Simplicity

“With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”

—William Wordsworth

This summer has gotten off to a pretty tremendous start. 🙂 For the first time, during the month of May, I traveled overseas. It’s always been one of my deepest desires to visit Europe, and this summer I was lucky enough to have the chance to do so. Not only did I get to visit some places I’ve wanted to experience since I was little, but the wonderful group of people I traveled with became some of the dearest friends I’ll likely have—we’ve now created a bond that will be relatively difficult to break, I think. 🙂 In any event, this amazing adventure has taught me so many things—I’m still realizing that, even though I’ve been back for over a month at this point. But processing an experience like that, especially when one is as slow at that as I am, takes a while. A looooong while. Which, I believe, is ok. 🙂 In any event, there are some things I’ve come to realize after the large amount of traveling done this summer and I thought it might be nice to share them! I’m rather curious to know if others have had the same experience—though I certainly wouldn’t be surprised were that the case. 🙂

Throughout all my travels this summer (I just got back from another lovely stint in the northeast with my family), there have been several unifying factors that come to mind. For one thing, no matter what country, state, or province I’ve found myself in, it seems to me to be populated with humans. Regular old human beings—which kinda makes sense, when you think about it! That’s something that struck me, especially during the European adventures. Here I was, foolishly thinking that the people I came across in England or Austria would be this strange breed of person easily distinguishable from us Americans simply because of their different nationalities. You know what? They really weren’t…which was one of the most comforting things I’ve experienced.

That isn’t to say that these unique countries weren’t amazing excursions into cultures and ways of living drastically different from what I’m used to—quite the contrary! But in the most basic, unadulterated sense, these people had the same cores as me. They love music and sharing it with people—even though that music might be in a different language, or played on instruments or in styles special to the location, the same passion for beautiful sounds and the creation of something so lovely came through. The love of nature, parks, and quiet was present in the gorgeously ornate gardens, peaceful forests, fragrant vineyards, simple parks, and sweeping mountainsides so lovingly maintained. Cycling through the Wachau Valley revealed the same enjoyment of the outdoors and happiness brought about by a beautiful day that anyone at home can relate to.

Perhaps most profound to me was the sense I encountered in the churches we visited. My favorites, though I did of course enjoy the mind-bendinly ancient, majestic cathedrals such as Westminster and St. Paul, were those less crowded by tourists…there were several places that we stepped into out of a London drizzle or a warm Austrian day that invited quiet, cool peace. It was so refreshing to find these solemn yet uplifting places of worship that go beyond denomination or creed and simply welcome one to relax and breathe even, and especially, in the heart of a bustling metropolitan city. Attending a Catholic mass at the gorgeous St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna was a profound experience—though the mass was completely in German (which I do not speak), the structure was almost the same as the Episcopal masses I attend at home. The music was beyond words, and the feeling of being connected like that both to God and to so many people from so many different places blew my mind. Of course, I did get a little frustrated at times not being able to understand the words, but that was really only a minor annoyance compared to the gift of being able to be in that space. I took so many wonderful things from that experience, and the whole adventure. But the universal gift of simplicity is one that’s going to stick with me.

We humans are all just that—humans. We love poetry and literature, music and praise, nature, shopping, sharing food and drink, theatre, art, sleeping in, watching a good film, spending time with friends and family, being alone, baking, cleaning, writing, reading, playing sports, creating…and so much more. And though we have many differences in culture and creed, race and religion, outlook and appearance, personality and purpose and so on, we share that simple fact of solidarity in our humanity. That’s something I’m going to do my best to remember—to cherish the differences that make us unique, and to embrace new adventures and ideas. But also, to love one another as the flawed, wonderful human beings that we are, and to be so thankful for that gift. Many thanks for reading, my friends. Have a lovely day.

IMG_9120

 

