Saturday, February 15, 2014

Believing in Cole Porter

Cole Porter's brand today encompasses both his persona, cultivated carefully, of a carefree high society composer, and the secret suffering that came to light after his death in 1964.  A review of his life and work reveal how these opposite images integrate in one complete, complex human being.

"Begin with the face," begins Brendan Gill in his superlative biographical essay on Porter, "invincibly boyish."  After decades in constant pain, fearful that he had lost his talent, that face "haunted itself": "Cole carried with him to the grave not the ravaged face of an old man but the ravaged face of a young one" (Kimball ix).

Puffed up as a prodigy by his indulgent mother in Peru, Indiana, Porter -- shaving two years off his true age -- went east to Yale where he found a niche as composer-lyricist for satirical revues and football rallies.  He was "a little dark man with his hair parted in the middle and slicked back... looking like a westerner dressed up for the east" recalled fellow Eli Gerald Murphy (9) (see my blog post on Murphy and his wife "Muses of the Roaring Twenties").  His early reputation was for being a playboy who occasionally wrote supercilious songs, while he "literally sweated to make good" songs (xiv) : "Social in his tastes but Middle- Western- Protestant- Puritan in the seriousness of his aspirations" (xii).

Kimball's book Cole documents the "high society" part of his life.  In photographs we see the cocktails, Dukes and Princesses, and Cole himself cavorting on the beach with Noel Coward, Monty Woolly, and Gerald Murphy.  We read breezy, chatty notes and also the lyrics that he wrote for friends.  A couple of these are well-known, "Miss Otis Regrets" and "Mister and Missus Fitch."  Another song of this type concerns a social-climbing "scampi" eaten, then vomited, by one of Porter's guests, who concludes his little song, "I've had a taste of the world you see / And a great princess has had a taste of me" (74).  Porter's marriage to heiress Linda Lee, we're told, was a "business arrangement" that suited them both:  she escaped an abusive first marriage, and acquired an attentive lifelong companion, while he acquired her fortune and a beard for his relationships with numerous gay men.  His reputation added cachet to his delightful scores for Broadway shows in the 1930s, when he wrote most of the songs that remain standards.

"The central episode of his life" was his accident at a Long Island estate in October 1937.  When the horse he rode balked at a jump and fell, both of Porter's legs were crushed.  In nearly three decades remaining to him, Porter endured dozens of operations, constant pain, and at last, the double amputation that he'd fought to avoid.  Typically, Porter made light of the accident, telling us how he started the lyric for "At Long Last Love" while he awaited medical help:  "Is it an earthquake?  Or merely a shock?"   Gill commends Porter's courage and indomitable joie de vivre as he masked his hobbled state.  The book gives us many portraits of the smiling composer seated at his piano, or standing between friends, but also the memorable photo of two men lifting grim-faced Porter from a limousine into a theatre wearing his tuxedo, boutonniere and all (167).

None of this would be of more than passing interest if the songs didn't speak for themselves.  The lyrics collected in Cole demonstrate what Stephen Sondheim means when he writes, "Of all the best theater lyricists, Porter is the one whose style is most immediately recognizable" (Sondheim 212).  Sondheim explains:

[Porter's] style is ...extreme in its distinction.   The list songs are such a gallimaufry of pop-culture references ("You're the Top"), the salacious songs so heavy with double entendre ("But in the Morning, No"), the love songs and out-of-love songs so outrageously extravagant ("In the Still of the Night," "Down in the Depths") that they verge on, and often cross into, camp.  The unique thing about Porter, though, even at his most camp, is that the lyrics are genuinely felt.
How can we as singers and listeners tell whether a lyric is "genuinely felt?"  Do we have to know the life story to know that Porter believed what he wrote?   It helps, but I'd offer the verse for "Why Shouldn't I?" as a crystalline example of the way Porter's artifice intensifies feeling -- the way an actor arouses sympathy more by smiling through tears than by copious weeping.  Here, I've highlighted rhymes to emphasize the artifice:
All my life I've been so secluded (1)
Love has eluded (1) me (2),
But from knowing second-hand (3) what I do of it (4),
I feel certain I could stand (3) a closer view of it (4).
Till today I studied love discreetly (5),
But now that I'm completely (5) free (2),
I must find (6) some kind (6) persona grata (7)
To give me data(7) personally (2).

