Thankful for Thanksgiving

veggie basket towel

I have much to be thankful for. But I’m not going to write about it because you already know; I’m thankful for the same things you are—family, friends, bounty, health, happy memories.

I just want to say how thankful I am that, in the United States, today is set aside specifically for giving thanks.

I try to recognize, every day, how lucky I am but I can still fall into the morass of worry and envy, seeing only how things could be better.

But Thanksgiving Day encourages me to be mindful of every single thing, small and large, that makes my life happy, easy, full.

Thanksgiving isn’t commercialized and all tarted up like Christmas; it isn’t tied to a religion or subset of Americans; there’s no incessant, annoying soundtrack for Thanksgiving.

It’s just a nice, quiet day where we all think about, and maybe even say out loud, how lucky we feel.

We should have more days like this! Enjoy today and count your blessings, wherever you live!

A Daydream Made of Caramel

IMG_3990 I spent the early morning hours with family. “Big deal, Kerry,” you say. “It’s Thanksgiving in the United States and most Americans are spending it with family.”

But I spent my morning with a grandmother who has been dead since I was 12, two cousins who live hundreds of miles away, and a sister sound asleep in the guest room.

No, I didn’t have a séance and I wasn’t Skyping. I spent the last three hours wrapping a gazillion (really—I counted) little squares of caramel in a gazillion little squares of waxed paper.

As I stood at the counter and wrapped, I daydreamed and I am, if I say it myself, a world-class daydreamer.

I daydreamed about my history with wrapping caramels.

Caramels have been a part of the winter holidays for me for, literally, my whole life. I grew up on a farm and my grandmother made caramels (and divinity) only at this time of year, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a big event.

I’m still using her recipe—it takes a full two hours or more to make a batch and involves instructions like, “add the milk, drop by drop. Add the butter, bit by bit.” We kids—my sister and two cousins and I—weren’t encouraged to be around while the caramel was cooking because the hot syrup can cause the most awful burns but, once the caramel was poured and had time to set, our work began.

We were the caramel wrappers!  We didn’t see this as work at all. Or, if it was work, it came with great benefits! I’m sure we didn’t eat as many as we wrapped but I’m also sure we needed some time outside after we were done, to work off the sugar high.

My grandmother would carpet the kitchen table with little squares of waxed paper, cut the caramel into strips, and cut little pieces—plop, plop, plop—onto the paper. Little hands would pick up each square, wrap the waxed paper around and twist the ends to seal the caramels in.

Nowadays, a lot of my caramel gets dipped in chocolate or added to some other candy, like turtle bark or candy bars. The chocolate-covered fleur de sel caramels are by far my best-selling item.

But sometimes, I do get orders for the pure, unadulterated caramels and, as was the case this morning, I find myself wrapping little bites of caramel in squares of waxed paper.

And my mind wanders to a different warm kitchen, four little girl cousins, a plump farm grandmother, sweets made with loving hands at home—a scene out of Norman Rockwell and perfect for daydreams and happy memories. Wrapping caramels still comes with benefits.

I hope you have the chance to daydream and enjoy family memories on your day of thanksgiving!

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The Country Mouse Goes to Boston Town

Rackham_town_mouse_and_country_mouseMy husband and I are country mice. We’ve both lived in city settings but we currently have a quiet rural life that we love.

Except once in awhile, we crave a little more excitement, bright lights, a great museum, good food.

We spent the last few days in the city of Boston, in the state of Massachusetts, in the USA.

Boston is the perfect city for country mice. It’s a big city that feels small, it has tons of beauty, indoors and out, and there are buildings and monuments everywhere that feel familiar and comforting to all Americans, even if they’ve never been to Boston before.

I want to show you how beautiful Boston is in autumn by focusing on three highlights of the trip—a farmers’ market in Copley Square, a beloved team winning the big game, and our ramblings around the green spaces of the city. Whether you’re a country mouse or a town mouse, there’s something in Boston for you!

