“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

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NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

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“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Vampire Weekend Contra Mundum

Or, if that title isn’t clever enough

 Vampire Weekend Feels a Twitch Upon the Thread

As a confirmed hipster with snobbish inclinations, I often bore houseguests by handing them a home-brewed ale and forcing them to admire the sound of vinyl records spinning on my vintage turntable. A record that has been in frequent rotation is Vampire Weekend’s 2nd album, Contra, music that is delightfully energetic and engaging. The lyrics have always been clever and particularly appeal to me because they humorously describe locales in New England in which I have spent quite a bit of time (Yes, Hyannisport can be a drag). It’s always been a bit of a lark, though, which is fine, because sometimes in life we don’t need to be put through an emotional wringer to encounter good art. There is greatness in the talent of a humorist, something serious in a laugh.

For all of us, though, there is a season for everything, and for Vampire Weekend it is time to get introspective. In an article in the New York Times of May 18, 2013 entitled “Setting Their Sights On Wider Vistas,” lyricist Ezra Koenig says that he has come to see the band’s 3rd album, Modern Vampires in the City, as the completion of a trilogy. He then says something I would never in a million years have expected to come from a pop singer about his work, “It reminded me of ‘Brideshead Revisited.’” It reminded him of Brideshead! When asked to name my favorite novel, I cannot get the words “Brideshead Revisited” out of my mouth quickly enough to display my enthusiasm for Evelyn Waugh’s book. I will hound every single acquaintance for the rest of their lives until they both read the book and watch the miniseries starring Jeremy Irons. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful, and difficult piece of work. Not the stuff of your typical pop song.

Koenig goes on, explaining, “The naïve joyous school days in the beginning. Then the expansion of the world, travel, seeing other places, learning a little bit more about how people live. And then the end is a little bit of growing up, starting to think more seriously about your life and your faith. If people could look at our three albums as a bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.”

The earlier work by Vampire Weekend corresponds to the first half of Waugh’s Book, a time of carefree living in Arcadia, new friendships, and the glamour of the English aristocracy. In time, the life of each member of the Brideshead family is complicated: Sebastian’s by alcoholism, Lord Marchmain’s by the prospect of an unprovided death without last rites, Julia’s by divorce and the guilt of living in adultery, and through it all is friend of the family, Charles, who is constantly searching for meaning. After a long absence, the Great War brings Charles back to a now abandoned Brideshead, the world is shattering, a proud family dissipated, and he has seen these halls before.

Earlier in the book, Charles declares loyalty to his embattled friend, fervently affirming, “No, I’m with you, Sebastian contra mundum.” The two men know that they are against the world. The vain hope of wealth and luxury, education and travel, career and women, these have all been shown to be shallow and unworthy. And yet, they do not know precisely what it is that they do want.

Vampire Weekend express much the same sentiment. They are world weary. They are on the lookout for something more, but remain conflicted by the hiddenness of God. In the song “Ya Hey” (Get it? Yahweh!) Koenig sings “America don’t love you/So I could never love you/In spite of everything” In “Unbelievers,” he sings, “…what holy water contains a little drop, a little drop for me?” In the end, is the band converted? Is Charles Ryder converted? The answer is never that easy, for the ways of the divine are mysterious and the human will is frequently late to love that which is lovely. Have no fears, though, this is the pilgrimage we all make. In Brideshead, Julia cries, “I’ve always been bad.  Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God…” Perhaps, she says, it is the case that, “however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.”  The song “Arrow” ends with these words, “Oh it’s no use at all/But that life in the Church could still remain.” Indeed, for all of us in any situation, in a darkening world, the altar lamp still burns brightly.

Brideshead Chapel

 

 

(With advancing years, my hipster credentials are slipping a bit and I missed the release of Modern Vampires in the City by almost a full year and am only now listening to it. The blog “Unpleasant Accents” has shown itself to be the true fan by beating me to this topic, writing on Koenig’s words about Brideshead Revisited back in the spring. I heartily recommend checking out their thoughts: http://unpleasantaccents.blogspot.com/2014/02/vampire-weekend-waugh-revisited.html )

Dappled Links

Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy – The Atlantic
Fantasy author Lev Grossman reflects on the special power of Narnia.

