Saturday, August 31, 2013

MUSIC

I didn't grow up in a musical family and I regret that.  My father, or so I've heard, use to jam with the Carter Family at a local store when he was a teenager.  But then Hitler stole his soul when it was sucked out of him on the beaches of Normandy.  I never knew the man he had been or could have been, including his musical self.  I did catch him a time or two alone, in his bedroom, strumming on his old Martin Guitar but he would stop playing when I walked in.
Like any teenager I had a brief affair with music when I used it as my surrogate feelings during the years of puppy love, love lost, love found again.  I found Bread as my outlet while my friends found CCR.
 
Once I was past that phase my new avenue of expression was John Denver and that was after I fell in love with the mountains.
 
But those were only brief and chance encounters with music.  The voices were my poets to say what I felt but didn't have the words to day . . . but it wasn't really the music that got me.
 
I will get back to my story but I wanted to say that the reason I'm writing about this is right now is that I'm about to embark on a huge music festival in Seattle starting tomorrow. I'm going because I've discovered the band FUN and they are the main attraction.
 
So, back in college we were required (thank goodness) to take music appreciation.  Most saw it as a class to sleep in and an easy "A."  I may have had those intentions . . . but I became swept away with the notes and orchestration in the same way that the first draw off a crack pipe can turn a soul inside out.
 
The professor led us through the history of music, touching on virtually all genres.  The sound system in the auditorium was superb. We covered the classics, the Renaissance  composers, Gershwin and Jazz.
 
I was totally enthralled in music for several weeks.  I borrowed a huge "Time-Life" collection of orchestral music and listened to it on my LP in my dorm room constantly, only being replaced by Pink Floyd's The Wall album as soon as my roommate came into the door.  I was too dumb and narrow minded to recognize the same beauty of music, arrangement and lyrics of Floyd.  I had already been taught that rock, at least rock at that level, was from the devil.
 
But it wasn't long until I was taught that classical music was from the devil as well.  After all, unless music had lyrics and those lyrics used the word "Jesus,"  then we thought it was a waste of time in our dualistic thinking world.  I know, it was a sad day when I gave back my classical albums.
 
I was told that if you really want to listen to music, then God has provided us with His own good music.  I was introduced to Larry Newman, Second Chapter of Acts and Amy Grant  I wanted to sleep with Amy Grant as did all my male evangelical friends, but of course we never revealed that's why we liked listening to her.  Then there was Evie.
 
But, the sad thing here wasn't that those aforementioned entertainers weren't good. It was just a sad day when I narrowed my world of music down to the .05% of what was available. It was like a man dying of thirst and trying to drink through a straw  . . .  not the plastic kind, but the literal, straw of hay.
 
It is said that mathematics is the language of nature or reality.  I totally agree and only wish I spoke more of the language.  But it may have been Pythagoras who first realized that music and math were the same.  I guess you could say that music is like cutting across the grain of math and seeing the array of fibers in a beautiful way.
 
Music, good music (not meaning evangelical music) is the greatest apologetic in my opinion.
 
A long time ago when I was first disillusioned with Christianity, I was wrestling with which path to take out of my dark hole. I wasn't sure for a year or two. But like any human story (except maybe in  a Hallmark movie) there are not clear points of solution.  My story also was a process. But I do remember one key moment when I felt most confident that God was really there.
 
I was attending a medical conference in Boston. I had gone to a Christian Medical Society meeting earlier in the week at the conference. . . out of habit, and hope.  I had a hope that I would find something.  I found nothing.  It was morally bankrupt.  I was nauseous by them circling their wagons to fight the gays at the conference (this was during the height of the culture wars) and everyone was constantly using thinly veiled self-adorations.  For the rest of the week I avoided those evangelicals like the plague and just kept to myself.
 
But one night I was walking down a street in Boston and overheard a deep base sound.  That's all I could hear at first.  I followed the sound.  It let me to a smoky bar that was half empty.  But in front was a baby grand and a guy playing it, beside him another man on an upright acoustic base wearing a tux.  Then in the corner was a tall, thin, black lady in a red, evening grown singing jazz.  She sound exactly like Nora Jones does to me now . . . with the rusty vocials.
 
I dropped into a wooden seat and was totally taken away. I don't think I had ever sat at the feet of a jazz singer before, not on the level or with this intimacy.  With her beautiful  and expressive smile (and frown) I felt that she was singing only to me.  Maybe she was.  I looked around and the other 4-5 people in the bar all seemed drunk.
 
But when she was finished and I realized it was now late and very dark, I walked out into the cobble stone street.  I felt breathless.  The music had spoken to me in a profound way.  Not the lyrics, but the spectrum of human emotions that the singer had led me through . . . and the notes of the piano and the strings on the base.  The stings of different weights, which responded mathematically according to mass and the laws of Newton.  I sensed the harmony of the universe in a way that I knew that God was there, really there and I felt that with confidence.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Garden Variety Despair

Thank you for your encouraging comments. I don't want to turn this blog into a self-loathing sounding board. I try not too. I have often discussed the human condition of pain and many assume I'm talking about my own pain . . . which I'm usually not. Often I am thinking of pain because I encounter it daily in others. But this was never suppose to be about me in the way some blogs are or Face Book often is, which they discuss their battle with . . . whatever.  I'm not saying that is a bad thing, but just not my intentions here.

