I have loved

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Van Gogh — Landscape at Twilight

I’ve been reading poems by Sara Teasdale. I don’t think she’s extremely well-known, but she’s on the rise again. She says things like “No one worth possessing / Can be quite possessed; / Lay that on your heart / My young angry dear.” Who says that?

I was struck by one of her poems–“To E.”–in which she recounts the beautiful imagery she has seen and heard–“black silences of the night,”  “running water singing on the rocks,” and this phrase, “the clean swift brightness of a fugue of Bach’s.” Yes, she did rhyme rocks and Back’s. But then she pulls out of her heart the great confession: “But all remembered beauty is no more / Than a vague prelude to the thoughts of you.”

Even a Bach fugue is a prelude.

This got me thinking again about my own list of remembered treasures. I don’t have a poem for it, but here is a little record of all the beautiful things to which I once promised my affection–my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor (#WhenInTheCourseOfHumanEvents #1776 #VirginiaSaysYea). Maybe just my affection.

Ok music first. When I was fourteen my band teacher showed us a tape of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman playing Layla on an outdoor stage. The sailing guitars lifted me up off my knees as I rose into the heavy heat of the summer clouds. I don’t think I’ve ever quite stopped singing this.

I’ve also loved along classical lines. There’s the concerto moments of course–the part when Beethoven brings back in the orchestra, wrapping the corners of its insistent heat around the restless shuddering of the piano cadenza, which continues in ghostlike whispers: something is coming. (Watch from 6:16).

There’s the way Horowitz plays the octave section of the A flat Polonaise, with giddy delight. (4:18 onwards).

And though my heat has strayed, the Schubert Impromptu in A flat is a courtyard by whose gurgling fountain I learned to love. (Start watching at 1:26). I could kiss that tenor line in a heartbeat. But only for a heartbeat. In an instant it is gone. Ah the piano. Ah humanity.

I have loved Marlow’s (ok, Joseph Conrad’s) words: “…he went on, with his eyes straight before him, as if reading off something written on the body of the night.”  And I would marry this sentence if I could, again from Lord Jim:

The world was still, the night breathed on them one of those nights that seem created for the sheltering of tenderness, and there are moments when our souls, as if freed from their dark envelope, glow with an exquisite sensibility that makes certain silences more lucid than speeches.

I will never forget my visit with Bethany to the exhibition in the Van Gogh museum of his paintings of farms at twilight. Conrad’s words remind me of these nights.

What else? Alanis Morissette? Dawn in the California pines? Wide afternoons on hardwood floors? Poached eggs?

I could have sex with a poached egg.

When I was four–on a cruise, where you can be this picky (not that social conventions ever stopped me in this respect–my parents were good parents–I was just horrible) I returned again and again each plate of eggs that they brought out to me. With growing rage, I refused to eat and refused to be comforted. Until they brought me poached eggs, soft pearls of warmth, curled into themselves. Neither scrambled nor fried could satisfy me, neither easy nor hard, neither over nor under–only the within of a round poached egg, gleaming like a dinosaur egg on a piece of toast.

It didn’t matter to me that I got magic marker ink all over them when I touched them with my fingers: in that moment I was born. All my life from that tablecloth on may very well be the outworking of that hidden moment when I opened wide my eyes and mouth and hands, when I tasted for the very first time.

The rest is the journey.

 

 

 

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Thoughts from a white worship leader

It’s summertime, and first housekeeping chore I end up doing every June–even before I put away my school things–is to reorganize my worship binders. Honestly, I do this once a year. The rest of the time I just throw sheets of music in the corner of my room, sort of in piles (like there was a bunch of Christmas music together), and as much as I promise the corner of the room that I will put everything back away “next Saturday,” it doesn’t get done till the second or third week of June. I think I even skipped a year–there was a pile devoted to half the songs I led at a conference in October 2014.

I often think about recording my thoughts about sorting pieces of my life, like when setting up a new bookshelf or folding my underwear (just kidding), and I believe that some of the thoughts I had while doing my favorite June task might be a little amusing. It’s freeing, being organized. If you knew me, you’d know how “rare and beautiful” is such a feeling. I give you my thoughts from this process.

  • What happened to that copy of “Give Us Clean Hands” that Laura gave me? Because that’s the only one with a chord progression that makes any sense to me.
  • And all those typewritten manuscripts.Where have all the 90s gone?
  • Is it a problem how many worship songs I have with titles beginning with the word “I?” I stand. I worship. I will worship. I surrender. These songs are second in number only, rightfully, to songs with “Jesus” in the title. So far I’ve been able to keep these sections together in one binder. I have two. But there was no way I could make it all the way through the meager K’s to the songs about love and about the Lord.
  • Is there really a melody to this Isaiah 43 song? I wonder about this every June. I see the F sharp minors, the E’s and the A’s, but how do you sing that song, and who sang it? What camp did this come from? How did it end up in my binder?  If you’re that guitarist, please stop by to show me how to play this song.
  • Because I know you’re a guitarist by the Capo 2 you etched into my music. In fact, my worship binder is filled with capos. And like, “capo 2” I can handle. But capo 5? Come on. And I probably shouldn’t be saying this in the same breath that I use to blow the dust off the Easter hymns but if you absolutely have to use a capo you probably shouldn’t tell people that you play the guitar. Because keyboardists everywhere are going out of their minds. Why are we the only ones who have to transpose? (Ok, the bass players too. And singers with absolute pitch, I can imagine it would be confusing for them too. Anyone else?)
  • Continue rant: I say this with some humbleness as a man, and as a baritone. We need to find keys that everybody can sing in. I can grow in finding better keys. This is in fact why Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. But notice that he didn’t say, “You are Peter. And on this rock I will build my church. Here’s a capo.”
  • And to conclude: I’m really thankful for the people, especially the guitarists, who have have contributed to my set of songs over the years, people from camps, colleges, conferences, and churches–across generations and even countries (all those A4 pages I cut in half to fit in my page protectors when I got back from England.) It’s fun to see handwriting from old friends and to think about the times we sang together.

