A Rose By Any Other Name

In the past couple of years I have taken on a few adult piano students, and found that I enjoy teaching piano now so much more than my younger self ever did. One of my students has been working on the Debussy prelude Voiles. It’s a beautiful piece, perfectly capturing Debussy’s ethereal language of whole-tone scales and glissando-like figures.  I had always known this piece to have an English title of “Sails,” and was surprised to learn that is only one of many meanings of the French “voiles.” It can also mean “veils,” or “shroud” or “fog.” Debussy was purposely vague about the title, but it changes the music completely.  Are we playing music that evokes a sun-filled day on the lake or a foggy world seen from behind a veil? You decide:

Voiles – take one                Voiles – take two

Or maybe it’s a foggy day on the lake!  Words matter. How we interpret something changes everything, as we well know from the proverb of the glass half-empty or half-full. Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but I respectfully disagree.  A rose that’s called a latrine-blossom probably won’t smell as sweet.

This Sunday at Church of the Epiphany we’ll hear one of the newer additions to the lectionary in the Episcopal Church, the canticle A Song of Wisdom. Christians have inherited a patriarchal theology, but the church does try sometimes to widen the scope of our understanding, and we find that even small words, like pronouns, matter.

Wisdom freed from a nation of oppressors a holy people and a blameless race.  She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord, withstood dread rulers and wonders and signs…She was their shelter by day and a blaze of stars by night…

Wisdom

It was over a year ago now that I finished writing about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, tying each of the 30 variations to a personal quality that I found worthy of cultivating. In the final movement, the opening Aria returns, now seemingly imbued with the wisdom gained by a lifetime of experiences. Wisdom is so very different from being smart or academically gifted. It’s slow, thoughtful, and simple. Wisdom is learning to not respond immediately, temporarily walking away from a difficult moment, knowing that the answer will come. It’s being quiet and listening.

My own name is a variation of Sophia, Greek for wisdom. I don’t claim to have an abundance of it, but I so admire it in others. For me, wisdom has been gained when I’ve tried harder to see both sides of an issue, or even when I choose to take a walk instead of answering emails. When I let wisdom come to me instead of trying too hard to find it.

An interesting side-note about Voiles – in French, the masculine “le voile” means “veil” and the feminine “la voile” means “sail.” Debussy left out the defining article in his title – a tiny, but clarifying word. Creatures are largely divided into male and female, but recently society has been allowed to admit that there are some people in between that clear division. Time and the urban dictionary will find the right words for us to express this in-betweeness in our everyday language. Meanwhile, we can push gently (or not) against cultural taboos and boxed-in thoughts. Remembering that words really do matter feels to me like a step towards wisdom.

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.

 

 

Chaos

This is not a commentary on current times, political or personal, but rather an examination yet again of finding meaning in unusual places. Of finding beauty in chaos.

It began with”the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England,” as the church of St. Mary Redcliffe was described by Queen Elizabeth I.  It’s a Gothic masterpiece, found on a busy street in a gritty part of a city that is slowly finding its way out of a slave-trade inheritance to become a cultural incubator of the arts in the 21st century (including a very popular Wallace and Gromit tour). I was there for a few days last month and one of the very few photos that I took was of the accompanying sign to this water-powered pendulum found in St. Mary’s Redcliffe.  The sign reads:St_Mary_Redcliffe_Chaotic_Pendulum,_Bristol

Journey into Science: The St. Mary Redcliffe Chaotic Pendulum.  It goes on to describe the process of water moving through the cross beams, unpredictably tipping one way or another, and likening that unpredictability to the ways of the world.

In this simple machine you are looking at a new frontier in our understanding of the world.  Scientists call it chaos.  Some people look to science for certainties on which to base their lives.  Increasingly we realize our knowledge can never provide certainty, even for this simple machine.  The world is a more wonderful and a more surprising place than we could have imagined.

Chaos suggests a lack of rules and form, but maybe it’s really just describing an unseen structure or set of rules. Perhaps the water’s flow through the pendulum responds to rules that are beyond human imagination, or forms that haven’t been described yet. I have to think that much of our world, including our music, would seem incredibly chaotic to our ancestors, should they be able to visit us in 2018. Yet we are surrounded by patterns, and our music is based on recognizable progressions. Could it be that there is meaning in those things which we aren’t evolved enough yet to understand?

I’ve been spending some time with the piano music of Philip Glass this summer. To the resistant listener, it probably sounds random, with its repetitive patterns and unpredictable shifts. I am not an expert on his music, nor have I spent hours analyzing it, but I’ve found playing it to be a wonderful way to warm up my fingers and center my mind. The difficulties of his music are not the usual ones – playing the notes isn’t hard, but staying focused and negotiating the subtle moves in the music is.

