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The Silence of God

The music soars to a climax, and ends. The audience sits breathless, silent. The silence is entire, beautiful in and of itself, and very, very short–just before the applause begins.

Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion, writes in “Louder Than Words,” (Literary Review) about the power of silence from a theological point of view. The article is a review of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.

But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.

Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In the meantime, most of us must rely on art.

Spanish Revelations scan

Paying attention

Like many people, I’ve been caught up over the last week in the Boston marathon explosions and all the emotions they inspire. So many people have written eloquently about what happened, about the marathon and Boston. I have nothing of consequence to add, except perhaps to mention a couple of links that have meant a lot to me: “Messing with the Wrong City” by Dennis Lehane in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/opinion/messing-with-the-wrong-city.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, and runner Dan Mungerrun’s post at http://mungerruns.blogspot.com/2013/04/in-praise-of-boston.html.

There is one small yet not at small all thing I’d like to examine briefly. It hasn’t anything directly to do with Boston.

SONY DSC

Watching the interfaith service on television today, I was struck by Yo Yo Ma playing in that intense concentrated way he has. It doesn’t matter whether the music is complex or simple, whether the concert is a celebration or an occasion for grief. He is always there entirely, paying attention. It reminded me of a recent post by painter Deborah Barlow in her wonderful blog, Slow Muse. Her starting place was a quotation from Susan Sontag.

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

That’s what Yo Yo Ma always does. I’ve never been a runner, but I suspect it’s what runners do too.

Maybe it has everything to do with Boston. Maybe it’s what Boston is doing.

The homeless, art and Basquiat’s anger

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world,” said a homeless mixed media artist in Above Ground, a study of aging artists in New York City. He was 72.

I read somewhere the other day that the life expectancy of the average homeless man is 47; that of the average woman 43.

I was just in New York City, walking down the Broadway on the Upper Westside and fingering change in my jacket pocket, when a man approached me and asked for seventy-five cents and as it turned out that was precisely what I was fiddling with and I gave it to him. Not fiddling, I shook my head “no” to the next two probably homeless fellows who were still approaching the age of mortality. I felt appropriately guilty afterwards. No spontaneous generosity there.

I saw an overwhelming exhibit of the paintings of Basquiat, the graffiti artist who died of an overdose at the age of 27 in New York in 1988. Lots of large anger on public walls…. The art of street people, the art of the homeless. “It’s about 80% anger,” said Jean-Michel Basquiat of his work.

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

Untitled acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

The extraordinary old

Years ago I remember watching an old black and white television program of the Grand Ole Opry. I was struck by how many older people starred alongside the younger ones–people who’d been around for years, and were still country music favorites. I wasn’t very old then, but I remember feeling comfortable in a way I didn’t usually. As if I were watching from a comfortable-old-couch comfortable. It was “a new normal” for me and I liked it.
There are old singers around, although not a lot of them. I think there will probably be more as the population ages. But mostly singers in every genre of music are young or still trying to look and act young. I’m so glad there’s a MickJagger(69), a Tony Bennett (86), and a Willie Nelson(79). Old people sing too!

Tony Bennett in 2003. Photo by Tom Beetz. Permission from Creative Commons.

I started thinking about all of this because of an article on WQXR by Fred Plotkin entitled “The Song of the Ancient Soprano.” He wasn’t just talking about older singers like Placido Domingo (71) or Mirella Freni (77) who have chosen their roles wisely and with their age in mind; he really was talking about “ancient singers,” people who were raised in a different musical culture, who knew Puccini and Strauss, and represented another way of singing. Frequently, they’re Italian: “No country seems to venerate ancient sopranos and tenors more than Italy, where a very old person who is still actively engaged in life and work is referred to as forte. This term implies not simply “strong” but admirable.”
He cites some formidable examples. Angelo Lo Forese (92) who was still performing at the age of 91 can be heard on Youtube singing music from Il Trovatore at the age of 90. The author gives special attention to Magda Olivero who was born in 1910. She made her Met debut at the age of 65 singing the role of Tosca. She was not only believable as the fifteen-year-old heroine, she was deeply impressive. Olivero is now 103; she sang in public well into her 90s. Not quite as outrageously amazing is Giuseppe Taddei who died in 2010. He made his Met debut as Falstaff at the age of 69. The role was age appropriate, but that’s the only reason his appearance was anything short of amazing.

Magda Olivera at 100

Some people have questioned whether it’s helpful to the aged to hold up examples of those among us who are extraordinary, inclulding those who are athletically or academically gifted. Most of us won’t be singing or dancing at 99. I don’t know how much the extraordinary say about the rest of us. I do think it makes a difference for all of us when the aged and the young are all in the mix, whether it’s cultural, social, academic…. whatever. It reminds me of another time I felt similarly comfortable. The choreographer Bill T. Jones was in Burlilngton, Vermont doing a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The closing scene was a rousing one with all the dancers–very old, old, middle aged and young–naked and dancing. It was remarkably satisfying.

Small things: like socks

It’s always been fascinating to me when something very small makes a big difference – when a note is held  just a beat longer and the song is changed.

A week or more ago, on National Public Radio’s “The Story” — which I only hear when I happen to be driving between two and three in the afternoon–an ex-con related how his life was changed by one of those small things. Ray Materson had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for drug-related thievery. He was deeply depressed and angry at everyone, especially himself. The small thing was a pair of striped socks in the colors of the University of Michigan.

I guess they’d been recently laundered, but when I hear about socks worn by convicts in a California prison, I think of the smell of men’s feet. But Ray Materson thought of his grandmother’s embroidery and his own love of the University of Michigan. He decided to make a letter ‘’M” on his baseball cap, in lieu of not being able to go to the Rose Bowl and watch his team contend. He’d sewn on buttons so he saw no reason he couldn’t embroider.

It was the beginning of a career in art. Each emblem, most of them no larger than 2 ¼ to 2 ¾ inches and with 1200 stitches to the square inch, became more intricate and more extraordinary. Today, he has work in museums and galleries all over the country. His life has been transformed.

Small things can be very wonderful.

Drumming

Korean drummer performing at Langley International Festival 2010. Photo by dance photographer, Brendan Lally.

Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.

 
Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.

 
Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.

Let America be America Again

Many years ago, in the middle of a project about the pillaging of the earth by various coal companies, I worried that America wasn’t America and never had been. There was no “shining city on a hill,” only a country with good and bad, strength and weakness, justice and injustice. It’s a fascinating country and one I love but, contrary to the nation’s odd array of Republican debaters, I’m not sure that it’s a country God loves better than any other.

Strip coal mining. Photo by Stephen Codrington for Planet Geography 3rd Edition (2005). Creative Commons.

That’s when I realized that America is a dream–sometimes almost realized, often not.  Patriotism is not an unconsidered devotion to “my country, right or wrong,” but an allegiance to a dream and the work to  to realize it.

Langston Hughes had already said it in the 1930s, and said it powerfully. Most of my readers are probably familiar with this poem, but it, more than most – and especially now – bears repeating.

Let America Be America Again  

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home–

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay–

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–

The land that never has been yet–

And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain–

All, all the stretch of these great green states–

And make America again!