Christopher Yokel

Chris Yokel is a freelance writer, independent musician, published poet, avid movie watcher, amateur photographer, voracious reader, music junkie, and connoisseur of chai tea. He holds his B.A. in Philosophy and his M.A. in English. You can read his various musings and keep up with his poetry and music at www.chrisyokel.com. Chris lives in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The Life Lost in Information

Just over a hundred years ago, human knowledge was doubling every century. By the end of World War II it was doubling every 25 years. Today on average, information doubles every 13 months, but in the world of the Internet it can double within 12 hours.

We live in an age of exponential information, where the answer, or at least an answer to almost any question is just a few keystrokes away, where the perceived solution to many social problems is more education, and where the accusation of being ignorant is one of the greatest slights.

But an increase in data has also brought with it the problem of information overload. As Paul Hemp writes for the Harvard Business Review,

“Content rushes at us in countless formats: text messages and Twitter tweets on our cell phones. Facebook friend alerts, and voice mail on our BlackBerrys. Instant messages and direct-marketing sales pitches (no longer limited by the cost of postage) on our desktop computers. Not to mention the ultimate killer app: e-mail. Meanwhile, we’re drawn toward information that in the past didn’t exist or that we didn’t have access to but, now that it’s available, we dare not ignore. Online research reports and industry data. Blogs written by colleagues or by executives at rival companies. Wikis and discussion forums on topics we’re following. The corporate intranet. The latest banal musings of friends in our social networks.

But while an increase in information could be considered a morally neutral phenomenon by some, it has brought with it the rise of a troubling trend: the need to be “in the know”:

“Of course, not everyone feels overwhelmed by the torrent of information. Some are stimulated by it. But that raises the specter of…[cue scary music]…information addiction. According to a 2008 AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users in the United States, 46% were “hooked” on e-mail. Nearly 60% of everyone surveyed checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15% checked it in church, and 11% had hidden the fact that they were checking it from a spouse or other family member. The tendency of always-available information to blur the boundaries between work and home can affect our personal lives in unexpected ways.

What’s worse is that this constant barrage, coupled with an addictive need to process it, is often leading to detrimental effects. Hemp elaborates:

“Researchers say that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives—combined with the personal and social expectation that, say, you will answer every e-mail message—can deplete and demoralize you. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention-deficit disorders, argues that the modern workplace induces what he calls ‘attention deficit trait,’ with characteristics similar to those of the genetically based disorder. Author Linda Stone, who coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ to describe the mental state of today’s knowledge workers, says she’s now noticing—get this—’e-mail apnea’: the unconscious suspension of regular and steady breathing when people tackle their e-mail.

I mention all this because I’ve found them to be true in my own life. Like many of us, I’ve found myself scrolling through Facebook or Twitter when I should be focusing on a project. I’ve faced the temptation to quickly look at my phone while at dinner or out socializing with friends. And who hasn’t gone to the bathroom so we could have a few moments of peace with Instagram? Increasingly, I’ve felt the guilt of an addict who knows they probably need to stop but doesn’t know how or doesn’t quite want to.

What emerges from this picture is a Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with information. And beyond the noted psychological and physical effects pointed out by Hemp, this has led me to ponder the question: is there is deeper spiritual malady occurring here? Is our cyclical relationship of needing to know but being negatively impacted by the process of knowing leading us further away from God, and further away from our own humanity?

It occurs to me that the problem here is a very old one, in fact, it goes back to the very beginning.

In the opening chapters of the Bible, in the Jewish-Christian origin story of mankind, Adam and Eve are created perfect and good and given free rein of the garden of Eden, all except one tree, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some translators have pointed out that the phrase “Good and Evil” is a figure of speech known as a merism, a pairing of opposites that is designed to represent everything in between. In other words, the tree represents omniscience, the knowledge of everything, a characteristic traditionally ascribed to God alone.

In this understanding, the prohibition of eating from the tree is a reminder from God regarding the hierarchy of the created order. God is pointing out to Adam and Eve that they are finite creatures and he is the infinite Creator.

Then enters the tempting serpent into the story and he seduces Eve. He paints God as a stingy overlord, holding out on his creatures, saving the best for himself. The serpents says that in eating the fruit, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil,” knowing everything.

Now, whether you believe the story to be literally true or a myth with an important lesson, there is something here that resonates with human history and our experience: the idea of forbidden, trans-temporal knowledge and power and the fate of those who recklessly pursue it. At every stage of human progress there have been those who questioned: how much is too much? Some of them have been simple curmudgeons, but some have had the wisdom to see the self-destructive tendencies of the human heart. They’ve recognized that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, or as St. Paul wrote, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”.

Comparing the Fall of humanity to addictively scrolling through your Facebook feed may seem a bit much, but I believe they exist on the same spectrum. They both ignore the fact that there is happiness in being limited to time and place (a foreign sounding sentiment in today’s age of “be whatever you want to be”). If nothing else, the impacts of information addiction speak for themselves, pointing to trends that lead away from human flourishing and growth. I know for myself, I often reach the point where I feel like Derek Webb’s protagonist in his song “I Feel Everything”:

I cannot hear because I hear anything

I cannot see because I see everything

I cannot feel because I feel everything

A perfect example is the media cycle that kicks in every time a major tragedy happens in this country. In such moments I’m torn between the desire to know every developing detail and opinion, and my awareness of the types of politicization and dehumanizing arguments that take place round the clock for several days after. We often flock to social media during tragedy to gain information, but do we leave with true understanding, deeper empathy, or further wisdom?

I’ve sometimes fantasized that it would be good in such situations, after some basic information about the tragedy is shared, to have a temporary moratorium on any further communication. We’d have to think and pray about it, perhaps have conversations with our families. We wouldn’t need to know every newly developing minor detail or every one of our friend’s political opinions related the issue in order to understand that something tragic had happened. We could truly feel because we wouldn’t be faced with feeling everything. As comedian Louis C.K. observes in a now famous YouTube clip, our information consumption and proliferation is often used as a way to escape feeling.

Where does our current trajectory lead us? The poet T.S. Eliot, sitting on the cusp of the Information Age, already had an idea, which he expressed in “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Perhaps in remembering that we are dust we can begin to regain the life we have lost in information.

Gentleness Shall Force

I was struck the other day by a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The heroic Orlando—famished by the wild and in need of food for himself and his servant—Adam bursts upon the camp of the exiled Duke Frederick demanding nourishment at sword point. The sage Duke talks him down with kind words, saying, “Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”

This line resonated with me because too often I feel like I’m forcing my way through life, trying to make things happen, which often leaves me frustrated and anxious. I’m a creature of impatience, unwilling at times to plant seeds and nurture them to growth in due time. And yet this is the Nietzschean philosophy of the day. “No one will listen to you, you have to make your voice heard!” “If you want something, you have to go out and get it, take it with your own two hands!” And so it goes, with force, trying to move the world to gentleness, or at least compliance.

I’ve realized how relevant these contrasting attitudes are to the creative process. In a brilliant passage from The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers delineates these two approaches:

“Perhaps the first thing [the common man] can learn from the artist is that the only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.”

Elsewhere in the book she says, “The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it, he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom.”

This was hard for me to wrap my head around, but it made sense once I considered  the nature of artistry. The word “mastery” is used a lot to talk about learning the mechanical skills of any art form, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that the student has taken a subject and bent it to his will. In this case, mastery is about submission—the student must learn the rules of the craft, whether it is painting or piano playing. There are notes and scales and pieces to learn. Much of the long labor of practice is about becoming proficient at these rules.

Now, once a student has achieved this proficiency, there is certainly a sense in which he has “mastered” the rules, when actually he has dedicated himself to a long process of serving the material. And in doing so, there is, as Sayers notes, a perfect freedom. The pianist can now sit down at the piano and play to his heart’s content, because he spent hours and years learning the necessary scales. The painter can set up her easel and capture the landscape with skill and realism.

Such submission usually leads to something else as well, and that is love, a love born out of intimate knowledge, fostered by time. This mature love becomes the force that gently fosters beautiful things, whereas mastery and bullying lead to nothing truly creative.

What does this love look like? Persistence and patience. It continues to show up to do the work, but allows for the material to develop at its own pace. It seeks a deep knowledge of the object of study and creation, rather than a mere superficial understanding guided only by a desire to enhance the artist’s own glory, or to simply use the material as a vehicle for the artist’s “point”. It allows itself to adapt to the natural flow of the subject, rather than rigidly trying to force it to the artist’s own vision.

As Alexander Graham Bell said, “You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.”  This is a hard lesson to learn in our day, but a vital one.

This dance of love that emerges between the artist and the art seeks to find what Christian McEwen calls its tempo guisto, “its own right or appropriate amount of time.” Our job is to find the rhythm, and to accept it, which is hard, but can be learned. As Anne Lamott observes about the particularly trying challenge of writer’s block,

“The problem is acceptance, which we’re not taught to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.”

This, of course, challenges another dominant way of being in our culture—instant gratification. We can come up with a clever Tweet and have it posted in seconds, so why not a poem, a song, a short story? Yes, we can share these things pretty quickly, but the road up to the point of sharing can be long and slow, and that’s not a bad thing.

