Voice: Other Artist

I haven’t done a voice exercise in way too long, so here we go:

If you weren’t a writer, but could be any other kind of artist/musician, what would you choose? What would be your tools? why?

I’m pretty sure anyone who’s known me since college could tell you: dancer.

Before college, I circled around dancing, doing figure skating, rhythmic gymnastics. At Calvin, I made a beeline for the Dance Guild. I loved it. I reveled in it. By my junior year, I was dancing 20 hours a week. I was in fully half the dances in the programs. I joined the liturgical dance group at the church I went to. I took every official dance class Calvin offered. I even got to be in a Glenn Bulthuis video (an alumni weekend thing). I eventually led both the Dance Guild and the church program.

In New York, I didn’t dance, except for boogying down at parties. It was too intimidating. There were professional dancers everywhere and they’d surely know I was an amateur. When we moved back to Michigan, I started up again.

So I’d rather be a medium fish in a small pond, than a minnow in the ocean. I’m fine with it.

We went back to the same church, where I danced again. I got to dance twice as Mary while I was pregnant. Grateful doesn’t begin to express how I felt about that. In fact, I danced until my due date with both kids — dancing felt more natural to my body than walking (ahem, waddling), at that point.

And then came the true making of me as a dancer: we joined a multiracial/multicultural church that had a very different history of dance. Dances weren’t just something nice to do that might move people. Dances could change lives, they could lead the viewers to deeper faith, to faith to begin with. There was also a tradition of “flowing” — dancing as the Spirit moves you, without planned choreography.

Most of my favorite dance experiences are from City Hope. I’m both a more powerful dancer and a freer one. I only managed to “flow” once, but I have motions for a third of the songs we sing that I do in the pews. If the praise team sings a song I have a dance to, I’ll go up front (after making sure that my outfit doesn’t show skin if I bend over or raise my arms) and just do it, unplanned, no uniform. Lately, I’ve taken to waving my big ribbon (thank you, rhythmic gymnastics training) during praise and worship, mostly as an encouragement to the congregation during the tough time we’re having.

I’d always loved the storytelling aspect of dance, the ability to embody emotion, especially the angsty ones. The peppy numbers were fun, but the first dance I choreographed was called, “Gaelic Mourning,” and I went on to specialize in numbers for Lent and Good Friday. The Bible verse that best explains my approach to dancing is about something else entirely: Romans 26:8 (NLT), “the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”

Is this the place to mention the dance others (not me!) called my “sex on a chair” dance? It was in good taste. I know this because nobody wrote a letter to school paper complaining about it. It was to Maria McKee’s, “Breathe” — “I will let you breathe through me, I will let you be through me.” If one is trying to embody those lyrics….

It’s funny, but as a dancer, I’m mostly word focused. I explicate the lyrics with my body. This is especially true in my church dancing, but it was before, too. Lately, I’ve been using a lot of enhanced American Sign Language, especially in the kids’ church dance numbers. It provides a wonderful framework. Someday, I’d like to put together a seminar for the Calvin Institutes of Worship conference on that topic. I think it would help a lot of churches who want to have dance, but may not have “pros” already in their pews.

I’d say it’s pretty clear that, if I weren’t a (wannabe) writer, I’d be a dancer, because I am one. But that doesn’t answer the “Why?”

Because I was made to move. Just like that character in “Chariots of Fire,” I feel God’s pleasure when I move and when I teach others to move. And I’m not giving that up.




Voice: Top 5 Novels

I’ve been avoiding the next voice exercise because I hate coming up with lists of favorite things. Hate it. Makes me cranky. Here goes:

What are your top five favorite novels of all time? 

Every time I try to come up with a list of novels, I wind up with lists of favorite novelists. I wind up thinking about the different genres I read and whether my list would reflect what I read all the time versus which novels have stuck with me. I talk myself out of making the requested list.

I could probably talk you out of expecting me to produce the list, too. But I won’t.

