Sunday, May 21, 2017

Not Your Grandma's Choir


Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, 
flight to the imagination and life to everything. — Plato

Of all the things I've done in life, singing in a choir has been the most satisfying. I've sung in many choirs, under directors/conductors of all abilities, covering all styles, from classical oratorios, to broadway, opera, and contemporary and most everything in between. I've been challenged, I've been bored, but mostly I've just been happy to sing.

I've directed three different adult choirs--one for six years--and various ensembles, youth and children's choirs. But I enjoy singing most of all. And the music I most enjoy singing are songs of testimony, encouragement, eternal truth, and transcendent songs of adoration to our great God. These renew my mind, my spirit and my hope, get my eyes off the "waves and wind" and onto the Solid Rock.

Oh, sure, it's nice to think of the days when I've done solos, and though that's an earthly honour, it's still not as soul-satisfying as raising the roof and dancing in my home church with thousands while we celebrate victory in Jesus.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane 
by those who could not hear the music.  — F. Nietzsche

We wrapped up our church choir season today. While it's nice to have a break from the weekly rehearsals, I know I'll miss the music soon and will start counting down to September's start-up. Even more, I will miss the choir family--these beautiful souls all making beautiful music together, praying together and serving in humility with genuine joy.

It's an honour to harmonize with them about things that will still matter an eternity from now. I am so grateful for this gift.

Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music
is the greatest treasure in the world. 
— Martin Luther


Photo 1: Screenshot of First Alliance Church Choir from weekend service live-stream, May 21, 2017.
Photo 2: Saviour Oratorio, performed with NWSC, photo by Greg McCombs, April 12, 2017.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Preaching is Easy but Practicing is Hard



I am the daughter of a preacher man who was also a mechanic, a poet, a musician and inventor. There's much more, but the story of my relationship with him (as I saw it and how it continues to impact me) would take an entire memoir to explore. This is not unique among daughters, but I must work out of my own experience, gleaning what is helpful and leaving the rest. Here's one piece.

After our father's death in 2002, my oldest brother began the process of gathering dad's poems for publication. Due to a series of unfortunate events, it became increasingly clear that it would not be possible to publish these in a traditional book format, so I agreed to post them online in blog format where they would be accessible and searchable by keywords to anyone from anywhere at no cost.

I started transcribing and posting them in 2014 but soon set the project aside. Out of sight, out of mind. Recently, I'd been praying about how to meaningfully and productively focus my time, now that both my husband and I are retired and home "full time." One day my nephew, Ted, contacted me about a particular song my father wrote, and asked whether the publishing project was finished. That was the motivation I needed to resurrect the project, so over the last month I have been back at it.

Why was it a struggle to do the work? This question bugged me for some time. It really doesn't take long to type out a 4-8 verse poem. It would often take longer to pick out a suitable photo to go with it and to format the text for publication. When I finally realized what the reason was, it was something I didn't expect: the toll it took on my emotions. Being a poet myself, I had to curb my desire to change dad's punctuation, style and/or word choice. I much prefer free verse over metered rhyme, which was my father's primary style. There are also a few lines which I would rather edit or delete; ones which I might not necessarily agree with, ones that reflect his opinion, or discuss the cultural norms and traditional roles of men, women and children the '50s and '60s. I have refrained from doing so, as these are his poems, not mine.

Many of these poems were songs we sang as a family during our 18 years of touring. Some are tied to particular memories, not always joyful. On occasion, a particular poem will send me back in time and I felt like a child again, receiving my father's training, instruction and/or reproof; regarding things I sometimes rebelled against (inwardly) at that time. These feelings would begin to rise again. My father was human and had eight children in tow. Sometimes it was hard for him to keep us in line. Sometimes his poems felt like sermons, like dad was trying to get me to stay in line.

The penny finally dropped. When I read and transcribed my father's poems, it felt like my father was preaching at me all over again, even after being gone for 15 years.

In reality, it wasn't that at all. He was probably about the age I am now when he wrote many of the poems. As I thought it through and prayed it over, I realized in his poems he was actually preaching at himself. He, like I, struggled with submission to God's will, with authenticity, with making life, faith and conduct align. He was immensely challenged by the trials he experienced: the loss of a son, rejection by certain friends and family members, a church split, controlling his temper, providing for his family, facing the challenges of the changing culture and yet, he also modelled his spiritual poems after the psalmist, often ending them with a declaration of trust in God's faithfulness, goodness, and sovereignty.

