Song of the Universal

This is a time of year when we think most about universal themes – things like hope and peace and those things which bring people together, like singing carols or gathering around a meal.  The “feel good” quality of a “happy holidays!” greeting might seem cheesy and superficial, but maybe it’s also a tiny step towards living into those universal songs of hope and peace.

This is a piece I’ve gotten to live with these past few months as one of the choirs I work with learned it for their concerts a few weeks ago. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeillo found his inspiration in the words of American poet Walt Whitman, and wrote about his chosen text: “I love the unabashed optimism, exuberance and his unwavering confidence in our deeper humanity – all through the prism of a big, warm, beating heart.”

Gjeillo sets part of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”:

COME, said the Muse,

Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted, Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag, Enclosed and safe within its central heart, Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—conceal’d or unconceal’d, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us, Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain; Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual Images ripening.

So wonderful to think about the possibility of the “seed Perfection” nestling with the “grossness and slag,” but one of the poem’s lines, not set by Gjeillo, is the anthem I want to sing in 2019:

“Only the good is universal.”

What a leap of faith, amidst so much pain and turmoil in our world, to think of misery as fleeting and that which is good as what will last.

Maybe it seems cheesy and superficial to approach the new year with the exuberance and confidence in our deeper humanity that Gjeillo and Whitman want us to feel, but it is the only step I know how to take towards living into the universal songs of hope and peace that our world needs to be singing.

Happy New Year!

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.

Joy

Where do you find joy, when so much right now seems joyless? The news, and the traffic, and stresses of modern life, together with all of our fears about global warming and warring factions and humanity’s willful cruelties conspire to rob us of joy. We could turn off the news and stick our heads in the sand, but ignorance doesn’t bring joy. We could shut down conversations and proclaim that the other side is wrong, but disconnecting from relationships doesn’t bring joy. We could sweep unpleasantness under the rug and hope no one notices the lumps, but evading truth doesn’t bring joy. So where do we find joy?

A few years ago I came across a story about a 110 year old Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died in 2014, just a few days before a short film about her, The Lady in No. 6, won an Academy Award.  In accepting the Oscar, the film’s director, Malcolm Clarke, said that he was struck by Herz-Sommer’s “extraordinary capacity for joy” and “amazing capacity for forgiveness.”

In the midst of an insanity that would cause most of us to lose hope – a family torn apart, a husband sent to Dachau, she and her son to Theresienstadt – she found joy in music.  “Beethoven is my religion” she said.  “He gives me faith to live and to say to me: Life is wonderful and worthwhile, even when it is difficult.”  She credited Chopin with keeping her alive in the camp, as she pulled upon the reserve of strength which Chopin’s etudes had built within her.

Alice had every reason to lose hope, and instead found every reason to hold onto it.  If her choice to find beauty and joy in a harsh world seems naïve, does feeling damaged, angry or vengeful seem like a better choice?

“It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” Simple words from a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so very reminiscent of another Jew, as recorded in the Gospel according to Mark.

“Music is God,” Alice tells us in the film. What is beautiful is of God. She believed in the power of music, and believed that being joyful is a choice which any of us can make. At her darkest hour, she chose to look for beauty, and in finding it where she could, hope was possible.

Where there is hope there can be joy. Leonard Cohen reminded us that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I doubt that Alice was blind to the horror around her, and if we are living in times which seem to encourage ignorance, disconnectedness, and evasion of responsibility and truth, look for those cracks where the light gets in and just maybe that is where your joy can be found.

Peace,
Sonya

2014 Oscar winning short documentary

* * * * *

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 new 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.

 

Advent 4 – Veni Emmanuel

This week contains the shortest days of the year, as well as one last opportunity to ponder the season of Advent. This is the turning point. Days now begin to gradually lengthen, and that for which we are waiting will soon be with us. In my mind’s ear I hear the bass soloist in  Handel’s Messiah singing:

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

I was probably well into early adulthood before I realized that it was actually the prophet Isaiah, and not Handel, who wrote about this time of darkness and the coming of a great light.

