Adam’s Curse

I recently bought a book of poetry by William Butler Yeats. So far, this is one of the best ones I’ve come across. I love how it deals with the frustration of producing art, that those who are not artists do not understand how hard of work it is. Pretty much anything we accomplish we do so by the sweat of our brow. Then he turns his own complaint on its head and reveals the labor of the woman is even more misunderstood.

Adam’s Curse

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”
And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, “To be born woman is to know —
Although they do not talk of it at school —
That we must labour to be beautiful.”
I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Unrequited Love

Peter Leithart summarizes Richard Barber on medieval romantic poetry and courtly love:

Troubadour poetry reflects a “continual tension between the physical side of love, love shared and enjoyed, and the longing of an unfulfilled love.” Some praise consummated love as the only true love, while others enjoy the “exquisite pain-pleasure of a love which is either impossible to fulfill or is deliberately denied fulfillment.” Whatever direction the poetry goes, the man’s life is dominated by love, and his main object is to win his lady by gaining her favor. Thus, “from his love stem all virtues of this world – valour, courtesy, generosity – summed up in the one word pretz, worth. The man who does not love can never hope to be as accomplished as the lover whose desire spurs him on to new achievements.”

I must say I’ve always been a sucker for the idea of unrequited love. An impossible idealization that transcends our fallen nature. It doesn’t actually exist, but it’s often spoken of in music and art. It is curiously devoid of sex too, at least it’s not articulated. Some have suggested that it’s really a longing for God. I was surprised (though I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find it in spades in the distant past as well.

A Blessing

This was originally posted by Tall Skinny Kiwi, but it is very much worth reprinting!

Beannacht (“Blessing”) by John O’Donohue,
from his book of Christian and Celtic wisdom titled Anam Cara.

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

The language is beautiful. Our usual blessing to each other is “Have a nice day”, or “Get well soon”. That’s nice but this is poetic and well thought out. In my childhood, I think something like this would have been looked at as purely sentimental and flowery – a waste time. But can words like this actually have power? No, I’m not talking about a Wiccan-esqe magic spell kind of power. Or a “good vibes” karma spreading kind of power. But something maybe CLOSER to that than having no significance beyond the words on the page.

At the most basic level it can communicate that the one giving the blessing actually put some time and effort into it. That can communicate love. Like going out of the way to buy your wife the exact kind of special orchid she likes instead of just getting her any old bouquet of flowers at the grocery store. So that’s real power, but it doesn’t leave the confines of our own heads.

Some would say that God is very INTERACTIVE with mankind in real time. He works with our prayers (or blessings in this case) and that what we think and do actually has an effect on God and how he then chooses to act and relate to us. Others think the very notion of that is silly and even dangerous. So what kind of power does a blessing like this have?

Just keep blogging, just keep blogging!

I’ve decided to quite trying to blog in a structured fashion. I have a whole list of things I wanted to write about specifically, but have had to force myself to shift gears most of the times I sat down to write. Shifting waffle squares can be hard work. Now I am going to not conform to the plans and just write about whatever I feel like writing about at the moment. I sat down today to blog more of “Reaching for the Invisible God”, but wrote a post about what was currently on my iPod instead. If I had tried to go with the plan, I probably wouldn’t have written anything at all!

The Never-Ending Road

I recently picked up Loreena McKennitt’s latest album “An Ancient Muse“. Unfortunately, it’s definitely not as strong as her past works. Reviewers are calling it “The Mask and Mirror Part II” and I must agree in many regards. Nonetheless, there are some moments of sublimity and I’ve grown to like it quite a bit. The musicianship is wonderful and the exotic stringed instruments (oud, hurdy gurdy, sitar, ???) are captured with a clarity that is rarely heard when they show up on other projects. Throughout the album she continues to explore spirituality, nodding at Christian, Muslim, and Jewish ideas, sometimes all at the same time while not being willing to embrace any of them.

One of the pieces is called “Never-Ending road”. Upon writing down the text, I realize it loses much of it’s energy and even meaning. LM’s lyrics and poetry is often VERY much tied to it’s music. It doesn’t usually stand on it’s own as well. You might want to listen to part of it.

