Songs I Never Sing

Three favorite songs? That’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m not a sound person. I have no auditory memory. So sounds get in my way more than they help. My writing room is silent. I’ve practiced writing to music, but alas, it never works for more than fifteen minutes. Songs. What songs stay with me? Well, this morning, when I saw it was a friend’s birthday, a friend who exceeds me in age by not so much, I wrote, “If I’d ‘a known it was your birthday, I’d have backed a cake” because the old song, If I’d known you were coming I’d’ve baked a cake; baked a cake; baked a cake…” I hoped my friend was old enough to catch the pun from a song my mother sang years ago. I remember those songs. Another that came to me just a few days ago was “June is bustin’ out all over, all over the meadows and the hills….” It always comes when June comes. Mom sang that too. My older sister has a great voice and sings. Me, not so much. When I lived in New York and part of the acting world, I took singing lessons. Voice lessons vital for New York actors. I studied with a reputable teacher but he decided I was a soprano. Not. I didn’t know it at the time and I worked hard to be a soprano, but I should have remembered my mother was an alto. I am too. He didn’t seem to recognize that or perhaps my voice was stronger in those days. I could almost sing bass these days. But I’m getting off track. Favorite songs. Favorite songs. Beatles? Oh, maybe. John Fogerty? Yeah, I like his work. Probably my favorite songs come from old blues singers. “I got a man, crazy for me. He’s funny that way….” Billie Holiday sang. No one could phrase like she did. Yeah. Several of hers are favorites. And Willie Nelson. “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys….” But I did. Both of them. Abet 20th Century cowboys whatever that means. But what other favorite songs? What I like about the two I mentioned was the story in each of them. I like songs with stories. The rest? Oh, I can listen to classical music and soar with the sound, but it doesn’t stick. Words stick. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Mother sang. Me, I write words. Remember words. Stacks and stacks of words line up and layer around my writing space. And now I’m about out of words for remembering any songs and free writing is still demanded for a few more minutes. I can free write. That’s words. Songs? I only sing snatches of songs or listen for snatches and then I smile and remember the story and go on with whatever I’m doing. I don’t sing when I’m cooking or driving or walking. I think words. You’d think that having a mother who sang would have rubbed off on me some way or another. Songs for morning or afternoon, songs for dinner, songs for….well, anytime like this when asked what’s your three favorite songs. Duh. Not. Well, maybe if I can dredge some up. Oh, yeah, Mom’s songs. So that’s what I can do with the prompt today. But my fingers are warmed up for writing words…..Oh. Here’s one more….. “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain when she comes….” Yep. That’s me. On the road again… and that’s another Willie tune. I made a movie with Willie once long time ago. He kissed me as I left the set. One of many kissed he bestowed on various ladies. My friend Jessica says I should get a button made: I got kissed by Willie Nelson. But I haven’t.



Mother Wore Green

St. Patrick’s Day

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

St. Patrick was my mother’s one and only saint. Born a Quaker, she didn’t pray to saints, at least not that she let any of us know, but being born on St. Patrick’s Day was different. You could claim that saint. And his shamrocks. And like any good Irish-Catholic mother, you could have a lot of children: she birthed seven.

Today she would have been 97.

 My mother’s maternal great-grandmother, a Moravian from New Salem, emigrated across the country in a covered wagon. There were no churches in Kansas, no communities either and the family stories say my great-grandfather was the first white child born in Jewell County, Kansas. The family eventually became Quakers but carried the Moravian motto, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things love.”

In our various and oddly encumbered ways, mother’s children have lived that motto.

Mother’s father was a telegrapher on the Missouri Pacific Railroad and when they moved to Frankfort, Kansas for him to take up duties there, Mother was only five. She made friends with a little Black boy “down the street,” and her father, who came from the Blue Mountains of Kentucky and not a Quaker, disapproved. But undeterred, she kept the friendship as she grew up and went to school.

We never heard judgments against peoples or races or life-styles as we were growing up. Which sort of led to varying degrees of wildness in all of us at one time or another, but we were always accepted when we came home and the various friends/partners/ boyfriends were also accepted.

