Failure

In March of 1832 Frederic Chopin wrote a very polite letter to the concert committee at the Paris Conservatoire, requesting that he be considered for a performance on their concert series. Chopin was artistically lauded by this point in his life, but financially insecure and he really needed the concert fee. The committee turned him down.

I would like to think that the Paris Conservatoire’s committee regretted their decision sometime later! In the same vein, a dozen or so publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter manuscript and are surely still rueing that decision. History is littered with these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to read about them and marvel at the blindness of decision-makers to real talent. We might shake our heads and chuckle, knowing who got the last laugh, but surely it stung to receive those rejection letters in the first place, and no doubt the recipients had their confidence as artists temporarily shaken.

The beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of penitence in the Christian church which began with Ash Wednesday last week, seems like a great time to think about failure. It’s a season which ends in five weeks with one colossal failure after all – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Spoiler alert, he gets the last laugh.

Not everyone has the gift of summoning entire worlds of magic from their imagination which can be shared with millions of adoring fans, as Chopin and Rowling have. Nor can we show our friends that we’ve risen from the dead. Most of us are fairly normal, workaday sorts who feel our failures deeply by questioning our self-worth. History probably really doesn’t care about our failures, but we likely wouldn’t take much pleasure anyway in knowing that we might be vindicated by history if we persevere and continue to believe in ourselves in the face of all those rejection letters. Speculating about the future isn’t a great use for our energy, but it is good to remember that success and failure are best measured by time.

Unfortunately, I have to toss in a few platitudes about failure, because they do hold a lot of truth. Those hopeful ideas about failure’s capacity to help us appreciate our successes more, to prepare us for the next time we fail, to show us who our real friends are, and to teach us about humility.

If you are still looking for a Lenten discipline, perhaps examining life’s failures through more discerning eyes will prove useful. Certainly more useful than giving up chocolate, which is a short path to failure for some of us anyway.

Chopin was harshly criticized for failing as an orchestral composer, but any of us would be fortunate to fail so beautifully.

Recent news about Big Pharma’s role in creating opioid addiction reminds me that I have left out an essential aspect of failure – the fact that failure is all too often enabled by people (and their institutions) who act out of malice, fear, greed, ignorance, lack of imagination, or pedantic fussiness (Chopin’s request reached the Paris Conservatoire after their deadline). I have to think that causing someone to fail is far worse than failing itself.

My inspiration today is the new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. I read his three volume biography of Liszt – twice – over the past decade or so and I knew that the quality of research and his writing would not disappoint. I didn’t know that I would enjoy getting to know Chopin as a person so much or that reading a rejection letter from the Paris Conservatoire would make me so angry on his behalf!

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Breathe

As the Christian church begins a forty day journey through Lent, consider ways to incorporate more chant into your life, whether singing or listening. The quality of breathing which chant requires will carry your prayers more deeply within and further afield at the same time. The two likely beginnings of chant, after all, were as a natural amplification of the voice which allowed words to travel further in large spaces, and as a tool for meditation which combined breath and sound in an effort to internalize sacred words.

Below are two very different chants, both of which move me deeply. Each takes me somewhere else and stops me in the moment at the same time. Each connects me with an ancient wordless longing and also gives me a sense of fullness. Many of you have likely seen the first, a chant from Taize with a text by Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,

nothing frighten you,

All things are passing.

God never changes.

But the second one is new to me, shared with me this week by a singer who honored me by saying it made her think of me. I was mesmerized the first time I heard it, almost to the point of forgetting to breathe myself. The text is Psalm 53. The power of their sound has a life-force of its own.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Transfiguration

(updated from a 2009 posting)

I admit it – I love Harry Potter.  I love the stories, the rich details, its complexities, and the colorful characters.  I wish I had gone to Hogwarts School myself, where among other things I would have studied Transfiguration, and learned there such skills as transforming inanimate objects into animals, along with conjuring and vanishing spells –  so useful for changing a scary thing into something funny (riddikulus!) or filling a room with flowers (orchideous!).  Sadly, we can rarely transform other things or people, much less make them appear or disappear just by wishing it so. We’re really only able to change ourselves and our responses to life’s twists and turns.

The words transformation and transfiguration are usually thought to be synonymous, equivalent to the radical changes of metamorphosis. They all point to an external change in appearance – a caterpillar-to-butterfly kind of change in form/figure. We usually save transfiguration, however, for those times when something or someone is not just changed, but also elevated to a new level of beauty. I’m not prepared to say that butterflies are always more beautiful than caterpillars, and I don’t believe there are  any objective measures for beauty anyway, but we might agree that our hearts are able to discern what is truly beautiful and transfiguring in our lives.