Things which seem completely random and unrelated can still draw someone into an artistic experience. Perhaps because there are patterns that lie below the surface of seeing which speak to a hidden part of our brain. The works of artist Jackson Pollock, for example, have been analyzed using fractal analysis. Could this same process be applied to the music of Glass ? Does the human desire for patterns and repetition draw us towards those things which might seem chaotic at first glance?

Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

I begin working this week as the Interim Music Director at Church of the Epiphany in Washington D.C., and will be there for the next eight months. Church can, at its best, offer an antidote to life’s chaotic moments, don’t you think? I wonder if I’ll learn that the world is indeed a more wonderful and more surprising place than I could have imagined.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

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.

 

 

Can We Talk?

Comedienne Joan Rivers used to ask that during her shows. It was her way of saying that she wanted to be honest with her audience, that it was time to cut through the b***s***.  Unfortunately, plenty of things regularly remind us that, no, actually we don’t seem to be able to talk.

It’s been a fantastic summer for me – with lots of opportunities to catch up with friends and meet new people, to travel and to make music.  As some of you know, I travelled with a small group of singers to a fairly remote part of France this summer, where a parish priest in one of the churches that hosted our concerts was concerned about our program.  He needed confirmation that we would be singing only Christian music.  “Well,” the native French speaker among us reluctantly began, “we will be singing one piece with a Sephardic Jewish text”…”Oh, that is fine,” he told us.  “It is the same God, one God…” and he sped off before she had the chance to tell him that we were also singing a set of pieces based on the Hindu Rig Veda. Many gods in that case, but words that were equally expressive of that same human need to connect with the divine.

More recently, I was talking to someone about an organization of community choirs which she had founded.  She said that there were people in her choirs who refused to sing the word “Jesus.”  The wall between sacred and secular could not be breached it seemed, though I suspect that the wall was actually between a perception of conservative Christianity and everything else.

Can we talk?  Or in my world, can we sing at least about things which are not part of our heritage or our personal piety?

I don’t often quote The Washington Post‘s George Will, but his editorial last week (August 5, 2018) sparked an idea in me that I had long felt to be true. Quoting from a book by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Will wrote about a need to rail against “philistine utiltarianism,” and about the “practicality of unobstructed curiosity that sails against the current of practical considerations.”  In other words, not everything needs to make immediate sense, nor should our ideas and efforts solely follow a narrow path of usefulness. Wonder should not be cheated.

Will was writing specifically about science, but in my own mind I broadened his meaning to include all of those ideas and experiences which add to our understanding of, well, everything. Our institutions, Will writes, should create a “culture of curiosity.” Our institutions – like churches and community organizations, government and universities. We can’t know what will lead someone down the wider path of understanding, but when we tear down walls then conversations happen, and who knows what that might cause us to wonder about.

Fugues are the musical equivalent of conversation, albeit an Italian conversation where everyone is talking at the same time! Just for fun, here is a favorite fugue of mine performed in a way that feels just right for summer: Bach, Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542

Peace,
Sonya

PS  Thank you L.S. for encouraging me to begin writing again! Discipline and inspiration have been lacking of late, but September will bring, I hope, hefty doses of both.

* * * * *

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.

 

 

Repent

A harsh word if ever there was one.  It immediately calls to mind images of puritanical finger-pointing and condemnatory, angry crowds flinging stones at a cowering figure.

Yet, the word is sung again and again in one of the gentlest pieces I know. It’s part of a set of three short pieces which I’ll be singing with a small group on their tour in France this month: We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn.  Repent…repent…repent we quietly coax the listener.

We will walk with Mother and mourn. We will walk with Mother and weep. We will bow in solemn prayer with her While Zion’s children sleep.

And through their sacred dwellings We will march and cry repent.
In low humiliationCome low, low and repent.

The song comes from the mid-19th century Shaker tradition, and Mother would have been the Shakers’ founder, Ann Lee. Walking, dancing, marching – moving in any form was integral to their worship. To bow and to bend, as the famous Shaker hymn Simple Gifts goes. Despite their humility, pacifism and creativity, the Shakers viewed the world outside their insulated community as dangerous and humankind as essentially wicked. Needless to say, their fearfulness and fundamentalism did not pave the way for a successful future.

Yet, seeing our own community – i.e. our country – demonstrate its inability to welcome the stranger in obedience to twisted laws, and to read in The Washington Post Magazine this past Sunday about a church that divided families in obedience to a twisted theology, makes me wonder about the need for a collective, communal repentance. We all share in the guilt for our part in creating a society where these kinds of things happen.

Repent…repent…repent for the lack of love that causes such cruelty. We’ve seen images showing the cost of dividing families on our southern border and how the poor once again pay the costs of having hope for something better. In the article linked above about a Virginia evangelical church, the members who left the church talk about doing so at great costs as well. Loss of community, loss of faith, and forced separation from family members who choose to stay. The costs of cruelty are great indeed.

