Calling: Writing

Flower

I try to avoid “realty” TV like the plague. Whenever I mistakenly see a bit of it, I am reminded what a good decision it was to ditch my television set over ten years ago. Occasionally, however, in a waiting room (Why does every waiting room in America these days have a fleet of televisions, all turned up VERY LOUD?), or at my parents’ house, I have had realty TV foisted upon me. One show that has made an impression (not a good one, just an impression) is “Hoarders.” I have also seen segments about hoarders on other programs or online. My parents are collectors and savers, but I would not call them hoarders.

Real hoarders have a real problem. They save and collect compulsively, obscenely. One category of items that seems to be a particular favorite (this is that part that made an impression of me, since this is something I also allow to take over a great deal of space in my apartment) is BOOKS. The stranger part is that the type of book very often hoarded is “self-help books.” Clearly they aren’t helping.

All of which is to say I have a healthy skepticism of self-help books, in spite of having read a lot of them myself. A LOT of them. They always feel inspiring while reading them, but the effect quickly wears off. These books create a false impression of accomplishment, but leave me right back where I started. By far the best self-help book I’ve ever read was a handmade pamphlet by artist Paul Fata. It didn’t belong to me, so eventually I had to return it to its rightful owner, another artist, David Zermeno. The pamphlet was called 101 Rules For The Starving Artist . Good luck finding a copy.

This brings me to another self-help book that I recommend: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. In this short but actually helpful book, Pressfied comes back again and again to the same theme: Whatever calling you are most resisting is probably the calling you should be following. For me personally, I can immediately think of two such callings. The one I’m going to discuss today is: writing. Once I get into the groove of writing regularly, it feels nice and natural, but I very easily fall out of that groove and once out, it’s very hard to get back in.

So it comes as a surprise that I have lately been having more ideas that I know what to do with. This is a nice problem, but it does lead to too many irons in the fire and not enough finished products coming out. I get started on one thing, then another thought occurs to me (usually  when walking or trying to sleep) and I plunge into that one. The result is a whole slew of works in progress. I’m writing the present blog post as a sort of placeholder—something to dash off by way of explanation as to why my recent posts have been more erratic and eclectic than ever.

I’m no longer resisting; I’m giving in fully. I’m letting my muse run amok for a while. Stick with me; it could be fun!

 

Why Create?

Aladdin

“Why does man create?” Probably the first time I heard this question was in grade school art class. The teacher showed us a short film called Why Man Creates by Saul Bass. A couple years later, a different teacher in a different class showed us the same film. There may have even been a third viewing. I loved it every time, even though I didn’t understand most of it.

Several years ago, I reconnected with this brilliant little movie, and I have watched it probably at least once a year ever since. It was made in 1968, and it is definitely of its time (witness the title), yet it still resonates with me. Why do we humans create?

I started composing when I was quite young, and have copyrighted several hundred original songs. Most of them are terrible. Likewise, I have tried my hand at visual art and also writing for the stage. Again: rather terrible. But I still do it. A palm reader once told me I have almost no innate creativity. My level of success as a creative artist would seem to bear this out. Perhaps that is why I have a bit of an obsession with other obsessed but untalented artists. (Please understand that I am writing this with a good portion of tongue in cheek. I admire anyone who creates original work, and dislike almost everything about the term “talented.” A better way of describing these people—modestly including myself—would be “non-traditionally talented.”) Check out In the Realms of the Unreal, about artist Henry Darger for an extreme example.

Why did I stat this blog? To quote Tevye, “I’ll tell you; I don’t know.” I know it’s a creative outlet, but why I need such a thing is a mystery. I’ll give the last word to Why Man Creates:

“Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection, a common mark can be seen: that urge to look into oneself and out at the world and say, ‘This is what I am. I am unique. I am here. I am!’”

 

Strange Music

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I am certainly not guilt-free when it comes to musical chauvinism, but I am generally broadminded about music. This started early on; as a kid I was just as happy listening to Broadway musical cast recordings as I was listening to kiddie records, country-western, or Disney soundtracks. Well, there was a period in high school when I was something of a jazz snob. Mostly, though, I have always had very eclectic musical taste. I never understood why one was expected to like The Beatles OR The Rolling Stones, disco OR rock, sacred OR secular. These sorts of musical duels seem pretty pointless.

Not long ago I gave a talk on “What Is Music?” As examples, I played snippets from John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Laurie Anderson, The Residents, John Coltrane, and Arthur Russell: all artists who have withstood both critical appraisal and the test of time well enough to be taken seriously by music scholars, yet all just odd enough to leave some people scratching their heads and/or covering their ears. The folks in the audience were largely in-the-box when it came to music, and my purpose was to lead them gently outside of the box a little. (I’m sure some of them left and later said to their friends and family, “You wouldn’t believe the crap I had to listen to today!”)

Whenever I find myself falling into a musical rut—which is very easy to do, especially for an old fart like me!—I force myself to try something new. I subscribe to Spotify and Sirius, and both of these services make finding new music a breeze. And there is a lot of great new music! (Yes, there is life beyond mean-spirited and insipid realty TV shows.)