All Americans and maybe many folks in other countries, too, know that Boston has had a sad, sad year. The bombings that tore apart the Boston Marathon, and many people’s bodies and lives, continue to leave their marks on the city.

For months, Copley Square, in the heart of the Back Bay area and very near the site of the bomb attacks, was given over to an impromptu memorial to the victims of the bombs, where Bostonians and visitors to the city could add a tribute and share their sadness and determination to be “Boston Strong.”

IMG_2736 IMG_2734_2Now, the sad memorabilia has been moved to the city archives and Copley Square is back to hosting a weekly farmers’ market that brings a healthy, life-filled beauty to the city. And the country mice felt very much at home here! We have apples where we come from!

Boston has always been mad about their sports teams and, especially, their baseball Red Sox. The Red Sox had a magical year this year that culminated when they won baseball’s World Series on Wednesday night.

I know a lot of people don’t really get how a sports team can bring a city up off its knees but, trust me, Bostonians feel that their Red Sox did just that. The players made “B Strong” their motto and worked to give the city a happy distraction from the troubles but also worked tirelessly in charitable ways to ease the pain of the victims of the attacks.

So, their win in the championship was a storybook ending. It didn’t take away the pain or give back the lives lost, but it still mattered, a lot, to the city. A happy city is a beautiful city. And a happy city is very welcoming to country mice, as long as they cheer for the home team!

Boston is a city to walk in. It’s not huge and it has so many beautiful parks and green spaces that it invites a slow pace and appreciation. We saw pocket gardens in the Back Bay Fens and in the tiny spaces in front of the brownstones on Beacon Hill. The beautiful cemetery in the Boston Common creates a still spot for contemplation right next to one of the busiest commercial streets in the city.

The Public Gardens and Boston Common provide city dwellers with huge spaces to admire nature and just hang out and have fun. One of the prettiest areas is along the Charles River, which runs between Boston and Cambridge, into the Atlantic Ocean. Right next to traffic tearing down busy Storrow Drive, joggers jog, dogs frolic, crew teams row, little boats sail, and a busy city rests.

The country mice found this all very reassuring when they got a little overwhelmed by the rich food, flowing wine, and bright lights of the big city!

The country mice are home now, fat and happy, with fine memories of town. We’d recommend Boston to any of you who love a small big city, history, and beauty! Are you a town mouse or a country mouse?

Come Leaf Peeping With Me!

Gallery

This gallery contains 29 photos.

The High Peaks region of the Adirondacks in New York is already past peak foliage–it came early this year! The colors were great, and still are in lower elevation parts of the North Country. If you love fall but missed … Continue reading

We Shall Overcome: Explaining the Power of a Song

we-shall-overcome-sheet-music-notesYesterday I wrote about the history of the iconic song, “We Shall Overcome.”

How does one little song become so pervasive in the course of human events and, more importantly, why this song? Think of all the songs and all the candidates for immortality—why does one song get forgotten and another transcend its moment?

I worked in the academic field of rhetorical criticism—that’s a fancy term for someone who analyzes messages and tries to understand why people respond to some messages more than others. It stands to reason that, if a message—a speech, a song, a book—is popular and praised then it must somehow meet the needs of many people. My question is, “How so?”

The song “We Shall Overcome” has stood the test of time and cultural meaning. It has been sung as a message of protest and hope, by dramatically different groups of people, for at least 65 years and probably much longer.

By focusing on changes the song underwent and its place in the American civil rights movement, I hope I can provide some insight about how and why the song has achieved such iconic status.

The song came to mean so much to the African-American community for several reasons: its history, the way the specific words resonated, and because the act of singing together has power of its own.

“We Shall Overcome” was an old song, with roots and meaning in the community. The civil rights movement, to be successful, had to bring together supporters from all walks of life. College students needed to able to work with and communicate with unlettered sharecroppers. Young needed to communicate with old, North with South, black with white.

