Wednesday, April 29, 2009


A poem published in the spring/summer 2000 issue of Pegasus (Kentucky State Poetry Society).


It's a sleepy class in philosophy,
At noon, and everyone is hungry, too,
So, heads up, I toss a question.

Does God make everything happen?

Yes, because he's God.

But what about the bad things?

No, not the bad things.

I believe everything has a purpose.

That doesn't mean he causes everything?

Just because he knows what will happen doesn't mean
He causes things to happen.

Then why does he allow things to happen?

Maybe it's for our education
Or for some mysterious purpose.

If a child dies, for instance, God must have a reason.

My God wouldn't let a child die intentionally.

What do you mean, your God?

God calls us to him when it's our time.

But I don't want to sit next to the guy on the plane
Whose time has come...

Weeks later, at 31,000 feet, people sit in various states
Of repose.

The woman across the aisle sleeps snoring.
The man behind her reads a magazine. Another woman,
My wife, plays Go Fish with our young daughter.

Here come the attendants with drinks.
But the pilot announces turbulence over El Paso.
It seems not the time to toss the question again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Inner Peace and Striving

Some random thoughts, not yet polished. The other day I enjoyed a show called “Classic Albums” on VH-1. The album discussed was Cream’s Disraeli Gears. An interviewee mentioned that the song “We’re Going Wrong” has a chord progression that makes you feel that you’re climbing and striving, but never reaching.

I thought of that the other day while listening to Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself.” That song’s much simpler chord progression (two chords repeated during the rap) is even more frustrating in its sense of climbing but not reaching.

These favorite songs, in turn, made me think of another, more epic piece of music, Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which I’ve not listened to for quite a while, mostly because of the time commitment of appreciating Wagner’s very long musical dramas. In his book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001), Bryan Magee writes (pages 208-209):

“The first chord of Tristan, known simply as ‘the Tristan chord’, remains the most famous single chord in the history of music. It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves removes one of the dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution-yet-not-resolution. And so the music proceeds: in every chord-shift something is resolved but not everything; each discord is resolved in such a way that another is preserved or a new one created, so that in every moment the musical ear is being partially satisfied yet at the same time frustrated. And this carries on throughout a whole evening. Only at one point is all discord resolved, and that is on the final chord of the work…”

Later Magee writes of Parsifal (page 269):

“All the characters except Parsifal … have been looking for fulfilment [sic] or redemption in the wrong place, therefore would never have found it except through him. Kundry has sought it not through loving but through being loved, or through being needed. Klingsor has aspired to it through power. Amfortas has grasped for it in death. The knights of the order have been hoping to achieve it by belonging to a society whose membership and vitality are in fact declining, and whose rituals, conducted by someone unworthy to do so, are a mockery. Only Parsifal understands that redemption is not to be found though observances and not through any form of self-gratification either, but through its opposite, namely denial of the will in all its forms…”

Perhaps that is why, in Parsifal, musical resolution is found, still toward the drama’s conclusion but not all the way to the last chord, but rather, just after Parsifal’s healing of Amfortas, the point where the frustrated desires of the characters, including the title character, are finally fulfilled through Parsifal’s self-sacrificing love.

I think of all this, I suppose, because of the difficulty of achieving that relinquishment of desire, for even our most praiseworthy, unselfish goals in our lives are at least partly characterized by striving and the hope for personal success. In our world religion class, recently, we discussed the Buddhist goal of nirvana: only through eliminating desire do we reach ultimate peace. But to achieve that—in our Western way of thinking—it seems necessary to give up a great deal that is important to us, like a driving passion toward fulfillment of personal goals.

I well remember how dissatisfied I felt when I first heard the Tristan und Isolde prelude (in the classic Wilhelm Furtwaengler recording). Without knowing the background of the music or seeing a score, I felt emotionally frustrated by the music. Yet I also loved the music: it drew me along with its continual resolution-discord development. Similarly, in a different way, to the two songs I first mentioned. Many of us gain a different sense of inner peace because we are pressing on to a goal. We are drawn along by something greater than ourselves--something to which we've sacrificed other things out of love and devotion.

Philippians 3: 12-14 comes to mind as an example of peace gained within dissatisfaction and striving:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Memory Lapses

An essay written for Springhouse.

The other day I read an essay called “If Memory Doesn’t Serve” by the contemporary writer Ian Frazier.[1] He writes that he confuses certain names in his memory. For instance, he thinks “Roger Moore,” the James Bond actor, when he means “Michael Moore,” the activist filmmaker, partly because Michael Moore once made a film called Roger and Me about the CEO of GM, Roger Smith. Frazier says that he confuses actors Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and also Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. He knows the difference between these people but admits that, when we’re adults, the memory is less sharp than when we were younger. Yet our memories are increasingly filled with miscellaneous information.

We all have similar memory lapses. (Frazier writes that he’s sometimes introduced as “Ian Fleming,” the James Bond author who died years ago.) Corresponding with an editor recently, I referred to the poet Robinson Jeffers but I wrote “Richard Jeffries,” who was a 19th century nature writer. I don’t confuse Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I do confuse Parker and several other actors: Sarah Michelle Geller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Juliette Lewis, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I know the difference, but I don’t follow movie stars closely and I have to think a moment who’s who. Similarly Colin Firth, Clive Owen, and Colin Farrell. Wait … Which one was in Girl with a Pearl Earring? … No, not him, he was in King Arthur with Keira Knightley …

Speaking of … Briefly I confused Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and Giada DeLaurentiis. I sorted out those folks, though. Whew! I’d been perplexed why Natalie Portman was on Everyday Italian. But I still become confused which of these 1980s sitcoms is which: Family Ties, Family Matters, Full House, Facts of Life, and Growing Pains. Which one had Michael J. Fox? ... which one featured "Urkle"?...

When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, several musical groups went by three-part names. There was the Marshall Tucker Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Pure Prairie League, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Black Oak Arkansas, Ten Years After, and a few others. (I'm leaving out Grand Funk Railroad because they were a favorite and I didn't confuse them with other groups.) A song comes on the Seventies radio station…. Okay, which of those groups is this one?... I’m stumped for a while, as I am with some of the soft-rock acts of the same era, like England Dan and John Ford Coley, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Air Supply. Who did Don’t Pull Your Love? Who sang Love Is the Answer? Give me a minute …

My daughter used to love a cereal, Kellogg’s® Honey Nut Clusters®, which features a cartoon squirrel on the box. When she was little, she referred to the brand as “Squirrel Cereal.” So one day I shopped our local Walgreen’s and realized I needed to buy cereal and other grocery-type items. As I scanned the shelves, a clerk asked me if I needed assistance. I froze, and then I laughed and explained to the clerk that my daughter wanted a certain brand but I couldn’t remember the actual name. All I could remember was “Squirrel Cereal.” Fortunately I spotted a box on the shelves, saving me a little dignity.

Tomorrow I’ll stand in front of twenty undergraduates and, for fifty minutes, talk to them about the Civil War. I do this without notes and without much previous review. I’m no expert on the war, but I’ve done this lecture enough times that the facts return to mind right away. So …why do I have to daily place my car keys in the same location, religiously, or else I’ll lose them?

