felt that the college football game was an experience I just had to have.

Observations:
1. I just don’t have time in my life to waste a combined five hours on parking, walking, waiting, and transportation to and from the game. (This does not count the four hour game time).

2. Buckeyes are pretty generous. We stopped by a “free” tailgate and delved into the vats of hotdogs and barrels of potato chips. And, lucky for me, they had bottled water! (instead of only bottomless open containers).

3. During the game, I was mostly bored because I really don’t understand football. I’d rather listen to the radio because the announcers describe the plays and the calls in detail.

4. If I hear the theme to the Buckeye Bounce cheer, one more time, I will throw pounds of litter at you. (The only good thing about this cheer, I guess, is that it gets freezing fans moving.)

5. Now that my ears have been exchanged for an atomic explosion of explicit vulgarities so that me, you, your mother, the world, Nebraskans, and all football teams ever have had their anatomy cursed and sent to hell and back, and, now that all language proceeding into my ears is just one entire f-word, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, I’M GOING HOME.

Not. My. Scene. I can’t really think of a reason why I’d ever go again. Maybe it was extra-raunchy due to sitting in the student section, but, I just… I guess I just don’t ever see the need to… have to step around so much barf again.

6. The marching band at half-time was AHMAZING! And I’m not the only one who thinks so! TWELVE MILLION other people have been checking out the show on Youtube!

Anyway, that’s the difference between Friday nights and Saturday nights. The only link I could find between the two events was that Zeitouni showed up to conduct the band for the “Star Spangled Banner.” Other than that, there was no comparison.
At least not much.
The end.

A Victorian Christmas

It’s time for “A Victorian Christmas!” My sisters and I have been practicing for several weeks now. We ride in the minivan to Jenny’s house in London where we rehearse our lines. Jenny teaches us how to say our lines with what Mom calls, “expression.” I like Jenny’s house. I think her house is Victorian. In the parlor there are big rose-colored drapes made out of silky wood-grain fabric that youth group girls use for bridesmaid dresses. The ceiling are extra-tall, and the wallpaper has little flowers on it. We sit on a white rug in the parlor. The white rug is how big it is on the loft on the stage. We practice staying on the rug. And we sing in the music room. Jenny plays the piano, and we practiced staying “in tune.” Sometimes we are out of tune. We try to sing better. It’s kind of hard because the boys sing different parts. Sometimes, on Saturdays, we go with Mom to practice with the choir. We get to play with the other kids. There are babies, but they are never fun, and they always cry. We have to be quiet when they adults are singing. The Saturdays are really very merry.

Abigail is hoity-toity, and she sits and listens to the adults practice.

“I love ‘And the Glory of the Lord,’” Abigail says, “It’s from the Messiah.”
“What is the Messiah?” I ask.

“It’s Handel’s Messiah,” Abigail explains.

“Well, I like when they sing ‘Jingle Bells!’” I announce. It’s really fast. And it’s pretty, too, because the men sing low, and the women sing high. In one part, the men sing a line… “Now the ground is white, Go it while you’re young, Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song; Just get a bobtailed bay, Two forty as his speed, Hitch him to an open sleigh, and crack! You’ll take the lead!” I think it is about a guy who likes a girl, because the men sing it, and they say “take the girls tonight.”

The best part about the “A Victorian Christmas” is that we get to wear make-up. And not just lipstick! We put on, “the works.” The ladies have to put on our make-up for us. (Mom doesn’t know how to put it on.) First they put on foundation. It smells funny. Like sweet medicine. Then they do the blush. They use pink because we are little children. We have to close our eyes. And then they use those “brushy-thingies” on our eyelashes. Sometimes I get tears. They also put red dots near our eyes. It makes our eyes look brighter on stage under the lights.

“You have beautiful skin!” they say, as they slowly apply the eyeliner.

“Don’t ruin it,” they warn.

I wonder how I could ruin my skin.

“What do you mean?” I ask. The two ladies look at each other and smile knowingly.

“Just don’t mess it up.”

I was seven. I didn’t know about pimple scars and the drying effects of cheap make-up.


