Jessi Uran

Wrestling with a masterpiece

A writer crumples under the weight of Handel’s Messiah, until …

By Jessi Uran 

What on earth was I thinking? I can’t write this.

I stared at the computer screen for what seemed like the 50th time in three weeks. I’d scribbled research notes on three different pages and formed five different outlines, only to fill a garbage can with what I emphatically told my husband was “mediocre rubbish, not worthy of a garbage can.” (Dramatic much?)

Writer’s block is not uncommon for me. But this was different. It was less of a block and more of an unscalable, cement wall. The task was simple, really: Write about Handel’s Messiah. I could take it any direction I wanted and write in whatever form. There were no expectations, no criteria. Just a deadline.

Autographed composition draft of ‘Amen Chorus’ from British Library Treasures

Not only did my father used to play Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season on our family’s living room stereo, but I also had heard it performed live last year, in the annual concert by the Rockford Choral Union. Listening to the product of their countless hours of practice and dedication had left an indelible mark. To begin, there seemed no more festive way to usher in the season of Advent than in the reverent architecture of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Experiencing history in this way, with people young and old, and hearing the scriptural account in such grandeur was awe-inspiring.

The concert left me with a conviction: In a somewhat disciplinary way, I need to carve time to sit, listen and behold the wonder of Immanuel. At Christmas, ironically, the act of sitting and listening often gets lost in all the things there are to do. Deep joy came from spending an afternoon doing nothing other than marveling corporately at the story of the Savior.

And then a moment of … what?! During a Part 2 tenor solo from Lamentations — “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” — a woman up the aisle from me decided to clip all 10 fingernails. At the same instant, a man four rows up raised his hands in complete rapture. I judged Madame Fingernails immediately, but days later I began to wonder: How many awe-deserving things do I treat just as flippantly? Read More

Walk in the woods

By Jessi Uran

I rummage through an old backpack in the trunk of my car. What a mess back here. Camping blankets, a few bins to take to Goodwill. Ah, there it is. I grab my fleece that was resting on a piece of “art” I purchased weeks ago at Home Goods. The red clearance sticker is still stuck in the upper right-hand corner, half peeled from when I impatiently tried to scratch it off. The quote that enticed me, centered over an image of faded trees, reads:

“Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

That’s John Muir. Naturalist and conservationist. Father of our national parks. A life devoted, as one biographer put it, to “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

All a little easier said than done, John, I whisper, shoving the Home Goods bag to the side. Home Goods. A store designed to keep my attention anywhere but on the woods.

I check my wallet for some extra change. Enough for a cup of coffee later. I didn’t dare make coffee at home. The plaster walls of our “house with charm” would send the caustic whirr of grinding beans through every wooden floorboard and wake my sleeping family. It’s not that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet, I told myself. But it’s also just that I don’t want to see or talk to them yet.

I shut the trunk and fill the tank. The early hour is quiet and still but already my mind and heart are loud and harried. Any onlooker would see a middle-aged woman pumping gas. But inside? Inside is a mind marathon of Olympic proportions. Pathways and synapses have been engrained to quickfire as soon as my feet hit the floor. Such well-worn paths. Circuits paved by unbridled worry and the weighty responsibilities of all the things I feel I must DO.

Set up calendar meeting … review budget deadline … print recipe … make grocery list … set up oil change … cancel subscription … catch up on podcast … RSVP to invite … email back … text back … call back … catch up on study … look up weather.

Sixties and overcast. Good. Hiking in the heat is a discipline all its own. This morning is a welcome respite to the humid tem-

The gas pump handle pops. Tank’s full. I finish, turn the key and drive. The radio is on, but I don’t really hear it. I’m listening to something else, a station I never remember tuning to and that most days I forget to shut off. It continually emits frequencies like: thaw the chicken … dust the fans … order the checkbooks … prepare the lesson … bleach the toilet.

Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

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