There is one hymn in particular which captures the urgency of our longing – for light, for salvation, for hope, for knowledge, for connection. O come, O come Emmanuel, expresses all that Advent holds for us, and takes us to a place of contemplation and quiet anticipation. Its medieval text and tune – written separately and of uncertain sources – are mysterious and comforting at the same time.

These “O” antiphons, as the words are known, are adaptations of medieval texts that were (and still are in some places) sung before and after the chanting of the Magnificat, one each in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what those dates before each verse of Hymn #56 in The Hymnal 1982 meant?

Each of the seven different verses of Veni Emmanuel begins with a salutation in the form of a name for God, and then a petition based on that name:

(December 17) O Sapienta
O come, thou Wisdom, to us the path of knowledge show
(December 18)  O Adonai
O come, thou Lord of might, that didst give the law
(December 19)  O Radix Jesse
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, give them victory o’er the grave
(December 20)  O Clavis David
O come, thou Key of David, make safe the way that leads on high
(December 21)  O Oriens
O come, thou Dayspring from on high, disperse the gloomy clouds of night
(December 22)  O Rex gentium
O come, Desire of nations, be thyself our King of Peace
(December 23)  O Emmanuel
O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s marvelous response to Gabriel’s news that she would bear a son. If only we were all able to be as open-hearted and accepting of God’s plan for us. With each verse of O come, O come Emmanuel we are summoning God into our lives, but there needs to be room in our hearts for all the ways that God might open our minds and cause us to change.

The duality of Advent includes the knowledge that we are awaiting something which we already have – God’s love. Light and dark, joy and penance, a baby both human and divine. The very word Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us,” suggests reality, however, and not just a hope. We sing our invitation with Veni Emmanuel. Be ready then to make room.

Veni Emmanuel – instrumental version, with photos from the Holy Land

Peace,
Sonya

Optimism

In his book The Art of Possibility, conductor Benjamin Zander tells the story of two shoe salesmen who were sent to a developing nation to investigate the possibility of expanding their business. One sends back a message saying, SITUATION HOPELESS-NO ONE WEARS SHOES, while the other writes with a different perspective: GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY-THEY HAVE NO SHOES.

(Listen to Zander’s TED Talk if you have 20 minutes to spare. It is well worth your time.)

Optimism changes the story.  It opens doors and quells fears and creates possibilities. Psychologists write about the difference between optimism and hope, and though we often use these words interchangeably, they each make unique contributions to our well-being which should be cultivated. The Czech leader Vaclav Havel had something to say about this: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Hope is an emotion which expresses our desire for something we want – happiness, success, world peace, freedom. It is closely bound up with our experiences of reality, but for that very reason hopes can be dashed, as the cliche says. We hope for peace and reconciliation and love because those things are right and good, but we don’t assume they will happen.

Optimism, on the other hand, prompts us to adapt to challenges, helping us believe that an answer will emerge, causing us to persist in the face of the unknown and to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome. There is something muscular about optimism – it can be practiced and strengthened in our daily lives.  It implies “doing” rather than “being.”

Once again, going to pianist Glenn Gould for wisdom, I find that he was contemptuous of today’s music, the 17th of the Goldberg Variations. He found it to be ” one of those rather skittish, slightly empty-headed collections of scales and arpeggios which Bach indulged when he wasn’t writing sober and proper things like fugues and canons.”

Goldberg Variations, 17 (Optimism)

Oh dear, I’m afraid I have to agree. There is indeed something empty-headed about this particular variation. I’m not sure now why I chose optimism as my intention for Variation 17 in January when I was planning out this series. But sometimes it does feel nonsensical to me when we engage in any kind of speculation about how things will turn out. We really can’t ever KNOW what the future holds. Less rooted in reality than hope, optimism can seem as foolish as this “collection of scales and arpeggios.”

Perhaps, however, being optimistic is akin to aging.  The alternatives of pessimism and death are neither good for our health, nor particularly attractive as personal traits!

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.