Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Long, Convoluted, and, I Hope, Not Too Preachy

Being me, that is, NOT being someone who is NOT me, it is hard for me to perceive how I am coming across... I mean, it occurred to me that I rave constantly about how great the Christian life is... but, honestly, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a panacea. Well, actually, it WILL be a panacea (a cure for all ills), as outlined in the Revelation of St. John (no crying, no night...) but right here and now, it’s not that easy.

I mean, I know that what they call the “prosperity gospel” is popular. “If you follow Jesus, you will have happiness, health, wealth, fame and beauty.” But absolutely NOTHING in the Bible points to this. Okay, well, maybe some things do. There are lots of places in the Old Testament that lays out the rewards for following God and doing what’s right... like here, in Deuteronomy: “If you completely obey these laws... The LORD will love you and bless you by giving you many children and plenty of food, wine, and olive oil. Your herds of cattle will have many calves, and your flocks of sheep will have many lambs. God will bless you more than any other nation—your families will grow and your livestock increase. You will no longer suffer with the same horrible diseases that you sometimes had in Egypt. You will be healthy, but the LORD will make your enemies suffer from those diseases.”

Got milk? How about honey?
Over and over again, Israel is promised a land flowing with milk and honey in exchange for their goodness. But then again, look at Job, right? His life was total crap for quite a while; even his friends didn’t really support him. They just told him it was his own fault. By contrast, the author of Ecclesiastes was a king, (“King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.”) rolling in splendor, but he knew in his wisdom, that apart from God, life had no meaning at all.

So what’s the deal? First of all, no one can be perfectly good and perfectly faithful, so... how can we hope to earn these rewards? As Christians, we believe that Jesus’s goodness and perfection are transferred to us... but I still say – and I think I’d be right – that becoming a Christian will not bring you these things automatically. So why bother, right? What exactly is in it for us? 

Sorry, I just can't get into it...
Why did I trade the life I had – that was MINE – for a life that would possibly contain... more suffering and also plenty of struggling? Having to obey a Being that I couldn’t even SEE, avoiding selected pleasurable experiences, loving people I didn’t particularly like, wrestling internally with sin, enduring cringe-inducing contemporary Christian pop music, being on display as the worst kind of nerd... 

Well, honestly, the life that I traded was not really much of a life... I already carried the weight of a world’s worth of guilt on my shoulders, I was starving, I was scared of so many things. So, in terms of driving my own life, let’s just say, I had run it into a ditch.

On the other hand if things had been going well, I probably would have felt okay with driving my own life. I mean, why rock the boat? That not being the case, though, I had to grab onto to the lifeline God threw me. And that’s what I got. LIFE. 

But instant happiness? wealth? health? fame? beauty? Well, I am not really sure why the prosperity gospelers can claim that these are benefits of following Jesus. They can’t even claim that God will keep you from suffering - because it just isn’t true. I know plenty of faithful Christians who are sick and tired and poor. I once had a friend who said that she knew that God would never let her be without a job. And I thought, “What?” I didn’t have the courage to say anything at the time, but that didn’t sit right at all with me. I mean, Jesus was homeless, right? Important people wanted him dead! And He told his friends that they would be persecuted too. And they were! Take Paul, for instance: he was persecuted, shipwrecked, flogged... heck, some of the other Christians didn’t even like him all that much. 

And Paul was a guy who gave up a LOT to follow Jesus, being a prominent Jew from a good family, climbing up the leadership ladder... So, unlike me, he actually jumped out of a really well-driven car, saying, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Metaphorically speaking, of course, they didn’t have cars back then!)

That's me!
I think back in those days following the Jesus “cult” was like forsaking all you previously knew – leaving your your family and your whole community... maybe your identity. And it can be sort of like that today. Ever heard the derogatory term “Jesus Freak?” I have. But that really is what Jesus said, right? “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9) 

Another misconception about the Christian life is that once you give yourself over to it, sin is no longer attractive. I have heard a few stories from people who said that once they became Christians, they lost all desire to sin. Well, I have not found this to be the case at ALL. Maybe they were speaking of one specific sin... like, honestly, giving up occasional pot-smoking was not difficult for me at all... However, everyday sins like pride, selfishness, anger, envy, lust... well, they persist. But you can work on it in a safe environment, with the sweetness of knowing that you’ve already been forgiven!

And I didn’t get well immediately either. I do know of actual people who have been healed by God, but I don’t think it’s the norm for people to be spontaneously healed just because they are Christians. In my case, it took me, my church, my therapist and God Himself a fair amount of time to lift me out of the pit of anorexia. It was frustrating and scary, but in the end I learned and grew so much, and had the opportunity to watch God and his church in action to help a single insignificant girl become whole. 

