Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Wail

Watching in combination clips from "Into the Wild" and "August Rush" this PM and realizing... I think I have for some time thought that beauty must be experienced from some particular perspective... somewhere where you can see the grit and toil of the 'everyman' as well as the chins of those with their heads in the clouds. Christopher McCandless was a silver spoon wielding trust fund baby who gave everything he had to UNICEF, chopped up all his ties to affluence (including ID) and set off for Alaska on foot on a self-imposed rite-of-passage. Even gave himself a new name. He wanted adventure... "a spiritual revolution to kill the false being within." And so chased the beauty of life with two feet on the ground. I watch the clip from August Rush with the little girl singing in the empty church... come to find out the group singing with her comes from Harlem and their music is written by the members... mostly students. The song is powerful... full of pain and hope... in lyric and tone... sagging deeply under the weight of human beauty. It is based on their experience.

And I am tempted, having never had nothing... to feel as if I have nothing to contribute to this collective beauty. I am simultaneously moved and excluded from the human chorus... from that wail that spears towards heaven in accusation and then flutters back down to earth in resigned acceptance of the justice that must come from an unspearable God if it comes at all. And the fluttering resolve to a major lift somehow blankets those who wailed... and they are a little warmer ... but noone knows if hope grew and settled from the release of the wail or simply from the new lack of loneliness the chorus made evident.

I stand puzzling... still in the cold.

They can wail... and it is beautiful. But I, wailing with them, would be an imposter. Wouldn't I corrupt their song in some way? Can a suburbanite High School Choir sing southern Spirituals deeply rooted in the agony of the experience of the slaves... or give poetry readings from the pens of the Holocaust... and it be anything but education? Can it be a wail? Can music flow from the aching depths of the human soul... when replayed by souls whose depths have not been sounded, much less dug, much less filled with water from cuts that deep. Can I wail in that way? I do not think so. But perhaps the trying... is part of the sounding... an education for the digging? I definitely think it worthwhile. The wail itself carries a great deal of story... flavor of the human souls from whose depths it originated. And from that we are strengthened and refreshed... given clearer eyes, and more sober judgment.

But that's not the point... my realization is that... the power of the wail is only partly due to the perspective of the singer, but largely due to the fact that it is given indescriminately. Perhaps the singer's benefit is intrinsic in the creation process... but the benefit to mankind is larger by degree. The perspective of the singer is important... surely, as colors on a palatte are important to a painting. But the responsibility lies on all of us to generate beauty indiscriminately. If you are rich, your resources may be different, but your responsibility is the same.
Here, I feel rich. I am in debt... but I show pictures of where I come from... the farmhouse, the gardens, the relatively manicured land.... and I feel isolated from the music that is made here... but I must not allow myself submission to this fear.

Where we are, whoever we are, there we can make beauty.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Update and Thoughts

Motorcycle is in the shop for its final pre-road repairs and check-up. I think this marks the first "first visit to a mechanic" for any of my motorcycles in which the bike was in better condition than when I bought it. I mean... he's still fixing my bike... but I consider it a small victory. Basically, there are some stripped holes to re-tool ... (only one of which I had anything to do with, and I'm fairly certain that this one was only partly my fault) so he'll be sealing the new gasket and changing the oil while he's at it. Buuut... that little mistake on top of a handful of major victories, so... yeah. I feel good about it. Aaaaand... this also means it'll be roadworthy finally.

I spent part of this evening drinking white tea and talking with one of the Paraguayan staff here named Antonio. Really he's the guts of this place... has been working here for longer than I've been breathing air. Saturday I ate lunch with him and the ground workers, guards and cleaning ladies here and was more deeply blessed by the whole experience than I have been in a group of people for a long time... at least since College... (which doesn't feel like it was that long ago... but I have been down here for almost a year now.) I have neither energy nor inspiration for poetry this evening to describe it... but it was to me, deeply beautiful. We sang together, ate asado, and the laughter... there was lots of laughter... every one of them seemed completely comfortable with each other... comfortable with the love they knew they had in that group. We played some equivalent of musical chairs (passing a tennis ball around until the music stopped,) the losers of which had to either sing for the whole group or do a dance. One of the cleaning ladies ended up dancing to "Oh Susanna," after I bashfully scrambled for somethign I could play that wouldn't be ridiculous for her to dance to. They assured me ridiculous was just dandy. (or... however you convey that in spanish).