Another love letter to Balzac, I think

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Head of Balzac (1901)
Auguste Rodin

Sometimes I don’t know how to read the great French author Balzac. As I’ve suggested before, this tends to bother me. A few weeks ago my aunt asked me what Cousine Bette was about, and I answered: “It’s a trashy French novel.” Adultery. Money entanglements. Despair. Luxury. It’s not that this isn’t true, but what bugs me is I have described almost every French novel I’ve read in these terms. (Sometimes I say this affectionately, as with the early European novel The Princess of Clèves, the first sentence of which, according to my favorite translation reads, “There was never a time with more seduction.”) But it tugs at my heart: I want Balzac to have more common sense than Marguerite Duras when she is at her most scandalous, to open his eyes a little wider than do George Sand or André Gide, to be less lustful than Flaubert, but just as thoughtful and as radiant.

Balzac’s use of language, particularly in moments of emotional crisis–which occur by the page–has un undeniable appeal for me. I hesitate to acknowledge this because I believe that although his powers of expression are masterful–he is not a master. My understanding is that his beautiful words rely less on the simmering of reflection as on the strength of a constant practice akin to guzzling coffee. His worth is in the cloud that hovers above the words, that surrounds his phrasing. Or to put it less spiritually, he unearths wonders of lived experience, but language somehow is not his primary tool. Like Dickens, the value exists elsewhere. But boy, could he turn a phrase. Of jealousy: “The torrents of dizzy, lovesick potions that are spilled by this wild feeling began to run through his heart in an instant.” Or the beauty of a secondary character: “It was altered, poetically distant, by the soft shadows of a hidden melancholy.” Or the “good laments, spoken at length, like cigarettes smoked down to the edge of the tongue, by which women put to rest the little miseries of their life.” (This chapter passed the Bechdel test.)

There is a moral component to Balzac’s work, which he perhaps jokingly insists upon with headings like “Moral reflections on immorality” or “To what extremities men reduce their wives.” When Balzac locks in on an injustice, however small or big, his gaze can be painful. However captivated I might be by a character’s reckless pursuit of social standing or by a character’s painstaking exacting of a pleasurable revenge, the result is rarely pleasurable for the characters. Cruelness (like everything else in Paris) takes a toll. Goodness, truly, is rewarded. And yet, the city keeps pressing on.

And it’s this outlook on the stratification of Parisian life, this seasoned articulation of the sweep of history, that–when I notice it–makes me feel like I’m getting to the heart of a Balzac novel. Whether its the head-hurting account of how unmarried women have to earn their wages or a throwaway critique of the extravagance of the bourgeoisie, like this gem –“In revolutions, solid values go to the bottom and the tide washes up the light things”–Balzac keeps social class at the forefront of his vision of humanity. This is why, for instance, so many of Balzac’s characters are corrupted by the slave trade. Or why, in the beginning chapters of my current novel, Balzac takes us to the old palace grounds where his characters live, yes, but also where he pauses to comment on the concerted growth of  luxury edifices on the old Louvre. Are they, Balzac asks, a testament to the hope of a people who have endured three complete revolutions and want to make nice with the rest of Europe? No, because there is something dark here–destructions, demolitions, ruins of neighborhoods–a darkness that resides not underneath it all but in full view–an “eternal shadow” that the people exiting the operas and galleries cannot rid themselves of. Here we recognize “the intimate alliance of misery and splendor” from which the characters’ stories proceed.

And here I see a hint of Balzac’s intention that however wide-ranging, however grandiose and immense is his view of Parisian life, he is concerned most with the grandiosity and immensity of his characters, of Parisians, of us. He does not merely remark on the harshness, the coldness, the “silence” of homes that are more like “living graves,” but takes us inside them, showing us not just the emotional tumult, the moral degradation, and the personal struggle against large-scale inequities, but the joys, the dreams, and the kindnesses of lovers and companions and among families.

From an early chapter: “All is there, the rich, the poor, the envious and the envied, the philosophers and the people who chase after illusions, all groups like plants in a basket surrounding a rare flower, the bride. A wedding ball is a glimpse of the world.”

This is what I want art to be. What I want fiction to be. And halfway through my third Balzac novel, I think it fits the bill.