Modernism Monday: “Overcome,” Laura Mvula, ft. Nile Rodgers

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I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: who do I want to be?  What are the facets of myself?  Woman, American, tall, professional…what else?  And which on that long list of identifiers has been chosen for me?  And which do I actually want to keep as my own?

A friend of mine in high school made me a pin, that I still have to this day, that says “Self-described and self-defined.”  What perfect freedom there is in that; and, also, risk of isolation.  The bravest people I know are those who actively, consciously, deliberately sculpt out their own lives.  People who listen to themselves and select (or create) a path forward, who hew closely to their own truth.  Those are my heroes.

“Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.”  — Ralph Waldo Emerson

____

When your heart is broken down
And your head don’t reach the sky
Take your broken wings and fly

When your head is heavy, low
And the tears they keep falling
Take your broken feet and run

With the world upon your shoulders
Nowhere left to hide
Keep your head up carry on

It ain’t no time to die
Even though we suffer
Come together we pray

Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children
All God’s children run round the mountain run
Round the mountain all God’s children run

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Sacred Sunday: “As One Who Has Slept,” John Tavener

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Today, in the Christian tradition, is one of the last significant days in the liturgical calendar before Ash Wednesday: Transfiguration Sunday.  This day marks the occasion that Jesus transfigured, or metamorphosed, before his disciples – upon summiting the top of a mountain, Jesus’s face and clothes shone with a white light.  While emanating this heavenly brilliance, Jesus is seen to speak with the prophets Elijah and Moses, both long since dead, about the upcoming final months of his life.  Peter asks whether he and the others should prepare three shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  But before he finishes, the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”.  Elijah and Moses disappear.

This story is important for a few reasons.  First, it identifies Jesus as the proxy of God on earth – the people’s judge, savior, and direct link with the divine.  Second, it previews the resurrection – of Jesus himself, and of all who believe in him.  But I love this story for another reason: I love it because of the achingly human motivation behind Peter’s question.  He acts as anyone who has experienced something transformative would act: they want to freeze time.  Sailing right past the fact that Elijah and Moses are very, very dead, Peter wants to set up camp for them (They’re here now, aren’t they?).  He wants to keep them there.  This is, of course, impossible.  But, God love him for trying.

We take two-dimensional pictures of landscapes, of people, to capture their three-dimensional physicality, and the multi-dimensional feelings we felt upon seeing them.  We tattoo our skin to immortalize a meaningful time in our lives.  Even though we know, as Peter must have rationally known, it isn’t possible to suspend time and trap a moment, or a person, or a ghost, still we can’t help ourselves from trying.  The promise of Jesus is that he will connect us to the eternal.  One day, we will be able to relive these moments.  One day, we will be able to never be without someone again.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which leads to the retelling of the crucifixion narrative, and then onward to glorious, redemptive Easter.  I am approaching this season of Lent with more dread than in other years because I know that, this year, I have more of Peter in me than I’ve had before.  I lost a very close friend and mentor to cancer last year – my choir director.  His death comprehensively hollowed out church and sacred music, and though I have continued singing, nevertheless, that hole is still there.  And so, half of me expects his resurrection at Easter.  It’s a bafflingly irrational feeling but I can’t help myself from envisioning him conducting the timpani and brass quartet ornamenting “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” as we all process in, and completely accepting that he’s there.  “Oh, hey – Ben’s not dead!” would be as easy to say as “Oh, hey – Ben made it back from vacation in time for the service!”  The other half of me – the sane half – knows that Easter will bring back so many happy memories, now bittersweet, that it will feel like Ben is, in fact, there in spirit.  I will want to freeze that feeling.

That, of course, will be impossible.  But, God will love me for trying.

Tavener’s piece comes from the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday: “As one who has slept, the Lord has risen; and rising, he has saved us.  Alleluia.”

Worldly Wednesday: “Smeorach Chlann Domhnaill,” Julie Fowlis

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Clan Donald (also known as MacDonald), hails from the western islands of Scotland, and counts Finlaggan Castle on Islay as its seat.  The clan dates back to the 12th century and became one of the most powerful of the Highland clans in Scotland.  In this folk song, the singer praises Scotland and calls it a land of “heroes and poets,” beautiful nature, and skilled warriors.  The singer ends with his hopes that Sir James MacDonald returns from fighting for the Stuarts at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

The Battle of Worcester was the last great battle during the English Civil Wars that pitted Oliver Cromwell and his 30,000-strong army against Charles the II’s 16,000 men, mostly made up of Scotsmen. Although handily defeated by Cromwell, Charles II took back the throne in 1660 and thus began what would become known as the Restoration.

 

Hooray learning!

Hooray learning!

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: “Northern Lights,” Ola Gjeilo

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Here in D.C., we sit in breathless, panicky expectation of a whammy of a snowstorm.  It’s been a while since we’ve gotten some serious snow, so we are all tremendously excited and choosing to express our excitement through stock-piling essentials like steamer clams, green tea mochi, and cheese doodles…and then forgetting things like toilet paper and granola.  But we got a little taste of the coming storm last night when thick, pebble-sized flakes of snow started drifting down after dark.  I shuffled home through the gentle snowfall and stood under a streetlamp for a minute.  The snow was beautiful.

Everything is quieter in snow.  Snow muffles sound – car wheels, human feet- and in so doing encourages us to keep silent.  Snow is the only weather event I can think of that makes no sound.  You can hear wind, rain, hail, sleet…but you can’t hear snow.  You’re one sense down, which naturally heightens all other senses to compensate.  And we can’t help but plug that gap with our own, very personal, feelings.  All of a sudden you want to relieve your childhood through sledding, or be a better neighbor through keeping an eye out for the homeless and getting them to shelters, or dive deep into spirituality and mysticism for which silently falling snow provides a natural backdrop.

