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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



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!


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.


I Want To Be Left Behind

“If we didn’t love you so much,” one of my Religious Right relatives told me sweetly, “we’d just have to hate you.”

We were at a dinner during a family reunion and talk turned to global warming, which someone had just declared, “a liberal plot.” I glanced around the table at my Southern, conservative Christian family and considered my options. It didn’t escape me that everyone in my original family owns a gun. Everyone also attends church -- religiously.

As a mutinous mystic, I embrace all of creation as my sanctuary. My spirit is more at home among the old-growth trees of my High Sierra birthplace on a national forest or now, decades later on the shores of the Salish Sea. I live on the “Left Coast,” as some family members dismiss it. They are all still in the Southland.

I miss them, especially their dark humor and their fabulous food rituals -- homemade ice cream, bubbling lattice-work strawberry-rhubarb pies, black-walnut divinity, and moosemeat burgers. But most of all, I miss singing four-part harmony with my siblings. As one of the astonished spouses remarks, “Your family sings like angels, but you fight like devils.”

We have family feuds over politics -- “Is Sarah Palin really a remedial bushwacker or crazy smart like the fox she might shoot for her fur bikini?” And religion: “Are we all saved enough to get to heaven together? As if this earth of endless infighting is not bliss enough. And family inheritances: “Will somebody ever reveal Grandmother’s secret recipe for apple butter?” And we even squabble over singing: “Pu-leeeze stay off my alto part and just sing your own harmony!”

Having been Top Ten on the family prayer list most of my life, I anticipate that this most personal of all my books will not garner me many “stars in my crown,” as Southern Baptists describe their heavenly rewards for right-living.

But I’m hoping it may deepen the dialogue between us all. Not just the argument. I’m hoping for a bridge between those on opposite sides of things. All my life I’ve tried to build bridges between polarized extremes. And in this new book I’m trying to use humor to defuse fundamentalism of all kinds -- religious or environmental.

What is the difference between judging people who are “going to hell” as fundamentalist religions do and vegans who believe those of us who still eat meat are somehow evil or unenlightened? As a novelist and nature writer, a “backslid” girl from the family fold, I’ve navigated warring worlds for decades. I’ve listened to liberals decry conservatives as “backwards and stupid”; and winced when conservatives portray liberals as “baby killers” and hell-bent “sodomizers.”

I have tuned out Talk Radio and tried to tune into my “still, small voice.” And that voice doesn’t sound like Rush Limbaugh or even Bill Mahr. It sounds like the shush of waves off my neighborhood sea; it sounds like a community of elders singing in their assisted living choir; it sounds like the wind that makes a different song through each tree. Certainly humans can engage in what nature teaches us -- to listen.

Where is the quiet and deep dialogue that balances the tension between seeming opposites to find common ground -- or at least humanity? That is what my new book seeks most of all. As Rumi says:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

Are you the “odd person out” in a family? How do we find common ground among true believers -- all of whom believe something different?

My book, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, will be published in February by DaCapo Press. I Want To Be Left Behind has already received a starred review from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal.

Looking forward to meeting you all “on the page.” Feel free to comment with questions or insight. Just bring your sense of humor. Finding common ground takes all of us.

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