The cult of inspiration and energy is alive and well today, but what we need to harness and sustain the spark of inspiration and energy is a culture of patient discipline. I’m reminded of the story of Picasso, who while sketching in the park, was asked to by a woman if he could sketch her portrait. Five minutes later he handed her a sketch, and when she asked what she owed him, he said, “5,000 francs, madame.” Enraged, the women asked why she should pay him 5,000 francs for a sketch that took him only five minutes.  To which Picasso calmly replied, “No madame, it took me my whole life.”

Let us become masters through the gentle art of perseverance.

 


[1] Dorothy Sayers. The Mind of the Maker. HarperOne,1979, 186.

[2] Ibid, 66.

[3] Ironically, as I was writing this section out my word processor crashed. I was forced rewrite what I thought was an otherwise “perfect” paragraph.

[4]  Christian McEwen. World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. Bauhan, 2011, 29.

[5] Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. Random House, 1995, 178.

The Creative Doldrums

Recently I went through a bit of a creative lull. There was about a month or more where I didn’t come up with a guitar riff or write a poem. During the first week or so I wasn’t too bothered by this fact, as I’d gone through dry spells before. But when several weeks stretched into four, then five, it started to bother me. I felt incomplete. This can happen when creativity is an important part of who you are.

But the other aspect of my concern was the fact that I was worried because I was not producing. See, I’m the kind of person that is driven by a desire to do, to produce, to be accomplishing things. And as an independent artist, I am reliant upon technology that has, in many ways, exacerbated this. Social media thrives upon the new and immediate. DIY artist blogs constantly remind us to “Update! Update! Update!” You have to stay current, keep your fans reminded of who you are and what you’re doing, lest you fall down to the bottom of the Twitter feed.

So part of my concern about my creative dryness was also the fact that I had nothing new to share in the social media sphere. I could feel myself becoming less relevant.

But now I wonder if that was part of the problem in the first place. Had both the constant need to put out something new and the constant reception of new information sucked me dry? I am noticing this as a larger trend on the Internet lately. Blogger Ali Luke notes that, “Over the past couple of years, there’s been a shift in the blogging world. More and more prominent bloggers-on-blogging are moving away from daily posting—and reassuring their readers that you don’t have to post every day in order to be successful.” Mega-blogger Michael Hyatt reduced his blogging schedule from five posts a week to three after surveying his audience and finding they wanted less. And just recently author, editor, and blogger L.L. Barkat encouraged many experienced writers to stop blogging altogether.

All these bloggers and authors recognize the backlash that we are beginning to face as our age of digital  literacy expands—information overload. And for the artist, this sometimes vicious cycle of overproduction and overconsumption can only exacerbate the dry spells of the creative life. So what are some things we can do as artists and creators to combat these trends and cope with our own creative lulls?

Sometimes life just happens. Author and speaker Jon Acuff recently wrote a bit of simple advice on his blog: “Give yourself grace.” His point was that when we are working on a creative dream, we can often be incredibly hard on ourselves and not recognize the realities of life. Sometimes things just happen that take up our time and energy, and we can’t help it. We won’t do ourselves any favor by further beating ourselves up over our lack of creative output.

Creativity has seasons. Related to the previous point is the fact that we must recognize the waves of the creative life. No one can constantly produce and produce well. Life is a balance of work and play, rest and labor. Ideas have a cycle of inception to realization. There’s a time to receive and a time to give. Sometimes you need to be refilled before you can share with the world once again. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of the love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”

Keep a long term perspective. One of the best pieces of creative advice I’ve heard recently was something author Jonathan Merritt said at the Northern Shores Writer’s Retreat which I attended back in January. During a panel discussion he described the writing life as a “long obedience in the same direction” (quoting Eugene Peterson quoting Nietzsche). We are often more influenced by the culture of “now” than we realize, and we are tempted with delusions that our artistic efforts will attain swift success. The reality is more of a long, patient grind of quiet labor. Some may take this as a discouragement, but I believe this can actually be tremendously freeing, because it releases us from the tyranny of the urgent and the nigh-impossible weight of instant success. Besides that, keeping a long-term perspective helps us see those dry spells for what they are, seasons in a long vocational life of creative work.

Show up and be ready. Now, some of these suggestions could easily be transformed into subtle excuses to justify laziness. Maybe your life is just busy right now—or maybe you’ve poorly managed your schedule. Maybe the well has run dry—or maybe you haven’t done anything to refresh it. Even when ideas aren’t flowing smoothly, or hardly flowing at all, it’s still important to develop a habit of “showing up.” That might mean setting aside some time each day to work or brainstorm, or heading off to a quiet place where its easier to quiet your mind. It might involve some good reading that both recharges and challenges you. And sometimes, when life is really crazy, it might just involve being ready for when the ideas return.

For me, thankfully, the creative juices started flowing again when I both took some pressure off myself and made the choice to “show up” in some regular form. May these ideas be helpful for you in your own creative dry spell. Remember in the end that it is not about how many poems we wrote or books we published, but how much truth and beauty we gave to the world.

photo by: Brian U

Christmas Tunes of Another Sort

Christmastime is here again, which means the return of Christmas music. If you’re like me, you have a love/hate relationship with this genre created to be listened to for about five weeks a year. Strangely, it’s also one of the most oversaturated genres. Hundreds of pop musicians have released Christmas albums, and pretty much all of them contain the same thirty or so songs. It can get nauseating to hear the fourth or fifth different “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

In my quest to avoid becoming a musical Grinch, I’ve spent the past few years looking for solutions to the Christmas music predicament. Here are a few great albums that I’ve discovered:

If On A Winter’s Night by Sting. This has been one of my favorite Christmas/winter albums since its release in 2009. Sting, who was already known for exploring historical forms in his Songs from the Labyrinth, turns to the folk and holiday traditions of the British isles in this album, with renditions of lesser known Christmas tunes like the haunting “Gabriel’s Message,” “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” and “The Cherry Tree Carol.” The great thing about this album is that it is, as I said, a Christmas/winter work, evoking not just the holiday season, but the whole brooding atmosphere of darkest time of year. The lovely folk and Celtic instrumentation certainly creates a large part of this mood on the album. Personal standouts: “Gabriel’s Message,” “Christmas At Sea,” “The Snow It Melts The Soonest,” “You Only Cross My Mind in Winter.”

To Drive The Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennitt. Keeping in line with the whole moody traditional British Christmas music theme is Loreena McKennitt’s first Christmas album. This album has a decidedly more medieval feel than Sting’s album, with McKennitt playing in the echoing spaces of monasteries and cathedrals with the spare instrumentation of harp, strings, and accordion most of the time. As such, it evokes the Yule season of the medieval era, where kings and their vassals would gather in their castle to pass the dark days of winter in feasting and fellowship. Most of the songs on this album will be unfamiliar to modern audiences, except maybe “The Wexford Carol,” which is somewhat known. Of course, this is a good thing if you’re trying to find some really fresh Christmas music.

A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt followed up her first Christmas album with a more traditional work about twenty years later. This album contains recognizable tunes such as “The Holly and The Ivy,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Still, she finds a way to bend the sound of these songs, with her unique blend of Celtic and Middle Eastern sounds, in a way that defies the traditional Christmas-song rendition. Add to that some more unusual songs like the French carol “Noel Nouvelet,” “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” and you’ve got a somewhat more traditionally accessible and yet highly unique Christmas album.

Celtic Christmas by Eden’s Bridge. Can you tell I like Celtic-influenced Christmas music yet? This is an album I’ve had for many years. Case in point: I listened to this on cassette tape until it got all warbly, then bought it on CD. This album is a balanced mix of neo-Celtic styled traditional songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Coventry Carol” and splendid originals like “Christmas Is With Us Again,” “Unto Us” and “Crying for the World.” Although the mood of the record is very ethereal, these original songs make the Christmas story feel very contemporary as they dig into the tangled thoughts of the characters.

The Promise by Michael Card. Card’s Christmas album is already a bit of a modern classic in certain circles, but it is still not as well known as it should be. The cool thing about it is that all of the ten songs are original—nary a traditional Christmas tune among the lot. And they range from the epic scope of prophecy in “Unto Us A Son Is Given” and “Vincit Agnus Noster” to the small tender moments of the Christmas story in “What Her Heart Remembered” and “Joseph’s Song.” Card has always been a bit of a theological songwriter, which provides a rich depth to this album, yet is never inaccessible.

Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson. Last but not least is another modern classic, although it’s only been around for less than a decade. The interesting part about the album is that most of the songs don’t seem to really talk about Christmas at all, at least not in the way we think—only three songs actually reference the events spoken of in the Gospel accounts. Rather, what Peterson and company do is tell the story of redemption leading up to and including the Incarnation. It’s kind of like Handel’s Messiah for banjos and guitars. Granted, there are several traditional tunes in there, including “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “The Holly and The Ivy”  and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” but they are either amazing instrumentals or so artfully rearranged as to sound non-traditional.

So if you’re looking for a fresh batch of Christmas music, something that won’t make you want to stab the singer with a stake of holly, consider seeking out some of these albums.

