Sunday, April 09, 2017

Scripture Flipped:
Forward Day by Day, March 2017

Daily readings for March 2017 in Forward Day by Day were notable for how the author flipped  scripture to find new angles on familiar passages.  The author is Mike Marsh, rector of Saint Philip's Episcopal Church in Uvalde, Texas.  Here's a digest of the most striking examples, which I mean to preserve for examples of good faith and good writing.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt. 6.21).  In the a season of giving up things we treasure, Marsh flips that idea: "Let us approach Lent as treasure hunters, discovering what we truly value, where we actually spend our time and energy, and what occupies our thoughts and worries.  Let us name our treasures, and find our hearts."

The Lord has chosen you... to be his people, his treasured possession (Dt. 7.6). Marsh flips the previous day's message to look at God's treasure: us. "If God's heart is set on you, I too must give you my heart.  If God has chosen you, how could I ever justify or defend rejecting you?"

When Jesus turned and saw them following he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi..., where are you staying?" (Jn 1.38)  Marsh writes, "I have probably answered this question from Jesus a thousand different ways.... I know that if I don't let the question live within me, I tend to become stuck, settled in place and asleep to the beauty and mystery of life." He adds that his answers in youth were "more concrete and definable," but now, the question keeps him, and us, "awake and open."

The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."  (Mt 4.3) Marsh suggests that temptation serves a good purpose.  Whatever tempts us also tells us about "what's going on inside of us."  He asks, "What if temptation can be our teacher or a diagnosis?"

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. (Ps 23.1)  "Wants often have the power to narrow our vision and limit our freedom."  It's not that God gives us what we want, but that what we want keeps us from seeing what God gives us!

Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? (Luke 2.49). It seems to be a story of precocious tween-age Jesus, but Marsh observes, "Ultimately, growing up is about running away to our Father's house."  Marsh challenges his reader: "Are you different today than you were a year ago, three years, ago, thirty years ago? No doubt you've aged, but have you grown?"

Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  (Lk 1.34) Marsh takes off from a non-Biblical tradition that Mary was among the maids who sewed the veil that separated the people from the Holy of Holies in the temple.  "Often, our veils are the lives we have created for ourselves -- what we see is what we get." But, "Nothing is impossible with God."

The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6.52) Marsh says there's a short answer - love. The longer answers have divided churches.  "When I think of the short answer, however, I begin to list people who have fed and nourished my life with their flesh and blood -- through real, incarnate lives of presence, generosity, forgiveness, strength, courage, guidance, and love. Sometimes these people challenged me.. and at other times they encouraged me by showing me more than what I could see for myself."  These people "have enlarged my life."  Forward recommends that we make a list of those who have fed and nourished us with their flesh and blood.  In the margins of this, Marsh's last meditation, I wrote, "This is the best!"

Iris: Piece of Mind

Shortly after reading Iris Murdoch's novel Jackson's Dilemma, I heard her husband John Bayley interviewed on NPR about his memoir.  Iris welcomed the reporter to their home with courteous detachment.  As we heard her shuffle off, Bayley told the reporter that he would continue to love the woman he lived with, and professed not to worry about the brilliant woman he'd married: "Wherever she's going, she has already arrived" is what I remember him saying.  I'd experienced my grandmother's dementia; her daughter's symptoms wouldn't show for another twelve years; but I was struck by Bayley's conception of dementia as a "place."

Making the movie Iris of his memoir just a year later, writer-director Richard Eyre made use of that idea to meld the love story of young Iris with the love of Bayley for Iris at her end.

Eyre's dilemma was that both stories he wanted to tell had foregone conclusions.  The moment that modest young Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) stops at a party to stare in awe at charismatic young Iris (Kate Winslett) , we know that somehow they're going to marry.  The moment regal elderly Iris (Judi Dench) fails to recall the Prime Minister's name, her young doctor tells us that dementia is going to win.

The key to bringing both stories to a satisfying close lay in the image from a brain scan. Elderly Bayley (Jim Broadbent) asks about a dark area that the doctor can't explain.  Bayley clings to the idea that there's a room in Iris's brain where her mind could still be alive, though "different."  To illustrate, Eyre takes us to the rocky shore where he pictures Iris sitting among hefty smooth stones, looking out at the waves, clutching a notebook.  Her friends hope she'll write, and, in a way, she does:  she rips out page after page, placing a stone on each one.  In flashbacks, we've heard the erudite Murdoch speaking of freedom and love for living beings, nature, even stones.  So this is a demonstration of another kind of expression.