Speaking of students, one time I greeted a student as she came into class. “Hi, Robin!” I said. She looked at me and said, “Professor, I’m not Robin, I’m ….” (Here we go again, I’ve forgotten her name!) I realized that “Robin” was the young woman who sat beside her. Ever afterward I can picture Robin and … Not-Robin. More importantly, now I’m always a little careful when I call on students, especially early in the semester; do I have their names right? (I’ve fifty to seventy students each semester, so the process of names-learning takes a little time.)

The memory lapses that infuriate me are the times when I remember to do something, but at an inopportune time to write myself a note. Hey, I gotta write that person a letter … but at the moment, I’m tooling down the interstate and everyone is speeding along, and I don’t dare take my eyes off the road … maybe I should buy myself a tape recorder… or it’s three in the morning and I’m too sleepy to get up … or I do get up and write myself a note, but I can’t read what I’d written while half-asleep. Remember to [illegible] Tuesday!!!

Another thing that I do, a common lapse: I’m in one room, and then I go into a room to retrieve something. But once there, I’ve forgotten what I came for. I have to return to the other room to remember. I suppose that’s a good way to get exercise.

My cat wanders into the kitchen. What goes on in her brain? How much does she remember? Does she remember her first family, who gave her up for adoption nearly ten years ago? She knows us, for sure, and she knows what the sound of a can opener means, even though we’ve not fed her canned food for a long time. Maybe cats remember very little, or a lot. They certainly don’t have much on their to-do lists. Sleeping, licking, eating, sleeping … was I supposed to sleep on the sofa before I slept on the recliner, or vice versa? I suppose the upside of faulty memory is the richness of our lives that includes many interests and experiences, even those they become jumbled in our minds.

Not only that, but what a relief we feel when the ol’ memory clicks into place! That misremembered fact, that forgotten location, bring such happiness when they come to mind! Now I can drive to work safely. Now I can call that person by her correct name, and watch movies without confusion. I know I’m not senile after all. I can eat my squirrel cereal in peace.

[1] Ian Frazier, “If Memory Doesn’t Serve,” in Susan Orlean, ed., The Best American Essays, 2005 (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), pp. 56-61.

In Circulation

Early in 1999, my daughter, my dad, and I started collecting the new series of quarters that featured the states on the reverse. Five new quarters would be introduced each year, and all fifty states would have their own quarters by the end of 2008. Emily was eight and enjoyed starting a new hobby. Dad died later in 1999, but she and I continued our collections in two coin-holding books.

2008 seemed a long way off, but now that year has passed! All fifty states have been minted. Our two collections are almost complete, but we both need Utah quarters from the Denver mint. We both keep looking in change but those quarters still elude us.

Eventually we’ll find our Utah D’s; they’re out there somewhere and will travel to us via change at a store or a vending machine.

The thought of coins “traveling” among cash registers and pockets made me think of the scene in No Country for Old Men, where the killer Anton Chigurh tells the gas station proprietor: “You know what date is on this coin? …1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.”

That’s a dark movie to introduce within my family memories, but “randomness” is both an interesting and scary thing. Don’t we all worry about the safety of our family members because of random events: the drunk who happened to be driving in the same area as your loved one, or the psycho with a gun? I once had a comparatively minor traffic accident: if I hadn’t stopped at a particular store, I could’ve avoided hitting a van that went through a red light, I would’ve already been down the road.

But randomness can be “serendipity,” too. Emily went to camp one summer at Lakeside, OH, became friends some kids from western Pennsylvania, and eventually investigated colleges in that area; she loves the one in which she’s enrolled. We meet people we love, and find new opportunities, through small encounters.

Ten years ago I took karate lessons, but we moved to another city before I progressed very far. When we moved, the instructor told me to contact her brother, who happened to work at the same university to which we were going. When we first got together for coffee, the brother brought along his pastor, whom he thought I’d enjoy meeting. A few years later, I met the pastor again when my daughter was in the same community choir with his daughter. This past year, when my wife accepted her new position, the pastor introduced me to his friend, the president of a school in the same city as my wife’s new position. Soon I had a new teaching job before I’d made a single contact of my own.

Someone once said that it’s not “a small world,” as the Disney song goes. If we’re active in our lives and open to other people, we’re bound to encounter persons who connect us to other people and places. God certainly uses these encounters to work for good (Rom. 8:28). Some theologians and philosophers, in fact, have written on “encounter” (Begegnung) as a constitutive quality of human beings.

We also never know exactly how God cares for us amid our life’s events. Maybe that fellow who ran the red light would’ve caused a worse accident up the road if I (and another driver who had worse car damage than I) hadn’t “met” in that intersection.

One of the most haunting stories in this regard is that of the evil King Ahab. Elijah prophesied about his death (1 Kings 21:20f). A little later, Ahab dies in battle … but the arrow wasn’t even aimed at him. An Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).

In a more positive story (closer to our own experiences), Paul and Timothy served in Lystra and Iconium, and then planned to go preach in Asia but were forbidden to do so there, as well a Bithynia. Eventually they arrived at Troas, where Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). What was the Spirit up to? The text only says they were guided.

Similarly with us. By opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance we can may find ourselves led in amazing ways, through meaningful opportunities, with wonderful people.

(And while you're out there, look for a couple Utah D's for us, will you? :-)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

G. F. Handel

Yesterday was the 250th anniversary of Handel's death. I was too busy to think of it but I'll play some of his organ concertos today.

Here is an interesting article called "How Misery Inspired Handel's Messiah": The article notes that Handel's health was one factor in his change from operas to oratorios, but his poor health also gave him a new sense of his own mortality. (He was overweight and loved wine, but at the time wine contained some lead.) That sense of mortality, in turn, affected his music as he wrote the biblical oratorios, especially Messiah, that have become such a major part of the British tradition.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Revisiting "Peanuts"

An essay written for Springhouse magazine.

When I was growing up in Vandalia, Illinois, a small drugstore operated on the north side of Gallatin Street around the corner from Fourth, near (or next door to) the Hotel Evans. I was about eight years old—the mid 1960s—and I was shopping downtown with my mother and grandmother and perhaps some of my great-aunts. In the back of the store was a rack of paperback books, and I spotted a collection of Peanuts strips. It was called What Next, Charlie Brown? published by Fawcett Crest in 1965 for 40 cents.

Mom purchased it for me (she expressed mild concern about its cost), and I still have it, along with other collections published in the mid and late Sixties. Several were published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston—You Can’t Win, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Come Home, The Unsinkable Charlie Brown, and so on. (I found a website about this series: ) Other books excerpted the Holt, Rinehart books and were published by Fawcett Crest—Fun With Peanuts, Very Funny, Charlie Brown, You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, etc.

I dearly loved these books! I liked the strip because its dry humor and the characters were all kids. The stories had the appeal of small, friendship adventures. Although the strip’s landscapes were simply rendered (Charles Schulz himself had no special notion where the kids lived), the town looked neat and neighborhoods pleasant, with good sidewalks, fences, and yards. Stores were close enough for little kids to walk to town for comics and candy. One of the Peanuts stores reminded me a little of the old Capp’s Drugs in Vandalia.