The Holy Spirit is usually
pictured as a dove... or fire.
This dove looks like
it's ON fire.
Because being a member of Christ’s family, I didn’t have to go through any of it alone. God was with me, and God’s people were with me. So that’s one thing throwing your lot in with Jesus gives you – a brand new family. And “... no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10) So, while the Christian life is not a walk in the park, you don’t have to do it alone... So, benefit #1: new family

Benefit #2: God is with you. Of course, God is everywhere, and with everyone all the time, but are you also with God? Jesus promised his friends he’d be with them to the ends of the earth, and he promised them a “Comforter,” that is, the Holy Spirit. Another word for the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, which can be translated in English as “counselor”, “helper”, encourager, advocate, or “comforter”... All things I could definitely use, every single day. The Holy Spirit, is God IN us, reassuring us of God’s love and presence, and the truth of Himself. In my opinion, that’s a pretty sweet bonus to being a Christian.

Benefit #3: You can have the joy and peace of knowing that you are walking in a direction of peace, goodness and truth. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14) I may not be rich and famous, but I can’t tell you how awesome it feels to be part of something so beautiful and true – honestly, the greatest story every told. Really, I can say, like Peter did when asked if he wanted to leave, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Benefit #4: Speaking of eternal life... This is ours, too. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This pretty much trumps everything... There was an incident described in Luke 10 where the disciples are raving about the superpowers they had been given (healing, demon-casting...) and Jesus said, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” So that’s pretty much what I’m setting my sights on. Oh, and looky there – it says “rejoice” so there’s your happiness... well, JOY, which is even richer!

No, becoming a Christian, won’t solve all your problems. But I do think there is much to recommend this life of devotion to the Living God... Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here writing this.  And benefits aside, if He is the Living God, why would I be anywhere else?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It Really is That Simple – a guest blog by Lea Holt

So here’s the deal. I have been reading The Big Mouth for quite some time and have realized, yet again, that my music tastes are not nearly as sophisticated as my sister Julie’s nor my brother Andy’s.  They are musical people. Julie can play the piano, though she pretends that her talent is lacking and ho-hum. If you were at the Oxford United Methodist show of Cool In The Furnace in the 80’s, and then at Butner Correctional Facility when we brought down the house for an auditorium of special needs kids and adults, well you would tiff, too. We rocked out to some Jesus, my friends, and Julie totally kicked it. I sang in the choir and was awed by her talent on the piano.  She played this one (of many) really hard songs that I remember her practicing night and day, with our very forward-thinking choir director, also named Julie.   It challenged her and yet she mastered it.  And she, and we, a kids’ choir, totally kicked ass.  It is still one of the best moments of my life. 

Fast forward. My brother Andy is also musically talented.  My mother went on a trip  to Greece with her sisters the summer of my senior year of high school, which would have made Andy in ninth grade,  going into 10th.  I remember dropping her off at Greensboro airport.  We were driving her Mercedes (first time ever), sunroof open, windows down, feeling freedom. And Andy basically said “pull over” at a music store he had in mind. He bought his first drum set. He had saved his money and my mom was not there to stop his music thing from happening.  Or to tell him that this was an impractical, very LOUD purchase. 

Long story short, Julie and Andy remain, to this day, very “cool” music people. They have a thing I don’t: what others would say, I’m sure, is pretty sophisticated musical taste. Andy writes and produces his own Cd’s... He writes, plays guitar, sings, throws in drum machine and “lays down tracks.” (I’m such a dork that I am thrilled to be able to even use the phrase ‘lays down tracks’ in my writing.) Julie writes about “cool” bands and knows about progressive music and goes to cool shows and incorporates these experiences into The Big Mouth.  She has always had a sense about these things.  Me... not so much. 

REM - back in the day
I used to, I think, when I was younger.  But quite honestly, it came from just being around Julie and Andy.  I remember the first boom box I got for Christmas.  Along with the John Cougar and Stevie Nicks tapes I got, Julie had obviously gotten wind from Santa about this gift, because she made me a mix cassette tape of the music she was listening to at the time.  Love Tractor, The Roches, REM, U2, the db’s, Elvis Costello, Let’s Active.  I listened to that tape endlessly.  I would actually kill for a copy of that mix now...  But anyhoo, I loved all that music. And during that time I became obsessed with the Elvis Costello Trust album – and REM.  REM in a BIG way.  And for some reason, (still a mystery to me) my mother let me and Andy drive over to Chapel Hill in the fall of ‘84, ON A SCHOOL NIGHT, when I was a senior in high school and he was like a freshman, and she let us go to an REM /db’s concert at Duke with Julie and all her cool college friends.  I vaguely remember trying to dress “cool” and 80’s rock, and of course Andy looked, at 14 or 15, effortlessly cool in his thrift store duds, while I looked like a small town high schooler in my Limited big shirt and wide belt.  But that aside, the concert was breathtaking. It was a religious experience for me.  Michael Stipe came on and was waving and flapping his arms all around and floating all weird, which I didn’t get at the time because I was so naive, but he sang my favorite song, Seven Chinese Brothers, to open, which I pretty much thought was a sign from God.  I listened to my favorite band and my favorite music live for the first time.  It was... kinda like singing Cool In the Furnace.  Breathless because you are doing something you love, swept away by great music that speaks to you... dancing and grooving and not caring how you look or what anyone else thinks. 

