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Do I choose the stories I retell, or do they choose me?

I frequently see lists of favorite books online, or of formatively important books, or of great classic books you ought to have read, so bold the ones you did read and feel ashamed for all the ones you didn’t. (Usually when that list goes around, the only classic I’ve read is The Lord of the Rings.)

I’ve listed and written about some of those favorite or formative books–In This House of Brede, The Spiral Dance–and could easily name others–LOTR, the Chronicles of Narnia, Original Blessing–but instead, I’d like to talk about stories. Irrespective of authorship, certain stories have obsessed me and nourished me over the years, and I’ve repeatedly come back to their original texts and to writers’ variations on them.

The first story I have to name is The Star Trek Story. A story I watched came before any story I heard or any story I read. To some people, Star Trek is the story of a future that will never come true, of an onward march of progress that is unrealistic and unsustainable, and of a certain kind of U.S. liberal politics writ large upon the cosmos. To me, Star Trek is the story of people who went out with seeking eyes and open hands to meet new people and new kinds of people and to bring home new knowledge about the universe. It is the story of people who are different, sometimes vastly different, learning to live together as neighbors and even as friends. If you think that Kirk breaking the speed of light and the Prime Directive equally often is all that Trek is about, I urge you to read Kendra James’ tribute to Deep Space Nine’s Captain Ben Sisko on Racialicious.

Next after The Star Trek Story comes the Mabinogion. I think that Lloyd Alexander’s five-part series of the Chronicles of Prydain was really my first exposure to the world of the Mabinogion. The Chronicles of Prydain are original fiction for children, not a retelling of any specific story, but the names, characters, themes, and atmosphere are drawn from the Four Branches, the Romances, and the “Hanes Taliesin”. There is Taran, the protagonist, an orphan boy-of-all-work and Assistant Pig Keeper of Hen Wen, the oracular white pig; great names like Gwydion, Math, Arawn, and Achren figure in his adventures. And there is Flewddur Flam, the king who would be bard, and his somewhat unreliable harp, which tends to snap a string if he embellishes a tale too much; Gurgi, a mysterious shaggy person who seems to be neither man nor beast; and the talkative princess Eilonwy, who is not as scatter-brained as she seems.

Later, I encountered Evangeline Walton’s retellings of the Four Branches: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. These were fantasy works for adults, occasionally slightly racy for a ten-year-old, and deeply influenced by nineteenth-century anthropology and esotericism. Walton pitted the New Tribes, patriarchal warriors epitomised by the clueless Pwyll, against the Old Tribes, matriarchal magicians who recognized the Mother as the source of all life, epitomised by the shrewd and reserved Manawyddan. Both Pwyll and Manawyddan marry the unforgettable Rhiannon, the beautiful sharp-tongued faery woman who may actually be the goddess herself.

Closely related to the Mabinogion, of course, is the Matter of Britain, the great Arthurian corpus. I’m sure I read Sidney Lanier’s adaptation, and some of Pyle’s, along with his Robin Hood (which I liked better than his Arthurian books); Rosemary Sutcliffe’s trilogy on the legends, The Sword and the Circle, The Light beyond the Forest, and The Road to Camlann, plus Song for a Dark Queen, her take on Boudicca; and then, of course, The Mists of Avalon and all of its sequels, and most recently the excellent series by Gerald Morris, The Squire’s Tales. I even devoured Meg Cabot’s Avalon High when I discovered it in Kindle format.

The D’Aulaires’ beautiful volume was my introduction to Norse mythology, closely followed by Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin with its marvelous Art Nouveau line drawings by Willi Pogany. No one who has seen it could forget Pogany’s image of Loki, his long hair swirling out about his bitter, pointed face, eating the burnt heart of Gullveig the witch. I was about equally in love with Greek mythology, yet there is no one book that stands out in my memory; I know I read a good deal of Bulfinch as well as quite a few children’s retellings.

Unpagan as it may seem, the stories of the Bible are always going to be part of my personal canon and a source of meaning for me. The great advantage that the canonical Gospels have over all the noncanonical materials, fascinating though the latter may be, is that they are stories, stories of an interesting person who has interesting things to say. The Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham are to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles what The Mists of Avalon is to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur: A retelling from the point of view of a female character that stands the whole story on its head (and shakes out its pockets and forces it to make some sense). They are also both comedic and comic, unlike the Avalon books: Hilariously funny and hell-bent on a happy ending.

