Singing for Our Lives: A Guest Post from Erin Wathen

Erin Wathen, the sassiest Lady Preacher I know.
My friend and sorority sister Erin Wathen, of the fascinating blog Irreverin, is back with a gorgeous take on the recent KY All-State Chorus hotel performance that became a bit of an internet phenomenon. For more of Erin's stories of faith, sass, Southern values, and Lady Preacher-hood, check out her blog and her Facebook page. -- HCW

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But at least since I was a young’n, and probably a good many moons before that… each year, several hundred high school students would gather at the Hyatt Regency in Louisville for Kentucky All State Choir. (Yeah, that’s how we rolled, y’all. A glimpse of my wild and crazy youth right here). 

That hotel is about 20 stories high, with a large open-air atrium for a lobby. You can look up from the ground floor and literally see the door to every guest room, surrounding you on every side. And UP. So far up. When you are a kid from the holler—even if you’re a relatively well-travelled kid from the holler—that’s an impressive structure. 

On that first night, every year, we would all stream out of our rooms… Still giddy from the long bus ride, the first glimpse of a city skyline, and the prospect of 3 days in a hotel with NO PARENTS… We would all come out and stand along the balcony railing. A dozen at first, then a hundred, then five hundred. And somebody, somewhere, would start singing. 

There was a standard fair, you know, to the high school choir routine. My Old Kentucky Home. The Star-Spangled Banner. 16 Tons. The Lion Sleeps Tonight. And whatever the audition piece was to get to All-State that year… These were all songs that every high school music nerd in the state knew, in 4-part harmony. It’s fun in the classroom. It’s cool on the bus. But singing into an open air atrium in surround sound… Astounding and marvelous. 

Now, the sad news was that the All-State Choir event took up the whole dang hotel and even spilled over to other places down the street. Which means that nearly every person in the building, at the time of this miraculous performance, was taking part in it. Occasionally, the new front desk employee, the hapless downtown tourist, or the first time parent chaperone would look up in startled delight. But for the most part—we were singing to the choir. (Which is much like preaching to the choir, only more musical). Fast forward 20 (yikes) years. There are cell phones. With video recorders. There’s youtube. Vimeo. Facebook, Twitter, and a planet full of people who are desperate for small glimpses of inspiration, joy, and spontaneous community. Add to this scenario the confluence of this year’s All State Choir gathering with the first night of the Olympics. And suddenly, this decades-old belting of the national anthem becomes a ‘patriotic tribute,’ an ‘internet sensation,’ and a ‘viral high school flash mob.’ 

A flash mob?! Is that what that was? 20-some years ago, we didn’t know that term. We didn’t have cell phones with cameras. We were just kids on a trip. We were just singing into the void. 

Thing is, I watched it anyway. Last week, I watched that same anthem trickle down from 20 stories high, 20 years later. And it sounded just the same. Two decades removed, however many thousands of voices later, the song itself has not changed. Maybe seeing something from your youth, played out live when you are just this side of 35, lends significance to a memory you’d long filed away. Or maybe the real shift comes when you view it from a more global perspective, with about a million other people. This is the power of public witness: the added weight of meaning that an event takes on when processed by a larger audience. 

Isn’t this why we do faith in community? Because the little glimpses of the holy that we might catch in our every day lives are sacred. But when we share them with 2 people, or 20, or 200, they become that much more significant. They bear that much more meaning, and become a lasting part of who we are, both individually and collectively. Suddenly, one small thread of melody takes on tonal complexity, a life of its own. Eventually, you’re not just the choir singing to the choir anymore. For that moment, you are the word made flesh. A community of God’s people, giving life to many through the voices of a few. 

But to tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought about our ‘flash mob’ performances in years, cool as they were at the time. No, what I remember most about those kinds of trips are, like I said, the bus ride. The journey from our home holler to a far (to us) removed city, and a glimpse of who we might be some day. I remember how the cheerleader/church kid/pageant queen/skateboard punk lines diminished as we moved out of town, and as we sang together. I remember the complex love triangles that seemed to play around the edges of that freedom, but never really amounted to much. I remember years when somebody’s parents were splitting up, or somebody was in any other manner of crisis. I remember the homework that we promised to do on the bus, forgotten the minute we rolled past exit 41. I remember having my wallet stolen one year but somehow being sustained by friends, in the form of late night pizza and vending machine runs. (Luckily, we were not sophisticated enough to sneak beer into these things. That would’ve been expensive). 

And I remember how singing in this suddenly much larger circle of strangers was powerful, significant, possibly even transformative…but somehow, not nearly as important as the people who would ride the bus home with us. Maybe sometimes, you need the distance from home–and the space of about 20 years– to realize that. 

I’m grateful for the recent public witness to something that was so formative and meaningful for so many of us. The truth is, the epic viral nature of the ‘flash mob sensation’ did not make it a shared experience. This is a song we’ve been singing forever. In fact, I like to think we are all still singing into the void. Still singing for our lives.

New Holiday Traditions

The holidays are all about tradition. The decorations, the celebrations, the family customs -- no matter your faith or background, there are traditions you observe every year.

