Sing Loud: Sacred Harp

For over a year I’ve been singing twice a month with a Sacred Harp group in Anchorage. We sing 17th and 18th century craggy hymns from the mountains and hills of the rural American South. And we sing them LOUDLY. Not for performance but for the joy of singing, the joy of hearing craggy, mountainous harmonies that go in and out, down and around and over. I remember the first time I went to Sacred Harp, Peg, one of the regulars in our little group, smiled broadly and said, after we sang Coronation, “Don’t you just love singing the words ‘royal diadem?’ When do we ever get to sing that anywhere else?” Well, I had sung those words before but never with the wild abandon that I sang them here, in this singing square.

Each time we sing we sing first the shape notes—fa for the triangle, so for the round note, la for the square and me for the occasional diamond notes. When I felt daunted by the shape notes moving so quickly, I was immediately told by a veteran singer to “just use la for all the shapes right now. You’ll be right for at least a third of the time.”   The most important thing she said is to “sing out. Don’t worry about whether you are have it all right. This is not about perfection, but participation.”

Sacred Harp singing is not pretty; it is not refined. Instead it is often raw; it can sound unfinished and its words and harmonies are jarring rather than soothing. The European music community of the 19th century rejected everything about this music because it did not fit classical norms and niceties. But the communities of the rural south kept singing it because it brought them life. Now it brings life to communities all over the world. Just listen to this Irish group as it sings and watch their faces. This is why I keep coming back to sing, even though the group might be small and my own voice is not all that great. I come for the feeling that you see on the faces of these singers in county Cork.

Rabbi Benjamin Salva captures this feeling when he writes,

….as we learn to sing with abandon, embracing our inner wild child, an innocent delight starts spreading into the rest of our life. We pause a little longer when we pass by wildflowers in bloom. We dance a little jig to elevator Muzak, not caring so much if our neighbors notice. The path of song extends our laughter and widens our smile. We cry more easily, too. The world moves us more, permeating our senses and nourishing our souls. As we set free the child within, we grow to love this precious life more, too. (taken from Spiritual Cross-Training: Searching through Silence, Stretch and Song (Grand Harbor Press), 2016.

I don’t know if I find my inner wild child. But I do know that when I am part of the Sacred Harp singers’ square, I feel totally alive and filled with joy.

To hear more about the tradition and hear more traditional music from the rural south and west where the music was not merely preserved but carried on go to….


Louise- A remarkable woman


Last night I participated in my first ever memorial poetry reading.  My writing group read poems by a member who died August 6 at ninety years old.  Louise was a remarkable woman coming on her ownto Alaska as a single woman in 1961.  During the past fifty-two years she was an elementary school teacher, a published poet and a gold prospector—an unlikely combination.  She bought the gold claim, took gold out herself and then had it mined professionally, finally selling the claim to the National Park Service.

She came to writing group until just a few months before her death.  Never let it be said that Louise was not shrewd or fiercely independent.  Right to the end she drove her own car to writing group, unfolding her walker with its tennis ball protectors as she stepped out from the drivers’ side.   And she always wrote, and well, each week.  Even the simplest prompt could bring forth something amazing out of Louise’s creativity, sometimes about the act of writing itself in this untitled poem from March of 2012:

Each pencil mark

writes my way home,

explains myself to me

with that come

all of themselves,


and unforeseen,

to tell those things

I had not reasoned,

had not thought,

but only felt inside,

and they surprise me

as though I

and my right hand

were new acquaintances

who introduce themselves.


When I joined the writing group in 2009 I was the youngest person in the group by twenty-five years at almost sixty years old myself.  This year two of our most gifted members have died and I am stricken by their loss.  Arne Beltz was elected the Alaskan Women’s Hall of Fame for all of her good work in public health nursing in Alaska both in the bush, off the road system and here in Anchorage.  And now Louise, known as Kantishna Girl during her gold prospecting years, is buried in the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery in the plot she picked out herself by lying down on the ground and observing the view.

Choosing Generosity


This past Sunday First Covenant in Anchorage had a congregational meeting.  At the meeting we were voting on a proposal offering a pastoral sabbatical after seven years.  There were some complaints about the paid sabbatical.  After all, other professions do not get sabbatical time; there are always concerns about the budget and affordability; not a few of the people in the congregation are unemployed or on fixed incomes.    But it was a comment made by my friend Lois that I can’t quite forget.

Lois, while agreeing that some struggle and she herself is on a fixed income, said that she learned in her life that sharing out of generosity makes everyone more abundant, including the one who shares.  Her own mother, who had little, always insisted on adding extra when she was giving something away—an apple pie had an extra apple, the soup more chicken.  When she added that extra apple or chicken, her mother felt blessed to have an apple to share and more chicken for the soup.  She gave out of her sense of abundance.

This has me thinking about the difference between living out of scarcity and living out of generosity.  Giving out of our abundance makes us feel blessed—and enriches the gift we give to the other in tangible ways.  When I live out of scarcity I tend to hoard my time or my ideas or even my compassion as well as my apples or more likely here in Alaska, my blueberries.  Lois, my eighty-something friend, is herself a spender. She is generous with her time and her gifts and more.   Since I’ve lived here in Alaska, I’ve been the richer for her generosity.

After some additional discussion the proposal for a three months sabbatical was extended to four months and passed.  During that meeting too, generosity won the day and not penny-pinching.

Choosing love, faith and hope


Christ-Shaped Charact 15

Writing a book is a bit like looking forward to childbirth.  There are times of high excitement, even fun and then times of disappointment when all seems hopeless.  I remember describing the manuscript to an artist friend when I was midway through proposed book as “all dust.”  She wisely told me to walk away for a while and withhold judgment.  In her painting, she too knew about the times when there seems to be no way forward, nothing more to paint, nothing remotely artistic to be sketched.  Both of us had eagerly traveled down what we thought was a creative pathway of writing or painting only to find ourselves at a dead end.  Sometimes, indeed, she painted over what had been before, just as I ended up rejecting what I wrote.  This usually happened for me because even it was clever or funny or even profound, it just did not fit with this book and what needed to be said.  In other instances we both chose to support and expand on what we knew to be true.  In each case walking and away and returning helped us to see the next step forward.

Now that the book is at the publishers getting a final editing and has been christened with the title, Christ-Shaped Character:  Choosing Love, Faith and Hope, I see how important it is to choose to choose love, faith and hope, not simply as a topic or title, but in the writing itself.  In order to move down the path, I needed to choose to love what I was writing, to have faith in my own stories and to continue to hope even when it seems to be all “dust.”  The chosen cover is a confirmation that the pathway is there if only we risk the next step forward.  Writer John Shea says that when we follow Christ on faith’s pathway, he becomes the Path itself. But we will never get there without choosing love, faith and hope.

The Big Wide Open

My times of actually being here, present to all that is in Alaska slow me down, and make me stop.  The light, the sky, the “big wide open” stun me with their uncommon, sometimes even eerie beauty.  Like the moose that appear unexpectedly along the road, or in the bike path or just walking across the little street outside my office window, these moments surprise me, nearly throw me off balance, stop me in my own tracked and rutted way.