The stories of the Old Testament, of the Torah and historical writings, also continue to interest me. I actually wrote a short fanfic based on Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor, “Hearing Voices”, for an online festival of transformative works based on the Hebrew Scriptures. A few years ago The Red Tent, a novel about Jacob and the women in his life, became a best-seller. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a trilogy of books reflecting on the patriarchs of the book of Genesis, and I hear there was a miniseries based on the narratives of Saul and David, which is something I’ve always wanted to see. How a story as full of sex, violence, politics, intrigue, sex, adventure, homoerotic subtext, and did I mention SEX? as the books of Samuel and Kings could become a miniseries and get cancelled is beyond my understanding. Alas.

Finally, I must mention a series of books that debuted when I was a teenager and have remained important to me, though I have grown far older than the characters: The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. Long before anyone had heard of that English boy whose mean relatives made him live in a cupboard under the stairs, Nita Callahan and her partner Kit Rodriguez were fighting the heat-death of the universe with heroism, courage, poetic words, and an array of unlikely-looking allies. This review will give you a good idea of the series, though it’s focused on the first book.

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The best revenge

My sister has never been particularly religious; that was always my job, to be The Religious One in the family. But a few years ago, kind of out of the blue, she became a Mormon. Since then, we have had a lot of conversations about family history and the genealogical research she’s been doing, as per Mormon theology. Being eleven years apart in age, it sometimes feels to both of us as though we were reared by different parents, in different families; I was only seven when she got married and moved out, a few weeks after her high school graduation.

Maybe I have my big sister to thank for at last becoming willing, at the age of forty-four, to write about my childhood and my family. I have had a tendency to behave as if my life began in 1990, when I met my husband and my stepdaughter and embarked on the trajectory that landed me where I am today. That’s not true, of course. I was twenty-four then and had already had a number of significant things happen to me–the deaths of my grandmother and, four years later, my mother, a couple of unpleasant quasi-romantic relationships, moving out on my own. And my mother was only four years gone, and I was still having dreams where she simply reappeared in my life, where she came back from the dead: Not in a revenant sort of way, not as a zombie or a vampire, but simply as the sickly woman in a nightgown who sat on the sofa, smoked, drank coffee, and dominated my life with ruthless self-centeredness.

The chief reason I have had for refusing to write about My Past, about the twenty-four years before I met my husband, was simply that I did not want to write about my mother. My mother dominated my life–and my dad’s life, my sister’s, my grandmother’s, and probably my great-aunt’s, too–to such an extent that the best revenge I could think of for all the shit she put me through was to deny her a presence in my writing. I said, No, you’ve had center stage long enough. Now it’s my turn. And while I did talk about her, especially to my husband, I rarely if ever wrote about her.

I am coming to realize, however, that my mother, my family, my history, are actually a goldmine for writing, and sometimes downright comedy gold. My mother, after all, was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. She had red hair and a soft mouth and big bulgy eyes and was a spiritual sister to such rubber-faced, red-haired comics as Harpo Marx, Lucille Ball, and Red Skelton. She could be cruelly witty and jab you right in the soft spot; she could be slapstick; she could make you absolutely breathless with laughter. Long before MST3K, she taught me how to snark at the tv and be funnier than what you were watching. (Unfortunately, she also snarked at stuff I liked. She did her best to ruin Remington Steele for me, but I liked Pierce Brosnan *because* he ran like a girl.)

She was also an immensely creative and talented person. She could draw and paint; she could sing, and was a member of an Episcopal church choir back before my sister was born; she did amateur theatre and was a good actress as well as a comedienne, and she could dance a bit, as well. I remember her having shapely legs despite being heavy, legs that she used to powder with “pancake”, foundation makeup for the stage, instead of shaving off the few fine hairs, when it was too warm for stockings. I still have a sketchbook of hers that has recipes for cakes and cookies in the back and a few pages of drawings in the front, mostly of hands, and of babies’ chubby faces. She took painting lessons with a friend who was a portrait artist; she did a lot of amateur theatre; after she died, I found notebooks that must have dated from her twenties containing poems, stuffed into a drawer behind a mass of unfinished crocheting projects. When she wanted to, she could cook fairly, bake better, and make candies, mostly at the holidays or when my grandmother’s senior citizens’ club was having a fundraising bazaar.

