Last night at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, Katie Dahl played an outdoor evening concert for sixty of us. Dahl is a Door County folk musician (a singer songwriter to be more precise) who inspires, comforts, amuses, and challenges her audiences to live and love with humility and gratitude. Her lyrics, beautiful alto tones, and homestyle storytelling wrapped us in a musical blanket of grace as we socially distanced on a gorgeous autumn night.
Dahl’s music is rooted deeply in particular places, landscapes, and geographies, most especially Door County, Wisconsin where she resides with her partner and band member, Rich Higdon, and their four-year-old son, Guthrie. Dahl tells the story of choosing to put down her roots in Door County, home to four generations of her family. Her love of that particular community and its land echoes throughout her songs and invites us to do the same wherever we are. Leaky Boats and Paper Birds begins this way:
My cousin is a lover of the land
He picks his tomatoes with a weather-beaten hand
He’s got sweet annie in September and sour cherries in July
He’s got a name for every color in the sky
And I don’t know just how he makes ends meet
Selling sacks of tomatoes for two bucks apiece
He just turns toward the south when the north wind blows
Keeps walking slow and straight and steady down the rows
You say this country has been lost to those who see the land just for its profit and its cost
But I claim it for my cousin cause he’s touched it with his hands
And my cousin is a lover of the land
One of my favorites, Hometown Tables, protests encroaching fast food restaurants and celebrates locally owned and operated establishments with their irreplaceable tastes of home. If you’ve been to Door County, then you know the charms of which Dahl writes and sings:
We’ve got goats up on the rooftop, we’ve got whitefish in the bay
We’ve got Spotted Cows to fill our cups at the end of every day
A White Gull roosts at the end of Main Street, just a block from Summertime Summer days that flow like water, winter nights that glow like wine
We’ve got singing by the fireside, we’ve got dancing in the barns
Sometimes the northern lights go rolling like a sky-high ball of yarn
Some folks pray for rain on Monday, some just take it as it comes
Straight from the mighty hand of God to the top of his thumb
Listening to Katie Dahl last night soothed my soul as yet another wave of grief cascaded over so many, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced just a half hour into the concert. Of all the RBG quotes floating through cyberspace, this one struck me most poignantly: “But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is—living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”
Dahl’s music both demonstrates and encourages this kind of meaning living: being rooted in the home you’ve been given; loving the neighbors planted near you (even and perhaps especially the difficult ones); caring for the ground and enjoying its bounty; opening your heart again and again to the simple gifts of quotidian life.
The themes of “home” and “coming home” are not Dahl’s alone, of course. I think about Wendell Berry, his loyalty to place, his love of the land, and his protest against the big, fast, and glamorous in favor of the local, the slow, and the mundane. And I think about the beauty and significance of retreat centers, where people are invited to come home to themselves, to come home to God, to come home to the land that nourishes and sustains them. Where people—like retreat center staff, volunteers, and guests—work to repair tears in personal relationships and the larger world, and in so doing, find their own hearts healed again and again.
We hope you will come home to yourself, to God, to friends and family, and to the very land on which you live. There may you find more grace than expected, grace to heal and to hope, to laugh and to love, and to live anew with humility and thanksgiving.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)