Finding the Words – The New Yorker
“There’s one other thing I’d like to tell you about my grief: I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t read. Even poetry, which had always come to my rescue, couldn’t protect or console me.”

A Conversation with Christian Wiman – Image
“I wrote somewhere or other that to love one’s life is to assent to its terms, the severest of which is death.”

The Poetry of World War I – Poetry
Poems about the war, ordered by the year of their writing.

Baseball and Blaise Pascal

New RosenblattJune 14, 2014

It’s Opening Day at the College World Series, and I am heartbroken because my LSU Tigers blew a four run lead in the eighth inning of the NCAA Regional and they are not in Omaha. I will have to settle for cheering on our fellow SEC schools, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, because for a die-hard fan like me, not watching is not an option. I don’t make it to the stadium quite as often as I’d like these days, but in college, I was “that” kid, the lone soul toughing it out in the student section through two-hour rain delays against Nobody State. However, LSU’s early exit from this year’s tournament has left me more reading time than I really like to have during the postseason, which I have occupied with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. That is how my brain happened to slam with the force of a Babe Ruth swing into this:

 

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

How does it happen that this man, so distressed at the death of his wife and his only son… seems so free from all painful and disquieting thoughts? We need not wonder; for a ball has been served him, and he must return it to his companion. He is occupied in catching it in its fall from the roof, to win a game. How can he think of his own affairs, pray, when he has this other matter in hand?…

The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves… and leads unconsciously to death.

 

Time out, Umpire. Did he just say that baseball is killing me?

If Pascal was speaking of spiritual death, then I admit being a sports fan can be the near occasion of a host of sins. Drunkenness, for one, or the temptation to exhaust one’s savings on tickets, parking passes, fan merchandise, etc. Gluttony finds easy prey at my alma mater on game day; there is no culinary experience on earth quite like an LSU tailgate party. However, the acts of eating, drinking, or buying a ticket are not inherently sinful. A little temperance can allow one to enjoy an evening at the ballpark guilt-free, nor is it the sinfulness of sports and other diversions that Pascal objects to. Rather, it is the fact that they “hinder us from reflecting upon ourselves.”

He goes on to explain that “our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves” about the immortality of the soul, and neglecting this exercise for the pursuit of vain diversions is “monstrous.” No Christian can, in good conscience, disagree with that assertion, and in a society that has turned proliferating distractions into a global economic force, Pascal’s words ring truer than ever before. The screens and speakers that surround us, flashing and screaming for attention everywhere we go, are destroying our ability to focus. We cannot contemplate what to eat for lunch without our minds drifting toward virtual realities. Are such brains even capable of pondering things immortal and divine? Distraction is deadly, and in more ways than Pascal could possibly have understood in the seventeenth century.

I know this. I recognize my own susceptibility, and I strive not to be one of “those who pass their life without thinking of [its] ultimate end.” But I still love baseball, and reading Pascal has not changed that.

Why?

First, because baseball–or any sport–is a form of theater. It is a play whose end even the actors do not know. A battle unfolds that pits skill against skill, where elements beyond human control (wind, sun, rain) sometimes intervene to turn drama into comedy or victory into defeat. A story unfolds, and we immerse ourselves in sympathy with the players: a kind of pretending the benefits of which I have discussed on this blog before. There is catharsis in winning, and a genuine lesson in living through a beloved team’s defeat.

Sporting events can, however, offer more. There are only two places I know where people go with the intention of chanting in an assembly: a sports stadium and a church or synagogue. There are liturgical echoes in the way sporting events unfold, and there is real communion–not the heavenly, Eucharistic kind, but human communion–in joining one’s voice to thousands of one’s fellow creatures, in sharing each other’s shouts of joy and groans of disappointment. There are no Republicans or Democrats in a stadium, no Christians or atheists. The only “left” and “right” are on the field. When a homerun sails over the wall, no one asks the person in front of him about his ideology; they just smile at each other and trade a high five. It is this that I love most about baseball. Communion builds community, and it is important, especially in a society as fractured and contentious as ours, to find opportunities to shed our labels and become one.