Nevertheless, here it is:

The road now leads onward
As far as can be
Winding lanes
And hedgerows in threes
By purple mountains
Round every bend
All roads lead to you
There is no journey’s end

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple and few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

Deep in the winter
Amidst falling snow
High in the air
Where the bells they all toll
And now all around me
I feel you still here
Such is the journey
No mystery to fear

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple so few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

The road now leads onward
I know not where
I feel in my heart
That you will be there
Whenever a storm comes
Whatever our fears
The journey goes on
As your love ever nears

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple and few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

And from her notes:

The last song “Never-ending Road” was inspired by the tradition found within certainly the Christian, Judaic and Muslim traditions of mystics writing metaphoric poetry that is really reaching towards capturing the essence of the relationship between humanity and God. And I’ve loved this process of creating a document that speaks in this way. And in so far as this life is a journey with all its joys and sorrows and hardships, that it’s a never-ending journey, it’s a never-ending road. And that as conscious as I am of the far greater talent and vision of those who have inspired me, this song is really a modest gesture to that tradition.

Though the tone of the music is very different, in my mind this song strongly resembles “Obsession” from an early Delerious? album:

What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see
Is there madness in my being?
Is it wind that blows the trees?
Sometimes you’re further than the moon
Sometimes you’re closer than my skin
And you surround me like a winter fog
You’ve come and burned me with a kiss And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns

And I’m so filthy with my sin
I carry pride like a disease
You know I’m stubborn God and I’m longing
to be close
You burn me deeper than I know
I feel lonely without hope
I feel desperate without vision
You wrap around me like a winter coat
You come and free me like a bird

And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns for you

The later is painfully aware of our fallenness; our inability to cast the Lord aside and still live. LM may not have a very “right” theology, yet I believe she has perceived an important attribute of the character of God: Love. This isn’t the distant agnostic God watching the world spin far below. This isn’t the impersonal force in the trees and dirt. This isn’t the authoritarian task-master in the sky. This is a God of relationship with actual real humans like us. Mysterious and invisible yes, but also very near and not unknowable. You have to trust him. We resist and yet want to trust even more.

Praying to a tangible God?

This footnote caught my attention more than the text this time.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Thomas Green, a priest who has spent his life exploring spirituality and has written seven books on prayer, makes an interesting observation. He estimates that about the same proportion of people have a very successful prayer life as have a very successful marriage. Tangibility is not the issue, he says, for tangibility does not ensure the success of human relationships either.

Now human relationships ARE tangible, but that isn’t what makes them successful. You spouse or friend is someone you can see and touch and talk to and hear with your own ears. But human relationships break down all the time. What makes them stick is “fidelity”, that is faith. Faith in the other person even when they fail or hurt you. Love and forgiveness. All of these are invisible things. The Lord has all of these things in abundance toward us. We reflect some of them back to him.

Is THAT what I’m working for!??

I’ve had a lot of frustrations and disappointments running through my head lately. They have to do with real estate, the American Dream, how that relates to my family, my job, and what I’m on this planet for.

We got married, we bought a trailer so we could “build equity” (unfortunately the scare quotes ARE necessary). So, we did this so we weren’t throwing money away in rent. Then we bought ANOTHER trailer so we could be closer to church and friends, then we bought the cheapest house we could afford (except it turns out that we couldn’t really afford even that) so we could get out of the tin-can trailer world and into a “real house”. Now we are back in the same trailer we started in and about the same amount of cash in the bank. Four years and the circle is complete. So what the heck am I shooting for? Time to reexamine it.

All around us, just one mile away is a new subdivision that wasn’t there last year. It’s full of big, beautiful houses that would be sooo nice to live in, right? Really? Oh, so we can save up for a few more years, I’ll probably get a raise at work, maybe my wife’s parents will inherit some money and if everything comes together, we could maybe live in one of these cool places soon instead of crammed with all our kids into a tin can. Wait! Stop the tape!

So is THAT what I’m working for? The culmination of all my hopes and dreams?

