Saturday, March 31, 2018

Music at St. Columba's

Music is an integral part of life for St. Columbans. The congregation is filled with music-lovers of varying degrees and it shows by the effort they put into the activities of the church. One of the shared elements of their life together is the music that they foster and produce.

When I first arrived, I was, I think, overexcited by the musical opportunities available. It was almost the first thing on peoples' lips when they were introducing me to St. Columba's: music is important to us! So I immediately (overenthusiastically) signed up to join the choir. I had no excuses why I wouldn't - I live two minutes away, I've always fancied joining my home church's choir, and I would get to socialize more with St. Columbans outside of church.

I realized about four minutes into our first practice that I might be in trouble. I just didn't know what I was supposed to be singing, as all of the other women at the rehearsal were sopranos and I am (I think) an alto (there are also men on baritone and tenor). Sensing my distress, Isobel gently told me just to sing soprano until Pam, another choir member, could come back and teach me the alto parts. But when Pam came back it transpired that a requirement of being in a choir is knowing how to read music and sing harmony. In short, to be in a choir - strangely - one must know how to sing.

My choir career was shortlived, as I quit two weeks later and went back to performing solely in the shower. However, this has not dampened my enjoyment of other musical activities at St. Columba's. As I mentioned, I am taking piano lessons from my lovely friend, Helen, who practices organ in our church. Helen has shown me an appreciation of organ in addition to teaching me piano (and even once let me play it, which was pretty cool!).

My first few experiences with concerts at St. Columba's were in the early months: a brass band concert back in September followed about a month later by an impressive choral and organ concert for Reformation Sunday. Both were delightful. We also give space to two community choirs to practice, one of whom gives us a free concert each year in thanks.

The brass band concert

The hymns at St. Columba's are almost always new to me. As I mentioned before in regards to Christmas music, I find it hard to like new music that doesn't have an emotional overlay. Quite often, I'm ambivalent about most of the hymns we sing (but I love when the choir does an anthem, as they're quite impressive). However, there have been a few that struck a chord (music joke) and I always whip out my phone at the end of the service and take a picture of the text. (If anyone notices that I'm on my phone in church they never say anything....)

Part of St. Columba's passion for music comes from their organist, Nigel, who is very talented and passionate about his organ, whom he calls Mildred. Mildred is massive - you can read about her on the website here - and Nigel is intensely devoted to her upkeep and constant improvement. I've walked into the church at odd hours on numerous occasions to find Nigel inside Mildred, tinkering with her bits and pieces.

If you're wondering if the sexual innuendos in the previous sentence are deliberate...well, yes, they are. I'm not alone in making these types of jokes about Mildred and Nigel's relationship. At choir practice during my first or second week, Nigel announced that he was going to do some work on Mildred over the weekend and make sure her innards were in order. He was, he informed us, going to replace a bit of her chest pipe. Someone else piped up and added that Nigel would be spending time stroking Mildred's chest or something to that effect, and the entire choir filled in with similarly raunchy jokes and cracked themselves up.

My eyes were popping out of my head; it was still early days and I'd not yet seen many of my staid 80-plus fellow congregants laughing, much less at sexual humor involving our organist and his organ.


Nigel keeps busy. Besides his involvement with Mildred, our choir, and the church services, Nigel is the mastermind behind a mainstay of St. Columba's life: Our January free organ concert series. Each year, St. Columba's hosts six visiting organists to play an hour of music at lunchtime on Saturdays. For a church that feels its size very sensitively (St. Columba's is rather small and various members of the congregation occasionally fret about this), the organ concerts brought in a huge number of outside guests, both from the organ community and the neighborhood.

Nigel keeps some of his organ parts up in the balcony, which is a treasure trove of random things

During this concert series, I helped Isobel with her Tea Trolley and poured coffees and teas for guests. It was in this way that I made friends with Nigel's wife Steph (the human wife, not the organ one) and she has become a Crafts with a Cause member and supporter!

I also got to hear some stellar organ music at this series. I had never been a big organ fan before - I didn't dislike it but I never stopped to think about it. The only time I heard it was in church on Sundays. Ascension is blessed with an incredible organist, so I never had reason to think about how hard the organ is to play!

Learning about the organ, taking piano lessons, and enjoying concerts have been a relatively small but extremely enjoyable part of my learning and growth here in England. Part of it is soaking up the musical experience just by being in proximity to those who are passionate about it.

Through my research in college, I learned about psychological sense of community (PSOC) and wrote my thesis about this concept. The idea is that there are four main ways that communities are created and maintained. The one I think of whenever I listen to music being played at St. Columba's is shared emotional connection, through participation in history, rituals, and activities. I got a little annoyed with research by the end of college - was any of this even real life or was it just made up by PhDs who had no knowledge of the real world? - but I now see PSOC in so many ways as I've worked in various places since graduation.