In the past week I have spent good amount of time in the evenings with Antonio, talking about various things. I am ill-at ease with the ease and transparency of his faith. We talked about all sorts of things. He told me a good piece of his story... who he was... how accepting and choosing to live for Christ has changed his life. He is rich with anecdote. He is generous with anecdote. His Christianity is uncomplicated, and noone has yet convinced him that he is not allowed to believe it. It makes me very happy to be with him, and the other workers. They all seem to glow in the same way. Thier ranks change comparatively slowly to the starched Christians like me who come to teach... who posture and stress, argue, gossip and fight. I'm sure they aren't perfect, but I'm also quite certain they know it. I am ashamed of myself... ashamed of my arrogance... ashamed of my things, and how little real work I did to get them. But I am not discouraged... just ashamed. I do not feel discouraged as long as I have choice, and in this re-tooling of my perspective, I feel like I do.

I am arriving at a new guiding principle in this laboratory of life... and that is simply to find those who seem genuinely, transparently happy in life... and listen for why.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A tribute...

I underestimate my time at Berea... undervalue the people I have met and known... I tell my kids here about the importance of perspective... the need to evaluate our prejudices and biases before blocking out or categorizing our way into a blind corner with only our arrogance left to weave our bedtime stories. Life is rich. It must be lived embracing struggle, loving the different. Considering mankind breathlessley as you would any other display of such exquisite natural beauty tucked into such cruel, crude, sterile cracks... growing from putrid piles of rotting refuse by some mysterious fibrous grace. Thorns and Petals. Breathtaking... for the irony... again exponentially for its transience.

I remember people like you from Berea... people who looked at me with that resigned yet forgiving irritation. Most of the time you responded to me as if my feigned understanding... my beloved seasoned wisdom were forgivable and even cute, as long as I was reaching out to you in kindness. There was usually a wall there, because you were sure I would never understand you... but you didn't hate me for my naivite. You didn't even wish I wasn't there... that I know of. I do thank you for that.

I probably talked about life a lot. Don't remember... I'm sure I was proud of my percieved access to it, growing up on a farm. But watching death is very different from fearing it. And no cow, dog, or rabbit, no matter how special is a brother, a sister, or a close friend.

You fought so hard sometimes for love of various varieties, and lost so badly to it. I saw dried blood flake often as your face flexed into a covering smile. Often I didn't know about your mom, your dad, your brother, your sister, your best friend. I didn't know about your terror, your shame... your sins of omission or commission. I didn't know about your self-labels whether lik-n-stik or laser-etched... chosen or imposed. But as I find out about them later...

I think back to when I saw you care for someone... saw you read to a child. when I saw you snag trash in a park. I watched you draw someone else who was hurting out of their pain, and let them rest on you for awhile, despite your own aches. I saw you care. I saw you love.

And I have to stop... and puzzle at myself... impressed so deeply with you.
I ache watching you... with your perspective... showing life and love... and that ache gives a little perspective... and that new perspective floors the old me.

I am in awe of the originator for the idea of such a creature as man... all the complexity and contrast, brokenness and perpetual access to love and hope. We are resilient creatures in our most broken of states... a tribute to the mind of a God who enjoys cycling... Carbon... Water... hope. It is the nature of his heart. It is the nature of His work in us.

Don't misread me... I don't think we are bound in these cycles... more... free in them. Able to love despite a pattern of unlove. Able to learn dispite condemnation and shame. Able to step when at the edge of our worlds as bound by fear. From those points at the end of ourselves, God has made a possibility... something small and green to root and photosynthesize... the point not being our broken states, but rather the life that all that brokenness has the capacity to endow. And paradoxically the best and worst parts: we usually don't see it until the last minute when it steals our breath.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Paradox in a cup of tea...

Excerpt from a journal entry last night ...