Oddly enough, this was really driven home to me lately by watching Over the Hedge with my daughter. The film pokes fun at suburban living, and nothing so much as the song during the closing credits. I guess it’s a rehash of a Ben Folds song that originally made fun of rap-core.

Here are some excerpts:

We drive our cars everyday
To and from work both ways
So we make just enough to pay
To drive our cars to work each day
(MW: I have seriously spent the last year doing exactly that.)We’re rocking the suburbs
Around the block just one more time
We’re rocking the suburbs
Cause I can’t tell which house is mine
We’re rocking the suburbs
We part the shades and face facts
They got better looking Fescue
Right across the cul de sac
(MW: I actually know real live people who are thinking like this now. People who used to be interesting in college. People with hopes and dreams, reduced to rats in the consumer race. And I’m RIGHT behind them! Ahhh! I just don’t have quite as much money yet.)

Hotwheels take rising stars
Get rich quick seminars
Soap opera magazines
40,000 watt nativity scenes
Don’t freak about the smoke alarm
Mom left the TV dinner on
(MW: OK. I don’t really relate to this stuff (thank God), I just think that part about the nativity scene is pretty funny!)

We’re rocking the suburbs
Feed the dog and mow the lawn
Watching mommy balance the checks
While daddy juggles credit cards
(MW: Somebody shoot me.)

We’re rocking the suburbs
You’ll never know when we are gone
Because the timer lights come on
And turn the cricket noises on…
(MW: I think this happens a little bit further down the road, when you start to worry about someone stealing your stuff. Like maybe the neighbor you’ve never met, even though you’ve lived next door for 3 years.)

At the same time, I get this sick feeling in my stomach when I read Michael Spencer blogging about John Piper’s “Don’t Waster Your Life”. Now, much of the book boils down to how you aren’t really a cool Christian unless you do foreign missions. I have serious beef with that (and so does Michael), but I won’t go into it here. Isn’t it obvious though? Actually, Piper doesn’t believe that either. He’s a sharp guy. That’s just the feeling you get reading his book in this case. Ron Hutchcraft’s “Called to Greatness” has the same halo. Actually, there is great stuff in both these books…I digress though. I get a sick feeling when I just see the little image that Michael is using for these blog posts:

I feel sick because I think, “Oh my God, that’s me!”.

Anyway, the idea of living in one of these suburban dream homes, filling it with cheap plastic crap, and non-so-cheap furniture, is starting to REALLY lose it’s appeal. I used to be jealous of my friends and colleges who have this life. Now I’m not so sure.

The image above actually comes from the Buy Nothing Day campaign where you boycott the consumerism the day after thanksgiving by not spending any money that day. I really have no interest in secular reactionary movements against American consumerism. I’m worried about my SOUL. How did it become so weighed down with all this junk? I find myself walking right down this road that I scorn. It must have happened slowly. Maybe even while I was paying attention to important, legitimate things (like taking care of my kids). Anyway, it’s crept into my psyche, and has established itself in a place that used to be full of thoughts about the Gospel and the beautiful created things in the world. It has displaced things of wonder, music, and charity. How sad.

I don’t have a direction to go from here, except that I have a very strong desire to TURN FROM the road I am taking my family down. It’s likely I’d have to start with the latte I’m drinking as a write this…

“You have been down there, Neo. You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.” – Trinity, The Matrix

Pierre Bensusan Concert

Well, I drove nearly 6 hours to Seattle yesterday, then immediately drove 6 hours back home to Idaho to make it back in time for Easter Sunday. The reason? To see my guitar hero live. That’s right, the Algerian born Frenchman served up a plate of rich solo guitar harmony, sophisticated compositions and extraordinary virtuosity. It was really a treat to him play first hand and witness the energy put into each piece.