So today, as I transcribed another poem, I was reminded that the one true thing I know about my father is that he was resolved to do God's will, and he sincerely did what he determined in his heart (after prayer and soul-searching) seemed to be the right and most God-honoring thing to do. Did Dad always get it right? Likely not. Will I? Definitely not. He preached easy, he practiced hard. I am my father's daughter, I am much the same.

So, I'll leave you with today's poem, one that illustrates how preaching is easy but practicing is hard. The key to peace in the middle of it all? Accepting God's will. This poem can be either preaching or prayer, depending on the day.

Click here to read: Accepting His Will



Photo Credit: Deposit Photos #13157334, standard license

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Re-membering Saviour: The Story of God's Passion for His People

First Alliance Church Choir and Orchestra with New West Symphony and Chorus
Directed by David Klob and Humberto Vargas
April 12, 2017 - Calgary, Alberta, Canada


Last evening was the second of two concerts of the oratorio work, “Saviour: The Story of God’s Passion for His People” by First Alliance Church Choir and Orchestra with the New West Symphony and Chorus. It was one of those events that becomes a lifelong memory, filled with transcendent music and the over-arching themes of God's love, mercy and faithfulness in the face of human rebellion, alienation and sin.

An event like this engages over 140 musicians and technicians coming together to deliver a profound and satisfying project with excellence and joy. The 1,500+ people who listen from the auditorium also enter in, creating a sense of unity and ensemble which I have not yet seen duplicated in any other forum. The lobby remains crowded for a long time after the concert; people lingering, visiting, in no rush to end the evening, communing with friends and sharing our individual impressions and experience from this worship experience.

Another musician on the west coast, singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends, shared a comment on her Facebook page from someone who attended one of her concerts this week, and it echoes what I saw happening for us last night. His feedback was, “Thank you. That was so connecting. I came here scattered - just disconnected from running around doing work and life - and now I'm leaving here integrated again.”

We left as an integrated whole last evening. We were many individuals coming together, and though each one of us had our own voice, our own part, and they were all different – together we were unified in harmony. As Ephesians 4:3 urges, we worked diligently over three months of preparation and during two performances to “keep the harmony of The Spirit in the bonds of peace.”

Ann Voskamp reminds us of a deeper truth that comes when we unite in worship of our Lord: that our “dismembered” and scattered parts are actually “re-membered” and made whole again.

“…all the brokenness in the world begins with the act of forgetting — forgetting that God is enough, forgetting that what He gives is good enough, forgetting that there is always more than enough to give thanks for. “

She goes on to remind us though we forget, though we're prone to chronic soul amnesia, God never forgets us, never abandons us, never gives up on us. He has written us, our very names, on the palm of his hands, written even me right into himself -- though we forget, God re-members us, puts us and the broken bits and members of us back together again.

As an individual, one who is part of a great whole, part of the re-membered body of Christ, part of this ensemble of musicians who lift our limited voices in gratitude and unity to pray:
Dear Lord, Thank you, that "we are re-membered in You --- You who engrave Your love letter to us right into Your skin.... right into Your beating heart. In the name of the only One who ever loved us to death and back to life again... In Jesus' name... Amen.”




Concert Photo Credit: Greg McCombs, used with permission
Scripture Photo Credit: accessed via Ann Voskamp Facebook post

Thursday, March 16, 2017

There, There

It was not natural to have come from there. Yes, write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there. ~Gertrude Stein
One winter’s night while scanning through old photos, I counted up all the places I’d lived. While I lived in the same home for my first 18 years, I moved eleven times as a university student, living wherever was available during each semester break or summer. I've lived in twelve different places since that time. A total of two dozen homes. My realtor says the average time one spends in any house is 2.5 years. Apparently, I am average.

What follows is a rough draft highlighting most of the places I've lived in Canada and a few snatched memories. Time for today does not allow me to flesh it out as I would like, or as Rainer Maria Rilke said, in Letters to a Young Poet, "...describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches." I hope to call forth these riches in a future memoir. What follows here is "just the facts, ma'am."

After marriage in 1981, I moved to a small town where my husband lived on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.  He had located a "starter apartment" but within a year we moved to a newer, more spacious location. During our second year, a roomy bungalow owned by family friends came up for rent and this is where we will begin.

I invite you to walk down memory lane with me, reliving these places for which there is no longer any there there. While I could not tell you all of these addresses which at one time were part of my intrinsic identity, these places shaped me. While greater shaping was done by the people in those homes and the activities around them than by the walls, I look back on most of these buildings with something akin to fondness. Not everything, but most. This is not the case for everyone, but it is the case for me.

