Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces"

With all the news from Israel and Gaza recently, I listened again to a set of SACDs (with accompanying book) called "Jerusalem: The City of Two Peaces." A couple years ago I saw the set reviewed in Gramophone magazine, but I forgot to to seek it out until a subsequent issue (November 2011) featured the Spanish early music specialist Jordi Savall on the cover, reminding me of the "Jerusalem" project.

Savall and his wife Montserrat Figuera (who passed away in 2011), and their ensemble Hesperion XII have produced several sets on their own label, Alia Vox, some of which I hope to explore in the future. For this Jerusalem album and book, the groups Hesperion XII and La Capella Reial de Catalunya as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim musicians from among both European and Middle Eastern countries. perform a homage to Jerusalem.

The project attempts the “enormous and almost impossible challenge to evoke some of the key moments in the history and music” of Jerusalem. All the material invokes Jerusalem’s history from the point of views of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heritage, the city’s heritage as both a “city of pilgrimage” and a symbol of exile and refuge,” as well as the ever-present concern for peace.  The music and words include recitations from the Qur’an, Psalms (121, 122, 137), Talmudic reflections, the sound of shofars, dances, songs from the Crusades, songs of Jews, Palestinians, and Armenians, pleas for peace in Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, and Gregorian chant, as well as anonymous songs.

All this music and text is given historical context (pp. 110-120, 128-143), and this material is provided in eight languages: French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Included are not only standard pictures of the musicians but also interesting art from different cultures relating to Jerusalem.

The introduction’s author notes that one etymology of the Hebrew name for Jerusalem is “city of two peaces,” that is, the “heavenly peace” promised in prophetic texts, and the “earthly peace” sought by the city’s political leadership over the past five millennia.  “Sanctified by the three great monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean, Jerusalem soon became the focus of prayers and longing. Desired by all, she has been the goal, aim and destination of pilgrims of all persuasions who flock to her gates in peace, but also the objective of soldiers and armies in pursuit of war, who have besieged and burned the city, bringing ruin and devastation more than forty times throughout her long history” (p. 101).

The project aims not only to trace Jerusalem’s political and spiritual history through texts and music, but also to invoke peace. “A peace born out of a dialogue based on empathy and mutual respect is, despite the enormous difficulties involved, a necessary and desirable path for all concerned” (p. 1). The artists see Jerusalem as a “symbol of all mankind,” and thus a symbol of the urgency of peace in the 21st century (p. 21).

Witnessing to peace comes out of Savall's artistic credo: in that Gramophone article (p. 37), he comments, "We musicians sometimes forget how powerfully what we do can act on people's lives, how it can heal them."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Abandoned Landscapes

My photo of an abandoned
gas station near Pana, IL 
The start of the holiday shopping season made me think again about some of the cultural-environmental impacts of our habits, in which I'm part of the problem, too. A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLink issue, "Saving Main Street" (June 11, 2000).

The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That's not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.

Several months ago I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs document disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas. Approaching Nowhere begins with a variety of photos of empty parking lots, empty store fronts, fading motel signs, neon signs on restaurants and filling stations, and wide spots on the interstate. His chapter “Franchises” depict current types of businesses, like Wal-Mart and McDonalds, while “Discarded Landscape” portrays abandoned and decaying commercial buildings and lots filled with rubble. In a concluding essay, Brouws reflects on the meaning of these landscapes, while William L. Fox in his essay discusses the way that the American impulse for mobility doesn’t always lead to success and, in fact, as Brouws’ photos show, can lead to ruin.

Eastman’s book, meanwhile, provides series of photographs of “main street”: theaters, churches, hangouts, doors, signs, stores, services, automobiles, hotels, and restaurants. Many of the depicted places and things are representative of the forlorn small towns through which you pass if, like me, you enjoy traveling the two-lane roads when you can. (If you love those forlorn small towns, you’ll certainly enjoy Vanishing America!) But not all of Eastman’s subjects are fading relics; some are functioning places in good shape.

Abandoned alignment of
U.S. 51 in Fayette Co., IL 
I remembered a book I purchased years ago in a used bookstore in Flagstaff, David Plowden’s The Hand of Man on America (Riverside, CT: The Chatham Press, 1971). Plowden, a long-time observer of the American Landscape through his black and white photographs, similarly depicts both pleasant and ruined, bypassed landscapes in his travels. He also decries the environmental and cultural wreckage to which our love of mobility brings us. What he calls (in the last long essay in the book) “the great sorrow of the automobile age” is that we ruin the land by constructing more and more roads to see the land’s cherished sights.

There is a lot of food for thought in these books. Right now, Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to Vanishing America includes a strange attractiveness in such landscapes: the photos “are like field reports from Main Street, dispatches meant to trigger our frayed historical imagination. You could view these photos as valentines of goodbye.” Poet William Carlos Williams saw “beauty in the refuse” of his native Paterson, NJ; the broken bottles of the tenements he described as “gems... It’s a matter of your eyes looking at them right” (p. 11). It does seem odd that someone (like me) would leaf through the sad landscapes of Approaching Nowhere and feel a deep sense of nostalgia, an eagerness to return to the road and embrace the sorrow of which Plowden writes.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King

It’s Christ the King Sunday. One of my devotional periodicals discussed the passage where Jesus stands before Pilate---Jesus’ “coronation.” The writer discussed Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and Jesus’ own affirmation of being the Truth (and the Way and the Life).

As it happens, I just purchased a book by Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroads, 2009). I haven’t read it yet but was intrigued by portions of it as I leafed through the pages at a local bookstore. In one place, Rohr comments about what he calls our “dualistic” minds, which perceive things as either-or (p. 7). We see things black-and-white, either-or choices: either you're a conservative or a liberal, a Christian or a non-Christian. You believe this way about an issue, and therefore everyone else is wrong. A mystical way, in keeping with the Christian tradition and spiritual direction, is a nondualistic way, where you see things in terms of “both-and,” and you don’t deny the value of others if they disagree with you.

He writes, “Remember, Jesus never said, ‘This is my commandment: thou shalt be right.’ ... It is an amazing arrogance that allows Christians to so readily believe that their mental understanding of things is anywhere close to that of Jesus. Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6). I think the intended effect of that often misused line is this: If Jesus is the Truth, then you probably aren’t!” (p. 45).

In my own experience, it seemed like the folks who most appreciated the image of Jesus as King---as Authority----were themselves rigid and authoritative. It’s a comfortable way of envisioning Jesus---the fierce Jesus of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment----if you yourself are inclined to want to shape people up and push them out. Those of us are less authoritarian but who are still passionate about certain justice, religious, and political issues are also likely to see things in an either-or way.

Rohr notes this. “Punitive people love punitive texts; loving people hear in the same text calls to discernment, clarity, choice, and decision.... Dualistic, early-stage thinking will murder the most merciful of texts, because that is where they are. We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. ... God, however, swims in an ocean of mercy, with plenty of room for the outsider, the sinner, and even the violent, according to the Scriptures. The crucified Jesus calls for no recrimination against his killers, and he reminds us, ‘I did not come to make the virtuous feel good about themselves, but for those who need a doctor’ (Mark 2:17)” (p. 82)

Good things to remember, because as the scene with Pilate reminds us, Jesus abused and crucified is Jesus the King, and his resurrection broadens rather than limits the ocean of God’s mercy.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Make Straight a Highway"

"A voice cries out:
 ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
 and every mountain and hill be made low; 
the uneven ground shall become level,
 and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
 and all people shall see it together,
 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken'" (Isa. 40:3-5).