One way activists could bridge these gaps was through the use of old songs that everyone knew and related to. While some of the younger activists resisted the singing of spirituals and songs from “the bad old days,” others seem to have realized it was a way to reach out, not just to older African-Americans, but to all kinds of people who would find the music engaging and appealing.

The use of these songs also built on past tradition and created a sense of community with those who had come before. African-Americans had been using song to deal with adverse conditions since the time of slavery, and the songs of the civil rights movement were a continuation of that resistance. Singing the old songs placed the singers within a tradition of singing and gave them the sense of building on, extending, the deeds of their ancestors.

The deceptively simple words of the song are the source of much of its power. The changes made in the song, as it evolved, give us some insight to what people wanted and needed from the song.

The song seems to have originally been written as “I will overcome.” This made sense if the song was to be sung as a hymn or in a religious context–“I will overcome my sins” or my baser instincts or whatever.

In the context of a social movement, however, with protestors singing the song as a group, the needs changed. One hundred people singing “I will overcome” might ultimately come down to a meaning similar to that same group singing “we will overcome,” but the point was that no one person could succeed or bring abut the change needed without the group. The group, as a group, was necessary for change to occur. The “power in many” made a difference.

The original song was also subtly different than the song the world came to know in the use of the word “will,” rather than “shall.” It seems such a little thing but think about the words—do they communicate differently?

I’d say yes, emphatically. To say “will” simply expresses an intention. “Shall” carries extra weight and force. We associate the word “shall” with the language of law, regulations and directives and to express that which is mandatory, or inevitable, “Shall” also has Biblical overtones and a sense of determination that is missing in the use of “will.” And, because we tend not to use “shall” in everyday talk, it attracts attention when it is used and gives a special sound and power to the statement.

What about the word “overcome,” though? Some would argue that that word was too strong and would sound threatening to listeners. In a context where white America was uneasy about thousands of African-Americans coming together to protest, would their use of “overcome” sounds too confrontational and off-putting?

I’d argue that the word “overcome” worked because, in fact, it is not a word likely to evoke fear. When we use the word “overcome,” we tend not to use it to talk about overcoming people. We’re more likely to say, “I need to overcome my weaknesses” or “overcome the odds against me.” The word “overcome” is ambiguous in the best possible way and suggests a rising above or transcending of difficulties rather than violence. This, combined with the fact that the song did not ever refer explicitly to enemies or the “other,” meant the song could be sung with sounding combative.

Beyond the recurring words “we shall overcome,” the verses of the song were simple and flexible, and could be added to, to fit the needs of a particular situation. One activist told of just such a moment:

One night in the winter of 1957, officers of the law burst in [to a meeting of activists]—not policemen really, just angry white men who’d been deputized by the local sheriff and given license to put a scare into the students of social change. They cut the power and forced the students to lie in the dark as they smashed furniture and ransacked the place in search of “Communist literature.”  And there on the floor, the trembling students began to sing [We Shall Overcome]. Softy at first. Then louder. One of the students was a 13-year-old girl named Jamalia Jones. She knew only one way to control her fear. In the darkness, she made up a new verse: “We are not afraid, TODAY.”

And the activists said that, even though they WERE afraid, when they sang, together, that they were not, it helped them address and overcome their fears, together, and continue their activities.

In addition to the group history with the song and the power of the individual words the act of singing was critical in the success of the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” and the other freedom songs were sung in unison, not by a performer singing for others. Everyone present raised voices together, making a big, powerful sound that had to be reassuring to anyone fearful about repercussions.

This act of raising voices together built an actual, tangible community, where each voice mattered to the overall sound. Additionally, every singer, in singing, voiced a commitment. Humans truly believe that the voicing of a commitment makes the commitment stronger and “real.” If we didn’t, why would we ask couples to say, “I do” at a wedding, or ask a president to speak the Oath of Office? When activists sang, they made an oral commitment to the cause at a higher level.