Be Still My Soul

“Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;
With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev’ry change he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”
—Katherine von Schlegel
This is currently my favorite hymn. The tune is beautiful—it appears in Jean Sibelius’s lovely symphonic poem entitled “Finlandia” which is a gorgeous work much beloved by many. Even beyond the music, though, the words are truly exquisite.  The main conceit of this hymn appears to be the fact that we as humans are not capable of doing life on our own…no matter how hard we try, no matter what we think we achieve, we cannot truly succeed by our own ability. We are as tiny grains of sand in the vast cosmic interplay of stars, planets, and angels. However, as convicting a notion as that is, especially during this time of Lent, that’s not actually the point of my writing today. 🙂 Instead, I want to talk about stillness…something that tends to slip away from us as schoolwork, projects, practice, papers, taxes, and all manner of other nasty things pile up on us at the close of the semester. But, it is something that is essential for our continuing existence.
It is very hard to be still sometimes. I know this is something I’ve talked about before…especially in the rush at the close of a semester, it’s extraordinarily difficult to set aside that time to simply rest and relax  without feeling guilty or getting behind. I know that I tend to somewhat exacerbate this issue by rigidly scheduling my entire life, overcomplicating everything, then becoming frustrated at the tiredness that results, coupled with the inability to complete literally everything I’d impossibly decided I could do in one day. I’m not the only person to do this, and I’ve probably got it better than most—I am not sure how some people are still standing under the weight of all they’ve got to do! However, my point in all that is that I’ve got it wrong…completely, totally, entirely backwards. Most of us probably have, I think. The point of life isn’t to work…the point of life is to live. I heard a phrase regarding that once sometime ago, and it’s really stuck with me, “Some live to work, others work to live.” That’s kind of sad. But you know, our culture propagates the first part of that contention. With the retirement age rising higher and higher, and the emphasis on ambition, achievement, and intensity growing larger and larger, how are we supposed to function otherwise? I’ve heard lots of people my own age say that they’ve forgotten how to relax—they are so used to constantly having an overbrimming plate of tasks that when the time comes to finally take a breath, they choke on the lack of to-dos. How is that ok? In my mind, it isn’t. But the world probably isn’t going to change just because we want it to…the best we can do is to make some changes in our own lives and hopefully, things will begin to get a little bit better as a result. 🙂
What does “be still my soul” really mean? Lots of things, I think. True stillness, patience and peace are implied…a pause from the relentless activity and hassle that we find ourselves inundated with through the course of our daily lives. Also, and this makes a bit more sense within the larger context of the hymn, it seems to mean that we should realize we are not the center of the universe…and the universe is not against us. “Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side.” In this time of conflict and pain, fear and doubt, the words of this hymn remind us that God is on our side…no matter how dark the world becomes, there is still a light in it that is greater than any darkness.
It’s so important that we remember to take some time to disconnect from all the tensions and stresses of our lives: to fill ourselves up with all that is good, and gentle, and pure, and noble. Turn off the phone, close the computer, go outside, close your eyes, and breathe. Be thankful to be alive, and realize that though life might not be great sometimes (it might even feel as though it is the opposite), it is truly a good gift to be alive. I am so thankful for you, my friends. I’m including the lyrics to the hymn, and a couple of different variations thereof…these are some of the loveliest I’ve found. 🙂 I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! Many thanks for visiting.
“Be Still, My Soul”
by Catharina von Schlegel, 1697-?
Translated by Jane Borthwick, 1813-1897

1. Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

2. Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

3. Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
From His own fulness all He takes away.

4. Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Hymn #651
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Psalm 46:10
Author: Catharine Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, 1752, cento
Translated by: Jane Borthwick, 1855
Titled: “Stille, mein Wille”
Composer: Jean Sibelius, b. 1865, arr.
Tune: “Finlandia”

Ash

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

–Anonymous

This is a quote my wonderful grandfather shared with me the other day, and it’s come to represent a theme that’s been going through my head the last couple of days. The season of Lent is very interesting  to me—each year, I come to it with the intention of solemnity and the giving up of something. It’s meant to be a time of contrition and introspection, and I respect and appreciate that. As an (sometimes overly) introspective person, I know I certainly like the time to ponder and mull over the things that have been frustrating/confusing/bothering me in order to discover ways in which I might solve these problems. However, after attending my favorite mass this past Wednesday, I came to some interesting conclusions regrading this season, Ash Wednesday, and life in general that I thought I might share. 🙂

Ash Wednesday is such a beautiful service. Yes, it can be kind of depressing I suppose. But it is inarguably one of the most intense church experiences I have ever had the pleasure of …experiencing. It’s beautiful, humbling, and heartbreaking. We are so broken, so very messed up both by the world and by our own doing. All we are worth on our own is ash and dust. That’s why, to me at least, the imposition of ashes during this service is so profound—in a way, it’s an outward representation of our inward selves: blackened, crumbling, weak…and yet, made from something utterly and divinely beautiful.

