Many Mothers - Why We Create.


Many Mothers - Why We Create.

Today was book ended by encounters with women who have served as mothering voices in my creative journey. These women probably don't think of themselves this way, but they have been deeply inspirational to me.

Early in the morning I was seated in my classroom, behind the piano, working away at a choral arrangement. I had just finished a bit of research about the process of submitting one's work to various publishers and was feeling overwhelmed and discouraged when one of my colleagues came through the door. She works one on one with children to help their language development, but she also writes and does quite a bit of public speaking about her faith. She came to me with information about printing books a few days ago when I sent out an inquiry about self publication. Today she returned to check with me about something and happened to say (my paraphrase), "Sometimes I tell myself it's ok if this thing I'm creating doesn't 'do' anything for anybody else. It's already done something for me. The act of creating things causes us to feel closer to the Lord. It causes us to feel Trust. That's the main thing, actually - Trust."

I was struck by her words. They were amazingly appropriate in light of the sermon our Rector shared last week in church - about continuing to be creative, even in times of stress, and about our creativity reaching out from the vine of God's ever-giving life. I sat back down at the piano after she'd gone and reminded myself, "Trust. That's the main thing."

The day went on and I found myself in the grocery store with my almost 3 year old son balanced on my hip and a cart full of things. I happened to look up from the chaos and noticed a familiar face a long way down the aisle. It was a church member from the last parish I served as a music minister. She was too far to call to. I drug the toddler and the groceries up the aisle and called to her, "Hey, stranger!" She looked up and almost didn't recognize me - so long had it been since our last meeting.

We stood and talked about my son and her grandchildren. We talked about the mountain dulcimer - the instrument that brought us a bit closer together several years ago. She used to take weekly lessons from me. I'd go out to her house on summer afternoons and we'd sit and play our dulcimers together. Then I would be invited to stay for supper, and we would sit around the family table and eat food from the beautiful garden in the back yard. Invariably, I'd be sent home with a cooler full of fresh produce. It was one of the most grace-filled summers of my life because for the first time as an adult I'd been the recipient of truly familial hospitality without an agenda. They had a table. They loved music. They wanted to share, so they did. 

As we stood in the grocery store talking I realized a line of disgruntled shoppers was forming behind us. I reached to hug her and say goodbye. She left her hand on my shoulder and drew my face close and said, "You are talked about as one of the most spiritual people we've ever known. People ask me where you're playing and I say, 'Sarah's taking a vacation from that.' But you are remembered as one of the most deeply spiritual people we've ever known." She looked right in my eyes, casting a rope for me to hold onto.

I went back to my cart and called a few extra goodbyes after her. "I dream about that garden of yours!" I said. She said, "Well, just come! Come by and play."

I've struggled a bit to know how to use my artistic energy. Some of us have so much of it that we seem to be always spiraling in every direction. Photography, painting, songwriting, prose, poetry, arranging, teaching, studying theology, studying pedagogy, collecting folk songs - I can't choose! I've never been able to choose. 

God, in the voices of two mothers, spoke clearly today - right into the heart of my chaos. God said, "Well, just come! Come by and play." . . . and God said, "Trust. That's the main thing. Keep on creating and you will understand Trust better and better."

Dear ones, we don't have to specialize so much as the world tries to tell us. 

We are invited to bring all of what we have to the playground as we use all of our good together. God will sort it out with us as we go. Something marvelous I gleaned from my time with Alice Parker was a sense of Trust in the idea of Well-Roundedness. For years I'd been lamenting the fact that nobody ever forced me to specialize more tenaciously. How had I gotten away with it? How had I been allowed to study a bit of this and a bit of that all along without being forced to bow down to just one instrument or musical discipline? In Alice's studio I was brought back to such a beautiful sense of Trust in the love of the process as a whole. One of my favorite colleagues often says of children, "Their work is play." Today I sit back and give thanks for the fact that I am a child of God, and that my work can still be play. So can yours. 

