A Different National Anthem?

As a former Baltimorean, I was exposed early to stories of the origin of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It was part of our history lessons starting in elementary school. Later, I got to visit Fort McHenry, a national park on the site of now-obsolete fortifications at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor. In September, 1814, the shelling of this fort by British warships was the inspiration for a Francis Scott Key poem, later set to music and dubbed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” During the day-and-night-long battle, Key had been held as a prisoner of war on one of the British ships. When, the following morning, Key saw the fort’s large flag hoisted at dawn, it meant that the British bombardment had failed to overcome the fort’s defenses. An exultant Key penned three verses of a poem whose first stanza now fills our ears at nearly every sports event or civic celebration. This song was officially designated our national anthem in 1931.

As our country has matured and begun to come to terms with the full complexity of our history, some commentators have pointed out that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best obsolete. It was composed during the War of 1812, when our then-young nation was under attack by a much stronger former colonial overlord. Its third verse, though almost never sung, contains allusions to then-legal slavery, wishing that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” 

Last November, I tried writing for myself a daily series of appreciations of anthems or hymns that have grown to have special meaning for me. One of these is “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (for fellow Unitarian-Universalists, #149 in the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition). This hymn/anthem originated in Florida at the turn of the twentieth century, written by the principal of a segregated school as a poem to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. A tune was later created by the principal’s younger brother. In 1919, the fledgeling NAACP dubbed the piece the “Negro National Anthem,” a dozen years before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our official national song. 

Brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the words and music to “Lift Every Voice,” were upwardly mobile Negroes born a few years after the end of legal slavery in the United States of America. At the time he wrote the lyrics, James Weldon Johnson was principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he and his younger brother had earlier attended school and where their mother taught for many years. J. Rosamond Johnson had studied music at the New England Conservatory and in London. After teaching stints in Jacksonville, both brothers moved to New York City and participated in the flowering of art and music that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. 

The poem was first performed on February 12, 1900, by all 500 or so students at James Weldon Johnson’s school. The musical version that followed spread mainly by word of mouth from school to school. It has become a staple of choirs at historically black colleges and universities, often performed at commencements and other ceremonies. In September 2020, singer Alicia Keys performed it in a prelude to a National Football League game (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=i30SdcfEpSE), partially in response to a series of racially motivated killings and resurgent white nationalism that has transfixed our nation’s attention.  

“Lift Every Voice” was written just as the strictures of Jim Crow were circumscribing the ability of African-Americans to advance. It is as much aspirational as “factual.” A black or mixed choir can often bring a depth of meaning and history to the anthem that those of us who have benefited from white advantage may lack. I have not had to live the trauma of so many who “…have come over a way that with tears has been watered; 

… have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered…” 

though I am gradually learning the extent and persistence of that trauma. 

As debates continue about which parts of our nation’s tangled history get taught, which parts get emphasized and which parts get marginalized, a choice of national anthem sometimes becomes part of the conversation. As a former Baltimorean and Fort McHenry visitor, I know the background of our official national anthem better than most. As a student of America’s broader history, I can also share the story of “Lift Every Voice,” especially with white friends and acquaintances. 

Having spent most of my adult life in the U.S. South, I’ve reluctantly concluded that Americans are unlikely to agree completely on the “true” history of our diverse society.  I doubt it would be wise to entirely replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our nation’s song. Over time, though, we can learn to be more nuanced and inclusive in our presentations. The rousing sentiments of a newly defended nation, as expressed by Francis Scott Key, are laudable, but the enslavement, sweat and toil of the many Key left out or vilified, need to be remembered as well.

Music is a truly universal language, if one with lots of local dialects. Whatever our background or life station, it behooves us to remember to

“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty,
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

January Musings

In January, 2022, media exposure in the part of the U. S. where I now live has tilted toward retrospectives about last January’s U.S. Capitol Riot. Sometimes, even the ongoing covid pandemic gets relegated to second billing. Human-induced climate change can come in third or even lower. Most of the news is bad and can seem overwhelming. Before I get totally overloaded, I temporarily turn off all media outlets and go for a walk in nature. I am fortunate to have this option.   

In January, 2017, I took part in a very different mass event, the January 21 “women’s march global.” According to the British journal The Independent, between 3.3 and 4.6 million people participated in nearly 600 locations within the U.S., making that day’s events the largest domestic protest in U.S. history up to that point. By some estimates, nearly 6 million people protested globally. Over 200 associated events took place on every continent, including Antarctica. 

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,  half a million attendees, mostly women, converged in 2017 for a day of peaceful protests and speeches supporting women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and a variety of other causes. 

In North Carolina, my home then, I participated in a hastily organized Raleigh event which drew about 17,000 people, twice the number that local organizers and police had planned for. This event was also peaceful, with humor, flexibility, even camaraderie between some police officers and marchers.