This Sunday is something known on the liturgical calendar as Transfiguration Sunday.  Actually, in our lovely mastery of compromise, Episcopalians celebrate this event twice. Once on the last Sunday of Epiphany (March 3 in 2019) in accordance with Protestant practice and again on August 6, in line with the Roman Catholic Church. Celebrate might be too strong a word, since I’m doubtful that you’ve sent out your Transfiguration greeting cards or planned the traditional Transfiguration meal for your family. But these dates in the lectionary ask us to remember that moment in the Bible when Jesus was suddenly filled with radiant light, while on a mountain with his disciples. He transfigured himself, dazzling their eyes with light and giving the disciples another sign that he was indeed the Son of God. And so it was that by changing himself he was able to change the hearts and minds of others.

The Roman Catholic Church calls this day one of five “Luminous Mysteries” and it is an occasion to pray with the rosary.  Luminous mystery – isn’t that a beautiful phrase?  This choral work by the American composer Eric Whitacre captures luminous mystery for me.

Changing ourselves doesn’t happen by accident. We have to want to change, and we probably have to do it without enrolling in a Transfiguration class. No magic spells, just the hard work of changing those habits that keep us stuck in the dark places of ignorance, fear and selfishness.

But if I could send you a Transfiguration card it would read:

May you be filled with luminous mystery

It’s really the only way to bring light to our world after all, and fortunately there is a spell for that!  Lumos!

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Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

The Cynical Optimist

I know I’ve been described as cynical by some, which I suppose might be partly true, but I do strive to be optimistic, and I’m not so sure that optimism and cynicism are mutually exclusive anyway. Maybe I could be a cynical optimist? The cynic in me is elated when I find I’m wrong about someone I’ve prematurely judged to be haughty or boring. The optimist in me is crushed when I discover that self-styled kind people can have layers of cruelty or ignorance just below the surface. My cynical side feels that I have gained some wisdom from life’s experiences, earning the right to feel wary. My optimistic side admires the ability I occasionally see in others to move through this life with open-eyed wonder. And that’s the side of me I want to encourage – the part that is quick to see the surprisingly special bits of life all around me.

This juxtaposition of optimism and cynicism came to me in part because of an article in a recent issue of Time magazine titled The Art of OptimismThe issue’s guest editor, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, makes a case for why “art is the antidote for our times,” and writes beautifully about art’s power to instigate engagement with others.

I was inspired as well by the time I’ve spent recently with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5, known as the “Spring” Sonata. We generally think of Beethoven as awkward and complicated at best, but also erratic, headstrong, and rude. The anger, melancholy and deafness which defined his adult life often kept him isolated, and yet his churlishness gave way on occasion to gorgeously expressed optimism. Like this:

What I know is that cynicism is easy and optimism can be hard. Cynics shut down conversations and build walls against creativity. Optimists crave new ways of interpreting a situation and cultivate curiosity.

Optimism overtakes cynicism, via Brahms and Beethoven, in a concert I’m playing with a friend this Sunday, February 24, and you are warmly invited to join us at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church at 4:00. Concert Flyer.

Peace,

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Hypocrite!

(Sorry, this is not exactly a gooey Valentine’s Day message)

Among all the things that really, really irritate us, I have a feeling that spotting hypocrisy in others tops the list for a lot of people. Even as children we noticed when the adults in our lives said one thing but did another. We see it in our public leaders, in our spiritual institutions, and in those we love. More than irritating, it’s often angering. So easy to point the finger at hypocritical behaviors and forget, however, that holding to our moral core demands we struggle with our own hypocrisies first.

What does the word’s etymology tell us?  Hypo- , a prefix for “below” or “under” and kreis – a word coming through ancient Greek and Old French which connoted sifting or uncovering.  Its early use in connection with theater gives us a better clue, when actors interpreted the story from beneath their masks. A literal example of being two-faced.

Song provided a place for African-American slaves to point out their owners’ hypocrisy, and they sure had plenty of material there. It probably didn’t take long for enslaved Africans to understand that the Bible, used by white Americans to justify slavery, held many other stories which exposed their owners as the biggest hypocrites of all.

