Voices of loved ones, songs of the past,
Still linger round me while life shall last.
Lonely I wander, sadly I roam,
Seeking the far-off home.
One night soon after getting Roisín, when my dad and I were home alone together while my mom was grocery shopping, the phone rang. It was our friend Richard on the line, with a job proposition for my dad: maintenance man for Rod and Staff Publishers. The job would come with a house.
Richard was the man from whom we’d bought our property, and he and his family had frequently tried to get us to move out to KY from the time they got there, but we weren’t interested. Now, though, in the face of his current joblessness, my dad seemed to suddenly see it as a good idea. I understood that, and as we discussed pros and cons, I deep down knew that he would take the job, that it was a waste of time for me to bother fretting and fighting it.
Plainer clothes as this new church would require, I would make. I could deal with that, since I already dressed more plainly than was required at our current church. I did love Richard’s family and would be glad to be near them again. If Rod and Staff folk were as uppity-holy as their books attested, so be it.
But Roisín? She was another matter. Under no circumstances would Roisín be permitted there and me still be in good standing. The tiny eddies of turbulence she had caused in our current church would be seen as nothing in an adamantly instrument-free church. This was the part I felt I could not bear. I knew that eventually a choice would have to be made, but until absolutely unavoidable, I chose to not think about it.
When the time came for the move, I was at rest in my mind with this thought: I will go and see. I will make the best of this as I can, one step at a time. Maybe everything will work out.
And I did really try. But it was hard to maintain optimism even only a few days in, when a girl I had started to befriend on our first Sunday there came over to “see my room”. She did see my room. She was not at all subtle as she looked to see what was in my tape player, what books I had on my shelf, everything. She was a spy, not a friend, and I never trusted her again. Knowing that such people were here, I decided I’d better not say a word about Roisín. I couldn’t risk it.
On Saturday nights, a group of church people would go to sing for people in the hospital. I thought this a lovely idea – I’d always enjoyed going to the nursing home to sing when I’d lived in Idaho, although I never knew what to say to any of the residents. So I went with my dad in high hopes of something inspiring. We met the rest of the group at the minister’s house, where everyone climbed into several vans and drove the thirty minutes to the Paintsville hospital. In the lobby, everyone was handed a hymnbook, and someone told the lady at the desk that this group was here to sing. We were directed to the right floor.
We visited about a dozen rooms. Not one loving word did the pious minister speak to any of the inmates of this depressing place. Not once in his sanctimonious pomposity did he ask them anything about what had brought them here, nor inquired after their health nor offered to pray with them. Empty, tremendously dull, and so depressing.
In one room a youngish lady spoke enthusiastically about our voices, completely excited at the beautiful singing she had just heard us. Everyone stood quite staid and silent, including me. I was already hating the hopelessness of this sort of evangelism. The minister spoke some polite, impersonal words to the lady and handed her one of the papers our printing house put out. As I emotionlessly watched the lady take the paper from the minister, I twitched inside and it occurred to me suddenly why this business was so hopeless.
The love of God – no, that was only present in that paper in word. The spirit behind every word was not one of love, but of judgement and spiritual competition. It was religious propaganda for our own people, not something for outsiders to read. Nobody outside our church could possibly relate to moral stories about Uncle John reading funny papers on the sly, or Sister Faith trying to decide if her hose were opaque enough.
“I hear you play the harp.” The sticky-sweet voice of the minister’s wife broke into my thoughts in the hall as we were leaving. I stopped, feeling my stomach curling up inside me into a sick pretzel.
“Who told you that?” I asked. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.
“Ann,” came the reply.
There was a beat. “I don’t really play,” I said quickly, and hurried after my dad. It was the first time I lied on this point, but it was not the last.
Yes, I thought to myself. As a group we are tremendous spreaders of misguided zeal. We address issues that the Devil delights in because they keep us bickering busily amongst ourselves and with those we are supposed to be loving in the world – rather than giving ourselves to Christ, becoming one with Him, and with one another. This cannot go on. The harp cannot be silenced – will not be silenced. No-one will ever take my harp away from me.
In my soul, without words, my anger toward Ann for feeling it her duty to divulge that bit of information to the minister’s wife was like a fire blazing, burning away my tolerance for non-Biblical mandates. From that time forward, albeit subconsciously, I began to question the heavy hand of unerring church authority.
(Footnote: We had been friends with Ann’s family for a few years. She came from a church in Washington, so that is how she knew about the harp. Later on in our residence in Kentucky she and I talked about this incident and, I believe, resolved our conflict.)
When up against such incidents as these and knowing that membership transfer from our Idaho church to this church entailed verbalising in public that we would Uphold the Standards of This Church (including the part about not having instruments or instrumental recordings), it was really no surprise that I would be reluctant to transfer. I was not going to commit to something in the presence of the church when I knew I would be lying doing so, and music was far too important to me to just cast aside like so much rubbish.
As things went progressively downhill, with pressure being applied to my dad to Get His Family Under Control and United Like Every Other Happy Rule-Following Mennofamily, finally he arbitrarily laid down the law that Roisín and all our instrumental tapes had to be boxed up. My mom insisted it was not fair to take away my music but he still have all his Mennomusic, so he agreed to include his own tapes in the boxes to be packed away. Roisín I put reverently in her case and obediently put her into the closet.
Not without tears, but I was conditioned to compliance; I did not know how to speak out for myself, or even that I could. The harp went in the closet and so did I. My heart, despite so long being accustomed to giving up this and giving up that, felt empty still and slowly withered up.