The son of a truck driver, I like highways and image of travel. Checking The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary's entry about roads and highways, I learned that a messila was a built-up road, intentionally constructed and improved, while a derekh (Num. 20:17, 19, Judg. 21:19) was a path was formed because of constant use and thus had become a road. Other Bible passages, though, use the word derekh for path roads, and the messila was more common in the Roman era rather than earlier. Another author, in the NIBD article concerning transportation and communication, refers to this Isaiah passage and notes that a good, well-constructed and straight road was a sign of prosperity and security. Roman roads had this quality, for they were straight, paved, and marked. But for the historically earlier prophets, a secure, straight road (presumably more difficult to construct prior to the advent of Roman public works) was an image for a future state of peace and well-being, for Israel and the nations.

The image of “making a highway straight” reminded me of something I read in some of my Route 66 books. Originally Route 66 in New Mexico turned north from Santa Rosa and passed through Santa Fe, then turned south again to enter Albuquerque. In the 1930s the road was constructed to bypass Santa Fe and proceed directly to Albuquerque, but both routes required a certain amount of blasting and difficult construction. Even the construction of the later Interstate 40 toward Albuquerque required a lot of dynamite to cut through the rocks and mountains. Straight roads still require construction technology and effort.

Second Isaiah didn’t know about dynamite!  But that history of Route 66 made me think of something I'd read in Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, the paperback English translation, where Barth used the image of an explosion to refer to Christ's life: “The effulgence, or, rather, the crater made at the percussion point of an exploding shell, the void by which the point on the line of intersection makes itself known in the concrete world of history, is not---even though it be named the Life of Jesus---that other world which touches our world in Him” (p. 29).

In other words, God the “totally other” cannot be known by unaided human knowledge and experience, so God creates and grounds that relationship from God’s side. But that self-revelation of God radically calls into question everything about human beings, puts us under God’s sign of judgment. And yet, dialectically, that breaking-in, that moment (Augenblick) of God’s judgment, is also the possibility of humans being redeemed and able to surrender all that they are to God.

Barth is using military imagery rather than road construction. But I think of the explosive power both of that voice in the wilderness calling for a path to be cleared for God’s arrival, and of the arrival itself, God’s dwelling among humans. God’s arrival is not so noticeable in the baby Jesus, but all in all, it is the true power in the world which can bring peace and security and well being.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday and Other Long Lines

I don’t remember when that term “Black Friday” began to gain popularity, but I do remember being confused at first. That’s because I teach American history, and I knew that Black Friday was the day in September 1869 when the U.S. gold market collapsed.  I kept hearing news people refer to “black Friday” and I knew they weren’t referring to President Grant’s administration!

Our family is not shopping today, but other years we’ve shopped on this day. A few years ago we needed to replace our Christmas tree so we visited one of the local malls.  It was so difficult to maneuver through the large crowds in each store, especially at the store where we’d purchased the tree----in a fairly heavy, four-foot long box, awkward to carry.

One of my Facebook friends commented that people were not going “bat**** crazy” at stores. He thought that the media likes to focus upon people’s insanity and rudeness, which is probably true. In fact, he said, people were being pretty polite and were even chatting with strangers and empathizing about the long lines and difficulties.

That made me think: it’s sure true that people make temporary friendships, so to speak, in times of stress, for instance, in long lines. I also recall an Australian couple with whom my family and I kept standing in the same long lines to see Washington, D.C. attractions like the Capitol.

Another common, stressful circumstance are at airport gates when flights are delayed. I recall many chats with total strangers as we waited for weather to clear, for pilots to arrive, and so on. We’re all stuck in the same predicament together, and so we all might as well converse about things.

What happens to people, whom you like but aren’t in a situation where you’d ever resolve to stay in touch?

I’m always trying to think of ways to improve my prayer life, which (like many people) happens in and among the aspects of my busy life, fraught with spiritual lapses. If I happen to think of barely-remembered strangers with whom we conversed during tedious lines and annoying delays, I’ll try to recall them and then to say a little prayer for them. God has kept track of them, even if we haven’t.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mom and I

Church directory picture from about 1977 
Some memories for Thanksgiving. My mom passed away on September 30, not quite two months ago. She was 93 and had lived in a fine nursing home for six years. Dad died in 1999, and so this is the first holiday when I’ve had no parents to visit. It’s a tremendously sad, empty and lonely recognition. We all make journeys through life with our family members, and we can’t imagine it otherwise. The joys and imperfections of the relationship are our very lives. But when one “drops out,” we must figure out how to continue without him or her.

Thanksgiving elicits memories of holidays at my grandmother’s farm house, south of Brownstown, IL. I’m referring to Mom’s mother, who lived at the house where Mom was born in 1919. Many times, cousins from St. Louis and other areas could also come, so we’d have a big “feed.” In my little book Journeys Home, and in my Upper Room book You Gave Me a Wide Place, I wrote about my grandma’s farm house and the many childhood memories associated with the place.

A frustrating thing attends holiday memories: something which I understand now but would change if I could. Mom would complain about Dad to me, and she would share with me the ways that a few relatives (especially her brother and his wife) hurt her feelings. And yet she’d coach me not to say anything and be nice to them when we were all together. “What the hell?” I might have said, if I’d been more confrontational. Mom released her anger and hurt that way but expected me not to have any in response. Over time I began to struggle with depression as I bottled up that anger, being too young to know what to do. (I'm an only child, born fifteen years into Mom and Dad's marriage, and I'm sure my lateness and onliness contributed to this dynamic.) My parents did so much for me, and of course I felt protective of Mom.

Today, those big family gatherings linger in my mind with warm nostalgia tempered with a recognition of the ways our family was unhappy in special ways, to paraphrase Tolstoy. But I don't want to imply that Mom had tense relationships with other relatives. In fact, most of her family connections were close and loving. Our extended family members loved Mom very much, and so did my great-aunts and -uncles when they were alive. And also: Mom and her brother did work on their relationship as best as they could. It was hard for them both but they never gave up on each other.

Meanwhile, things were unhappy in Dad’s family. He made no pretense of liking his sister and had fallen out with his mother, too. When Dad referred to "the loudmouth bitch" or the "goddamn bald-headed son of a bitch," we knew he meant his sister and stepfather, respectively. One Thanskgiving, we actually pulled off a family meal at Dad's mother's home, with Grandma and Mom and Dad and Dad's sister and her family. It's a nice memory now, but the meal had a "Sword of Damocles" quality, potential disaster just hanging there...

Do you suppress or ignore family tensions in order to have nice times, or do you give up any chance of nice times because of those tensions---perhaps even perversely enjoying the anger----or do you figure out other ways? Each family has to work out those dynamics---again, in its own special way. For us, I'm so glad we shared Thanksgivings and Christmases with Mom’s family, giving me a lifetime of happy thoughts, not only of holidays at my childhood home, but also of Grandma's farm and all my kinfolk. As I've written elsewhere, my relationship with Grandma and her farm and the larger family, as well as the overall sense of place I gained, are crucial things for my identity, thanks in large part to Mom's and my frequent visits to the farm throughout my childhood and our various family get-togethers.