I was first introduced to Pierre when I borrowed the “Best of The Thistle and Shamrock” compilation CD from the local library. This disk was put together by Fiona Richie, who hosts the Celtic music show on NPR under the same name. Since then I’ve waited nearly 3 years to see him in concert. I guess this trip was kind of a spiritual pilgrimage for me. Nah, scratch that. It’s not really spiritual. But a musical/artistic pilgrimage. You see, about the time I discovered Pierre’s music, I was completely burnt out from 13 years of trumpet. I still loved music, but had become very disillusioned with my instrument and with what to “DO” with music in the future. Pierre’s playing really HAS inspired me to keep going. Since then I’ve picked up classical guitar and found it to be quite rich and rewarding.

Anyway, a few comments on the concert:

I’d never seen anyone so at one with their instrument. My guitar professor at our local university is an accomplished classical player with a huge repertoire. However, when he plays, it seems to be that he is just interfacing with his guitar. With Pierre, it was difficult to tell where the man ended and the guitar began. There were occasionally difficult passages where he would slip out of his improvisation driven mode and focus on some tricky fingerings for a few measures. It was during these points that he resembled the musicians I’m usually familiar with. But it was only for a moment and then he was back in the zone.

He played mostly pieces from his last two studio albums: Intuite and Altiplanos. With nearly each song he began by improvising through each piece for several minutes. Then he would launch into the melody or introduction as presented on the album. It was easy to see that he is completely driven by improvisation. Writing the music down is kind of an afterthought. If you’ve ever seen his sheet music, it looks much more like a solo transcription than a music idea translated to paper. I think this is a hurdle to get over if you want to play some of his tunes. If you take a classical approach to it and just force-learn every note, you will be completely missing the point. Yes, there is an underlying chord pattern and especially bass line, but many of the embellishments and extra notes here and there could be played any number of ways.

On a side note, much of Pierre’s early Celtic stuff is much more straight forward and can just be read off the page note-for-note.

His improvisatory style has, I believe, has perennially disqualified him from being taken seriously by classical guitarists. I’m afraid this is a gross oversight. His compositions are very well put together, full of short and extended music ideas, rich in harmony both simple and sophisticated. His playing stretches the limits of the instrument and yet, can be surprisingly idiomatic. It’s made for the guitar from the ground up, not like evil Joquim Rodreguez pieces that were written on a piano. His voicing and self-accompaniment is often reminiscent of Barrios. I think some people are beginning to realize this. Andrew York recently collaborated with him on a concert tour and corresponding album. Classical guitarist James Kline released an album a while back featuring many Bensusan arrangements played on a nylon string. The other thing that has probably turned off people is his near-continuous use of scordatura. Scordatura is just what classical stuff-shirts call it when you use an alternate tuning. Most of his tunes are in DADGAD, as opposed to the standard EADGBE. So if you want to read any of his sheet music, you are probably going to want to look at the tab, not the traditional notation. Oh, but we can’t do that! Tab is for Guitar-World-readin’-metal-head dilettantes. That is just killing the messenger for the sake of being a purist. Get over it.

A side note on his playing being idiomatic. Some who have actually tried to play some of it (and found it very difficult) might have a hard time swallowing that one. Well, it’s just not so apparent at first! One thing to pay attention to is the bass line. He rarely has it on beats 1 or 3 or what you would expect. But he isn’t doing this just to mix it up. It’s actually to keep the notes flowing and make the bass line easier to play. You would come up with his bass lines if you had you’re guitar in hand. If you were writing it down at the desk or the piano, you might put the attacks in much more “logical” places, only to actually find it more difficult to play. I think this also contributes to his “harp effect”. That is, his notes are also placed to provide maximum sustain.

In watching him play, he often would shake his guitar against his body to get a global vibrato. I’ve seen people do this before, but he REALLY put it to good use. Listen to recordings it can be difficult to tell what kind of vibrato is being used (parallel to the string, perpendicular, or this global whammy-bar effect.) I was surprised that he seemed to use this as his PRIMARY form of vibrato. I didn’t see much, if any parallel vibrato going in. This is what classical guitarists and violin players use. There was maybe a little bit of perpendicular (favored by electric players), but usually only bring out a particular note on more sparse passages.

