When They Ring the Golden Bells

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~C.S. Lewis

Last night, we gathered in the home of the dearest of friends for an evening of music and fellowship. It was a celebration of God’s bounty in our lives, the most treasured and notable of which were the people that filled the rooms of our friends’ new-old house. With each year that passes, we take these loved faces less and less for granted. I seriously do not know what I would do without them, such trusted companions of sunshine and shadow, and I can hardly even begin to thank God for their influence in my life.

Every person there was a beautiful sight to my eyes. Some of the friendships represented were brand new, bright with lovely promise, while others were of a lifetime’s duration. Parents and siblings filled the circle, and the angel-fresh faces of three little girls whom Philip and I love with a devotion akin to servitude.

My friends and I sang some of the old favorites in our repertoire, with a couple of Early American “shape note” songs as an eager hat-tip to Christmas. There were readings of original poetry and essay, an exquisite selection on classical guitar, and a husband and wife duo that literally broke our hearts with the sheer beauty of their oneness expressed in words and music. The kind of music that makes you smile with your eyes full of tears.

At the end of our little program, before the ‘congregational singing’, my friend Rachel and I sang a piece that is very dear to both of our hearts, “When They Ring the Golden Bells”. I had come across a version of it years ago, a collaboration between Natalie Merchant and Karen Peris, and was immediately struck by both the beauty and the familiarity of it. I had always wanted to learn it with Rach, and we did play around with it a bit. But when my grandmother died, Rachel agreed to do the song with me at her funeral, and it was while we were practicing it that I made the connection where I had first heard it–at Rachel’s wedding, of all things. It was such a sudden, poignant illustration to me of the sweet brevity of our days, and of the glorious perspective on life and death held out to us in the Gospel. When we sang this song together at my little grandmother’s funeral, with my brother accompanying us on the guitar, all I could think about was the great Marriage Feast that was awaiting.  The real end of the Story.

Last summer we set down a few tracks of some of the duets we’d worked on, and Rachel’s long-suffering and extremely talented brother came to play the guitar for us. I can’t express how patient he was with our demands upon his prowess, alternately instructing him to speed up or slow down according to our whimsy as he strummed and plucked and picked his way through songs like, “I Saw a Maiden” and “Oh! Tell Me How to Woo Thee”.

Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, was the look he gave us when the songs leaned too heavily on the sentimental side. But we all had a fantastic time together, and I think that when we came to “Golden Bells”, he was relieved that here, at last, was a song in which there was no dighting me in array or Fie! Nay, pritthee-ing.

My rendition of it last night was considerably less sound than the one we recorded on that sunny July day, as my voice wavered and broke a couple of times at the vast span of emotion and association connected with the song for me. I was overwhelmed with what it all meant; with the faces in the room and the faces I can’t wait to see again in heaven. And with the deathless promise of the One who “will wipe away all tears from off their faces…”

Here it is, if you’d care to hear it. It’s not perfect–at least, certainly not my part–though Rach sounds like an angel and Joseph like a master and Philip did a great job mixing it down.

When They Ring the Golden Bells

Thank God I have these people in my life. I love them so.

A Token of Friendship

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

"Summer", Frank Weston Benson

I can’t believe that it was fifteen years ago. How could anything be fifteen years ago?

It was April. One of our number was turning 21 and we had spirited her away to one of the most enchanted places on earth to celebrate: the coastal isles of Georgia. Twelve girls in one hotel room (don’t even try to imagine where we all slept: I have the distinct recollection that there was very little sleep to be had) and a mass chaos of feminine frenzy any time we wanted to go anywhere (in which we were divided between a fifteen passenger van and Nikki’s mother’s ginormous station wagon). A weekend at the beach for $40, complete with groceries, gas and meals–and one of the shining moments of my girlhood. (It was also the occasion of one of the most humiliating experiences of my entire life, involving the aforementioned station wagon and the golf course of the Sea Island Club–yeah, that Sea Island–but I’ll save that one for another day. Or not.)