Mom was in poor health for many years. She developed rheumatoid arthritis during the 1970s when she was in her mid-50s. By the 1980s the disease had deformed her hands and feet but she was still ambulatory and functioning. By the 1990s (when she was in her 70s) she used a wheelchair more and suffered from heart ailments related to her arthritis. My dad, always the cook in the family, cared for her, but by then he was in his 80s and used a walker for household chores. It horrifies me to think that my mother suffered physical pain for over forty years. This is a reality that I can’t focus on for long because it’s so terrible and distressing.

A wonderful thing, though, is that Mom displayed both faith and bravery to other people, throughout all those years. She was really a great example and witness to many people. As I said already, she and her cousins had warm relations and she was a kind of hero to some of them, as well as other people. All of us do relate to our own immediate family members in different ways than to others----which isn’t hypocrisy, it’s just the way we all are.

Mom and I became discouraged with each other sometimes, but we could always talk about things and work things out, in a way we never could with stubborn Dad. Still in my 20s in the 1980s, I wanted her and Dad to come to my graduations and events. But Mom said she didn’t feel good and it was an effort for her. I, in turn, recognized that it was an effort for her, but I was still young enough to want and need my parents to be present when, for instance, I graduated from my masters degree. She skipped my ordination, which hurt me, as did her sad, offhand comment one day, when she wished I'd made "better grades" in seminary. In fact, I'd graduated cum laude.

But this dynamic was related to the dynamic when Mom complained about people to me: she wanted me to support her---in her mind, to be her chief support system---and in a way, because she felt so badly, I wasn't supposed to have feelings of my own. Her insecurities were such that she needed a lot of reassurance, and she tended to expect that people close to her do extra things to help her feel better. As I say, we talked about such issues, so that she'd feel okay and could recognize and acknowledge my feelings about things.

When my folks were becoming elderly and infirm in the 1990s, Dad was still the cook and provider, as Mom was becoming an invalid. This is a painful time for me to remember because not only was I worried about their well-being, but they were so needy of my help and also so resistant to any suggestions and ideas I had, especially if it required them spending any money. They wanted me to have a successful and happy life of my own----but they also wanted me to drive over (250 miles one way) at least once a week (preferably more) so I could do chores for them for free. I did drive over as often as I could, and I tried to get them help. I arranged to have Meals on Wheels to be delivered to the house, so that Dad could have some respite from household work. But he canceled the service, declaring the food was "no damn good." Then Mom and Dad would tell people I hadn’t visited that week, making me sound neglectful and uncaring, when I’d just been there very recently and had helped them.

If you’re an adult child with elderly parents, perhaps you understand the dilemma I had and the accompanying feelings. These are not at all uncommon circumstances. Someone I’m close to is dealing with this right now: she gives detailed instructions to the elderly couple she cares for, and the next time she checks in, none of those instructions have been carried out, but the pain and fear of the older couple’s need is still there. It’s as if these elderly folks, while pitiful in their need for their children’s help, don’t believe or trust anything their children say or do regarding the solving of problems. You get the mixed message that you’re wise and helpful, and still a foolish, unpredictable child. (And yet Dad always bragged about me to everyone: all the degrees I'd earned and the books I'd written. Between him and Mom, he was always the most vocally proud of my accomplishments. How I miss that and him!)

When you try to help your elderly parents, and when they resist your efforts, it is a maddening and painful dilemma. But you hesitate to argue and fight with your older parents---because what if that turns out to be your last conversation? It can also be maddening trying to share these dynamics with friends, for so many people (especially church people, in my experience) have sentimental feelings about motherhood and fatherhood. I recall a church friend who felt compelled to lecture me a little about my mother----as if she had even met my mother, as if my frustrations meant that I loved my mother less. My friend was very invested in a vision of "motherhood" and thus I shouldn't have shared anything about my family with her. It really does help to have friends who also have older parents, who know firsthand the struggles and feelings involved.  

Downtown Vandalia was a busy place when
I was a kid in the 1960s. My folks and I went
downtown to shop. Two cousins' stores,
Don's Camera Shop and Eadie's Bakery,
appear in this picture.
Amid all these things, there were the many holiday visits to see my folks. Pretty much every year, I (and my wife and I, and later our daughter, too) spent the holiday with my parents at their home in my hometown. I remember when Dad, in the 1980s, purchased a small camper for about $15,000 so they could come and see us, because we lived in Virginia and subsequently moved to Arizona for jobs. But Mom never felt like stocking the camper and traveling---”Can’t you come see us? It’s only a four day drive from Arizona, and it's such an effort for us”----so my folks used the camper one time. They were chagrined and regretful when they eventually sold it for about $1000. Don't ask me why they'd spend so much money on a camper but were unwilling to spend money on airplane travel; it makes no sense to me, either.

Our many holiday get-togethers----my parents and the two of us, and then daughter Emily-----were happy times, while stressful in minor, predictable ways. The television was always on, always to a cop show or a western, and kept at a very loud volume. I remember insisting that we turn off the TV when they were watching a "Miami Vice" rerun, and the action became so violent for our young daughter to watch. At the age when she still loved "Muppet Babies," I hated having her watch Don Johnson get pistol-whipped....

Another typical "parental unit" dynamic concerned folks in town. There in my hometown, Mom and Dad of course had many friends. Mom would coach Beth and me to visit so-and-so (any number of people whom Mom and Dad liked). We nearly always refused. The thing was, if we had visited these folks, Mom would’ve been sad that we spent less time with her! I just never knew whether this particular visit with my parents would be the last, and I wanted to have quality time with them. Thinking back, I don’t remember specific holiday visits; they run together as pleasant times, with a little sigh of relief when they were over.

Our daughter loved childhood visits to my parents' home. My folks were "string savers," and so their house was a bit of an adventure just to walk through. Their home (which I've written about in another blog post) was proximate to excellent parks, and so Emily and I would visit the several nearby play areas---the same ones I enjoyed as a child. Emily was Mom and Dad's only grandchild, and of course she was precious to them beyond words. When Mom was under hospice care, she wanted pictures of Beth and me and Emily close by. 

Circumstances both fortunate and unfair dot the map of one's life. I always thought it so unfair that my father-in-law passed away when Emily was not quite five. They had such wonderful times, and he was the younger of the two grandfathers. But now she barely remembers him. On the other hand, my mother was able to follow Emily's progress all through school and college, which is remarkable given Mom's infirm physical condition. I know that all the nursing home staff heard about Emily!   
A very nice late-summer visit to Mom and Dad's house in August 1999 did turn out to be the last with Dad. It was a fun, happy visit with then-eight-year-old Emily having a good time at the house and playing in the parks. Then .... Dad died suddenly on September 16, just about three weeks later. Mom couldn’t function on her own, but she wanted to stay at her own house as long as she could. So I managed her finances, arranged for live-in help for her, and made all her health care decisions for thirteen years. Of course, she and I consulted about these things as matters arose. I may write about all that some other time.