Why (8) shouldn't I (8)
Take a chance (9) when romance (9) passes by (8)?
Why shouldn't I know of love? ... (Kimball 137)
Whose feelings are expressed here, we wonder?  Feelings of the character who sang it, or of the middle-aged closeted gay man who wrote it - speaking through the mask of the character?  Sondheim, who flatly denies speaking for himself through his own lyrics, explains how it used to be different:  Before Oscar Hammerstein introduced a second dimension to musical characters, Sondheim writes, characters in musicals were all types:
...the kinds who could be described with one adjective and one noun: the shy hero, the aggressive vamp, the wisecracking friend, the stodgy parent, and so on.  As a consequence, the songs they sang reflected only the outlook of the songwriters or the personalities of the performers.  Cole Porter's characters were all aspects of Cole Porter, or at least his public image: the worldly cosmopolitan with the aching heart. (Sondheim 55)
So Porter "loves the haute monde he is satirizing," and Sondheim gives a great example of how Porter projected his own attitude of "the amused observer" into lyrics that Mary Martin introduced in 1938:
While tearing off
A game of golf,
I may
Make a play
For the caddy,
But if I do,
I don't follow through,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.  (Sondheim 212)
"Technically," Sondheim writes, "in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."

Sondheim relates the anecdote of a visit he paid to Cole Porter as part of Ethel Merman's entourage.  The time was during the composition of the score for Gypsy, shortly after Porter's double-amputation, and Merman wanted to cheer the composer up.  Sondheim says "it may well be the high point of my lyric-writing life" to have heard a "gasp of delight" from Porter for a very Porter-esque moment in the lyrics -- a surprise fourth rhyme in a foreign language  ( "Wherever I go, I know he goes,/ ...she goes/ No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos -- / Amigos / Together!")(Sondheim 69).

The last lyrics in Kimball's book, coming from that dreary and painful last period in Porter's life, are short and undistinguished imitations of earlier gems.  One exception, from the movie High Society (1956), is "I Love You, Samantha," a lovely song built on the dissonance of a diminished chord.  The lyric, "Together, Samantha / We could ride a star and ride it high" may be reminiscent of "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings," but  the lyric ends:

If some distant day
You decided to say:
"Get along, go away, good-bye!"
Remember, Samantha,
I'm a one-gal guy (Kimball 249).

Singing in his white tie and supper-club diction, Bobby Short brought out the ache and insecurity implied in that last line.  Cole Porter gives a singer something brilliant to play with, but also something underneath to believe in.

See my reflection on the life and work of Sammy Cahn. I've written much about Sondheim;  see my Stephen Sondheim page.

Reflection on Cole, lyrics and documents of Cole Porter's life edited by Robert Kimball, with biographical essay by Brendan Gill, designed by Bea Feitler (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1971).  Also, comments by Stephen Sondheim in his memoir Finishing the Hat (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Only Thing in the Gospel to Fear

Reflection on a sermon by Father Daron Vroon at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Feb. 9, 2014;  the first few daily meditations by Bo  Don Cox published for February 2014 in Forward Day By Day, and chapter 13 in Theology for a Troubled Believer by Diogenes Allen (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 2010).

Fear of punishment, fear of not being worthy, fear of hell because I didn't even know who Jesus was:  This was my introduction to the Gospel in my seventh grade year when a smug classmate handed me a comic book tract.  Some better literature this week reminds me that the Gospel saves us from fear, not just the fear of God's wrath, but of fear itself.

Our associate rector Father Daron Vroon stated it succinctly in a sermon this past week.  The gospel reading was Matthew 5:13-20, and Fr. Vroon pointed out how impossible it would be to "exceed" the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees, yet Jesus demands it.  How?  Fr. Vroon concluded that "faith v. works" is a false dichotomy, that faith motivates the works.  We should not ask fearfully, "Am I saved?"  or, "Do I know the secret password to get into God's club?"  We should be asking, "Am I living as if the Gospels are true?"