In the parallel story, young Bayley, tortured by jealousy, needs to learn from Iris whether he has a place among the many "worlds" she inhabits and creates in her promiscuous, prolific life.

Thirty years before the events at the end of the movie, Murdoch wrote Bruno's Dream, concerning this very idea, that the world is in the invalid's mind even while he is in the world.  Read more in my appreciation of Iris Murdoch's novels, The Mind Plays Tricks.

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.    The portrait is of real-life Iris with images from her fiction.]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Chris Thile: A Daring Home Companion

When mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile made his first appearances on public radio's long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion, he was still a teenager, the extroverted lead vocalist of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother Sean on guitar.  Thile told host Garrison Keillor how they would dare each other to make songs from random road signs.  For that, more than for any interest in bluegrass or Thile's virtuosity on mandolin, I started my collection of Chris Thile recordings.   

[PHOTO: Chris Thile at Zankel Hall, by Tina Fineberg for the New York Times. ]

Nearly twenty years later, when my collection has expanded beyond Nickel Creek to include solo albums, duets with classical and jazz artists, and genre-bending material with his band Punch Brothers, Chris Thile is still daring himself to try new things.

Taking on the role of host for Prairie Home Companion has been his biggest leap of faith. As I saw at Atlanta's Fox Theatre during Garrison Keillor's last weeks with the show, the audience was faithful in more ways than one (see my review).  For us, the show was as much ritual as entertainment, with familiar features and jokes that never failed (e.g. "Powder Milk Biscuits are pure-- mostly").  Keillor's blend of folksiness, Protestant in-jokes, and urbane irony was unique.  Besides, the appreciative audience had been tuning in to Keillor's live broadcasts since Thile was a toddler; teens among us didn't get it.  Could Thile bring in a younger listeners without alienating his base of boomers?

I'd say Thile was a brilliant choice.

First, he's a versatile musician. Chris Thile says that he homed in on the mandolin at age nine when his family went to a live music pizza parlor, because the mandolinist was the showiest guy on the stand.  By age twelve, the chubby little blonde mandolin virtuoso from California had a commercial recording (still available on CD).  Now he strikes boisterous dissonant chords, picks rapid-fire licks, plucks sweet melodies that fall like rain, and sometimes ruminates with sparse, dry staccato notes. Even when the mood is dark, there's a brightness and hope in the sound.  His wide-ranging voice matches the moods, whether crooning, hooting, moaning, or spitting out lyrics.

On the shows I've heard, Thile's effusive, good with upbeat patter, and natural-sounding in scripted sketches.  His musical guests trend younger and edgier, but Paul Simon and poet Billy Collins have also performed. Young comics get the slot that was always reserved for Keillor's tales from Lake Woebegone, and they work just fine.

But the most fun is listening to Thile taking musical chances.  He challenges himself to compose words and music for a Song of the Week that fits the time.  The ones I've heard have been, as Ellington loved to say, "beyond category."  For the show November 12, Thile walked as fine a line as Keillor ever did, addressing a song to his wife and little son that resonated with an audience worked up over the recent election:
But I don't wanna fight fire with fire
And I don't wanna preach to the choir

So whether you're laughing or crying
If you're doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine
As God is my witness

I made this for you
                       - "I Made This For You" by Chris Thile
He plays mandolin as easily as he speaks, quoting melodies of any composer he mentions, from Strauss (Johann and Ricard) to Dylan to Barber's Violin Concerto.  He and his band perform an audience request, unrehearsed, with the rules that no one on stage can have written or performed the song before.  So far as I've heard, taking a wide variety of requests, he and his cohort haven't crashed and burned yet. An improvised arrangement of "Blackbird" was memorable.