“The Victorian Christmas” is a musical dinner theatre performed at a local restaurant every two years. Emily’s mom and sister got to be in it last time. This year Emily gets to be in it! She gets to wear make-up, and curlers in her hair, a big white night-gown, and a night-cap. The play is set in the 1800s, and it’s about the Madison Choral Singers, Hiram P. Wilkins, his children: a brother, Emily’s sisters, Emily, and Mrs. Bristol, who’s loud and obnoxious, and an old lady who dances to “Fa La La La La,” (except that she’s not old, they just use make-up to make her look that way), and Mr. Miller, an Amish neighbor, and his grandson Tommy. And a sheep. A real live sheep. And there is beautiful singing. Emily wrote down what each of the songs sound like:

“Jingle Bells” arr. David Willcocks: “This is my favorite. It’s very fun!”

“Jesu, Word of God Incarnate” W. A. Mozart: “This song is kind of sleepy, like a cello.”

“As Lately We Watched” Arr. Charles Black: “This is fast, like wind-shield wipers. And my mommy has a solo!”

“Sons Day Carol” Arr. James McKelvy: “Why can’t they stop saying ‘Holly’?”

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” Gustav Holst: “An old man has a boring solo.”

“He is Born” Arr. David Willcocks: “This is a surprise!”

“Angels We Have Heard on High” Arr. Roger Wagner: “The ladies can sing really high.”

“And the Glory of the Lord” G. F. Handel: “I learned what alto is.”

“Still, Still, Still,” Arr. Norman Luboff: “This is the prettiest, sleepiest, baby Jesus song.”

“The Shepherd’s Carol” William Billings: “We giggle methinks!”

“Deck the Halls” Arr. David Willcocks: “Merry Christmas!”

“Sir Christemas” William Mathias: “It sounds like they drop an organ.”

Emily was ready for dress rehearsal. She had practiced her lines, taken out her curlers, and applied her make-up. Now she was ready to climb the small ladder to the stage loft.

“Okay, children!” Jenny said, “You can go up now.” Emily climbed up with her sisters to the loft.

Since it was just rehearsal, the stage lights were up, and Emily could see out into the audience. Except for a couple of seats, the chairs in the audience were empty. Emily saw one of her friends sitting there with her parents. Emily smiled and waved. Emily’s friend looked surprised, but waved back. Then Emily lowered her hand as she noticed Jenny watching her from stage left.

Dumb! Dumb, Emily!

Emily usually prided herself in following all of the rules. And the first stage rule that everyone learns (in kindergarten, even) is NEVER wave to anyone in the audience! Emily knew it was only rehearsal, and it might not matter, but still. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten the rule.

“Where did you get that?!” Emily lunged at her sister Rachel. Rachel was holding a piece of white bread. She pulled her hand out of Emily’s reach.

“A waitress gave it to me!” Rachel announced, “If you go in the kitchen, you can get some! There’s a lot of it. It’s in a drawer where they keep all the bread. They were giving it to us.”

“I want some!” Emily said.

“Go get some!”

“Will you come with me?” Emily asked shyly.

“No. Get it yourself.”

“But Rachel! I don’t know where anything is! Please come with me.”

“Uhh! No, Emily! I’m not going with you.”

Emily humphed off.

“Hey, Emily,” Rachel said.

Emily turned around.

“When you bite the bread, you can see your lipstick on it. It comes off onto the bread.”

They both laughed.

“Please come with me?” Emily begged again.

“Nope,” Rachel said, as she smiled righteously and walked away.

Emily sighed. She turned around and walked toward the doorway into the special banquet kitchen. She peeked around the corner, but didn’t see anyone. Emily wasn’t sure if she was allowed to be in there or not. No one was in the kitchen. No one was behind her in the backstage area either. The cast was probably practicing in a back room. Should she go in and get the bread?

“Well?!”

Emily jumped when she heard a voice behind her. She turned around. It was Rachel.

“Aren’t you going to get any?”

