The Joy of Simple Things

A few years ago, when my “Three Short Pieces for Unaccompanied Saxophone” was performed by Lawrence Gwodz at the 2016 National Conference for the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, a colleague and friend of mine, Walter Saul, described my work as “stunningly resourceful with scant material.” Though it was an unexpected thing to hear, I found it to be a great compliment because, in just five words, Walter summarized so much of my approach – not just to composing, but to life in general.

All my life, I have been drawn to simple things. As a kid, I loved arts and crafts where the same basic materials could make an infinite number of projects. My Spyrograph gave me many hours of enjoyment. I also created many cross-stitching designs. It’s amazing what one can produce making Xs with a needle and some colored thread. I found a lot of enjoyment in nature, too, preferring to play outside rather than with toys. I also had a microscope and a set of slides and covers which went a long way in observing all kinds of things I found around the house or outside.

This ability to be satisfied with few and simple things has been part of my adult life, too. When I got married and had young children, money was tight for a long time. During the years my husband was in seminary, we brought home less than $20,000 a year. The four of us lived on that salary for five years. We struggled, but we made it through, partly because I knew how to stretch a dollar. What is chicken broth but boiled bones and veggie scraps? What is bread but flour, yeast, and water? What is jam but fruit, sugar, and pectin? What is soap but oil and lye? Later when we had goats, I made my own dairy products. What is yogurt and cheese but cultured milk? There may be unique variations in all of these, but the the fundamental concept of each is incredibly simple.

We also knew how to have fun without spending a whole lot. Days out were spent at local festivals with free admission or fishing at the lake or hiking in the national forest. Vacations were visits to family or weekend camping trips in the state park. One time we splurged and spent two nights in St. Louis because we could take advantage of the zoo and museums with no admission fee. We created at-home special dinners instead of going out to eat. Trips to the library were always an adventure. Time socializing with friends in each others’ homes was highly valued. Simple or inexpensive didn’t mean boring.

Sometimes I feel my compositions are simple, too, more like award-winning artisan loaves of bread and wheels of cheese from a rural village store than avant garde creations from a Michelin 3-star urban restaurant. But fancy isn’t necessarily better. Complicated doesn’t mean more profound. What if, because each ingredient is highly exposed, simplicity allows for more intimacy and vulnerability?

In this time of Covid-19 when so much is changing and my teaching and performing work is suspended and some of my income reduced, what am I going to do? I’m going to do what I have always done. I will be stunningly resourceful with scant material. I’ll find joy in simple things: games with the family, a phone call with a friend, a home-cooked meal, an owl hooting in my yard. I will bake bread, make soap, plant a garden, pray. I will continue to compose music that, through its simplicity, comes straight from my heart.

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