53 Alberta Crescent, Lloydminster, Alberta




The best part of this home was that our friends Pamela and Murray lived right around the corner. Here Brent and I bought our first new car together and adopted our first dog, Munchkin, thanks to the influence of Keith and Diane who had already adopted the sibling, Muffin. Brent's dad planted the large garden in the back yard but, unfortunately, we were hit with severe watering restrictions that summer and about the only thing that survived were the potatoes.

The house had been owned by retirees and more retirees lived on either side, so they kept immaculate lawns, gardens, flowers and kept a close eye on things, if you know what I mean. I loved the tiger lilies in the large back yard and the weeping willow in the front, except in autumn when raking the leaves was an endless task. I cherish the memory of many suppers shared with family and friends, relaxing on the patio, going home for lunch, hosting young couples' Bible study, and enjoying the roomy basement with lots of storage and a cold cellar. I didn't care for the purple walls in the master bedroom, so that was the first change after we purchased the house in a private sale one year later.

We were young and the appeal of consumer goods led us into debt rather quickly. After about three years, the taxes, maintenance costs and high interest rates on our sizeable mortgage and car payments were becoming a heavy burden. We decided to downsize and rent for a while.

Marshall, Saskatchewan 
Six months from spring to fall of 1985. No landlord in Lloydminster wanted pets in their property, so after a long search, we found a 2-story townhouse in a tiny hamlet east of town. The thing I loved about this place was the endless prairie right outside the door. However, the stay was short, because the drive was long and the commute wore thin within a few months. Not to mention the persistent odor in the spare room which helped spur our departure.






5207 51 Street, Lloydminster, Alberta


One-half block away from the Provincial Building, where I worked for Alberta Social Services, this tiny house came available. We could go home for lunch again. Lots of yard for the dog, roomy parking area, small and dated but quaint. We lived here two months before Brent received a promotion and transfer to Calgary. We moved in January 1986.


4319 48 Street NE, Calgary, Alberta

In the '80s, many people walked away from their houses when the values plummeted and mortgages were higher than the value of the property. The provincial government was on the hook because they had ensured the mortgages. So they offered hundreds of these homes for rent, then later for sale at a reasonable amount. We rented for several years, then purchased, and later sold again at a significant profit. It was 1,500 square feet on two floors with a finished family room and storage space in the basement, a "chimney stack" house we called it, but a roomy, smart design. We said goodbye to Munchkin in this house but spent January 1986 to March 1992 here. On one visit, my dad built a shed in the back yard and evened up those front steps - heavy concrete stones which were all wobbly and awry when we moved in. Quite the labor intensive project.

By this time, Brent's parents were tiring of living in their motor home year round, so they used our place as home base during the six months when they were not in Arizona. In spring of 1992 when we were expecting Andrew, it was time to up-size our living space.

115 Rivervalley Drive SE, Calgary, Alberta


Location, location, location. This is what my realtor warned when I asked his opinion on this show home we'd fallen in love with. A new development in Riverbend with estate homes, but this one was a corner lot on a busy street. Again we followed our hearts instead of our heads and purchased the gorgeous property. The snow shovelling and traffic, the noise of nearby construction, as well as finishing the landscaping nearly finished us off, along with the lack of sleep as new parents. After two years, Brent accepted a job in the middle east, so we sold at a loss because the market was down again and took an apartment downtown until he had to report for duty in three months time. 

The Downtown Apartment

It was a temporary arrangement. Top floor, only blocks from Brent's office and a stone's throw from the river pathways. But noisy with sirens, crowded parking, no in-suite laundry and so many people sharing the common spaces. Odd thing was, once we started telling others about our imminent overseas move, they warned us to reconsider. We re-worked the numbers and did more investigation which led us to see that it was not as financially viable or secure as we had first been led to believe. In the meantime, circumstances improved greatly at Brent's current job, so he decided not to change jobs.

Well. There we are, downtown. Not an ideal situation with a young toddler. We celebrated Andrew's second birthday and Christmas 1994 but received the hammer blow of my mother's terminal cancer diagnosis. I had a car collision coming into downtown which totalled the vehicle, then a scary incident of physical assault by a mentally challenged male resident in the elevator, so I was done. Like a mother bear, I went on a rampage looking for a house and by the end of that month, only four months into our six month lease, we moved again.