Cowboy boots and venison...
Miranda and Blake tie the knot
Another fast forward.  Here I am on the cusp of turning 45 (that’s a whole nother post, by the way)... listening to Blake Shelton on my ipod as I am raking the yard.  Yep.  RAKING.  NOT at a concert at Duke.  Not being in any way cool or hip, which is pretty much standard for me.   I obsess about how cruddy my front flower beds look.  I lament the pile of uncut, fallen trees in my backyard that are still there from the hurricane.  I am slightly overwhelmed, but I listen to music and tell myself to take it “bird by bird” – which is a quote about just chilling out and taking things one task at a time, from an Ann Lamotte book.  So I rake and try to get into the task at hand.  It is here that I realize that my music tastes are truly wretched to someone who really knows and appreciates progressive, new, advanced music. Truth be told, I am a country pop aficionado. What happened to me??  I can quote the words. I can quote Brad Paisley songs.  I like Travis Tritt and Toby Keith.  You can pretty much ask me about any pop country music and I will know it. I’m slightly obsessed with Miranda Lambert and her redneck wedding to Blake Shelton.  They feasted on deer meat (from a deer she killed) and moon shine.  I have used Tim McGraw’s chickin and dumplins recipe, which by the way is quite tasty.  And that is pretty much the opposite of cool. 

But here’s the thing. I love the stories that country songs tell. I love old Don Williams and The Bellamy Brothers. I love Randy Travis and his rich voice and his telling me that he loves me deeper than the holler and the twang and that their voices and their stories are sometimes the pure focus of the song. Yep. Maybe that’s how I justify it. I’m listening to the WORDS.  All English majory and all.  But actually, I have no excuse.  The real truth is that I am not cool. Maybe back in the 80’s I had a chance at it, but I must have been posing.  I’m also an R&B girl... Me and John Legend – separated at birth.  There is some Flo Rida and Usher on my ipod.  Oh and Nelly and Kelly Rowland.  But the country girl thing is still pretty prominent... Much as I’ve tried to ramp it up, I don’t even love cool bluegrass, like the Avette Brothers.  Can’t get there.  Sadly, I have just accepted that someone with even semi-sophisticated music taste would look at my ipod most-played list and gag.  They might find something to listen to, like U2 or Muse or Santana or Buckcherry (are they cool? Probably not, but my husband likes that as workout music.)

So anyway, after all this explaining about how uncool I am, here is my confession:  the actual reason I wrote all this is that I have listened to Blake Shelton’s God Gave Me You like a hundred times over in the last few days.  I LOVE this song. It is a pop country song. It isn’t sophisticated musically. It’s a hit on country radio. It isn’t ground breaking music by any means. But as I was raking, the words spoke to me. They made me think of Jesus, which is pretty cool... “God gave me you for the ups and downs... God gave me you for the days of doubt”...  Deep, hunh?

You sort of have to listen to the song... when Blake wails “On my own I’m only/ Half of what I could be/ I can’t do without you... And then “We are stitched together/And what love has tethered/ I pray we never undo.”... Yep. That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus. New. Love. Unsure. Will I be able to maintain? Will I untether  it like a jerk (the word I really wanted to use here is ‘asshole’, but I am trying to not offend) or will I hang on and be an equal partner in this love?  I do pray I never undo the love that I have seen from Christ.  I’m full of hope and love and I know that I surely am half of what I could be without Him. I hope with all hope that His love has tethered me so fiercely that I can’t undo it. 

So listen to that song. It’s not great musically nor is it “cool.” But it’s pretty cool that Christ can speak to someone listening to a lame pop country love song and she can think about Him and His grace... I am awed by His breaking in on my everyday doings, and I am awed that His love is so very simple. And yet I never knew. Not until I truly accepted Christ and figured out that it really is that damn simple. Hunh. Who knew.  Like a very simple country song, maybe sometimes it isn’t about being cool or progressive or changing the world.  Maybe sometimes, it’s just about listening to Blake Shelton and thinking about Jesus while you rake.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Come Fly With Me!

Donny Osmond as Joseph, in his
Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat!
With Thanksgiving coming up, I’m sort of freaking out and trying to get ready for the being off for the holiday, but I did want to call your attention to something I read yesterday in Genesis 41, which included much of the story of Joseph, another of Jacob’s sons. This particular son actually turned out okay, despite having a rough time of it... being despised by his brothers, who then sold him into slavery... falsely accused of putting the moves on his boss’s wife, jailed and forgotten... nonetheless, because God was helping him, he managed to work his way into being Pharoah’s right hand man. (I’m thinking about doing my own paraphrase of the Bible - how do you like it so far?!)