Oh, and he likes to sing with his playing. It’s mostly a kind of soft scat jazz improv. Critics have pointed out over there years that his insistence to keep singing has probably been his largest barrier to commercial success. I think he believes it to be so a part of himself that he would be sacrificing artistic integrity to drop it. That’s just fine, but I have to say I largely prefer his instrumental tracks. There is a reason that Intuite (his only album with no singing) has been his best-selling to date. (Actually, I don’t know if this is true now.)

I know in the past he has used a thumb pick, but now he has all acrylic nails. His right hand position looks to be in a mostly classical position. He rests his guitar on his right leg and kind of leans sideways. It sure looks uncomfortable to me!

Wow, the downtown scene in Seattle on a Saturday night is sure hoppin’! I was on Ballard Ave and every trendy bar was filled. The concert was at the Tractor Tavern, which focuses on music. No tables or pool or TV’s. The bar is against one wall and the rest of the room is open with folding chairs. There is a modest stage at one end. There were about 100 people there. I don’t think you could have had much more than 150 in the room though. It was pretty hot.

On my way back home I hit one of the Chocolati Cafe coffee shops and got a mocha made with their yummy house chocolate. (Not Hershey’s, bleh!). It kept me going on the drive back. Well, most of it anyway. After getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck with 3 flaggers and 2 police cars, I didn’t make it home until 3:40 AM. I wonder what the truck was carrying. Something radioactive maybe?

I think that’s pretty much all I have to say, though I need to go back and spell-check it.

You can’t pin down God.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a true-false test. Significantly, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it, I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship,l especially a relationship between a perfect God and fallible human beings. (p. 92)

He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.

If there is anything I’ve learned since exploring the many branches of Christianity recently, it is the point expressed above. But what do you do with it? Well, let’s put some numbers on it:

1. Some fundamentalists don’t like this because it means that God can’t be adequately explained. They like to play up the importance of absolute truth (which IS important of course), but they aren’t sure what to do with mystery. So it either gets glossed over, or thrown out as being too (liberal, mystical, fill-in-the-blank).

2. Some Calvinists like to use this kind of material to draw attention to God’s sovereignty (which is great), but then do a u-turn by taking it a step further and trying to precisely define just how sovereign and mysterious and omnipotent and can’t-be-contained he is. They’ve got the Trinity measured down to a micrometer. Before you know it, you’re back to a staggering stack of true and false statements. Oops.

3. Some Charismatics will also appeal to the same idea, often saying, “You can’t put God in a box.” Well, of course you can’t. Yeah, that right! But wait. If I don’t speak in tongues then I can’t possibly have the holy spirit? If I’m sick and didn’t get healed, it MUST be because I didn’t have enough faith? And, prophecy is cool and all, but I’m not so sure about the stuff that one guy was saying yesterday. What, you mean I’m spiritually dead because I’m even questioning it? Huh? Looks like God’s still in the box.

I grew up in the company of #1, though the artist in me was never comfortable with it. For 5 years of college I hung with #3 (and still do sometimes). I have a drink with #2 sometimes and find it a secure and refreshing change. I’m just can’t buy the whole thing though.

Actually, I just can’t buy any of it.
So I guess I’ll take all of it. Woo hoo!

The Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quit in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Grying spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

-William Butler Yeats, 1892

I became fascinated with this poem after hearing the Loreena McKennitt song adaptation of it.
I can just imagine a Christian looking right past the beauty of it and dismissing it as a shallow stack of look-inside-yourself-whitney-houston-hero-feel-good-humanism. Bah! Poetry that is just a little bit vague is always the best. It allows you to give it a very personal meaning. The original intention of the author is not important. I love the imagery of the tree of holiness planted inside us. Laughing and full of life. I relate well to the cynical lens of the despair demons (real or imagined?) hold. One makes my eyes bright and radiating kindness to my wife, kids, friends, and strangers. The other makes them downcast and hard.

“Made when God slept in times of old”. I imagine the giant father time, who sleeps under the earth in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. He is sleeping in the Silver Chair when they pass by his enormous body in the deep. In The Last Battle, his silhouette is seen from hundreds of miles away as he awakes and winds his horn at the passing of the world.

There is more that I can say, but I’ll leave it at that.