‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free,
‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
I am currently taking a unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE), and in my classroom and supervisory sessions, I’m finding myself reconsidering the stories I have told about my childhood from the perspective of who these stories mean I bring into each pastoral session. It’s been good work…holy work… but it also means I have cleared the path to those childhood memories, so they’re easier to get to right now. And so this simple hymn tune, rather than delighting me and drawing me toward reflecting on the Shakers is instead reminding me of a long-forgotten embarrassment.
I was eleven, going on twelve, the year of America’s Bicentennial. My family and I loved it all – the history, the passion and pomp and parade, the community spirit. We participated in everything we could. Dad was one of the men asked to play one of the signers of the Declaration in a July 4th pageant, and so Mom made his costume, along with one for me.
I loved my 18th century costume, but like many things I loved, it made me even more of an outcast amongst my schoolmates. On that day, though, I didn’t care too much. My dad was a Signer, and we loved the celebration.
Later that summer, the Hudson Valley Girl Scout Council put together a girls’ chorus to sing a program of patriotic tunes at the Schaighticoke Fair. I either didn’t listen or didn’t want to listen or simply misunderstood – but of the fifty or so girls who sang, 49 wore their Girl Scout uniforms, and one wore her Bicentennial costume. And what’s worse – I had a solo, on “Simple Gifts.’
I was mortified. I was embarrassed that I stuck out. I was teased by members of my troop. And I can’t imagine what the choir director thought, but there I was, sticking out like a sore thumb in that sea of Girl Scout Green. I don’t remember if anyone in the audience thought anything of it – maybe they thought it was intentional because of my solo. Maybe they thought I was also doing something else. Or maybe they didn’t even notice, and my mortification was a product of my own desire to just for once fit in.
And it’s entirely possible I am the only person in the world who remembers this. Heck, I didn’t know I held the memory until I started singing this morning – and yet here it is, on full display. I couldn’t sing through the piece, short as it is, without bursting into tears, remembering viscerally the embarrassment.
Such a simple, beautiful, song.
Telling me, by the way, to not be ashamed – because ‘by turning, turning, we come ’round right.’
My eleven-year-old self never heard the message of the song until now. The simple truth is, I am who I am, I have done what I have done, but I keep turning, turning. I keep moving on, keep finding out and being simply who I am.
Tis a gift, indeed, to be simple.