Yesterday evening, a wrathful gale beat a path through Knoxville, tearing up ancient and enormous trees in old neighborhoods like mine. I am always at odds with myself when it comes to these things. Storms gives me pause for my family’s safety and the inconvenience of replacing things like windows and shingles, but the near-unbridled power of all that wind and water, heralded by the tympanic cannon-blasts of thunder, always thrills my spirit. It is difficult to stem the desire to go and stand in the writhing tempest (foolish as that may be).
The storm had blown through quickly, dissembling to reveal the golden shimmer of evening sunlight glimmering off the last remnants of rain and cloud. Steam rose from the street for hours afterward. People wandered through the neighborhood, curiously assessing the damage. I walked through the lampless dark after nightfall, exhaling gratefully at the conspicuous number of near-misses – weighty turrets of oak falling across power lines, streets, mailboxes, but only a few houses. It could have been much worse.
Beneath the star-drawn sky, unhindered by the nervous hum of electric light, people had lit candles and lanterns. Houses on the wet night-blue street had no faceless flicker of TV casting the pallid light of a satellite trance from every window. Incandescent glows could be seen in bedrooms, living rooms, and on porches. Neighbors sat together in their driveways or walked about, checking on each other. Certainly we are all guilty of a degree of voyeurism, but there was also a peace. Like waking from a muddled dream and seeing the tangible world before you, people had little entertainment save the company of each other.
As I posted previously, I spent the next to the last week of Lent chasing the dream of shared music and stories through the Midwest with a visionary cadre of musicians. Bill Wolf, Taylor Brown, Emilee Cook, Terry and Helene Mahnken, Carl Smith, Chris Dorsten, and I blew through three states and five stops, enjoying the company of some wonderful people. The last two dates were in Knoxville, with the tour finishing at St. John’s Cathedral downtown. Greg Adkins, who played along for the last two shows – not to mention on the record – and who is one of the most passionate artist advocates I know (being a gifted songster himself), put together a quick video from setup and soundcheck. Enjoy. Oh, and Jill Andrews sings. Like I said, Enjoy.
Tomorrow is departure day for my first tour. Of course, I ought to be in bed, but I feel the need to stay awake and procrastinate, like a mud-hungry boy on the eve of his first camping trip (with real fire). In the preparation though, unexpected beauty has hit me like a long-forgotten embrace.
I’ve been reading a lot of women lately: Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne Lamott. Add to that a handful of men whose writing is not particularly masculine. I don’t say this is a bad thing. Nor do I say that I can pinpoint exactly what it is in writing that evokes masculinity or womanliness. I am beginning to sense that the world behind “…in His own Image…male and female created He them,” is wider and more mysterious than we often credit. Chesterton said that it might take a person a hundred readings for his eyes to be opened to the meaning of what he was reading. Perhaps I am on my ninety-ninth.
I have long been infatuated with the idea of going to Scotland. That is to say, permanently. It represents to me both an adventure and a homecoming to the peaty soil that claims the bones of my ancestors. Its forlorn beauty and miles of windswept moor, its wise and mighty shoulders of metamorphic rock bound in grass and furze, its lonely bird-haunted coast, they all speak to the poet in me like a liturgy. Dig deep, wrestle in the wilderness, the Spirit is like a wind coming and going. I can’t deny the restlessness in me that is always looking outward, always feeling my heart sigh with the sound of every airplane, pregnant with possibility. I have friends over the Atlantic, true, and I always long to see them and kiss their faces and laugh at their jokes, but I’m not even sure if it’s them I’m truly after. There are many longings, woven into a humanly inseparable tapestry of desire to pack up my girls and head across the sea.
Then tonight, I stood out on the back porch pinning laundry on the lines. Laundry – there’s that womanly sensibility coming out. Kathleen Norris calls it a meditative activity. I cannot do it quickly, it makes me slow down. In slowing, feeling the vernal cold on my skin, hearing the dog tags jingle in the dark yard and the Paul Simon train horn in the distance, I felt an unearthly and wonderful peace with this place. I don’t know if it has begun to exert some claim over me, to subject me to itself. I have spinach, broccoli, thyme, and lavender in the chilly Spring ground, casting hopeful shadows of family meals to come. I mow the yard and watch the blackberries leaf into wily green scimitars of vine here at Sinclair’s Eve, and it feels as though this place and the people near me have some say in my heart. The individual in me longs to refuse, longs to maintain that staunch loneliness that marks me as this thing or that thing.