One evening after dinner (the birthday meal at the late, lamented Blanche’s Courtyard) we went for a walk along the shore, abandoning our shoes at the boardwalk and flitting down towards the water in the fading light like so many moths, unbounded by the trappings of earth. We laughed and splashed in the tide, soaking the hems of our flapping skirts and, doubtless, one another. And then, as the darkness dropped down and enfolded us in an uncanny quiet we all became more serious. Quieter, in keeping with the great stillness that enfolded all the world and the deserted beach which was our corner of it.

Sarah taught us a song, a haunting round her mother had learned in France, that just seemed to speak the yearning of our young and uncomplicated souls in its simple adoration of the Savior:

Jesus my Lord, my Rock and my Shield, You gave up Your life that we might live.
You gave up Your life that we might live.
Gracious Savior, Gracious Savior, Gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.

We sang it, again and again, loving the words and the sounds of our own voices blended together in worship along with the winds and the cresting tide. And then we were silent, hardly able to make out one anothers’ faces in the moonless gloom. Hardly daring to breathe for the beauty of the moment.

A sound of clapping startled us out of the spell: slow and satisfied, first one and then another. Squinting in the darkness we made our way over to a driftwood log where, unbeknownst to us, a couple had been sitting for some time, watching the evening fall and listening to our singing. It turned out to be friends who lived on the Island (glorious Kingdom coincidence!) and they were so delighted with our visit and with our music that they asked us on the spot to come to their church the next morning and sing for their youth group.

Which we did. And which I still find absolutely hilarious to this day. But, oh so touching to remember on this April afternoon when life has scattered us literally all over the world.

A few years back my husband recorded some of us singing it, and I offer it here in token of friendship. And in praise of the gracious Savior that makes it eternal.

Jesus My Lord

My Dancing Day

Monday, December 14th, 2009

christmas party 2005 081

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Traditional English

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Dancing with my Daddy, Christmas 2005

photography credit Frank Gibson, 2005

All Hayle to the Days

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

advent wreath - Copy

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, The Book of Common Prayer

It’s official. I made my Advent wreath this afternoon of ferny, fragrant cedar, and I hung it with red satin ribbons from its hook in the den.

And the most beautiful and blessed Season of all is upon us once more.

And as a little gift to my Gentle Readers, I’d like to share a few of the old and loved songs that Philip has recorded over the years of my friends and me singing together in the parlor. Not polished or perfect, by any means, but merely sisters in Christ delighting together in the sweet kinship of music and love for our Lord, whose glorious appearing we now have the joy of celebrating once more…

All Hayle to the Days

English traditional

Love Came Down

Christina Rossetti, 1885

God bless you all as we embark upon the sweet anticipation of Advent…

Sweet Delights

Friday, November 20th, 2009

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It is the burnished season. At last.

The sheep and goats amble across the pasture these late afternoons in a wash of amber and the trees around the house are clothed with rainbows, green and crimson and scarlet, tawny gold and flaming orange, blended into a dreamy patchwork amid the thin blue vapors of woodsmoke and autumn mists. Sunday night when we came out of Evensong the moist air was spiced with incense that had wafted out with us as we opened the huge wooden doors, blent bewitchingly with the sweet evanescence of elaeagnus that was abroad, and the ginger-colored leaves on the branches about the cathedral were lit from beneath in the sun’s last slanting rays till they glowed like living coals.

It’s one of my very favorite times, this mad second youth of the year, more beautiful in its maturity than even the careless loveliness of April and May. And definitely more poignant in all its brave show. Already the golden leaves of ginkos and hickories have made a yellow carpet upon the lawns of my town, and tonight’s rain will assuredly rob the great silken-trunked crepe myrtle outside my window of its last clinging jewels. But what a lovely autumn it’s been. And what a stirring of anticipation as we lean closer and closer towards the brightest and best days that the calendar affords!

