Friday, January 1, 2016

Pete Seeger and Vocation

I don't know when I first heard the name Pete Seeger.  I suspect he was mentioned on Family Ties.  Seeger, like everything loved by Elise and Michael Keaton was made to seem a tad quaint. The Keaton's 60's radicalism was to be taken alongside a bracing dose of (materialism) Mallory, (capitalism) Alex, and sports (Jennifer.)

Anyway, about 10 years ago I watched a PBS documentary on Seeger and determined afterwards that I wanted a vocation like Pete's. I certainly didn't mean that I was going to become a protest singer or learn the five string banjo.

But, there were several things about the life that Pete lived that I find exemplary...

(1)  His profoundly democratizing vision of his art. This is a self-evident claim --folk music as an art for is axiomatically democratic.  Yet, practically he lived this impulse out in so many profound ways/  I think of his work with the Highland School which was so linked to the Freedom Schools.  However, the most stunning and perpetual sign of this was his capacity to get people to sing whether the stage was small or the stage was large.

Studs Terkel expressed it better than I am able to:

 Before we hoist one for Pete, let's also remember that he's one of the best choirmasters in the country. He may not have the technique of Robert Shaw, but the result is just as explosive. Imagine an audience of thousands as Pete sings, say, "Wimoweh." As Pete waves his arms gently, the audience reacts as a professional choir might. I've seen a wizened little man, who obviously is somebody's bookkeeper, at the command of Pete become a basso profundo, reaching two octaves lower than Chaliapin. This is the nature of Pete Seeger, who reaches out toward the further shores more effectively and more exhilaratedly than anyone I've ever run int

(2) His earnestness:  I have come to realize that what distinguishes earnestness from sentimentalism is faithfulness.  A sentiment is fleeting.  It is easy to be patronizing towards sentiments, but people who live lives of deep fidelity to their sentiments become beyond disdain.  Fred Rogers proved this--his show would be little but feel good rot if he hadn't embodied those values daily.  Peter Seeger lived out a fidelity to his sentiments for 94 years.

(3)His fidelity:  He didn't just add the "shall" to "We Shall Overcome,"  he was there singing it faithfully at Highlander School when MLK was there. More centrally he was there to sing the song as a dirge when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered in Mississippi.

(4) His Courage:  It wasn't for no reason that the FBI tracked  him or that J. Edgar hounded. He was willing to risk tangibly for truth and democratic values.  He realized that this values don't demand so sort of "once-and for-all" America's Civil religious sacrifice, but a daily fidelity to the hard work of letting every voice be heard, of listening to the sometimes strange songs of other people and teaching other people to not only listen closely, but also to sing out boldly.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent and Good Old Charlie Brown

When the little tree falters and droops pathetically
under the weight of that innocent-looking
but fatal ornament, and Charlie Brown wails,
I’ve killed it, everything I touch gets ruined,
I feel for the guy: I know the sad prison
his heart’s doing time in.

-Troy Jollimore

This year watching the Peanuts movie I had a personal revelation. I am likely always going to feel this way. But what is "this way"? It is easy to diagnosis Charlie's "sad prison" as depression or perhaps as generalized anxiety disorder:

Lucy: Do you think you have Pentaphobia, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: What's that?

Lucy: The fear of everything.

Charlie Brown: That's it!

This all might be true, but then there is the context of Charlie Brown's frustrations. Despite the fact that he is known for being a loser and failure he is often shown occupying positions of prestige. He is after all the pitcher on his baseball team and the director of the Christmas play.

Charlie Brown refuses to withdraw from life. Indeed it is his stubborn persistence that is the immediate context of a good portion of his suffering. Most sensible people would stop trying to kick the football, or sending Valentine's cards, or attempting to woo the red-headed girl. Indeed in the full version of the Troy Jollimore poem excerpted above he imagines Charlie Brown in a bar, taking a stiff drink, potentially an embittered middle-aged man undone by his succession of losses. Yet, this is emphatically not the Charlie Brown that Charles Schultz portrayed.

Charlie Brown cannot stopped striving and herein lies the source of his suffering. One might like to offer old Charlie Brown a bit of Buddhist wisdom and remind him that maybe he shouldn't expect so much out of life. However, this doesn't seem to be possible because Charlie Brown (or rather Charles Schultz is a Christian.)

There is no doubt that Christians can learn a great deal from other religions, or that there is a steep and sturdy tradition of mortification of desire in the Christian tradition. However, I think in Advent we are especially forced to remember the "sad prison" our collective hearts are "doing time in." Like "Good Old Charlie Brown" we are prisoners of our hope. Or to cite another theologian of hope:

Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope

Hope isn't a very urbane or sophisticated vision of the world and it certainly isn't entirely comforting, but it is the only option left for us when we cannot accept that the promise that "each will live under their own vine and fig tree" applies only too a small minority of people capable of living out some sort of Jeffersonian, agrarian American dream.

