Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reasons To Be Left Behind: Hallelujah

 Photo by syndstarr

As promised in my earlier blog, I’m still working on my New Year’s CD to send to friends and family. As I select each song I imagine a person to whom I’d be playing DJ. So many of you are experiencing the holidays in different ways -- from surprising new romance to subtle joy over something accomplished in one’s soul or one’s life, to heartache as you mourn a beloved person lost during this holiday time

So each song on my playlist is a story, a call-and-response. I hope my playlist will reach out to each and every one of you listening.

Here’s the playlist so far:

Sweet Old World/ Emily Lou Harris (see this post)
Hallelujah/Allison Crowe
K’erachaim’av/Yiddish prayer/Brenda’s solo with Diana Shvets accompanist
Peace in the Valley/ old spiritual sung by Sam Cooke
The Crossing (Osiyeza) Overtone [from the new South African movie “Invictus”

This heart-stirring song “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen and covered by other artists -- from the Canadian Rufus Wainwright to k.d. Lang. I chose for my 2010 New Year’s CD a lesser-known, but passionate and soaring version by Canadian singer Allison Crowe on her album “Tidings: 6 Songs for the Season.”

The first time I ever heard Crowe’s version I fell on the floor in absolute stillness to better hear it, to bear it. Crowe asks, “Why singing? Why Breathing?” on her website and her soulful vocals, her craftsmanship are another reason to be left behind. There is an echo of incandescent grief to her voice that is haunting. BBC radio listeners voted Crowe’s “Tidings” album among the greatest cover albums of all time. Listen in at this video link and see why. And then listen to her “Hallelujah” for yourselves.

Caution: Do not drive while listening. You may not be able to stay between the white lines!

Allison Crowe, "Tidings" album videos
Please join in with your harmonies and your suggestions. If you have songs that are especially dear to you during the holiday or New Year season, please post them so we can all enjoy a call-and-response. Kind of an impromptu on-line choir, or an cyberspace acapella. Also, for those of you who are blue at Christmas, see this PBS link to “Blue Christmas” on their Religion and Ethics website.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Want To Be Left Behind Featured on Seattle's NPR

 Photo by Mukumbura

To join in the celebration of Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights, the winter Solstice return of the sunlight, and Christmas, I recorded this week a holiday commentary for our beloved local NPR station, KUOW, for “KUOW Presents” with gracious host, Megan Sukys. Called “Night of Miracles,” this story is taken from my new book, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth (DaCapo, Feb. 2010)

Here’s the beginning paragraph and then you can listen to the rest at the link: “When I was fifteen our church youth choir carried our Christmas treats and our singing to St. Elizabeth’s mental institution in Washington, D.C. The complex cantata we had practiced all fall was called “Night of Miracles,” and in addition to my mother’s piano accompaniment, our performance would be lifted by the choir’s diva, Mrs. Helena Simmer. Her rich, dark mezzo-soprano voice was reason enough to go to church . . .”

Brenda Peterson's commentary on Seattle's NPR produced by Megan Sukys


Monday, December 7, 2009

Reasons To Be Left Behind: This Sweet Old World

How many of us have soundtracks revolving in our heads throughout the day? Growing up in a family that sang together -- in church, on cross-continent treks, in the garden, and at any gathering -- we just naturally assumed that singing was another form of communication. Sometimes it was our most genuine and generous dialogue. We tuned into each other’s voices with an attention span and curiosity that we might not exchange at the dinner table.

In order to harmonize, singers must truly listen to the Other. Our gifted chorale director, John, calls it “blend” -- that intimate weaving of voices that brings the listeners close, as well. Every week, John leads us in warm-up voice exercises; he asks us to stand next to someone with a different part than our own. So a first soprano might stand next to an second alto, a first alto next to a second soprano, and so on around the circle. John builds major and minor chords and we each sing our part. But the trick is not to overpower another’s voice. We must listen and match our voices with one another’s until there is that perfect equipoise of sound -- a song-tapestry that vibrates together. Blend.

In the dictionary, one definition of “blend” is “to pass gradually into each other, as colors.” Sometimes singing in my chorale when the pitch is just right and the parts are mingled in complex harmonies that are yet so very simple in their pure mix, I almost see prismatic sound. Like synethesia. Musical notes have colors. A middle C might sound like purple; an ultrasonic high A might look electric, like turquoise.

In his wonderful book Musicophilia, the neuroscientist Oliver Saks says the human brain, like many other species, is hard-wired for sound. “We are a musical species,” Saks writes, “no less than a language species.”

Perhaps that’s why every holiday season I make my traditional New Year’s CD as my gift to friends and family. I ponder the playlist for months before I burn the CD. I take requests and try to find a theme for coming year. For 2010, my theme is “This Sweet Old World.”