The biggest risk to the show's fans is that such a restless, creative guy won't be tied down to this regular gig for long.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Paterson, Movie and Poem

Director Jim Jarmusch, writing the screenplay for his film Paterson, surely was inspired by lines early in William Carlos Williams's book-length poem of the same name, the doctor-poet's effort to "reflect" his own mind through aspects of his hometown of Paterson, NJ.  Williams writes:
"Rigor of beauty is the quest.  But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling 
up the sum, by defective means --
Sniffing the trees, 
just another dog...    (Preface, Book I)
The movie follows the daily routine of a bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver) "rolling" through the streets,  gathering "particulars" of his town and home life, "[making] them general" in lines of poetry.   There is no plot, only "incidents" that vary his daily routine over a week's time, plus the weekend.  Every night, he walks to a bar with a sniffing, snorting English bulldog adored by his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Where Williams begins his poem picturing the town Paterson as if it were a man lying asleep, Jarmusch begins each of seven days with a shot of the man Paterson in bed, just as his internal clock awakes him. 

Williams writes the gist of the movie early in Book I:
Say it! No ideas but in things.  Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write.  Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter--  (Book I, p. 6)
The first "things" that Paterson transmutes into poetry are matches fingered idly while he crunches his cereal.  In voice-over, he drafts a poem, words also appearing on the screen.  The poem isn't much, at first, just a prosaic statement about "our" preferred brand of matches; but, as he walks to the bus station, makes his rounds, and takes a break for lunch, he revises the poem, until we can relate the matches, packed tightly in their little box, heads ready to burst into flame, with the poet himself, staid and gentle in his boxy little home, head preoccupied with love for his wife Laura.

Driving the bus, Paterson tunes in to conversations behind him.  Reflections in the bus window superimpose the sunny streets on the driver's face, his eyes focused ahead, with glances at passengers whose words enter his thoughts.  It's reminiscent of Williams's next stanza:
Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass of
his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?
Williams is writing here of shop windows, but I doubt it's coincidence that Jarmusch always gives us the shoes of these incidental characters, whether they're pre-teen boys, working men, or a couple of self-styled anarchists. The shoes, scuffed, or flirtatiously close, tell tales.  The people on the bus and in the bar where he goes every night are not so tough, virile, or smart as they encourage each other to think they are, so Adam Driver's "Paterson" smiles a lot.  As he does, we do: Driver is the straight man, and everyone else is a character, making just about every scene funny.  It can't be coincidence that Jarmusch works into the movie several references to Lou Costello, funny half of Depression-era comedy duo Abbott and Costello, native of Paterson.

Adam Driver's "Paterson" is the straight man to Golshifteh Farahani's "Laura."  While Paterson drafts poetry in a "secret" notebook during his breaks, Laura bounds from one artistic expression to another, brushing black and white stripes, circles, and waves on everything from  curtains to cupcakes, baking pie from incongruous ingredients, and taking up music on a whim, attracted to the black and white design on the guitar she saw advertised.  Paterson watches her in wonder and encourages her.

Jarmusch and Driver present the poet as considerate, not just in the sense of attentive and kind: Before Paterson responds to dialogue, Driver shows a moment of uncertainty when his character seems to be considering what the other needs to hear from him.  "I dreamed that we had twins," Laura whispers upon waking. "Would you like that?"  After a moment, he says, yes, "one for you and one for me."  It's just the right thing.

Our bus driver meets three poets during the course of the movie, all of them referring to Williams.  A rapper who works on his lines in a laundromat to the beat of the washer also says, "No idea but in things."  A girl with a "secret notebook" like the bus driver's own shares with him her poem "Water Falls," (a poem by the director that begins "Water falls through the air / like hair of a young girl..."), recalling the waterfalls of the town described so vividly in Williams's poem.  A devotee of William Carlos Williams leaves Paterson with a gift that serves as a kind of benediction for the work of a poet.

Naturally, Paterson recites for his wife William Carlos Williams's greatest hit, "This is just to say," touching and funny.

Poet Ron Padgett, personal friend to Jarmusch, composed four original poems for the movie.  He told the Poetry Foundation that he found his images from reading the script.  His work for this movie had to be substantial but also accessible at first hearing.  Between Jarmusch's visuals and Driver's interpretation, he scores.

Finding patterns is a part of the pleasure in poetry, music, and jokes. In this film, patterns abound: the daily routine, a proliferation of twins, Laura's mania for black-and-white, and big laughs set up through repetition.  In narrative art, we also have the pleasure of getting to know people.

That's the "mathematic": patterns + persons = Paterson.