...or when we cannot accept that the "lion laying down with the lamb" can only ever amount to a kind of non-tested, sentimental good-will between closely related neighbors.

...or when we cannot accept that the baby lying in the manger is a sign that God not only "so loved us" His enemies, but also that God "so loved" our enemies.

I guess this isn't the most optimistic post--my connecting Christian hope to Charlie Browns constant attempts to kick that darned football--but after 2,000 years of turning, ever turning in the widening gyre, of unconsummated consummation, it is better than nothing, or better than nihilism, or better than not suffering because we no longer desire something better.

Christian hope: the strange prison our hearts are doing time in...

Thursday, May 28, 2015

For Matt

I guess I am lucky.  I got to tell Matt what I wanted to tell Matt.  I got to tell Matt when he was living what I would like to say at his Memorial service.

. . . . .  but I don’t know. 

Within hours of finding out about Matt’s death it became very clear how suicide demands unrelentingly to be answered—asking its nagging questions--did I do enough?  Did I do it right?  … Did I say the right thing?   What if had…. ? What if I hadn’t?

So, that I said to Matt once--- while we were walking together on an early summer day entirely like this-- what I’d like to say now-- this is something that I am thankful for….

It takes a weight off, but it also places another weight on my soul.

Matt had recently shared really heavy parts of his childhood history…
… and as we were walking on that early summer day, he was telling me what a failure he was…..
and how there was no hope and he kept trying to do better and couldn’t  and I said something like:

You know I really think you are one of the best people I have ever known.

His love of Rachel had implanted in him a deep love of theology and apologetics and at this moment I appealed to a passage of C.S. Lewis’s in Mere Christianity. In it Lewis is making a case for our great surprise on Judgment Day. 

Lewis goes on to argue that

Some people that we take to be the very best kind of people.

Our extraordinary moral athletes….
They will shown to be morally average.

Their virtues really more the product of good luck, good upbringings, and good temperaments—more God’s gift to them than their gift to God.

I re-read the passage that I referenced that day this morning.

Lewis goes on to write:
But if you are person-poisoned  by  a wretched upbringing  in some house full of vulgar jealousies  and senseless quarrels-saddled,  by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion-nagged day  in and day  out  by  an  inferiority  complex  that  makes you  snap  at  your best friends-do not despair. He knows  all about it. You are one of the poor whom
He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying  to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can. One  day (perhaps in another  world,  but  perhaps far
sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you  may astonish  us all-not least yourself: for you  have learned
your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be  first and some  of
the first will be last.)

On the day I told Matt that the rest of us at Junia House were really pretty morally average.

And that he was pretty morally extraordinary and that was just the fact of the matter. 

We all have to pick ourselves up after some devastating loss or another…. 

….pick ourselves up after some failure that makes us doubt that we have much to offer the world….

In the brief time that I knew Matt I witnessed him rising from such devastations 20-30-70 times.

Sometimes it seemed almost daily.   

I simply don’t know anyone who tried so hard or struggled so much.

I can’t really blame him for not being able to pick himself up one more time. 

But, I really, really, really wish that he had.

He was such a good friend.

Matt was with me every single day in the months after my Mom died. We planted a small tomato garden and he helped me take the kids to Simeon's soccer games (pulling Jo and Sim in the wagon).

We frequented the local thrift shop.  Matt would buy so many clothes.  I can’t even estimate how many pairs of Black shorts he owned. 

He was fabulous with our kids.  When he played with them—-- he always reminded me a wee bit of the Cat in the Hat. 

It is hard to imagine that this world is no longer blessed with all that wonderful, anarchic energy. 

That Matt will never approach our kids with another good game that he knows. ….

Or Doug with some new scheme. 

That he won’t ask me one more time what I think about the “problem of evil” 

Or some other theological question dripping with so much real world pain…..

God, I hope that is all resolved now for Matt and better than either Matt or I could have imagined….

better than Lewis imagined. 

That he has been flung into a world pulsating with endless possibilities, pulsating with that incredibly thrilling gift for newness and new beginnings that he had.  

The kind of world that Matt so desperately needed and so deeply deserved. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Memoriam--

I have just finished reading Marilyn Robinson's Gilead for the third time.  Near the end of the novel John Ames reflects back on his years of solitude after the death of his first wife and the quality of joy he has found in the wife and son of his old age.  He writes that for years he cherished his loneliness as an act of fidelity to his deceased wife and child.  In a passage, written to his 7 year old son,  he makes his suffering love and joyful consummation part of one long movement:

I can tell you this, that if I'd married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I'd leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother's face.  And if I never found you, my comfort would be in the hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord.  This is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world--your mother excepted, of course--and revealed to me in your sweet ordinary face.