 

 

 

Standing Stones

Standing Stones II

Like you might label
peas, carrots, and beans
freshly seeded in
the rich brown earth
to know the plant that
springs up in its season,
these standing stones denote
the seed of man
sown corruptible.
Here Charles Gray was cast to earth,
the dirt swept over,
patted down.
There Tillinghast, aged seven months,
was gently laid within the furrow,
watered with tears of bitter sorrow.
Near forty seeds I count within
this garden plot of broken earth,
the sower waits with patient care
down through a thousand winding years
as moss and lichen creep on stone
and entropy erodes the names.
He does not forget one errant seed,
and at his voice the curling bud will break
the soil to awake
the life within the ground.

The Tyranny of Taste

George Eliot once said, “I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music.” She would have loved our modern era. It seems that we have more music available to us, and more music being produced, than ever before. iTunes has over 20 million songs for sale, and as of October 4, 2011 had sold its 16 billionth song. Spotify, the latest trending digital music source, has a 15 million song collection. One of the slogans on their website reads, “Get listening. Millions of tracks are now at your fingertips.” Millions! If the average length of a song is four minutes, and you listened 24/7, it would take you about 7 years to listen to just one million songs. That’s a lot of music.

And more music than ever is being made today. With the advent of YouTube and the rise of distributors like CDBaby, Tunecore, and Bandcamp, it has become easier to skirt around the traditional industry and make your own music– and many people are doing it.

Under this looming avalanche of sound, one needs certain survival skills. It’s not possible to listen to everything out there, or even what any good musical aesthete is “supposed” to listen to, so we’re forced to pick and choose. This is well and good.

Much of the time, at least in my own observations, I find our choices are governed by personal taste, what we “like.” Now, taste certainly has something to do with it. But lately I have wondered whether, in our consumer-driven, individualistic society, taste hasn’t started to get the better of us.

Think of this scenario: have you ever been in the iTunes store, or on YouTube, and said “Naaah” after listening to a new track of music for maybe 30 seconds? An artist’s creative output, judged within a few blinks of an eye. I raise my hand as guilty. Now, sometimes music is just that bad, and deserves an easy dismissal, but I fear that when this becomes a pattern in our listening experience, it is a sign of the tyranny of taste.

In his pop culture analysis, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers observes,

“In an age of egalitarianism and relativism, it is easier than ever to regard matters of taste as wholly private and personal. I like Bach, you like Bon Jovi, praise the Lord anyhow. But is aesthetic judgment purely a subjective and neutral matter? Is ‘beauty’ exclusively in the eye of beholder? Is something ‘beautiful’ just because I like it, or does it have some objective quality rooted in creation that allows me to recognize that it is beautiful?”

Myers raises the question of an objective standard of goodness and beauty in art, and he argues that such aesthetics are spiritually based, “Culture has very much to do with the human spirit. What we find beautiful or entertaining or moving is rooted in our spiritual life.” This is true of any culture that has held to an objective worldview. The problem, Myers points out, is that today’s more subjective ethos arises out of a cultural relativism. With the disappearance of any concept of transcendence, personal preference reigns. The result of relativism and the commodification of music, is that pop culture today is increasingly market driven. We are so awash in it wherever we go, that it is only fitting that individual taste would be the dominant factor in our artistic consumption decisions.

The problem is, when we let our own sense of taste dominate our artistic sensibilities, we can begin to think that music as an art form is our servant, that it is there for our sole benefit, and exists only to satisfy us. A lot of music and music listening today has become a form of emotional masturbation. We tend to like and listen to music that matches our mood or makes us feel good.

But music does not exist solely for us, which is hard to remember in our age of market-crafted pop stars and he-who-gains-the-most-votes-wins talent shows. As the late Francis Schaeffer observed about perspectives on art, “The first is the most important: A work of art has value in itself….If we miss this point, we miss the very essence of art.”

Scott Avett, singer and songwriter of the Avett Brothers, has recently made a similar connection between the value of art and the “success” of art in pop culture terms:

“In all types of art there is a choice. Create what you feel because you believe in it, or create what you think will be ‘successful’. The difference between the two is this: with the latter, that which will be ‘successful’ can only succeed’ for a temporary moment with you and your physical state. But that which is created in sincerity, that which reveals part of your soul without control or plan, will outlive all of us and be generated between men for years to come. Though the work may not succeed in number of viewers, it still bears a life.”

As music listeners, I think it is helpful to remind ourselves of this truth from time to time. What we hear bears a life of its own, sparked by the life that created it. And if it has been made for beauty, that beauty is part of it regardless of our like or dislike.

So what’s the pay dirt? How should understanding this reflect in our music listening experience?

First, I think it should remind us not to devalue the very thing that we enjoy. Treating music as just a means to an emotional end makes listening a utilitarian, rather than artistic, pursuit.

Second, we should be aware of how the dominance of taste can close us off to types of music that we wouldn’t normally listen to, which is to our detriment. Technology has made a wide variety of music more available to listeners,  but it has often also led us into our own own tiny, personally-crafted ghettos.

This leads to my third point: we should actively find ways to expand our own sensibilities. One thing that I have done in recent years is to seek out and listen to older musicians who have been recognized for their musical talent and prowess. I admit, the sometimes dated nature of the sound has occasionally  jarred my personal preferences, but I’ve also been surprised by how much truth and beauty I have found.

Fourth, we should seek to become more aware of our own spiritual traditions and what they teach us about beauty. What is the place and value of beauty and art in our worldview? This question of aesthetics is an age-old one, and its pursuit is one which will not offer up easy, drive-through-window answers. I’m still wrestling with these questions, with my own culture, and with my place within it. But these questions are worth grappling with and worth pursuing, for they are the pursuit of the eternal over the temporal.

 

Standing Stones

The wall of stones marches

on, straight as an

arrow into the infinity

of forest.

 

It does not care for

tree or trail, for it was

here before their birth.

It stands as a mark

of Adam’s dominion

flowing through

New England farmers’ veins.

Like human bulldozers

they wrestled with stone

to make an altar to

private property and agriculture,

their own immovable

political philosophy,

which has seen presidents and kings

come and go,

come and go.

 

Now it stands a mere memorial

in the midst of nature’s

take-back-the-neighborhood campaign,

intransigent and venerable,

it has earned its steady place

in the detritus of trees.

 

The Still Point of a Turning World

Photo by Jennifer Teichman

I don’t know what possessed me. At the end of this past summer, I agreed to teach five college writing courses on three different campuses for the fall semester. Five writing courses. One of the more interesting periods of my life, it can only be described as somewhat equivalent to trying to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope over a pit of flames. There have been moments where, trying to keep track of what assignments I had graded for what student for what class (oh and what was I supposed to be lecturing on today?), my brain peered over the edge and into the abyss of insanity.

Thankfully, it was also this fall that I discovered a small wonder in my corner of the world: Weetamoo Woods and Pardon Gray Preserve, a wildlife sanctuary near my home that soon became my own sanctuary. It also taught me something about creativity and my work as a songwriter and poet.

When I get really busy, as I have been this fall with all my classes, my creativity seems to largely evaporate. No inspiration, no insights, no words, no melodies. Or at least very few. As is often the case, I am not able to make a living off my artistic endeavors, and so the bills must get paid some other way, which means time and energy invested elsewhere. And I’m not complaining about my job. I am grateful to be doing something I enjoy that relates to my interests in writing, especially in this economy. Still, time spent grading papers and teaching college students how to research or write an analysis essay is time not spent crafting notes or piecing together new metaphors, much less being able to think about them. Such is the life of the artist who is not able to make art for a living.

For the most part, I assumed this silence of my soul was the busyness of my schedule, and that my brain was simply being overwhelmed with work information. But when I escaped into the woods, I realized there was something more going on. When I was on my walks, I could actually feel the quiet rhythm of the forest, and it began to settle down my busy mind. I could notice details like birch leaves glowing with the suffusion of sunshine, the ripples in the flowing brook, the small footpath tracing its way through a green, misty meadow. I could feel the softness of moss sheathing piles of jagged rock into green velvet. I could hear the eternal babble of little streams or the chatter of birds reflecting off the trees. I could be still, and being still I could see, not just look at. Artist and author Frederick Franck points out the difference between the two when he says:

We have become addicted to merely looking at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others. [1]

It was then I realized that the creative perception that one finds through stillness comes about one of two ways: it can sometimes just happen by accident, or you can choose it. I had only subliminally been choosing it by virtue of my escapes into nature, probably because deep down somewhere my soul knew that it needed the rest, the recovery.

To be a good artist, stillness is something that we should choose and practice. We simply cannot wait for it to happen. Seek it out. It’s a vocational requirement. We must find it, for only then will we understand. In her book Walking On Water, Madeleine L’Engle wonderfully encapsulates, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”

Consider a few ideas. Create spaces for stillness. For me, this was retreating to the woods. For you, it may be a quiet space in your home or apartment, or a bench in the park. Then actually spend time there, regularly. Reduce distractions. Instead of going out with smart phone in hand and iPod in ears, ditch the iPod and put the phone on vibrate in your pocket. Keep your senses open.

