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Flying into December

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Whew … I haven’t looked on this blog site of mine in awhile. My ictus has been up for way too long, and it’s about time it came down. Seriously.

We went to Texas for Thanksgiving and an extended visit with my side of the family. What a fantastic time! Also got to reconnect with some precious friends. It is such an amazing confirmation of life to see how much certain members of the family can grow so much in half a year – how one’s vertical space increases while another’s horizon expands (mine) or decreases (my brother’s); and how the capacity for mental maturity spans a great scale (?). All are well and we are so blessed.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that play out much better when experienced from within the contextual borders of where it originated. That being said, we were thrilled when snow fell in large, swirling, fluffy flakes the entire day! Absolutely glorious. At least NINE INCHES of it. In West Texas, of all places!! As if all those dearly-departed turkey birds were orchestrating a newly-composed gobbler symphony, forgiving us our culinary transgressions (that would be an event in itself, as one has yet to be composed – thankfully. One couldn’t quite call it a swan song, eh?)

Our flight took us out in November and brought us back in December, safe and sound. My musical commitments are great in December, so blog posting will not be a priority, but I’ll make an attempt as I can. Has anyone returned from a long journey and not tried to catch at least a month of tasks up into one week?

I’m just glad to be home. Shopping in M&S the other day, it was so exciting to see all the Christmas goodies out on the shelves –  chocolate Yule logs; Christmas cakes; the seasonal tins of biscuits; the copious varieties of luxury, butter-encrusted mince pies; Christmas puddings large and small; the party trays of trendy food bites.

Yes, FOOD!!

As I pass from one continent where we dined on Tex-Mex foods, buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy, Texas chicken-fried steaks, Dairy Queen Buster burgers with cheese (and thick milk shakes), cornbread dressing, candied yams, pumpkin and pecan pies TO this island where taste buds are transformed and taken over by December’s delectable delights like all the above-mentioned sweets soon to be augmented by roasted parsnips, brussels sprouts, mulled wine…

An agonizing thought occurs to me:

A very fine line exists between savouring one’s cultural and seasonal food cravings and out-and-out sinful gluttony.

Where’s my Ictus?

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This week’s rehearsal for the Village Children’s Choir just happened to land on Halloween.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do, as it is not as celebrated a custom here as where I grew up. All my years of teaching music in America, we music teachers were known to go over the top of the Halloween Theme Park, pulling out all kinds of spooky-fun sound effects and songs for the students to sing and move to, decorating our music rooms with black lights and cobwebs, and having cauldrons of sweets to lavish upon the students as they crossed through the portals of serious education into whatever atmospheric splendour of camp mystery we would create. From the moment the kids walked through the school doors, their senses would go on overload with all the Halloween sights, sounds, and smells of sweets or popcorn. Many of the primary-aged students bring their fancy Halloween dress to school for the parties their classes will have at the end of the school day.

One year from my piano studio at home I greeted all my private piano students coming for their lessons with the strains of Lizst’s Totentanz and Schubert’s Erlkönig, dressed as a Scottish Widow (but way uglier), serving cauldrons of cider spiked with dry ice, and baskets of home-made sweets. The neighbours came to party later. (OH! In America the cider served to kids isn’t full of alcohol…)

The Village Children’s Choir meets in the village’s primary school hall, so when I walked into the school this Wednesday with my meagre Halloween bounty (by American standards), I must admit it felt a little strange NOT to see ANY Halloween decorations. Doubts were beginning to fill my mind with the immediate thought being, ‘Not a good idea. Revert to Plan C’.

But my choir colleague and cohort-in-fun thought we should have some excitement, sooooo…

When the 33 little choir members came into rehearsal in their crisp school uniforms, we decided they needed to loosen up! We wore wacky hands for conducting and accompanying. We used a large black gauzy scarf to convey lightness of singing tone, and tried to get the kids to loosen up and ‘float’ – the British stiff upper lip almost won the day, but we prevailed! At rehearsal’s end, the kids were singing high G’s in the descant to O, come all ye faithful without screeching. As they politely chose candy out of the basket (in an orderly queue!) I was shocked when they each sincerely responded with ‘Thank you and Happy Halloween’.

In America, my students rarely thanked me, saved ‘Happy’ for birthday, and felt entitled to more than the one or two pieces of sweets I could afford to ladle out. Nor did they appreciate how I and other teachers came close to breaking our bank accounts so they could have a fun campy experience. (I had to have enough treats for close to 800 elementary students, as they all came to me for music.) One year I was so broke I decided I just could not afford the treats. As music teachers did not have ‘room mothers’ as classroom teachers did, and I had so many students I would have been baking cookies for weeks, I tried to get by with cutesy paper cut-outs and singing games. But the kids were already wired and crawling the ceiling from their PE classes prior to music, expecting more sweets, as the PE teacher had apparently only robbed her bank and not another. I wasn’t the most popular teacher on campus that year, and the principal’s smiles were increasingly lack-lustre (he never needed Halloween to resemble the Grim Reaper).