To see humankind as essentially wicked would be a loss for me though. It’s a world view which couldn’t save the Shakers, nor will it save that Virginia church, nor a country that labels whole groups of people as undesirables of one sort or another. Repent ..repent …repent for extremes of thought which divide and exclude .

My mind turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer during a walk earlier this week. His path from pacifism to martyrdom is a powerful story, and caused him to resist the evil that led one German pastor to proclaim: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s pacifist beliefs turned more radical during the 1930’s and he wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937.  He paid the costs of that discipleship with his life in a Nazi death camp in April of 1945.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance… Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross..  (D. Bonhoeffer)

We’ve all heard the saying that “freedom is not free.” It seems there are costs for so much that we hold dear, and the trick is to know what exactly it is we should value. Safety or truth? Truth or peace? Peace or community? Community or integrity? Integrity or kindness? Kindness or …. it’s like a huge game of rock, paper, scissors.

And so we are led, as we always are, back to our highest calling – to love. Repent… repent… repent then for all those times when our actions were motivated by anything other than love and caused us to be divided from a sense of solidarity with all of humankind.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

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.

 

 

Passivity

Well, being passive is not a quality we often aspire to or one that we admire in others, is it. We are a culture of opinions and strongly-held views, of action and moving forward. Those do all seem like good things, and yet…

Summer seems like a perfect time to lie fallow, to purposely be idle with the intention of increasing our fruitfulness later, and yet…

These are not times for passivity. Political and social trends require more engagement, more caring and more interaction, not less. By making a case for passivity I’m not suggesting that we be  uncaring, disinterested, or disengaged. Nor that we cultivate a “wait and see” mentality or turn a blind eye to life’s woes. I just see some merit in stepping back, giving ourselves a chance to observe the world from a little distance. Because a lot can happen when we’re passive, and a good place to start practicing is by simply sleeping.

Through most of human history we likely had two periods of sleep – with a quiet time in between.  Clocks and electricity changed our relationship to natural light and darkness, and industrialization channeled us into a more regimented existence, but some have always found their greatest creativity in the middle of the night.  A time that author Marilynne Robinson calls her “benevolent insomnia”

That world between sleeping and waking has a name – hypnagogia – and it’s been studied and appreciated for the affect it can have on creativity. Hypnagogia has been described as the shortest path our subconscious has for its communication with our conscious self. I find some freedom in knowing that I can let go of a problem and passively allow my subconscious to work things out while I sleep! How many times have you woken up with the answer, or just the right words, or a clear plan? I read somewhere recently that it’s not such a bad idea to go to bed angry. Sleeping on it can be a useful tool after all.

If we can fend off anxiety about not being asleep, we might enjoy the stillness and lack of distraction during a period of hypnagogia. It could be a time when we feel a stronger connection to our dreams and find more meaning in them. Often the solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping because of a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call “pattern recognition.”  Our dreaming or hypnagogic mind finds links between new information and memories, because the brain is in a relaxed enough state to create new connections and neural pathways. Pattern recognition, by the way, is how we remember faces, learn language, and appreciate music. All of those things require memories from previous experiences coupled with the ability to absorb new information.

The monastic practice of rising in the middle of the night to pray during the sacred office known as “vigils” surely evolved in some part from this biological need we seem to have once had for a first and second sleep. I have to believe that monks came to those Vigils in a drowsy, yet receptive, state of passivity which helped them to absorb the readings and prayers even more.

Contemplatives talk about “resting in God,” a kind of letting go that is difficult for a lot of people, but have you ever had the experience of getting out of the middle of a problem and having the solution only then become apparent? Passivity, like sleep, has a purpose, and when we’re quiet perhaps that’s when the Holy Spirit finds its way to us more easily, speaking to us and sharpening our sight.

The word liminal is used by anthropologists to describe that time during a rite of passage when someone is on the threshold of change. People of faith use it to describe sacred places where they have an experience of God. These are in-between places, like our periods of hypnagogia. What seems clear to me is that when we are in such a place, we can’t actually do anything to hurry things along. These are times of opening ourselves up to something – whether it be change, understanding, peace, or whatever it is that we actually need.

I rest my case in support of (short-term) passivity. Read a book review in The Washington Post that happens to agree with this idea.

There is a surprising amount of music online related to the word “liminal” – bands and songs and an Icelandic festival even.  This is one I particularly enjoyed: Liminal

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

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 Arc of Common Sense is Long

but it bends towards prosperity.      (bet you didn’t see that coming!)

Threats of global devastation should have been enough, but the common sense of developing renewable energy sources didn’t appeal to a lot of people until the short-term economics did. With fossil fuels costing more to produce than wind or solar energy within the next couple of years, if not already, and given a fair chance by government regulators, common sense around energy use just might prevail.