Sitting here over a book after having finished Peck's "Different Drum" this evening... watching a cup of Lemon Zinger steam. And I... for the second time in a few days am held captive by the wisps twirling off its mirage-y surface. I think of vapor pressure, as I tried to explain it to the kids this morning, and want to see the steam settle over the surface as neat little dry-erase molecules so that my explanation would be right. But of course it doesn't. It is too beautiful. It is real. I sit mesmerized by it for a time... watching lingering twists in the glimmering surface drive vortices of vigorous fog, lapping at nothing... furious little fogs. Delicate and frightening.

I watch them twist from a particular side of the mug's mouth, near the handle. I am jealous. I tried to make a vortex once, and I even had a specially cut box to my advantage... channeling the air in a twisting motion to drive the steam upwards, spinning... but nothing spun then. My box was wrong, or my steam too tame... but this silly, beautiful cup of tea makes them effortlessly.

I hold my breath in curious fear that this beauty may be something I have caused accidentally... the coils continue to rise. I just watch them. I feel a curious affection for them. I study them, ever more intrigued... They like the side of the mug near my hand. I wonder why, but my science is weak. I strain to see the molecules flowing in to replace them as they rise. I can't of course.

An ache between my ears, and I realize I have been trying to predict them subconsciously. My mind has nothing that it can do with them. Every new coil surprises me... but I grab it as soon as I see it, and envision it twisting upward and outward, dispensing its mystical energies in a predictable way, like the shockwaves the 12th graders watched today, but they never do. Each new vortex that forms inspires new hope for that pattern... and each old vortex kicks that hope in the face. It is emotionally exhausting, dancing with these little water wraiths.

I scold myself for being so intellectually lazy or arrogant as to lust for the predictable... to want them to dance to my tune and not surprise me. I am not worshipful. My childlike glee over a surprizing, colorful world has somehow been supplanted by some aching arrogance... or fear... or something... I will embrace the glee. Lord help me embrace the glee... even as I study the dancers.

And I watch the scene some more... They really are stubborn, fiery little things, dancing all about. Being something so delicate, I would expect them to move more like... oh... a petal fluttering to the grass and flattening in a noiseless sigh, or a morning fog rolling through an Appalachian pass... Silent, steady... defined by the slow cascade of its entrance. And there it is. You breathlessly wonder if it will stay because you don't remember breathing as it entered... you were only aware of nature's breath.

These little wisps should be like that... delicate, graceful, organic and elegant... but every characteristic a photo of them might evidence, their conduct would defy. With elegance of a diving Aningha, they play for a bit and then, dramatically... snap! they are gone... It startles me every time. I catch my breath a little. THey are the opposite of a sigh... defined not by their entrance (I rarely see a wisp begin) but dramatically by their exit.

I am reminded of a Native American flute concert at Berea one spring... of closing my eyes and feeling that music sway and flex... and then, at the end of a fluid, ghostly phrase, a little spike... as the floutist would pinch the last wisp of air from his mouth and give it a dramatically small pocket of flute in which to resonate. I felt like a whip made of tone, only the 'crack' would give you goosebumps. There is that quality to these little coils... they dance with accentuated, inexhaustible life... that is its strongest in some way... at that very last grace note.

It occurs to me now... they are enfuriating because they defy my definition... defy my expectations... defy my will. And yet... they are infinitely more in-tune with their mortality that I am most days, and I suspect, than most of us are. How wonderful it would be to live like they do... unconcerned with what has been, for better or worse, easing into our present, and then dancing there, creating beauty that follows no prescription, needs no model, and is wholly un-selfconscious. It's just dancing. Twisting among the other wisps, forming vortices.... They seem happy, and strong... all the way to the end, and then... whip... without apology... without regret... without permission... they are gone.

Perhaps that was what I felt, watching each wisp disappear... mourning... the ache... not frustration at my failure to hold them in my mind, but rather my failure to hold them at all. A sadness to see such a breathtakingly beautiful thing snapped away in an instant... the tension of holding the fleeting in your heart and dancing along... enjoying every moment... and trying to locate and process the tense fear that the magic could end at any moment. Somehow.. .that transience manages to transform something as ordinary as water vapor into a phenomenon to be tasted by every cell.