This past weekend we had the joy of celebrating all of the wealth and abundance that this season represents: the staggering kindnesses of God, the mercies of both shadow and shade, the harvest of a year’s worth of faltering paces towards the heaven we’ve all been made for. In company of ‘fellow sojourners’ that are like family and with the bright festivity of the holiday season beckoning past resistance, we gathered in the home of beloved friends for an evening of music and fellowship and autumnal fare. The Michaelmas Party we called it, more in the spirit of the Oxford term schedule than the actual feast day (which is in September, as any British readers would doubtless smilingly point out to these American Anglophiles!;)).

My friend’s home was soft with candlelight and firelight and we were greeted by the aroma of mulled wine and spices, evocative of so many other glad and golden hours spent in one anothers’ company. The table was spread with seasonal offerings: poached pears, pumpkin cakes, aromatic cheeses, a cobbler plump with berries—just the sight of which was a feast for the eyes. And the rooms themselves were lovelier still. Flaming maple leaves nearly incandescent with light and color bloomed out from cupboards and shelves. Grapevines were wound with artful abandon over the mantle and holly berries rubbed shoulders with auburn foliage in an apt image of the overflow of joy from one season to the next. This was the Opening Ceremonies—“The kickoff for Christmas!” It was exchanged like a greeting through the rooms with all the joy of children. The tenderly-sweet overture. The Commencement.

And when those of us who had stepped out into the clement night heard the bells chiming the hour in the church tower down the street, our hostess informed us that it was time for the evening’s entertainment to begin. Our violinists ranged from nine years old to professional. A classical guitarist literally transported us all to Turkey with his spell-binding rendition of Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba during which you could have heard a pin drop in the room, we were all so breathless. And my friends and I performed some of our beloved English songs, Purcell and Byrd and that ilk, with a Palestrina thrown in for good measure. One of our rounds, while lighthearted enough a game of musical ‘catch’, touched a winsome chord in the light of the year’s hardships:

Let’s sing and cheer our hearts tonight!

We sum up all delights in one, in sweet delights of time and tune.

I will not count the care times bring—

I’ll only count my time to sing.

Our friends’ little daughter looked like a subject of Sargeant’s in her long velveteen dress and hair flowing in waves down her back, and the seriousness of her still-childishly lined face as she worked her bow with genuine skill and precision gave me a turn. How could that be the little baby brought over in a Moses basket to one of the first dinner parties Philip and I hosted just after we were married? It was a pluck at my sleeve. A not-so-subtle hint that, as Jo March would say, ‘change comes just as surely as the seasons, and twice as fast’.

We closed our portion of the program with a Burgundian carol entitled Oxen and Sheep, simply because it was so lovely we couldn’t help it. ;) And the lullaby-like All My Heart:

Love him who with love is yearning!

Hail the star that from far

Bright with hope is burning!

When the tapers had burned low and the party was reduced to the few clinging round the hearth, we played charades at the request of our little velveteen-clad violinist, and laughed till the tears came at the ensuing antics. And Philip and I stayed even later—well into the wee sma’s—gathering punch cups and coffee cups and silver forks, reminiscing in the kitchen and relishing the ‘sweet delights’ of friends loved past expression and times that make life the beautiful journey Home that it is.

“The goldenest of golden times,” I told my friend the next day.

Touched with the gilding of autumntide itself.

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A Sunday’s Occupation

Monday, July 4th, 2005

Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie…     Milton

July 4, 2005: Sunday afternoon was spent singing with some dear girlfriends…here are the first fruits that Philip recorded and mixed down:

The King

Laudate Nomen Domini

Lord Jesus Think on Me

October 2, 2005

Sull’ aria from The Marriage of Figaro

Current Favorites~
Innocence Mission: Befriended Our favorite album from our favorite band
Gillian Welch: Revival Bluegrass as good as it gets

Carla Bruni: Quelqu’un M’a Dit
Hauntingly beautiful French music from an Italian woman living in France…

Astrud Gilberto: Beach Samba 1960′s basso nova

Henry Mancini: The Best of Henry Mancini Says it all :)
Bach: Cantatas Exquisite–especially the ‘Marriage Cantata’
Mozart: Vespers This music is simply sublime.  What the portals of heaven must sound like.