Just come! Come by and play.




The String, The Bridge, Clara & J - nameless gifts.


The String, The Bridge, Clara & J - nameless gifts.

Well, friends, it's been a long time. Let me catch you up quickly on this and that.

January - April have been spent on musical adventures. I spent several excellent days working with Brett Nolan at the Soundry recording studio in Chattanooga, which I'll write more about shortly. I spent a lovely few days in Oklahoma City with some of my fellow Kodály teachers studying music education, folk traditions, and so on. Then came the absolute best of the best. I traveled to Hawley, Massachusetts with one of my favorite compositional friends, Ethan McGrath, where we met up with two other students to do a three day fellowship with Alice Parker, American arranger, composer, conductor, and all around fantastic human being. On our way to the airport at the end of our adventure we were able to stop and tour Emily Dickinson's family home, which was uniquely meaningful in light of all we'd been discussing. Emily Dickinson, who wrote variants on her own poems (as a folk song is expressed in terms of variation), and who didn't desire to be defined by those around her . . . who did her writing in a quiet, nameless way . . . this Emily seemed to speak profoundly to my spirit on the journey home.

In the midst of all of the above I couldn't bring myself to write much - how could I explain any of it? All of it was connected; there was too much synchronicity to keep track of. Each moment of discovery sent a string of understanding to whatever came next.

By the way, the idea of the string isn't mine. It belongs to Alice, who describes her work with community singing and with choirs this way: the leader tosses a string to the crowd in the form of song or story . . . and the string is energetic. The crowd catches the string, which is stretching over a great chasm. The crowd throws back an answering string, and on and on it goes until a bridge has been built and all meet in the middle. I found myself using this very image to discuss the use of the grand staff with my student teacher just last week. He was asking how to get a sight singing activity to be more flexible and fun for the kids. I responded, "The notation is flat and motionless on its own. So when you go to the board with the children you've got to turn this flat thing into a lump of clay to be played with. It's no longer a stationary object. You mold it into something and toss it to the kids and they mold it into something and toss it back. You go back and forth until you've built something together." Later on I caught myself in a similar conversation about how to teach a song from scratch - I couldn't help it, I had to bring up the chasm and the string and the building of a bridge.

It's necessary for us to build bridges and make meaning out of nothingness in this human life, whether we work in music education or not. All of our relationships are built on the sharing of ideas, of energy, of affection, of truth, of respect, of love . . . the best we see and do comes from sharing.

Music theory and music notation are abstract concepts. We have to take a long journey to intellectualize something made entirely of sound. I recall Dr. William Lee looking over his glasses at me during graduate school and saying, "Tullock, you have to help them build nests for these concepts in their minds. You can't talk in abstractions. They have to DO MUSIC. They have to MAKE MUSIC. You will have to embody music for them every single day for any real learning to take place." He was absolutely right, of course, and I see the truth of his words at work in my classroom each day. Music is actually a nameless gift. We give it names to help us discuss it with each other, which isn't wrong, but we sometimes forget: music is a part of our humanity old enough to be honored as an uncreated thing . . . it's more than a textbook or a set of rules. When we reduce it to rules and lists it's almost unteachable in a whole sense. The rules and lists have their place . . . but their place is not an altar.

When I was just a little girl I had a song in my heart. It didn't have a name and I could sing it anytime I wanted to. In fact, I did sing it anytime I wanted to. I remember distinctly the first time a grownup person asked me to name my song. "What song is that? Try to use your voice a little better." - poof! My song was gone. My song was gone for years and years. I realize now that part of my work with the children I teach has been the recovery of my own inner child and the song she used to sing, which nobody can ever name.