Philosopher Diogenes Allen expounds on what "living as if the Gospels are true" means in his chapter "The Resurrection of Jesus and Eternal Life." Saying "yes I believe that Jesus was resurrected" is the easy part, writes Allen (136).  In a passage parallel to the story in Genesis of God's breathing spirit into clay, Jesus breathes on his disciples to give them a permanent gift of the Spirit (John 20:19-23), "thereby creating a new kind of human being" (140). Jesus brings them "Peace," Allen points out, at a time when the apostles are most fearful, holed up in a locked room (141).  Quoting a passage from unpublished notebooks of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Allen gives us a remarkable image for the difference faith makes in a person's life:
So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven.  Then everything will be different and it will be "no wonder" if you can do things that you cannot do now.  (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently than a standing man).  (Wittgenstein, in Allen 145).

I picture here a gymnast doing the "iron cross," or a superhero suspended in air.  I guess, like a superhero, a person freed from fear of shame, failure, and death, is not afraid to try anything.

Writer and ex-convict Bo Don Cox (not to be confused with singer Bo Cox) emphasizes many ways that fear distorts our lives.  "Being afraid," he writes, "oftentimes indicates a lack of faith" (Feb. 11).
  • We are afraid to let go of our addictions.  When he was an addict, he feared that change would be too hard, until a wise fellow sufferer said, "Son, if it were easy everyone would do it" (meditation for Feb. 6, John 6:60).
  • We are afraid that our efforts won't succeed.  Citing Hebrews 12:11 ("discipline always seems painful..."), Cox coaches us to work through the discomfort: "If we go ahead and take the action, our feelings will change."  He recommends faith: "If we take action, the results will follow" (Feb. 7)
  • We are afraid to own up to what we've done wrong.  We say "I'm sorry" to avoid consequences, but live with regret.  But a volunteer where Cox was incarcerated told him, "you can't put manure back in a horse."  The humor of it helped, and reinforced the story in Hebrews 12:17 ("He found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears") (Feb. 8).
  • We are afraid not to be in on the gossip and backbiting where we live. "I'm learning to smile and step away," Cox writes. "Living with myself is preferable to fitting in."  (Isaiah 58:9b, Feb9)
  • We are afraid to share.  "And sharing is about so much more than objects or possessions" (Genesis 26:19-21, Feb. 11)
  • Our instinct to protect self can become "promotion of self."  Cox responds to the admonition in Romans 12:3, "not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think." Cox tells us how, hard as it may be to see ourselves as "right - sized," we will find "it fits like nothing else."
Today's meditation, starting me on this theme, is Cox's response to John 8:32, "the truth will make you free."  He tells of a would-be suicide prevented from pulling the trigger by his tail-wagging, face-licking little dog.  Later, in counseling, the man says to Cox, "I've never told anyone this," and "I know I'm a grown man and so I shouldn't say this..."  but stalls.  Finally, he confesses, "I'm so afraid."  Cox tells us, "Tears flowed, and, with each tear, he began to look more and more hopeful."

That classmate of mine offered fear first, then gospel as a magic formula to allay it.  What Jesus offers is freedom from all fear.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Teacher's Advice to Parents, Don't Record Your Children

You will not capture on screen the qualities that make a live performance memorable.  But you will capture the pop of the microphone, someone's cough, a flat note, the kid in the background scratching, the momentary look of panic when the chorus rushes ahead of the beat.  Worse, when your child looks back at the recording, he or she will have already outgrown that body, that voice, that look -- and will be embarrassed by something that felt magical at the time.

Without video, what you and your child will both remember is a moment when your child's spirit stretched to inhabit a character outside of the child's own experience, and the whole audience, participants in the story, held its breath. 

Even the best digital screen diminishes that moment.   No wonder teenagers since the mid-seventies have avoided singing:  they've seen how awkward and flat they "really" were. Was there ever before a generation of human beings that did not sing? Only here, only now.

Please, don't put a screen between you and your child's performance.  Instead, treasure the chills down your back when the lights faded, before the applause erupted.  That's better than the dry digitized husk of the event.

I plead as an educator who has been moved to tears for thirty-plus years by young actors' performances, who has had to fight the damage done by video to kids who think they're 'not good at" performing.

An historical note:  Edison invented recorded sound at a time when every town had its own band, every organization sang its own anthems, every class sang every day without accompaniment, and workers sang together as they worked.  At the time, celebrated American composer John Philip Sousa predicted that recorded music would kill the musical life of America. He predicted, rightly, that  amateurs would compare themselves to highly trained professionals, a single recorded performance would be treated as "definitive," and Americans would become merely music spectators. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Raymond Chandler: It's About the Driver, not the Drive

[Photo: Bogart as "Marlowe" w/ Lauren Bacall]
Everyone in the world recognizes the private eye Philip Marlowe, no matter whose face appears under that hat. In movies he's been portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, and imitated or parodied by Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Bob Hoskins, and Peter Falk. 