The American Halloween custom of Trick-or-Treat has just been starting to catch on here in the UK in the last couple of years. In 2002, there was not much to choose from for fancy dress costumes in the grocery stores, no bags of sweets packaged in bulk, and therefore nothing fancy or with a Halloween theme for Trick-or-Treaters to carry their loot about.

But now this American custom is being adopted and accepted more each year. In the last couple of years Sainsbury’s, Tesco, ASDA have all bought into the culture and even dedicated an aisle for children’s fancy dress, masks, freaky accessories, AND some sweets packaged in bulk.

Well, sort of … Brits don’t do bulk as comfortably or readily as Americans.

 Deb’s Pumpkin Tartlets

Every year around Harvest Sunday I am asked by friends if it’s true that Americans make pumpkin pies. They want to know what they taste like, not quite sure if the pies are a savoury affair or sweet. Our first year in London I could not find Libby’s Solid Pack Pumpkin — I was still unfamiliar with some of the grocery stores, and my friends had never heard of Libby’s. Even worse, in November all the real pumpkins had disappeared from the grocery stores and markets because they were out of season!!

One kind green grocer in our little town square kept his eye out for some pumpkins after he witnessed my initial distress. The week before Thanksgiving he proudly presented me with two of the cutest little pumpkins I had ever seen. What a hero he was! After using just one of those to make my pumpkin pies — it yielded lots of meat — I soon realised why Libby’s Solid Pack Pumpkin-in-a-tin had become so popular back home: real pumpkins are dangerously difficult to work with!

A couple of Christmases ago, my sweet sister-in-law sent me two industrial sized tins of pumpkin. Thankfully I’ve learned Waitrose carries Libby’s, so now I stock up! And my pumpkin pies have been Anglicised into pumpkin tartlets, with a dollop of double cream.

Tonight is our Bring and Share ‘American-style’ supper and Harvest Auction at the Old School Hall. I had best be getting busy. It will be a sweet affair, thanks to Libby’s AND Waitrose!

(Will post a photo when they’re out of the oven.)

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This link will take you to an article by Patricia Mitchell found in ‘Texas Cooking’. It gives instructions for how to prepare and puree pumpkin for cooking and baking if you can’t get Libby’s. Best of all it gives the RECIPES for these five fabulous pumpkin delights:

  1. Pumpkin Bread
  2. Creamy Pumpkin Vegetable Soup
  3. Pumpkin Pecan Pie
  4. Pumpkin Marble Cheesecake
  5. Pumpkin Flan

(Check out ‘Grandma’s Cookbook’ on this website when you get a chance — yum!)

Harvest Thanks and Church Gardens

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We just had Harvest Sunday. On the Friday before, the children at the village school walked to the church and had their annual Harvest worship service. As is their custom, they collect and bring home grown veg and fruits, tinned goods, biscuits, pastas, and other goods for donations. During their service they lay their gifts up at the altar. Afterwards, ladies from the church spend the weekend sorting the gifts into decorated baskets and boxes, then arrange them in a lovely display in the church. 

Several years ago, most folks determined our village did not actually have that many ‘needy’ folks. As these gifts were from the children, it was decided that after a special Bring and Share supper at the Old School Hall, these gifts would be ‘auctioned’, with the proceeds going to our sister school in Sri Lanka. The children are always delighted to learn how their ‘gifts from the fields’ convert  into pounds and pence! There is a lot of communication and sharing between the children, teachers, parents, church members and other villagers in both communities, as far apart as we are from each other. Quite a few from our village make regular trips to our friends in Sri Lanka, and last year’s harvest proceeds were delivered in person — the children at the school in Sri Lanka gained more computers. The network between the kids at both schools is alive and well, as they share photos and projects from subjects as diverse as arts and maths!

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It has been fun for me to see where and how some of the American Thanksgiving tradition I grew up with originated from. Harvest Sunday in the UK is always the first Sunday in October, and our village is certainly geared up for it.

We have at least four big farms that make up the life and land of our village — one of the large farms operated by our friends sits right next to the church. During lambing season, which is twice yearly, we love to hear those little lambs finding their voice, adding their volume to the six church bells ringing from the tower as we walk to church. Another large farm is owned by one of our church wardens, who always kindly donates hay and straw for the village Scarecrow Festival. This year was a really tough year for our farming families, what with more rain than usual, foot and mouth, and the more recent incidence of blue tongue. We’ve all prayed a lot, and have much to be thankful for.