Anyhow, despite his crappy beginnings, he displayed a big helping of what I was talking about the other day: Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

See? Joseph moved on. He didn’t let his past – the ill treatment of his family – get him down. And he recognised what God had done for him even in the place where he had suffered. 

In fact, he didn’t just forget... he FORGAVE! There was a big famine in the whole area, but Egypt had food... thanks to Joseph, but I’m not going to go into that. Anyway, his brothers came down to buy some food, and what did Joseph do? Gave’em a big ol’ hug and invited them to stay. I guess I should also mention that he played an elaborate practical joke on them first, but still... he even told them that being sold down to Egypt was not their fault, but part of God’s plan to keep them alive during the coming famine.

Another Donny as Joseph pic...
because I can't resist!
So that’s what I’m talking about... forgetting, forgiving, moving on.... seeing the good in the outcome, if not the situation.... One of my commentaries pointed out that had Joseph been raised in Jacob’s house as the favorite son that he was, he might have turned out to be a spoiled brat! So maybe there is something going on behind the scenes that we have no way of knowing when we are in the middle of mistreatment...

And I know that every family situation is different... Not everyone needs to invite their family jerk to live with them, but the forgiving and forgetting part... Well, it’s hard, but it’s also kind of necessary for sanity. 

Sometimes I keep chewing over a grievance and have a hard time moving on... I feel like if I let it go, I’m letting them get away with something. But really, unless I’m going to discuss it with them, they have no idea I’m stewing - they’re out playing golf or shopping or looking at Facebook. It’s only me being eaten up by it. And certainly, there are much better things to spend my time thinking about. It’s hard enough to get all my stuff done in any given day without those crazy thoughts going on in my head.

So I just try to “FIDO” ie., “Forget It & Drive On.” (That’s the clean version, my former Marine brother told me that that’s NOT what FIDO stands for...!) I can’t have that stuff dragging me down! I wanna fly!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Growing up in Crazytown

One day this week I read Genesis 38 and... well, I’m just gonna say... crazy, man. I mean, why is this even in the Bible? Some preachers preach through a book of the Bible, some preacher spend several weeks in a row preaching about one certain topic like, say, discipleship... or suffering. Some preachers, however, use the lectionary, which is listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion. It goes through the whole Bible over time, not leaving anything out. A preacher I know uses it because otherwise she would be tempted to leave out kind of dicey passages like this one. 

I mean it just seems wrong on so many levels... Judah leaves his family and  marries a Canaanite woman, with whom he has 3 sons. The first one is so wicked GOD kills him. According to their laws, the second son, Onan, was supposed to produce children with the first son’s wife, but refuses. (Trivia fact: that’s why the birth control method known as withdrawal is also called “onansim.”) So God kills him too! Then Judah promises she can have the third son when he gets old enough, so she goes home. 

Over time it becomes obvious that he has no intention of giving her his last son, so she takes matters into her own hands: pretending to be a prostitute, she sits by the road wearing a veil and when Judah (her FATHER-IN-LAW) comes by, he engages her services, leaving his staff and personal seal with her as collateral that he would pay her a goat. Of course he has no idea who she is, and when sends someone to give her the goat, she’s long gone. Fast forward three months and they’re telling Judah that his DIL is a prostitute and pregnant and he wants her BURNED TO DEATH. 

At this point, she pulls out the staff and seal and says the guy who got her pregnant was the owner of these things. And Judah, well, he’s like, “Oops.”

Again, wrong on alotta levels: God killing guys directly? Maybe it just meant they met their Maker prematurely? That system they called Levirate marriage (brother marries brother’s widow to make kids for dead brother)? Ack! Girl luring father-in-law into a dangerous liaison? Death penalty for prostitution? Prostitute only, of course, the dude gets off scot-free, right? I can only shake my head and say, what the...???

Again I say, why is this even in the Bible? Other than it is part of Israel’s history? What should my take-away be? I don’t know what it SHOULD be, but here’s where my reflections led me:

If you read further into the Bible, you find that Judah’s family went on to produce a bunch of halfway decent, mediocre to evil guys... but also David, Solomon, and... you got it, Jesus. King of Kings. Lord of Lords. Lion of JUDAH. What could it all mean?

Fun? Yes. Functional? Not fully.
Well, obviously in those days, who your family was was really important. I mean, the Bible is full of begat lists. And "Honor your parents" is in the top ten list of rules... But what I see here is that a person can transcend his or her family’s mediocrity or evil, as the case may be. (I guess today we would say “dysfunctionality”)... which is incredibly encouraging. I know there are plenty of fantastic families out there – composed of kind, sane people who love and support each other... But plenty of people grow up in Crazytown. Lord knows what kind of crazy mixed up family stuff MY son will be writing about US in 20 years! And my own family of origin had some good things about it – we had some fun, and I love my siblings beyond measure... but there were certain prevailing attitudes in our home that didn’t do any of us any good. For instance, I received and believed the assumption that fat kids are unworthy of love... and guess who the fat kid was?