But the real thing is so much better than the imitations, that reading these novels has felt like a revelation -- to meet Marlowe again for the first time.

If we were detectives trying to figure out Philip Marlowe, we'd have little to go on. I dimly recall that he mentioned to someone else that he'd learned to shoot in "the war" (in 1938, the year of The Big Sleep, that would be World War I, I guess). Also, he may have once been a police detective. He has read and despised detective fiction - especially a 30s vintage detective named Philo Vance (and he once gives that as his name to a nosy cop). We hear what others remark about him - a couple of women think he's good-looking, one man says he's "well-built" for an action-packed job.

More remarkable is what's missing in our picture of his life. He keeps a mostly empty office in a mostly empty office building. We know that he has three file cabinets, mostly empty. We know what he keeps in his desk drawers (a gun, a bottle of Scotch). His apartment is empty most of the time, judging from how many nights he's working in these stories.

We also know that he doesn't like to talk or think about his own past. At least, he never bothers us with it when he tells us his stories. Family? Home town? Education? Old friends? Beliefs about politics, about religion? He keeps tight-lipped about himself.

Marlowe fills his stories instead with sharp, funny details about the people he meets and their environments. What he sees is what he tells us; his finding out about others makes up the plot of each novel.

Marlowe's creator Raymond Chandler drives Marlowe like a car through the pages of these novels. By the second page of any of these books, Marlowe has taken a turn onto a road that looks pleasant enough. He's to get a few hundred dollars for a simple job. There's a lead to the next turn, but always a detour - Marlowe gets interested in some side street that takes him way off-course. The fun of each plot is finding out how the detour leads back to the main route he started on. And Marlowe never shifts into reverse - he's always going forward, though he does park for a page in every couple of chapters to review the map of where he's been, to figure out where to go next. Though I did have trouble remembering from one chapter to the next where we'd been in The Big Sleep, the plots are a good ride. But the fun is in the vehicle.

One time, Marlowe makes an observation about himself, and, as usual, he's right on the mark. He tells a cop, "I hate people hard, but I don't hate them very long" (The Lady in the Lake, ch. 36). The other way to say it is, he sees others so clearly that he understands them, even if he doesn't sympathize. When he sees something he likes in a character, that's when he goes off the track: he risks his time, his job, and his neck for characters in each of these novels, and it's usually not his client. In Lady, it's the sad sack caretaker up at the lake; in Window, it's the hapless private detective who tries to follow Marlowe.

So Marlowe is a kind of saint who chooses the hard path and self-sacrifice without reward, to help someone else. He tells tactical lies, but his insistence on knowing and speaking the truth gets him into deep trouble. Seeing the world through his eyes makes reading these dark and violent novels an uplifting experience. And did I say, funny?
    Favorite bits of LADY IN THE LAKE:
  • The last three pages of chapter six are especially rich in character, funny as Marlowe's wit deflects Bill Chess's violent temper, beautiful as Marlowe's description evokes a peaceful scene, and deliciously shocking as he becomes slowly aware of something under the surface of the scene.
  • Good cop, bad cop - ch. 27 - Marlowe witnesses a dishonest cop chewing out a more dishonest cop for corruption, and then the more honest one defends the other to Marlowe. Layers of morality, here, and another example of someone hating not for long.
  • Interesting to me that this novel, written as a contemporary novel in 1943, mentions the world war three times only: Chess was injured in the war; some soldiers sit in a restaurant; one corrupt cop says it doesn't matter what he does, because he's going overseas in two weeks. That's all -- as if it had little impact on life in LA at the time.
  • A little post-modern moment: Chandler's detective Marlowe speaks of a scene he's in as the kind of scene he hates to read in detective novels (ch. 31).

- July 5, 2005
[This article is re-posted from my personal web site SmootPage.] 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Updike's Underappreciated Seek My Face

Even while I read Seek My Face the first time, I was thinking I wanted to read it again. It's tantalizing because we get page after page seeing the world through the eyes of an interesting character, yet neither she nor we can really grasp that world the way we would a solid object of art or a conventional plot.