St. Columba's is no exception. Music is a way that the fellowship St. Columba's expresses itself and shares their ministry. When I'm listening to the choir, it's not only the songs that strike me but the way that it brings the fellowship together. While many churches could theoretically have the same events as St. Columba's on their musical calendar throughout the year, it's really more about the congregation's pride and passion for it, and this is what makes them unique.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

March Newsletter

Hey everyone! You can check out my March YAGM newsletter here. Thanks for reading! 

In January, I wrote about Five Lessons I'd Learned in (Almost) Five Months at Hogwarts.

In November, I wrote about Halloween in York.

In September, I was still shell-shocked and wrote about figuring out how to survive in England, Harry Potter style

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Place Where I Live

The places we inhabit can say a lot about us. Accordingly, these places also affect us deeply. When my outer space is cluttered, I find it almost impossible to clear my mind. When the space I am in is barren, it can elicit a sense of freedom to explore and imagine new possibilities, or a sense of loneliness. When the walls are warm and the furniture comfortable, it can feel cozy and relaxing or it can feel like I'm penned in.

My house here is deliciously quaint and I adore my bedroom. It has so many things about it that give it a very British feel, which reflects the larger cultural space that I am inhabiting this year.

For example, instead of a comforter, I have duvet - the English don't seem to use comforters. The duvet cover and pillowcases are decorated with poppies, which are common to see around England as they represent remembrance of the Great War (World War I). My furniture is minimal - I have two small bedside dressers. That's it. The Great Amerian Obsession With Stuff is something I've eschewed for a long time and for the most part, I find it that British people have less than many American families do. It feels European to need less.

My carpet is wall-to-wall which to me is classically British. Every home I've been has at least one room with wall-to-wall carpet - sometimes even the bathrooms! And the room of course has a radiator to warm it.

Even in this most intimate of spaces, the culture that I'm merely borrowing for a year is inescapable. But at the same time, my home appears in the details of my living space as well. The people I love are represented here. It's not just the wall of photographs I have. It is in the little details. On my shelves, there is big bottle of lotion that my sister bought for me and sent over with Shantonu. There is a thick magazine on the topic of mindfulness my aunt sent in the mail. I have one shelf devoted to the cards I've been sent and given.

The radiator that feels so British is what I lean against when I'm Skyping or talking on the phone to my family and friends. On one of my two small dressers, I have a letter and gift from my godfather. In the top drawer with my socks and underwear are a stack of postcards waiting to be sent to friends. And in the second dresser drawer, which is filled with odds and ends, there is a pile of cold medicines that Shantonu gave me after I got sick with the flu in the fall.

In the same way, the people and experiences I've encountered here in York have seeped in as well. I have a tea towel with scenes from across Yorkshire hanging on my wall. It was gifted to me by Derek and Isobel. I have a gigantic map on the wall that I bought when Isobel took me shopping for a new planner. And some of the photographs I hung up were printed out at Boots, where I went on my friend Rachel's suggestion. I have a pair of her hand-me-down trainers. A scarf is thrown across the foot of my bed; it was knitted by my housemate Emily's mom.

A yoga mat in the corner was filched from a pile of unused ones at church. My work bag was a gift from our first Time for God retreat back in September. From my bed, I can hear the comforting rustle of my housemates as they move about. And the two small poetry books on my shelf were part of a donation box at Carecent and picked out for me by Angela, a volunteering friend there; she just sensed that I would like them. Two more books were gifts from my YAGM friend Danielle for Christmas.

The room has become a melding of my two homes - England and the United States - in so many ways. And because of this, it's a representation of me. It's not just because I have decorated the walls or picked out a happy duvet cover. It's because of the embodiment of the relationships that make me who I am. This room holds the physical presence of the people I love; the care they give me is poured out of me to become a part of the space I inhabit.

And so because I cherish people and experiences on two continents now, their influences mingle here. Thus I inhabit a space, physically and spiritually, that is a merging of my old life and my new one, a place that holds both my American and my British selves.

Living here in this place isn't always easy. It's a place in the in-between of two cultures, the moment where they meet. It can be deeply uncomfortable to be in the space in between such two disparate worlds, holding contradicting ideas. The place I am in now is a messier, fuller place than that which I inhabited before I embarked on my YAGM year here in the United Kingdom.

But holding two identities has made me a different, stronger person. It's a representation of how I am continually evolving to welcome new ideas and people into my life, and how blessed I am to be able to do this. The fullness has made the space I live in far more beautiful and rich. This place, my place, is filled with growth, renewal, and love.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fairtrade Fortnight

Fairtrade Fortnight is a program in the United Kingdom where, for two weeks a year, Fairtrade Foundation UK and other organizations celebrate the labor that supplies the country's food. It is a special two weeks to highlight the importance of purchasing fairtrade products; it emphasizes that many of the people who grow our food do not have enough money to feed their own families. 