As I think about my mom, I’ve happy memories of Mom taking time in the park to help me learn to ride a bike, and other great times when she helped me with things and guided me toward goals. Not so emotionally invested in my abilities as she'd later become, she was patient and supportive as I had difficulty balancing myself on the bike, and learned other things. She encouraged me in my meager abilities to play sports, but it was fine when I realized I didn’t enjoy sports, and she was glad I was happy not playing. She liked to share some of my interests. When I was little, my dad was often absent, around the house and also emotionally, because he worked so hard with such long hours to provide a good life and prosperity for his family. (And, as I've said, he could be stubborn and difficult.) In my own life, I strove to be like my mom as a parent, available when Emily needed me as she attended her schools. (Dad become that kind of parent, too, after he retired.)

Mom and I also had wonderful evenings when I was in elementary school and even into junior high when she helped me with homework; in a way, she and I were learning things together. As I write all this, the mental images that come to mind are the park and the living room table where I did homework, with her lovingly helping me.

She also was a huge influence on me in that she basically made me to go Sunday school, thus giving me a solid religious foundation on which I was able to build later. But she was perhaps a bigger influence in that she tried to live her faith in, for instance, caring for the elderly in our family. Dad’s mother and stepfather did alienate many people, and Mom did many selfless favors for them. And although I revere Mom’s mother, I recognize among my childhood memories the traits of stubbornness and favoritism that would’ve made her an exasperating, hurtful person to have as a parent. I didn’t like the way Mom used me as her “shrink,” but I appreciate Mom’s efforts to bring the family together. She was never exclusive, "forgetting" to invite certain relatives to get-togethers and events, but she really was a kind of quiet, self-depreciating glue for the extended family.

For Mom’s visitation, I decided not to have an open casket, as we had with Dad. When Dad died, he was still handsome and looked good----as good as a corpse in a casket can look----but Mom had become so tiny and frail, and her hands had been deformed for so long.

I didn’t realize how wise my decision was until friends and family saw the two pictures I placed on the casket----one from World War II days, when she and Dad were newlyweds and he was in uniform, and the other from my wedding in 1984. I did a wonderful thing without realizing: I had spared her the comments people would’ve made about her hands---which she hated----and her frailty. Instead, people talked about their memories of Mom and Dad and all the good things in and around our little hometown. That's exactly what she would've wanted. The subsequent funeral message continued those good memories of Mom; her pastor gave an excellent eulogy, about which some of my wife's colleagues (who drove over from St. Louis) commented later. Mom wanted so badly to feel loved and appreciated, and the visitation and funeral service celebrated her life and surrounded her with love.

Mom joined Dad in their side by side graves in my hometown, a couple who had been married for 58 years. Another typical sort of family story... In 1983 or 1984, I helped my folks choose a set of plots. When Mom was blue, she liked to drive to the highest point in the cemetery (one of the highest hills in this part of Illinois), where she had a good view of the downtown, including the Old State Capitol building where Lincoln had served. At some point, she decided she didn't want to be buried in the rural cemetery where her parents and grandparents were buried; she liked this place better.

A friend's photo of downtown Vandalia
from the cemetery's highest hill. From
the Facebook "Vandalia Memories" page
That day in the 1980s, we looked at available plots, and Mom was indecisive about which she preferred. I'd encourage her, and she'd agree, and then she'd slip back to indecision. "I don't know if I can see the Statehouse the best from here," she'd say, walking among the plots. Finally Dad, impatient to wrap this up, declared, "You won't see anything when you're buried!" Fortunately, she didn't second-guess our eventual selection of their plots, and the view of the downtown from their stone is lovely, especially in autumn.

To say that our religious faith is a source of great comfort, is an understatement. I really do rejoice that Mom has now gained all the promises of eternal life, an imperishable body, and everlasting joy and peace. She has gained the happiness and wholeness she lacked in her earthly life for so many years. At home and in my car, I craved music that expressed everlasting life and home, like the requiems of Durufle and Faure, the music of Bach and Vaughan Williams, “Lux Aeterna” by Morten Lauridsen, and others.

As I prepare to hit the "publish" bottom for these thoughts (obviously leaving out many things in this comparatively brief post), my emotions are all over the place. I've feelings of peace for Mom, feelings of happy religious confidence in eternal life, gratitude for memories (with lingering annoyance about a few things, described here), and emotions of desolation and loneliness. I did feel tremendous peace as the hospice chaplain and later Mom's pastor prayed for me, and as I appreciated all the supportive comments for us, from Facebook friends and friends who sent cards and flowers and donated in Mom's name.

That sense of peace has stayed with me consistently, which makes me know (given my blues these days) that it’s the power of God’s Spirit at work. It's the same Spirit that has worked throughout the lives of my parents and other family members, and in the journey through life that Mom and I made together.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Anniversary of a Door

Thoughts from last year... My grandma Crawford lived in an old farmhouse in rural Brownstown, Illinois. Her father, Albert Pilcher, built the house in 1907, but he died only three years later. I'm not sure when Grandma and Grandpa moved to the house, or when Grandma's mother remarried and moved away. My mother was born there in 1919. Grandma lived at the house most of her life.

I also don't remember when I discovered the tiny letters and numbers on the outside of the kitchen's back door: C. E. Pilcher, Nov. 17, 1907. These were in a lighter color than the door's dark stain. Grandma said that Cassius E. Pilcher was a housepainter, and her father's cousin. I was pretty young, but the old designation was fascinating to me, something unobtrusive and nearly forgotten, like a building's cornerstone.

In fact, I did nearly forget the discovery. For years I puzzled about November 17; it seemed to be a significant day but I couldn't remember. Someone's birthday? Elton John's third album? Finally I remembered the old door.

This coming Thursday----Thanksgiving, in fact---is November 22. For those of a particular age, we will always associate that day with John F. Kennedy, because we remember that day in 1963. Some anniversaries are much more personal, and so ephemeral they nearly fade from thought until some lucky spark of memory brings them back.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Lawrence Coulson Atmospheres

Several years ago, I discovered Lawrence Coulson’s art at the Akrona Gallery back in Akron, OH, where we lived. He is a UK artist who has painted professionally since the 1990s. I forget which print I first noticed at the gallery, but the one we eventually purchased was “Fen Sunlight,” a painting of a brown landscape with sunlight and encroaching storm clouds.

It seems like British classical music and now British art connects me to American midwestern landscapes of my childhood, because of the strong pastoral element. The reason I loved that print of fen country was the distant farm (or perhaps a tiny village). I reminded me so much of travel along interstates and two-lane highways, and I'd notice towns or farm buildings far off on the horizon, to me a very comforting and homey sight. For some reason, Haubstadt, Indiana, when viewed from the distance of I-64, was a favorite rural sign, but especially my mother's hometown, Brownstown, Illinois, from I-70. "Fen Sunlight," though a different kind of scene in another country, gives me a wonderful sense of peace.