Fortunately, I’ve shed that big FAT lie – after all, my husband loves me and single belly roll and dimple on my chubby thighs. Leaving this notion behind has been a great source of sanity for me.

A friend of mine, who had a much more troubled childhood, had a dream once in which she was climbing a ladder and her mother was right behind her trying to pull her down. In the dream, though, my friend’s mother grabbed onto her sweater but she (my friend) kept climbing, leaving her mother behind, still holding the sweater. My friend interpreted her dream to mean that her family and background would always be dogging her... But I reminded her that she managed to slip out of it and keep climbing.That’s a blessing, that is. She has grown into a lovely woman, full of grace, a beautiful picture of God’s power to heal.

A couple of episodes in the life of Jesus kind of reinforce this for me: First, when Jesus is 12 and goes to the Jerusalem with his parents. When the family sets out for home and realize Jesus is missing, they rush back to find him discussing Scripture with the teachers in the Synagogue. His reaction to his frazzled parents: “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” ie. “You’re not my REAL parents”!

Then there was the time Jesus was teaching in a house and his family shows up. Someone tells him they’re outside looking for him. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Another time he’s out in a field teaching and a fangirl yells out “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” to which he says “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

So basically, when you’re part of God’s family, you love your old family (the "honor your parents" rule still holds), and cherish what was good... but you can also look forward. His people are your NEW family. And while God’s family is as bruised and broken as any other, it is to be hoped that they’re leaning on the Source of all that is good, all that is love, and all that is right, to heal and transform them from dysfunctional to functional. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Best That You Can Do...

Chris Thile
I promise: BMSA isn’t going to turn into an arts and entertainment blog, but I’m going to tell you about yet another show... My husband and I celebrated his birthday at a one-man show by Chris Thile, virtuoso mandolin player, member of the Punch Brothers and former member of progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek. (This is one blog entry where it will really be worth it to click on some links, you guys.)

At age 30, Chris has been playing mandolin almost as long as he’s been alive – a prodigy, then a virtuoso, he teases out of his tiny mandolin original songs, traditional bluegrass and folk numbers and compositions by J.S. Bach, Flat and Scruggs and... Radiohead. His fingers move like lightning and his voice is strong and plaintive.

Our seats at the Carolina Theatre show were in the pit - that is, right up under his nose. Tall and lean, clad in a nice-looking suit, Thile picked and chatted his way through an interesting and varied set, making self-deprecating jokes, giving vital song information in the relaxed way that comes from being a natural leader – and a performer for 25 years. 

Chris had been playing a while already
when this record came out.
One of many highlights: His “fiddle-tune request time,” during which he invited members of the audience to yell out fiddle tunes they’d like to hear him play. Of course, his requirements for eligibility were pretty strict, so many of the suggestions were answered with, “Disqualified!” And in the end he settled on 3 tunes – one of them being, not a fiddle tune, but the famous banjo tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown. He then plowed through them, but artfully, one after the other – lightning fast fingers striving to recreate their complex structures. And ... when he’d finished to thunderous applause, he took his bow, but still gave Foggy Mountain Breakdown a few more tries... still trying to work it out. Because, you see, he had improvised the whole thing.... figured out on the spot how to make those tunes written for other instruments sound good on a mandolin.

It made me wonder, what would it be like to be so good at something? I mean, in many ways, I am adequate – even slightly good at some things... but in no area do I possess a noticeable talent that stands out above others... like, say, Mozart... or Leonardo Da Vinci...  or Einstein... unless you count very special talents like "shopping at Target" or "eating french fries"... On top of that, I’m lazy! I did play piano when I was young, but I lacked the necessary drive and ambition to really work hard at it. Sometimes I wonder – had I been born with a measure of natural affinity for music, would my drive been more intense? That is to say, would I have worked harder if I had not needed to work so hard?

I know exactly why Arthur drank.
I guess music and art are just a very showy area of giftedness – but one that is valued by our culture. And, honestly, music and art are an awesome aspect of our humanity... but not everyone comes equipped with the ability to create devastatingly beautiful paintings or music that makes people weep. There is a great part from the movie Arthur (Dudley Moore version) where he says, “Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Maybe some of us drink because we’re not poets.” It always resonated with me because I WISH I were an artist of some kind. Sometimes I think I was gifted with a vaguely artistic temperament, but no talent to go along with it... How depressing, right? I mean, if you’re going to be a jerk, you should have the genius that normally accompanies it – am I right? Not that all artists are temperamental... or that being an artist gives you the right to be temperamental... But really, we do let them get away with a lot, don’t we?

I guess I shouldn’t be sad that I am not a gifted artist... After all: “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9) I mean, there ARE other, less flashy gifts, right? God gives us gifts to use to serve each other – natural talents like leadership, hospitality, mercy, teaching... Maybe I have some kind of gift like one of these? “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (I Corinthians 12) So artist, musician, genius – or not, we are all gifted by God.