The size of the January 6, 2021 Washington, D.C. demonstration prior to the Capitol assault has been variously estimated at from several thousand to as many as 20,000. Not all participants in the rally were involved in the subsequent riot. According to an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested so far for their actions at the U.S. Capitol, 93% are white, and 86% are male. (For a more detailed analysis, check the “Chicago Project on Security and Threats,” https://cpost.uchicago.edu.)  

As someone who is comfortable with a female identity, if not with all the restrictions that female identity has sometimes imposed, I’m both curious and concerned about the gender disparities of the 2017 and 2021 events. A half million mostly female demonstrators in Washington in 2017 managed a peaceful protest with no damage and no arrests. Less than a tenth that number of mostly male attendees in 2021 caused multiple deaths, an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol, and over 700 arrests so far. 

As we try to put January, 2021 into perspective and work toward curbing our current pandemics of virus, violence, and climate-changing economics, it should be evident that inflammatory rhetoric and destructive behavior have only worsened them. We have to continue talking and working with each other across our real and perceived divides. We need to find ways to better live out a national motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: “E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.” 

Women who helped organize the 2017 events have not stopped working, but have gotten less visible. We have turned to other avenues in our attempts to support meaningful change. The focus is both local and global. There’s an emphasis on women in the “global south,” who’ve contributed little to current global problems but are disproportionately impacted by the policies of “the industrialized north.” Wherever we live on our planet, it is true that disasters and conflicts disproportionately impact women.

Paying too much attention to the news can be disheartening. Going for a walk helps me regain perspective. I also find solace in some favorite lines of a favorite poet, Marge Piercy’s “The Seven of Pentacles:”

“..[S]he is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.”

True masculinity does not require rioting and destruction. There is ample room for a masculinity that supports equal access to life’s opportunities, that can be strong without being bullying, that does not rely on vilifying an “other” to be validated. 

Perhaps some who are gifted at dismantling cults can work with the men (and women) who were part of the violence on January 6, 2021. Each of us, whatever our gender,  can continue work on our own unique tasks in the global effort to reinforce the mutual vulnerability and solidarity we share on this planet with its over 7 billion temporary human guests. 

Hymn: Now I Recall My Childhood

“Now I Recall My Childhood” (UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition #191; words by Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum Corda)  

“Now I recall my childhood when the sun burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise, faith in the marv’lous bloomed anew each dawn, flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.”

The reminiscence below was started as the first of a series of daily journal entries during the month of November about some of my favorite hymns. It seems appropriate this New Year’s Eve to post it to my blog to “finish up” the strange year just ending. I’m taking a look further back to where I came from before facing forward into the coming, as yet uneventful year.  Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of the words to this hymn (in English translation here), was a poet, writer, and activist from the Indian state of Bengal. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two of his compositions have been adapted as national anthems: India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Shonar Bangla.”  

May all of us have at least some good memories of childhood. May all of us maintain hopes for the future, whatever our stage of life:  

An ear worm of a tune in a hymnal, remembering the joys of childhood—the sun on my face, a smile from a parent, a favorite swing, the wind in my face as spring began. A few darker images, too—a scowling uncle, a bramble patch that scratched my bare legs in summer, an uphill trudge to school. School mornings featured a hurried scramble to get to our elementary school before the Greyhound bus came past, belching diesel.  

I remember playmates, a sandbox, a swing set, a sliding board, some apple trees, a backyard chicken coop. The coop was constructed hastily one spring after my kindergarten classmates offloaded their Easter-gift baby chicks to my former-farmer-father. The cute little fluff balls over time had gotten bigger and grown feathers, outgrowing their initial families’ patience and living quarters. After we’d dispatched the cockerels to the stewpot and installed the laying hens in their expanded coop, it was my job to collect the eggs—a sometimes smelly job, depending on how recently the coop had been cleaned.

I remember a big horse chestnut tree where my dad had flung a long rope for a swing. It was so much more fun that the measly contraption on the store-bought swing set, which would only curve an arc a few feet wide. On the tree swing, I could pump my legs until the arc reached at least ten times higher, or that’s how it seemed to six-year-old me. 

I remember the sweetness of the raspberries my grandfather grew on a hillside behind the housing compound that sheltered my parents, me, my sister, my uncle and aunt, and Pop-pop and Granny. Once we were old enough to save more berries than we ate, my sister and I were given free rein in the berry patch, only occasionally chastised for bringing in half-empty berry containers and ruby-red-stained hands.  

I remember an elementary school building whose lower floors were dark, smelling of a mixture of urine and pine-scented cleaner. I remember Blinka, the cleaning lady, and the long-handled cloth mop she wielded up and down the hallways. 