28 Templeby Crescent NE Calgary


Andrew called this place our "brown castle." It was a haven. Four bedrooms, fully developed bi-level with a family room and roomy kitchen, a big yard, a swing set, gardening space and a garage. We were close to our church where I was choir director and Andrew attended playschool. It was mercifully close to several of my closest friends who had children Andrew's age. Based on all that was happening, I was experiencing depression but did not know it at the time. However, my friend Anna taught me to garden, so I enjoyed several summers of glorious flowers, a yard for Andrew to play, a next door neighbor girl who babysat, a sense of true community amongst our neighbors and a reprieve from the crazy busy life of the city centre. I even tackled the heavy lifting of leveling those concrete block steps in front because they were uneven and wobbly. We replaced quite a few floor boards on the deck and repainted. I had another collision (not my fault) which totalled our second vehicle. We bought our first piano here and Andrew had his first croup (or asthma) attack, requiring an ambulance call, and later on, he enjoyed his first trick-or-treating experience. My mom and dad visited on her 80th birthday before the cancer had really taken hold. I would lose her a year later. It was precious time.

We moved north to Rainbow Lake the summer after she died. I have pictures somewhere but need to close this for today. We spent 4 1/2 years there, got our dog Tickles, then traded her for Bernadette, lived a lot of life, Andrew discovered video games (Legend of Zelda), developed a love for snow, learned to skate and play hockey, Brent became a supervisor, I had my gall bladder removed and depression officially diagnosed, some joy, some real pain, then returned to Calgary in 2001. Since the financial benefits of living in the remote north made it possible to get a larger home than we could have otherwise, we bought a big place in Riverbend only a two minute walk from the river. I thought I'd found the house I would live in until my death, but in 2008, Brent insisted on moving to Douglasdale. The mountain view convinced me. I've been here ever since.

It was close to my job, offered better schooling options for Andrew, near our church. We became empty nesters here, I started and ended three jobs, buried Brent and Bernadette, took in a boarder, then married Henry. Life is more settled, we have both retired, we have no desire to move. This is home, and here, love resides.
It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity, a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember. ~Gertrude Stein

Quote source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mental Wellness Requires Wholistic Wellness



#bellletstalk

Though I know now I experienced postpartum depression, I was not officially diagnosed with depression until three years later. Shocked and in denial, I begrudgingly tried an anti-depressant. A debilitating panic attack (my first) immediately resulted, so I discontinued the medication only to hear the doctor apologize later for giving me the "wrong" prescription. I chose not to try another. My case was mild, episodic, related to hormonal changes and seasonal affectation. I experienced moderate relief from using a type of birth control which is no longer offered due to its many negative side effects. It helped level the mood swings but didn't solve the fits of rage.

I took many steps one at a time to move from darkness into light and from little self care into personal health management. It included naturopaths, medical doctors, psychologists, a 12-Step Support Group, a personal fitness trainer, Bible Studies, many supportive friends, small groups, lots of prayer and meditation. Now that I'm post-menopausal, I take a naturopathic supplement that increases tryptophan, exercise 3-4 times a week, pursue hobbies I love, watch my nutritional intake (a constant battle) and avoid stressful situations or intense movies, TV shows, music, even news. I still see a psychologist when necessary. Due to many changes in my life, including re-marriage and retirement, I feel like I am flourishing now more than at any time in my life. This was my journey. Your results may vary.

My first husband died by suicide after a long battle with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and OCD. You can read about some of that journey and how I moved out of my own anger and depression in these posts:

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Hold On
The Lie of Despair
January Inventory

Our bodies are so complex, the medical community segments their studies but has yet to combine effectively across disciplines. If I could advocate for anything, it is for more wholistic study of patient care, including the biological, hereditary, physical, mental, emotional, relational, situational and spiritual aspects. There is no one cause, no easy button, no silver bullet solution or spiritual "quick fix" for mental health challenges. We are a whole person and need comprehensive, wholistic care along with compassionate, non-judgmental support from our health care providers and spiritual caregivers.

Hope Prevails. My story "ends" well, but I still encounter triggers so I can never let down my guard. Some stories have ended very badly. If you are in a dark place, remember to breathe. It is a lie that it will always be this way. Nothing is permanent, even if it feels like it. Please tell a trustworthy person what you are experiencing.

Know this: You may have depression or anxiety, but it does not define you. You are not your disease. There is help and there is always hope.

1-800-SUICIDE
403-266-HELP
http://www.distresscentre.com/

Monday, January 02, 2017

One Word 2017



Do you have #OneWord for 2017?

What is it?

The #OneWord movement began as far back as 1999 and became a best-selling book. Co-authors Jon Gordon, Dan Britton and Jimmy Page have been living and sharing the power of One Word since 1999. It is a personal choice to find, choose, or receive a theme for the year that is represented by one word. Resolutions don’t work, but many have found that #OneWord gives them the focus and simple clarity to make sustained life change over the coming year.