When you really think about this, it's appalling. I've always been interested in fairtrade options and this project has increased that tenfold. Reading Tomatoland in college sparked my initial interest - it's about how slave labor is the force that brings tomatoes to our plates. It's a heart-wrenching and enlightening read, and even if you think you care not a whit for food or fairtrade I'd encourage you to read the book. It will make you think before you buy. 

So when it was suggested that I team up with other members of St. Columba's who are interested in fairtrade (and have previously run stalls and educational activities related to the effort), I was really excited! I collaborated with a few other people and together we planned a fairtrade Stall, a fairtrade crafts session at Crafts with a Cause (crafting group I run), and two fairtrade film sessions. 

Isobel and I together purchased some fairtrade goods from Traidcraft, which has all sorts of fun and delicious good-for-the-world things. Setting up the stall for our weekly church activities and for Sundays reminded me of the stall that Mr. Bob at Ascension runs each Sunday. He often sells fairtrade chocolate, coffee, and hot chocolate to benefit our partner church in Nicaragua. People were very enthusiastic about the Fairtrade stall at St. Columba's. We bought cookies, coffee (instant and filter, decaf and non), tea, chocolate, fruit bars, and dried fruit. 

A few months ago, I connected with the Oxfam charity shop in Goodramgate to see if we could make anything to support Oxfam. They asked us to make a banner to encourage more volunteers. Oxfam sells fairtrade it was peripherally on-message. We've been (slowly) working on this project as a group. 

In addition to having my eyes opened by the fairtrade films shown at our Friday Lenten Lunch and after the church service last Sunday, my passion for fairtrade grew by attending fairtrade-themed breakfast at the Spurriergate Center. The Spurriergate Center is the coolest place - it's an old city center church that's been revamped to be a community space. There's a cafe, fairtrade shop, and play area for children. There is also a counseling service that uses the center as its base. They also host various events throughout the week (including an international conversation group I sometimes attend). 

The breakfast was enlightening. Apparently, even ten years ago, fairtrade wasn't much of a thing here in the UK. The woman speaking told us that she hopes in ten or fifteen years, there is no need for the Fairtrade Fortnight campaign because fairtrade will be mainstream. Already, one third of bananas eaten in the UK are fairtrade. 

I hope to bring back some knowledge and enthusiasm for fairtrade to the States. I know there are good things happening there, too, so I plan to continue supporting the cause. This is the Youtube Channel for Fairtrade Foundation UK, which has lots of interesting (and inspiring!) videos. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Detox Story + Some Uplifting Things Lately

For a few years now, I've had a low-key obsession with food blogs. It started with following just one that always seemed to have super good recipes. I figured it fit into my love for food, cooking, and healthy living, because that's what a lot of food blogs are all about.

But then I started reading two. Then three. It became my go-to distraction at work - just a harmless few minutes here and there when my brain felt cluttered and I needed a break. It wasn't a huge piece of my life and it gave me new recipe ideas, which I loved. I also enjoyed a glimpse into other peoples' lives.

Then I moved to England and I thought I wouldn't have time for such silly things like reading about other peoples' lives on the internet. But I was suddenly faced with lots of unscheduled time and lots of time alone.

That's when I started reading a lot of food blogs. I'm not saying I was addicted, but I definitely checked A LOT of blogs A LOT of times each week, sometimes each day. Whenever I had an unpleasant encounter, a hard day, or felt homesick, I'd practice some escapism and read food blogs. It was easier than conversation, easier than exercise, easier than pretty much anything else. It was zoning out and immersing myself into shiny, glistening lives of people who wrote about food all day long and who seemed to have themselves together when I was definitely not together.

Sometimes it was helpful - I love to cook and I had loads of recipes/recipe ideas. But oftentimes it was distracting. On the weekend if I was spending two hours reading food blogs, it was two hours I wasn't exploring in York or doing some other fun England-specific activity for the one precious year I have to do it. And if I was distracting myself from work, well, that one's obvious - I was being unproductive and that's annoying.

Escapism was a theme we talked about at YAGM orientation. One woman told us she had escaped by Skyping people from back home for hours and hours. We talked about other unhealthy ways of escapism. I think for me, food blogs had become escapism from the more challenging aspects of life here in the UK.

I could also feel myself falling into a deep comparison trap. People who write blogs - myself included - sugarcoat things and it's not always real life. I haven't always written about the super crap parts of my life on here because I like being positive and because that's also deeply personal. But also it makes it seem like life is easier than it actually is. This is what food bloggers do - understandably so - but it made me feel inadequate to read about other peoples' perfect lives.

But deciding to detox had nothing to do with all of this originally. It started because I was reading Minimalist Baker one day before going to bed. The blog writers had posted a recipe for Muhammara Dip, which is a Syrian traditional recipe.