When people sang together, as in the civil rights movement, differences among them could be transcended. When, together, they sang “we,” they created an “us.” Given the magnitude of change they were looking for, this sense of community was a necessity.

The singing of “We Shall Overcome” became ritualized in ways that took this sense of being part of something big even further. When this song was sung, at the beginning and ending of every meeting, it took on the power of a benediction. Activists stood next to each other with shoulders touching and held hands with right arm over left, swaying in time with the song. The ritual was theirs and, like any ritual, created a sense of belonging and group identity.

Lastly, singing in general gave the activists an outlet through which they could take a stand and make themselves heard while remaining committed to the primary strategy of the civil rights movement, that of nonviolence. When faced with violence, they sang. When faced with angry dogs and knocked about with fire hoses, they sang. In the oral histories from the civil rights movement, you can find numerous references to the times when, faced with abuse and violence, protestors found the strength to “turn the other cheek” through their songs.

I could go on and on (I already have!). “We Shall Overcome” worked in the civil rights movement, and continues to work for other protestors and activists and people in difficult times, because of its history—it is connected to past struggles and successes. The specific words matter very much—they are firm and clear, but nonconfrontational, and adaptable. The physical and communal act of melding ones voice with others connects people and offers both reassurance and power.

The many strategies used by civil rights activists provide a virtual game plan for protestors in later movements. The song has connected thousands, bringing them strength and courage; right now, someone, somewhere is singing it.

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If you wonder about my credentials on this subject, let me reassure you. I spent my academic career studying the rhetoric of protest music. For much more on the topic see Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

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We Shall Overcome: A Song For, and By, the People

pselma9aDeep in my heart, I do believe,

That we shall overcome, someday.

With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, iconic speech, “I Have A Dream,” our thoughts return to the American civil rights movement.

So much can, and has, been said about this movement. And, because I can, I’m going to say more, not so much about the movement, in general, or the March on Washington, specifically, but on the song that became the anthem of the movement—“We Shall Overcome.”

As you know, I love things that bear the imprint of real people, and this includes music. No song better exemplifies the power of the human voice to bring about change in the world than the song, “We Shall Overcome.”

Above all else, the civil rights movement was a people’s movement. You can talk about the leaders—the Martin Luther Kings and the Ralph Abernathys and the rest. They were important but the most important folks in the struggle for civil rights were just that, the folk.

Many, many regular people, struggling in day-to-day life, but ready to take their chances and stand up for freedom.

One of the means by which these regular people communicated with each other, and with the world they were trying to change, was by singing. The so-called freedom songs, including “We Shall Overcome,” provided them with a way to express hopes and fears, to communicate about aspirations, and to present a unified and peaceful image of the community.

These songs were not presented by an expert singer to passive listeners; the freedom songs were, fundamentally, songs meant for singing, and everyone sang.

“We Shall Overcome,” a song we so associate with the civil rights movement, had been used, in varying forms for many years before.

In doing research on the song, I found many sources that said that the first version was written as “I’ll Overcome Someday,” by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, in very early 1900s. But others, including Pete Seeger and Bernice Johnson Reagon, seem to believe that the song was much older and that Tindley adapted it and set it in print. Either way, the song was originally sung in churches with verses that said, “I’ll be all right” and “I’ll see the Lord someday.” (It should be noted that others have made claim on the song as well).

By 1945, the song was clearly being used politically, to bolster the nerves of singers as they sought change in their lives. Picketers sang the song during a strike by black tobacco workers in South Carolina; instead of “I will overcome,” the words by then had been changed to “we will overcome”—a significant alteration.

Soon thereafter, the song was brought to Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee, by union activists and another significant change was made to the wording. Singers no longer sang “we will overcome;” they asserted “we shall overcome.”

In 1957, Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy visited Highlander and heard the song. As the story goes, King later found himself humming the song and commented,  “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”

In 1960, a leader at Highlander, Guy Carawan, began teaching “We Shall Overcome” to civil rights activists, who taught it to others at mass meetings. The SNCC Freedom Singers began singing the song as well and very soon the song was considered the anthem of the movement, the one song out of many that seemed to best express the thoughts and feelings of the activists.