Do some people watching, or squirrel watching, and see life happening around you. As Dennis Dunleavy observes, “The art of observation begins with immersing ourselves in the textures and tones of life.” [2] You can’t immerse yourself in anything while skittering along the surface of it.

In these times, give your mind time to wander, rather than spinning like a frantic hamster in a wheel over everything you have to do, or what’s happening in your social media world. Daydreaming isn’t just for children;it’s an artist’s most powerful tool because it is the place of possibility. I think some of these ideas are a good place to start.

We need this now more than ever in a world spinning madly on. This is why we need artists, and particularly artists who practice stillness. For in the silence, they will begin to catch glimpses of the meaning behind the motion, which they will then speak, and write, and paint, and sculpt. The artist is one who must stand at the still point of a turning world and simply watch, and in watching, see.

 

I Travel On

I travel on, following the winding trail of pale orange lights through the darkness.  There is a spectral aura about them that makes them slightly less than comfortable. What else would one expect upon a blustery night in October? Shadows rise on all sides, and fallen leaves scratch and tumble across the road, visible for a few moments in the orange glow before casting off into the shadows again. In the car all is silent. Silent, warm, and safe — I think. This kind of night leaves an uneasiness about the edges. As I wind through the thickening trees, an occasional shaft of comfort flickers into sight. I have always enjoyed seeing houses at night, with the warm light spilling out of their windows into the darkness, giving you a glimpse inside, where you imagine it is safe and happy and beautiful, where people are drinking warm drinks and laughing. Or maybe where someone is sitting quietly in a favorite chair, reading away. They are like small Rivendells standing against the darkness. They grow fewer and far between. The city is long past and I am out in the wilds, where the darkness advances hard, pressing up through the trees to the very edges of the road. Now the trail of pale orange lights flickers out, and I am led on solely by my headlights, tracing out the road. I brave the night and the edge of uneasiness because I am on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage into the darkness.

Trees begin to fade and the sky opens up, windswept and star studded. If my windows were open I would be starting to hear the soft thunder, for I am going to the rural coast. A wild place for a wild night, and so I creep on through.  The trees fall away and now the darkness presents a new face. It is no longer pressing close, but has flung itself wide and eternally expansive, equally frightening. The headlights dimly sweep low, grass-topped dunes and wooden fences. I am there, I can tell. I hear the gravel crunch and then everything stops. Slowly I turn the key and switch the lights off, their glow retreating before the pressing dark.

I remain for a moment in silence, gathering myself. Then I open the door and suddenly it is all there. I hear the pounding of the surf invisible ahead of me in the darkness. The cozy feeling that surrounded me within the car is swiftly stripped away by the brash autumn wind. I pull my hood over my head, feeling like some holy man or dark-cloaked hero, ready to face this elemental foe. Overhead, amid this dark well, a million brilliant eyes open upon me.

I feel uneasy as I stand in the gravel parking lot, surrounded by silence and wind and darkness tinged with faint diamonds. I am suddenly afraid to walk onto the beach, the kind of fear you have of closets and the undersides of beds at night as a child. It’s amazing how the blanket of night blankets our minds as well.  Letting cowardice prevail for the moment, I lean back against the familiarity of the car, taking in the vaulted flickering dome — except I cannot take it in. How can mere human eyes take in a billion and more stars flung out like so much seed on a blue field? I try to open my mind to great thoughts, to ideas equal to what I am beholding, to a language fit for such visions. Yet all my efforts fall smoldering to earth before they barely take upward flight. I am merely left to behold and receive, not offer any of my gifts to this experience.

Gradually, I ease myself off the car and across the lot onto the narrow road. I stand on the yellow lines, torn between desire and my irrational fear. The sea calls from beyond the dune, but I am still afraid — of what?  Have the waters cast about them the shroud of night and become a malevolent monster? As I said, night transforms things, if not truly then at least to the mind. Finally I screw my courage to the sticking place and pass from gravel into the soft yielding sand. Threading through the dunes like mountain passes into the unknown, I come to the sandy plains before the unmitigated sea. The waters, so great in sound, only glimmer in sight, betrayed by the thin froth of surf moving on its own horizon, for it is the only horizon that I can behold. I stand as on the edge of the world.

I am thankful for my hood, for here unbroken by dunes the winds whip off the unseen waves and into my face. Like the tossing of the sea, the gales stir the surface of my soul, calling forth something the ancient poets called “fell” or “fey.” Something deep and wild stirs. If there were sea dragons emerging from the depths I might face them. At least that is what my heart says. But there are no such beasts, so for the time being I must be more poet than warrior. I lie upon the sand to gaze upon the field of heaven. It is easy to see why men have tried to trace their destinies here. There is something about attending to the cosmos that silences us. It is a presence so entirely other and apparently indifferent to our pathetic little cares. Our cries, our protestations, our self-inflating efforts are simply swallowed up into its vast depths, while it is occupied with singing its own ancient, deep, slow-wheeling song. I am trying to listen for its strains, which I can imagine move slowly and beautifully like Beowulf in Old English — slower at least than the pop song pace of our modern culture.

I try to concentrate upon a single needlepoint of light. Who knows how long ago the light I am seeing started its journey towards this moment with my eye? Light-years — whatever that means. I can barely get my mind around calendar years, much less astronomic cadence. Does the light feel like its long journey has been wasted in this climax, this meeting with my optic nerves? I hope not. I hope that I have honored its achievement with all the attention due. I wonder how many years down the road someone will see the light that is leaving this star right now.

I listen to the waves slowly come in. Where did the waters of that last wave come from? Did they once lap the docks of Hong Kong? Were they whipped with fury around Cape Horn? Did they trickle down the Rocky Mountains, seep their way to San Francisco Bay, pass through the Aleutians, lay bound in the ice of the North Pole and gradually melt their way down from Greenland? What tales of travel are they telling me in the whisper of their retreat back down the sand? I try to listen for the names of faraway places in the space between two waves.

The wind, waves, sand, and darkness have things to tell, and that is why I have come. They speak in a language other than men, and I have come because of a hunger that I cannot put into men’s words. We often hide it for a time under the incessant noise of our culture, but there comes a point when its rumblings will not be quieted, and we must go. And so I have come to listen into the night, being filled and satisfied in some untouchable but real place. Like a forgetful soul, each part of me begins to remember the notes of the song, and slowly, stumblingly, aligns itself to the dance. In this song there is life, a life that we need to be whole. It is like breathing for our souls. In this song there is also groaning as well, the groaning of the stars pushing their light through the empty reaches of space, of the sea achingly heaving each wave onto the shore, of the shore being pulled back into the sea. Groaning is also part of life. It is a hunger waiting to be filled, like my soul must be filled. We also like to hide groaning. We hide it behind makeup, music, magazines and Mustangs. But the song that is alive and slow and deep is also the song that groans with deep longings that cannot be expressed. To be alive is to groan. And so as I sit in silence my soul aches in the ache of the cosmos, the aching that I must everyday hide from the eyes of men, that aching that is anathema. We must not ache, and therefore we must not be human. We must twist ourselves into something we are not. But I do not want to be what I am not. I have come to untwist myself, to become unbent, to be alive and to groan, knowing that to groan is to hope for the end of the aching, to wait for a life that will be a different sort of alive, in which hurting is not part of living. But until then we listen and wait for the revealing of that which lies behind these indigo-veils of night.

So I sit into the night, but I know that I cannot stay. I know that I will soon be filled, though I could never be filled enough, not because there is something wrong with the song — there is something wrong with me. I am inadequate to feel the full weight of the symphony. If the universe were to all suddenly burst out upon me it would kill me. So I must like a child take small sips before running back off to play, until I grow into a man that can shoulder the weight of this glory.

Having been filled as much as I can receive, I ease myself up from the sand. Casting a wistful glance on the foamy horizon, I slowly thread my way back through the dune-passes to the parking lot. I sit in the seat of my car, staring through the wheel into the starry vision that still lingers before my eyes. Slowly I turn the key, ease the car onto the road in the slow crunch of gravel, and head home.

Baby Boy Idols

I don’t like Justin Bieber.

That may come as no surprise, considering that I’m a 27-year-old male, and his audience is teenage girls. It’s not that he doesn’t have talent — I think he has a decent voice. It’s more about what he represents in himself, and furthermore, what he has started in terms of a new trend of teen idols. So perhaps it would be better to say I don’t like Justin Bieber the product.

Now, certainly the teen idol has already been a long standing figure in American culture. Elvis Presley and James Dean rocked the teenage world of the ‘50s and defined a generation. The Beatles inspired the youth of the ‘60s. The ‘90s brought the rise of boy bands like New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys.

Photo by flickr user www.chicagofabulousblog.com.

Justin Bieber performs at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.

These newer groups in particular all represent a rather emotionally driven and shallow genre of music directed towards the romantic tendencies of teenage girls precisely at a time in life when they are not exactly tempered by reason or maturity. Lyrics usually focused on all the raging hormonal issues surrounding the romantic desires of these impressionable girls. Most of us get this and seem to accept it as some kind of bizarre phase that parents have to suffer through.