Our church warden who farms was asked to impart the following advice to us this Harvest Sunday:

THE CHURCH GARDEN

First, plant five rows of PEAS:

  • Presence

  • Promptness

  • Preparation

  • Purity

  • Perseverance

Next, plant three rows of SQUASH:

  • Squash gossip

  • Squash criticism

  • Squash indifference

Then plant five rows of LETTUCE:

  • Let us be Faithful to duty

  • Let us be Loyal and Unselfish

  • Let us be True to our obligations

  • Let us Obey rules and regulations

  • Let us Love one another

No garden is complete without TURNIPS:

  • Turn up with a smile

  • Turn up with new ideas

  • Turn up with the determination to make everything count for something good and worthwhile.

(Author Unknown)

Welcome to Notes from Deb!

Welcome to my new blog site. I thought it was about time for a change! Plus there are some features with WordPress that I really like. With this blog I could easily add a Calendar and some special pages, such as the Repertoire page. The TNIV Daily Bible is still easy to use — just place your cursor over the current daily verse selection, and you can view it in a special box, or be taken directly the TNIV website.

If you happen to drop by and have the time to comment please let me know what you think. Thanks!

Those magical musical modes

This will date me terribly, but when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I developed a really keen passion for the sounds of modal scales, and began adding folk music to my repertoire of Mozart, Schubert, and Grieg. If my memory serves me faithfully the musical source I turned to again and again was a small but thick compilation of folk tunes by Burl Ives. Because Mr Ives played the guitar, this musical morsel introduced me to the musical world of chord symbols and progressions. I fell in love with haunting and plaintive minor melodies and the ways the modal harmonies added certain colours – all great stuff for a little girl with an active imagination. I remember liking the Dorian mode so much that I thought one day, if I ever had a little baby boy, I would name him Dorian. But instead I grew up to inherit a little female puppy dog and Dorian just didn’t seem to fit.

Anyway, from these playing sessions inside my treasure book of folk music – which quickly became worn and dog-eared with use, with pages unhinged from glued binding – I learned about other composers of folk music, and learned that we Americans have been gifted with a lot of early music from the British Isles.

Some of the songs I would play over and over again, and much to the dismay of my long-suffering family who had to listen to me practice, would be those of John Jacob Niles. Black is the colour of my true love’s hair and Barb’ry Ellen must have been a couple of tunes I drove them crazy with! As an adult I still appreciate his lovely contribution to our music repertoire for hymns and Christmas carols. For his last work, he turned to the poetry of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, to give us the Niles-Merton Song Cycle.

For the Christmas season Niles’s I wonder as I wander has always been a favourite of mine when I introduce his music to some of the English choirs I’ve conducted here in the UK. Its tonal colours and poignant message never fail to transport me to another time and place. Born in 1892, by the time Niles set this work to music and lyrics in July of 1933, he had travelled the world several times and become a keen observer of the human condition. Here are his recorded notes of how this lovely creation came to be:

‘I Wonder As I Wander grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July, 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, coking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out–a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander”. At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material–and a magnificent idea. With the writing of additional verses and the development of the original melodic material, “I Wonder As I Wander” came into being. I sang it for five years in my concerts before it caught on. Since then, it has been sung by soloists and choral groups wherever the English language is spoken and sung.’

For this Christmas season, I’ve been asked to introduce another American Christmas carol to another English choir. As I was trolling through my choral library this summer, a hidden gem of Niles’s seemed to float to the top of my choral octavos. Soon I will begin to teach Sweet Marie and her Baby (Aeolian mode) to the kids in our Village Children’s Choir.

Hopefully these precious children will become enthralled by the magic of the modes in melody and harmony, and as touched with the message of the text as I was – all those years ago when I was close to the age they are now.

Allegiance to whom?

This post sounds scattered. I’ve just been processing through some thoughts from yesterday’s worship, on recent Blog debates over at Preacher Mike’s, and future plans our Churches Together group is praying about for our village community. They all just seemed to converge.

Churches Together met yesterday afternoon at the Methodist Chapel. We began praying for and planning a spiritual initiative for our village community to implement in the coming year, which begins in just three months on New Year’s Eve. The year-long outreach is entitled Hope 2008.

And yesterday morning was my turn on the church rota to read the scriptures. On this particular Sunday, Proper 20, Year C, our Epistle reading was from 1 Timothy 2.1-7, and our Gospel reading was from Luke 16.1-13.