Despite all that, my mother was a desperately unhappy person. Watching her convinced me that the road to happiness was to use one’s creative gifts as much as possible and to avoid emotional dependency as much as possible. She dabbled in creative work and could have done much more, as a singer, as an actress, possibly as a painter. She decided that when she got married, she would be a full-time wife and mother, always at home, unlike her own mother (who kept a job during the Depression when her husband didn’t, and was supporting not only her husband and child but her parents-in-law, too), and so she quit her job and that was that. I don’t know what my sister would say, but by the time I was in kindergarten, it was Mom, my grandmother, not my mother, who rose early, made me breakfast, laid out my clothes, saw me off to school, picked me up and walked me home, i.e., did everything a child’s mother ought to do, c. 1972. It was Mom who held me on her lap, shared her bed with me after Pop died because her room was cooler in summer and warmer in winter than the little back bedroom, took me on bus trips all over the East Coast, and did 99% of the nurturing. My mother, meanwhile, slept late, watched television, talked to friends on the phone, cooked dinner, helped with the weekly housecleaning on Fridays, and went out to dinner with my father on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

There are things my mother did for me for which I am truly grateful. She involved me in the theatre with her and thus in many adventures. She took me to museums and to good restaurants instead of fast-food joints. She always went to bat for me when it came to academic matters; without her support, I would not have advanced from first grade to second ahead of schedule, or gone into the city’s gifted and talented program, or begun taking college courses at twelve. But while she never outright thwarted me–I think Mom and my dad would have ganged up on her–she never encouraged my writing, my drawing, or my singing; never came to hear a concert in which I performed (while my dad, who had no use for anything but jazz, sat through large chunks of Messiah just so I would have someone in the audience); never allowed me the spotlight when she could have it for herself. After a few years of hearing my stories about her, my husband changed my view of her forever by characterizing her as a child who never grew up. Even after getting married and bearing two children, she still thought of herself as The Only Child, the one entitled to have all the attention.

My mother grasped at love and neglected work, the creative work for which she was so well equipped. I have tried to do my proper work and to accept love without grasping. On the whole, I have been happier than she was, and I’ve come to see that living well is actually the best revenge.

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The other way I watched the new Doctor Who episodes “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” for a second time and found them as creepy, funny, and touching as on first viewing. (“It’s either Marxism in action or a West End musical!”) Later, I was humming the main theme from Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, which was featured in those episodes, and realized I could hum it correctly, and whistle it, too, despite its wide intervals and unexpected falls.

I have a weird relationship with the popular music of the first half of the twentieth century. In many ways, it’s the music of my childhood more than the Eagles or the Guess Who or Don McLean because it was the music of my parents’ youth. When I was born in 1966, my parents were already in their forties. My older sister was eleven, not quite old enough to be a hippie, too old for the songs of Schoolhouse Rock in the 1970s. (That’s how I identify “My Generation”. Can you sing the Preamble to the United States Constitution? You’re in.) My parents met and courted in the 1940s, and the music I heard around them was largely the music of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s–big band, jazz, swing, and the great songwriters such as Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin.

While my parents didn’t listen to music a lot at home–it was trumped by television, or by baseball games on the radio–my mother did amateur theatre as a hobby, something my sister and I both got involved in at different times. (My sister met her first husband while doing a show called “The Time of Your Life”, if I remember correctly.) Among my earliest memories are of hanging around at the rehearsals for a Roaring Twenties review my mother was in, and I was only seven when I joined her in a Gay Nineties musical review–of the 1890s, that is. The next oldest person in the cast was a boy of fourteen. He was very kind to little girly me and taught me some math that was fairly advanced for my age, such as how to do square roots and exponents. We had to sing “Playmate” together, which you can listen to at YouTube if you are so inclined.

But thanks to being at rehearsals, I also learned the words to songs such as “Bicycle Built for Two” (we had a vintage two-seater bike), “No! No! A Thousand Times No!” (okay, I don’t actually remember that song too well), and “After the Ball” (our curtain call). I had my own song to sing in a sketch called “Ten Barrooms in One Night,” which was a parody of the classic temperance melodrama “Ten Nights in a Barroom”–“Oh father, dear father, come home with me now.”