I love music and, honestly, one early influence was Schroeder, the character who plays beautiful classical music on a toy piano with the black keys painted on. (Apparently that's his first name but his last name is never mentioned.) I became a nine-year-old kid who wanted to know about music and composers, especially Beethoven. At the time, the theme to the NBC evening news---the Huntley-Brinkley Report----was the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I loved. So that was serendipitous. I told my third-grade teacher that I liked Beethoven and Chopin and didn’t understand why she chuckled when I pronounced the second name “Choppin’”. My poor mother signed me up for piano lessons, which I hated. I would’ve preferred a more spontaneous mastery like Schroeder’s, not the week-after-week practicing of simple pieces in the John Thompson piano books.

If I remember correctly, Peanuts appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat during this time frame. My parents subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but they also purchased the weekend edition of “the Globe.” I loved to read the two pages of comics in the Features section of the Post—strips like Ponytail, Belvedere, Andy Capp, They’ll Do It Every Time, and others—but the weekend Globe had other favorites like Dick Tracy (during its “space period” when Tracy regularly journeyed to the moon), Freddie, and Peanuts.

My enjoyment of Peanuts lasted a few years during the late 1960s period when the strip reached a peak of popularity. Mom and Dad, always supportive of my interests, bought me a few classical records, the Royal Guardsmen albums about Snoopy and the Red Baron, and also Robert Short’s book The Gospel according to Peanuts, plus some bobble-head figures of Schroeder, Linus, and Pig-Pen. I even looked for books about World War I aviation and the historical Red Baron. (I especially liked Floyd Gibbon's 1927 book The Red Knight of Germany and P.J. Carisella's Who Killed the Red Baron, 1969.)

Like most kids, I had several “series” of hobbies that lasted a while then petered out. I wasn’t too interested in Peanuts after I was thirteen or so. I missed all the television specials except for the classic Christmas and Halloween shows, and I read the strip more sporadically.

But the happy childhood memories remained. In 2004, the publishing company Fantagraphics began a series of the complete run of Peanuts. So far, several volumes have appeared, at a rate of two a year, and each book contains two years of strips. Eventually twenty-five volumes will contain the 17,897 strips from the 49-year run, all written and drawn by Schulz himself without assistants. (Some long running strips, like the 79-year-old Blondie and the 91-year-old Gasoline Alley, have had succeeding artists, and some strips' creators, like Al Capp of Li'l Abner, had assistant artists.) I’ve been purchasing these Peanuts books as they’re published and I’ve enjoyed rediscovering the comic. If my dad were still alive, I’d buy him his own copies.

As many fans know, Charles Schulz began a single-panel cartoon Li’l Folks which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. Soon the cartoon developed into a four-panel strip distributed by United Feature Syndicate and first appeared, in only seven newspapers, on October 2, 1950. Schulz never liked the syndicate’s new name for the strip, Peanuts, which alluded to Howdy Doody’s “Peanut Gallery” but which, he thought, trivialized the strip. Schulz also drew a cartoon about churchgoing teenagers, called Young Pillars, during the 1950s and 1960s, a sport-related cartoon called It’s Only a Game in 1957-1959, and he also illustrated Art Linkletter’s 1957 anthology of his show Kids Say the Darndest Things. Of course, the Peanuts strip also spun off into several television shows and the characters were used in commercials for MetLife®, Dolly Madison®, and other products. Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, the night before the very last strip appeared. While writing this essay, I found a website with enjoyable information about the strip:

The melancholy and “edgy” qualities of the strip eluded me as a little kid. It shouldn’t have eluded me; I was a picked-on and laughed-at kid in junior high, very Charlie-Brownish. The very first Peanuts, October 2, 1950, has two not-yet-named children (Shermy and Patty) sitting on the steps as a smiling Charlie Brown (in a plain tee shirt without the zigzag pattern) walks by. In the first three panels, Shermy says, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!”… “Good ol’ Charlie Brown, yes, sir!” … “Good ol’ Charlie Brown”… In the last panel, after Charlie has walked on, Shermy looks sour and says, “How I hate him.”

Wow! That’s harsh! In the next strip, Patty gives Charlie Brown a black eye. Snoopy appears in the third strip, when Patty pours water on his head while watering a plant. When I teach 1960s history, I tell my students they should watch Dr. Strangelove if they want to see a hilarious movie about nuclear war. Peanuts achieves a similarly difficult feat: it’s a comic strip filled with meanness and cruelty and yet is funny and sympathetic rather than sadistic. (Writers have placed Peanuts within that cultural period of alienation and social disaffection that, for instance, also inspired the Beat poets and On the Road.) There isn’t a stereotypical bully in Peanuts, like Moe in Calvin and Hobbes. All the characters show some edge. Interestingly, the girls—Lucy, Patty, and Violet—are the harshest to Charlie Brown; in one strip, Violet and Patty absolutely tell Charlie off and then comment how strange that they rarely see him smile.(Have you ever been treated very harshly and then the same people criticize you for your hurt feelings? You can chuckle at Charlie Brown’s predicament!)

By reading the strips in chronological order, one can enjoy the development of style and the evolution of character’s personalities. Charlie Brown, Patty, Shermy, and Snoopy comprise the first cast of the earliest strips, followed by Violet on February 7, 1951, and Schroeder on May 30, 1951. Not until September 24, 1951 does Schroeder acquire his toy piano. Lucy is introduced as a bug-eyed, out-of-it toddler—bossy but not yet crabby—on March 3, 1952. Then Linus appears as a diapered baby (propped up by boards so he won’t fall sideways) in September 19, 1952, and the siblings quickly become dominant characters, while Shermy, Patty, and Violet join the supporting cast and, eventually, appear no longer. In the beginning, Charlie Brown is as much of a mean little mischief-maker as the other characters, although as early as the April 5, 1952 strip, he declares “nobody loves me” as he walks into the wind.

Charlie Brown’s interest in baseball develops later in the 1950s; early in the strip, you find him and Shermy playing a lot of golf! In fact, in three early Sunday comics (May 16, 23, 30, 1954) Charlie Brown and Lucy play in a golf tournament amid groups of adults. Grown-ups, of course, never appear in Peanuts, and so how disconcerting to see them (drawn much more realistically than the kids) in these three strips. Not only that, Charlie is a coach and mentor for Lucy! Schulz admitted that cartoonists try things in strips that turn out to be mistakes.

A few characters who appeared in early strips didn’t “take.” Charlotte Braun appeared in only ten strips in 1954 and 1955, as a loud-talking counterpart to Charlie Brown. Pig-Pen, introduced in a Lord of the Flies parody strip in 1954, is a one-joke character like Charlotte but somehow he endured in the supporting cast; his dirtiness had more comic potential. A little boy named 5 was featured in 1963 and occasionally thereafter (his father hated how people are numbered with zip codes and the like so, in a self-defeating protest, he named his kids 3, 4, and 5). Frieda, a naturally-curly-haired character introduced in 1961, had a cat named Faron, after the singer Faron Young, but neither girl nor cat endured many years.