1 Timothy 2.1-7 – Instructions on Worship: or how to genuinely include all the corrupt world leaders and politicians in authority into our prayers – ‘requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving’. These are to be made for all, ‘…so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’

Not a lot to be thankful for with our current lot of world leaders. Especially when the decisions they continue to make lead to the deaths of so many innocents, and all they are worried about is how to wiggle out of legal loopholes and preserve their legacy (much like the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable).

Luke 16.1-13 – The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: or how to watch out for one’s own interests when one gets caught embezzling other people’s assets.

This was difficult for me to read, in light of how the business of all the sub-prime lenders in America has been affecting people’s lives here in the UK. But most Americans don’t read our newspapers or hear about what goes on over here – unlike the news we get, typical American TV and Radio broadcasts give more regional and national coverage, and very little world news. Still, they should take more responsibility: how one nation’s debt-ridden citizens can ruin the financial lives of those in the UK, for example, whose good earnings are used to cover Americans’ bad debts is just pure evil.

But as I prepared for my readings, God reminded me that Jesus has lessons for us that are not all wine and roses. Some, like those found in these two scriptures, are just plain hard to swallow at times.

After the reading of the Gospel our congregation stands to face the altar and, with our focus on the symbol of the Cross, in unison we all say the Creed of the Apostles. I love to face the Cross and say the Creed together with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Every Sunday, it seems the Holy Spirit illuminates one of its truths to me in a special message.

I have only learned the Creed as an adult. The religious denomination I grew up in preached that the Apostle’s Creed was in itself a sin. The church leaders who taught this could never tell me exactly what the Creed was. When I would ask them why they couldn’t tell me, they communicated the idea that it would be a spiritual stumbling block for them to even recite the words. Even though none of them had ever said it, they were certain that those who did intoned the words mindlessly and without conviction, thereby committing blasphemy. So the only words of the Creed I grew up hearing were two: ‘The Creed’. We did not have the Internet back then, or I would have been a most disobedient child and secretly Googled ‘The Creed’ in a search field.

As the church leaders were godly men, I believed and trusted them, and eventually stopped asking what The Creed was. Besides, they were much more pleased with me when I put my hand over my heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance and sang the National Anthem in a school programme. Hey, I knew both by memory from the age of 5, reciting and singing both with gusto every weekday morning in front of the Stars and Stripes.

When my family returned to America after having lived in Afghanistan, for some reason I just could not find the spirit to get my hand over my heart, say the Pledge, or sing the National Anthem. Bombs bursting in air no longer appealed to me. And the Pledge of Allegiance sounded so empty when I realised there was no truth in America’s Constitutional Promises for all people to be treated equally, and learned that some of the Founding Fathers were not believers of God and Christ.

It’s been a good while since I have lived in a country where one sees a classroom or school hall full of small children stand in unison, hands over hearts, to face a great flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance from memory. Recently my husband and I watched, with friends, a TV show from the United States and in it, a classroom of children repeated the age-old tradition that had been drilled into me when I was their age. Our friends, needless to say, were transfixed.

‘What was that?’
‘Well, in the States all school-aged children begin each school day saying the Pledge, and singing ‘O Say Can You See?’.
‘You are joking!’
‘No, seriously. It’s our patriotic duty.’
‘Well, that looks and sounds like brain-washing to us! Certainly looks it. What happens when the child doesn’t want to do either of those things? That song is pretty militaristic and hard to sing.’
‘They can be disciplined by the teacher and taunted or bullied by their classmates before recess or at lunch in the cafeteria. BUT if they bring along a note from home saying that the practice is against their religious beliefs, they get excused. They remain seated at their desks while the other kids stand around them. They’re not in trouble then, but they still get made fun of by some kids.’
‘How absolutely awful! We thought America was a lot different. We love our country, too, and our guys are dying in Afghanistan, but the only time we wave our flag is when England is in the World Cup!’

I must say, I see their point. For a country that is all about separation of Church and State, as America is, it seems that the Church cannot separate the politics of the State from its religious beliefs and teachings. Where does one begin and the other end? One’s unalienable rights trump loving one’s neighbour.

The passage from Luke which I read from yesterday ends with Jesus telling us that no servant can serve two masters. It’s either a choice between God and the treasures of his kingdom, or the world and its earthly riches. In our world, where more sceptics are calling believers in Christ to stand up for their faith, I wonder which captures the truth and hopes of my passions better:

The Pledge of Allegiance I learned as a child OR The Apostles’ Creed?

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The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the Flag
of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands:
One Nation under God, indivisible,
with Liberty and Justice for all.

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The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of the saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
Amen.