With that said, I will  try to make sense of my world, but only as it helps to define that larger world. I'm ashamed to say that I'm on a rocky crag (emotionally) right now out of stereotypical and one may say, classical reasons. There is nothing extra-ordinary about it.

 I know many people who have encountered remarkable suffering . . . tragic loss of a child, personal diagnosis of cancer and they are in their thirties and many more examples of such suffering. In these extraordinary shadowy places, those people have earned the right (not saying it is the healthy thing, but the reasonable thing) to shake their fists at the universe . . . which means at God . . . and declare the big "WHY?"  They also have earned the right to say also "Why me?"  A normal, decent person who has absorbed such an intrusion into their lives must wrestle with these things.  The only path out is through this questioning place.  Those who never ask the question, I suspect, choose the zombie world that remains captive within the suffering.

But I have neither earned the right to either of those questions.  My suffering is so classical that it is pandemic but often unspoken.

I turned 58 this summer.  My life is passing far faster than I had expected. Part of this journey, and typical for this age, my mother and aunt, who live together, both began to suffer dementia this spring. They live 2500 miles away. I flew down and spent time with them in June. I worked hard to set up care for them. That care is no longer viable and now we must, against their wills or understanding, kidnap them and bring them to live, with either my sisters, or myself.

Being in that sandwich age, I also had the un-pleasure of moving my youngest son 1500 miles to start graduate school just two weeks ago.  Since he was my last (of five) children I am now a father without a purpose. I find myself aging and almost friendless.  In the midst of the loss of my fatherhood (not to insult people who have lost children through death, which of course is much worse), I had left the evangelical church and all my adult friends two years ago.

I also have some modest health problems . . . that too is typical for someone of may age.

So, for the past few months I have felt myself sinking in this depression.  I'm not quite clinically depressed . . . yet . . . and, while I totally agree with the need for antidepressants at the right time, I'm not a candidate . . . not at this point for medications. I want to feel, even though that feeling isn't pleasant.

So, before I get into "wallowing" I want to take this discussion to a broader level.  I do think that we Christians have had very little direction in how to relate to and deal with these forms of depression.  The tradition has been to say as Monty and friends did, "always look on the bright side of life." We were taught that disappointment is, well, sin or at least the wrong way to look at things.

But disappointment, I think, is the most "Biblical" way. In being disappointed, I'm saying to God that I agree that I should live forever, but certainly will not. That I had done the job of raising my kids . . . therefore, they should be mine . . . to keep. But they are not. That we deserve a life without pain, but will not have nothing of that.

So what is the solution . . . my solution, or the solution of humanity?  It certainly doesn't lie within the inward pointing convolution of positive thinking or the other form of denial, the upward flow of transcendence, be it meditative Christianity or pantheism. These are all "blue pill" living, or the imitation of living.

I choose to embrace reality as it is. You can not know the pain of aging and painful joints if you had not tasted youth, where you ran and leaped over small trees on the mountain side and tumbled down green meadows . . . bouncing to your feet without an ache. You would not know the sting of the loss of a child, be it geographical and emotional loss like mine, or the horrors of metaphysical loss of death, unless you had known the joy of holding a helpless but warm little body next to yours. You would not grieve the loss of a mother who can barely remember your name unless you had heard that mother call your name a hundred thousand times before . . . to check on you . . . to make sure you are safe. Now how do I keep her safe?

But I'm not agreeing with the positive thinkers that God did all of this, the blissful embracing of the good and the taking away of it, as a lesson or purpose.  It has no purpose but pain and there is no glory within it.  The only hope is not in mental gymnastics and there is certainly no hope in nilism. The only hope lies with the great saints of Hebrews eleven . . . looking into the haze before us and knowing that somehow it will find a remedy, a remedy that we can't imagine.  In the meantime, to bridge the gap of faith that I lack, I might find a psychologist.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On a Personal Note

It took me a long time to spit out my last two posts.  The reason for this is that I remain overwhelmed with work to the point that I feel worse than the hamster on the spinning wheel.  I can not work more than I am, 60+ hours per week, yet I feel that I'm surrounded by people who are perpetually disappointed in me for not doing enough.

I feel myself drifting deeper into depression which greatly influences my posting because part of that first level of depression is always "what is the point."  So while I think I've had some of my most creative thoughts while I was depressed (which I've observed among the writer-artist . . . a damned depressed group) there is a phase of it that leaves you with this feely of total futility.

But depression isn't always a bad thing. It is a state of feeling, even though that type of feeling isn't palatable.  But it is feeling and I prefer to feel than to be dead, or worse, alive and trained that feeling is bad.

