Full Circles and Kindred Spirits

Artwork by Kevork Mourad for promotion of The Light of Hope Returning.

   Each day now, 
   the world darkening toward zero,
   I rise more early, just to know
   that first uncertain blue.
   Moving toward night,
   I grow more morning.

These lines, which I first read more than 30 years ago in Friends Journal, seared themselves into my memory. I still remember the exact moment I took them in, sitting at a library table at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. I was a peace studies major and had become acquainted with Quakers in activist circles, but I was also a musician with a poetic bent, and in the pages of Friends Journal I found kindred spirits. Somehow through the magic of poetry I was vividly “there” with poet Judith Kotary Straffin (who now writes under the pen name Judith Cordary) in her quiet kitchen, coffee in hand, keeping her morning vigil.

As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I had grown up under the shadow of the nuclear era. The words “darkening toward zero” conjured much more for me than just the slow creep of mortality or of deepening winter. Under that shadow, Straffin’s steadfast declaration was all the more stirring: “Moving toward night, I grow more morning.” Her words became a permanent part of me in that moment, although I didn’t know it until many years later, when the occasion for remembering arose.

The author practicing the hammered dulcimer at home in his composer workspace. Photo © Lorene Thomas.

I went on to pursue a career in music, first as a college choral conductor, and later as a composer/arranger and professional chorister in classical music circles. But the folk music influences of my peace studies days remained with me to the point of becoming a defining feature in my choral writing. In the fall of 2018, I was approached with an intriguing proposition: to write a concert-length “American Folk Christmas.” The commissioning choir was a women’s choir, and my mind lit up with possibilities.

I began to imagine a wise, old woman—a counterweight to the Trumps and Putins and Erdoğans of the world—who would anchor the work as a soloist. It was her care-worn hands that would receive the newborn child, and her clear-eyed warning that would protect him from Herod, the tyrant king. As these archetypal figures began to populate my piece, I was also led toward winter solstice imagery. The darkness of the times was impossible to ignore, and what might have been a “nice” Christmas folk oratorio was well on its way to becoming a dramatic winter solstice “lessons and carols.”

A small decision to intersperse readings among the carols had a momentous effect: from the quiet pond of my memory, up bubbled a few old lines. Suddenly I was in that quiet kitchen again, “growing more morning” as the world “darkened toward zero.” Could there be a more concise expression of the inward experience of solstice, waiting on the light at the darkest hour? I googled the lines, and there, in scanned, archived pages of Friends Journal was Judith Kotary Straffin’s complete poem, “Morning,” from the November 1989 issue. As the piece took form, her poem assumed a place of chief importance, framing the whole experience for the audience. It is the first and last reading to be heard, coupled each time with the folk song “Bright Morning Stars”: “Bright morning stars are rising / Day is a-breaking in my soul.”

“Morning” poem by Judith Kotary Straffin, as it appeared in the November 1989 issue of Friends Journal.

This was not to be the only full-circle serendipity related to the project. Soon after, I reached out to another creative elder, the author Susan Cooper, whose novel The Dark Is Rising I had grown up reading. Her book is set at Christmastime, and the main character celebrates his birthday on winter solstice. Knowing through choral circles that Cooper had written some carol texts—and learning at her website that she loved to receive actual mail—I handwrote a description of my project, with fingers crossed that she might collaborate. To my sheer delight, she wrote back with several pages of material. I discovered the whole work’s title in the final line of one of her solstice lyrics:

    For here is the bright fire burning,
    And here is the old year turning.
    So shall we stay to greet the day,
    And the light of hope returning.

We had no idea what was coming, as The Light of Hope Returning received its premiere performances last December to two packed houses. Now we would be shocked to see the tight rows of singers and instrumentalists tucked in close—the fiddler and cellist, the sax player for the gospel carols, the hammered dulcimer and the string bass. The pandemic has completely changed the world of choral music. But the intrepid director of the commissioning choir was inspired to reprise the piece this year as a live-streamed, concert-length virtual choir performance, with live drawing and animation. We have been busy at work for months, planning by Zoom, recording separately, and putting the project together element by element—all in time for a winter solstice release on December 21.

It can be tricky to track down authors, and I was not able to reach Judith Straffin through various publishers before the live premieres last year. But her cooperation was vital for this wider release of our collective work. Another hand-written letter was sent off with crossed fingers, and what a thrill to receive a four-page hand-written response from an astonished and pleased Straffin. She included in her letter one of the most hospitable things a person can say to another: “I hope you’ll tell me about yourself.” We have now been writing back and forth, and it is delightful to confirm her as a “kindred spirit” in this personal way, as I always supposed.

I have profound gratitude for the miracle of connection through words that has brought all of this synergy, synchronicity, and serendipity to pass. The original publication of “Morning” in Friends Journal revealed a poet’s soul to us as readers, and what a privilege it is to tell this story in the very pages where the story began. I ended my first letter to Straffin with a sentence that became a poem:

   What a wonderful world,
   where the distant ends of lines
   bend with the decades,
   to form a circle!

Artist Kevork Mourad in action. Photo © Connie Tsang.
This year on December 21, the winter solstice, a ground-breaking virtual choir performance of Shawn Kirchner’s The Light of Hope Returning will stream live at 6:00 p.m. PST / 9:00 p.m. EST. This project—which would never have come to be without the pandemic—combines an international team of choirs, instrumentalists, writers, and visual artist Kevork Mourad. Information on the performance can be found at thelightofhopereturning.com.

Shawn Kirchner

Shawn Kirchner attends La Verne Church of the Brethren in La Verne, Calif. He is a choral composer, pianist, and professional chorister and has served as the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Composer-in-Residence. He has taught music and worship at Bethany Seminary, right next door to the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind. Contact: shawnkirchner.com.

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