I think of this lesson as it spirals... twists to its end... and I again feel that mortal tension. What happens next... will it die... will I forget? It has been so beautiful... But I must... must emulate those little dancers more every chance that I get.... must grasp mortal life for the beauty it yields exponentially when lived rather than just tolerate it until the inevitable end. May I twist until the grace note. May I be mourned.

I do not regret capturing this spiritual moment exactly... but I think there is one more lesson to be learned. I glance over at my teacup... it is cold. There are no more dancers. I let them dance without audience in order to write this. For all the value in capturing the dance, I have let it dance out... some things... need to be lived, rather than processed... or they are missed.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I'm pretty tired. Grease, oil, road dirt and soil have worked into every article of clothing I'm wearing. ... and in most exposed crevices of skin. I chopped up peppers, carrots, and a spectrum of lettuce for salad tonight, before sitting down to a flute. It's almost like being at home. Almost. As sad as that might sound... I do not wish to be anwhere other than where I am right now. There are things I love about home. Always will be. But home is not my place right now... and to be anywhere other than where I am would be to live with regret. A gecko is a much better neighbor (than regret). Their senses of humor are leagues ahead. It's been a busy week. I am pondering...

Pondering this place.

Pondering the uniqueness of it. It's a salad too. German carrots. Full flavor. Japanese peppers... in pockets. Korean cabbage. American... bacon bits. umm... what else could go in a salad... olives? Yeah... there's probably some of those too. Sure it's Paraguayan mostly. But what shade? Where does one begin and the other end? And it relaxes me. Weird people bringing weird things onto creakity old buses swerving among the eternally adaptive ant line of motos zigging in and out. No one's in a hurry. Everyone is more or less at peace with the incompetence they will deal with on a daily basis. Productivity is grand. Excellence is to be driven towards. The American ideal of these things, however, is better spent on something that has fewer warts than a human.

I actually asked a guy for directions today and then felt later like I walked away from a conversation he wasn't ready to end. Its odd. Usually... to keep a stranger in conversation on the street is uncourteous. I was dirty then too. I didn't care. Everything was dirty. Everything rubbed together like working hands on a cool day.... and the little twists of skin, grease, and grit rolled between them: a testament to the fact they were moving... that they got dirty... and that there was new life happening behind each surface. mmm... I didn't care that I looked funny. I was proud to finally feel at home in that mysterious, colorful, niche my parents carved for themselves during this time in their lives... the one that most other people work their whole lives avoiding... and insodoing castrate their worlds. The niche of the contentedly different.

I think back to clash day during 'spirit week' this week. I loved that day.
It is the only day of the year I can easily pick out my own clothes.

I loved it too because of how excitingly 3-dimensional that whitewashed world of fear-locked institutionalized Christianity could become in half a moment... given the right stimulus. All of a sudden... people were different. Wierd hairstyles, wierd clothing combinations... some members of which hadn't been seen in decades. Mismatched shoes. Vests over t-shirts. Sideways hats. Gloves. Ties. And do you know what... no one needed to apologize for any of it. Everyone was comfortable that way. Not because we finally had obtained the conformity we were all chasing, but because, by some odd twist of fate, we were given a day out of the rat race in which, for one precious moment in our long social nightmares, we were expected to be different. Not expected as in... you have to be... (many people didn't, and that was ok) but... it was endorsed and expected that we would be. At the time it made me ponder... but I couldn't quite put a finger on it until now... That day was a breath of clean air... of what I want so deeply to practice better... and to see grow in any community I find myself in.
It was a breath of Grace.

Not the tolerance of different personalities, minds, strengths and weaknesses, but the eager expectation of them. The embrace of them. And with that embrace, the expectation of discomfort, clashes, the failures of others and ourselves... but only so that we may work towards the better. If I am unwilling to have failing people around me, I am unwilling to have the material out of which excellence is made. The trick is in processing our failure... so that failure is not a definition, but an inevitable, welcomed means to an end.

And I... am by all means the worst at applying this principle... but by the grace of God I hope to learn from these failures. I believe this not only because I think it to be true... but because I need to be if there is to be much hope for me. I don't mourn that. I am glad for it. This is the God I serve.

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Ummm... this is old stuff.

From a month or more ago.