In recent years, I've thought a lot about holiday traditions, as my beau and I attend Christmas gatherings with our respective families, and build traditions of our own.

Somewhere along the way, my go-to holiday dish has become Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon. It couldn't be more different than the huge Southern spreads that were customary in my childhood. And yet, I cook it with the same degree of love and attention to detail that my granny always applied to her customary Christmas Eve fried chicken. I find myself making the French beef-and-wine stew for special holiday meals with the people I love. 

This year, my beau and I stayed home for Thanksgiving. Despite the made-for-Hallmark-TV promises that we can all go home for the holidays, sometimes work obligations impose themselves. Since it was just the two of us, we scaled back Thanksgiving dinner to reflect a lower-carb sensibility. Neither Sister Schubert rolls nor pies were to be found anywhere. As we enjoyed our boeuf bourguingnon and pancetta-roasted Brussels sprouts, I realized that, just maybe, we'd created a holiday tradition of our very own.

Have you created any new holiday traditions at your house?

The Christmas Repeal

We don't drink in my hometown. 

Well, people do drink alcohol, of course, but it's never been as socially acceptable to go out and have a glass of wine or a cocktail in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky as it is in the Commonwealth's bigger cities. Part of it is a religious distinction; there's a whole lot of Baptists in our neck of the woods. Part of it is economic; there isn't a lot of extra income for frivolous things like drinkin'. And, more than a little of it comes down to the booze we produce. The Appalachian end of the state doesn't produce Kentucky's storied bourbon. We don't have limestone in our water, nor do we have oak barrels charred to exacting specifications. We have a proud -- or perhaps infamous -- history of moonshine stills. Most of us have a 'shiner or two on our family tree, whether we want to admit it or not. When your spirits are less than legal, you generally don't announce them with pride.

via Maker's Mark

That all changes, come the holidays. Now, it's never been any surprise to me that the 21st Amendment was repealed on December 5th. You need to break out the good stuff for the Christmas baking. And, we may need a little nip in the house, because you never know if company will want some. Even the most devout Baptist grandmas suddenly know their liquor store order when it comes time to make holiday confections. They want Maker's Mark or Early Times. Or rum for the cake. It's not like we drink the rest of the year. It's simply a month-long lift on the Prohibition, in the name of good cheer.

My grandma Margaret would never touch a drop, but she sure would soak her fruitcake. My great-aunt Marie made these weird little cookies with raisins and cherries and a whole lot of rum; they were strangely addictive, and the whole family loved 'em. And then, there are the bourbon balls. My family's recipe. I can't make enough of them during the holidays; everybody wants some. It doesn't matter if you touch bourbon the rest of the year.

This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal, and the far longer-standing tradition of the Christmas Repeal. Here's my family's bourbon ball recipe, if you find yourself in the mood for drinking or baking.

  • 1 to 2 cups good bourbon whisky (preferably Maker's Mark) 
  • 1 cup chopped pecans 
  • 1/2 to 1 cup whole pecan halves (optional) 
  • 1 two-pound bag of powdered sugar 
  • 1 stick butter, softened 
  • 1-2 bags semisweet chocolate chips (preferably Ghiradelli)
  •  paraffin wax 

  1. Place 1/2 to 1 cup of chopped pecans in shallow bowl. 
  2. Pour bourbon over nuts, immersing completely. Cover and let soak 12 hours to overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pecan halves in shallow pan and toast lightly for about ten minutes. Cream butter in stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. 
  4. Combine bourbon-pecan mixture with just enough powdered sugar to form a stiff ball. Refrigerate to let stiffen slightly. Roll dough into small balls. 
  5. In double-boiler (or a sauce pan placed over a cooker full of boiling water), add a third to a half a bag of semisweet chocolate chips and a small shaving of paraffin wax (no more than 1/4 cup). Heat until just smooth. Dip dough balls into the chocolate mixture. The key is to coat them quickly and make small, frequent batches of melted chocolate. 
  6. Place bourbon balls on wax paper to cool. 
  7. Top each ball with a toasted pecan half, if desired. Results are better if you leave them to cool at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator.

Favorite Thanksgiving Dish? Easy.

I have one job to do for Thanksgiving. I pack up my family and get us all to Kentucky. No kitchen, no turkey brining, no worrying about the perfect side. This leaves me with plenty of time on the road to  feel nostalgic for my favorite holiday dishes and extoll the virtues of my favorite sweet potato topping. (Pecans, in case you were wondering.) There is one simple dish that serves as my holiday harbinger, and that is my mother's uncomplicated but superb cranberry relish. Although she has made this recipe for as long as I can remember, she won't take credit for creating it. She attributes this recipe to Mrs. Pauline Eblen of Henderson, who is the sweetest little woman you could ever hope to meet. No wonder it's so delicious.

Here's what you need:

2 small oranges, unpeeled
1 lb. cranberries
1 cup sugar*

The mason jar in the back contains coconut palm sugar, which I substitute
for the cane sugar to the right.
The result is not as pretty but every bit as scrumptious.