Then it hits us: that's what life is like, isn't it? and reflecting life is what art is supposed to do? And isn't this all suggested by the title of the book (and the cover Updike chose for it)? And doesn't the epigraph (a quotation from Psalms, The Lord says "Seek my face") suggest a subject greater than one artist's life? If we can't grasp what Updike offers, then he's either trying to do something and failing, or he's achieved it, and we're the ones missing it. That's why I keep reading, to solve the riddle.

Here's a concise overview of the book, taken from Publisher's Weekly via, followed by what I've enjoyed apprehending about the book:
Couched in the form of a day-long conversation between 79-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, living in seclusion in Vermont, and a chic young interviewer from New York, Updike's 20th novel is an ambitious attempt to capture the moment when America "for the first time ever... led world art." As a fictional survey of the birth of abstract expressionism, pop art and other contemporary genres, the narrative offers a somewhat slick overview of the roiling currents of genius and calculation, artistic vision and personal ambition that characterized the art scene in the postwar years. Updike's ability to get inside an artist's psyche is considerable, as Hope's monologue convincingly demonstrates. Because he tries to distill and convey an era of art history, however, there is a static and didactic quality to the narrative; much of it sounds like art-crit disguised as exposition. 
As a reader can infer from an author's note in which Updike acknowledges his debt to the Naifeh and Smith biography of Jackson Pollock, Hope's life bears a strong resemblance to that of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Hope's memories recapitulate the dilemma of an artist whose personal expression is thwarted by marriage and the omnipresence of alcohol and drugs, and since this is Updike country, Hope is more than candid about her sex life with Zack (Pollock); her second husband, Guy Holloway (loosely modeled on Warhol); and her third, art critic Jerry Chafetz. Updike's descriptions of landscapes and interiors are painterly in themselves, closely observed and sensuous. On the whole, the novel is a study of the artist as archetype, "a man who in the end loves nothing but his art." On that level it succeeds, but readers who long for plot and action may be disappointed.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Well said. Now, what I appreciate about the book:

  1. I have not appreciated the art of Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, or many of their contemporaries. I do appreciate how Updike, an artist who started writing just to support his art habit, helps me to see beyond the obvious comment, "Geez, any five-year-old could have painted that!"
  2. A key to appreciating the novel may be something that the character Hope learned from her first art teacher. He showed her how two parallel black lines, alone on a blank canvas, generate the impression of movement -- as if the lines pull in opposite directions. We readers like a line of plot to pull us from chapter to chapter; but this novel has no chapters, only parallel lines of time. First, there's a line that proceeds in real time from Hope's sitting down on a sunny morning to be interviewed by Kathryn until the interviewer drives away after dark. (I wonder, if we read the novel aloud - would that take eight hours?) The other line stretches Hope's life span, seventy-nine years, in her answers to Kathryn's chronological questions, and in more abundant memories that she suddenly recalls and chooses not to say aloud. So, yes, there's no "plot or action" here, but there are those two lines of movement, and it's fun to see how one plays off the other.
  3. Seeking God's face has always been a theme in Updike's writing. That's what drew me to his work in the first place. In essays, Updike has said that any good work of art pays close attention to God's creation, and is, in this way, worshiping God. In this novel, our guide through the world is a woman considering her entire life and its value, a woman who is also a creative artist -- who put those creations on hold for most of her life, a woman with some religious background. I kept an index full of pithy observations and questions about faith and "hope."
  4. It's funny - especially the clash between 79 year old Hope and 29 year old Kathryn. From research into books and art exhibits, the younger woman knows everything there is to know about the older one; yet we see, again and again, how clueless she really is. Of course, Updike's own experience here as a much-published, much-interviewed, much-studied author must come into this. At different times of the interview, Hope despises Kathryn, is curious about Kathryn, eventually feels different kinds of love for Kathryn. Along the way, Hope's internal comments about life today among younger generations are sharp, true, funny.
  5. As Publisher's Weekly writes, there's interest simply in the recreation of a certain milieu - the New York art scene, late 40s and early 50s. The Jackson Pollack - type character certainly makes a strong impression in this novel, though he dies fifty years before page one.