Other, later characters did. Sally Brown debuted in 1959, Peppermint Patty in 1966, and Rerun in 1978. Controversially for the time, Schulz introduced an African-American character, Franklin, in 1968. When the Fantagraphics series enters the 1970s and beyond, I’ll be pretty much reading the strips for the first time.

One of the introduction writers for the book series notes that Charlie Brown never cries. I found only one time, the Sunday, March 30, 1952 strip, when still-teething Lucy chewed up and ruined his record collection. You’re surprised to see him cry. Like the visible adults in the golf tournament strips, this is something that just doesn’t happen in Peanuts. Charlie Brown loses and is picked on and becomes discouraged. But, Sisyphus-like, Charlie keeps doing, keeps trying again. He doesn’t break and he never retaliates.

Do you think Charlie Brown and the eternally cruel Lucy are a little depressing, if you think of them in isolation from the other characters? I actually prefer the very early strips of Charlie Brown where he displays not only endurance but some edge. I want Charlie to forget about the unattainable Little Red Haired Girl and enjoy the attention of Peppermint Patty; I want him to scold Lucy (as Schroeder regularly does) and never fall for that football trick again. Fortunately Charlie and Lucy have plenty of contrast, for instance, with Linus’ philosophical attitude and Snoopy’s joie de vivre. (Some years, in fact, Snoopy is the strip’s dominant character.)

But we do identify Charlie Brown’s failures. All of us have goals we can’t quite attain, insecurities which have no half-life, sources of discouragement that we can’t rationalize away, people who bring us down, and reasons we lie awake at night. It’s amazing that Schulz was able to express these emotions and experiences in a way that is, indeed, funny and recognizable rather than maudlin and depressing. According to Forbes, Schulz was the third-highest paid deceased artist in 2007, behind Elvis and John Lennon, with an income of $35 million. Obviously many people still love the strip and the characters!

I haven’t read the recent biography of Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis (Harper Collins, 2007), but I watched the American Masters feature about the cartoonist on PBS. Schulz suffered with feelings of depression and failure all his life. He nursed grudges and slights for decades, and yet his life also had wonderful times and opportunities. Apparently his ambivalent relationship with his first wife is reflected in the exchanges between artist Schroeder and pushy, practical Lucy. Schulz was a humble and generous person. He downplayed his wealth and accomplishments and wrote hand-written notes of encouragement to younger cartoonists who sent him letters. The rich imaginative life that we find in Snoopy must’ve been Schulz’s too, considering the feat of 18,000 comic strips.

I still like the strips that feature Schroeder, his devotion which, unlike Charlie’s ball playing, results in skill. Those arcane notations that appeared above his toy piano intrigued me when I was a little kid and opened for me a world of music. How did he play so well? How, for that matter, did someone draw an endearing comic strip, which people still love to read, for nearly fifty years?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Lincoln Heritage Trail

An essay originally published in Springhouse.

When I lived in Louisville, KY during the 1990s, I went to work along U.S. 60 in an area called St. Matthews. High upon a particular phone pole, at the intersection of Lexington Ave. and Shelbyville Road, hung a Lincoln Heritage Trail sign. Several LHT signs stood along U.S. 60—east of town several miles stood historical markers commemorating the death of Lincoln’s paternal grandfather in that area—but I always liked this sign the best. It was faded, placed too high to be
LHT postcard from 1964
noticed easily, a relic of an earlier time. Finally it disappeared.

Growing up in Vandalia, I heard about Lincoln from a very early age. Eventually I learned that several family members lived there while Lincoln was a legislator at the old capital, and one ancestor even helped construct the statehouse where Lincoln served in Vandalia. Likewise, I grew up seeing LHT signs near my hometown, especially along US 51 and Illinois 185. When that US 60 sign disappeared, I decided to look into the trail. I found a brochure in an Indiana rest stop along I-64, but not much else. Two different addresses for LHT Associations, in Petersburg and Champaign, Illinois, were out of date; my queries returned “unable to forward.” Finally, in a Vandalia antique store, I found a tour guide, “Traveling the Lincoln Heritage Trail” from the Spring-Summer of 1972, which gave me some nformation.

The trail, a series of highways in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, tied together towns, parks, and locations associated with Lincoln. In Illinois the trail follows highways like U.S. 51, Illinois 121, Illinois 29 and 97, U.S. 25, U.S. 34, U.S. 150, Illinois 1, 14, 15, 185, and old U.S. 66, linking towns associated with Lincoln like Vandalia, Salem, Mt. Vernon, Carmi, Marshall, Charleston, Decatur, Lincoln, Springfield, Petersburg, and others. A southern “alternate” trail connects towns like McLeansboro, Carbondale, Chester, Cairo, Vienna, Harrisburg, Shawneetown, and others. A northern alternate branch connects Beardstown, Mt. Sterling, Quincy, Nauvoo, Monmouth, Galesburg, Peoria, Metamora, Bloomington, and others. Anyone taking a trip over a few days can visit New Salem, Lincoln sites in Springfield and Coles County, the Vandalia Statehouse, and other Illinois places—to say nothing of Indiana and Kentucky places, like his birthplace near Hodgenville, KY and his boyhood homes in Knob Creek, Kentucky and Spencer Co., IN.

Lincoln visited lots of other places, too. The LHT omits Alton, for instance, and some other Lincoln-Douglas Debate locations. I teach a course called “The Life and Times of Lincoln” at University of Akron. One of the books I refer to is Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln by Ralph Gary (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001). If anyone wants a very comprehensive guide to places Lincoln visited, you couldn’t go wrong with this nice text. Lincoln set foot in twenty-three states during his life, all but four (Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana) east of the Mississippi. East of the river, he visited all the states except Maine, Alabama, Florida, and the two Carolinas. Besides the DC area and places like Gettysburg, his notable historic sites are in the three LHT states. Another good book about his life travels is Don Davenport, In Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. I have the first, 1991 edition but I believe it is now available in a newer version.

I’ve driven some of the LHT, not nearly all of it. A few summers ago we visited the birth site—the enormous temple enclosing a pitiful shack always startles me. So do the bronzed logs and hearth—bronzed!—of his boyhood cabin site in Indiana. Last summer we took our daughter to Springfield and New Salem, places she’d never seen. When I lived in Little Egypt several years ago I followed the southern alternate trail a few times, enjoying favorite communities.

Traveling Lincoln’s life metaphorically is something else again. So many biographies and monographs consider his life. What was the relationship between him and his parents? Was his marriage positive, or a living hell? He was compassionate, tenderhearted, cruel, highly intelligent, crude, horribly depressed and lightheartedly humorous—who couldn’t be fascinated by such a complex, contradictory person, let alone someone who guided the country through its darkest times?

I wonder who travels the LHT today, consciously I mean, in order to seek out places pertinent to our greatest president. It’s the kind of leisurely, semi-educational vacation people would take when they weren’t in a big hurry. Everyone I know, however, is in a big hurry. I can imagine a car-full of whiney children, posed stiffly against a series of historical markers, their pictures preserved in a scrapbook later. Perhaps I’m being too nostalgic, though, for the signs are still there (except “my” sign in St. Matthews), beckoning us to seek after Lincoln’s heritage off the fast-paced interstates. If you decide to go, take your time, and have a good time learning! If you decide to take the whole LHT, send me a postcard!