I feel the start of it,
A knee-jerk Reaction
in the bowel of the Well
in the middle of the Island
I used to be.
I am inescapably part of this community. A product of it? I do not know. Yes? No? After some fashion, probably. It would be arrogant to say that I live anywhere and yet eschew the constant influence of my friends, my neighbors, my enemies, be these people or principalities or the Rivers that clap their Hands. I am starting to be at peace with the idea. And now, of course, I pack my bags to drift through the Midwest for a few days. Absence, and the heart.
Many thanks to everyone who tuned in to 96.3 to hear us on Remedy After Dark on Thursday. Burt, Patricia, and I piled into the storied old studio whence J. Bazzel Mull broadcast southern gospel for more years than anyone likes to count. I loitered in the front office of the building, reading the plaques on the wall, and discovered that Reverend Mull had been blind from the age of 11 months. He is dead now, but this bit of trivia made me wish I could have a conversation with him. He spent most of his life as a radio tycoon of sorts and a music promoter. He had a long-standing relationship with The Chuck Wagon Gang – whom Greg Adkins and I played opposite to a humorously sparse crowd at the Tennessee Valley Fair. We can’t think of it nowadays without laughing. I had only vaguely heard of The Chuck Wagon Gang before, but the name unfailingly brought to mind a bubbling vat of beans, and that’s never dull.
Still I was amazed at the man’s blindness, mostly because of his marriage. He had never seen his wife’s face, looked into her eyes, yet their marriage was undoubtedly dedicated according to the tales. It reminded me of the Lover in the Song of Solomon. The Beloved sees his face, but we never do. She describes him, wonderfully and eloquently, but description of a face, no matter how good, always falls short of seeing the person with your own eyes. Yet we are commanded to fall in love with a groom whose face we’ve never seen. Like Elijah, we see the back of him everywhere if we’re paying attention. Walking through the majesty of the world he created, smelling the piquant cleanliness and the cool rush before a summer rain, running our hands across the rustling crowns of broom sedge, feeling the sun and the snow, it’s like seeing the back of someone you know in a crowd. You rush to catch up with him, but he keeps walking, almost as if he knew you were there. Doggedly you call out his name, and he waits at a corner until you get close before taking off again. He seems to want you to follow him. You still haven’t seen his face. How does a blind man fall in love? Is it the best way? I don’t know, but we’re all hoping for it in some way or another.
In the chasing of that groom, Bill Wolf, a great, humble, and dedicated songwriter – who I’m privileged to call my friend – put together a song cycle called Easter Stories & Songs. A gaggle of folks that graciously includes myself is leaving town in a few days to drive under the wide skies of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio to share the music. If you’re in the area, come by, because you’re an invaluable part of the conversation that is Us. The dates can be found to your right, dear reader. Also, they are on Bill’s website. If you call Knoxville home, or at least the land where you wander, we’ll be playing both West Towne Christian Church (April 20th) and St. John’s Cathedral (April 22nd). This music is joyful, like silver out of the crucible, and I hope we get to spend the evening sharing it with you.
It is my vacation. The girls and I returned to visit my in-laws in a hiccup-sized town in the Florida panhandle scrub country. The scarlet waves of clover billow in the wind (I avoid the words “crimson tide”), and the jonquils give rise to the suggestion that Spring would soon dance out of the wings and onto center stage, moving even the brittle live oaks to a greening. Ah, the oaks – our alter egos according to Isaiah, and always the last to sprout leaves.
Going down for a visit is always a ritual of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am lovingly haunted by the stark, lonely beauty of those wide, forgotten flatlands. They are the face of Moses, of Elijah, of Christ walking out of the wilderness to speak to the people after a harrowing unmasking of the self before God. On the other hand, the town is awash with my wife’s memories, cracked and rusted in the marches of time. There is always the mixed wine of tidings good and ill. Small town life seems to either drift away, leaving a nostalgic shadow in its wake, or it stays near and becomes ingrown. It is very good, but emotionally taxing.
Taking shelter from a midday rainshower, I ducked into the old potting shed on the property, a ramshackle affair being continuously given the nudges of resurrection by my father-in-law Richard. It being mid-March, Karen, my mother-in-law, was in the midst of coaxing audacity out of a few timid tomato plants and Brussels sprouts beneath grow lights. The rest of the shed was taken up with mud-stained gardening implements and dusty bric-a-brac. A small selection of gardening volumes and cookbooks lined a shelf, and the prehistoric hulk of a tiller squatted against a wall. Stacks of upside down flower pots filled in the gaps between spades and hoes and watering cans. It was all dead tools, or at least only potential energy. The only life present was the fuschia feathering of miniscule tomato leaves under womb-colored light, and I couldn’t help but think of my upbringing in the church.