Had the demand been Biblically based, I would not have argued, but no reasons they gave satisfied me.
And here’s a good place to answer the questions people invariably ask: What is the problem with instruments? What about David? What about the harps in heaven?
It’s impossible to really give a good Biblical answer to the question, because there is none. A Mennonite will first point you to these verses: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” (Ephesians 5:19) and “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16). The implication is that New Testament Christians do not need instrumental music in worship (or, according to the most conservative facets of Mennonitism, outside of worship either). There are all kinds of pamphlets and tracts out there trying to prove the point that instrumental music is bad, many of which were shoved my direction both in Idaho and afterwards. I wasn’t buying it then and I never will.
Things were falling apart in our Kentucky experience. Right at the beginning of our time there, instead of the promised maintenance job that included a house, they ended up giving my dad an office job so that we had to pay rent for another house—an apartment built into an old school that was cheerless and cinderblocky. The cinderblock in my windowless cell were painted a sickly pink. I passed most of my life in this cell with no windows. I made up for the lack of windows by adorning the walls with a vast array of pictures and postcards of anything that struck my fancy, anything I could find. Anything from the Sahara desert to the Pope to a myriad of my own odd drawings of people: stark, half-baked outlines of reality, their empty eyes betraying that they, like me, were soulless. These bits of paper on the wall were my only windows out and the only way one could look into the emptiness of me.
Marital conflicts between my parents started off a cycle of circular counselling with The Ministry that caused our family months of stress and misery. Finally my mom and I decided to terminate our Mennonite membership altogether. My dad had never been allowed to transfer because he didn’t have his family under appropriate rule; he never officially withdrew his membership, though. The news of our withdrawal starting floating around right around days before my seventeeth birthday, resulting in all my invited birthday guests (and one father on behalf of his daughter) calling to decline the invitation.
All of this is honestly a blended mess in my mind. The exact chronology is difficult to recall and not really worth dwelling on. Those months were torture just based on those things alone, let alone the sudden paternally-imposed silence in our home to all music of any kind. When you take a person who cannot stop singing and listening to music, plant her in a new place where nothing is the same, where it becomes her and her harp against everyone else, she can take comfort in her music as the one thing that has not changed. And then there is nothing left of that.
Months, I believe, went by. I don’t recall now how long it was, but I’m sure it was at least two months and likely more. Months of utter, heavy, burdensome silence. Sometimes I would sit in the darkness of my closet and put my arms around the harp. I didn’t pluck a single string. I was obedient in that regard. But as time went by and I began to see that my dad’s arbitrary ruling had cracks in it, I began to reach out to whatever I could get. Someone gave me a hymn tape of a choral group that really wasn’t that good, but my starving soul drank it up in secret late at night in my room. Over. and over. and over. At this point Jack Benny would have sounded like Jascha Heifetz to my music-starved soul.
And then a rebellious young man (I had no other options for friends outside the rebellious, because the “good girls” were no longer allowed to spend time with me) started slipping me country music. My dad knew about it and didn’t reprimand me, which emboldened me to go further. The tapes gradually came out again as well, but something had changed. My mom had gotten used to the silence and had seemingly developed a very low tolerance for tapes at all, let alone repetition thereof. It didn’t even feel right to play tapes any more.
Over those few months I had been a dry sponge, and out of desperation coming out of it I started developing a taste for country music and other contemporary secular music for the first time. I understand in retrospect that I was simply trying to feel again. Over the next several years I felt things and processed emotions through all kinds of secular as well as Christian artists, ranging from John Denver to Plumb. For instance, by the time 2007 rolled around, if I knew I should feel suicidal or depressed about a situation, I went to Plumb and I would headbang to “I Have Nothing” just to get a response out of myself. There had been a disconnect in my brain and it was hard for me to rejoice as deeply in the simple pleasure of music. Allowing myself to even feel emotion in a healthy way over music now seemed a shameful weakness. It’s astonishing what a difference a few short months can make.
(I want to be clear that I don’t think all secular music is automatically bad, just as music with a Christian label is not automatically good. There is good and bad music in both spheres. It is true, however, that the closer I come to Jesus, the less interested I am in the vast majority of secular music.)
And then we moved in September of 2000, to go back West and meet a non-Mennonite life head-on.
In the years that followed, I was often asked by total strangers if I was “Amish”, which I well knew was the outsider’s term for anybody plain, including Mennonites. In an effort to dispel this, I chopped off my hair and began wearing jewellery and sometimes even makeup. I sought an outward image that would make me somebody worthwhile—somebody no-one could possibly mistake for a Mennonite. Still, there was always some perfect stranger, somewhere, who would still ask the dreaded question: “ARE YOU THAT AMISH GIRL I SAW THE OTHER DAY?”
No. No, I AM NOT.
(Here I was going to have a passive-aggressive illustration depicting the difference between Amish and not Amish. Labelled. Clearly. For emphasis. And maybe also the difference between Amish and Mennonite. Instead, I’m inviting you to click here for the rundown.)
I finally finished tech school and moved to Portland when I was 24 to my new job and home, where due to my complete lack of social connections Roisin sat out in the living room again. Almost immediately I met my husband. The first time he planned to come to my house I tormented myself very briefly about whether I should stick her in the closet, and I decided against it. I’d already decided I was going to marry him and found myself comfortable and able to open up to him, at least in part, about this. I even played something for him that first evening, something I just never do. But I did for him, that time. She went back into the closet as soon as more friends entered my life who came to my house, or later our house.
Continue Reading: III – Bridge
Return to I – Prelude