In no particular order:

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Fifth Business or What’s Bred in the Bone, Robertson Davies (I can’t choose between these two)

Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie

Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase

The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan

What does this list tell me? It tells me I love novels that take place in Canada, romance, and kidlit.

I haven’t reread Cat’s Eye in years, but it stands out in the Margaret Atwood section of my bookshelf because it so accurately reflected the combination of anxiety and freedom that I experienced as a young girl in Toronto. It was the first novel I read that called out the emotional cruelty of girls for what it is: bullying.

Robertson Davies is on the list because I love his big-hearted classically literate style, his use of Jungian psychology, and his sense of humor. Things are always lurking under the surface, and they always come to the fore, where they’re dealt with lovingly. It’s how I’d like to live, embracing all the aspects of my human condition.

Bet Me is my favorite contemporary romance. It makes me laugh out loud. There’s a lot of great eating and cooking and banter. I love the kid fish expert who throws up when he eats too much. I love that the hero ties up the heroine and feeds her Krispy Kreme donuts. The hero and heroine wind up loving each other for who they truly are, and in the process, change each other. Wonderful. Hopeful.

Lord of Scoundrels is the best over-the-top historical romance. She hits all the tropes: big muscular man who acts like he doesn’t care about society’s rules; tiny beautiful woman who is intelligent and savvy and keeping her family together; two master manipulators who dance around each other, analyzing each word and gesture for what it means; they are forced into marriage and resist the idea that they may love each other. But it’s so perfect. Chase goes deep into what the characters believe about themselves and what they think they’re worthy of, and makes them face it. And change.

Making this list made me realize that I’d pick Rick Riordan as my favorite kidlit author over J.K. Rowling. I love me some Harry Potter. Don’t ask me to do anything when I’m rereading the books, because once I start, I have to get to the end. But I reread the Riordan books more often and learn more from them. They’re more disciplined, more focused. They’re funnier. He never wallows in the teenage romantic angst, although it’s definitely there. And I love the overt mythology. Out of all the novelists on this list, he’s the one I’d most like to be.

How about you? What’s in your five?

Weekend Voice Exercise: Accents

1. Where did you grow up? What are the Old World or native languages that predominate in that area? Any special accent?

I admit it. I am only starting with this exercise because the of the one word that appeared on almost every report card: conscientious. I am a conscientious student. This particular prompt doesn’t seem as interesting as others further down the list, but if the teacher tells me to start at the top, I’m going to start at the top. I’m going to trust that the teacher knows what she’s doing, and there’s a reason for starting here.

I grew up in Toronto, Canada and Brisbane, Australia — both lands of long vowels.

The Old World accents I remember most are Dutch: my Oma (grandmother), our minister, older church members. Every kind of Old World accent and language can be heard in Toronto, and I remember noting how similar Dutch-, Italian- and (for lack of a better descriptor) old Jewish-accented English is. But for the purposes of this question, the voice I hear most in my head is my Oma, Wilhelmina Hart’s.

“Hhya. You haff to lawff.”

Perhaps someone more talented in phonetic spelling could capture the simultaneously breathy and guttural sound of that speech. The “Ya” at the beginning is soft to start, but builds into a more explosive exhalation with not much of a “y” sound, but not so much that she sounded like she was in karate class. The “h” in “have” is soft. In the middle of “laugh” she’d go way in her throat; when I imitate it, I duck my chin a bit. Her laugh, itself, was very low in her throat. She loved to lawff.

My name, always spelled, “Nataly”; those “a’s” were soft, like a combo of “aw” and “ah,” with the last vowel a chin tuck, again.

“It comes handy-in.”

“It’s an unicum [oonickum].”

“I simple cannot.”

“Sort of so.” or “Sort of dat.”

When she wanted a little “Maria Tia,” she might ask whether there would be “spirituals” after dinner.