The thing about the teen idols of yore, at least, was that they were all in their late teens or early twenties.  Granted, they were still young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, but at least they had a few years under their belts. But what we have in the rise of Justin Bieber is a whole new class of teen idol: the “I don’t even shave yet” teen heartthrob.

My introduction to this twilight zone came with my first viewing of Bieber’s music video for his first single, “One Time.”  You have likely seen the video, but I’ll set the scene. Bieber’s mentor-daddy Usher is away and wants little Justin to keep the house while he’s gone. But of course, what Bieber does instead is invite a bunch of friends over for a house party.  It’s basically college freshman keg party sans keg. None of the swaying teens are holding red cups, and I’m assuming there’s no beer pong going on in the background somewhere. Oh yeah, and also there’s no promiscuous sex happening or drugs involved, because of course parents across American would burn the record label to the ground. These kids are 13 after all. I mean, we want our kids to grow up fast, but not that fast, right?

But perhaps the most surreal part of this experience is watching Bieber do his thing. With his fresh sneakers, baggy pants, sideways brim and shaggy locks, he throws down his rapper gestures like the big dogs except he’s in middle school. But who am I to judge? Maybe Canadian middle schools have gangs that revolve around drugs, violence, and promiscuity — you know, the stuff that 90% of rap music talks about.

Of course, there’s also the lyrics. Bieber sings to his sweet little thing: “And girl, you’re my one love / My one heart / My one love for sure.” But then he really ups the ante: “Your world is my world / And my fight is your fight / My breath is your breath / And your heart.” Be still my beating heart! Man, the Biebs is obviously a pro when it comes to the ways of the female psyche. I bet he was dating at 8 years old. He knows from experience what the ladies want.

In this manner, Justin Bieber was unleashed on our world to sing about things he has absolutely no familiarity with. I won’t bother to delve into the rest of Bieber’s lyrical catalog (particularly his slightly disturbing collaboration with Sean Kingston on “Eeenie Meenie”).

What elevates the ridiculousness of all of this is that Bieber’s rise to stardom seems to be spawning a class of Bieber clones. Two perfect examples of this are Greyson Chance and Brandon Pacheco.

Greyson Chance was discovered early last year at the age of 12 when his cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” was put up on YouTube and went viral, particularly after he was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Ellen soon signed him to her new “eleveneleven” record label. Ironically, since his arrival, a bit of a war has emerged between the Bieberites and the Greysonites over which artist is better. But really, Chance is cut from the same lyrical cloth as Bieber. His newest single, just released in May, is a breakup song called “Unfriend You” (a song for the Facebook generation if there ever was one). In it Chance laments of his lost love, “You’re beautiful and crazy too / Baby, that’s why I fell into you / Even though you would pretend to be / You were never with me.” He fell into her — such poetry. But wait, it gets better. The chorus unleashes the masterpiece: “So it’s over, yeah we’re through / So I’ma unfriend you / You’re the best I ever knew, so I will unfriend you / ‘Cause I should have known, right from the start / I’m deleting you right from my heart / Now it’s over, my last move is to unfriend you.”  You, young sir, are the Shakespeare of your generation, which is going to give me nightmares for months.

Exhibit C in this group of baby boy idols is Brandon Pacheco. He’s 13, from Canada, and also got his start on YouTube (OK, now this is getting creepy).  He actually looks 10, which I’m sure will help him someday . . . maybe. Like his compadres, Pacheco’s songs come in the standard cookie cutter form. In his single “Broke Up,” while staring at us with his little boy eyes and pre-acne face, Pacheco sings to the girl who broke his oh-so-fresh young heart, “Take another piece of my heart / You know it’s falling all, all apart / I miss you so bad and every time you look at me / I think of how we used to be.” But lest his baby face deceive you, he’s out to show you how hardcore he is.  Later on in the song he protests: “I’m too young to be this damn lonely.” That’s right people, he used the d-word. He is obviously so adult in both feelings and experience that he can now use adult language. Oh Brandon, you are so eloquent in your raw intensity!

But perhaps the even more troublesome underlying factor here is how these three boys got to where they are. They all rose to young fame because they became viral sensations on YouTube. They weren’t foisted on us by the record industry. We created them. What does it says about the mental and intellectual state of our young people when they are spending their lives pushing people like this to the top of the fame ladder and then having their own little teen idol wars? Shallow art is a cycle that both reflects what is already present in the culture but then feeds back into it.  I fear in some measure for the current generation of kids if this trend of immature pop stars continues. It is a sad time in a culture when the “wisdom” of youth is exalted, and getting younger all the time.

Lost is Found

For years, while Lost was running on TV, friends would tell me, “You need to watch this show! You’ll love it!”  This was probably because they knew of my interest in philosophy, mythology, theology, etc.  But for some reason or another, I never got around to it. Ironically, it was all the hoopla surrounding last year’s finale that got me thinking about it again, and so a week after the show ended its live run, I found myself starting Season One.  Last week, I reached “The End”, and found myself sadly at the end of an amazing journey. I will honestly say that I think Lost is one of the greatest– if not the greatest– television show ever created.

This is because Lost is a mythology, in the same vein as the great mythologies of the past.  Think of the Odyssey-like qualities of Lost. Like Ulysses, the characters get wrecked on an island on a journey home, try to escape on a raft that gets destroyed (Sawyer, Michael, Walter, Jin), and even speak to the dead (Hurley). Odysseus was trapped on an island for 7 years, and in TV time, the show ran seven years.  Coincidence? Maybe, but I sort of doubt it.

Furthermore, Lost treated itself seriously as mythology.  Many other films or shows have certainly borrowed or played upon the elements of classic mythology, but many have come off as cheap, hokey, or postmodernly cynical.  While Lost is certainly postmodern in some respects, it is never cynical about its grand narrative approach.  And though as a culture we may have proclaimed our disillusionment with such things, I think that we can’t help but resonate with a story like Lost.

Lost also embraces the archetypal hero’s journey, except as creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have said, there’s more than one hero in this story.  Lost embraces the idea of the reluctant hero, thrust into circumstances beyond his control, and forced to struggle to find his place and embrace his destiny.  This journey is probably most clearly seen in Jack Shepherd, but all the major characters in one way or another struggle to rise above their personal weaknesses.  In fact, this is the reason Jacob brings them to the Island: because they are alone and flawed.

Like these earlier classic mythological stories, Lost embraces its own theological/philosophical context, as well as alluding to the older contexts.  Jacob could be looked at as a throwback to the human-like gods of the Greek pantheon.  He could also be viewed as a slightly weakened version of the Christian God.  Even the fact that he is killed has Christian connotations, because like Jesus Christ, he is betrayed by a disciple (Ben), although one wonders what redemptive purpose his death symbolized.  That symbolic act belongs to Jack, who sacrifices his life to defeat the Island’s Devil, the Man in Black, to protect and preserve the Light, and to save everyone he loves.  Jack of course is also a “Shepherd” and leads the Lost exiles.  If things couldn’t be any more obvious, his father’s name is Christian Shepherd.

Of course, Jack is not an exact picture of Christ, because he is flawed.  He also starts his journey on the Island as a “man of science” in contrast to Locke who is a “man of faith.”  Jack trusts only his reason and his senses to understand reality, but he is full of anger and frustration, and it is out of these feelings that he is always trying to fix things.  He tries to escape the Island, but after the doing so, he becomes the very things he despised in his father, a drunkard and an irresponsible surgeon.  Through this he realizes that he has been avoiding his destiny on the Island, and returns with a different perspective.  Back on the Island, Jack slowly becomes a “man of faith,” not trying to control people or fix things, but accepting the work of the hidden (divine?) hand guiding things.  He admits at one point that this is not easy for him to do, but he grows in this, to the point where he takes upon himself the role of the Island’s new Protector, saying, “This is what I’m meant to do.”

Tied closely into Jack’s story is one of the greatest themes of Lost, and of all great stories, which is the human desire for love and community.  All of the characters that arrive on the Island are broken in these respects.  Jack has a strained relationship with his father, failed in his marriage, etc.  Kate is always on the run and can never establish any stable relationships.  Charlie is isolated in his addiction.  John Locke also has a horrible relationship with his father, and feels handicapped (symbolized in his wheelchair) in his relationships.  Each of these characters is longing for love, but is burdened and held back by their flaws.  The Island is a place where these flaws are brought out, grappled with, and purged.  In this, the theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy is echoed, “In order to ascend, you must descend.”

In this sense, it may be true what some people say, that the Island is a purgatorial state of sorts.  I tend to think of it as a symbolic microcosm of the world itself, and the struggles of life that we face.  It is simply the journey of life in concentrated form.

And when that journey is complete, when one is purified of weakness and learns to empty themselves, we arrive at love, just as in Season 6 all the characters arrive at this place they longed for—of love and community.  And that is what really made this show for me.  I know some people complained that not all the questions about the Island’s mysteries were answered.  In some ways I couldn’t care less.  Once a gimmick is explained, it ceases to be fascinating.  It is the characters of Lost are who endure in my mind—their stories, their struggles, their triumphs.  In the end, like Dante, after descending through hell and passing through the purifying fires of Purgatory, they rise together to see “The love that moves the sun and other stars.”  In the end, instead of being “lost,” they find that they have been found.