Later my mother and I did a 1940s musical review, which I remember chiefly as a hotbed of teenaged and adult hormones, hot sultry July nights when the backstage air conditioning blew out all the stage lights and we carried on in the dark, the time my mother’s toe was broken, and sitting on a swing onstage singing “Swingin’ on a Star”, I kid you not. But between musicals, piano bars (what you do after the play is over), radio stations that catered to their age group, and records I bought, I absorbed my parents’ music as thoroughly as I absorbed disco, and probably more so. I never owned any albums by disco performers, but I did have albums by Ruth Etting, Fanny Brice, and Billie Holiday. I listened to that Ruth Etting album so many times that I can still sing most of its songs exactly as Etting did, such as this classic in its original version–

Fanny Brice was a little harder to imitate, as she was a mediocre singer but a brilliant comedienne (and much funnier than Streisand’s impersonation of her). Holiday, of course, is inimitable, but I do know the words to “God Bless the Child”.

In the early 1990s, I was working for a small religious bookstore (as I have mentioned in a previous post). The store manager liked some but not all of the music we carried for sale, and when he tired of playing choral music by the Cambridge Singers, he would switch to classical radio or to recordings of American popular song. It was from Kiri Te Kanawa’s album of standards that I learned the opening verse to “Our Love Is Here to Stay”, which I can’t find anywhere on YouTube. From Michael Feinstein I learned lyrics to a lot of Gershwin tunes that you will never hear sung in most piano bars (and my relationship with piano bars, actually, is worth a post of its own, as is my history in amateur theatre).

Back in 2006, shortly after my husband and I moved into a new apartment, we discovered a big-band radio show airing Friday nights on our local news-and-jazz public radio station. We soon became hooked on it not only for the music, but for the seventy-something host’s rambling reminiscences of his younger days, courting to, dancing to, and spinning the music he was playing. (It was something of a shock when he had to have throat surgery earlier this year and was allowed back at the microphone on condition that he didn’t talk between recordings.) Part of the fun is how often I know the lyrics to the songs that come up. There are nights when I can sing my way through whole sets, verse and all. It was also on this show that I heard the semi-mythical “Celery Stalks at Midnight” and learned a Glenn Miller hit I had never known:

I like the Beatles and Sting and Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes; I adore English cathedral music, countertenors, castrati, the productions of the high Renaissance; I chant along in Tibetan and am impressed by North Indian classical music. But boy, do I love the songs I learned at my mother’s slightly intoxicated knee, sitting on the piano bar stool late at night, or spinning her records and singing along like her.

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My dad was not a liar, precisely. He just sometimes couldn’t keep straight the distinction between the reality in his mind and the consensual reality he shared with the rest of us. So it’s understandable that for a long time, I thought he was Making It Up when he talked about hearing this song as a young man. I thought that until I heard it on the radio, on a big-band show.

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(I originally posted this at my old blog; I’m reposting it here as the first step in writing about my personal history of religion.)

My first memories of anything religious are of a Lutheran church.  My sister, eleven years older than I, had been confirmed at a Missouri Synod church in the neighborhood with the entertaining name of Martini Lutheran.  She was still a church-goer when I was five or six and she was sixteen or seventeen, so I went to church with her. I can’t remember whether we walked there, or whether someone picked us up and drove us.  My sister, like me, has never learned to drive.  We probably walked; I have a vague memory of not wanting to hold my sister’s hand, but no memories of what houses or streets or cars we walked by.

The emphasis at Martini Lutheran was on Sunday school. All the different classes had a sort of mini-church together and then separated for their lessons. We got lots of handouts with pictures and learned lots of Bible stories, and we sang songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. Even then, I think, I liked the singing part the best, and somehow I had the courage to ask if I could be in the choir. I must have sung for the organist, and I was allowed to join even though I was a year younger than the official minimum. I suppose I had two advantages: My precocious reading ability, which meant I could follow the words of hymns, and the ability to match pitch.

Rehearsals for the choir were regular, but appearances in the liturgy were infrequent. We had cassocks, I think, dark red, with white cottas or surplices over them, and red skullcaps. I remember scurrying across a courtyard or something, from one building to another, to enter the church proper. I have a vague recollection of very dark wood, of a white-haired genial preacher (who may or may not have been the pastor), of not really knowing what was going on. There was little connection between the Sunday school and what the adults did in church, as worship.

