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,

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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.

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.

 

External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MLK/We the People

MLK

Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized…

There is plenty of evidence pointing to all the ways that the human body uses sleep as a time for healing and making needed adjustments in our brains and bodies. Until we evolve past a need to sleep it remains a necessary part of life, and during our sleep we dream. And when we dream we process ideas that we might have only vaguely been aware of during our wakefulness.

This coming Monday, when our country formally remembers the work of Martin Luther King, the word “dream” takes on even more significance.  His was a dream that came from being fully awake in a segregated and gaze-averting world, but the song MLK, performed by the group U2, expresses a hope that King’s dream will be realized during his “sleep” (as one euphemism for death goes). Healing, along with dreaming, happens while we sleep, and healing seems more integral than ever to realizing King’s dream.

If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain down on him, the U2 song continues. Thunderclouds seem ominous, charged with electricity and brooding power. The rains and winds they bring can be dramatic, even frighteningly violent – but ultimately the air is clearer, the dead branches are blown out of the trees, and the rains bring new life. Dreams and thunderclouds…those both feel like potent symbols of this country’s continuing struggles with racial understanding.

We the people

I had the good fortune of visiting the then new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King on a beautiful summer evening several years ago. It was crowded, but deep thoughts were clearly moving behind reverent faces and faraway looks. It was my privilege to be there with my mother-in-law, an African-American woman who is King’s exact contemporary, and I only wished that her ninety-nine year old mother could have joined us as well.  I had seen pictures and read about the memorial, knew about the controversies that surrounded its creation, and wondered if it could possibly hope to represent the magnitude of what King gave to this country, all the while thinking that as a work of art it was hardly breaking any new ground aesthetically, and in fact it looked rather Stalinesque to me in the photos I had seen.

images

How good to be surprised. The quotes are strong and (sadly) as appropriate to our own time as four or five decades ago.  I knew there had been criticism by Maya Angelou, among others, of the expression on King’s face, but we studied it for a long time and what we saw was a man who didn’t like what he was seeing, gazing, as he is, at the conflicted slave-owner Thomas Jefferson across the Tidal Basin. Or perhaps it’s an expression of discomfort, knowing he was being called to do dangerous work that required his reluctant response, found in words of the prophet Isaiah…here am I, send me.

Arms crossed, expression stern, King seems poised to do something about the inequities around him. We slowly read each of the quotes carved into the monument’s stones and mourned the lack of such soaring rhetoric in our own time.

On the way out a park ranger heard our conversation and stopped to ask what we thought of the memorial, and we asked him in turn what his impressions were. He told us that when he had first seen the memorial, weeks before it opened, he wasn’t very impressed. As soon as it opened to the public he realized that the memorial had been missing something. People.  People walking and thinking and quietly conversing, teaching their children and asking their elders – that’s what made the memorial a success in his opinion.

From the mountain of despair, a stone of hope, so the memorial is called.  We the people, so begins the U.S. Constitution. The people, each of us one stone of hope. Each of us called to be a dreamer.

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.

Light

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
(Rabindrinath Tagore)

It’s not too soon to be grateful that days are already lengthening little by little. Even amid the cloudy days of winter we can sense light returning. The morning light appears a little earlier, the afternoon sun stays just a bit longer, and some primal instinct tells us the earth is slowly awakening. The liturgical calendar plants us in the season of Epiphany and gives us themes of light, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star, and ending two months from now with Jesus’ Transfiguration (celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday), when the “Light of the world” gave his followers a glimpse of his divine nature, becoming a radiant, light-filled sign of God’s presence while conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.

Light implies movement as well as brightness, moving through time with the speed of light, and when we are light-hearted and light on our feet it suggests buoyancy. Then, too, light is integral to perceptions of color, including defining people as light-skinned. I took some liberty, incidentally, this past Sunday with the beautiful motet of Peter Warlock, Bethlehem Down.  Its gorgeous text refers to Mary’s “white arms,” but we corrected that likely historical inaccuracy to sing about her “warm” arms instead.

But I digress! The Song of Simeon, a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke which is sung or read as part of the evening office, takes us back to the light of sun and stars. These are the grateful words of an old man upon seeing the infant Jesus and understanding what he holds in his arms:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

aert_de_gelder_-_het_loflied_van_simeon

Three ways to be illuminated by Simeon’s words:

Artistically, the ability to capture light, as seen in this 18th century depiction by Aert de Gelder of Simeon with Mary and Jesus, is often considered the mark of a great painter.

It is more difficult to capture light in sound.  Composers might find it in shimmering string sounds, or the clarity of straight-toned high voices, but often a text has to do some of the work.  The final line of Simeon’s prayer  – a light to lighten the Gentiles –  has inspired many, many composers to soar in musical arcs of light. In honor of this week’s celebration of Christmas by the Orthodox Church…Rachmaninoff’s setting of Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimities from his Vespers:

And finally, Simeon’s story takes poetic flight in T. S. Eliot’s A Song for Simeon: “my life is light,” Eliot writes here.

We can find beauty in any artistic expression of Simeon’s cry, a light to lighten the Gentiles, but sometimes life is more shadow than light and it is those times when we can hold on to Tagore’s words above, believing that light is possible even before it appears.

Ultimately the greatest beauty is found in our own ability to embody light, to be radiant, buoyant expressions of love moving through this world.

Peace,

Sonya

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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.