So many of us, in the States especially, were brought up surrounded by the riches of Scripture and the admonitions of humble and human saints. We were immersed in the silly but wonderful and purposeful vagaries of our respective traditions, enfolded in great clouds of witnesses, the channels and vessels of grace. Yet in the midst of it all, life seemed strangely absent, or at least hard to come by. Given all the books and tools, one would expect life to be overflowing, but it was merely a secret, waiting pregnant in a dark corner like a dormant seed. Somehow or other, God shook us loose into life, pruning and urging, feeding and covering before frosts. It is no wonder, then, that many of us don’t easily recognize the Spirit in saints who sprouted like wild mustard on the fringes of some wasteland, their joyous golden sprays of blossoms unseemly and unhinged in their grace. They are the AA Christians, the profligates-turned-preachers, the outlandish stories of failed suicides becoming visions of Christ and the saints. They are the Twain to our Fenimore Cooper, God’s wry grin over the ornate and ludicrous prose of our theology.
Surely they must often grow frustrated with us. They leap toward the light with all their strength, all their soul, all their might, often failing in spectacular fashion without the bourgeois skills of hiding it. We require gentle prodding and rich soil to grow, while they latch onto any near scent of the Gospel and explode with praise. My view of them is the poet’s view, not the theologians. Of course it falls blithely short of an understanding of Christ’s parable of the soils (the theologians’ views fall short too, one might argue), but truly I sometimes long to be like one of these, wild and unbounded in love, passionate and expressive. My comfort is in the knowledge that the author of life is the author of both the wolf and the dachshund, the mustang and the cart pony. Both wild and tame shall be in his fold, but even on our best days, none among us approaches either the inward cultivated richness or the wild outbound leaping of the love of God.
There was a line outside. Men with goats, bulls, doves, bowls of flour and oil, all stood about waiting until the priest was ready to receive each of them. Some spoke to their neighbors, glad-hearted and expectant. Others were silent, watching from within themselves as if from a long way away. Added to this moderately patient crowd was the cackling racket of the animals. The helpless bleating of lambs and flapping of pigeons in makeshift cages played a reckless counterpoint over the disquieted lowing of great bulls, one scuffing its hooves anxiously, one searching through the grain sack of a waiting stranger with its great purple tongue. Goats grunted and whined and stared about with their almond eyes. All these, of course, contributed to an extensive carpet of defecation which every waiting man was keen to avoid, most of them with the mild attentiveness of one who is acclimated to such things. The Judean street bustled about them in the jovial ho-hum importance of its daily market affairs. Men and women carried bundles of firewood, homespun fabric still suggestive of the oily, metallic smell of sheep, precarious jars of water, bags of dry spelt, dates, grapes, stonily crusted loaves of bread waiting to be broken open to reveal the wonderful riches inside – all of it accompanied by the hocking sing-songs of those who would trade, their voices trying not to betray the desperation to sell.
Upon finally entering the gates, each man from the line was greeted by a terrific onslaught of his senses. Smoke and incense perfumed the air. The priests on duty looked positively monstrous, their ceremonial clothes saturated with blood spatter across the aprons, their sleeves acrid with smoke. The cacophony of wounded livestock echoed off the ornate walls, mingling with the tinkling of tiny bells from the priests’ once beautiful garments. The greatest sensation was the smell – blood, death, cooking, incense, offal, smoke, singed hides – all of it together in the expansive and elaborate temple court. One could never grow completely accustomed to it. In the heat of the day it was almost unbearable, and you never left forgetting it.
This is the place where sin is atoned for. The raucous din and unforgettable smell surrounded by lavish architectural adornment paint an unmistakable portrait of the intersection of holy mystery and the chaotic business of redemption. It was not, is not, sexy, and never shall it be. It is the necessary mess, the alluvial muck wherefrom springs the golden corn of wheat – life-giving only when it has fallen into the earth and died. Redemptive work saturates us in the leprous putrescence of sin, not as those who partake, but as the physician’s assistant – doing his fallible best – is covered in the smears and viscosity of the physician’s work. His life is lived in a rhythm: scrub up, dive in, scrub up dive in, scrub up, dive in, with all the human business of living and learning in between. With tending, and with time, what he finally sees emerge from beneath the caked bandages and dripping tubes is the wholeness of a human being.