When my sister was eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Polish Catholic boy she had met doing amateur theatre. For the pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, the Reformation was not over; he sat in our parlor and informed my mother that he was not going to allow a Catholic priest at the altar of his church. “Your church?” said my mother. “I thought it was God’s church.” She threw him out, and my sister and her fiance were married in German Catholic church two blocks away from us, by a very liberal, rather hippie priest who was a friend of the groom.

So I didn’t go back to Martini Lutheran after that. As it happened, there was an Episcopal church barely one block away from our house. My mother had sung in an Episcopal church choir as a young married woman, until she became pregnant with my sister; she sang through the pregnancy, then did not return to the choir. She arranged for an elderly neighbor who was a member at the Episcopal church to walk me there; I suppose I was seven or eight by then. Every Sunday I walked the single block to church with our neighbor, crossing our street and one other, and went into the back door that led to the parish hall of the Church of the Advent.

Advent was different from Martini in several important ways. First of all, my Sunday school class attended the first half of the Sunday Eucharist, which was called Mass. We left after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (although we didn’t call them by those names) because we weren’t allowed to take communion yet. This was the early 1970s, and in our diocese, at least, the sacrament of Confirmation was still regarded as the admission to Communion; consequently, I was confirmed when I was only nine. Nowadays most Episcopal kids, like Roman Catholic kids, have some kind of class to prepare them for First Communion, and are confirmed much later, as teens, when it can be more of a personal decision. Second, the choir at the Advent sang every week. It was a very small amateur choir of women and girls only, but they were up in the chancel leading the communion service and the hymns every week. Pretty soon I wanted to be a part of that and joined the choir for the second time.

Being allowed to attend at least part of the weekly Mass meant that I was exposed to three important influences: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1940, and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I can’t stress enough how much this heritage of literature and music, coupled with the drama of the Mass, laid down the pattern for my spirituality to this day. Every week I saw people wearing cassocks and surplices, doing special things in a special part of the church; every week I put on a vestment of my own, a red skirt, white cotta, and a lace “chapel cap” (think doily-on-my-head), and joined them up there in the chancel; every week I saw our rector in a damasked silk chasuble, a glorious tent of color, standing at the altar and opening the service with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Every week I sang music that ranged from medieval plainsong through seventeenth and eighteenth-century tunes by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas, Tallis, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach, to nineteenth-century Victorian melodies and early twentieth-century composers such as Healy Willan, that great godfather of Anglican liturgical music, whose “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena” is known to every Episcopalian I’ve ever met. Every week I saw candles lit, heard stately poetic language, saw ritual gestures made, and partook of sacred food. Nothing can erase the impact of that formation of my spirit. Show me mediocre language, bad music, clumsy ritual, and I will turn you right off. I know how it ought to be done.

The Prayerbook and the King James Bible taught me how to write, how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to handle relative and dependent clauses, how to use the colon and the semicolon as well as the comma and the period. The Hymnal taught me that music was bigger and wider than what came out of the radio, bigger than my sister’s music or even my parents’ music, which was big band and jazz. It taught me how to sing plainsong and harmonies based on the fifth rather than the third and prepared me to discover medieval music, Renaissance polyphony, and the English cathedral repertoire. The architecture of the Church of the Advent taught me how to sing, how to stand, how to hold my music up and sing over it, not into it, and how to define a space with my voice. My whole spiritual journey is built on my encounter with Anglicanism at age eight.

I’ll be coming back to explore my experiences at the Advent, and other parts of my religious history, in more detail. Stay tuned.

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Where it all began

Little GiddingMy first memories of anything religious are of a Lutheran church. My sister, eleven years older than I, had been confirmed at a Missouri Synod church in the neighborhood with the entertaining name of Martini Lutheran. She was still a church-goer when I was five or six and she was sixteen or seventeen, so I went to church with her. I can’t remember whether we walked there, or whether someone picked us up and drove us. My sister, like me, has never learned to drive. We probably walked; I have a vague memory of not wanting to hold my sister’s hand, but no memories of what houses or streets or cars we walked by.