Wednesday night as I knelt at the rail, I experienced a depth of emotion that is so particular and profound to this time of the liturgical year. The priest stood in front of me, gently moved my hair aside and marked my forehead with ashes as he calmly spoke the words “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I felt it like a punch in the gut. I am nothing—a conviction emblazoned on my forehead so that all the world sees what I am and what I’ve done. But also, poignantly, this mark shows exactly to whom I belong. That cross of ashes stands for more than only the blackness of sin and death. It represents the faith we profess, and the fact that we acknowledge our complete and total weakness on our own ability. We cannot bear the burden of this life alone. So, we hold to the promise of faith, the power of community, and the beauty that comes out of a world that shows its brokenness all too often. Lent, for many, is a way to begin a healing process. We acknowledge our wounds (profound or perfunctory, self-inflicted or imposed upon us by others, emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, and so on) publicly, wearing our grief, shame, and pain for all to see. But by admitting these wounds to ourselves and the world at large, we may slowly begin to heal. It’s like the idea that one must first admit one has been physically cut in order to stop the bleeding with a bandage. Just the same, emotional bleeding that is ignored will simply continue to flow and to fester…seek help, and one can start to recover.

This is, in my mind, one of the essential parts of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This time isn’t one solely of penance, contrition, and sadness as we contemplate our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It’s also a time of great peace and beauty—we  realize the sacrifice that enables us to celebrate the end of Lent, we give thanks that even in times of darkness there is light, and we are given permission to admit our own weaknesses and seek help and peace with no fear of judgement. We know that on our own we are supremely, profoundly lacking in just about everything. But, we are also supremely, profoundly loved—this is a time to give thanks for that love and to show it even more to those around us. The world is dark and broken, but we don’t have to be…I know that I am so thankful to be surrounded by kind, caring, strong, sensitive, lovely human beings that make life worth living. The story doesn’t end on Ash Wednesday, nor does it end on Good Friday. Keep that in mind, friends, and take some time to dance in the rain this Lenten season. Don’t be afraid to be human—that’s all we are anyway. And yet, we are also so much more. 🙂 Thank you for reading, my friends.

Relax

“Last night’s dreams disappear. They are like the sink draining: a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.”

–Gregory Orr

Life sure is funny. There’s no getting around that. Sometimes it’s good funny, sometimes it isn’t. But one has to admit, there’s something about it that’s just plain weird. It’s certainly been a bit like that for me of late—not bad, really, just strange. From car mishaps, to awards, to an embarrassing episode of unconsciousness,  to excitement about new beginnings, and fear of what might lie ahead, it’s been a rather full couple of weeks. Which isn’t bad—it simply is. Learning to roll with the punches isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially for people who have a certain affinity for planning and preparation. It’s nice to know what’s coming up ahead, in order to think about and make ready. Lists, schedules, calendars—you name it, it’s certainly helpful to know exactly what’s coming up so that nothing is a surprise and therefore nothing can through one out of whack. “Ha,” says life, “good luck with that one, buddy.”

I’m learning this semester that having a set of concrete expectations for the ways things are supposed to go is not only a bad idea: it’s a recipe for disappointment and, ultimately, disaster. Life isn’t going to turn out exactly in accordance with the picture you’ve designed in your head, and thinking that it will only leads to anxiety and frustration. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t plan or be prepared—that’s an essential function of living, professionalism, and organization. But, expecting that each and every plan will turn out precisely as devised isn’t realistic. Indeed, one might miss out on all sorts of incredible and amazing things if one doesn’t stop to smell the flowers every once in awhile. Learning to relax and roll with the changes is hard—trust me, I’ve been figuring that out myself a whole bunch lately. But I’ve begun to realize that keeping an open mind is one of the most freeing things one can do. Trust that everything will turn out right, do what you can to plan and prepare, then relax and enjoy life as it goes on. I think that’s one of the reasons I like spending time outside, and with the people I love. It’s worth taking that time out of the day just to be thankful for the gifts that I’ve been given,  instead of being hell-bent on work  100% of the time.

We’ve not really been given that long on this planet: like the quote above, our lives are as short as the dreams of an evening. When we go, what will we leave behind? An immense stack of A+ papers and tests? A pile of money? Or will we endeavor to improve the lives of those around us, in any way we can? Will we leave the world a little brighter for having lived in it? I hope so. And I think so…do good work, be satisfied with your life and your career, and your hopes and dreams. But know that it’s ok to divert from the plan every once in awhile to appreciate life as it is, not just as we think it should be. Thank you friends, and have a lovely day.

img_8280

Joy

“I am calmed because I know You love me. Because you love me, nothing can move me from my peace. Because You love me, I am as one to whom all good has come.”