The terrific songwriter/artist Lucinda Williams wrote this haunting, tender song for her 1992 album, “Sweet Old World.” Apparently, the song was a Williams elegy for a family friend who had committed suicide -- someone who chose not to be left behind. The mighty Emmylou Harris picked up this song for her 1995 album “Wrecking Ball.” I prefer Emmylou’s version for the longing and dark warmth of her voice; but the lyrics are pure Lucinda.

Without judgment or even pity, the song is a love letter, an elegy:

“See what you lost when you left this world
 This sweet, old world

Williams then goes on to name the simple radiance of what is left behind:
The sound of a midnight train
wearing someone’s ring
someone calling your name

The song ends with what in this world we can still cherish:
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
Being the rhythm of blues
The pound of your heart’s drum
Together with another one . . .

Listen to the song.

I will continue to post my playlist for 2010 each week until we reach the New Year!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reasons To Be Left Behind

While writing this new book, my beloved literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann, and I found pleasure in a running theme: Reasons To Be Left Behind. I’d tell her about the world-class French chef who won international awards for his chocolates and twice-baked almond croissants, only to abandon the delights of Paris to settle here in Seattle. Rumor has it the French chef landed here because he fell in love with an American woman.

Bakery Nouveau is another reason to be left behind,” I’d tell Sarah Jane.

“Is it as divine as my daughter’s peach tatin?” she queried.

I had to contemplate this comparison. Sarah Jane’s daughter, Elisabeth, is a culinary wunderkind who combines creative whimsy and level-headed wisdom in her kitchen. Her blog, A Duchess Cooks in Brooklyn, has replaced the battered (in all senses of that word) Betty Crocker cookbook my mother gave me in college.

The thing I like most about the playfulness of this Reasons to Be Left Behind call-and-response is that I get to ponder simple pleasures -- all the often overlooked and daily details of what brings me rapture right here on earth. Joy to the world. Joy because I’m in this world.

“I’m not qualified to make that judgment call,” I say to Sarah Jane. “You know I’m a terrible cook.”
Not just terrible, incompetent, surly. My kitchen is my de-milatarized zone where many culinary battles have been lost.

When I admitted this flaw to Elisabeth, she gave me a look both compassionate and competent.
“You just have to start small and build up your confidence,” she said in that no-nonsense tone that makes her a good teacher and mentor.

“That’s very easy for you to say. You practically waltz around your kitchen!”

I’d witnessed Elisabeth’s prowess as she danced from fridge to sink to stove to cutting board. If there had been a soundtrack to her kitchen stage it would have gone from a samba as she chopped potatoes for her dill potato salad; to country western as she swirled tart BBQ sauce for her husband, Kerwin, to grill sausages and asparagus; to the Hallelujah chorus as Elisabeth presented her peach tatin to an awestruck table.

Elisabeth’s Peach Tatin on the stove   

At the moment Sarah Jane, her husband Steve, and Kerwin and I tasted the airy crunch of pie crust, the brown sugar butter glaze, the warm pulp of whole peaches, I had to say it, shout it really, “Another reason to be left behind!”

Under Elisabeth’s email tutelage, I am taking baby steps in my own kitchen. I have three times made her dill potato salad; and each time it gets tastier, like those foods that always taste better the next day. I take cell phone photos of my fledging attempts like a culinary primer: Cooking 101.

“You’re doing great!” Elisabeth writes back. “Now, try something a little more challenging.”

I go to her website and squint warily at her recipe for Ginger Chocolate Tart. I sigh. Beyond me. Then I remember my own mother, who was also incompetent in the kitchen until she married. As a newlywed, her first batch of chocolate chip cookies went like this:

Combine all ingredients into one mound of dough.
Place giant slab of dough on cookie sheet.
Watch through the oven window and wait for the dough to divide itself into proper cookies.

Needless to say, my mother taught herself to cook and became a master of Southern cuisine. Between mother’s cooking gifts and my father’s gardens and wild game, I grew up strong and healthy, if a little below average in the cooking department.

My vague attempts at cooking may never be a Reason To Be Left Behind. One clue is that I still use my oven to store my cat food and kibbles. But the point is, I want to stay here, to learn, to have the time to apprentice to others’ gifts, to belong to a world where those people I admire, like Sarah Jane and her daughter, can still teach me how to be more human. To be long -- here.

Please feel free to blog back here about Reasons you want to be Left Behind.  Include photos, links, songs, whatever gives you rapture -- right here on Earth.

Here is the beautiful bread in the shape of a Seal Pup we got from Bakery Nouveau to celebrate our Seal Sitters auction.