A Sense of Place

These days, our culture appears more and more defined by a sense of rootlessness.  More than ever, people are packing up and moving away from the places they’ve grown up in, and staying away.  They are also moving from place to place within their own lifetimes, like American nomads.  Some people, like New York Times reporter Michael Powell, would observe that this sense of wanderlust has always been part of the American character and spirit.  Still, it can be observed that American character not withstanding, we are much more mobile than our ancestors were.

North Main Street, Fall River, Massachusetts.

My life has been the exact opposite of this trend.  I have lived in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, for my entire life.  In fact, I still live in the same house that I was born in, which is also the house my father was born in and grew up in, and where his father grew up and died.  When my parents grow older, my siblings and I will likely inherit this same house, four generations after my great-grandparents bought it in the early 1900s.  The biggest move I’ve ever made was from the third floor of our house to the first floor.  In contrast, I have some friends who have moved up to 20 times in their lives.

I can’t say that I’ve always appreciated this fixity in one place.  In my late teens and early twenties, I was possessed with the desire to get away and live somewhere else for awhile.  I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, stuck in a crummy little town, bursting to get out and see the world.  I pursued several opportunities to move away and live in another part of the country for a period.  None of those opportunities ever came to fruition.  So for awhile I felt trapped, stuck in my own version of Bedford Falls.

Within the past several years however, I have come to feel differently about my hometown.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a little older— although I’m certainly not in any midlife reflective stage.  Perhaps some of my youthful ambition and energy has already started to fade.  With that has come a reassessment of values.  Things like family and community and church have risen in my own sense of priorities.  For example, I’ve now finished graduate school for my master’s degree, and I am faced with the opportunity to pursue a PhD.  Many people would jump at the chance to go to a school somewhere else in the country, or in the world, to absorb the experience of a new place.  Several years ago, I probably would have felt the same way, but now I’d rather just find a school within the region that would allow me to stay close to the people I care about and the places I love.  Is my vision stunted?  Is my perspective of the world too small?  Am I just turning into some sort of hick?  I don’t really think so.  It’s not like I don’t want to see other parts of the world and even the country.  I’d love to travel to Europe, and I’d love to see other parts of America.  But after such adventures I’d want to come back home.

I guess perhaps I’ve become affected by what author Wendell Berry calls “a sense of place.”  What Berry means by that is more than simply “I know where I am geographically.”  As Wallace Stegner puts it, “He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.”  Having lived in the same place for 27 years, I can appreciate Stenger’s assessment of Berry’s idea.  And yet I feel that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of my own sense of place.

This afternoon I visited Partners, a combination gift shop, bookstore, and cafe that sits in a house in Westport, Massachusetts, a town just outside the city. Partners contains a section of local books, and among these I found several booklets about the history of Fall River.  One of these was about the “Granite Block,” a building that existed in downtown Fall River from the 1930s-50s, and served as the central hub for a bustling city center.  As I started to read this history, I learned about the great fire of the winter of 1928, which decimated the center of the city, destroying many businesses and important buildings.  I learned how with determination and resolve the city rose from these ashes in just a year or two to rebuild this entire section even better than it was before.  I read about the Granite Block, and how it housed many local businesses that were pillars of the downtown community, where people who knew each other by name would hang out regularly, places like the Granite Block Spa, where high school kids would spend their holidays and weekends, where politicians would haggle over city politics, and where taxi drivers and mill workers would eat.

As I was reading, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of missing something that I had never been a part of.  I wanted to go back to those roaring 40s, the golden age of downtown Fall River, where the streets and shops bustled with activity.  I wanted to see those Durfee high school football boys hanging out at the Spa with their girls after a Friday night movie.  I wanted to be on the streets with those eager young men hanging out in the front of the Granite Block, waiting to see what pretty girls might hop off the bus from the Fall River line.  I wanted to watch those city politicians wheeling and dealing in the haze of cigar smoke in the corner of the Spa.  I suddenly realized that the streets I walked on had layers upon layers of history, and if they could talk, might tell me so many stories of the places that I thought I knew so well.  I realized, and have been coming to the realization, that the place where I am, this city, has so much depth to it that I am not even aware of.  And yet this place, these generations, these stories, have brought me onto the world’s scene, and have shaped who I am.

I guess I have become so aware of our culture’s rootlessness and my aversion to it because my own fixed state in one place for so long has actually helped me come to realize, over time, my own rootedness.  For now, I feel this strong desire to know who I am, and where I have come from.  I feel a strong affection and attachment to my family and my community.  I am discovering new things about the places I have lived in all of my life.  What may have been a crummy little town is not so crummy, and I even wish to see some of its former greatness restored.  For now I am developing my sense of place, and that’s just fine, because there are plenty of adventures unfolding right in my own neighborhood.

Darkness and Redemption from “The Boss”

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

— “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen

I’m a rather recent convert to the musical greatness that is Bruce Springsteen.  Sure, I’ve known about him for the longest time, but what average American kid grows up not knowing about him in one way or another?  If nothing else, they have heard their patriotic celebrations graced, ironically, with “Born in the USA,” which is surely one of the most interesting examples of misappropriating a song that I’ve ever heard.  Nevertheless, Springsteen is a living American rock legend, and I finally came to this realization myself just recently.

I would have to say that he came across my radar more noticeably when he and the E Street band played the Superbowl halftime show back in 2009.  Strange, I know.  I suppose it was the fact that, amongst the litany of recent Superbowl performances, Springsteen’s was actually decent and enjoyable.  I still have nightmares sometimes about Mick Jagger’s belly-shirt and his flailing attempts at groovy dancing (“Is he trying to fly?  Did he take too many muscle relaxers?”).  I was waiting to be impressed by somebody, or anybody, and Springsteen and E Street definitely caught my attention.  I made the mental note that I would have to listen to some of his music.

Earlier this year, I was at Borders, scrounging through the $7 CDs rack like the music junkie I am, looking for a new hit, when I came across Springsteen’s greatest hits album.  Here it was, a nice selection of songs from across his career, and for an amazing price.  Considering it my treasure for the day, I purchased it and popped it into the CD player as soon as I got in the car.

I have to admit, some of the sound was definitely dated to my ears, but once I got past that, I was actually quite impressed with the profundity of The Boss.  What I mean is that Springsteen comes across as no Sting, all smooth and intellectual; Bruce Springsteen is blue-collar American and proud of it. But beneath the crusty veneer of New Jersey grit, there are some deep spiritual themes that grace his music.

Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern Gothic writer, observed,

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

Springsteen’s songs are littered with fallen people who have suffered evil, or seen it in themselves, and they long for the restoration of their dreams, or release from their hard labors.  Their regrets appear throughout the stories of Springsteen’s songs, like “Thunder Road,” where the glories of youth lie scattered: “There were ghosts in the eyes/Of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road/In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets/They scream your name at night in the street/Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet/And in the lonely cool before dawn/You hear their engines roaring on.”  Or in “The River” where a man whose life and marriage has hit hard times “remembers us riding in my brother’s car/Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir/At night on them banks I’d lie awake/And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take/Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse.” Nebraska alone is chock full of people on the run, at the end of their rope, or on the wrong side of the law.  The inexplicable nature of evil is highlighted in the words of the serial killer from the title song: “They wanted to know why I did what/I did, well, sir, I guess there’s just/a meanness in this world.”

Springsteen’s characters are also aware of their flawed status.  In “Born To Run,” which mixes youthful idealism with an already growing awareness of life’s hard edges, the man is “just a scared and lonely rider” who is on a “highway jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.”  In “Thunder Road” the main characters are past their youthful, high school glory days, and the man realizes  “Well now I’m no hero/That’s understood/All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood.”  In “Dancing In The Dark” the main character expresses the frustration of being “tired and bored with myself…. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face/Man I ain’t getting nowhere.”  “Atlantic City,” my favorite Springsteen song, is also permeated with this sense of desperation.  The main character has “debts that no honest man can pay,” so he’s come to Atlantic City with his girl for one last desperate bid.  In the last verse, he reaches the point of uncomfortable compromise: “Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find/Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t/Get caught on the wrong side of that line/Well, I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end/So, honey, last night I met this guy and I’m gonna/Do a little favor for him.”  Likewise, Joe Roberts in Nebraska‘s “Highway Patrolman” struggles with the act of bringing his own brother to justice because a “man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good.”

If Sprinsteen’s songs remained here, in the darkness at the edge of town, they’d simply be depressing.  What makes Springsteen’s music truly great is that it often reflects the redemptive act, or offers the hope of redemption, which O’Connor says is so important to us as humans.  In “Thunder Road,” although the two characters are past their glory days, the man still offers Mary a second chance at love: “We got one last chance to make it real/To trade in these wings on some wheels/Climb in back/Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks/Oh, oh, come take my hand/Riding out tonight to case the promised land.”  Similarly, in “Born To Run,” the man offers the girl the chance to escape the “death trap” of “this town” to find out if love is real.  His offer is to partake in a pilgrimage of sorts: “Someday girl I don’t know when/we’re gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go/and we’ll walk in the sun/But till then tramps like us/baby we were born to run.”