Recently one of my very best friends wrote to me, "To define something is often to box it in, to limit it." We'd been going back and forth about names that seek to define what something is or isn't - names that carry with them conceptual weight. Just a few days after that exchange I read these beautiful words of Father Bede Griffiths:

There is nothing higher than this, than if one says, 'not this, not this,' This is negative theology. We cannot name Brahman. It is 'Not this, not this.' Whatever word we use, whatever image, whatever concept, we have always to go beyond . . . One cannot stop with any name of God . . . We are seeking that inexpressible mystery beyond, and that is Brahman, which is neti, neti, 'Not this, not this."

Alice Parker describes the source of creative thought as "the swamp" - a messy, green, ever turning place wherein a song might be born. I'd read this in her writing, but when I heard her say it in person on our first day of class my entire self smiled - from the inside out. It was just like Meister Eckhart's ancient talk of "the ground of all being," which was often his description of God's dwelling place . . . under the soil of our souls, in the dark, in the mysterious secret, eternally being born.

A little over a year ago two stories took over my creative space - Anne of Green Gables and the historical mystery surrounding the friendship of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Anne's story is from my childhood. I fell in love with Clara Schumann as a sort of archetype in my early twenties . . . her true story spoke to me. These two items of interest seemed wholly unconnected at first, but quickly married themselves in my mind by way of the phrase "kindred spirits."  Kindred Spirits are loved ones we can't define. We do our best to name them, but the closest we ever get is, "Not this, not that, not the other." The phrase "soul mate" has been hijacked by the world of romantic prose, but seems to have its roots in the same wheelhouse as the "kindred spirit." This is an unnamable gift - an abstract concept we can't actually work with other than to experience it. We try to write about it. We can't. We try to list it's qualities definitively. We can't. These ideas so fascinated me that I simply had to write a short song cycle and record it . . . which I did. The work was done in January here in Chattanooga. Brett Nolan, who I trust with all of my recorded work, is finishing them up this month. I took a long time to let them settle in my mind after we'd finished the recording process, in part because of this nameless quality - for the first time I'd put together a recording not related to a strictly religious purpose. It made me nervous, to step outside a box I'd built around my work, and to let go of names I'd chosen for myself. 

As I sent off the final list of edit points and requests, truly handing the reigns over to Brett, I reflected on Father Griffiths' words about "not this, not this," and on the idea of Kindred Spirits, Soul Mates, the swamp, the ground of all being, and God. I love God most in the nameless spaces between grief and joy, suffering and healing. These are blind spaces. They have no names to define them. They have no images to express them. I loved Anne's story and Clara's story for these reasons. These are stories full of holy blind spots. 

Dear Ones, I have sometimes wished for a simpler inner life, but that wish is gone almost as soon as it comes to mind. The nameless places, which seem to complicate and perplex, are also the places most clearly inhabited by the Uncreated Creator. 

I leave you now with one of Emily's poems:

The Outer - from the Inner / Derives its Magnitude - / 'Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according / As is the Central Mood - / / The fine - unvarying Axis / That regulates the Wheel - / Though Spokes - spin - more conspicuous / And fling a dust - the while. / / The Inner - paints the Outer - / The Brush without the Hand - / Its Picture publishes - precise - / As is the inner Brand - / / On fine - Arterial Canvas - / A Cheek - perchance a Brow - / The Star's whole Secret - in the Lake - ' Eyes were not meant to know.

Preach it, Emily. I type all of this as I sit on my back porch in the dark, looking up at one lonely star, whose secrets I cannot know, whose substance my eyes truly cannot see. I sit here with a heart full of unnamable wonder . . . "not this, not this." Music has always met me in that space (that space where God is), and I hope music will do as much for my students.

I am so grateful to be on such a synchronous journey, which seems to have no clear start or finish. I'm even more grateful to link arms and hold hands with other pilgrims on the way - kindred spirits, looking for the same things. Wise people go before us. Wise people follow close behind. We can tolerate mystery when we trust namelessness. My first and best song was nameless. At age 30 I think I'm ready to trust it and move forward.