Of course, communion that is not heavenly holds the danger of fooling us into believing we have found fulfillment in earthly pleasure. This is the danger of all good earthly things, the old Augustinian problem of failing to see the Creator within the created. I suspect this danger is at the root of Pascal’s disdain for all diversions, but is avoiding entertainment really the solution? A cloistered, diversion-free life is a good one, for those who are called to it, but such singular focus on holy things is impossible for most of us. Can you imagine trying to raise children without any way to keep them entertained? But why would you even want to try, when children learn things like empathy, teamwork, and problem solving by playing games?

I do not think “diversions” are the problem, but rather the distorted pride of place we sometimes give them in our lives. Pascal was right that it is incumbent upon us all to reflect soberly on the human condition, to face the hard reality that we are mortal, and not to divert ourselves from the work of the soul. However, I would add that much of the work of the soul is experiential. We choose our diversions because they satisfy at least partially some intrinsic need, and it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whatever you choose to do with your time, the question to ask is, “Why?” If your entertainments are merely substitutes for things that could lead you toward holiness, then it is time to set them aside. But if they still have work to do within you and the people you share them with, then carry on.

Warren Morris

Now, let’s play ball!

What García Márquez Meant to the Macondians

Gabriel Gracia MarquezDappled Things president Bernardo Aparicio García weighed in about the death of the most beloved writer from his native Colombia, Gabriel García Márquez.

Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s contained within itself Hell and Paradise all at once, each in its full force, neither diluting the other. This point is essential to understand why so many of us have taken to calling our beloved Nobel Laureate, the late Gabriel García Márquez, the most important Colombian who ever lived.

Read more at The Millions.

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920’s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

The Parenting Drug

drugsI went to see my dental hygienist the other day.  During the moments when her fingers were not in my mouth, she and I chatted (like we do every six months) about parenting.  My boys are three and five, her daughter is two.  There is always something to chew on about preschools, naptime rituals, kids who won’t eat vegetables–the usual.  This time, we talked about coping with the stress of parenting.  She told me that a few days before, she had been talking about the same thing with other working moms who looked at her and said, “Aren’t you on Zoloft?  Or Paxil?” with an air that clearly implied, “Because everybody else is.”

I did some reading, and it turns out, my hygienist and I have been living in a bubble.  Those other moms are right.  It’s not quite “everybody,” but prescribing antidepressants to frazzled moms is becoming increasingly common.  I, an incessantly frazzled mom, can absolutely understand why it would help.  My rose-colored parenting glasses came off when my oldest son was diagnosed with a developmental disorder affecting his language and motor skills just after he turned two.  I was three months pregnant with my youngest at the time.  My life ever since has been an unending whirlwind of choosing therapies, investigating schools, learning how to continue therapy at home, plus all the normal headaches that come from raising two boys.  While writing this paragraph, I have been interrupted to fish a naked toddler out of the bathtub and to engineer a way to keep him from scaling the built-in desk in the hall.  I also work full time.  Not a day goes by when I couldn’t use a good chill pill.  But, in the midst of all the chaos, it is easy to forget that our frazzled hearts will always be restless until they rest in God.

Let me be clear.  Depression is very real and very dangerous, and it can definitely affect mothers.  Some of the dearest people in my life require psychiatric medications, and I am truly grateful that science has developed ways to help them.  Anyone–man or woman, parent or not–who believes he or she may be suffering from a mental illness should seek the help of a psychiatrist.  If you need medication, please take it.  I am only here to say, there is something else you need, and it is more powerful than any drug.

It’s called prayer.

Mothers do not always neglect prayer because we lack faith.  We neglect it for the same reason I haven’t had a haircut in six months; there is no time.  For most of us, the only way we have been taught to pray is to carve out a few minutes of silence, which is a very good way.  For me personally, however, “finding time” proved to be impossible.  Prayer became just one more thing to add to the agenda, another gratuitous source of stress.  I had to give up the idea of finding time and learn how to find opportunity instead.

God does not exist somewhere outside our busy lives, like a kind old uncle we need to visit now and then.  He is there in the very midst of headache, heartache, and frustration.  He is there every time your child cries, and every time he smiles.  Every hug is an opportunity to thank God for the gift of that beautiful little person in your arms.  Every sleepless night is an opportunity to throw yourself upon His mercy and experience His grace.  I cannot tell you how many times my prayer has been as simple as, “Holy Spirit, I can’t do this.  You’re going to have to take over.”  If and when I get to heaven, I’m going to throw a barbecue for my family’s guardian angels.  They do a marvelous job of catching us in the moments when I fail–and those failures are another opportunity to praise God because He has not left us orphans.  We are right when we say, one person cannot do this job on her own.  One person does not have to.  We have whole legions, both in heaven and on earth, ready to answer our call.