She might make an oblique reference, “Isn’t he/she………” but that was about it. And she might fight with us, and did; but I don’t remember hearing judgments.

None of my siblings judge either. We’ve done a lot of other angry and destructive things, but judgment isn’t there from our parents or each other. None of us are supportive of wars, either, for that matter. Our children weren’t taught with judgments, so now we are a proud multi-cultured, multi-colored family.

Which then leads me to wonder if a “mentality” can be inherited or if it’s conditioning. Are we pacifists because our mother was, or are we pacifists because of our long line of Moravians and Quakers?

Happy Birthday, Happy St. Patrick’s Day Mother. Thank you for integrating an Irish Roman Catholic into our family. You made him ours in a particular and heart-felt way.


thinking about family

Yesterday my sister Judy sent me an email with the subject line headed, “how long does it take to say I love you?” She and her husband are cleaning up their house to put it on the market and Judy was emptying cupboards.

“I have a small pot that you made once upon a time as a utensil holder by my sink/stove for pert-near ever. The pot now has some chips, and when I looked on the bottom it has a date of ’72.” She wondered if it would be okay to toss it.

My sister has a pot I made in 1972! I don’t even have anything I made that far back. It took me awhile to even remember where I was in 1972 until I finally put it together with the last year I lived in Texas and worked with Forrest Gist. In one of my earlier posts, I’ve written about those years making pottery.

Judy attributes her still having the pot as hording; I attribute it to love. She’s been a supporter of mine for as long as I’ve been on the road trying to figure out who I was – which goes back a good many years. But that’s also true of my other siblings and of me; for example, my younger sister Julia is a painter and some of her first work, a six-inch tall toile-painted bird house, sits on my kitchen window sill.

I’ve wondered about that this morning: how some crises force families apart and others draw families together. What’s the root of that? We’ve certainly had our fights and times of anger, but none of it has driven us apart from each other in a permanent way.

One could say the anchor was our parents, and to some extent that’s true, although our growing up had its difficulties and harsh times. For example, I married at seventeen just to get away. We all did our best to get away as fast as we could. But we’ve all come back.

One could also say that it’s our religious background: remember that old saying “a family that prays together stays together”?  We prayed at home and we went to church every Sunday. We all made our escape from that childhood church as fast as we made our escape from the family, and yet, we all have a deep and abiding spiritual life although some have no formal religious life.

So what keeps a family together? I suppose it has to do with what Judy wrote in her email’s subject line: how long does it take to say I love you? We have, all of us, somehow, through the years and the crises, remembered to love one another.

Our parents knew how to love even when they didn’t know how to parent. We siblings have done the same, I guess, even when we didn’t always know how to behave. And because we have known how to love, we have, time after time, been brought back to forgive each other.

Families are where we learn the Christ message: love one another; forgive one another. It’s never too late to begin.


A head-line in the two-week old “Week in Review” from the New York Times stacked beside my reading corner because I hadn’t had time to finish the paper read, “Our Fix-It Faith” and went on to detail how American’s faith in technology to always fix whatever problems civilization faced was being seriously tested in the Gulf oil spill. That faith in technology to fix is the same faith we seem to carry in fixing everything: work related problems, our bodies, a computer, a car,  and especially relationships. We fix. The problem is that the dedication to fixing seems in direct opposition to accepting our being in the world.

No, I’m not suggesting that the oil spill and the destruction it has caused has to be accepted. That’s not my point. I’m thinking instead of the idea that our faith resides in fixing.

In many ways, the fixation on fixing denies the actuality of being. Things break. And thinking, or assuming something can be fixed leads to carelessness. We are careless with our human relationships and careless in the way we treat the natural world. Our automobiles encase us in technology, so we’re not aware of the other humans on the highway; our computers encase us in connectivity and ideas so we are not aware of our bodies; our houses with air-conditioning and home entertainment centers and safety devices and alarms have disconnected us from our neighborhoods. Technology has created a bubble of protection that denies breaking, except for the realization that the technology needs repair from time to time. But we deal with that. It’s an annoyance but we deal. We get it fixed.