Coulson’s paintings are of clouds, thick and gray; sky and clouds colored with sunrise or sunset or near darkness; land (whether fields or beaches), or water (lakes or seas) which meet the sky, but almost always with the sky dominating. There might be tiny figures discernible on a beach, or a faraway boat on the water, or buildings against the horizon. Some paintings have no discernible human presence. I would love to own a print of “Fading Light,” a sunset scene with a faint steeple, but it's out of print. I also love (but don't yet own) some of his lake paintings.

The book “Lawrence Coulson, Atmospheres” from 2004 (published by Washington Green) reproduces many of his paintings. Interestingly, his 1990s paintings show greater detail of things like grass and fields and trees, and his style has developed to deemphasize details in favor of contrasting colors. In the introduction he writes, “Some of the more recent works are indeed semi-abstract sky studies, no foreground or figures to speak of” (p. 10). He is glad that admirers and collectors put themselves into those landscapes. “I think that this is great; that is what it is all about” (p 11). That was certainly the case with me and “Fen Sunlight,” where I thought of myself, alone and driving, as I noticed a town or large farm several miles away and wondered what life there was like.

You can google Coulson to see some of his work, and also check the sites http://www.libertygallery.com/contents/en-uk/d64_lawrence_coulson_art.html and also
http://www.gregoryeditions.com/coulson.htm  The book “Atmospheres” features poems with the paintings, like this Gerard Manley Hopkins verse beside “Fen Sunlight.”

Strike, churl; hurl, cheerless
wind, then; heltering hail
May’s beauty massacre and
wisped wild clouds grow
Out on the giant air.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Family and Work

My mother passed away on September 30. Over the years (to make a long story short) I figured out how to have good time with my daughter and also time to help my elderly parents. My dad died in 1999, and now my mom is gone, too. I feel grateful I was able to be available for their needs as they dealt with the challenges of old age.

Work and family can be hard to balance in many kinds of vocations and professions. What if you’re working more than one job, not because you’re greedy for a certain lifestyle but because you can’t otherwise make ends meet? What if your one job is extremely time consuming? People who run their own businesses, for instance, scarcely have a minute to spare. How then do you manage and create family time?

The Christian ethicist Eric Mount also calls attention to workplaces that subtly punish employees if they, for instance, showed a tendency to want to balance work and family. Difficulties increase when the workplace demands an imbalanced sense of loyalty. Cell phones and laptops make possible even more work, now done at home. On the other hand, according to research cited by Mount, some people’s home environment is sufficiently difficult that spending more time at work seems a positive option (Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, Pilgrim Press, 1999, p. 90).

Mount writes, “What puts conscience in a bind in even more troubling ways are the conflicts between competing loyalties in which both covenants [marriage and work] have legitimate and convincing claims on us. Marriage, family, church, friendship, race, ethnicity, gender, class, nation, region, city, global community, school, team, club, professional organization or standards, employers, labor union, political party, social cause, and the environment or nature all may have claims on us and may have received explicit or implicit promises for us” (p. 88).

What he calls these “covenantal conflicts” are certainly challenging; we know what he means about conflicting loyalties and claims upon us. He notes, for instance, the prevalence of dual career families and the accompanying stress. According to one study from Duke University, working mothers had high stress-hormone levels throughout their waking hours, owing to multiple responsibilities of work, household duties, and child-rearing duties (p. 88).

My wife and I struggle with a related but different challenge: we love our work so much that we hate to turn it off sometimes! Beth and I have to be mindful of the need for "down time" and recreative moments. I freely admit that I derive a sense of emotional well-being from my work and struggle with self-esteem if work is in a temporary slump.

It's important to remember God's will for all of us: to balance work, family, and rest. God is not a fussy boss, keeping track of hours we spend at labor. As Mount points out in this context, God established the Sabbath as a day when no one (not even the animals and servants of biblical times) did any work at all. God also established a sabbatical year so that nature itself could replenish itself. God wills for us to have strong families and times of renewal (p. 92-93).

But to say “this is God’s will for us” doesn’t seem to matter if your workplace and/or your family situation adds stress and imbalance to yourself and others. What is the solution?

There are no easy answers, particularly in our contemporary time with its serious economic challenges. When many people can’t find good jobs, you might risk even greater problems if you try to make hasty and poorly-considered changes in your life.

1 Timothy 3:4-5 has to do with the qualifications of a church bishop, but applied broadly, the passage stresses a need for balance. If a person cannot (for whatever reason) manage one’s own household, how can one do well in one’s employment?  Finding that balance may not be something we can do alone; as in my own life, we'll need family members working together, and we’ll need to call upon God to help us over a period of months and perhaps years. Better to begin to seek those changes, though, and start the process with God's guidance.

(This piece is an "outtake" of another project.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

"A Way of Being Christian"

My mom died on September 30 at the age of 93. Although I’m writing a lot about her in private I’m not ready to post very much. Our relationship had annoying aspects (does any parent-child relationship not have complications, mental “tapes” that the child relives throughout adulthood?) but it was close. We could talk about problems in a way neither of us could with stubborn Dad.

I’m making all kinds of associations these days, and probably a lot of my upcoming posts will involve family memories. For instance, when she and Dad and I took vacations, it was always on the road at Dad’s insistence. A major, aggravating memory for me!  But while we were on the road, we visited churches on Sunday morning, and that was a lovely thing. I was keen on having perfect Sunday school attendance, or at least as close as I could come, given my so-so health as a child. So we’d look for churches to visit. Our denomination was Disciples of Christ, but on the road, that didn’t really matter.  I remember that we stopped by a Church of the Nazarene somewhere in Missouri or Kansas, and a Baptist church during another trip, a Methodist church in yet another year. While Dad sat in the car, reading Westerns, Mom and I were ecumenical---at least a little bit----without knowing the word!

These family memories brought to mind a research project for which I was hired to do in the 1990s. It was a history of the Kentucky Council of Churches, which had its 50th anniversary in 1997. My work resulted in a commemorative booklet, provided to members at the time. To my chagrin, the larger manuscript was never published, and so I asked permission to give a copy of the manuscript to the Filson Club in Louisville, Kentucky, where many of the council’s papers and documents already resided.

Ecumenical and also interfaith work are things I’ve always enjoyed. A scriptural impetus for ecumenism has always been John 17:21 in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer,” Christ’s hope that his disciples could be one. Interfaith work takes that attitude a little further and creates camaraderie and discussions among persons of different religion. Regarding ecumenism, I summarized in the manuscript's introduction some of the research of Kinnamon and Cope:

“After centuries of separation and hostility, Christians have begun to recapture ‘the simple biblical truth that the church as the people of God and the body of Christ must exemplify in this world how God gathers [people] together from the ends of the earth in order to live as a new humanity’. Churches representing over a billion and a half members are now engaged with one another in councils of churches, theological dialogues, various forms of collaborative mission, common prayer, and other expressions of ecumenical life.” (Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, page 1).

I also found a wonderful quotation for the introduction. I wrote: “Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches has stated that ‘In [the] early days [of the ecumenical movement], when relationships were beginning and walls were being broken down, there was a sense of excitement and a sense of accomplishment.’ But Campbell believes that ‘A lot of strength is now in local ecumenical bodies, particularly those in which committed Christians and congregations come together... As I see it, ecumenism lives in your heart, is acted out in your life and shapes how you organize. In short, being ecumenical is a way of being Christian. From that point of view, the ecumenical movement is alive and well and very widespread’.” (Quote from Christian Century magazine, Nov. 8, 1995, p. 1048, used in my original text with permission.)