As soon as I read the post, I was annoyed, because NOWHERE in the entire post did the writers mention that they were using (read: stealing) a recipe from a country that is currently under siege. The country of Syria is in desperate disarray and millions of people are starving, while hundreds of thousands of others have been murdered by rebel forces and their own government. Our country, on the other hand, refuses to take in more refugees because we're afraid of them.

So I commented. I was the first comment on that post. I said, "Would you consider making a $1 donation to the Syrian refugee crisis for every person who made this recipe and tagged MB on Facebook and Instagram?" I asked my friend Jamison (who is a vegan and likes Minimalist Baker) to comment and back me up, which he did. A few other people commented negatively, and a few others positively. I wasn't really worried about that, but I wanted to see that the writers of Minimalist Baker would say. And I wanted people who might see the comment (hopefully thousands of them) to remember that there is actually still a Syrian civil war going on.

Minimalist Baker didn't say anything to my comment. I waited excitedly to see if I had sparked some change and maybe started a successful fundraiser for a good cause, but then a few days later, to my astonishment I saw that they had deleted my comment. They left the other comments in response to mine (as of when I last checked) which sort of makes it look like I deleted my own comment. Nope I did not. They did.

Then I thought, Ew. I really don't like these people. If they can't even entertain a suggestion that would help the world, then they don't seem very kind or thoughtful. They also didn't want to have any suggestion whatsoever on their shiny perfect blog that they were culturally appropriating another country's dish or that they themselves weren't perfect. Disappointing.

And if you're wondering why it matters, it does. Food bloggers make a lot of money somehow (internet money is confusing to me, but I know this to be true) and MB has like a million followers on Instagram. They have a platform to do good and instead, they just continue to make money for themselves and post pretty pictures on Instagram.

I was simultaneously judging the writers of Minimalist Baker, judging myself for judging them on the basis of their internet personas and for caring at all, and increasingly just disgusted. And I was like, SHEESH why do I care so much about what random people are doing on the internet?

So right then and there, I quit food blogs. I realized a lot of food bloggers/internet personas do the kind of reality-altering-to-make-themselves-look-good that Minimalist Baker did. And I think it's really mentally unhealthy to surround myself with that. As I thought about it, I realized I also wanted to give myself the opportunity to be more present in my own reality and less addicted to someone else's life.

So I stopped reading them. I unsubscribed from newsletter updates, I deleted my search history on my phone and laptop, and I just stopped. I knew I still needed a bit of escapism - because we all do - so I went to the library and took out cookbooks (because I genuinely enjoy reading about food) and a bunch of go-to favorite book (mysteries and historical fiction are my favorite genres).

The first few days were easy, the next few were kinda hard, and then after that it felt delightfully refreshingly freeing. I felt much more clear-minded. I still distracted myself on the internet occasionally, but it wasn't with the same voracious intensity as previously. I realized that it made no difference to my difficult days when I went on the internet, and actually, reading blogs made it harder because it just depressed me more.

I've been replacing food blogs with some non-addicting uplifting things. Some of these I practiced before (especially reading and exploring the city of York) but now I try to do them with more intention. I also try to practice them even if I'm feeling anxious/upset for whatever reason and not giving myself a cop-out. Here's my ever-growing list:

-exploring York
-reading (a lot more!)
-practicing piano
-cooking slowly and methodically with pleasure
-doing Zumba classes online (which seems silly but I always forget how great and FREE online workout classes are)
-going to classes in person (I found an awesome, cheap class that I love!)
-visiting people from church in a social non-work capacity
-Taking a super long walk in the sunshine (!!! it exists!!) along the River Ouse
-Reading a cookbook
-Kris Carr's post about what other people think of you - and how not to care!
-Gretchen Rubin's website, blog, daily emails, and books. I love her!
This quote:

-meandering through bookshops and reading bits and pieces of books
-Watching spring slowly come to the beautiful city of York and seeing snowdrops and crocuses
-This awesome postcard I saw in Oxfam:

-journaling and writing

I promised myself I would quit food blogs for three weeks (the time it takes to break a habit) and then see if I could read them restrainedly. After more than three weeks, I decided (with intent) to check my favorite, called Gimme Some Oven. I think she's a positive, upbeat, socially conscious writer and she's also an expat so I like her views on living abroad. It was also a test for myself to see if I would get re-addicted. So far, so good, but I'm still going to make sure I don't fall into my escapism trap.

I decided that for now, I'll check that one and two other positive food-only blogs once per week for recipe ideas - it's helpful for healthy meal planning and I think everything is OK in moderation. But I'll keep an eye on how much I'm reading them this time and make sure it's only every once in a while for an actual purpose. I don't want to slip into the habit of using blogs as escapism anymore. I want to give myself the chance to live in my own reality, hard and frustrating as it is - because the good times are there just as much, and I want to be present for those.