I remember the elementary school playground, and little boys chanting “I see Paris, I see France, I see sister’s underpants” while we girls practiced dangling upside down, like some of the cartoon monkeys we saw on a neighbor’s TV set on Saturday mornings. 

I remember walks to school a couple of weeks before summer vacation, when the honeysuckle was blooming. I remember the beads of nectar we’d stop to savor just before the one major road crossing, where Mr. O’Casey used his whistle and arm gestures to stop traffic and let us cross. 

I remember the Catholic church and the school building next to it. We didn’t know anyone who went there, but had heard stories about the ruler-wielding nuns, ready to slap your hand if you talked out of turn or didn’t do your homework. I remember church bells ringing for celebrations, weddings, funerals, saints’ days. The most consistent neighborhood sound, though, was the weekly test of the civil defense system, blasting out a pattern on the volunteer fire department’s siren every Friday at noon.

I remember May fairs, with a May court of young girls in frilly dresses—one for each grade. I only played that role once—a first grade alternate pressed into service after the girl we’d voted to be our first choice declined to participate. In preparation for the big event, my mom took me to the beauty parlor to get my usually limp hair tressed into ringlets. She was only slightly mortified when in the excitement of May Day I forgot to take off my hair net before making my princess-ly entrance to “Pomp and Circumstance.” 

I remember snowfalls, some slight, some nearly overwhelming. During the snowiest winter, my preschool twin brothers got snowsuits.  They would jump off the front stoop steps and sink up to their waists. I remember “Pan top” sleds, with handles but no good way to steer. We eventually created ruts enough to guide the things—a sort of primitive luge course.

I remember lullabies, and silly rhyming songs, and bellowing “I’ve been working on the railroad” at the tops of our lungs when returning in the family station wagon after longish car trips. 

I remember sometimes having thought that I’d be even happier when I finally grew up. The growing up part I’m still working on; the happiness part has, more often than not, turned out to be true. 

Hymn: Enter, Rejoice, and Come In

Hymn: “Enter, Rejoice, and Come In” (#361 in UU hymnal, words and music by Louise Ruspini) 

This holiday season here in San Diego is cloudier than the weather we’ve had most of the time since our move here in May. When I first wrote this entry mid-November, we were having a foggy morning. I think of fog as calming, slowing down the pace of life. (Often it also slows the flow of automobile traffic, either through caution or through accident…)  Therefore it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the hymn that came into my mind as the day’s theme was among the “peppiest” of UU hymns. 

This year again we do not have holiday travel plans. Again, we will do our extended family gatherings virtually, wishing for a weakening of the pandemic before next Christmas. At some future time, we’ll have a chance to gather physically, once the infection rate is a lot lower. Perhaps the theme to this hymn can apply to virtual “entries” as well as physical ones:  

“Enter, rejoice, and come in, enter rejoice and come in,
Today will be a joyful day, enter, rejoice and come in.” 

We’re quite fortunate to have the capacity and technical ability to be able to do video conferencing this year. That calls for at least a minimum of rejoicing. 

This hymn about “entering” has a simple set of words, with a lively beat and a lot of repetition. I’ve previously sung it in choirs in several different settings. It typically is used as an “entrance hymn” for festive occasions. This year, it’s festive enough just to be alive and well. 

This Christmas Eve, we’ve just experienced a “real rain,” a somewhat rare event in our lives here so far—over an inch at the gauge I optimistically stationed in our small back yard yesterday. Our part of southern California could use more rain, though drought conditions here have been less severe than further north. The moisture is welcome, especially when some of it comes down gently. A Christmas gift a little early? Another minor cause for rejoicing. 

Postal and email holiday cards from faraway friends have reminded us of the varieties of pandemic responses in different parts of the world—Australian friends have endured six lockdowns so far in the urban center where they live. Yet between surges, they’ve been able to travel some in more rural areas, benefiting from the absence of foreign tourists and the relatively uncrowded conditions. 

This hymn’s second and third verses speak to the different senses we can use in celebration: (2) Open your ears to the song; (3) Open your hearts ev’ryone…

In past years, I’ve sometimes gotten hung up on verse 4: 

“Don’t be afraid of some change, don’t be afraid of some change,
Today will be a joyful day, enter, rejoice and come in.”

This year has seen so much change, some of it intentional, some of it a result of factors and viruses so far beyond anyone’s complete control, that learning to befriend change rather than fear it seems practical advice. 

If there are good antidotes for fear, one of them has to be joy, so the hymn’s words are apt, especially the repetition of welcome in verse 5:

“Enter, rejoice, and come in!”  

May the joy of holiday welcomes, in person or virtual, be with you and yours, wherever and however spread out you may be!  