I love that idea: ecumenism is a way of being Christian!

I know I’m on a hobby horse these days about the bitterness of our politics these days. (Here’s a good article:
http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2012/11/barack-obamas-re-election) We've turned important policy arguments into ideological caricatures of politicians (and other voters) with whom we disagree---that they’re out to destroy the country. “America, don’t lose heart,” proclaimed a political leader recently about Obama’s reelection, implying that the millions of people who voted for Obama are not Americans.

It occurs to me that some of the spirit of good will and mutual service that has so long characterized ecumenical effort----cooperation that acknowledges differences and expresses concerns but does not stigmatize----could be adopted by us Christians in our attitudes, work, and words about politics.  This, too, is an aspect of the "simple biblical truth" of which Kinnamon and Cope writes.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Discovering Route 66 in St. Louis

I’ve been a Route 66 buff ever since we lived in Flagstaff, AZ in 1987-1991. I purchased “Route 66: A History of the Road and Its People” by Quinta Scott and Susan Croce Kelly in 1989, then Michael Wallis’ “Route 66: The Mother Road” the following year, and other books. When we moved from Flagstaff back east in 1991, we were able to follow quite a bit of the road through some of the communities, and we could glimpse the old highway beside the interstate in, for instance, Oklahoma. I still like to drive sections, especially in my home state of Illinois.  When I taught at University of Akron, I had wonderful students in a colloquium, "American Highways and American Wanderlust," in which we read Kelly's book plus a Lincoln Highway text and books like "On the Road," "The Grapes of Wrath," and "Blue Highways."

Earlier on this blog, I wrote about motels on Route 66 and other highways (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2011/08/motels-on-route-66.html) and some earlier trips on the old road (http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/search/label/Route%2066) When we moved to St. Louis in 2009, I understood why travel guides indicated that anyone wanting to follow Route 66 through St. Louis should choose one of the routes rather than them all. There is the original route through the middle of the city, a large portion of which is Manchester Road (State Route 100).There is the route around the city, from the Chain of Rocks bridge west (now Interstate 270) to Lindbergh Blvd south. There is also the city route (probably the most famous version), from the MacArthur Bridge then south and southwest, on portions of Tucker, Gravois, Chippewa, and Watson Roads. Much of that route is now State Route 366. Another part of the city route diverts from the Chain of Rocks Bridge and runs toward the downtown along Riverside Drive and other streets.

I’ve driven nearly all these alignments, though piecemeal. Recently I visited the location at 7th Street and Chouteau where the now blocked and abandoned pavement crosses the MacArthur Bridge. With that, I visited all the city route other than the Riverside Drive stretch. A book called “Route 66 in St. Louis (Images of America)” by Joe Sonderman (Arcadia Publishing, 2008) gives the routes through the city, and some websites are also helpful: http://www.theroadwanderer.net/66Missouri/stlouis.htm
http://missouriroute66.blogspot.com/p/st-louis.html http://www.theroadwanderer.net/66Illinois/city66.htm

from builtstlouis.net
I’ve yet to visit the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, now a pedestrian and bicycle way. A pair of 1991 murders happened at the bridge (the case is still occasionally in the local news), which made me feel sad and worried about the location, so I need to visit the bridge when a local event happens there and brings a crowd. This websiie provides information about the bridge: http://www.theroadwanderer.net/66Illinois/chain.htm

A book called “Route 66 in St. Louis (Images of America)” by Joe Sonderman (Arcadia Publishing, 2008) indicated how many motels and restaurants operated along Lindbergh Blvd. Today, the road has a much different landscape of retail and financial businesses and upscale neighborhoods.  But in Route 66 days, travelers could find many different places to stay and eat. One of those old motels remain, the Ivy Motel.

There were many places along the city route, too. Sonderman’s book provides photos and postcards of many now-gone places. I wish I could’ve seen the famous Coral Court motel on Watson Road. It was torn down in the 90s and replaced with a subdivision. I pass the location on my way to the hair salon and later look at Quinta Scott’s photo to imagine the layout. http://www.coralcourt.com/main.html Other vintage motels are still nearby: the Chippewa Motel, the Wayside Motel, the Duplex Motel, and a little further west, a place that had been called the La Casa Grande Motel, interesting because of its Pueblo Revival style. Other notable 66 establishments, like the Donut Drive-in and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, both on Chippewa, are worth visits.

Last summer, I decided to take the road out of town a bit.  Watson Road merges onto I-44 in southwestern St. Louis County.  I drove a while before I saw a sign for a place called the Route 66 State Park visitor’s center. Taking a lovely stretch of the old road I came upon the place and found wonderful displays inside, as well as a good book and gift shop. The center has portions of the Coral Court sign and other relics of the old highway. I picked up another book by Joe Sonderman, “Route 66 Missouri” (Schiffer Publishing, 2010).

Outside the center, Route 66 crosses the Meramec River, but the bridge is now permanently closed. As I looked at this new book of Sonderman’s, I learned that I was at the famous Times Beach, the community that was declared contaminated with dioxin and razed in the 1980s. The center had been the Bridgehead Inn at Times Beach and later the EPA headquarters during the cleanup effort.

Continuing through the Meramec Valley, I pulled off and drove the road through Pacific and its countryside. I discovered another vintage motel, the Gardenway.  Beside the place is the Shaw Nature Preserve. Henry Shaw was the founder of Missouri Botanical Garden back in St. Louis.

A future trip will be Meramec Caverns, which I last visited over forty years ago. I wish I had some memories of Route 66 from that trip----probably three hours from my hometown in Illinois----but I remember Dad and I and my grandmother taking a tour of the famous cave in the late 1960s. My mom was claustrophobic and stayed behind, but I had enduring memories of the place famed as Jesse James’ hideout.

My Cousin Lewis

Here's a piece I've been reposting each Veterans Day.... an excerpt from Frederick M. Hanes, Fayette County [Illinois] in the World War, 1922, pp. 58 and 60.

"Lewis Calvin Crawford, son of Calvin and Rosetta Crawford, was born October 24, 1905 [i.e., 1895] near Brownstown where he lived until he entered the service of his country May 8, 1917. He enlisted at Mattoon and was sent to Jefferson Barracks. Later he was transferred to a camp in Texas and thence to Jersey City, N. J., from where he crossed as a first class private of CO. K., 16th Infantry.

"His father having died several years previous, many a young man in his position would have pleaded that he must remain with his lonely mother. But whenever he spoke of going he would remark, 'Mother, if I did not go and help win our freedom I would feel that I had no right to live here. I could not face the boys as they came home who had fought for me.'

"Lewis was a Bible reader and before going expressed the desire to go across and if possible see the country where the Saviour lived on earth. On the way across however, he contracted measles. Pneumonia followed. He was taken to Base Hospital No. 1, St. Naziarre, France where he died July 15, 1917, the first of the sons of Fayette county to give his life on French soil. His comrades buried him in a French cemetery but later removed the body to an American cemetery. At the request of his relatives the body was again disinterred and set back to his homeland where it was laid to rest in Pilcher cemetery in the family lot.