Slice the ends of the oranges away, then cut oranges into 1/2 inch chunks. Fill food processor with all the ingredients, then chop and grind to your desired texture. I recommend letting it chill for a day or so in your refrigerator to allow the flavors to marry. They will be so happy together, I promise.

Takes about a minute to grind all this to a perfect relish consistency.

Here's some helpful cranberry relish advice that you will want to follow, assuming that you make this once and immediately declare that you wish you had more of this or could save some for next summer. Try buying eight pounds of cranberries and a full bag of oranges. This stuff freezes exceptionally well, so plan on freezing one cup portions that you can easily thaw when you want to add a lovely burst of color to a table or just want a crazy good dollop of tangy cranberries on your mid-May turkey sandwich.

I didn't have any cooked poultry available, so please take my word that this tastes heavenly on any type of bird. Say you have some chicken breasts in the oven, but you become distracted by one child while his tiny partner in crime tosses your timer into the sink. Dried out chicken? Boom. Cranberry relish to the rescue! Imagine a boring leftover turkey sandwich promoted to gourmet status by some leafy greens and the zing from this cranberry relish. But just between us, you don't need anything but a ramekin dish and a spoon to enjoy this stuff.

Digging into some of this deliciousness in a few short days!

What dish signals Thanksgiving and the coming holiday season for you? We would love to hear from you!

Henderson's Annual Tribute to Veterans

Before Memorial Day is too far past us, I want to share with the rest of you fine Kentuckians something special that we Hendersonians observe every year.  Our Central Park is always lovely, but this is the time of year when walking or driving by has us all stopping to reflect upon our vast freedoms and those who have served our military forces to preserve them. Imagine gazing out at over 4,600 of these crosses, each one a tribute to a deceased Henderson veteran.

A section of crosses erected annually in Henderson's Central Park

For the past 67 years, these crosses have been displayed in conjuncture with Henderson's unique and emotional Memorial Day Service. I am willing to admit that as a very young child, I thought that all these people were buried in Central Park. I am only admitting this because I bet I'm not alone! Once I grew old enough to know better, I realized what an enduring, tangible reminder our community has of the many sacrifices made by our brave veterans.

Henderson County Judge-Executive, Hugh McCormick, expressed the hope that children would always be present at the annual ceremony and carry on this important tradition. The photos in this post were provided by Henderson County native Rhonda Cravens Richard, who has blessed me with years of friendship and has deep connections to our flag (She was born on Flag Day, naturally!), to exercising our right to vote, and certainly to all generations of her family. She relayed to me the story of her eldest daughter visiting the Central Park crosses of her grandfather and great-grandfather (Rhonda's daddy and grandaddy) with her great-grandmother, Emma Cravens. At that time, Ms. Cravens was able to show her the crosses and tell her all about her grandfather. She has since lost most of her eyesight, which makes the picture below all the more moving. If I know one little girl who will carry the patriotism of the Central Park crosses and the Memorial Day Ceremony in her heart, here she is:

My flag loving friend's sweet daughter, Annaleigh, hearing all about her grandfather and
great-grandfather from her precious great-grandmother.

Read more about this longstanding Henderson tradition in this recent article by the Gleaner.

What does your hometown do to honor its past and present military service members?

Dogwood and Redbud Winters

Have y'all noticed how cold it's been lately? The flowering trees are in bloom, and  the temperature is dipping down into the 40s at night. Of course, there's an old-timey mountain tradition to explain the phenomenon. Here's an essay, first posted here on HerKentucky last year, about just that. -- HCW

When I was growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I rolled my eyes at a lot of conventional mountain wisdom.  Some of that was, of course, the traditional child's prerogative; parents and grandparents simply can't know what they're talking about with their old-fashioned perspectives.  And, to this Muppets-and-Madonna-loving child of the '80s,  old-timey mountain traditions seemed a relic of a long-gone era. 

As an adult, I've had to rescind quite a bit of my know-it-all scorn. The twangy mountain music that my granddaddy played on his vintage Martin guitar sounds curiously like the hipster-standard Raconteurs and Avett Brothers tracks that fill my iPod.  My grandmother's Crisco-and-butter cooking turned out to be far healthier than the fake food revolution of my childhood.  And, so many pieces of folk wisdom -- the most embarrassing, "unscientific" observations of the natural world -- have turned out to be true.  I've been forced to eat my words time and again.  The most dramatic example is Redbud Winter and its close, usually later, cousin Dogwood Winter.  

Now, when I was a kid, I hated hearing about these supposed weather phenomena.  When the first warm spring rolled around, it should be warm and pretty and springy from then on.  Without fail, someone would note "Oh, it'll get cold again.  We haven't even had Redbud or Dogwood winter yet.  Don't put your coats away." That was surely just an old wives' tale.

Except, it wasn't.  Every spring, the pretty, delicate blooms on the flowering trees brings a dramatic cold snap.  This year was no different -- last week brought 85 degree days, then the redbuds and dogwoods started to peek out.  As I started to unpack my spring dresses and shorts, I immediately thought that I'd better leave out a few cold weather items, just in case.  Of course, redbud winter came a few short days later, bringing cold mornings and brisk days.  

I guess the old-timers are right after all.

{all photos taken in my mom's Floyd County backyard}