Hymn: How Can I Keep from Singing

How Can I Keep from Singing  (in Singing the Living Tradition #108, words adapted from Robert Lowry, tune traditional American folksong; during the pandemic, I’ve listened lots of times to a Podd brothers’ version on Youtube:

/watch?v=VLPP3XmYxXg) 

“My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real, though far off hymn, that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging–
It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing”…

As in-person singing has gotten severely curtailed during covid-related lockdowns, I’ve turned more and more often to online sources of music. I don’t have the talent or the patience to participate in a virtual choir, so I’m most grateful to those who have stepped up to fill gaps many of us hadn’t realized we had. 

This song exists with a variety of lyrics, some more Christian-oriented, others more earth-centered. One variation was even used as a protest song during the civil rights era of the 1960’s and 70’s.

The introduction to this version carries the caption: “In times of uncertainty, grief, and isolation, we find strength and joy in making music.”  Before the pandemic hit the New York City area in early 2020 like a ton of bricks, twins Adam and Matt Podd were already experienced musicians and choral directors.  For “How Can I Keep…”, they assembled a group of 140 musicians, both vocal and instrumental. They created a visual and sound collage of the hymn.  

Their virtual rendition was first released on Youtube in May, 2020. Since then it has been viewed over three quarters of a million times. It’s one of the sources of solace I turn to whenever the pandemic seems endless—endless song being a potent antidote.

Each time I watch and listen, I notice new singers and instrumentalists I hadn’t paid attention to in prior views: The trumpeter with the themed t-shirt “Keep Calm and Play On,” the mother-daughter duo featured as two of the first singers after the brothers’ piano introduction, the percussionist carefully watching the video screen to know when to play a part. I notice the interplay of single-frame faces with dual-frame or sometimes quadruple frame images: the Podds at the piano, or a couple of horn players, or a cellist or harpist or drummer. I marvel at the post-performance editing and production that must have gone into creating the finished virtual product. When this pandemic is finally over, my guess is that virtual choirs will lose some of their appeal. The magic of in-person group singing can’t quite be matched virtually. 

Today, December 21, 2021, we in the Northern hemisphere experience the winter solstice. Direct sunlight reaches its furthest point south. We’re partway through a series of the shortest days and longest nights of our year. This winter solstice, we’re reeling from yet another pandemic spike engendered by yet another viral variant—omicron. 

I’m very thankful that music like “How Can I Keep from Singing” continues to help many of us through the darkness, both the physical and the psychological. Though sometimes frightening, dark has redeeming qualities: “songs in the night it giveth.” Thank you to virtual choirs everywhere, and please, keep on singing!   

Meditation/Appreciation of “We Are a Gentle, Angry People”

“We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives…” (#170 in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition)

When I first wrote this entry on November 3, the previous week had been a rough one for someone who wants to be persuaded that humanity is headed in a productive direction for itself and our planet. The U.S. Congress remained mired in deadlock over major infrastructure and social spending bills. A super-restrictive abortion bill had been enacted in Texas and was being challenged at multiple levels. The existing “minority party” had won several elections for state and local offices. Rhetoric on media channels continued to spew forth venom and misinformation. A global summit on climate change seemed mired in controversy, while our weather continued to get more erratic, our glaciers melting, our oceans rising, our forests burning. It was/is easy to feel angry and helpless. (In the weeks since November 3, some heartening changes have occurred, along with continuing and new challenges.) 

So I turned to music, which so often has had the capacity to heal me, to take me someplace better than where I started.  I began humming to myself a song that has often been used in religious services in support of LGBTQ rights: “We Are a Gentle, Angry People,” by Holly Near. I didn’t know a lot about the artist or about the genesis of the song, so I did a bit of internet research and found this Holly quote, transcribed by a concertgoer at one of Holly’s live performances:

“I wrote this song when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated (in 1978). We originally sang ‘we are gay and lesbian together’ but then we were surrounded by the support of allies and so I changed it to ‘we are gay and straight together.’ And now we are learning more and more about gender and sexuality and it now requires many more syllables than I can fit into the song, and so let us now sing ‘we are all in this together.’”

A moving rendition of the song can be found on YouTube as /watch?v=JUAoyE0DFBw, including a description of how the song first came to be sung.

I remember marches and demonstrations for a variety of causes during the 1970’s and 1980’s when we sang songs, either in addition to or rather than chanting slogans. Often, we’d close out with the litany “We Shall Overcome.” 

I wonder if somehow the singing had/has a way of bringing us together, both demonstrators and those being demonstrated about. Could/can we find some way to move forward together despite our many differences, some obvious, others subtle? Might/may it be harder to vilify someone you’ve just shared harmony with?

If the ongoing global covid pandemic is teaching us anything, among the insights is surely the realIzation that indeed, as Holly Near reminds us, we are all in this together. May we continue singing (and/or humming) for our lives.  