In the iconic “Atlantic City,” in the midst of verses clouded with desperation and compromise, there are the haunting but hopeful lines of the chorus that ring out: “Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” This resurrection-like hope reflects the accumulation of religious imagery that peppers the songs of Springsteen, reflecting some memory of the Catholic upbringing of his youth no doubt.  This kind of religious reflection of redemption is nowhere seen more powerfully than in “My Father’s House,” which almost serves as a retelling of the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament.  The protagonist in the story is lost in a dark forest at night as a child, hearing the whisper of the wind and ghostly voices, trying to find his way back to the light of his father’s house and his father’s arms.  The last verse creates a powerful contrast that is both beautiful and chilling: “My father’s house shines hard and bright/It stands like a beacon in the night/Calling and calling so cold and alone/Shining ‘cross this dark highway/where our sins lie unatoned.”

A sense of hope seems to grow stronger in some of Springsteen’s more recent works, particularly Working On A Dream, where in “What Love Can Do” he contrasts pain, trouble, and sorrow with the power of love:

Darlin’, I can’t stop the rain/Or turn your black sky blue/But let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Here our memory lay corrupted and our city lay dry/Let me make this vow to you/Here where it’s blood for blood and an eye for an eye/Let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Here we bear the mark of Cain/We’ll let the light shine through/Let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Springsteen’s music is great because it is an effective mirror of all of life.  In it we see all the darkness, the grime, the insanity and desperation of humanity’s darkness.  But in it we also see resilience, bravery, hope, beauty, love, and mercy.  Let our hope and faith be that of Springsteen in “Badlands”: “I believe in the love that you gave me/I believe in the faith that could save me/I believe in the hope and I pray that some day/It may raise me above these badlands.”

The Light of Home

There is something deeply heavenly about the lights of home at night. Now, I don’t mean wispy heavenly, puffy-cloudy heavenly, cherub heavenly, because this vision is quite earthy. And neither am I simply talking about the magic of your desk lamp.  I am talking about echo- in- the- deepest- cavern- of- your- heart heavenly, about that fourth-dimension-unavailable-to-sight-but-sensed-by-some-unknown-seventh-sense heavenly.  It is the pearl of parable encrusted in the hard shell of what we know as reality, only seen if you poke and prod enough, if you dust away with your hands, if you brush back the dirt— if you are active.  Sometimes flashes of this pearl may chance to catch your eye when you are not expecting, but for the most part you will only see it if you pursue it in a quiet way, like walking on a windy night.

I like walking through the city at night.  Dangerous, I know, but nonetheless I do, and no doubt in part because of that dangerous element.  After all, it is only to those who sit in darkness that the light shines.  And it is here that I see the lights of home.  I like looking at people’s houses as I pass— not in a peeping Tom sort of way.  I have no voyeuristic impulse, and I keep to my place on the sidewalk.  But my eyes are open, brushing back the veils of dust and dusk to see.  And there is something beautiful to see.

There is nothing necessarily alluring about a house during the day, unless perhaps it is a particularly nice house, an eye-catching Victorian perhaps, with gables and angles that tease you in and make your eye travel, and a nice half-wild flower bed in the front.  But many other such bland houses are seemingly transformed by the coming of night and the turning on of light. Like the elves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s high mythology, they glow from within.  They emanate light— homely light.  I say homely very particularly, for that is the essence of the feeling conveyed— of home, of place, of belonging.  And you are out in the wild night, at the mercy of the cosmos.  Around and above you is the sublime, in all its awesomeness and wonder and wildness, and there is a sort of pleasure in that.  And there in front of you, as you are whipped by the winds, is a window, framed softly by curtains, and inside is a light on a side table, and next to it a comfortable chair.  Or upstairs is light reflecting off the walls of a bedroom, covered with someone’s favorite posters.  Someone is watching a baseball game.  Another one is sitting by the window, on their computer.  And they are unaware of you, comfortable in their sphere, they are home.  And if it is a good home with good people, it is there they are safe.  It is there they are at rest.  There they are themselves, the facade shown to the world packed away into the closet for the time being.  A man’s home is his castle, and best when not under siege.  And there you are, wind whipping your coat, under the much higher roof of the wild stars and their cold light.  It is beautiful in its own way, awesome, but not warm like this light, not softened like this is softened, not framed like this is framed.

When I was a boy, my brother and I were staying with our friend and his family on their farm in Maine.  It was an open and wild place.  One afternoon we were hunting in the woods with our fathers.  We had with much effort stashed ourselves up in a tree, where we giggled and talked and watched as the sun slowly slipped down.  We were oblivious to the approach of night until, echoing through the woods at a distance, the call of our friend’s father snapped us from our reverie.  All of a sudden we feared being stuck in the dark forest at night, and scrambled hurriedly down, stumbling our way through the swiftly velveting woods and into the clear.  The stars were peeing out and the cold creeping in as we made our way back across the misting fields.  And then suddenly I saw it, and the memory has since burned itself into my mind.  There in the distance, a single light shining from the farmhouse, across that dark space.  And it was as if a single light had been match-struck within me.  I suddenly desired food, and fellowship, and the laughter of an evening around the fire.  I desired warm blankets and comfortable chairs, and music, and maybe a good book, and after such times falling to sleep in soft comfort, oblivious to the whirling of the planet world high above.

It is in such times you realize that you are being called, that all of us have been called all of our lives, to home.  The world is often very beautiful, but it is also wild and dark and dangerous.  You may walk safe most times, but there are times when the darkness may take you, and the darkest nightmare is that one day it will take you and you will not escape.  But even as we walk, coated and wind-whipped, we are sometimes graced with light that falls through a window in the world.  And then we get a glimpse of home, the home that we have been made to belong to.  Our father is there, through the veil of curtain that denies full sight, tantalizing.  He is by the fire telling stories. We know here is a comfortable seat for us, and a good warm drink, and we somehow feel that if we could get inside, we would be content forever to let the stars wheel in darkness above us, oblivious.  There we could shed our coat, and shed every other layer of pretension and protection we had ever worn, and simply be ourselves, or maybe find the self we never knew lay underneath, now basking in the glow of love and light.  And we might sing and dance, or tell a story, or hear a story, or simply sit before the blaze in silence and contemplation and contentment.  And the heat and glow of that blaze would seep to the deepest of ourselves, and we would finally be full— we would finally be satisfied— we would no longer need to walk towards a light through darkness, for we would be in it, and we would at last, eternally contented, be home.

Haiku Patience


A day of quiet gladness,–

Mount Fuji is veiled

In misty rain.

 

This is a poem, a haiku by Matsuo Basho, the first great haiku poet.  It is considered by some to be one of the greatest haikus ever written.  Looking at it you might think, “Really?  It’s just three lines.  It’s a mere blip of words.”  If that’s your thought, I can sympathize with you.  The thing is, I want to like haiku, being a lover of poetry, and a poet myself.  For some reason, however, I find it hard to sit myself down and really appreciate haiku.  It seems like it’s done before I’ve started.  After all, most haikus are around three lines.  It feels useless to actually sit down and read haiku, unless you plan to read a string of them, but then are you really appreciating them if you read twenty haiku poems in a row?

So I’ve been frustrated in my own efforts to appreciate haiku, and as I’ve pondered  why this was so, I’ve decided I can attribute some of the difficulty to the difference between the culture out of which the haiku was created and the culture in which I live.

Originally, the haiku was just one part of a longer poetic form, but Matsuo Basho was one of the chief Japanese poets in the 17th century to make the haiku a stand alone poetic form.  Jack Kerouac, who– believe it or not– was a master of American haiku, wrote that “Haiku was invented and developed over hundreds of years in Japan to be a complete poem in seventeen syllables and to pack in a whole vision of life in three short lines.”  This sounds like a nigh impossible task, and one that haiku seems to fail to achieve.  But William Howard Cohen in his book To Walk In Season: An Introduction to Haiku, further enlightens the design of haiku in comparing its cultural roots to Western ideas of poetry:

“Where the haiku differs from most Western poetry, of which the English and American traditions are a part, is in its nonintellectuality.  A good haiku does not interpret itself by a bald statement of its meaning, but presents what we call a ‘pure image,’ from which the reader is expected to draw out the meaning himself….To the Western reader, accustomed to a more wordy, rhetorical, philosophical type of poem, the haiku often seems fragmentary and incomplete.”

In these ideas, haiku draws much from Zen Buddhism, with its focus upon meditation, enlightenment, and non-intellectual ways of knowing.  Haiku may borrow from the Zen idea of satori, “sudden enlightenment, in which in a flash of insight the Zen student suddenly realizes his oneness with the universe” (Cohen).  It also seems to borrow the Zen practice of “bringing together seemingly disparate elements by showing their hidden or unsuspected unity.”