This post is not about the book. It's about my choice of #OneWord for 2017.

How do I find it?


I don’t want to get so mired down in the process of finding my word and “doing it right” (whatever that means) that I give up, so I’ve kept it simple. I looked at what others have named for 2017: hope, focus, anticipate, soar, fearless, enjoy, attentive, commitment, light, release, embrace and on it goes, as unique and distinct between humans as each individual and different snowflake that has piled up on my driveway. I needed to move them all out of the way to clear a path to sharpening my own focus.

My Word

Previous words in past years have included gratitude, presence, love. Each year the word is different and reflects the context of my current life. A few words that have lingered in my vision for 2017 include: discomfort, remember, tradition, laugh, build… but I have settled on my word for 2017:

Good.

As so many people have looked back on 2016, they seem to continually focus on the bad things that happened, “what a horrible year it was,” and all the celebrities that died last year. News outlets have become fear mongers and purveyors of bad news.

My own mind, negative narrative, self-talk, the inner mean girl, the enemy of my soul or just sub-conscious fears and anxiety like to rise (especially at night) and point out all the catastrophic things that can come of imagined realities. I can focus on worst case scenarios, or I can choose to tell myself the truth and seek out what is good.

One thing I know for certain is this: whatever you are looking for, you will find. 

If you continue to look for evidence that things are bad, there’s plenty out there. I also know if you look for things that are good, there’s even more evidence of that. Here's some initial thoughts:

God is good.
The first words recorded from God’s mouth were “It is good.”
God withholds no good thing from us. (Good by God’s definition, not mine).
God has shown us what is good: to seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
Look for the good, because whatever you are looking for, you will find.
Good is a four letter word.
Assume good will.
That’s good. 
Be good.

Ways to Keep #OneWord In Mind

There are numerous options, but I have to find what works for my temperament and attention-deficit tendencies.

I love the idea my friend Kendra used last year: Establish a jar to collect good things that happen during the year. Put brightly colored note paper and pen beside the jar and write down the good things that happen each day, each week, or whenever you think of them. Or just put things in the jar that remind you of something good. On the next New Year’s Day, open the jar and read them.

Make some kind of artwork with your #OneWord and hang it where you’ll see it every day. Perhaps a poem, a painting, a carving, glasswork, quilt, 3-D print, Lego build – the list is endless.

It’s a great idea to blog or journal around my #OneWord theme. It’s likely that I will write about the phrases above and other variations on the theme. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s all good.

If you want to know more

There is a book. I haven’t read it. It’s better that I keep things simple. But if you want to check it out, go to getoneword.com

I’m not trying to persuade you to do this or suggest this is an “Easy Button” to life change. It’s simple a clarifying tool that many have found helpful.

I’ll leave you with this video from YouTube. It’s good.



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Traditions: New Year's Cookies (Portzelky)



This was my mother's tradition. Here's a link to a similar recipe from Mennonite Girls Can Cook. I like this version, and the four pictures on the page show you the stages and the various ways the Portzelky can look. The name is from Low German origins, but Mom only ever called them "New Year's Cookies." It's basically a homemade donut taste or a deep fried raisin fritter. To. Die. For.

Every New Year's eve, if we were not on the road singing, my momma would make these, then once they'd cooled a bit, she'd gently shake them in a bag to coat them with one part each of granulated sugar and icing sugar. Once in a while, she would make a glaze for them, like a donut glaze, but usually she'd shake to coat them so the family could partake of them one batch at a time - we weren't that good at waiting for the entire pan to be full. She would make so many that she'd use her big blue and white speckled enamelware turkey roaster to store them in, usually lined with wax paper or paper towel to absorb some of the oil.

Mom preferred to use Crisco Shortening, as less was absorbed by the dough as it cooked and she could filter it afterwards and re-use it. She would melt and heat the Crisco over the gas burner in her large stock pan and fry about a dozen at a time, turning them halfway through. Getting the heat setting just right was critical. Too high and the outside would be too dark while the inside remained gooey. Not hot enough, and you'd end up with the fritters absorbing too much grease. Mom usually had the right touch for the temperature!

I don't make these. I've never attempted. Now that I limit my consumption of wheat, I wouldn't likely even eat them, should I attempt to make them. However, since they were such a sweet, delicious memory from my childhood, I still think of them every single New Year's Eve without fail, and of my mother with great fondness.




Photo 1 Credit: allrecipes.com
Photo 2 Credit: foter.com