And it is interesting, also, to me that after his discourse about gifts in I Corinthians, Paul writes about LOVE... you know, that famous passage they read at weddings... Where he gives a beautiful description of love, then says that every flashy gift in the world means squat if you don’t have LOVE. So... I guess that means being gifted doesn’t give a person license to be a jerk... It's cool that you don't have to have any particular gifts in order to do the most important thing. Anyone can do it!

In summary: 1. Watching Chris Thile on stage was an amazing experience. 2. God made Chris Thile the way he is – amazing. 3. God made you and me the way we are – amazing, and 4. LOVE is what really matters, after all... So go out and spread some love, people! 

Monday, November 14, 2011

More Confessions of Ignorance

North Carolina is not
all Mayberry...
Depictions of North Carolina on film tend show us as kind of rube-ish... like in Junebug or Main Street... Or you might think of the homey goodness of the Andy Griffith Show. but, really, there’s a lot going on. We are pretty classy in our own way. I mean, we have a happ’nin’ local music scene, we have film festivals, and our capital city boasts a pretty great museum.

And just now, that museum has got some mighty fine works of art on display in an exhibit called Rembrandt in America.

First, I love the new museum space... Well, it’s not so new now, but it is truly a lovely space. Not much to look at from the outside... Sort of like a bright white warehouse... But I am guessing that white exterior lets in a great amount of bright white light. It’s a great way to showcase the museum’s collections of art from different parts of the world and periods of time. 
Our gorgeous museum

But what I’m here to talk about is the traveling Rembrandt exhibit they have going on from now til January 22 in the older building. Actually calling it a Rembrandt show is a bit of a stretch. I mean, there were not that many actual proven Rembrandts to see. Turns out to get in this show, a painting just had to be thought of at any time to be a painting by Rembrandt.

There were paintings by students of Rembrandt, friends of Rembrandt, admirers of Rembrandt.... People who had nothing to do with Rembrandt. Shadowy portraits of doughy-faced people who looked like they stepped off a cigar box... 

Now I am not in any way qualified to give an educated review of an art exhibit... Not by a long shot.  I never took art or art appreciation  or art history or anything vaguely related to that in school. I did, however, spend hours as a child with my mom’s art books open on my lap. To my shame, I confess that it was mostly to look at the naked people, though. 

And due to my utter ignorance, I often could not tell the difference between an authenticated Rembrandt and a fake, even though the people who wrote the descriptions on the little cards to the left acted like it was obvious... I mean, look how “unpainterly” the fake is, right? I know they have certain ways of distinguishing the real from the fake - brush technique, expressiveness of face and body - but it wasn’t obvious to me.

I don't know much, but I know this
isn't a Rembrandt!
Other other hand, there were a couple of paintings that had me wondering why anyone, let alone a museum curator, would attribute it to the great Dutch master. I guess it has always be considered a Rembrandt so people didn’t question it. 

Which brings us to another thing about the exhibit ... The descriptions tended to go into a lot of detail about how the painting got to America, and who the collectors were. Now I know that that the show is called Rembrandt in America, but I just didn’t find this information particularly interesting. I really wanted to know more about the actual paintings - the technique, the subjects, Rembrandt’s life at the time... 
Didn't those collars
itch like the dickens?

But all this aside, to comment on the actual paintings, I moved through the creeping line of museum patrons... nearly unable to take my eyes off the art. The people around me, my husband behind me, and my son who was hanging off me.... they sort of melted into the background as I took in the fascinating, dusky faces of the people who paid Rembrandt - and/or his workshop or students to capture their likenesses on canvas. I was fascinated by the stories and histories behind it all... what it must have been like to lived in the Dutch Golden Age.... and didn’t those stiff ruffly collars itch like the dickens?

One of Rembrandt's
self portraits
I loved that he made so many self portraits... because, well, I don’t think he was painting himself because he thought he was awesome and people would want to have portraits of him... Rather I think that he was using a face that was utterly familiar to him to learn more about art itself... the play of light and shadow, how use technique to capture natural and expressive facial expressions, how to convey the character of the person, and ultimately, the beauty of humanity.... In all these things, Rembrandt succeeded brilliantly. Although, it was interesting to note that at a certain point his fortunes declined and he had to declare bankruptcy... It’s a given that success does not really equal $ucce$$, right?

I guess I love his self portraits because it’s a little like how and why I write. I use a subject that I am way too familiar with – myself – to learn more about writing, to express some truth about life itself and the beauty of humanity. I don’t know how successful I am at that, but I know I haven’t made a dime! Hey! Look how much I have in common with Rembrandt!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Wizard and a True Star

So, a drawback to blogging is that when I am in the middle of an experience, I might be thinking, “What am I going to say about this?” Last night’s Todd Rundgren show at The Carolina Theatre was no exception... and the phrase I kept thinking was, “walking the line between transcendent and annoying.” 
Todd and my friend, David Lesage...
sometime in the 70s.