"When the American Legion was organized in Fayette County the Vandalia Post was named The Crawford-Hale Post in honor of Private Crawford and Sergt. Edward B. Hale, Fayette County's first two sons to give their lives overseas for American ideals.

"Private Crawford was a member of the M. W. A. His mother recalls his favorite hymn which has taken on a new and grander meaning:

"I will follow Thee my Saviour,
Whereso'er my lot shall be:
Where Thou goest I will follow,
Yes, my Lord, I'll follow Thee."

Lewis was my great-grandfather John Crawford's first cousin. In fact, Lewis and his parents are buried very close to my grandparents and great-grandparents. One of my friend posted a photo of his tombstone at Find-a-Grave.

My mom, who passed away on September 30, 2012, was coincidentally born the day the Crawford-Hale post began: August 2, 1919.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thinking about the Election

I’m writing this Tuesday evening, although I’ll probably post it Wednesday. Voting in the elections, I felt wonderful about exercising my right as a citizen.

There are obviously many issues that President Obama will have to address, now that he's been re-elected.  A writer on Yahoo news says: "Now, Obama heads back to office facing what will most likely be bitterly partisan negotiations over whether the Bush tax cuts should expire. The House will still be majority Republican, with Democrats maintaining their majority in the Senate. The loss may provoke some soul searching in the Republican Party. This election was seen as a prime opportunity to unseat Obama, as polls showed Americans were unhappy with a sluggish economy, sky-high unemployment, and a health care reform bill that remained widely unpopular." (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/barack-obama-wins-election-second-term-president-041852102--election.html)

Among the many topics one could think about at this time, I've been returning to some challenges and national attitudes. To start with, this article---http://news.yahoo.com/analysis-big-choice-governments-role-224209622--politics.html---makes a good point: “For all their philosophical differences, neither man [Romney and Obama] has hit Americans between the eyes with the painful truth of what it will take to tame deficit spending, driven by the public's demand for low taxes and high services.” This is a challenge that we Americans must keep considering and examining. We want a strong military, strong disaster relief, various safety-net programs, good schools, and other things, but how to pay for these things, especially when we loathe both higher taxes and high state and federal deficits?

For instance, I personally---being an admirer of Jonathan Kozol, who recently visited my university----think we need to think deeply about education inequalities, and the fact that school districts in wealthy areas spend more per child than school districts in poor communities. To say “we can’t throw money at the problem” of public schools, as some of my friends have said over the years, is to ignore fundamental realities of school quality and funding.

That same article's author comments that, “With record numbers of people on food stamps and other assistance, President Barack Obama emphasizes ‘we're all in this together"’— code for sweeping government involvement.” Unfortunately, our country needs a much stronger narrative of “we’re all in this together”---a narrative that is not a code but a genuine national spirit. We tend to frame our political and social narratives in “us vs. them” ways, but I don't think those kinds of narratives are the best (see below).  Can some clever leaders, for instance, discover ways to unite government and private sector involvement in social and economic issues, and possibly encourage a greater spirit of national unity in addressing social and economic issues?

I worry about this, especially with the prospect of the ongoing conflicts between the president and congressional GOPs.  I like what Thomas Friedman says about the condemnable cynicism of some leaders like Senator McConnell, and I hope that the next four years will see some breakthroughs.  Some of it will have to happen from the president's side, too.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/opinion/friedman-hope-and-change-part-two.html?smid=tw-NYTimesFriedman&seid=auto

Another challenge is the way we select our leaders. So much money is spent on relentless political advertising, so much of which does not advance intelligent discussion about political issues. As they say, those billions of dollars could be going to good causes----and we're tolerating a fundamentally untruthful, impressionistic system. (But what can "we" do about it?) We hate the system but our leaders use it and, to some extent, it works.  Mudslinging and image-creating, though, have been part of our national politics for a long time: look at the 1840 election, for instance.

Another challenge is (as this article argued) the fact that we’re looking to our presidents are a kind of savior or messiah (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/10/30/we-must-stop-treating-the-president-as-our-savior/)  A related challenge is the hostility and, for some people, hatred toward our presidents when they fail our expectations or push policies with which we don’t agree. I’m not talking about robust disagreement, but actual hatred. (One author, for instance, has termed recent conservative rhetoric the "Obama hate machine.")

And.... a related challenge is that we religious people don’t always subject our expression of political opinions to much religious scrutiny. Do we praise Jesus but sound like some hate-filled media pundit? Do we stop and think of our speech is helpful and kind? Do we listen to our friends who have different opinions, and if we disagree with them, do we love each other anyway?

This is particularly difficult in light of the division in the country over issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, health care, and others. Any effort from us Christians to help our democracy can start by affirming both Proverbs 3:5-6 and Romans 15:7.

Great that the election has resulted in a record number of women in the U.S. Senate, and Tulsi Gabbard, elected in Hawaii, is the first Hindu member of Congress!  Also Mazie Hirono, an LGBT support, will be the first Buddhist Senator, while Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin becomes the first openly gay Senator.


I’ve been struggling with and thinking about some of these topics in previous posts. Last July I wrote about Obama’s saying, “You didn’t build that,” where I wrote about some of these topics:
http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/07/you-didnt-built-that.html  In one of my November 2010 posts, I wrote this:

This past year I was hired to write a series of lessons called Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with terrific input from the Center. The following website explains the overall curriculum: http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm.

As stated at the website above, the Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors of the book Habits of the Heart note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the "freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life" but neglects the fact that our relationship with God "is mediated by a whole pattern of community life."(1)

Individualism also flavors American's politics. Bellah et al. argue that both welfare liberalism and neocapitalism tend to focus upon individual good as the way toward the common good. “The purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends,” the first by allowing periodic government intervention into the economy "to balance the operations of the market in the interests of economic growth and social harmony," and the other by a free-market approach with less government involvement.(2)

Bellah and his fellow authors hope that "the biblical impetus to see religion as involved in the whole of life" can give a broader political vision, as well as a less personalistic religious faith, which in turn renews our sense of civic virtue. (3)

Eric Mount of Centre College, in his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, echoes Bellah in stressing that Americans have always had a twofold drive: personal success and a desire for the common good (4). Although we Americans are indebted to the tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(5)

The Faithful Citizen lessons will highlight some of the ways by which we can broaden our religious and political visions to have a greater concern for the common good and for responsible civic participation. For instance, among other ideas based upon Mount's research, we can think of religious faith as "audacious openness." Mount writes, "openness is not simply tolerant of the other, or receptive to encounter by difference; it is audacious. Its hospitality is daring. it is not docile obedience; it is courageous engagement" with other people and their needs.(6)

Another approach to civic virtue and the common good is through "better stories." Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business. (7)

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Mounts offers this challenge: "Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of 'us' against 'them' will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater."(8)

1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Ibid., 262-266.

3. Ibid., 248.

4. Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

5. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 43-45.

6. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 136-137. For this insight Mount cites Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 204-8, and also the thought of Darrell J. Fasching, Narrative Theology after Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6, 15-16, 73, 123, 126, 187-88.