The ocean depths, on the other hand, are dark and unknown. We know more about the far outer reaches of space, millions and millions of miles away, than we do about the sea floor seven miles beneath water. Seven miles! The deepest part of the Pacific is only seven miles below the surface.

There lies the abyss and we have no idea what it is or how to think about it.  On the earth or in ourselves. When you leap into the abyss, you don’t get second chances.

Maybe that’s why “God” came to live in the sky in human consciousness. There was lots of space and, okay, lightning strikes and floods and hurricanes from time to time, but no dark abyss. The “she” of earth, the dark, mysterious, gestating body, felt entirely too intimidating. Humans could fix the surface but going deeper takes a lot of effort.

Maybe that is why we fix. Fixing is a lot simpler than the depth of consciousness necessary to see the natural world as sacred. Humans are part of the natural world. And the natural world dies. Slowly, in some cases, but the natural world dies. Technology transforms into new ideas but it doesn’t die. Perhaps our faith in technology, and our lack of faith in other humans, comes from the same dynamic.

A Pill for Freedom

I remember my Grandma and Grandpa Sunderland’s Fiftieth Anniversary. The surviving seven children, from an original nine, and uncountable grandchildren came home for a huge celebration and a party in the church basement. A photo shows them standing proudly behind a 3-tiered wedding cake with a silver decoration proclaiming “50” in script. Both smiling. Happy. Grandpa is even wearing a suit and has set aside his beloved Stetson for the occasion. They both have white hair. They are old.

That’s what my mind sees whenever I hear “50th Anniversary” of anything. But lately, other memories crowd out my grandparents. Memories of me as a young woman (am I now old?), memories of my children (surely not that old!), memories that take me back to the 1960s: formative years for my thinking, my politics, my spiritual life, and my family life. The latest of these shocks to my memory came with the announcement of the 50th anniversary, coming in June of this year, of The Pill. 

By the time I was twenty, I had married, birthed two sons, and started on the pill. Granted, I married young, and my sons are close in age, but in the context of Kansas farm family, not radically young. I can still remember the struggle forcing those little pills out of the container and the fear when I forgot or lost one. By the time I was thirty, I’d moved to six states, raised kids, started college, involved myself in politics, anti-war, civil rights, and the feminist movement. The pill offered me a freedom impossible to my mother’s generation.

Margaret Sanger who first envisioned a contraception pill in 1912 was jailed many times for her beliefs. She teamed up with another early feminist, Katharine McCormick, wealthy enough to finance the dream. Together they found the scientists to study and develop the product.

The Roman Church went ballistic. Birth control pills (or condoms, for that matter) went against the “natural law” theory developed by Aristotle and Aquinas. The natural law theory says that sex is for procreation. Not intimacy. Not pleasure. Children. Today, the Church’s moral theology is still ruled by Thomas Aquinas, a theologian from the middle-ages when women were forced into metal contraptions with padlocks called Chastity Belts when their men went off to fight in the Crusades. In other words, if women are free, they threaten church stability.

And so we have hungry and dying children in developing countries tied to Rome, an out of control AIDS epidemic, and women enslaved by their bodies. Surely this can’t be what a merciful God might have envisioned.

We also, however, have women in the priesthood and ministry. Not in the Roman Church, certainly, but any woman in any ministry was scarcely imagined fifty years ago. However, women leaders in ministry were common in the early days of Christianity. They disappeared when control became vested in Rome.

The reforms to Christianity have happened very slowly and over many centuries. First there was the Protestant Reformation and now perhaps these 21st Century decades will someday be called the Feminist Reformation when that which is feminine and divine is once more raised to an equal footing.  

I suppose, in the end, that makes a Fiftieth Anniversary fairly small in scope. Next year, 2011, will be fifty years since I married my children’s father. And while chronologically I’m about the same age as my grandmother when she celebrated her fiftieth, I am much younger psychologically and spiritually, only now reaching for the peak of my work and thought. Freedom, while certainly not free, keeps me young.