Meditation/Appreciation of “Earth Was Given as a Garden”

“Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity; 
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was at a UU music camp a decade or so ago. This paean to our earthly garden echoed a lot of my beliefs about the value of gardens and the importance of caring for our home planet ( hear a rendition of all three verses at YouTube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84). (A later set of words to the same tune also touches some of the same themes: “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer, in later UU hymnal Singing the Journey as #1064, at YouTube.com/watch?v=0XziR3M2wYk). 

The first time I gardened was in childhood, I don’t remember exactly when. One season that sticks in my mind is a dry summer in Maryland in the mid-1950’s. I would have been about eight years old. During this drought, it was my job to water the bell pepper plants in our small hillside garden. A couple of times a week, I would haul a bucket of water uphill from the nearest outdoor spigot and carefully surround each pepper plant with water. My dad had dug a saucer-shaped trench around each pepper so the water would have more chances to soak in, rather than run off.

Later, when our family moved nearby to a larger house with a lot more land, we had a bigger garden, too far away from the house to water. Most years, extra water was not needed. I don’t think I contributed much to this garden, aside from eating the produce. I remember we used to grow corn. Somehow, the homegrown ears tasted sweeter than anything we could buy at the grocery store. Despite the predations of area raccoons, there was nearly always enough for a few delicious corn-on-the-cob meals. 

We also grew tomatoes. The red fruits were a bone of contention between human eaters and the local turtle population. Nearly every year, we’d find at least a couple of ripe tomatoes with substantial chunks eaten out of them. Actually, we didn’t mind the turtles’ inroads too much. Having turtles in the tomato patch made it easier to find a competitor for that year’s 4th of July turtle race—a neighborhood tradition. For several weeks before the 4th, we kids were busy scouting out turtles and putting them into temporary quarters in cardboard boxes or somewhat more formal animal cages. We’d feed them lettuce and vegetable table scraps and try to “train” them so they’d be in top form for the race.

When the big event came, around noon at the neighborhood picnic, we’d carefully place each turtle under the bushel basket “starting gate” at the center of a roped-off circle. We’d whisper some final words of encouragement, then step back behind the rope circle to cheer our turtle on. Most turtles snoozed through the race, but each year produced a winner—at least one turtle valiantly lumbered toward his/her former remembered home in the tomato patch.   

The year my new husband and I moved from a series of urban environments to Vermont in a somewhat misguided attempt to “return to the land,” I became a part-time adult gardener. We purchased a small house on a wedge-shaped lot in the state’s capital city, Montpelier. Because we moved in November, it was a half year or so before I could put seeds into the ground. I did start some tomatoes indoors—local lore suggested beginning seedlings on “town meeting day,” a set date in March when all Vermont’s towns held local meetings. My seedlings were anemic and spindly. Later, once the danger of frost was mostly past, I replaced my homegrown efforts with hardier young plants from the local garden shop.  

In Vermont, I was able to grow cool weather crops that did not thrive in Maryland when I was growing up—romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a strange shaped brassica called kohlrabi. When my in-laws paid a visit in late summer, I proudly cooked them some homegrown kohlrabi. Afterwards, I belatedly learned that it was one of my father-in-law’s least favorite vegetables. While living with his mom and siblings on a friend’s Midwestern farm during the waning days of World War I, he’d been fed an overabundance of kohlrabi and had sworn off them for the rest of his life. Kohlrabis look like something out of a sci-fi movie—central orbs with little leafy projections sticking out of them. I was not sorry to have experimented with them. I just needed to remember never to serve them to my father-in-law again. 

Our experiment in Vermont living did not last long enough for me to become a very adept northern gardener, but it did whet my appetite for further garden attempts. Our next move, to Richmond, Virginia, included an initial stint of apartment living that did not foster gardening. However,  when we purchased a house with a yard, I was off to the races. The first chore was removing the growth of wild clematis that had vined its way across the back yard. Next came turning the hard soil and deciding what to plant. Tomatoes for sure. Maybe some corn. Peas, carrots, lettuce, scallions, onions, beans, eggplant, and one year, potatoes. My early harvests rarely made much of a dent in our grocery bill, but digging and hoeing and weeding the garden helped me let off steam, forestalling the escalation of many a family fight.    