But, there comes a point in every snowy day when you huddle for warmth and feel very much like the animal you truly are – an animal that is grateful for some shelter, and a moment of stillness in which to contemplate nature’s terrible, sacred beauty.  This is what Gjeilo’s staggeringly lovely choral piece was written to celebrate.

Pulchra es amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem,
terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata.
Averte oculos tuos a me
quia ipsi me avolare fecerunt.

Thou art beautiful, O my love,
sweet and comely as Jerusalem,
terrible as an army set in array.
Turn away thine eyes from me,
for they have made me flee away.

 

Worldly Wednesday: “Wondering, feat. CAPS,” Yotto

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In keeping with this week’s apparent (and accidental) Scandinavian theme, today we travel from Sweden to its erstwhile east wing, Finland.

Finland is a really neat country, a land of 5.5 million passionate and brooding people who all know how to tango.  This track, from Finland’s most exciting young electronic musician, Otto Yliperttula – aka, Yotto, is all about passionate and brooding.  Yotto specializes in deep house music and last spring joined the highly respectable house label, Anjunadeep.  Though he has arguably more popular tracks, this one is my favorite.  When the beat drops at 4:48, it’s like merging onto an empty Autobahn in an exquisitely sleek sports car. 

Modernism Monday: “Que Sera Sera,” Sly & The Family Stone

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I am white woman who grew up in a series of small, almost entirely white towns.  I attended a homogenous high school and a pretty homogenous college.  My childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, was black, but maybe because he was only about two inches tall on his baseball cards, it never occurred to me that he was a difference race.  I just didn’t see it.  This isn’t a case of charming “race blindness” that we all hope little kids have.  It was a stereotypical case of a small brain rationalizing new information in its own little limited context.

The first time I truly understood there were different people in the world wasn’t because I met them in person – that came later – but because I heard them.  Sly & The Family Stone’s calmly resigned, melancholy version of the Doris Day’s chipper “Que Sera Sera” was an undeniable clue that my worldview was an exception to the norm.  Doris’s “Que Sera Sera” was indefatigably hopeful because it was founded on the certainty that it was the way of her world for things to work out for the best.  As I was the white daughter of two upper middle class parents, living in a safe neighborhood, the “whatever” that “will be” in my life, too, was pretty much guaranteed to be one of a selection of good options.  I hated Doris’s song because it was too treacly, not because it wasn’t true.

Doris Day’s version came out in 1948, three years after America had emerged victorious from World War II with a strong economy.  Things were on the up and up.  1948 also marked two fundamental milestones for civil rights.  In February, Truman sent a letter to Congress on the issue of the rights of African Americans, the first sitting president in history to address the issue.  His letter recognized cracks in the social contract that had been there for centuries:

“Today, the American people enjoy more freedom and opportunity than ever before. Never in our history has there been better reason to hope for the complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.  We shall not, however, finally achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers.  Unfortunately, there still are examples—flagrant examples—of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.”

And, five months later, Truman  signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces – in the face of overwhelming criticism from the various service secretaries.

The following year, the number of lynchings went up.

In Doris Day’s America, there was already “complete realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.”  In the entire United States of America, however, not so much.  Twenty years and the birth of a movement later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated, riots would set major cities on fire throughout the country, and finally, public schools would begin to de-segregate.  So in 1973, when Sly & The Family Stone reinterpreted Day’s message, it really wasn’t all that clear what the future would hold for all Americans.  Would the country realize that it was fragmented into different pockets of affluence, poverty, and luck?  Would it care?  Who would help whom, and how?  Would Dr. King’s message reach anyone anymore, or would he become a sentimentalized figurehead wheeled out every year so white people could express politically correct devotion to the idea of equality?

In 2008 when America elected its first black president, many announced that we were now living in a “post-racial America.”  On the contrary: we have spent the last seven years grappling with why this still isn’t true.

In King’s words, “Whatever you do, you have to keep moving forwards.”  Given we truly do have the power to collectively change our environments, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to spend today in acts of service, yes, but also imagining what about the country we would want to change.  Consider how we would unify the country that still remains a loose collection of affluence, poverty, and luck.  And then, tomorrow, start moving forwards.

 

Modernism Monday: “Rise,” David Guetta feat. Skylar Grey

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So, most of last week was spent in what we call “an exercise.” It simulated an invasion scenario and my job was to monitor how the Blue team (aka “the good guys”) defended their country against the Red team (aka “those rat bastards”) – and then see whether there were ways to make it more interesting. It was about as much fun as you can ever get paid to have, and it was absolutely exhilarating, exhausting fun. The stress of the whole week, though, was also oddly exhilarating, and it served to remind me that, unfortunately, I am often the best captain of my ship in a gale.

Back when I worked on a boat for a summer, the single-most valuable thing I learned was that the only way to safely steer through rough water is to point the prow of the ship directly into the oncoming waves and hold steady. It turned out that, for some reason, of all the people working on that ship, I was the most skilled at this. We sailed through three major storms and I was at the helm for each. During one such time, the waves were so high that, as we crested them, the schooner’s wooden underbelly rose out of the water before gravity and momentum tipped the shrieking vessel downwards to meet the oncoming surge. The memory of the force with which that little 88′ schooner slammed into the waves remains in my bones. So, too, does the astonishment that we didn’t become a mass of floating splinters.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily a person of extremes, and I don’t think I actively look for rough waters. But as my spiritual advisor, Dorothy Parker, put is, “They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.” Fare forward, voyager.