The emphasis at Martini Lutheran was on Sunday school. All the different classes had a sort of mini-church together and then separated for their lessons. We got lots of handouts with pictures and learned lots of Bible stories, and we sang songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. Even then, I think, I liked the singing part the best, and somehow I had the courage to ask if I could be in the choir. I must have sung for the organist, and I was allowed to join even though I was a year younger than the official minimum. I suppose I had two advantages: My precocious reading ability, which meant I could follow the words of hymns, and the ability to match pitch.

Rehearsals for the choir were regular, but appearances in the liturgy were infrequent. We had cassocks, I think, dark red, with white cottas or surplices over them, and red skullcaps. I remember scurrying across a courtyard or something, from one building to another, to enter the church proper. I have a vague recollection of very dark wood, of a white-haired genial preacher (who may or may not have been the pastor), of not really knowing what was going on. There was little connection between the Sunday school and what the adults did in church, as worship.

When my sister was eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Polish Catholic boy she had met doing amateur theatre. For the pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, the Reformation was not over; he sat in our parlor and informed my mother that he was not going to allow a Catholic priest at the altar of his church. “Your church?” said my mother. “I thought it was God’s church.” She threw him out, and my sister and her fiance were married in German Catholic church two blocks away from us, by a very liberal, rather hippie priest who was a friend of the groom.

So I didn’t go back to Martini Lutheran after that. As it happened, there was an Episcopal church barely one block away from our house. My mother had sung in an Episcopal church choir as a young married woman, until she became pregnant with my sister; she sang through the pregnancy, then did not return to the choir. She arranged for an elderly neighbor who was a member at the Episcopal church to walk me there; I suppose I was seven or eight by then. Every Sunday I walked the single block to church with our neighbor, crossing our street and one other, and went into the back door that led to the parish hall of the Church of the Advent.

Advent was different from Martini in several important ways. First of all, my Sunday school class attended the first half of the Sunday Eucharist, which was called Mass. We left after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (although we didn’t call them by those names) because we weren’t allowed to take communion yet. This was the early 1970s, and in our diocese, at least, the sacrament of Confirmation was still regarded as the admission to Communion; consequently, I was confirmed when I was only nine. Nowadays most Episcopal kids, like Roman Catholic kids, have some kind of class to prepare them for First Communion, and are confirmed much later, as teens, when it can be more of a personal decision. Second, the choir at the Advent sang every week. It was a very small amateur choir of women and girls only, but they were up in the chancel leading the communion service and the hymns every week. Pretty soon I wanted to be a part of that and joined the choir for the second time.

Being allowed to attend at least part of the weekly Mass meant that I was exposed to three important influences: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1940, and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I can’t stress enough how much this heritage of literature and music, coupled with the drama of the Mass, laid down the pattern for my spirituality to this day. Every week I saw people wearing cassocks and surplices, doing special things in a special part of the church; every week I put on a vestment of my own, a red skirt, white cotta, and a lace “chapel cap” (think doily-on-my-head), and joined them up there in the chancel; every week I saw our rector in a damasked silk chasuble, a glorious tent of color, standing at the altar and opening the service with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Every week I sang music that ranged from medieval plainsong through seventeenth and eighteenth-century tunes by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas, Tallis, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach, to nineteenth-century Victorian melodies and early twentieth-century composers such as Healy Willan, that great godfather of Anglican liturgical music, whose “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena” is known to every Episcopalian I’ve ever met. Every week I saw candles lit, heard stately poetic language, saw ritual gestures made, and partook of sacred food. Nothing can erase the impact of that formation of my spirit. Show me mediocre language, bad music, clumsy ritual, and I will turn you right off. I know how it ought to be done.

The Prayerbook and the King James Bible taught me how to write, how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to handle relative and dependent clauses, how to use the colon and the semicolon as well as the comma and the period. The Hymnal taught me that music was bigger and wider than what came out of the radio, bigger than my sister’s music or even my parents’ music, which was big band and jazz. It taught me how to sing plainsong and harmonies based on the fifth rather than the third and prepared me to discover medieval music, Renaissance polyphony, and the English cathedral repertoire. The architecture of the Church of the Advent taught me how to sing, how to stand, how to hold my music up and sing over it, not into it, and how to define a space with my voice. My whole spiritual journey is built on my encounter with Anglicanism at age eight.

I’ll be coming back to explore my experiences at the Advent, and other parts of my religious history, in more detail. Stay tuned.

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