Joseph Haydn

I've a 33-CD set of Haydn's 104 symphonies plus two string quartets for which woodwind parts were discovered, and a sinfonia concertante. I love playing this music during the day when I'm home working. Sometimes I start with the first disc and play the whole set over a period of weeks. The April 2009 issue of Gramophone, page 110, contains this comment from critic Geraint Lewis:

"When he died in 1809, no previous composer in the entire history of music had enjoyed such universal and unanimous acclaim. So something obviously went wrong to turn him into Tovey's 'Haydn the Inaccessible' in 1932 (the bicentenary of his birth) and to become Holloway's 'well kept secret' today. With supreme irony, it was the immediate and subsequent evolution of Western music that unwittingly eclipsed and then proceeded to distort a general understanding of most of the output of its essential progenitor, while none the less retaining his essential DNA deep within his being. Whoa there, you may well be tempted to interject! But just imagine that Haydn had perished in the devastating fire which destroyed his tiny house in Eisenstadt's Klostergasse on August 2, 1767. Where then would have been the grit which gave birth to the pearl in Mozart's oyster-shell? And what would have become of young Beethoven without those pivotal 18 months in 1792-93 spent sitting at Haydn's elbow and looking over his shoulder?"

Teaching as Caring

I've started to read a book by Gloria Durka, The Teacher's Calling: A Spirituality for Those Who Teach (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002). I want to keep thinking about some of her ideas, but I like this quote to start with (page 57; emphasis in text).

"Everything we do as teachers has moral implications. Through dialogue, modeling, practice and the assignment of best motive, a caring teacher nurtures the ethical idea. What we reflect to our students contributes to the enhancement of that ideal if we meet our students as they are and find something admirable in them. As a result of this confirmation, our students may find the strength to become even more admirable. We leave them with an image that is lovelier than the one they had of themselves. We do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What we must do is to be present to each student as she or he addresses us.

"In sum, to teach morally, we need to care."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tight Buttons, Soft Pews, and Church Homes.

Here’s an Easter memory with just a little bit of profanity.

I had a little trouble buttoning the collar button of my dress shirt this morning. I need to lose some weight. But my button, and the fact that it’s Easter, reminded me of my father.

When I was little, Mom conscientiously got me into church, but Dad didn’t go. Whenever we visited churches during vacations, he’d sit in the car reading Westerns. We got him to church on Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. Therefore Dad didn’t wear dress shirts frequently enough to have a well-fitting supply, plus he was too frugal to buy a new shirt. So on the infrequent occasions when all three of us went to church together, ridiculous struggles ensued to get his top button buttoned. My mom pitched in. I think my folks even had a little hook tool to help.

I don’t know much about Dad’s childhood, for his father was long deceased and he was estranged from his mother. He was paradoxical, angry and caring, cheap and generous, strong willed and eager to please. Dad was afflicted with what Theodore Roosevelt called “the fun of hating.” For instance, he unfailingly referred to his stepfather as “the bald-headed son of a bitch” or “that goddamned bastard,” years after the man died.

Yet Dad loved George Beverly Shea, the long-time singer with the Billy Graham crusades and owned some of Shea’s LPs. Unless Mom prompted him without my knowledge, Dad also bought me my first Bible. He and I were downtown in our hometown, and he took me into the G. C. Murphy store and helped me pick out a King James Version which I still own as a keepsake.

I don’t remember exactly why my mom and I started church-shopping back in the fall of 1975, when I was eighteen, but we began attending the local United Methodist congregation. What a wonderful, welcoming church! We even talked Dad into coming. What a great opportunity this seemed: to help Dad have a connection to a church.

But the worst thing happened: the first Sunday we visited that church with Dad, the minister preached on tithing. Tithing sermons can be a little scolding---or perhaps "challenging" to folks who could increase their giving. Dad, with his Depression-era frugality, was very put-off. “At least those padded pews made my ass feel good,” was his comment about the service.

But he was also welcomed by local people he knew. The pastor visited our house, was happy to meet him, and made him feel respected. When we joined the church, Dad was baptized. Over the years, my parents enjoyed the church’s fellowship and programs. I'm not sure how the issue of the collar buttons got resolved, but as Dad grew older he "shrank" a bit and didn't bother wearing ties anyway. When he died in 1999, his service happened in the church’s sanctuary.

Dad was one of those men who kept his deepest feelings hidden; Mom, who was married to him for 58 years, never professed to know the wellsprings of his emotions. I could only sense some things. But the fact that he became a churchgoer late in life is a testimony to the power of the risen Lord acting through a caring pastor and loving congregation.

Up from the Grave He Arose

When I was little, I liked this hymn (words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874).

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!


Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!


Musically, the hymn was appealing to me. The verses are stately, almost march-like, while the refrain is faster, upbeat, and triumphant. With the words “up from the grave He arose,” the melody rises, too. I also liked the hymn because Jesus was pretty heroic. “He tore the bars away”… Superman did things like that!

Now I look at the hymn and see that it balances both the victory of Easter and the tragedy of Good Friday. Jesus is victorious at Easter … but first, he’s dead, executed. At least he received a more respectable burial than other condemned criminals. Nevertheless he is the “prey” caught by the predator Death.

Jesus’ heroism is one of obedience. He is dead because he followed God’s will. Remember the third “servant song” of Isaiah, 50:4-9a, where the servant declares he “gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). What an odd kind of heroism! Certainly not the kind we necessarily esteem in people, whom we prefer to be forceful, perhaps good with weapons.

There is room for that kind of heroism. But there is also a force that resists retaliation. Dr. King once wrote, “We must use the weapon of love. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process.” Suffering is a potential force for change, and a way for God to achieve amazing things.

But that’s the problem: who wants to suffer? Who wants to potentially be perceived as servile and passive?

The incarnate God is willing! He gives us a model for our own obedience but, much more importantly, he accomplished our unearned salvation through his own obedience, death, and resurrection.

… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6:-11).

Saturday, April 11, 2009


This is an essay originally written for Springhouse magazine, to which I've contributed pieces for 25 years!

Gary [the Springhouse editor] likes occasionally to quote Emily Dickinson, “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?” I always like that quote. We all want to be “somebody” in that we want to be special. We don’t want to be put down or made to feel unimportant. Once, as I attended an Operation Push meeting in Chicago, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson precede a message with the invigorating chant, “I am somebody!”

Who is a “somebody”? A capital-s “Somebody” has accomplished certain things, or who has a particular station in life, and (especially) to whom you should defer. Sometimes it’s a famous person, or a person with family connections, or someone in a professional position. But being a “Somebody” in this sense is misleading. Fame is fleeting and very unreliable. Having patrician family ties is usually meaningless outside a particular community. And even prestigous white-collar professions are supposed to be oriented toward service to all people.