From Hebridean Altars

Tis the season, my friends! And, as I’ve got this handy dandy little online journal, I thought I’d better add my own two cents. 🙂 Enjoy, and thank you for reading!

Winter is such a lovely time of year—whenever it finally rolls around, I’m always filled with such excitement. I think there’s something magical from childhood that is attached to this season. For lots of us, there’s a very particular feeling that will forever be connected with the smell of snow in the air and the brush of the chill wind across one’s face. I can remember so clearly the anticipation and happiness—the knowledge  that Christmas is just around the corner! I feel again that excitement of family togetherness, laughter, security, warmth, happiness…snow. Even as I grow older, I still get hints of that childlike joy every year around this time, as I’m sure many people do. There’s a reason this holiday is so important to so many people—that joy endures.

For many of us, the joy of this season is often tampered by stress—the weight of classes still to do, projects to finish, performances, deadlines, work…you name it, I’m sure someone is struggling with it. In more extreme cases, some have to deal with loss, pain, anxiety, fear…sadly, Christmas isn’t a free pass for peace and goodwill toward men as much as we would like it to be. Or at least, that’s what the world wants us to think.

I disagree. Wholeheartedly. I think that no matter what, this can be a time of joy—to all, to each. No matter what’s on the news, no matter what darkness is creeping around the bend, we can each be a light to another with the intention of sharing the goodness we all experience every day in the smallest of ways. That’s one of the reasons I love snow so much: it wipes everything clean, and covers the world in a soft blanket of peace and calm. And quiet. That’s one of the best parts of this time of year: we are given an excuse to allow life to quiet down for a time so that we can focus on the things that matter most. Snow may be an irritant for some, but I think it’s one of the small wonders we can encounter and share with each other…

Perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other this time of year is that gift of quiet joy. As the quote above says, “I am calm because I know You love me.” Show the people you care about that you do love them: quietly, constantly…no matter what they’re going through, no matter where they are in life, no matter where they’re going. They (and you) are loved so deeply that it is never in doubt. As we continue to finish up our semesters, or our last stretches of work, remember that love and be at peace. No matter what YOU are going through, be calm because you are loved. You are as one to whom all good has come. Merry Christmas, dear friends. Please enjoy these lovely carols, and (hopefully soon!) the snow. Much love, and thank you for reading.

Songs Without Words

“Where words leave off, music begins.”

–Heinrich Heine

I love music. Always have, always will. There are many things I could say about music—the way it makes me feel as though I’m not alone, as though I am connected to something beyond myself…something so much bigger than I am that I can’t help but stand in awe. For me, and many others, music is an avenue to God—a direct pipeline to the creator of the universe. Music is an indisputable proof of God’s existence, in my eyes. How could something such as this exist without a divine creator? I love words, don’t get me wrong. Words are beautiful, and absolutely essential for communication. But sometimes, there’s something we need to say that goes beyond words…something unquantifiable that can only be expressed through a language that is both extraordinarily universal and intensely personal. As I write this, I’m finding that words come up short. There are so many things I want to say, but the words just don’t quite seem to fit. In lots of ways, music is an almost visceral expression of raw emotion—feelings turned into sounds that are then transmitted to others. Sometimes you can’t find the words to explain to someone what you feel…but you can do exactly that through music, and it may resonate on a deeper level than simply telling them. As Georgia Cates once said, “Music is what feelings sound like.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Most of my favorite music does not have words. Since my primary instrument is the piano, I focus quite a bit on solo instrumental music: it’s just me alone in a practice room with my thoughts and a piano. And it’s lovely, to have that time to just think, and play, and work. Being a music major seems to me like the best thing in the world…I not only get to learn so much about a subject I adore, but I have to play my instrument rather a lot each day. Sure, some days it’s harder to motivate myself than others. I’m certainly no angel when it comes to practice time sometimes. But it’s the absolute best kind of homework there is. 🙂 Or at least, that’s my opinion.