Partway through our Richmond stay, I wandered further afield—to sub-Saharan Africa for a two-year stint in a Peace-corps-like program. Our younger son Scott and I lived in half of a small duplex at the edge of the United Nations housing complex in the small city of Bujumbura, Burundi. The climate there was much different from any I’d encountered before. Although day length and temperatures varied only a little during the year, the rainfall changes were stark. From May to September or October, it rarely rained at all. Maybe a brief occasional shower, but basically nothing. People who had vegetable gardens either watered them or arranged for anything to be dormant during this “long dry season.”  A smattering of  planting began in advance of the “short rainy season” that typically ran from late September until mid-December, when there could be a harvest of sorts. A “short dry season” in late December and January allowed us expats from Europe and North America several storm-free weeks in which to fly home for the winter holidays with our non-expat relatives. Then it was time to plant in earnest—the “long rainy season” was when most foodstuffs were grown. Staples like manioc, corn, and beans, plus fodder for the cattle and other ruminants, enough to last through the long dry season until pasturage again became available with the short rains. 

I tried growing beans and peas on trellises outside out kitchen door. They were kind of straggly, but I think we may have gotten a couple of meals’ worth. They certainly did little to replace our need for the town market, where our housekeeper bargained for most of our food. During my two-year stint, I learned a little about the predominantly rural, agrarian economy of Burundi. Population pressures were immense, so a diet based mostly on beans, corn, and manioc made much more sense than the western meat-heavy diet I’d been accustomed to before. 

Once back in Richmond, I refined my techniques. Eventually I was able to produce enough vegetables to reduce the carping from other family members about my “less-than-minimum-wage” work. 

“Besides,” I told them, “it’s a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.”  

Then, about the time the younger generation was ready to fly the nest, we moved to a larger house with a huge yard containing a level, sunny spot just perfect for gardening. Over time, I got better at outwitting the bunnies and squirrels. We eventually had lettuces, onions, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, and a little corn. One year I experimented with popcorn—fun, but not all that practical, given the cheaply available store brands. 

The year we put the house up for sale, I went all out in spring planting. Maybe the well-ordered rows of lettuce, scallions and spinach encouraged the eventual buyers, who were also avid gardeners. The following year, my empty-nester husband and I lived in a northwestern Chinese desert. I tried windowsill gardening. Basil grew well with some pampering and watering. Our several other jaunts in China were either too brief or too busy to allow for a real garden. However, I reveled in the variety of produce available in the “garden province”  of Sichuan, where I spent over a year in total during the course of the next five years. 

Now I live in southern California, a climate best described in an earlier environmental book as a “Cadillac desert.” We have long, long dry seasons. If we are lucky, we get enough cool weather rains to green the hills a bit in January and February. I heard recently that some early fall rains this year had been unexpectedly generous, filling some of our parched reservoirs from a third to nearly half full. Still, not enough moisture to break a lingering multi-year drought. I’m studying rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, mulching, and other water conservation techniques. Learning to live in harmony with this climate will make for an interesting, challenging gardening year.   

A Hymn-Inspired Variation on NaNoWriMo

As November 1, 2021 approached, I was intrigued by the concept of writing something special during the month of November. I wasn’t quite read to jump into an effort dubbed “NaNoWriMo,” or “national novel writing month,” now part of a global non-profit effort to encourage creative writing. I was aware that I don’t at this point have a novel in me. However, the discipline of writing something every day was appealing. 

After looking over my bulging bookcase, I decided that I’d try for a few days to write a daily appreciation of a favorite hymn and see where that effort took me. It resulted in 30 short to medium length essays, some fit for blog publication. I’ve included the complete hymn list at the end of this piece. Perhaps a few of my favorite hymns may speak to you as well.  

One of the aspects of social life that I’ve missed most during the pandemic is the practice of group singing, especially of choral singing in religious services. As the season of holiday choirs and caroling approaches, I miss this practice even more. So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some additional “hymn appreciations” to the “Spiritual musings” thread of this blog. Where possible, I’ll include a link to an earlier example of an in-person choir performing the hymn, or to a pandemic-induced “virtual choir” performing. Best holiday wishes to all, and please, keep singing!   

As an introduction, I’ve penned a parody of a tune you may recognize, apologies to “The Sound of Music”…

Coolinge, Mandela, and Scots-English folk songs,
“Nothing but Peace,” tunes for righting of past wrongs,
Melodies passed down through thick and through thin,
These are some tunes to my favorite hymns.

Masten, and Jim Scott, and Denham and Câpek,
Writing last century on multiple topics,
Tunes and words wistful, or teeming with vim–
These authors crafted some favorite hymns.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “Climb Jacob’s Ladder,”
“We’ll Build a Land” with room for children’s laughter,
“Gather the Spirit” with fife or with drums,
These are a few of my favorite hymns.