“Just wait, Rachel!” Emily snapped. She turned her nose in the air and walked straight into the kitchen. Now. Where was the bread?

“It’s over there,” Rachel pointed to a large silver-metal cabinet. Emily really wished Rachel would go away.

“Are we allowed to just help ourselves?” Emily asked.

“I don’t know,” Rachel said as she bit into her own piece again.

Emily glared at her.

Suddenly the waitresses came pouring back into the kitchen.

“Do you want something?” asked a hurried waitress.

Emily started to feel silly. Rachel had made it sound like they were all nice… giving bread to little girls in dress-up costumes.

“Um,” Emily stammered, “My sister got some bread… And I didn’t know…”

“It’s in here,” she said as she opened the drawer of the big metal cabinet. The smell of freshly-made warm bread wafted into Emily’s nose.

“Do you want wheat or white?” the waitress asked mechanically.

“WHITE!” Emily said a little too abruptly. Emily took a piece of white bread and ran out of the kitchen.

She found her sisters and the other two boys backstage. They all had pieces of bread. Emily bit into her piece. She stared at the pink half-circle that her lipstick made on the white bread.

“Look at my lipstick!” Emily announced. Her sisters examined her bread, and they all laughed.

The blue lights came up. Before, Emily and the children were quietly playing in their loft “bed.” Now they leaned over the loft railing,their adorable curls falling in their faces, and sleepily, dreamily, watched the singers prepare for “Still, Still, Still.” The piano began playing softly. The children, as instructed, began to yawn as the lullaby melody was sung. Emily loved this part. She stared out into the blue stage lights and exaggerated several yawns. Soon, she and her sisters and the two boys were laying down on their pillows, their white night-caps visible through the rose-colored railing. The children “slept” as the flurry of stage activity continued.

“What time is it?” Emily anxiously asked her sister Abigail who was lying beside her. Abigail stealthily retrieved the small clip-on watch the girls had previously hidden under the covers.

“It’s almost seven,” Abigail said gravely.

“No!” Emily thought. “I’m going to be to be late!” she whimpered to her bigger sister. Emily had to be rushed off to her elementary school after the performance to make it in time for her school Christmas program. She and two other girls had a special part: a trio, and they were to wear special choir girl outfits. The program began at 7:30, and Emily’s performance was near the beginning. She would never make it on time.

“I’m going to be laaaaate,” Emily began to sob uncontrollably. Her sobs were silent, but she began hiccupping.

“Emily, it will be okay. You’ll make it,” Abigail whispered.

“Nnnnoooo, I wwon’t,” Emily sobbed. She was grateful, though, to her older sister. Abigail had consented to be “the middle man” in the loft, the girl to lay beside the boy who was not their brother. To Emily, that would have been the awfullest of fates.

“Emily, stop crying!” Abigial reasoned, “You have to! Your make-up is starting to run.”

“It is?!” Emily wailed. She began crying even harder.

“Shhh, Emily!”

Emily wiped her eyes on the gray blanket and stared at the flesh-colored residue. She tried to stop crying but couldn’t. This was the worst thing that could happen, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Emily stared at her plate. There was one cherry tomato on the side of her starter salad.

“Do you like cherry tomatoes?” Emily looked up at the actor, Brenda, who took her place beside Emily at the after-banquet.

“Why, yes, I do,” said Brenda.

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well, I was hoping you didn’t,” Emily said, “Because if you didn’t like cherry tomatoes, I was going to eat yours for you.”

Brenda, the actor, laughed.

Emily was excited. She was going to Jenny’s house for “A Victorian Christmas” party! Emily’s family stepped into the warm house that was full of food, festivities, and laughter. Emily’s sister joined the other children, but Emily found herself standing by the big Christmas tree in the front-room. The Christmas lights reflected in the dark windows and on the glossy wood floor. Emily wanted to touch the shiny ornaments, but didn’t.

Some of the actors helped Emily and her sisters get some snacks. They soon settled in with the other children who were watching an animated Disney movie called “Beauty and the Beast.” Tommy and his friend Austin started howling because the Beast took his shirt off. Emily disapproved.