Then, I thought, what if I say that and people who think Todd is god read it? What if my friend David Lesage, who actually used to work with Todd reads it? It’s not like I’m confessing to murder, but ... it’s definitely confessing to being uncool. But then again, I’ve already told you I’m a huge nerd, right? 

See if you can follow my logic: 1. The reason I found it less than 100% satisfying is that instead of playing his beautiful melodic songs and displaying his rich, honey-smooth Daryl-Hall-on-steroids voice, he pushed out some total in-your-face prog rock: synthesized noodling, blistering guitar solos, unfollowable melody lines... 2. This is a lot like jazz. 3. The idea of hipness springs from the culture of jazz. 

Now, I like Dixieland jazz... Louis Armstrong and all, but the cool, weird, improvisational noodlings of that other kind of jazz... well, i’m just not hip to it. So.... once again, I have proven to you that I am hopelessly uncool. Surprise!

Psychedelia, anyone?
But I was talking about Todd Rundgren... who I love... First of all – his outfit. Transcendent. A psychedelic suit made of sort of stretchy material... and the jacket had these weird golden tube loops hanging off the back. They were made of cloth sewn around stuffing... and he also had on these huge gold chaps with huge circles of color sewn onto them. He removed these eventually. I can only guess how hard they were to move around in.

Anyway, in the picture here, is the suit without the weird gold chaps, although you can kind of see the crazy tubes if you look under his arm on the right. (He’s the colorful guy in the middle.) It’s all the more wild to realise that he’s 63 years old. But I tell you, he looks fantastic. I want to get old just like him. So, he and the guys in the picture come out and play this outrageous prog-rock noodling, with stage jumps and all... Keep in mind that the last time I saw him was in 1983. He came on stage by himself and sat down at the piano and played gorgeous shimmers like Cliche, Love of the Common Man, or Just One Victory. So I really wasn’t prepared for this.

Todd then... a wizard.
I guess I sound like I didn’t enjoy it at all... but truthfully, I did. Because annoying prog rock or not, the man is a genius, and plays his heart out. He’s a great showman with a sense of the absurd, assuring us that with prog rock we were getting the most notes for our dollar. 

The best parts of the evening for me: whenever he opened his mouth to sing. The man’s got a fantastic voice. The unexpected covers were also a great thrill: Something’s Coming from West Side Story (When was the last time you heard a Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim number at a rock show?), and ELO’s Do Ya. I had never given this song much thought, but when he belted out, “Do ya, do ya want my love,” my friend Grace and I both heard it as God asking us, and yelled out “YES!”

As for disappointment that it was not more of a singer-songwriter show, it appeared that I was in the minority. The audience was full of fanboys... because if there is such a thing as a nerdy rock star, Todd Rundgren fills the bill. A theramin player and one of the early adopters of video and computer technology, Todd is the comic-book/sci-fi geek’s rock star. I mean he did ads for Mac, right?

Todd now... a true star.
And yes, I am a geek – guess who was at NC Comic Con last weekend? Although, I do tend to love fantasy more than sci fi... I guess I just don’t get the lack of organization that is progressive rock. That said, Todd Rundgren is a genius, pure and simple, and I was so happy to see him. Doing anything. He could have drunk a Coke and burped out The Wheels on the Bus for all I cared.

It’s like when you go to see Bob Dylan – he may sing one or two of the songs you know from way back, but you may or may not recognize them... because he has a tendency to change the tunes just for his own amusement. I am thinking that if you're a flat-out genius... if you've written a song like Blowin’ in the Wind or Can We Still Be Friends?... if you have a huge far-reaching body of work like those guys, you can do whatever the hell amuses you and people would come to see you – and pay for the privilege... Well, I did, didn’t I?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Look Homeward, Angel

I referred a while back to a time in my younger days, when I lived in Asheville... Well, it was a beautiful time in a beautiful place. Nothing less than marrying my own true love could have torn me away from such a life.

First of all, I had a great roommate - my best friend in the world, secondly, it has romantic significance for me because it was where Tom and I courted, and third... well, it was Asheville! Asheville has a rich history, and abundant natural beauty. In a previous post, I characterized Savannah as a woman... If Asheville were a woman, she would have curves that don’t stop, wear expensive vintage clothing and sing a sweet, nostalgic song. Or psalm. Because it is hard for me to be there and not be reminded how great God is.

Ahhhh.... Asheville...
I never got used to seeing the mountains everywhere I went. Native son Thomas Wolfe wanted to write stories in which the mountains themselves were a main character. I totally understand that. I mean, I would be at WalMart, for instance, and look up – and gasp... Every day I drove through Beaucatcher Tunnel and when the town appeared before me, my heart just sang. One day everything was all shimmery with a sparkly golden mist... and when I mentioned it to a co-worker, she said, “Oh that’s just the sun shining on the smog trapped between the mountains.” And every afternoon as I left my downtown office and walk west toward our parking lot, gazing longingly over the mountains and how the sun and clouds hovered over... More often that not, the hymn, How Great Thou Art would pop into my head, “O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder / Consider all the world Thy Hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed... If you like a traditional sound, here’s Elvis’s version... but if you like to groove, try this one.

