Monday, February 25, 2008

Finding Each Other in the Music

The applause had faded, a few of the chairs had been stacked. The sound engineer was winding cables, while guitars and drums were snapped into cases. And now at a nearby restaurant closed for our small party, over crab cakes and conversation, we were all settling into the satisfaction. The 7th annual Thresholds Arts Festival to a Culture of Peace had brought together high school artists, children with artistic leanings, a featured composer/arranger named Jim Papoulis, a winsome guest choral clinician named Nick Page, youth and adult choirs, an innovative global music band named World Port, a history making folk singer named Odetta and a contemporary one named Susan Werner coming into her own, a dramatist from the African-American tradition, a reader from the Latin American community, and speakers from the Muslim and Jewish faiths. All these, along with high aspirations for a different way of living together. And, of course, listeners; audiences -- appropriate, since the theme for the weekend was "Listening to Understand." And it was very, very good. Listening, as it turns out, can be profoundly satisfying indeed.

Quieter, now, in the shared afterglow Susan wondered aloud why more people hadn't come. It was a good crowd, to be sure, but twice as many could have comfortably fit into the room. And it was, after all, a wonderful event. But then one never knows how good an experience will be until it is over. Absentees can hear about -- and even lament -- what they missed; but they still missed. Part of the problem, I suppose, is with the very word "Peace," which I'll confess simply baffles me. How in the world can peace be controversial? Sure, we disagree on means, but how can we possibly be conflicted on this desirable end?

We pondered. We affirmed the contributions of each other. We enjoyed the blessing of good food. We shared stories from the panoply of our lives. We became people to each other -- listening, learning, more and more respecting. And then someone found the keyboard and began to play. Two hands, then four. And sing. A serious song. A funny song. And then another. And then the guitar nearby. And we sang along -- at least partly with our laughter, the music of sheer delight. The kids -- and a few of the adults -- gleefully danced. Odetta, ensconced in her chair and gathered inside her blankets, silently nodded with the rhythm, her long and graceful fingers comfortably intertwined. Smiling.

And somehow, in the alchemy of the moment, it became clear why such intentional intersections as had transpired all weekend are valuable and precious. Assembled there in our small celebration from Boston and Austin, New York and Chicago and all over Des Moines -- with roots in who knows how many other places -- we were, there amidst the food and the informal conversation and the music, one.

The music, perhaps, most of all. One.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Few More Pounds to Go Toward Life

I've plateaued. In early January I kept my New Year's resolution and saw my doctor for a physical. Et al. When all was said and done, things turned out pretty well. One secondary doctor even pronounced me "perfect" -- at least one part of me. But my Internist reported a few imperfections. Some "numbers", he observed, are slightly outside the desirable range. "I could put you on medication," he began, "but" -- and here he looked curiously at me, or skeptically -- "the better course would be to lose some weight." Ah! Here we go.

I was prepared for it, and knew I was overdue for it. Over the past year I had jumped a pant size. I wasn't happy about it, generally avoided the mirror, and vigilantly avoided the scales. But the facts were hardly obscure. So why hadn't I started? I suppose I had simply gotten comfortable. One could, I suppose, even say "lazy." A more careful assessment might reveal "obligation fatigue." As happens, from time to time, I have gotten over committed. There are more things I have to do -- meetings I am obligated to attend, reports I am obligated to write, relations I am required to nurture -- than I really have time to do. It's my own fault. As a co-worker once observed, I have a faulty "No" switch. I've said "Yes" too often. But however it came to be, the thought of coming home at night -- or getting up still earlier in the morning, or thinking about one more "essential element" in between -- to satisfy one more obligation... "Please just let me rest."

But somehow it ceased to be an obligation. Suddenly it was taking personal care -- like honoring a day off or protecting adequate quiet time. And all in all, losing weight is comparatively simple -- eat less, eat better, exercise more. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

But easy or not, I have been doing pretty well. I have not missed a day of exercise since I left the doctor's office. And more than just token activity. I have been working at it. And while eating habits still have room for improvement, I'm making progress. But I have noticed a pattern. Change is more episodic than steady. The first five pounds dropped quickly. I grew confident, then smug. But then the bathroom scales seemed to freeze. Days went by, and then a week. Then, as though a cord had been plugged in, the needle again began to move. Another three, four, five, and then...another screeching halt.

And that's the way it's been. Progress, plateau. Progress, plateau.

I think about that pattern here in the early weeks of Lent, when spiritual vitality is the focus of attention. We pray more frequently and conscientiously; we pay more attention in worship; we pick up and use devotional guides. And it helps...for awhile. We feel and breathe and root a little deeper, until spiritually we hit another kind of plateau. A drought seems to bake the heart that only days before had beat with such fervor. Discouragement follows, and then more life-giving rain. Progress, plateau. Progress, plateau.

All of which reminds me that both of these categories are more lifestyle than diet. It isn't for a season, and then I go back to my previous habits; it is assembling the routines and habits, practices and norms that sustain a different way of life.

The benchmarks may be useful goals -- 20 lbs, 25 lbs, through the Bible in a year -- but the living is the point. Wonderfully, fruitfully real living.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Winter Morning Song

It's early, the dawn only beginning to dilute the night sky, and there is a bird singing in the tree outside. I suppose there is nothing particularly novel about that, but it is February in Iowa and I haven't heard birds for months. Temperatures have played between single-digits and sub-zero for the better part of a month now, with snow perched on branches more commonly than feathers. It is, though, February 2 -- Groundhog Day. Perhaps the bird is our version of Punxsutawney Phil, though without any precedent I can't guess whether singing predicts an early spring or an extended winter. At this hour of the morning there are certainly no shadows to be seen.

Rather than prognostication, I prefer to hear the bird's singing as encouragement and inspiration. Brittle branches, paralyzing temperatures, and black ice on sidewalks and streets are not the only truths. In the midst of it all is singing -- every now and then; once in awhile; on a random, naked limb -- singing. And suddenly I am too.

Folk singer Peter Mayer, who we will be blessed to host for a concert in June, glimpses the same realization this way:
When winter’s gray is on the sky
Rust upon the leaves that lie
Red on the last few berries clinging
Brown on the branch where the bitter wind’s singing
Even when white obscures the scene
Still, in winter, there is green

Death may raise its voice today
O but life will have its say
Speaking in lovers and in children
In poets pens and philosopher’s visions
Life is a planet’s daring dream
Earth’s devotion, spoken in green
Still, in winter, there is green...
...and a song.