In pandemics, when I’m lonely, when life seems too grim,
I simply locate real or virtual choirs, and belt out a favorite hymn.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

List of hymns profiled in November, 2021 writings; hymns included in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition:

Now I Recall My Childhood #191, words Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum
Corda
Earth Was Given as a Garden #207, words Roberta Bard, tune Hyfrydol
We Are a Gentle, Angry People #170, words and music Holly Near
Wake Now, My Senses #298, words T.J.S. Mikelson, tune Slane (Irish melody)
How Can I Keep from Singing #108, variation of Quaker hymn, tune traditional
Bright Morning Stars Are Rising #357, words anonymous, tune American folk
song
Nothing But Peace Is Enough #167, words and music Jim Scott

Seek Not Afar for Beauty #77, words M.J. Savage, tune Coolinge
Faith of the Larger Liberty #287, words V.B. Silliman, tune Bit Freuden Zart
Love Will Guide Us #131, words Sally Rogers, tune Olympia
One More Step #168, words and music Joyce Poley
Turn Back #120, words Clifford Bax; and Here We Have Gathered #360, words
Alicia Carpenter; tune Old 124th from 1543 Genevan Psalter
Sleep, My Child #409, words adapted Alicia Carpenter, tune Ar Had Y Nos
Blessed Spirit of My Life #86, words and music Shelley Jackson Denham

For All That Is Our Life #128, words Bruce Findlow, tune Sherman Island
Enter, Rejoice, and Come In #361, words and music Louise Ruspini
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit #8, words and music Norbert Câpek
Every Time I Feel the Spirit #208, African-American spiritual
We Sing Now Together #67, words E.T. Buehrer, tune arr. Edward Kremser
Let It Be a Dance #311, words and music Richard Masten
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing #149, words James Weldon Johnson, music
J.Rosamond Johnson, dubbed by the NAACP as the Negro National Anthem

Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire #34, words Hal Hopson, and Surprised by
Joy #410 words Eric Routley; traditional Scottish or English folk tune
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free #151, words and music Billy Taylor
and Dick Dallas, tune called “Mandela”
We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder #211, African-American spiritual and We Are
Dancing Sarah’s Circle #212, words by Carole A. Etzler
We’ll Build a Land #121m words by Barbara Zanotti, music Carolyn McDade
Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter #51, words Kendyl L.R. Gibbons, music David
Hurd
There Is More Love Somewhere #95, African American hymn, tune Biko
Light One Candle #221, words and music by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and
Mary)

Gather the Spirit #347, words and music Jim Scott
I Know This Rose Will Open #396, words and music Mary Grigolia

 

 

 

Meditation/Appreciation of Hymn “Light One Candle”

(#221 in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah happens about this time each year. It’s a minor Jewish festival compared to the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which typically occur in September or early October.  However, because of its calendar proximity to Christmas, in many Western countries the holiday has been adapted to include some Christmas-like traditions. Even some non-Jews make respectful references to Hanukkah.  

Hymn 221 is the first of three hymns in the UU hymnal for the Hanukkah season. It’s somewhat contemporary, having been composed in the early 1980’s by Peter Yarrow, member of the former folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. I probably first heard Peter Yarrow when he, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers performed the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. As I grew up and later attended college, songs sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary became part of the soundtrack of my cohort.

This hymn begins with a reference to the Maccabees, a Jewish sect in Palestine during the 2nd century B.C. Depending on which sources you reference, the Maccabees may have been dedicated and self-sacrificing revolutionaries fighting an arrogant Syrian conqueror, or religious bigots bent on enforcing their narrow interpretation of Jewish law, or some combination of the two. Religious observances by Jews of that era ranged along a continuum that placed mostly rural more traditional Jews near one end of the spectrum and urbanized/Hellenized Jews near the other. Sounds vaguely familiar. 

The story most of us hear about the Maccabees is that they reconstructed and then rededicated the main temple in Jerusalem after it had been converted for Hellenistic worship. They wanted to celebrate the temple’s rededication using sacred oil, but had only enough for a single day. Miraculously, this oil lasted eight days, enough time for the worshippers to obtain a further supply. Modern Hanukkah celebrations often use a candelabrum called a menorah, with a central candle and eight surrounding candles, one for each of the eight days that the sacred oil lasted. 

Yarrow, of Jewish background if not active religious practice, asks us first to “light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.” As the verse continues, it gets more generic: “Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.” Then it offers something of a sop: “But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” 

The second verse offers more reasons to light candles; the third asks mostly rhetorical questions about why to light the candles at all:

“What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?

What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?

Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?”

And then the zinger:

“This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.” 

All three verses share a rousing chorus:

“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.

Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.” 

Several performances of the hymn have been posted to YouTube, among them a 1988 holiday concert the trio performed with backup chorus, which you may find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ.  

I had an idealized impression of Peter, Paul, and Mary, so was dismayed to learn when I researched this piece that Peter had much earlier been convicted of taking “indecent liberties with a minor” in 1970 and had served three months in jail. He later got a presidential pardon as Jimmy Carter left office. A legal case has recently been filed accusing Yarrow of a different incident in 1969. 