But common sense thinking around the economic boost that the arts can provide to a local economy? Americans for the Arts, a nearly 60-year old non-profit organization has put business minds to work conducting studies that say yes. Creating jobs, generating commerce, driving tourism – really? I’ve never put common sense, job creation, and the arts into the same sentence before. We’re not talking about blockbuster Broadway productions or Van Gogh exhibits either.

I spent a few days this week in upstate New York, where I attended a concert in one old mill town which has re-created itself by repurposing a factory space into a sprawling modern art museum. I watched the sunset in another old mill town seated next to a stunning (more so than the sunset even) performing arts center that describes itself as a place where the arts, sciences, and technology meet under one roof and breathe the same air. That one is located on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but it’s intended as a resource for the entire region, with a concert hall for the 21st century that looks like a floating wooden planet encased in glass.

Those are both relatively new investments in their respective communities. In contrast, there is a church nearby where old wealth had been invested over 100 years ago into building a glorious Tiffany-designed church. Today it stands as one of the best preserved examples of Tiffany’s artistry. The deep blues in the glass and graceful wooden carvings were built and conserved as a gift for future generations, as surely as these more recent arts centers have been. The arts are clearly a vital presence in these small towns that industry had once built and then jilted. Like cracks in the pavement where plants have pushed through, reminding us that nature always wins, this spirit of creativity seems to infuse the old and forgotten with tendrils of new energy.

Whether the conservation of the art in a once-flourishing church, or the emergence of creative communities in these previously forsaken mill towns, art and music feel like a life force that has broken through the cracks of abandonment. As any weekend gardener knows, vegetation coming up through cracks in your pavement is persistent. You can pour weed killer on those green shoots, but they’ll return somewhere else or in a stronger form that will resist your poison next time. Creativity can’t be ignored (though I’m not liking my weed analogy at this point!). More important to our bottom-line-loving world, the arts can apparently help drive an economic engine that brings new life to old places, even as they make hearts sing and bodies move and minds ponder.

For generations some people have put their wealth into art that would last far beyond them – as patrons of painters and musicians, and as builders of cathedrals and museums. How beautiful to see communities reawakening and reimagining art-filled futures in ways that just happen to make a lot of economic sense too.

Peace,
Sonya

PS   After posting this I saw an article about the impact that funding for the arts by the state of Minnesota has had on the quality of life – and the economy – of small towns there. Read it here.

PPS   The news keeps coming…an article about how the arts have helped Greece emerge from its financial disfunction:  Athens Rising-The New York Times.  One quote in particular spoke to me:  “I think everybody became more creative after the crisis, more cooperative,” he said.  Can our own country emerge from its own crisis of closed minds and cold hearts with more creativity and cooperation?  And here’s another: Measurable Benefits of the Arts

* * * * *

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.

 

 

Passionate Moderation

My husband and I met the Queen of England in 2008. That alone is a wonderful thing, but the story of how it happened is actually my favorite part of the whole experience. We were at the Lambeth Conference on a summer day, one that was quite hot, even for Americans.  We had been invited to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, along with a few thousand other people.  The Queen has a lovely back yard, really more of a park, but the sultry weather had caused everyone to gather on the sidelines under the shade of trees and tea tents, lined up on the right and left of an enormous, sunny expanse of lawn. We decided to take a stroll, and went straight up the middle of this open area, far from any others.  A man in a morning suit appeared, really it seemed out of nowhere, and asked if we wanted to meet the Queen. That was an easy question to answer, and we had our brief brush with royalty.

The point of my story is that we were walking in the middle, alone in that expanse of lawn, with the thousands of other guests far away on either side. I think that made us an easy target for the man in the morning suit on his mission of rounding up a few commoners for the Queen’s reception line. In this case, the middle ground served us well!

I really value the via media, that middle way that builds consensus and sees both sides, even if it can seem like a namby-pamby approach to life. We’re often told to follow our passions – to feel strongly about those things we believe to be true – or false. Yet, in this world of winners and losers, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad…all that clear division of thought cries out for a via media else we forget how to talk to each other at all.

And so, I am choosing to cultivate a passion for moderation. Now, if everyone did that things would get boring pretty fast, but there’s probably no danger of a huge growth in passionate moderation anytime soon. I do believe that we really need people who bring their zeal to both conservative and liberal thinking, though that doesn’t include extremists who distort the truth and abandon motivations of love. Unfortunately, the extremes on either side are sort of like those people standing on either side of the Queen’s lawn – they just might be missing something to be found in the middle.

With all of the attention lately paid to the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, I found it particularly interesting that a May 26th Washington Post article ended an article about Bishop Curry with this line:  I think the story these days is not the rise of the religious left, but the religious middle. If Bishop Curry is any guide, it’s possible for that middle ground to be full of passion’s energy.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

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.