For anyone wanted to reach out a bit, might I suggest turning to a guy who has had his hands in, on, around, and all through many creative and innovative musical projects: Brian Eno. He’s well-represented on Spotify both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Roxy Music, David Bowie, U2, Ultravox, Robert Fripp, John Cale, and David Byrne just to name a very small sample.  On the contemporary classical side, one of his most interesting projects was Obscure Records, which existed from 1975-1978 and presented 10 records featuring groups and composers such as Penguin Café Orchestra, Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, and others. These recordings are not necessarily easy to find, but they are worth the search. Most of the composers represented in the series have discographies that stretch beyond the Obscure label.

Happy listening!

Learning How Much I Have To Learn

I find it quite easy to become disgusted with the religious community. When I heard voices saying evolution is “just a theory” or that climate change is “fake news,” I want to shake my head in disbelief. How can people be so dumb? Often, the loudest voices saying those things come from the evangelical Christian community. Since I was raised in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, albeit a frequently skeptical one, this is upsetting to me.

What a relief it was just last year when I discovered Christian Century magazine. (A side perk was discovering that this magazine traces its roots to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa!) Christian Century has been around for many decades, but it had always managed to elude my orbit until I stumbled across an Atlantic article by Bianca Bosker about an app called WeCroak. Intrigued, I turned to the internet to read more and was led to a similar article, this one by Matt Fitzgerald and appearing in Christian Century.

Bingo! It’s like this is the magazine I’ve always wanted to read. Christian Century’s tagline is “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” I not only subscribed, but I’ve been voraciously pouring through back issues online. Perhaps the thing I like most about it is how stupid it makes me feel. I mean that in a good way. It’s nice to know that I don’t need to check my brain at the door to be a Christian. Reading Christian Century, checking out books recommended within its pages, and following up on the authors I’ve discovered has introduced me to a whole community of intelligent people who all share an interest in religion as a faith, an academic subject, and a way of life.

Here is a short list of people whose work I have been devouring and admiring:

  • M. Craig Barnes
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Walter Brueggemann
  • Rachel Held Evans
  • Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Robert Alter
  • Will Willimon
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Richard Rohr
  • N. T. Wright
  • Shane Claiborne

I could make this list a lot longer, but you get the idea. Also, here are three podcasts I’ve been enjoying:

There are many other great resources out there for people who want to explore their faith in more depth. I have found my own beliefs enriched by immersing myself in the fellowship of the many people who have so much to teach me. I feel like this is my first day of school. It’s nice to realize how much there is to learn.

 

 

 

History

Old Statehouse

I lived in and around Boston for several years, and one tradition I rarely missed was the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade by the Boston Pops. The highlight was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, church bells, and fireworks. A spectacular 4th of July celebration is appropriate for one of the few American cities that relishes its history.

In general, the United States doesn’t seem to care a lot for its history. Don’t think for a moment those MAGA people really know or care about history; what they have in mind is a short-range look through a narrow lens at a mythical golden age that never existed. They could stand to do a bit of reading.

The Oxford History of the United States is a series that covers US history is great detail. The research is impressive and the writing is erudite yet accessible. The series as it stands so far:

  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
  • Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
  • James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore
  • George C. Herring, Years of Peril and Ambition: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1776-1921
  • George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014

There are still a few gaps to fill in, most obviously the long period of time between 1492 and 1763. Oxford has been taking its time with this series, so we may have to wait a while yet.

These are all hefty books. Reading The Oxford History of the United States requires a serious time commitment. If you want something a bit less ambitious, but still of high quality, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Any single-volume history of the United States, even one with nearly 1,000 pages, must be selective about what is included and what is left out. Therefore, a focus is necessary. The focus Lepore has chosen for These Truths is the question of whether or not the US has lived up to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Her answer is a qualified “sort of.” Although there is much to love and admire about the US, it has never truly believed that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fair warning: Lepore does not hold back her opinions, dosing out extra helpings of opprobrium for southern pro-slavery Democrats, speech restricting liberals of the 21st century, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Even if you don’t agree with her on everything (I don’t), there is much to learn from this excellent book.

Happy reading, and Happy Independence Day!

Criticism and Patriotism

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Franciscan friar Richard Rohr recently wrote, “Prophets can deeply love their tradition and profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion.” Their criticism was not always welcome. As Rohr explains, “Institutions prefer loyalists and ‘company men’ to prophets. We’re uncomfortable with people who point out our shadow or imperfections.”

We’re seeing this a lot today. There are local, national, and global problems which are being kicked down the road because no one likes to hear about them. Here in the United States we have problems with infrastructure, racism, immigration, homelessness, poverty, and both illegal and legal substance abuse, just to name a few. Compared to other developed nations, the US rates poorly when it comes to incarceration rates, income inequality, infant mortality, and gun violence. The Left and the Right disagree on how to deal with these problems, but almost everyone agrees on the reality of them.

Unfortunately, anyone bringing these problems up is likely to be met with cries of “Unpatriotic!” This is an unproductive response. Patriotism is not shrugging off things that need fixing, patriotism Is confronting them and trying to fix them. Patriotism is recognizing that your country could be better, and wanting to help make it so. (Note: This is NOT the same thing as wishing to return to a mythical past golden age.)

The prophets are still with us. They cry out, wanting to be heard. But when the government quickly labels any criticism “fake news,” and does all in its power to silence the press and discredit experts, it does a disservice to the nation and its citizens.

Tomorrow is Independence Day. The true patriots will not be the people and organizations trying to hide the nation’s ills under flags, and certainly not under Confederate flags. True patriots love their country enough to criticize it. Will we listen?