In typical human fashion, I find it harder to deal with immoral behavior on the part of people I generally hold in high esteem. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of tribalism, condemning bad behavior by those of a different political persuasion or religious denomination while trying to excuse or rationalize such behavior by those I consider “my team.” From what little I can tell, Yarrow is repentant, reformed, and perhaps at age 83 somewhat hazy on what did or did not happen back in 1969. He still performs occasionally with grown daughter Bethany and/or grown son Christopher. Perhaps Carter was wise to realize how far short of the glory of God all of us can fall at times. 

This year’s Hannukah celebration will end well before Christmas, but it’s after Thanksgiving already. Home dwellers, commercial establishments, and religious sites are gradually festooning their venues with candles and lights. 

Because of the part of a time zone I now live in, physical darkness comes early in the evening this time of year. Not a big fan of the dark, I’m counting the days and minutes until our evening light eventually starts lengthening again. In the meantime, I can enjoy illuminated walks in our neighborhood, thrilling to the lights from many more than one candle. 

Now can seem a dark psychological time in our collective history as well, tinged by a pandemic, civil unrest, intermittent resource shortages, and a variety of societal ills. Through it all, may I remember to keep my own candle burning. Please trim and tend yours, too!    

Meditation on “Blessed Spirit of My Life”

(#86 in Unitarian-Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition

Today, November 14, 2021, would have been my sister Sally’s 70th birthday. She died a bit more than 13 months shy of it. For the final few years of her life, she was a sometime attendee at a UU fellowship in Gettysburg, PA, about a 20 mile commute from her rural Maryland farm. For the final several months of her life, once the covid pandemic started causing shutdowns and panic, Sal phoned me regularly on Sunday evenings. We’d catch up on the week’s events, and reassure each other that both of us were still alive. We didn’t discuss religion much. Sal did say that the Gettysburg church was not an ideal match for her, but the closest connection she’d found for her evolving beliefs. Both of us had been raised primarily in an Episcopal congregation. We relished many of its ceremonies and much of its music, if not always its doctrines. 

I did not attend Sal’s memorial service, held at her White Rose Farm on a beautiful autumn day. The timing coincided with the first day of early voting in North Carolina, where I then lived and participated as an election official. I was pretty sure Sally would forgive me for prioritizing election work in an exceedingly fraught year. Family members who were at the service said they were pretty sure that some of the Gettysburg UU’s showed up, and that several had been regular volunteers for the agricultural education project that Sal ran a couple of days a week.

The pandemic was hard on Sal, both financially and emotionally. It cut off much of the income she’d derived from renting out an auxiliary house on the farm as an airbnb retreat. It made conducting her educational events both less income-producing and more stressful—requiring sanitizing protocols, masking, and distancing beyond what would have been the case pre-pandemic. 

The Sunday before Sally died, she phoned earlier in the evening than typical and didn’t sound well. My husband and I were in the car, returning home after getting that year’s flu shots (a covid vaccine was still several months into the future). 

“I’ve been through a rough patch,” Sal said without elaboration, “but I think I’m getting better.” 

“Do you want me to come up?” I said, somewhat grudgingly making mental notes of how I’d arrange an interstate trip during a pandemic and how I’d get hubby primed to take care of himself solo for several days.

“No,” she said. “Talk with you next week.” 

Next Sunday was too late. A friend of hers, an alternative medicine practitioner with whom she’d made an appointment she didn’t keep, found Sally dead in the living room of her farmhouse that Friday afternoon. As best we can tell, she suffered a fatal heart attack or stroke sometime during the night of Thursday-Friday or early on Friday morning. 

It took a while this morning before I picked out what I hope is an appropriate “hymn for Sally.” It was composed by one of the few UU musicians I’ve had a chance to meet in person—Shelley Jackson Denham. I thought I’d heard somewhere that Jackson Denham had died too early as well. It took several rounds of internet sleuthing to validate that this hymn writer and musician born in 1950, a year before my sister, had indeed left us physically. Shelley had succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 2013, several months after the sudden death of her husband. It must have been shortly before then that I’d attended a music workshop where Shelley was a co-presenter. Several singers from our choir had carpooled to The Mountain, a UU conference center in western North Carolina. We’d spent most of a week singing and reveling in the community-building power of music, which seemed also to be a tenet of Shelley’s faith. 

I like to think of both Shelley and Sally participating in a celestial choir somewhere and creating community with this Shelley hymn: 

“Blessed Spirit of my life, give me strength through stress and strife,
Help me live with dignity; let me know serenity.
Fill me with a vision, clear my mind of fear and confusion.
When my thoughts flow restlessly, let peace find a home in me.

Spirit of great mystery, hear the still, small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion, be the source of my intuition.
Then, when life is done for me, let love be my legacy.”

May you both rest well, Shelley and Sally, and may we honor and live up to your legacies.