This is what prayer can do:

In the three and a half years since my son’s diagnosis, he has gone from being completely unable to communicate to being at or above normal in every linguistic category except social skills.  The advances in his motor skills are more difficult to describe–he still looks awkward when he tries to gesture–but he tries.  We expect him to overcome the need for therapy in another two to three years.  For all of this, his magnificent team of therapists deserves a big round of applause.  My son deserves a standing ovation; he is the one doing the work.  My husband and I will accept a pat on the back, because we have hardly been idle bystanders.  But behind it all there has been a small army of people praying.  Every night, God has gone to bed with countless of those persistent, hungry friends from the parable (Luke 11:5-8) knocking at His door.  Just as He promised, He got up and answered.

My radical solution to the problem of motherhood stress is this: pray, but don’t just pray.  Ask others to pray for you, too.  Then, instead of restlessness, weight gain, and anxiety–the side effects of antidepressants–we might find that motherhood brings love, joy, and peace–the side effects of prayer.

Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Singing Our Contrition:

 

congregation-singingPenitence is a quiet thing.  Certainly, one who has found freedom and redemption wants to shout it from the rooftops, but that comes later.  The first movement toward acknowledging our failings turns us inward, to contemplation and remorse.  Who dances into the confessional?  We rejoice in forgiveness, but who feels joyful when he cries out, “Forgive me”?  I have never known anyone who wanted to sing about his sins.

I was surprised, then, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the 2008 document Sing to the Lord, and I read this statement: “In Lent, instruments should be used only to support the singing of the gathered assembly” (#114.)  I was not the only music director who thought this strange.  What better season is there for a contemplative piano solo, maybe a flute or a violin, to gently coax our souls along their penitential path?  Movies have conditioned us to feel the way the instrumental music sounds.  When the orchestra is soft and prayerful, we automatically follow suit.  Yet here the bishops were hamstringing directors, requiring in the very same paragraph that Lenten music exercise “restraint,” while ripping from our arsenal restraint’s most obvious friend: the instruments.  Why not dial back all that awkward minor-mode singing and just let the music flow?

I did not understand the bishops’ orders, but, like a good little Roman soldier, I marched.  Gone were the soft organ preludes before Mass, the subtle “doodling” underneath the spoken prayers.  In came more sung hymns to add to our sung “Kyrie” and sung “Lord, hear our prayer,” which were already Lenten traditions in our parish.  We created a relentless, unbroken strain of congregational songs supported by piano and organ.  The entire mood felt forced.  For several years, our hamstrung Lenten music dragged itself impatiently toward Easter.  So, last year I finally said, “Fine, bishops.  You don’t want instruments in Lent?  They’re gone.”  For every Lenten Mass, I programmed two pieces (one was the same every week) to be sung completely a cappella.

The pastor nodded reluctant approval.  The organist declared me to be completely off my rocker.  The other cantors all said, “Great, but you’re going to lead it.  We’re out.”  The choir was skeptical, but they have followed me on wilder liturgical adventures and lightning has yet to strike us, so they warily came along for the ride.  Our congregation is a singing one, relative to some, but no one thought it possible for them to sustain a cappella verse for more than the length of “Thanks be to God.”  Nevertheless, we armed ourselves with hymnals, screwed our courage to the sticking place, and set out to restrain Lent.

That’s when God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to give me tonsillitis.  Thus did I discover how truly penitential singing can be.

Fortunately, the congregation never noticed the agony their cantor was enduring as I led them into these uncharted waters of pure unison song–uncharted, except that the Church has been navigating them for its entire history.  It’s the pipe organ, the piano, the guitar that are new-fangled; the human voice had been praising God for millennia before such contraptions came along.  My parish threw down its mechanical crutches, and an amazing thing happened: God said, “Get up and walk.”  Our twenty-story ceiling echoed with the plaint that had always been singing in our hearts, the melody of contrition.  We did not end up hopelessly flat; our tempos did not drag down into breathless dirges.  Instead, something simple, new, and beautiful was born.  It was true Lent.

