Failure of Imagination

We know there are many different kinds of intelligence – interpersonal, musical, logical…but let’s be honest, when we think of someone as smart we usually really only mean intellectually intelligent. Someone who is good with math or words, certified by college degrees and professional success.

I’ve written before about my fascination with Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, and the intelligence he ascribes to plant life. In the same way, a 2016 book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, studies the ways that trees communicate with, and even express empathy for, other trees. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of intelligence in plant life,  but we only know what we know. What about all the things we don’t know…all that lies behind, beneath, and around what we perceive through our senses? Couldn’t any plant or animal life have forms of intelligence that we are unable to recognize or define?

I manage a concert series in downtown Washington DC (check out the link if you’re interested), and this past week I branched out a bit from the usual fare of chamber music, with a local dance ensemble, Word Dance Theater, which specializes in the work of Isadora Duncan.  I don’t know a lot about modern dance in general or Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen their work before and knew it expresses an integrity and passion for Duncan’s legacy which would be beautiful in the performance space, and which I hoped would communicate…well, something… to the audience.

Their performance was indeed colorful and thoughtful, and to me expressed uninhibited freedom. It made me think about how much more we should all be moving – gracefully and freely – throughout our days. As I watched, I thought about all the ways people get stuck – physically, emotionally, spiritually –  and wished we could learn to move with Duncan’s freedom to help us get unstuck.

2017-06-04+10.30.56Afterwards, someone I know to have considerable musical and intellectual gifts came up to me, and admitted he didn’t know enough about this kind of dance to see much of anything actually going on.  He wasn’t being judgmental, just perplexed and perhaps a bit bored by what he had seen. I would have wished for him to see something behind or around the dancers’ flowing garments and limbs, but art is unpredictable in its effect at any given time on any particular person.

I do think the gamut of intelligence includes an acceptance of what we don’t know, but what we might imagine to be possible, whether that is the possibility of messages traveling from one tree to another through a complex web of roots, or a dancer’s invitation to move with a freedom that helps to open our minds to what we cannot put into words or even fully understand. To say that something outside of human experience is impossible or ridiculous becomes, for me, simply a failure of imagination.

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Listen Up

This probably never happens to you, but sometime I find myself talking to the apparently unlistening. To be honest, sometimes they truly aren’t listening, but there are times when I’m happily surprised to find that my words were in fact heard. And to be really honest, there are certainly times when I’m not always the best listener either. I am reminded this week, as St. Francis of Assisi is celebrated in liturgical churches on October 4, of a charming legend in which Francis famously preached to the birds. Were they listening?

While I’m no St. Francis, I have often felt myself in conversation with nearby birds whenever I’m practicing  with the windows open at home.  I don’t have proof of this, but it really does seem that the birds are listening to the music, and responding in kind.

The 19th century composer Franz Liszt, who was dissuaded by his father from becoming a priest early in his life, and who took minor holy orders late in his life, wrote a piece about St. Francis preaching to the birds.  It obviously captures birdsong in pianistic figures, and seems to also capture the conversation between a gentle monk and his flock…of birds. I made a note in my score some years ago that observed how joyfully the birds sang whenever I practiced this piece.

A lesson in love for the natural world is certainly one of Francis’s best-known gifts to us. In the exuberant words of his Canticle of Brother Sun, with its almost child-like praise of creation, Francis inspires us to appreciate the wonders of our environment, emphasizing our kinship with the world around us.

For Brother Sun, whose brightness makes the light by which we see.
For Sister Moon, whose beams were formed to shine so clear and bright.
For Brother Wind, whose clouds and breezes blow across the land.
For Sister Water, so precious, humble, lowly, chaste and pure.
For Brother Fire, whose flames and light illuminate the night.
For Sister Earth, for grass and plants and flowers and all our food.

Francis went to Egypt in 1219 as part of a Crusade with intentions to convert the Sultan, and found himself instead in dialogue with the Islamic ruler, who himself was surrounded by Coptic Christians as advisors. Seems like more listening than “talking” occurred during that particular Crusade.

It strikes me that an important part of listening includes listening to ourselves – noticing what we say (or do) and its effect on others (or our planet). At the heart of listening there has to be a moment when we are willing to be changed by what we hear. Thanks, Brother Francis, for the reminder.

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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.

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.