As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming recital, I think that one of my greatest worries has been that I won’t be able to say what I need to say through the music. Nerves are one of a performer’s greatest enemies, and I tend to be a bit less-than-confident when it comes to performance. But I’ve come to the point where I know that it’s going to be what it’s going to be—and that will be just fine. The thing about music is that sometimes, we can get a bit hung up on the notes themselves. Study and practice are essential of course, and as musicians we all need to do our best to ensure that we do justice to the pieces we play. However we need to be careful not to worship music for music’s sake…it’s something to be used as a tool to express oneself, give to people, communicate, find God. Getting hung up on the notes and rhythms will not make the music come alive—that’s for practice and preparation. Once you walk out on stage, it’s no longer about technique—it’s about connecting. We need to be able to get out of the way, and let the music speak for itself.

Our lives are songs without words—improvisations on the fantasies of our dreams. There are no lyrics that lay out the content of our lives, no forms that dictate how things will turn out or what will happen later on down the road. We’ve simply got to keep trudging along the path set before us with hope and love, faith and determination. No matter the melody, life is beautiful. Your unique, individual tune is what makes it so. Thank you for reading, my friends. Please enjoy this lovely song without words I recently discovered, and have a peaceful and restful evening.

cropped-old-piano1.jpg

A Whole Person

img_7670

—Charles Williams

This quote comes from a series of books I’ve been reading lately…Charles Williams is a mighty author, and I would highly recommend taking the time to read his works. The book I’m borrowing this quote from is entitled Descent Into Hell and it’s quite a trip! I wonder what Williams’s fellow Inklings (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) might have thought of it…Anyway, enough background. I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while now. I suppose I’m just a slow processor when it comes to these sorts of things. But after discovering that quote and ruminating on it and life in general for a time, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions that I thought I should share. Thanks for reading!

We are all different people. Each is as different from the other as snowflakes are. It’s a beautiful and wonderful thing, this. Truly. But it can sometimes be very lonely. It’s impossible to truly get into someone else’s head and understand completely what someone else is thinking or going through. We have the ability to empathize and sympathize…but that’s not really the same thing as putting someone else’s metaphorical shoes on and walking around in them for a time. For someone that thinks too much (and I know I’m not the only one), this can be a stumbling block. If I can never really understand someone else, how on earth is he or she going to understand me? Am I truly alone? Add that with the desire, the need, to people-please (which I believe all of us are born with), and you’ve got a recipe for what I like to think of as half a person. It’s a funny way to be, really. You love being around people and interacting with them, and you’re open to a degree. But then, there’s an automatic shut-off switch when you get too close to complaining, or being negative, or dampening someone else’s mood and you clam up, slap a smile upon your face, and call it “I’m fine!” Which sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The point here isn’t to dump on people all the time…the point is to realize that when you do this to yourself, you’re not letting yourself be a whole person. You’re shutting out a part of yourself that is just as important and valuable as the rest of you—your vulnerability, your heartbreak, your sadness and confusion, frustration, anger. We all feel these things, and we all need to be willing and able to feel them. Otherwise, we stuff it all away in dark hidden places and live a sort of halfway existence where no one really knows the real us because we won’t let them. And then, it gets even weirder because you start to lose a bit of yourself by trying to get rid of all the bad.

A large part of personhood is taking the good along with the bad. This is perhaps a bit more obvious in the terms of friendships, relationships, family, etc. We know that no one is perfect, and we understand that no one can therefore be perfect all the time. Maybe not even most of the time…which is ok. However, we ourselves can’t be perfect either. To attempt to do so, as I’ve said before, is not healthy. We are to be good, and loving, and we’re to honestly try our best to live our lives according to the faith and principles we subscribe to. However, striving for absolute perfection 100% of the time isn’t good—it’s an unattainable goal, an achievement you could spend your entire living reaching for and never grasp. And you know what else  we tend to forget when we work for utter perfection? It’s a pretty lonely place. Presenting a perfect face to the world, as it describes in the above quote, takes away from others’ ability to be real with us. In order to be people, we have to let others be people too. We have to give our burdens away, and let those close to us carry them for awhile. Likewise, it’s our duty and joy to carry burdens for others. “Perfect” people have no burdens.

So for those of us who tend to close our internal doors as soon as the negative, or the strange, or the real starts to come out, please know that you’re not alone. Open up those doors a crack and see what happens. Chances are, others are struggling, or upset, or frustrated, or just plain lonely too, and your opening up and allowing them to help you with your burdens will in turn free them to let you carry a part of their burdens. Be a whole person, and you give others permission to do the same. Thank you, friends. Here’s a song I recently discovered…it’s not really got anything to do with the subject matter, I just thought it was beautiful and wanted to share. 🙂 Enjoy the gorgeous day, and feel free to be yourself…all of yourself. Cheers!