Songs such as Go down Moses and Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel were relatively subtle rebukes of the master’s hypocrisy, as is Lord, I want to be a Christian, but the very word itself pops up in several spirituals. There’s nothing subtle about Little Innocent Lamb when the choir passes the word “hypocrite” from soprano to alto, or the third verse of Let me fly:

Meet that hypocrite on the street
First thing he does is show his teeth.
Next thing he does is to tell a lie
And the best thing to do is to pass him by.

Just let the hypocrite pass by, or call out the hypocrisy? I don’t know, there’s often such a sanctimonious “gotcha” aspect to pointing out someone’s hypocrisy. Perhaps it would be better to put that energy into internal observations of our own self-deceptions instead?

Why do we do it? Why do we decry those things in others that we are also guilty of? Hypocrites are so easily unmasked after all. Maybe I’ll add hypocrisy to my list of things – a list that includes bedbugs, telemarketing calls, and poison ivy – which need to be waved out of existence by my magic wand. The world would certainly be a less irritating place then.

Peace,

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

 

 

This

Sometimes a small word says a lot. Love. Help. Sorry. Less serious, but equally useful in their economy, are those words which each generation creates or re-purposes.  From my childhood, words like neat! and psych! Or more recently, dis, and currently, woke

This.

I started seeing it on Facebook I think. A four letter word that expresses a wide-armed embrace of all that is wonderful about a specific moment. Someone would write “This,” coupled with a photo, video or story of some kind that encapsulated a significant facet of human life. I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of popular culture, so perhaps this has already reverted to its normal usage – but it’s a word which says exactly what I want to say when I think about a choral piece I was introduced to last summer.

Take a listen to Jonathan Dove’s setting of Matthew 25:  Come, you who are blest   (this link will take you to a video that was posted on Facebook by the choir’s conductor)

The music was commissioned by a choir I was singing with last summer on their U.K. tour, and the recording of us was made by a fellow traveler seated in the nave of Bristol Cathedral. We went on to sing the piece at Westminster Abbey the following week, with the composer in attendance. Hard to know which part of that scenario was the most exciting – the music? the setting? the wall of sound this particular choir could create? having the piece’s British composer listening to what was almost certainly a U.K. premiere of his piece? But one word sums up what I felt when I was singing it, and what I feel even now when I hear the recording:

This.

I hope you take the time to notice your own “this” moments.

PS – Dove’s piece will be sung this Sunday at Church of the Epiphany, a place which lives more fully into the music’s text than any other church I’ve experienced:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Nobody

Periodically I  revisit posts that I particularly like from the more than ten years of writing that I’ve done.  Yikes!  That means I’ve written something like 500 of these things. There is no particular rhyme or reason for why certain pieces rise up in my memory, though there is often a seasonal connection. Such is the case today.

 
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
 

How dreary  – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
 

Three Nobodies usually appear on the liturgical calendar for January 27 – Lydia, Dorcas (aka Tabitha) and Phoebe. In 2019 this was a Sunday so the nobodies were skipped over, more insignificant than ever, but I remembered them. These three women receive a mention or two in the New Testament, and seem to have shared the capacity to be helpful to others – early Christian leaders and the poor around them – because of their presumed prosperity and independence. Their stories are lost to time, but are hardly unique. We are surrounded by such people who fail to advertise their deeds to an admiring Bog!  Even in Washington D.C., a place where humility is not overly abundant.

There’s also one big Somebody on a different calendar for this same day. That would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, celebrating a 263rd birthday.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem above, two Nobodies seem to have found each other, creating something we might call a community of nobodies.  A comfortable place to be, it would seem. A place where companionship is valued.  What we know of Mozart’s life is that he was the embodiment of Somebody. Famous his entire life, his accomplishments croaked to an admiring Bog at every turn, his fame well-deserved.  He undoubtedly found the demands made by his fame, the travel, and treatment by his patrons to be dreary at times, but aren’t we very glad that this particular Somebody was born with his head full of music bursting to come out.

Let’s be honest, though, most of us are Nobodies and our value is found when we fulfill the “grace of daily obligations,” as author Gail Godwin puts it. Little things, mostly unnoticed, and finding ourselves in a community of Nobodies perhaps there is the joy of companionship, and certainly there is the potential for doing good.

Undoubtedly the world is a more complete place because there are both Somebodies and Nobodies in it – but it worries me when the goal is to be a Somebody. Fame for fame’s sake – that’s often behind the evil of mass shootings and attention-seeking, chaos-creating tricksters. People are happiest when, no matter how consequential their contributions to the world, they are comfortable with their nobodiness. When they don’t take themselves too seriously… (belated happy birthday, Wolfgang)

Peace,

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.