Amid the trumpet blasts of daffodils, the spangling of crocuses, we gathered in the home of two dear friends. They were gracious enough to allow six unpredictable musicians (are there any other kinds?) houseroom to set up the fittingly weird marriage of electronics, strings, wood, and metal. We had rehearsed, but what we hoped for was not a perfect show. We hoped for a miracle, that blatantly real and unearthly thing that happens when Good gets out of control and we begin to hang on for dear sweet life.
The table was weighed down by the richest of fare. We ate and drank and stepped up to the microphones with fear and trembling. All the world is desperately important – life and death. But when the last note had rolled out like the trailing whisper of a thundercloud, we realized that we had been a part of something which was more than the sum of its parts. I am thankful. Much thanks, as well, to all those who came to Nate and Emily’s house tonight. It’s never the same without you.
Taylor Brown – drums, percussion, piano, hats
Burt Elmore – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, bedlam
Robyn James – viola, vocals, stomping, clapping, grooves
Ethan Norman – acoustic, vocals, Saxony
Patricia Peacock – cello, stomping, clapping, fantasy creatures
aw – guitar, harmonica, accordion, piano, vocals, shenanigans
Nate & Emily Sharpe – house
I’d had it planned for four months. I was going to retreat to Gethsemani Abbey in rural central Kentucky for three days and two nights in January. In the dead of winter, I would be alone with God and my thoughts in a place where silence was the rule rather than the exception. I didn’t have any sort of understanding of why I wanted to go. Andrew Peterson, an artist I know, had gone and seemed to get something out of the experience. Friends of mine had read Thomas Merton, the founder of the abbey, and they seemed to be on top of things and rather devil-may-care. Surely there was some connection.
In recent years, this kind of thinking has begun to be lifted like a veil from my eyes. Certainly, retreats and reading the meditations of saints is valuable, a worthy activity. But it is not the pure seed of the Gospel, and furthermore, it is not always what I presently need. This is a lesson I don’t want to learn, of course, but I continue to be led to it – like eating my asparagus.
Then, my mother tore a bit of her knee and had to schedule surgery to fix it. Also, various microbes were circulating, pressing down a season of sickness on Knoxville and environs (and everywhere else, I assume). So, four days before I was supposed to leave for Kentucky, I found out my mother’s surgery was scheduled for the morning of my departure. Then Kat and I discovered that some unnamed malady was being shared at the babysitter’s house. All of this was pointing toward a kink in my calendar.
“Honey, whatever you decide, that will be okay with me,” said my gracious wife. I knew, of course, that it would be impossible to send our daughter to the sitter’s while Kat went to work. My dad couldn’t take off work to keep her, and my mother was out of commission for some time. I began to fill my mind with a selfish inward monologue like a vat of burbling witch’s brew. How ridiculously unfair! How could they schedule surgery at a time like this? Reading between the lines of my thoughts, this meant, I’m supposed to be going away to be HOLY. Where do they get off interrupting that? It’s quite shameful to say this, really, but it’s true.
So, two days before I was scheduled to leave, I called and left a message saying that I was very sorry, but I couldn’t come. Some “family stuff” came up. I told their answering machine (monks apparently don’t talk on the phone all that much) that I would love to come back at a later time, and I apologized for the eleventh hour cancellation. The phone call left a fist-sized pocket of abjection and disappointment in my stomach. I stewed a while over the guilt of being that selfish. Then I commenced with ploughing a first-class rut in which I could sit. Enter: the wife of Zebedee.
Sometimes Scriptures will follow me around for a while until I get the point, like “a little white dog,” as Anne Lamott says. I reread and reheard the story of the mother of James and John a few times that weekend and later. Jesus begins a long walk to Jerusalem. The apostles sense the calm before the storm. Salome walks up to Jesus, taking him by the elbow, pulling him aside. She kneels before him.
“I have a request of you.”
“What do you want?” he says, rather brusquely.