Padgett, Ron. How to Be Perfect. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1995.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Mountaintop Experience:
Mentor Formation Retreat

Susan and I returned yesterday from three days at the University of the South, Sewanee, near Chattanooga, TN, headquarters for Education for Ministry (EfM). We joined Bob from Florida, Steve from Asheville (moving soon to KY), and Ethel Ware from All Saints in Atlanta.  Our mentor Sissie Wile modeled ways to formulate an understanding of spirituality through experiences that engaged our imaginations with all four of EfM's sources: action, position, culture, and tradition.

[PHOTOS:  Top - Sissie's home, where we visited with her dog and cat on Saturday, before dinner.

Middle - A branch finding a way through a manufactured space was, for me, an image of Incarnation - the Creator's sharing in our struggles and pain.

 Below - A "mandala" collage of images that help me to define holy]

Our sessions together began and ended with worship from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.  Hearing familiar texts phrased differently, we're aware of new angles to old sayings.  For instance, "The Lord be with you / And also with you" is re-stated as an affirmation for all:" The divine Spirit dwells in us. / Thanks be to God."

Before we'd even decided what we meant by spirituality or by related terms mystery, holiness, and the divine, Sissie had each of us choose a photograph from an array published by the Kaleidoscope Institute. I chose a view of an apartment building, ten rows and twelve columns of balconies defined by concrete slabs, iron rails, and glass doors. For me, there's a mystery in that each resident is an individual universe of experiences, pursuits, and hopes; yet even near neighbors may be unaware of each other. So much life is visible at a glance; how can anyone conceive of the fact that all the individuals on our planet are equally self-contained universes?

We also each selected one psalm among those identified by author Walter Brueggemann as psalms for seasons of orientation (8, 14,33, 37, 145, 131, 133), of disorientation (13, 25, 50, 74, 79, 81, 86, 137), or new orientation (30,34, 50, 74, 79, 81 86, 137), all connecting to EfM's  theme this year of new orientations in our "journeys in faith." 

I chose Psalm 124 ("If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...), feeling that my life has reoriented towards care for Mom, following my fifty-seven years of responsibility mostly to myself, my job, my own projects.  The Psalmist seems to be clutching to the knowledge that, "We held on through tough times before; God will be with us at the end of this time, too." 

Again, after sharing, we reflected on aspects of spirituality revealed by this effort.  What we saw was deep connections across time and culture between us and the psalmist; the experience of relating concrete reality to metaphors; the awareness that interior conclusions may not easily be identified as true or false. We agreed that psalms have different meanings for us at different times in our lives.

The most intense thirty minutes of the weekend, for me, were spent searching through magazines for images that spoke to my sense of what's holy, then fitting them into a circle -- to form a personal "mandala," an image of the universe, or the universal.  During that time, we all milled around the room, and I, for one, was nearly oblivious to others while I cut, rearranged, and pasted.  My own images include preparation of food - a holy activity when done lovingly to bring people together; a lovely tree at the edge of a lake, reminding me of days spent in such places reading, or, even more, riding my bike, occupied solely with the cycling and breathing, enjoying God's gifts; a bed, which I've come to see as a raft for a nightly journey through dreams, in which we find rest and meaning-making; the dog - for many of us, a veritable angel in life, example to us of unconditional love and life in the moment (see my article Dogs are Poetry); and the crossword puzzle, signifying for me horizontal existence in time intersecting with the vertical existence of mind, memory, and imagination (see my article Theology of Crosswords).

We also had assignments to design experiences in spirituality for each other.  Bob and Steve presented a combination of lectio divina with the movements of EfM's process of "theological reflection."  Ethel Ware sent us away to sketch or describe something that illustrates what we mean by "the divine." (I brought back a sketch of an open hand, palm up: able to reach out, able to hold, to let go, and vulnerable to rejection).  Susan and I sent everyone out at dusk to bring back images (perhaps on phone cameras) of intersections between what we call "nature" and the human-manufactured world.  In these, we looked for the Trinity:  images of the Creator's joy in creation; of the Incarnate Lord's sharing the pain of creation; and, of the Spirit that flows through all life like the wind.  We were inspired by the analogy in our RRG of a night hike by flashlight:  what we see by "light" of our manufactured world is limited, and we'll appreciate much more of the night life in a forest, once our senses become fully engaged for a walk in the dark.

For a short time before dinner, we accepted Sissie's invitation to her lovely home overlooking a bluff, with a view west across the valley.  Such a short time was still a powerful highlight, reminding us all of another holy quality of hospitality, by which patriarchs welcomed angels.