This time reading these line reminded me of my mother and my great love for her.  It also reminded me of a defining experience in my own life.  It had to do with a boy that I loved and admired and imagined possibly marrying. There were some harsh words said about my mother, but they could have been forgiven.  It was the sense that I wouldn't ever be able to communicate to this person how precious my Mom was to me.  Who knows?  Life is contingent and love opens up all kinds of alternative futures.  Yet, it was no small part of my falling in love with Doug that he understood the crazy method of love in my mother's madness and that he encouraged me to stay true to my knowledge of that love. 

My love for my mom was not mere stubborn commitment. It was not an act of Christian fidelity-- loving that which is unlovable, sticking with someone despite their illness.  As she aged she wasn't easy to be with,  but I never wished for a different mom or a more normal family.  I don't and I have never wanted to have lived a more obviously good life. It is through her eyes that I still see the world as  "slant."  Her perspective is still there-- prodding me to see the truth as gritty, uncomfortable, perhaps, convoluted.   She provided a hermeneutic.  I see the wisdom in  "folly" whether it be the "folly of the cross" or the disarming love of Satyagraha, or in an intellectual life that risks disorganization for the sake of truthfulness.

 Which is just to say that even if I had been born to a mom who smelled of baby powder and apple pies, who came to all my games, and who wrapped me in quilts of improbable domestic security, I believe there would still be part of me searching for the other mom who woke at 3am, to write poems, to tear up the linoleum, to paint flowers on the floor boards, and who loved me madly.      


Sunday, May 19, 2013

For my Jo

Lilac petals on newly turned soil
and the sun, speckled green
and lift up your head
and I lift it blueward
there is my face and I
taking your hand
and you look low
and your hand chills
and I want it whole
future, present, past
and you
are a little taller than my bosom
and I would like to
hold you to the sky
watch your curls dance
and hear that giggle
once more.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Mom and the Cult of Motherhood.

Here's the thing: my Mom was a very good Mom.   She also had a very, very serious mental illness.  I know that there are lots of people for which this is simply not case.  It can sometimes be pretty vexing to have one's activities curtailed by another persons phobias, or to try and grow as a person in the company of someone whose illness makes them constantly narcissistic, or to handle the embarassment of being a teenager with a Mom that ferociously resists societal norms.  These things are tough.  I get it.  It is also tough to be loved with a love that fiercely transcends rationality, but there are worst things.  Like not being loves at all.  And, that, not being loved, that was never something I faced. 

I get it now.  How much work it takes to make a hot breakfast every morning.  To have the patience to take a constantly chattering kid on long walks and adventures. To let your kids use your precious art supplies or to be patient as they are constantly ripping the pages out of the notebooks in which you are doing writing.  It takes time to make sure your kids feed the chickens and the goats.  Its hard to balance grace and discipline.

My Mom was very far from perfect and there are ways that she was incredibly selfish and cruel and unnecessarily jealous.  But, she cared for me in ways that now seem excellent and even exemplary.

The best thing about love is the way it blows away perfection.  It can blow away so many things. . .seemingly solid things... things proven to be dross really--the perfectly clean house or permed hair or dinner that looks like it came out of the Sunday circulars. Poof.  Blown away: reckoned with.  Perfect does not stand a chance next to love.  Effortless always looks shabby next to faithfulness...
Good always subverts the gloss.  When there is nothing else, then and only then, does it becomes perfectly clear that all we can really cling to is our very best--Love, stronger than death.   

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I haphazardly post something to this blog every now and then.  I mostly post mundane stuff with a side of theologicalizing.  I don't even know why.  I posted several very short reflections, around the time of my Mom's death, that might eventually become part of a spiritual memoir.   That seemed purpose-filled enough.  There are some reflections on scripture (also a short stint of purpose.)  But, mostly there are just a smattering of short, poorly written recounts of days spent well, or, as often as not, in a state of melancholia.  Now this post is not really an exercise in self-abnegation--like anyone who writes.... I would just like to know "why?"  Some people blog because they want to write a book, or because they want to keep family updated, or because they have some burning issue that they want to scour and discuss, dissect, and propagate.  This blog has really been none of these things.  More often than not, it has simply replaced the writing that I might have done in a journal or a diary--not as personal, but, not, not personal.  There it stands.  I think more than anything this writing seems to be an exercise not unlike Hansel and Gretal's trail of breadcrumbs.  Here it is.  Some meager memories.  Some sign that I was here, or there, or wondering through the woods.  Nothing substantial, but maybe, enough to find my way back now and again.