Not surprisingly, it turns out the bishops know good liturgy better than I do.  They know that “engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ” (#113) also means engaging human voices.  They know that the healing presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ is made manifest in the communion of the assembly much more readily than in a movie-style soundtrack to the Mass.  In Sing to the Lord, the bishops affirm the power of instrumental music to glorify God in the Mass, and so do I.  But the quiet, inward turning of repentance should lead us toward the place where “God dwells within each human person, in the place where music takes its source” (#1.)  The source of all music is the instrument God Himself fashioned: your voice.  Sinfulness may not make us feel much like singing, but song is the way God leads us “to the realm of higher things,” (#2) to mercy, grace, and salvation.

You who are reading this may or may not have any say-so about how liturgy happens in your parish.  Even if you do, my little experiment might serve no purpose in the context of your parish life.  But, no matter what your liturgies sound like, during this Lenten season, I challenge all of you to sing.  “Music is… a sign of God’s love for us and our love for him….  Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (#1.)  If it is truly God’s presence you seek to know in your Lenten journey, then forget about giving up cake and give up your self-conscious silence instead.  Kick your ego to the curb, ignore your neighbor’s dirty glares, and proclaim your sorrow, your sinfulness, and your hope of salvation to the One who will always listen.  Let the song of the Church at prayer guide your heart through desert dryness into the oasis of Easter.  Then, when we have found true union with the Body of Christ in our assemblies, we can let the trumpets, lyres, and the rest join in to proclaim our joy.

On Art and Necessity

I once asked my old art professor why she was a painter. After stumbling around for a while, she said something like, “the process of painting teaches you how to live.”

I’ve been thinking about this response for a few years now. It’s a statement I believe in wholeheartedly, but I also stumble around before ever repeating it. In the studio, I often feel like I’m reaching in the dark, but I rarely feel like I am being taught.

Five weeks ago my wife and I had our first daughter. She came five weeks early. Twelve days in the NICU completely reoriented my priorities. The second Augusta was sent down the hall for breathing issues, my wife and I clicked into survival mode. Nothing else mattered besides caring and advocating for our daughter in the NICU. Now that we’re back home, I’ve haven’t clicked out of that mode. The impulse to create, replaced by the impulse to survive, now seems ridiculous. How could anything be less urgent than smudging oil and pigment around on a flat surface?

Obama shared my sentiments lately. A few weeks ago he was criticized for his thoughts on the art history degree:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” [sic][laughter]

This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Skilled manufacturing is so much more urgent, so much more relevant than discussing the well-smeared paste of artists long past. Who has time for that? I’d rather feed my family, or fix the problem in Syria.

The College Art Association responded to Obama’s remarks. If we do away with such degrees, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”

But art making never seems so urgent as saving future generations. When so much of what we encounter on a daily basis offers an escape from reality, isn’t art just another way out? So many paintings offer pastoral windows into other worlds. These pleasant getaways rarely challenge our beliefs or craft our values.

Of course such paintings have their place, but I really believe that art was born out of a much more urgent necessity. The Chauvet Cave drawings, some of the earliest known, are anything but decorative. Painted in the far recesses of a cave, most of the drawings feature predatory animals or buffalos or horses in states of movement. There is a palpable searching in these drawings, an urgency, a need to really figure something out. One drawing features a combined female and bison figure. Here two fabrics of life are awkwardly knit together in charcoal. Sustenance and generation, death and life so intertwined, it only makes sense to draw them as one.

The Chauvet Cave Drawings, photo from the Bradshaw Foundation

Such images often express what words cannot. More recently, drawings have been used in refugee camps as a successful way for children to express their thoughts and feelings. With a simple drawing, they can express what they could not put into words. The process of drawing accesses a different part of the psyche. It is a process of seeking, digging, carving until you get somewhere. You only need to keep your hand moving. Art does not offer a way out, it offers a way in. Born out of necessity, art making unfolds new topographies, new ways of charting. A drawing or painting becomes an extension of seeing, and even when it’s not necessary, we still turn to these mediums to know deeper.

Even still, art seems like an extra-thing, a we-could-get-by-without-it thing. But I think we can say its superfluousness is only matched by its necessity.