“Let my sons sit at your right and left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
He then turns to the young men and offers them the bitter wine of martyrdom. They drink the cup Jesus himself drank. Salome gets her wish, but like the story of the Monkey’s Paw, it’s nothing like what she imagined. It was my desire to know why I would be going to Gethsemani. As the time approached, I grew apprehensive, trying to remember the many things I had read about solitude, silence, meditation. Then, it was all taken away, and instead, I was given a weekend of spending time with my only daughter. The lesson? It certainly begins with, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” What you say you want is lightyears away from what you need. The lesson is still being learned, but it’s good.
Even asparagus can be alright sometimes – sauteed and wrapped in prosciutto.
Traditionally, we’ve put Sunday at the beginning of the week to commemorate the rising of our Savior. The Gospel says “on the first day of the week,” the women went to put spices at Jesus’ tomb and were astounded to find the stone rolled away. There are sons of God, robed in the light of the Lord, seated on the giant boulder. I always like to imagine their feet kicking in the air like kids on too-tall McDonald’s seats. Mary, eyes blurred with tears, recognizes Jesus when he says her name. All this happens on a Sunday – the first day of the week. So we remember.
But God rested from his work on the seventh, the last day. The last day was the one set aside to recollect, to meditate, to breathe deeply. So, the Jews rested on the last day of the week. This causes minute rifts in the Body of believers. Some say this, some argue that. Some recall the pagan namesakes of the days – Saturn and the Sun. That’s neither here nor there. I have grown up going to church at the beginning of the week (Sunday, according to every calendar I’ve ever seen, save one). I’ve gone to church on Saturday nights as well, relishing the late, sun-strewn mornings and big lazy breakfasts with my girls on Sunday.
This also is neither here nor there.
However, I do enjoy the idea of viewing that big family gathering as the end of the week. Usually, seeing it as the beginning, I associate it with unwieldy metaphors of putting gas in my spiritual car tank, preparing me for the long weekly slog through mires not peopled with the sons of God. Then I come to Friday and need either a pick-me-up or a cigarette, though I don’t smoke. Maybe there’s credence for this idea: the great sending-off, the broken champagne bottle and the bon voyage. Even so, the idea of that messy, raucous, delightful family meeting as the end of the week, the final gathering at the Grey Havens, holds great appeal for me. I strive through the week, looking forward with anticipation to when I will be amongst a host of Kingdom people, all surrounded by a cloud of witnesses like brilliant heat waves in the drab February air. Finally, I am amongst others who do not belong, who come from a country into which we shall one day set our feet, seeing on the horizon a city with high, open gates. Ah, the end of the week. Welcome to the feast.
It is preparation for the last and greatest Feast, the one that is ever-renewed, ever-lived. This too, is a sending-off.
There are certain books that keep resurfacing from my shelf as short reading. Initially, each was a small project like any book, a quaint or wrenching or hilarious journey through other worlds. After a time though, they became my favorite reruns. If I was depressed or bored or inclined to procrastinate, I took them ought as if calling an old friend. This is not intended as a slight on the authors – I am fairly certain that, in some respect, they at least appreciate the $19.99 spent, regardless of my emotional proclivities at the time.
It was perhaps a year and a half ago when my friend Nathan passed to me a copy of Paul Collins’ Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. Any moderately sane person reading it will feel disheartened by its nostalgic fugue of failed efforts. I read an article on Barbara Follett in Lapham’s Quarterly yesterday that further demonstrated Collins’ seeming fondness for lauding the obscure failures of Western literature. He captures a delicately heartbreaking expression of the fact that everything and everyone will eventually die, like the realization I came to this year: I cannot read all the books. Sixpence House runs the danger of being perpetually morose, but I can’t help going back to it. I find myself happy in the company of people who have both failed and succeeded, not excepting people who see their forgotten successes as failures. I think I enjoy this weird museum display of disappointment for the same reason that the confessions of others bring me the healing freedom to confess: I am not alone.
Until we are blatantly rebuked, we labor beneath the delusion that each of us is alone with our mistakes and losses. It’s nearly impossible to shut out that childishly braying voice in my head that nonchalantly dismisses the faults of others as trivia. That’s all well and good for him. I only wish I had his set of light-hearted problems. Instead, I’m an utter [insert reprobation]. It’s a lie only denuded by the unnatural grace of confession. I find hope in the stories of others’ foul balls and strikes because I see that they’ve continued plodding. Knowing my record to be mostly composed of foul balls and strikes, it is a strange and wonderful comfort to believe that, if I keep walking, something fantastic might surprise me. Also helpful is the staggering irony of a published book containing lengthy autobiographical passages on the failure to be published. Thank you, Paul. We who write are emboldened.