7. Mount, "A Tale of Two Americas," 47-48.

8. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Funny how one’s mind wanders and makes connections. I was reading a “Gramophone” magazine review of a Martha Argerich CD, and the subject of cassette tapes came to mind, because I once owned a two-cassette box of Chopin music that Argerich had recorded. I hadn't known that the famous "funeral march," sometimes featured in my childhood's cartoons, was actually Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2. As the tape played along in the car, clicking a little in the player, it came to that movement, and I thought, "Oh!  That's where that comes from!" Of course, Argerich's version is compelling.

I wondered: Whatever happened to cassettes? I know I’ve not seen them in stores for many years, although they once covered several shelves in places like Sam Goody and Tower Records.

I checked Wikipedia, which had a footnoted article that indicates they are actually still being sold, but in very few numbers. The author writes: “Cassettes outsold vinyl and compact disc, respectively, from the early 80s until the early 90s.” Even in 2004, 8.6 million cassettes were sold. But by 2009, sales had plummeted to 34,000. “Of the 2,000 tapes sold year-to-date, most have been albums at least 36 months old, bought at indie retailers in the south Atlantic region, in the suburbs, according to SoundScan.”

So there’s my answer! The author notes that cassettes’ niche is specific: “Not only were tapes the way many young people first owned music in the Reagan era; from post-punk to C86 to riot grrrl to industrial and noise, cassettes also embodied the 80s underground's do-it-yourself ethic. So much so, in fact, that many indie labels never stopped creating them....Last August, Rhizome writer Ceci Moss identified 101 cassette labels.” (http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7764-this-is-not-a-mixtape/)

That made me think of other formats. During the college years of 1976-1979, I had an eight-track player in my car, and I still enjoyed those tapes as late as 1979, a summer I had a job that involved a lot of car travel. But I doubt I purchased any thereafter. According to a Wikipedia article, eight-tracks were no longer sold in retail stores by 1982, though record clubs still sold them until 1988. The last commercial eight-track release seems to be Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 “Greatest Hits.”

Good riddance! Those tapes were terrible things: their clunkiness, and the way you had to put up with repeated songs. I see them sometimes in antique stores and groan.

My parents wonderfully purchased me a reel-to-reel recorder and player when I was in high school, around 1972. I used it to record music off the radio, especially KSHE-FM in St. Louis, and later Met Opera Saturday matinees. But I don’t think I ever purchased a pre-recorded tape. No wonder: when I looked up that format on Wikipedia, I discovered that pre-recorded reels were largely gone from stores by 1973, and a few were offered by record stores until the late 1970s.

I don’t miss cassettes much. Of course, you had to rewind or fast-forward to your favorite song, and you hoped you wouldn’t go too far or too short. But I was used to them. I don’t remember the first cassette I purchased, but I remember the first one I played: David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” LP, which I taped at home by putting the small player/recorder next to the turntable speakers, and then I carried that same player with me in my old car, a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. The car wasn’t worth getting a player installed (and my subsequent Dodge Dart had the 8-track player). So it was a homemade way to have favorite music in the case as I, a teenager in a small town, enjoyed my new driver’s license and freedom.

My 1979 Pontiac station wagon had a cassette player built in, so I had a lot of popular tapes. After I was married in the 80s, Beth and I like to purchase cassettes for our cars, especially for cross-country trips to visit the parental-units on holidays. We had a tape of Rossini overtures, baroque “greatest hits,” and Garrison Keillor radio shows. To this day, “William Tell Overture” reminds me of a lonely interstate rather than the Lone Ranger. We had a favorite tape that included two Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending” and “Tallis Fantasia” along with Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor for String Orchestra” and Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli,” and also a cassette with Haydn’s trumpet, harp and organ concertos. All these pieces still bring to mind road trips.

We had a little case in which to store the tapes, but often they ended up being tossed into a small cardboard box. I’d dump them out onto the car seat, and they made that plastic clatter as they fell onto the seat and I sorted through them to locate good music for whatever the day’s trip was.

I think the last cassette I purchased was Talking Head’s “Sand in the Vaseline,” back in the mid 1990s. By then I was purchasing CDs for home listening.  But why did I wait to begin purchasing CDs until around 1989 (seven years after their introduction) and only then when my favorite record store stopped carrying LPs? I liked LPs (still do) and my car only had a cassette player. Used to this audio technology, I was devoted to it for a long time. My 2004 Nissan Sentra had players for both cassettes and CDs, but not my 2010 Toyota Matrix.

Will I someday write a nostalgic piece about CDs? Will it (like this essay) unintentionally turn out to be a reminiscence about cars? The time is coming and is nearly here; in my Matrix, I listen to my iPod full of downloads more often than CDs.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Music in the Landscape"

I read a review in Gramophone magazine of a new book, Music in the Landscape: How British Countryside Inspired Our Greatest Composers by Em Marshall (Robert Hale, Ltd, 2011). Marshall is founder-director of the English Music Festival and chair of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society (to which I belong). She has appeared on British radio and has authored several articles.

Beginning with Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Elgar I’ve grown to love English music over the years and own numerous LPs and CDs of their and other composers’ pieces. For instance, I’ve most of Britten’s operas and many Vaughan Williams compositions on LPs, numerous Vaughan Williams and Finzi CDs, a lovely series called “English String Miniatures” on the Naxos label, a box set on the ASV Living Era label called “My England: A Collection of Timeless English Concertos,” all 20th century English composers’ concertos, and other CDs and downloads. Many mornings I start the day with a downloaded piece called “Lonely Waters” by Ernest John Moeran. So when I saw Marshall’s book reviewed, I promptly ordered it.

Although Marshall briefly discusses earlier British composers, she focuses upon 19th and 20th century figures. She tells of Edward Elgar’s pleasure of bicycling around the countryside, and also Sir Arnold Bax’s cycling trips. Gustav Holst took many long walking journeys throughout England, while Peter Warlock took his friend Bela Bartok on a motorcycle tour of north Wales with Bartok in the sidebar. Both Bax and Moeran also lived the Irish countryside. Moeran, in fact, found the countryside “fundamental” (p. 213). He died of a stroke in a rural location that he loved. Anyone who knows of Benjamin Britten knows that his home was in Aldeburgh beside the sea, an essential location for his composition. Gerald Finzi’s work was inspired by Yorkshire landscapes where he spent his childhood, and one of his passions was his orchard of apple trees, including rare varieties. Rutland Boughton moved himself and his family in a small woodland cottage on the Surrey and Hampshire borders; there his musical imagination blossomed. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, always devotedly Irish, drew inspiration from Ireland's west coast.

Marshal discusses forty composers, of which fourteen are subject of longer chapters and the rest more brief analysis. She does not include technical musical analysis, which is good for a person like me who loves music but knows little theory. It sounds funny to say that I love the pictures in the book, but the color photographs of English countryside are gorgeous. She provides historical photos as well as contemporary pictures of typical landscapes in places associated with different composers. I hang my head in shame that I’ve only visited the U.K. once, last year, and the book makes me want to return to England soon. Marshall writes at the end, "The countryside---in all its moods----is the key that unlocks the secrets of English music, and is what makes these glorious works as timeless, familiar and beautiful to us today, as yesterday" (p. 281).