I usually think of a “Somebody” as one with money, who can contribute large sums and have his/her name attached to a building. At one of my alma maters, a certain building was named for a past worthy. I’ll call it “Smith Hall.” Unfortunately the registrar’s and financial aid offices were in that building. People inevitably griped when they had to go there. “I have to go to Smith Hall” (said with a sneer). Poor Mr. Smith! No one wanted to go to his building! So much for being a somebody. If I ever have a building named for me (highly unlikely), I’d be afraid it would be that kind of building.

Famous people are “Somebodies.” Unfortunately we’re inundated with the life stories of Somebodies. Parade magazine, which I get in our Sunday paper, usually contains a lead article about life lessons learned by a celebrity. I wonder, rhetorically, why the media gives such constant, fawning attention to celebrities. It can’t be pleasant for those people.

(My only brush with celebrity bears out my point. The actress Jody Foster was a freshman at the same university where I worked on my masters degree. One afternoon, at a campus restaurant, I took my pizza and soda at the counter, turned around, and there she was, barely five feet tall, standing behind me. “Excuse me,” I said politely, and she shyly said, “Excuse me.” That was 1981, when John Hinkley had shot President Reagan in order to impress her. I didn’t ask for her autograph because I thought she deserved privacy and peace.)

My wife and I once saw a piece in Newsweek about “degrees” of famousness. We were both “level 2” famous—we’re known in our professional fields. Beth and I agreed that’s as famous as we’d ever want to be! I can’t remember the other levels except “level 5,” which was being the Pope or Michael Jackson.

Who is “a nobody,” then? Being a “nobody” and being treated like a nobody are most definitely two different things. Most of us have been treated like a nobody at one time or another, and it’s a lousy feeling. In the “Emily” sense of the word, I think of a “nobody” as a “somebody” who doesn’t expect to be deferred to, who has things in perspective. A teacher and author, Martin Luther once wrote, “If you feel or imagine that you are right and suppose that your book, teaching or writing is a great achievement…then, my dear man, feel your ears. If you are doing so properly, you will find that you have a splendid pair of big, long, shaggy asses’ ears.” I also think of Lincoln, greeting wounded Confederate soldiers in the hospital, wondering if they'd shake his hand if they knew who he was.

People don’t always make a distinction between a big ego and a strong ego. Someone with a big ego possesses qualities that, true enough, are widely esteemed: bluntness (a lack of concern how words can impact others), inflexibility, self-assertion, and so on. People with big egos say, “You messed with the wrong person!” or “I’m a control freak.” (The control freaks I’ve known were pretty insecure people!) Big egos have to be “stroked.” Anyone can have a big ego—lots of people do. Lots of people in authority do.

A big ego and a strong ego are different things. A strong ego and its qualities are more difficult: the apostle Paul even calls these qualities gifts from the Holy Spirit. You manage your anger in positive ways, you have compassion, empathy, patience, you take the initiative to reconcile, and you care how your words affect others. You’re forgiving (or, at least, you work hard at learning to forgive.) Add, “having a sense of humor” to the list, and you’re on your way.

Strong egos build other people up. Significantly, strong egos are disappearing egos.

“Who are you?” That’s certainly a universal question. Several religious and philosophical traditions encourage people to “Know thyself.” Socrates, in the 5th century BC, famously declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. I take that to mean: Introspection and self-examination are among the best things you can do. You need to know how you are, not just what you are, what’s your current to-do list, and so on. (Socrates also said, “Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?”)

“Know yourself.” What does that mean? I think it means: understanding your own motives, understanding what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what is important to you, and so on. “Know yourself” can become a self-help kind of narcissism; in that case, self-esteem takes on ultimate value. (In her book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes, “The interior life is often stupid… It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching.”) But—and I don’t mean to sound like Dr. Phil—knowing yourself can also make you a healthy, balanced person with strong, giving relationships. In certain Eastern religious traditions, knowing yourself means understanding that there is only one true reality, which is God. We are all a part of God. The implication is: the distinctions that you and I make, those that separate and categorize people, are illusions. If we know who we are, we know we are all essentially alike and thus we’re free to be unselfish and caring.

In my own religious tradition, Christian, I’d instead echo Ephesians: Christ has broken down those manmade boundaries between persons. True, we remain individuals, and our individuality survives death. But we’re set free from egotism to love and serve one another. Certain things make you and me special, and we can use those things in service to God and neighbor.

I’ve always liked a certain idea from the Jewish tradition. The greater acts of righteousness are those things for which you earn the least recognition. The greatest acts of righteousness are those seen by God alone. Preparing a corpse for burial, for instance. The corpse can neither thank you, nor tell all his/her friends what a wonderful person you are. You’re simply doing good for a fellow human being, from the heart.

I enjoy doing good in secret, to use Jesus’ phrase. That was my grandma Crawford’s way: the less fanfare the better. Think about the good things you do: how much recognition and praise do you need? Recognition and praise are great things, to be sure. We do need praise and recognition, but I think they serve best, not when we expect them, but when they strengthen our inner motives.

Expressing gratitude to people is something I’ve found a wonderful blessing. If I think someone has done a good job, I try to make time and tell him or her, especially through thank you cards. I don’t do this as often as I should, probably. Many years after I graduated from high school, I dropped a note to a former coach. I don’t know why I thought of it then, but he’d made a big difference in my self-confidence because of something he said, and I’d been grateful. It was a little thing, but apparently something he really appreciated hearing about. He passed away not long afterward. (I had two other occasions where I offered praise or appreciation to people who, coincidentally, passed away not long after. What if I'd been too shy to say anything?)

All in all, I think it takes a lot of work to be a nobody. “Life” pressures us to be me-first, to be rigid and critical. Store clerks and others can be rude sometimes; we almost feel diminished if we don’t respond in kind. That’s the easy way out, though. So much better to go against the social grain. So much better potentially be a positive influence on others: to have your kindness, rather than your rudeness, live in people’s hearts. As the poet puts it, you might even find a friend or two.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

My Favorite Place

In rural Fayette County, Illinois, a large flat area called Four Mile Prairie is traversed by state route 185. My blog header picture was taken at the eastern end of the prairie, while this photo was taken about halfway across the prairie. Several of my ancestors settled Four Mile in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s. My grandma Crawford lived on a farm near Four Mile; she attended the Four Mile Church and traded at the Four Mile Store. She and about 20 ancestors and many other relatives are buried in the Pilcher Cemetery at the north side of the prairie. I remember the many summer days when Mom and I traveled 185 out to Grandma’s farm for part of a day.

Route 185 follows the path of the pioneer Vincennes Road that connected to the old National Road (U.S. 40). In 1918 and 1923, prior to the federal highway system, the Illinois government authorized several “State Bond Issue” routes. 185 (that is, its alignment south of U.S. 40) was the last SBI road; its comparatively narrow width alerts a traveler to its origins in the early days of automobile travel.

The first family vacation that I remember was 1961, when I was four. We traveled to Chattanooga and Rock City, the famous park once advertised on roadside barns. My folks drove a 1960 Cadillac (with fins) back then. I’ve a clear memory of approaching the timber depicted in the photograph; from here, 185 makes a slight curve and so, from the standpoint of the prairie, the road seems to disappear. For our vacation, I assume we took 185 to IL 37 and eventually U.S. 41 down to Tennessee. In later childhood years, I’d such vague memories of that trip, and since I was unclear as to where Tennessee was, I thought of that highway curve as a kind of imaginative portal to the Rock City park.