Thomas Wolfe writing
in his Oteen cabin

Even though my roommate and I lived in a nondescript apartment complex – a place people usually lived in on the way to somewhere else – our location could not have pleased me more. If you came in on Highway 70, you’d drive through Oteen, where Thomas Wolfe once holed up in a cabin to write. Oteen is nothing to look at, but just knowing that made me happy. If you’d drive a little way past our home, you’d get to a sweet little area called Happy Valley... It’s really not an especially remarkable neighborhood, but even the ordinary seemed extra quaint to me. Maybe it was the way the houses – sometimes made of stone – were kind of tucked in to the rolling landscape... maybe it was the fact that some people kept horses in their back yards... maybe it was the occasional bear-rummaging-through-a-trash-can-rumor you’d hear... Asheville is full of ordinary neighborhoods that looked extraordinary to me. Like the little The Manor Inn apartments – a group of charming residences that are part of an old mountain resort dating back to the late 1800s. Of course, there are also neighborhoods that were populated by gorgeous mansions – like those on Merrimon Avenue, or the  historic Montford district in all its Victorian splendor. 
The Grove Park Inn

Also splendid – two major landmarks: the Biltmore Estate, and the Grove Park Inn. I love them both, but for some reason, I love most the earthy hobbit-hole-ishness of the Grove Park Inn. Made of stone, with walls of 6 feet thick and a fireplace so large you can stand in it... its view is spectacular, and I couldn’t even imagine having the dough to stay there.

Art Deco detail on the
S&W building
This stuff is all very expected when one speaks of Asheville. But there are so many things I love about it – the downtown architecture, for instance. If I understand correctly, the Great Depression hit especially hard in Asheville, so hard that very few new buildings were built in the downtown until maybe the 1970s... so the fantastic buildings – some built by craftsmen who had come to work on the Biltmore house – are still standing. Ornate, gargoyle-adorned structures, spectacular Art Deco masterpieces... they’re all still there. Again with the Thomas Wolfe - but I found it fascinating to read his first-hand description of the real estate bubble that preceded the bust of the depression.
"If you need me, I'll be
at the Basilica."

Anyway, what follows is a list of additional things I love to look at and do when I go back to “the land of the sky” for a visit. I may not be telling you anything new, and I may be missing some best kept secrets, but I do love to make a list...!

1. The Basilica of St. Lawrence: a gorgeous Catholic Church that was built by a Biltmore craftsman... full of great art and meditative silence. I certainly spent my share of time meditating in that silence. In fact, we took Bill to see it on our recent visit and even he – a slightly hyper seven-year-old boy, wanted to just sit and reflect a bit. 

2. The Grove Arcade: an early version of a “shopping mall” that stood dormant for years, but was renovated, given a good polish and reopened for business for Asheville’s many tourists.

The Grove Arcade
3. Malaprop’s Bookstore: The selection is not astonishing, but I am a sucker for an independent book seller... Also, Downtown Book & News on Lexington Avenue: A huge selection of used books and offbeat ‘zines. Really, Lexington Avenue is full of funky shops, and funny smellin’ kids that are fascinating to watch. Reminds me of the 80s when the occasional tourist would snap my photo outside Ruthless Records in Chapel Hill.

President Obama knows:
Mast General Store = candy
4. Speaking of Ruthless Records, Asheville still has plenty of independent record stores – like Karmasonics: Lots of tunes to thumb through just like in the old days.

5. Mast General Store: Candy.

6. Tupelo Honey Café: A funky take on the Southern plate

7. Early Girl Eatery. Locally grown, creative comfort food.

8. Grace & Peace Presbyterian Church: I attended this church in while living Asheville, and still love to visit. It’s small and quiet, and boy do they love the Lord and take care of each other. They meet at they YMI Cultural Center (usually... right now, there’s a Brian Eno exhibit in their space, so I think they’ve had to move for a while)

9. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial: When I moved to Asheville, my soon-to-be-husband gave me a copy of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which I devoured... After that, I read all his other books. I couldn’t get enough, really. Since they are biographical, I learned a great deal about Asheville’s history... I also learned that Thomas Wolfe and I both attended UNC and have worked at two of the same newspapers – The Durham Morning Herald, and the Asheville Citizen Times. His mother ran a boarding house in Asheville, and you can go visit it!

10. TOPS for shoes: Every kind of shoes, comfy and courageous – functional and funky... and sometimes they have a buy one pair, get another for a penny sale! Don’t mind if I do!

My Old Kentucky Home – Thomas
Wolfe's mother's boarding house
I guess 10 seems like a good round number for a list... I’m pretty sure there is nothing extraordinary about my list of must-sees, but it’s really stuff that I always really love and miss about the place. And now, a word from the psalmist: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."