The singing of “We Shall Overcome” became ritualized in many ways. Meetings began and ended with the song. Participants stood next to each other, with shoulders touching. They held hands, with right arm over the left, and swayed with the music. And everyone sang. This was not a performance but full-voiced participation.

By March 15, 1965, the civil rights movement was undoubtedly changing. Deadly racial violence flared up, as African-Americans were attacked by police while preparing to march to protest voting rights discrimination. After these attacks, President Johnson called for Voting Rights Act, to enforce the right to vote, and he used the words “we shall overcome” in his speech. As the tenor of black protest changed in the mid to late-60s, the singing voices went quiet.

But that was not the end of the story of “We Shall Overcome.” Unlike most of the other songs of the civil right movement, this one transcended that situation and has continued to reassure and galvanize singers around the world ever since.

The words and song have shown up in Indonesia, Beirut, East Berlin, South Africa, Egypt, Tiananmen Square, all through Latin America, and all over the United States after September 11, 2001. Versions abound on Facebook and YouTube. And, of course, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has brought the song to our attention again as well.

That’s the basic history of one song. The larger question, though, is how does one little song become so pervasive in the course of human events and, more importantly, why this song? Think of all the songs and all the candidates for immortality—why does one song get forgotten and another transcend its moment? If you care to stop back tomorrow, I’ll share my thoughts on that subject!

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If you wonder about my credentials on this subject, let me reassure you. I spent my academic career studying the rhetoric of protest music. For much more on the topic see Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

On Edge? Iron!

ironing-2http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/daily-prompt-activity/

I love to iron. Yes, you heard me right. When my life feels a little jumbled and disordered, crumpled like an old sheet, I iron.

I’m not on edge too often. I have an easy life, mostly free from drama. When I get tense, it’s usually because I feel like I have a lot to do, so the usual methods of relaxation simply don’t work for me. If I try to “relax relax,” I fidget and worry, completely preoccupied with the things I should be doing.

So, I’ve figured out I need to “work relax,” I need to do something that counts as work but is mindless and repetitive and, yes, relaxing.

So, I iron. As I iron, my mind can wander freely. I can sort through all those things I think need to be done, and figure out a plan for accomplishing them. I can plan a blog post. I can gain perspective.

I don’t iron shirts or ruffles or anything fussy. I iron tablecloths and napkins and big expanses of linen. I take big messy messes and, with a few sweeps of my iron and squirts of my spray bottle, turn the messy messes into gleaming, crisp fields of smoothness.

Hey, you meditate your way. I’ll meditate mine. And I’ll wish that all problems were as easy to solve as wrinkled linens!

How Can I Keep from Singing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve said elsewhere that the music I love best is folk music, music made by people like you and me. The music I love best is made and sung by everyday people in response to everyday events in their own lives. I can appreciate the glory of the highly-trained operatic voice and also love a song that has-a-good-beat-and-is-easy-to-dance-to but I come back, every time, to the grittier, more authentic sound of the folk.

I especially love the music of protest and resistance. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the spirituals sung by African-American slaves and published a book about the protest songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve also studied Irish songs of rebellion and the protest music of the American New Left and of the turbulent 1960s.

The best songs, to my way of thinking, are not sung by an individual performer while others sit and listen quietly. The best songs are shared in the fullest sense—shared words, shared voices, making together a sound and a covenant that could not be made by one person, alone. And the best songs transcend the moment in which they were created, to speak across generations, about the human condition.

This is all by way of providing you a preview of coming attractions! I just know I’ll be writing more about this music and the songs and singers/songleaders that have moved me most. I’ll start, in the next week or so, with my thoughts about what I would call the greatest folk song of all time, “We Shall Overcome.” I hope you’ll come back and follow along!