I am not Buddhist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of these ideas.  As a Westerner, often implicitly driven by the premise of logic and didactic purpose in all things, and as an American driven by our increasingly hurried culture, I can see why I would have a hard time appreciating haiku.  The haiku is an invitation to stop and be still, to pay attention to the details happening all around, and to see the beauty in their connectedness.  The haiku is not so much a beginning to an intellectual experience as much as it is an invitation to an aesthetic experience, to hear the beauty of the words, and even as haiku poet Gary Hotham says, to hear the spaces in between the words, to sense the vision of the small image being presented.  Hotham, who is not a Buddhist but a Christian poet, also recognizes these values in haiku:

One phrase…expresses well to me the chief goal of haiku: ‘the essence of a moment keenly perceived.’  There is a lot of emotional energy, excitement, and depth in the small events, the brief moments of life.  And why not—they are all part of the sweep of history.  They are all part of what is significant and important in our lives as God’s creatures.  The haiku is a great form for capturing those brief moments in time and recreating the associated states of being.

Perhaps appreciating haiku will be a process for me, but I think it will be a good one.  The haiku is a call out of the blur of modern life, and out of shallow thinking and living to a deep place, where one is led to contemplate the image and emotional complexity of the small and the ordinary, and perhaps by doing so, to see the beauty in the ordinary and seemingly mundane, and thus to appreciate the richness of the larger world.

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The True Source of Inspiration

Most any artist will tell you that their source of inspiration is not always easy to pin down. Art, by definition, is not a science. There are no exact laws of inspiration, no predictable circumstances in which an idea will germinate. Artists do tend to agree on this very unpredictability;  as Carson McCullers puts it, “The focus [of artistic inspiration] comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author.” Being an artist of any kind is sort of like walking through life, waiting to get jumped – by ideas.

This is not to say anybody can be an artist at any time, nor a good one. At least two elements are necessary (one given, the other self-generated): temperament and hard work.

Elizabeth Bowen once noted on temperament:

“The writer . . . has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye. By that roving eye is his subject found . . . Writers do not find subjects; subjects find them. Temperamentally, the writer exists on happenings, on contacts, conflicts, action and reaction, speed, pressure, tension. Were he a contemplative purely, he would not write. His moments of intake are inadvertent.”

Artists generally can subconsciously take in the world in various ways: sights, scents, sounds, and play and interplay them without thinking. They can also recall these things in moments of inspiration.

The second element of inspiration is hard work. As Denise Levertov observes, if one wrote only poems that came purely by inspiration, “one would have, as it were, no occupation.” Some art only comes after hours of work, sometimes frustrated work. Again, McCullers notes, “For me, [moments of artistic inspiration] usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor . . . After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine.”

A few weeks ago, I was walking along my city’s waterfront when I noticed a flag unfurling in the breeze. Suddenly, I thought about how a heart is like a flag; just as a flag unfurled by the wind reveals its colors and markings, so our hearts, when buffeted by the winds of life, show what is stamped upon them. Scraps of ideas for lines based upon this concept started evolving in my head. A flag unfurling under duress has a militaristic feeling to it, and being a huge Lord of the Rings fan, I suppose I had in my subconscious a few key moments in that story where an unfurling banner serves an important role, such as when Aragorn reveals the standard of the white tree which Arwen has made for him, or when he plants it upon the hills before the Gates of Mordor in final battle.

Then a line came into my head: “Down from the mountains of madness, sweeping.” That, of course, is an allusion to the title of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s novellas, At the Mountains of Madness. I had been reading about how Guillermo Del Toro may be making a movie about the story, so I suppose that was still floating in my mind.  The phrase “mountains of madness” is catchy, so it came up easily from the depths of my brain.

With both the militaristic/fantasy elements of the flag/heart metaphor, and the sound of that first line, I knew this poem was leaning towards an epic feeling. I also knew that something evil had to be sweeping down from these mountains of madness, so I decided that I wanted to use the older term “fell,” an Old English word used to describe something dangerous and evil. So my second line became: “the shadow of fell forces gathers, gleaming.” At this point, I knew a rhyming pattern was emerging, and I decided that I would follow it, making every line end with the suffix “-ing.” I also knew that I wanted to make the poem very alliterative, as famous epic pieces such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight adopt this style.

I also decided that the poem should sound very elemental – that it should allude to natural forces, once again reflecting The Lord of the Rings, especially when dark clouds presage the attack of Mordor upon Minas Tirith.

The central flag/heart metaphor meant the poem would reflect the battles of life and spiritual warfare and the importance of my own faith in my life. In the end, all of those elements came together to look like this:

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Down from the mountains of madness, sweeping
the shadow of fell forces gathers, gleaming
in a twilight that is not illumination, harrowing,
aided by hell-hound and Greek fire, grinding
a slow and sadistic siege, soul-numbing
upon my seven-walled city, shining
under clouds that surge like seawater, storming
the very foundations of earth, overturning.
And though all around me shakes, upending,
and my foes foam up like a flood, overwhelming,
though my friends fall at my side, unfailing,
and the faithless make their retreat, bewailing,
may the withering winds that bear down, hot-breathing
unfurl like a flag my heart, revealing
the sign of your stigma upon me, burning
like a beacon of boldening light, proclaiming,
and with each beat blaze in the black, benighting,
until the imperial sun arises, only now sleeping.

This piece was probably more inspiration than hard work, although I have certainly had my days and even months of frustration that finally birthed creativity. But it is interesting to see how my own process reflected that of others like Bowen, Levertov, and McCullers. My own sort of subconscious observations and musing grabbed hold of the moment of inspiration and worked with it to create art.

All artists: poets, painters, authors, musicians, and more, though our artistic expressions, experiences, and inspirations are different, find upon reflection that we are a similar type of human being.  We are inspired to observe, to feel, to be blessed by moments of mysterious inspiration, but also called to labor and sweat over our creations in order to produce moments, words, and objects of beauty.

The Art of Repetition

It happened one afternoon while I was working out in my basement.  I was listening to the song “Answered” from the group Thrice’s album Beggars, a song I had probably heard a half-dozen times before, when I suddenly realized that songwriter Dustin Kensrue was alluding to both the Biblical book of Job and C.S. Lewis’s story Till We Have Faces. An already powerful song opened up to me in new ways, both intellectually and emotionally. It was a revelation I hadn’t discovered on my third or even fifth hearing of the song. My experience of the song’s artistry was actually enhanced with repeated indulgence.

I could say the same for many other experiences I have had with art – good art. Most of the films in my DVD collection moved me profoundly on my first viewing and almost immediately drove me to watch them again. I am still entranced by the slow beauty of The Village, and still trying to figure out the symbolic significance of the rocking chair that recurs throughout the film.

Good art bears up and even flourishes under repeated indulgence.  I am afraid that today the practice of indulging in and creating good art – art that can be returned to repeatedly – is being buried under the wave of commercialized pop culture.  Teenage girls may put Justin Bieber on repeat on their iPods, but will anyone remember his songs in fifteen or twenty years as anything more than a humorously nostalgic memory? Are they rich enough to reveal new facets over time?

This isn’t to say that art must always strive for transcendence all the time. And certainly I enjoy music, films, and books that will most likely fade into history and be forgotten. Perhaps I am more concerned about our culture’s preoccupation with the next best thing. To return to the Bieber example (sorry Justin), the young R&B heartthrob is perhaps about to be upstaged by a new YouTube phenomenon Greyson Chance, who is already being labeled “the new Justin Bieber” for his performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.”  Chance is already getting tracked down by the music industry for a record deal. Is this decision in the interest of producing great music? Not really – it’s more in the interest of emptying the pockets of tween girls.

This same lust for the new spreads out into other areas of pop culture. Let down by Clash of the Titans? Just wait for Iron Man 2. Did it not live up to your expectations? Robin Hood is coming out. Was that a downer? Well there’s always Prince of Persia. And so many moviegoers will proceed throughout the summer. In our clamor for the new and spectacular, is there any place left for quiet revelations? Do we have the patience for art that may not explode, but will sneak up on us and take hold of us unexpectedly?

That said, even explosions may contain substance behind them at times.  It was, after all, on my fourth or fifth viewing of Iron Man that I began to finally see some profound themes and symbolism underlying the story. And that is something most critics observed about that film – what made it such a great superhero movie was not primarily the action, but the personal journey of Tony Stark underlying all the action. And that really is the definition of all art that is worthy of our time: a central core that deserves meditative reflection.

This is why the “classics” are exactly that: classic. They have proven themselves worthy of our attention because they have lasted through time, withstood the repeated inquiry of mankind, and been found useful and enriching again and again. They are precious, because, as Aldous Huxley said, “they make it possible for us to know, if only imperfectly and for a little while, what it actually feels like to think subtly and feel nobly.” Cultures change, but they continue to explore and illuminate to us the great issues of life.

This is why frequent returns to good art are so important. Time and again, we are distracted from these great issues in the details of ordinary life. But as Anne Lamott observed, “art has to point somewhere,” and if it is doing a good job, that is usually beyond our immediate circumstances to something greater – a higher order of things.  Much of pop culture’s art is simply on our level, pointing us to nowhere but our own surroundings and thus to nothing with perspective.

I enjoy summer blockbusters.  I read books and view art that I may not spend time with again.  But there are books, and films, and poems, and paintings to which I will return over and over again, because they are capable of revealing fresh richness, fresh perspective, and fresh direction within the changing contexts of my own personal journey. It’s something to help balance a culture that ever hungers after the next best thing.