Thursday, March 19, 2020

People of Faith

“It’s a small world.” This is something we say when in an unexpected place we meet or hear about someone we know. I remember voicing that very sentiment in London several years ago when my husband and I spotted a display of peanuts from the Williamsburg Peanut Shop in Harrods Department Store. Then there was the time I ran into a family from my music school in Williamsburg during a trip to the Bahamas. It was unexpected, and it felt like the earth was much smaller than its 25,000-mile circumference. Today, with the technology to access people and news across the globe, the world seems small, indeed.

I will never forget the moment during junior high school when I heard about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a chilly November day in 1963 when my principal, his voice shaking, announced it over the intercom. At the age of thirteen, I felt like life as I knew it was ending. Kennedy’s presidency had brought hope and optimism to our country, and now he was gone. The future was uncertain, and all US citizens, regardless of party affiliation, joined in mourning tinged with fear. We didn’t have the internet then, but we stayed glued to our TV sets for days.

I remember clearly the live television broadcast of Good Morning America that I was watching September 11, 2001 as I dressed for work. The image of one plane, then another, crashing into New York’s Twin Towers was surreal and paralyzing. Even the anchor, Charles Gibson, was too stunned to speak for a moment. The earth stopped, seeming to shrink in size as countries around the world weighed in on this unspeakable tragedy.

We are in the midst of another such world-shrinking event, one we will remember for the rest of our lives. My high school students, who already have so much on their plates with schoolwork, exams, college prep, athletics, and social issues must add concern about whether they or a loved one will contract the virus. They are feeling like I did in 1963: worried, fearful, and wondering if life will ever return to normal. Their school administrators and teachers are doing everything possible to ease their minds and accommodate their learning until they can return to campus, but it’s a challenging time of uncertainty, especially with wide access to media coverage.

So, how do we cope amid a pandemic? Last Friday, our principal called an assembly to announce that the school would be closed for at least two weeks. The students sat very still and quiet. As I glanced about the auditorium, I observed that their body language and faces exhibited tension. It was like they were afraid to look at each other, afraid or unable to react. That Friday was supposed to be opening night for their musical, 42nd Street. The students had worked tirelessly every day after school since January, and now their performance was postponed until further notice. Other students learned that all athletic activities were suspended, including a tournament, and my All-State Chorus delegates soon heard that their event would not take place. Many students began to weep silently in disappointment.

Amid their dismay, the most important statement by our principal may not have sunk in, but it stood out to me. She said, “Remember, we are people of faith.”

Ours is a Catholic school founded by The Sisters of Mercy. We start and end every day with prayer; we hold monthly Masses; at each level, the students are required to take theology; and every student must accumulate service hours. Mercy Core Values underscore our curricula.

At the Upper School where I teach, our students are typical high school kids with all the typical high school behaviors. There are cliques; there is boundary testing; there are negative attitudes and inappropriate comments. Some get into trouble and receive demerits or attend Saturday detention; some earn poor grades and must be placed on academic support, which might include dropping extracurricular activities. They are normal American teenagers. The difference is not in the students we serve, but in the learning environment we provide.

As a Mercy School, our faith education and service to the community, both local and global, are at the forefront of everything we teach. This faith-based education is evident in the way we handle issues and relate to each other. That’s what the principal meant by “We are people of faith.” She was saying that people of faith in God don’t need to panic or live in fear, not because we are exempt from disease or suffering, not because we’re better than people without faith, but because we have assurance that God walks with us through all of life’s ups and downs, even a pandemic, and sustains us with His unconditional love. We recognize that God is sovereign.

Our students may not yet be mature enough in their faith to believe that they can cast all their cares on God, but we, the faculty and administrators, are committed to modeling mature, merciful faith and unconditional love for them and each other. With God’s help, we will get through even this together as "people of faith."

Cindy L. Freeman is the author of numerous award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room and I Want to Go Home. Website:; Facebook page: Her books are available from or

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Using Imagery

I’ve discovered that conducting a choir is a lot like writing a novel. Maybe that’s why I love doing both. Making music and writing a book are creative activities that fully engage the brain. Notice I didn’t say “listening to music and reading a book,” which, while valuable pastimes, are not the same as writing and active music-making. Whereas listening to music tends to be passive—The Mozart Effect was a flawed study—singing, playing an instrument, and conducting are active, engaging the whole brain. Likewise, creative writing causes brain cylinders (neurons and dendrites) to fire, especially in the frontal cortex.

As an early childhood educator for many years, I studied the effects of music on the brain. Again and again, scientific studies confirmed that music making stimulates all areas of the brain, causing neurons and dendrites to fire. That’s why early childhood music is so beneficial for young children whose brains are still developing.

Recently, I found a 2014 study by German researchers published in the journal Neurolmage. These neuroscientists observed the brain activity of people as they wrote stories. According to the study, the brain activity of creative writers, especially long-time writers of fiction, is “similar to the brains of other people skilled in complex action like musicians.”

Scientific research notwithstanding, my experience in both fields has taught me that the most pronounced similarity between music making and creative writing is in the use of imagery. As a choral conductor, when I ask my singers to visualize the tone or mood of a musical piece, they respond more accurately than when I simply use musical terms like smooth (legato) or detached (staccato), strong (marcato) or light (leggiero), loud (forte) or quiet (piano). While they are familiar with these terms, both English and Italian, their response is far more immediate when I use imagery. Instead of asking them to sing smoothly, I might suggest the image of hot fudge dripping down the sides of vanilla ice cream. “Sing like a diva, not a wood nymph” shows them clearly that I want them to use a fuller, richer tone. “Think of a tennis ball bouncing on pavement or a stone skipping across the water” gives them an image of light, detached singing more effectively than saying, “Sing that phrase staccato.”

In a similar way, creative writers continually work to “show, not tell” their stories. Experienced writers know what this challenging process entails. We understand that, when our narrative engages all the senses, our readers’ brains are activated to produce images.

Show, don't tell is a writing technique in which story and characters
are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition.
It fosters a style of writing that's more immersive for the reader, allowing
them to ‘be in the room’ with the characters” (, Jul 11, 2019).

An excellent example of showing rather than telling is this passage from Ken Follett’s bestselling novel The Pillars of the Earth. He immediately sets the stage in the first chapter where the townspeople are waking and starting their day in anticipation of a public hanging:

Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and
stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen
and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated
water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray.
The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in
heavy cloaks of coarse wool, and went shivering down to the river
to fetch water.”

Follett could have stated succinctly: It was a cold, winter morning and the townspeople were waking up. But by showing us the candlelit windows and shivering people “swathed in heavy cloaks” he engages all of our senses with powerful imagery that causes our brains to form pictures. We feel like we are right there in the town square with them, experiencing what they are experiencing. In one brief, expressive paragraph we discover the book’s historical setting, the time of day, and the time of year. We know that the people are wealthy with servants. We see their sturdy houses. We know how they dress and what they eat for breakfast.

It has taken many years for me to realize how much music has helped my writing and writing has helped my musical expression. In both fields, words must be used in such a way as to activate the brains of our readers/singers, forming vivid images that leave no doubt about what we want to convey.

Cindy L. Freeman is the author of numerous award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room and I Want to Go Home. Website:; Facebook page: Her books are available from or