Monthly Archives: July 2015

Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  

The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.
  

When You’re Alone

The story is told of how evangelist George Whitefield, on one of his several Atlantic crossings, traded some commodity for a deck of playing cards that he immediately threw overboard. The antipathy to card-playing among some Evangelical groups is, of course, well known.  The idea is that instead of wasting time on trivial pass times, one could be improving one’s soul, growing closer to God than to dissapation. Similar objections were raised to drinking alcohol and going to the theater.  Leisure was a fairly new development as food production became more efficient and trades became specialized and the concept of the work day emerged. The real issue is what you did with your time off.  Here at the cabin, Whitefield might have experienced apoplexy.  Decks of cards are found in profusion, often in use over breakfast and after dinner. I learned to play Solitaire while in high school. Although we were evangelical, we never really had a problem with cards. An abandoned mother with three little boys could hardly come to any other rational decision.  

Solitaire, of which I believed there to be only one canonical version, was the ultimate game for when you were alone.  Nobody was around, and you were bored.  Grab a deck of cards.  Solitaire, as I eventually learned, specifically Klondike, was notoriously difficult to win.  And, in the right circumstances, can be very addictive. Often I’ll marvel at five or six people all sitting at the table playing Solitaire at the same time. As I join them, I wonder–why does it feel so good to win at Solitaire? It is a game with no opponent but chance. Your starting hand often determines your success.  

Why should I care if I can stack all my cards up on the aces? What does that prove? Whom have I beaten? Is it my rage against the gods, or the inherent unfairness of the universe? Repressed aggression against all those many people who’ve underestimated me, or never given me a chance?  Why should this make me happy?  At least with poker, crazy eights, hearts, rummy, or nerts, I have used some skill to win.  Instead I’m here taking on the multiverse itself, wrestling with the divine. I could say more, but there is a deck of cards in front of me, and nobody else is awake yet. I do what anyone would do alone in such circumstances.  

Ancient Tech

I feel like scraping Roman numerals on the wall of my cave with a sharp rock. One for each day I have to spend without my laptop. I’ve been working on this blog, born in this very cabin in which I sit, for six years now. With some exceptions, I’ve posted something new (and, I hope, thoughtful) every day. Even holidays and weekends. Most of those posts have been written on the deceased laptop that’s sitting in my carryon, electronic carrion. This has caused me to stop and consider that the most lasting words—the ones we all quote or at least recognize—tend to come from a far older form of communication technology: the pen and paper. Of course, there are older technologies yet. The Sumerians figured out that clay of the right consistency keeps marks made by a pointed reed pressed into it while it was still damp. Cuneiform writing lasted for millennia as the most advanced technology humanity had devised. The results, however, were bulky, heavy, and fragile. Few could learn the technique. It was an elite skill.

Nobody quotes the Sumerians anymore. Well, maybe the occasional quip from Gilgamesh will work its way to memory, but not much else readily does. The Bible, perhaps the most quoted book of all time, at least in western culture, wasn’t written on clay. By the time the earliest books of the Bible came along, scrolls had been developed. Probably suggesting itself from the way that papyrus naturally rolled up, this early form of paper—indeed, the word “papyrus” gives us our word “paper”—could be marked up with styluses or brushes and ink. Prepared animal skills, or parchment, sometimes called vellum, could also be used, but they were expensive. Pens at this period were sharpened objects dipped into ink, but the most famous words, well, penned by humankind were passed down in that medium. Copied, recopied, memorized. Electricity hadn’t even been discovered yet.

  

Printing presses and their children—typewriters and the consequent qwerty—have led the way since they were invented. Until, however, the 1980s at least, professors would accept only the old fashioned manuscript for papers. Indeed, the medium had given its name to the end result. We still write academic papers, although they are more often published and read electronically. So here I find myself in a cabin on a beautiful lake, surrounded by nature, worried about a communication device that can speak with the stars. There may not be workable clay here—the soil is far too sandy and I don’t have the patience to look up how to make clay on my phone—but there is paper. Pens are scattered everywhere. I am at home in the matrix that has given us the great ideas of humankind.

Death, Technically

Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.

Musical Magic

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In-flight magazines aren’t a place I turn for inspiration. Having been raised in poverty, I’ve never found the jet-set interests to be at all engaging. I can’t turn my brain off, however, even when on vacation. Still, I hate to miss anything and I know I’ve got plenty of time in the air ahead of me. I was flying Alaska Air, so the in-flight magazine possessed a native exoticism. This particular issue focused on music. Music reveals a tremendous amount about the interior life, it seems to me. Some people live their lives to a constant soundtrack, while others listen to music seldom. Music, like religion, has the capacity to stir profound pleasure centers in the brain and, if I might be so bold, where your music is, there your heart is also.

One of the music festivals highlighted in the magazine was Voodoo Music and Art Experience in New Orleans. Right across the page was Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington state. This unusual juxtaposition caught my eye. New Orleans, in the popular imagination, at least, has an association with the “exotic,” hybrid religions of the Caribbean. Voodoo is particularly feared by those who believe that somehow the supernatural can break into this mundane realm. Magic, although difficult to define, persists even in Richard Dawkins’ neatly ordered world. What better way to celebrate it other than music? There’s a homespun charm to it. Magic, despite the best efforts of many, won’t go away.

Since I was flying to the Pacific Northwest, the Sasquatch! Festival demanded my attention. Sasquatch, while disputed, has become the gentle giant frequently connected with magic. The stigma associated with believing in a New World ape has been eroding slowly, although it’s still on the list of “woo” factors for many. Like Voodoo, Bigfoot is an American concept that keeps a belief in magic alive. Well, we were in the air by now, and many had their earbuds in, passing the time with their own soundtracks. For me, music is often looking out the window while making no demands on that probable harmony the rational know as magic.

Skewed Perspective 

Mysterium tremendum is the term often applied to numinous experiences. The sense of being in the presence of something both terrifying and compelling. Used to describe theophanies and divine encounters, it can also apply to entirely natural phenomena. As a child I visited Niagara Falls since I had relatives in the region. I would watch the Maid of the Mist with a fascination bordering on paralyzing fear. The boats seemed so small compared to the roaring falls. Surely serious danger was involved. Stories of passengers returning soaked and wind swept from the thundering cataracts only added to the mystery. We were poor, however, and couldn’t afford the thrill.

Many years later I returned with my own child. It was time to make an impression. We boarded the boat and came so close to the Falls that the draw of the numinous was overwhelming. Naked power. This water, were we not safely on a boat, would obliterate us, snuffing our lives with no more effort than it takes to fall from a cliff. A mere human could stand none of it. I was simultaneously humbled and invigorated. This was like touching a source of ineffable vitality. This was no mere boat ride. I was in the presence of something undefined. Distilled force deadly and blessed.

  
On my flight across the country yesterday, we flew over the Great Lakes. Between Erie and Ontario, we spied Niagara Falls. Navigating by air is usually a matter of inspired guesswork with me, but this was unmistakable. A large river near two Great Lakes, and a large misty curtain of spray, visible even from this altitude. Any remaining doubt was dispelled by the captain’s announcement . Here was one of the wonders of the natural world, tiny and silent from a gods’ eye view. Perspective, it occurred to me, made all the difference. Standing on the rim of that watery canyon, although the river is dammed and reduced, encompasses a sense of awe. Riding the Maid of the Mist close enough to be baptized in this unruly Jordan even more so. From above it was but one among many tiny features of a miniature landscape that had been conquered by an unnatural technology. Which was really real?