July 5, 2005
[This is a re-posting from my personal website, SmootPage]

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Diverse Divas and the Art of Showbiz

In the early 1960s, one sang Celtic ballads in those folk clubs that used to thrive in New York, while one belted brassy numbers in Broadway theatres.  Friday night, thanks to synchronous scheduling in Atlanta's WABE 90.1, they gave retrospective interviews back-to-back, giving this listener a chance to reflect on what Jean Redpath and Elaine Stritch share.

Each lady claimed to have arrived in New York without a plan, wide-eyed and delighted to be there.  Redpath knew a bunch of songs from her native Scotland;  Stritch knew less than that. We got to hear her earliest recordings, and we can hear both a good natural voice, smooth and wide-ranged, and the horrible technique that brought her voice down to the same state as Lotte Lenya's -- "an octave below laryngitis." 

Stritch had some interesting advice, to "always work for someone smarter than you," or you'll just be drifting from job to job.  (Hal Prince in 1970, had heard this about her and invited her to join Company, saying: "Hi, I'm Hal Prince, and I'm smarter than you.")  Redpath spent a few years recording songs by Scotland's all-time poet laureate, Robert Burns, arranged by a brilliant and ambitious composer with ALS, who eventually communicated his musical ideas through mere twitches of his mouth. 

Each had stories to tell of famous friends in their early days.  "Garrison didn't have a staff back then," Redpath says of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, "and he was flying by the seat of his pants."  She mentions the times she spent with "Bobby" Dylan.  Stritch dropped names, surprising us with a suddenly flat statement: "Ethel Merman was a sad woman.  She felt unloved." 

About audiences, Redpath said, "If you can get them to laugh, they'll be ready to cry" for the serious stuff.  Stritch said, "Audiences want you to be wonderful.  They don't scare me."

Of the two, Redpath has the richer voice, a smoky one that seems to fade into air as it rises.  Stritch flirts with flat -- Sondheim himself told me (when I met him in 1977)  that her flat note on "We lo-o-ve you" in the Company cast album is terrible, but he and the producers left it in, because "that's theatre." 

In the end, we heard a recording of Stritch singing a song by Richard Rodgers for the movie of The Sound of Music, "Something Good."  It's a tiny song, consisting of a few phrases.  Stritch concludes her final recording with it:

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood  [this got a laugh], 
Perhaps I had a miserable youth,
But somewhere in my wicked miserable past,
There must have been a moment of truth.

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should.

So somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something --

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could

So somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something good.

Stritch sang these simple words simply, like a folk song, and hit the audience hard.  There is not so much distance between the two divas as I'd have thought. 

Looking Backward at Forward Day by Day, from Advent 2013

The publication Forward Day by Day gives us each day a short meditation on a sentence found in the scripture passages assigned for that day in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.  Some of these strike me more than others, and I use this space to compile the ones I want to remember.

For December 16, writer Rev. Scott Gunn chose a piece of Zechariah 1:17, a prophecy that "My cities shall again overflow with prosperity."  He cites another wise saying from a computer programmer: "Nothing simple happens by accident."  A meal may appear simple when it's on the plate, but some dishes had to be prepared far in advance of others to arrive at the same time.  Gunn wonders if, "maybe the glorious vision of justice promised by God begins now, in our own homes, our own hearts, our own churches, and our own cities." 

Storyteller Cathy Hood Culmer wrote the meditations for January. 

Culmer highlights the passage I Kings 19:7, when Elijah, tired and hungry, begging for death, is visited by an angel that says, "Get up and eat."  Shortly, Elijah was over his despair, up and doing his work.  No comment needed, here, about how easily we can fall into self-pity and despair -- and how much difference some food makes!

The next page has this wise paragraph:  "What's the difference between trusting and turning something over to God, and just being lazy and not doing the thing for ourselves.... [D]o what you can and trust God for the outcome."  It's a response to the story of Jesus' rescuing the disciples in storm-swamped boat (John 6:21).

Genesis 12:1 doesn't get a whole lot more from Culmer than amplification of the decision at the root of everything we call faith and religion:  Abraham's heeding God's call to leave everything he knows to go "see" a land promised to his descendants.   "It is the call of faith to follow without knowing , to follow without seeing."

Responding to Galatians 1:24 ("And they glorified God because of me"), Culmer writes that an artist's effort is to make his work appear to be effortless.  Culmer's punchline is, we are God's artwork, and our lifetime is the effort that he and we put into our forming, "so that others might see the work and glorify the Lord."  Ah!