I learned to drive at Four Mile. 185 was lightly trafficked and so was a good place to practice. Dad was an impatient instructor. He was a trucker, he knew driving. Unfortunately I was a shy kid, intimidated by his disapproval whenever I let the clutch out too fast.

Once I got my license, I made my first major solo trip when I visited a girlfriend in Farina, IL, at the southeast corner of Fayette County. I had a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. Talking my parents into letting me drive there was a challenge. Apparently the intersection of 185 and 37 was dangerous; many people have been killed there, my folks solemnly warned.

When I got to the intersection, I had a clear view of both directions; one just needed to be careful, I thought, and not take chances. I had an image of a highway in a cartoon where the character sees that the road is empty in both directions, but when he steps out to cross, a big truck suddenly appears and squashes him flat.

I enjoyed pursuing genealogy as a teenager and the summer when I was seventeen, 1974, I copied all the inscriptions at the Pilcher Cemetery and tried to locate graves of relatives in other area cemeteries. Of course, I love the freedom of being able to drive. An essential aspect of my discovery of the pioneer generation was “filling up,” and I carried into my genealogical forays the smell of fan belts and tires hanging from the ceiling of the local Mobil station, and the smell of “regular” on my hands. Reasoning that I didn't need shoes to spend a summer morning outdoors, I liked to do these research trips barefooted.

Nearly every time I’m back in Fayette County, I visit Four Mile. Grandma was religious in a way which was forever influential with me: she wasn’t “showy” about it but did good without fanfare. She bought me a Bible dictionary that I still use in my work. A distant cousin of my grandfather Crawford was a Christian writer, and Grandma had some autographed copies of his books. Her quiet faith and religious interests, the historical roots of our family in that location, country highways, and the rural prettiness of Four Mile all sentimentally converged, and I developed lifelong interests in history and religion. Visiting Four Mile is nostalgic but also a peaceful reminder of my life’s many blessings.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

This is a portion of a piece I wrote for Springhouse magazine in 2008 for the fiftieth anniversary of RVW's death.

For many years, I’ve loved the music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He was born 135 years ago last year, and died fifty years ago this coming summer. As editor of the 1906 English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams (RVW) adapted folk tunes or wrote his own music for hymns like “For All the Saints,” “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “At the Name of Jesus,” “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and others that are found in many hymnals today, so I first heard his music at my childhood church. Later, when I was a master’s degree student, I attended a choral recital with my musician friend Jim Hicks. One of the pieces was RVW’s setting of Burns’ poem “Ca the Yowes.” The song was one of those hair-standing-on-the-neck moments best experienced from a live performance, although a recent CD version (Over Hill, Over Dale on the Hyperion label) comes close.

Over the next several years I collected LPs of RVW’s music. At first misinterpreting his double last name, I looked in vain under “Williams” at the mall record shop, but then I found (and played till it crackled) The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, a champion of his music. Another time, I spotted RVW’s opera Sir John in Love at an out of town record store. My wife worried about the cost, so to please her, I didn’t buy the set, and then I kicked myself all the way home. A few months later, though, we returned to that particular mall, two hours away, and the set was still for sale! “Buy it, for heaven’s sake,” my wife said. I also shopped used record stores. During the early 1980s I purchased an old LP, an RVW “nativity play” called The First Nowell (1958). The LP was a classical music club recording, out of print, and no other recording existed, so I took gentle care of the record for over twenty years until, finally, a new recording on CD appeared a year ago on the Chandos label.

Today I play my old LPs less and less, but RVW’s music still fills my CD and Download collections, along with other favorite composers. If pressed, I’d had to say my favorite musical pieces of all, by anyone, are his third (Pastoral) and fifth symphonies.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why certain music “speaks” to you very deeply. If I’m feeling verklempt and need a good cry, all I have to do is put on the Tallis Fantasia, the Dives and Lazarus variants, the Norfolk Rhapsody, the last movement of the Sea Symphony, beginning at the section “Bathe me, O God, in thee,” or, as I say, the third and fifth symphonies. Such gorgeous music! Musicologists refer to RVW’s use of modal harmonies and the pentatonic scale. I’m untrained in musicology, so if we were listening to CDs together, I’d point out favorite themes and harmonies in his music—a “Vaughan Williamsy” sound, as one author puts it—like a tritonic chord that I hear in the first movement of the fifth, the last movement of the Pastoral, and also in Sancta Civitas, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and others.

Music provides all kinds of private associations which are not at all important “in the big scheme” but are deeply important and personal to the listener. Think of music that instantly takes you back to a certain time or place. I purchased several Mendelssohn LPs in Maryland, very early in my marriage, and now Mendelssohn’s music tends to transport me to that area and that time; the Scottish Symphony might as well be the Interstate 70 through the Hills West of Baltimore Symphony. Mozart, which I also play almost daily, reminds me of several locations. Vaughan Williams might be amused to know that his music connects me to my roots in Southern Illinois—and that it inspires me when I’m writing religious curriculum. As I wrote earlier, I first heard his music as hymn tunes in my local church. Eventually I embarked on a religious career, and church music naturally continued to be nourishing. Because the English folk tradition not only influenced his hymnal but also his lifelong work, it’s easy for me to feel happy and uplifted by nearly all his music, religious or not

Vaughan Williams was an atheist in his youth and a “cheerful agnostic” in his adulthood. He seemed to have liked the idea of being a “Christian agnostic.” In the recent film O Thou Transcendent, Tony Palmer tries to balance the familiar image of RVW—a folksy, avuncular papa bear—with the image of a suffering man whose doubts about life’s meaning are reflected in pieces like the fourth symphony (a consistently angry piece), the sixth symphony (a haunting work consisting of three movements full of conflict and a final, eerie, pianissimo movement that people have associated with postwar desolation), as well as the ambivalent mood of his ninth symphony, completed not long before his death. One of Palmer’s interviewees says that the conclusion of the sixth—with a major chord and a minor chord moving back and forth until the symphony ends with E minor—sounds like an “amen” that never resolves into affirmation. RVW had two notable sources of suffering in his life, his experiences in World War I, and the fact that his wife Adeline was a longtime invalid. Perhaps he also suffered from being fatherless at an early age and also from having no children. We shouldn’t assume an equation between an artist’s work and autobiography (and the film sometimes comes too close to that kind of equation), but pieces like these symphonies (and the Pastoral Symphony, which is actually inspired by the Western Front rather than English countryside) surely have roots in the composer’s experiences. And yet, so do his many “happier” pieces. His very last piece, after all, was The First Nowell, the lovely Christmas piece that I’ve cherished for twenty-five years.