Charlottesville was four syllables: a hard “Ch” as if you were saying “cheese,” and the “es” is a syllable all on its own (said as if you were saying the name of the letter S).

All kinds of switched sounds: j’s are y’s, th’s a t/d combo, wh’s a v/f combo (i.e. to say “What nice, hey,” say a combo of “vat” and “fawt”), slight tongue roll at r’s.

She was a frugal Dutch woman who loved, and I mean loved a bargain — “bargain” said with a bit of a chin tuck in the first syllable. In later years, she’d poke things with her cane, wrinkle her nose as if it was distasteful that she was even considering this, and talk store managers even further down in price. I still have the urge to tell her when I get a great deal (like the winter coat I bought for my daughter last night, originally $120 for $35).

The ends of her sentences were so definite, with character. She didn’t trail off, although, in conversation, you might not be sure where one sentence started and another ended because she talked so much. Seriously. It was nonstop. It was wonderfully easy to visit her, because you were just folded into her ongoing conversation with herself.

And now I see the wisdom of the teacher: I started out reluctant, but wound up in tears, writing a love letter to my Oma.

Speaking of which, I found this letter from her, written when I was in college. Most of my letters from her were brief notes so she could send me the church bulletin, but this one is very personal. I had just spent Interim (a January term of study) in Toronto, and returned to Grand Rapids to, soon after, break up with my boyfriend at the time. He’s the son of one of my mother’s favorite professors when she was at Calvin, and he’d come up to Toronto over Christmas and met a lot of family. I’m going to transcribe it here, mostly for my own pleasure, but if you read on, imagine lovely old-lady cursive, slanted at a consistent and perfect angle to the right. All quotation marks are done with the first one at the lower left corner of the word, and the second in the upper right. And most periods look like low dashes.

March 7, 1987

Darling Nataly,

Is it not exciting to get such a lovely vase of flowers from Claude Monet (more than 100 years old) a wonderful painter!

Thank you so much for your visit by letter and giving me a glimpse of your life in Grand Rapids.

Naturally it is a big adjustment after your exciting interim to be back in the normal running. On top of it you broke your “budding” relationship.

No wonder my granddaughter is a bit in “mixed feelings.”

Was it the right thing? Hard to tell. I found him a charming [slath? can’t figure this word out] young man and enjoyed the evening in his company.

Listening to each other is certainly not to get to know each other and it has to come from both sides. Also it takes time to show the “utmost” for each other — are you ready for that? [Note: I wasn’t talking about sex here, but she sure makes it sound like I was!] It might change your whole outlook and how your coming years will develop. Even the knowledge that God is always listening to us brings sometimes no clarity in our thinking.

I am looking forward to your “meditation.” Usual this kind of writing is also a blessing for yourself.

Wonderful that you have such a bond with Amy again.

I received a letter from Steve who is looking forward to his Toronto adventure. He is satisfied with his courses and I think you too on the whole. [By this she means that I also seem satisfied with my courses, not that my cousin seems satisfied with me — how could he be, he was in Arizona.]

It would be so great to have you home at Easter. Springbreak here starts next week and will be short.

Uncle Bill and Carroll just returned from Cuba (2 weeks).

Maaike’s tonsils were removed last week. She was very brave. She had to stay home from school for 10 days.

Uncle Dirk gave me a call this week from Philadelphia. We will hope Rodney’s operation is a succes [sic] – he was 3 hours in surgery – most likely they will return this weekend.

I was very proud to read in “Calvin Today” that 4 Taunton Rd students earned substantial grants. “Congratulations!!!” Well done.

Letter writing is still an effort for me. So is church going, reading and … walking. But I am coming along. I am thankful for all the support and love. Wonderful blessings from the Lord.

A bug hug from


Her faith was deep and real, so she could admit this truth, “Even the knowledge that God is always listening to us brings sometimes no clarity in our thinking.”

I would love to read any responses with stories of your grandparents. Let’s have a big old cryfest here on won·der.