In the June 2006 issue of Journal of the RVW Society, Eric Seddon argues, “Just as it does no good to quibble about whether Vaughan Williams was really a secret Christian in disguise, so it is useless to claim that his works are not profoundly Christian; that is, that they are derived from a Christian world-view, informed by Christian theology, and resonant with the Christian message.. What other composer of his day produced such monumental meditations on the nativity, the apocalypse, the relationship of the soul to God, and the Eucharist?” (p. 23). Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Vaughan Williams’ works were profoundly influenced by England, but “Englishness” includes deeply Christian traditions. RVW’s agnosticism didn’t preclude an appreciation for the mysteries beyond human existence, and in his words, he wanted in his music “to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty” (Journal of the RVW Society, 10/06, p. 16). He didn’t profess to know what those ultimate realities are, and he seemed prepared to accept that there are none.

And yet his “stretching”—and his willingness to be of service to people whose beliefs he couldn’t embrace—makes his works wonderful listening for a Christian like me. He worked his whole life on music associated with Bunyan’s story The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the conclusion of the opera, at the point where the character Pilgrim (“Christian” in the novel) succumbs, the trumpets and songs of Heaven appear within the silence of death, envelopes the listener in glory, and disappear again. We find a similar effect in a more disturbing piece, Sancta Civitas, based on apocalyptic texts: when the vision of divinity appears, it is a mysterium tremendum. These are just two pieces; as Seddon writes, RVW composed so much beautiful church music. The CD Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains (Hyperion, 1993), containing A Song of Thanksgiving and The 100th Psalm, is another personal favorite.

John Francis writes (Journal of the RVW Society, 6/07), “If anyone loved his neighbor, throughout his life, I think it was Vaughan Williams.” In that article, Francis quotes a Musical Times writer, “[RVW] was instantly ready to support from his own purse the many appeals…that came to him. Indeed it was sometimes difficult to persuade him that some causes were more deserving than others. His instinct was to help first and judge later, a trait of character occasionally too optimistic, but always endearing.” Francis notes that Vaughan Williams “embodied ‘Christian’ (actually humanitarian) values to such an extent that Christians are perhaps just disappointed that he was not a paid up member” (p. 19). Lincoln seems a similar case: a deeply spiritual not-quite-believer whose human sympathies and integrity capture the imagination.

Over the years I’ve been very inspired by RVW’s eagerness to encourage people and to serve. He enlisted in World War I and served near the front, when he might have used his age (42) and class to avoid the war, in which he lost close friends like the composer George Butterworth. During World War II he helped with refugee efforts and other kinds of assistance, like scrap collection and even, according to Palmer’s documentary, cleaning public lavatories. We’ve all known people in our various professions who should’ve taken the time to be encouraging, but who did not. It’s a very human tendency to disdain interests and pathways that aren’t yours, or to be snobbish toward others who don’t meet your standards. RVW supported the work of other composers, like Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, whose styles were different from his own. Commenting on his generous attitude toward his students, RVW said he’d rather encourage a fool than discourage a genius. Not to say that my students are fools—quite the contrary—but I agree with RVW’s philosophy and live by those words in my teaching.

Simon Heffer writes that “the sheer quality and genius of his work is denied only curmudgeons, and is in huge demand by radio audiences, concert halls and the CD-buying publish … what Vaughan Williams had to say is timeless in its appeal. It is …an appeal which, even though designed by an Englishman for the English, has now safely and popularly travelled around the world” (Journal of the RVW Society, 2/08, p. 14). This little essay is my thank you to RVW, and also my own contribution in keeping that music traveling.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

The following is an "outtake" from a study book I wrote about Jesus last year for Abingdon Press: the revised version is on page 45 of that book, What's in the Bible about Jesus?

Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, but what does this mean for us? I thought about this in conjunction with serving on the intercessory prayer team at my church.

Jesus healed several people: the blind (Matt. 29:29-34, Mark 8:22-25; John 9), a woman with a hemorrhage (Matt. 9:2-8), a paralyzed man (Luke 5:18-2), other lepers (Luke 17:11-19), a deaf-mute (Mark 7:31-37), and a woman who couldn’t straighten herself (Luke 13:9-17). He also healed some people who hadn’t approached him at all (John 5:2-9), and some people weren’t healed because they didn’t believe (Mark 6:5-6).

Today, healing miracles happen but with much less frequency (and usually in conjunction with modern medical science). If, today, I needed a healing miracle but didn’t get one, I might think: perhaps I don’t believe strongly enough, or maybe Jesus is displeased with me for some reason, or I don’t deserve God’s care. I once knew a terminal-cancer patient who felt very distressed that God didn't seem to hear her prayers (although she did find peace at the end).

We need to interpret the pre-resurrection actions of Jesus alongside his death and resurrection. In his earthly ministry, Jesus particularly needed to show people God’s power, so they could believe even greater things would happen later. And now that Jesus has risen from the dead, we have all kinds of wonderful miracles daily and forever. These miracles are always available. Jesus has given us life with God forever. He gives us access to God in prayer. He gives us fellowship with other Christians. He gives us his Holy Spirit. He gives us power and grace through the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. He has given us the assurance of God’s love. He has given us power and guidance for daily living. He has given us the guarantee of Heaven and takes us there when we die. We may tend to forget these less "showy" miracles, but actually they’re the most important of all.

Also: remember that everyone whom Jesus healed died eventually! They faced the fear of sickness and death all over again. Even the best healing miracles are temporary; no amount of prayers can make us live physically forever. That’s where the greatest miracle of eternal life because especially precious.

Maundy Thursday

Yesterday was Maundy Thursday. I'd known that a possible reason for the word "Maundy" was the Latin "mandatum," or "commandment" to love, from John 13:34. But another reason may be the old English word "maund," which were baskets poor people carried to receive alms.

That reminded me of a verse that has always haunted me: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord" (Jer. 22:16). If we love God but begrudge care and justice for the needy, we not only fail in loving them, we fail in loving God and do not even know God! According to Jeremiah, though, the righteous King Josiah knew God.

Jeremiah 22:16 dovetails with Micah 6:6-8, and 1 John 4:20b, as well as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17. Even the famous John 3:16 implies helpfulness to the needy, for if you believe in Christ as John 3:16 instructs, you respond to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Journeys Home

I love images of home, “roots,” and journeying. I was born and raised in Vandalia, Illinois, the former state capital where Lincoln had served in the legislature. Several branches of my family tree lived in Vandalia or the surrounding Fayette County. My grandmother, who lived on a small Fayette County farm, taught me stories of pioneer families who lived along nearby country roads. My dad was a truck driver who delivered gasoline to filling stations along routes 66, 40, 50, 37, and others. I grew up loving old highways and also local history and genealogy. I developed these interests into my vocation as a history instructor. Eventually I wrote two books about Vandalia.

Eventually I went on to study theology, too. Perhaps I did so because of my early fondness for my home region; as Thoreau puts it in another context, “Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?” My grandmother was an important influence; she was religious in a way that emphasized “doing good in secret” (Matt. 6:1-4). I love to teach people about religion and spirituality: to help people find their way home to the Lord via the journeys of their own life experiences and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Other parts of my overall vocation include service in congregations, discipleship in everyday life, and writing church-related study books and curriculum. To date I’ve written ten study books and many curricular pieces for the United Methodist Publishing House

Hopefully my modest thoughts in this blog will help people in a variety of ways: to reflect on discipleship, to recall their own beloved places, to appreciate life's beautiful, everyday moments, and to unite faith and life in mindful, caring ways.