But depression is playing with fire.  I've been in the depths of it and I would agree that place is not a healthy place to dwell.  The best visual example I can find of that place is in the movie What Dreams May Come and the main character's wife was dwelling in the bowels of hell . . . a dark place in the pit of an upside down church. 

The other part of depression that is not healthy is that it always estranges me from the world. First, it makes me irritable and hard to live with. Secondly, people don't like to be around depressed people.  I'm not sure why, except that it is contra intuitive to their notion that we suppose to always be smiling and pretending that life is swell.

The last part of depression is that it creates distance between my wife and me and she is my last friend standing. My depression irritates her and makes her frankly mad at me. So, I intentionally pull away from her to not be that irritant.  But there is no place left to go but to the inner shell of your own thoughts.

I always share these things here, I think, for different motives than my evangelical friends on Face Book who love to talk about their trials and ask for prayer as an attention-seeking device. I'm not doing that here, I don't think. I share these things not looking for pity or prayer (which wouldn't hurt) but because I think these things are part of the normal human condition and by talking about them honestly, helps others to know that they are not alone. That is my only point . . . unless of course I'm self-deceptive.

"Supernatural-Natural-Chemical" Part II, A Christian Perspective

As I said, it is really hard to know where to start this discussion because the headwaters are so convoluted. But I will start with one man, Jean-Jacques Rousse, the French philosopher.  I'm going to grossly over-simplify his views.

You have to imagine the times in which Rousse lived. He was born (I think) around 1712.  He grew up in a Europe where there was a corruption of power (as there is most of the time during the history of humanity).  The Church still had its strong grip on people by controlling the destiny of their souls (or so they thought). The government and wealthy societies, which became known as the aristocrats, dominated the physical side of the people.  The vast majority of people were dirt poor and totally submissive to those two entities.

It is interesting that the aristocrats justified their minority dominating the majority through reason.  It was Aristotle, the father of modern reason, that promoted the concept of the philosopher-king. But what he meant was the most educated and rational people should lead society. But the French aristocrats (so named for the philosopher), while being the most educated, did not merge that with morality. There was very little compassion as exemplified in Marie Antoinette's famous line (when speaking about the starving masses) when she was told her subjects had no bread (meaning no food, period), "let them eat cake."

It was this moral corruption that drove Rousse to try and figure out the more perfect society.  He was building on the philosophical backs of many others, such as the rationalist Descartes (who died about 20 years before Rousse was born) as well as the English rationalist, Hume et al.

But Rousse came to the philosophical conclusion that humans were most moral, and civil, while they were still animals.  This was in stark contrast to the Church, which had been quite dualistic, seeing nature as not only fallen, but evil. Therefore, man (speaking of humanity) was evil in is most primitive state.

Rousse believed that when man rose from the dirt, where humans dwelled with the animals, that man became arrogant seeing himself above nature. When this arrogance took hold man also began to be controlled by comparisons (with each other, thus the social classes and wars between nations).  He thought that if civil authority was removed and humanity would be allowed to return to it primal roots, that order and morality would return (what was later labeled, by others, the "noble savage" state).

Rousse's thinking was part of the ground swell that fueled the eventual French Revololution.  They had the notion that if they threw out the authority figures, that bliss would come. But of course it didn't as exemplified by the Reign of Terror or say if you've read the book or seen the movie Les Miserables . . . or if you have read the book Animal Farm, you will get the jest.  It was a horrible exercise in returning the free, wild and natural.

But the thought of "natural" began to take root in writing, art and in culture in general. It took almost 200 years for the thought to reach its zenith in American culture.

But "natural" isn't a scientific term or any type of natural (pardon the pun) division within reality. It is an artificial division reflecting the simple notion proposed by Rousse, that if man (meaning mankind) touched it, then it is inferior. In its non-human touched form, it is superior.

But Madison Ave. (meaning of course the advertising world) has cashed in on this notion of "natural" being super, good, clean and "chemical" meaning harmful, inferior or even immoral. 

But the bigger issue is the fact that throughout history the Church has embraced secular philosophies and incorporated them within their theology.  But this is true of all human endeavors and not just the Church. As you are doing this incorporation, you are totally na├»ve to the process.

So I find it interesting that many of my Christian friends advocate organic farming, natural health care and the list could go on, as Christian virtues. 

My point here, once again, is that all is created, man, the things that people refer to when they say nature, the universe, the spiritual, the psychological, the intellectual . . . all fall into the same category. They were all created good. Then the fall tainted things so nothing works quite right, but none of it became evil.  So when you contrast one part of creation . . . than part touched by man against the other side, the untouched or what Madison Ave. means by "natural" one is not better than the other.  If the fall is real, then the course of Christian history should be to restore all, including nature.
 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Supernatural" - "Natural" - "Chemical" Part I

I knew it would eventually happen . . . the word "natural" taken to its extreme absurdity.  The pendulum of every philosophical movement, inevitable, moves the absurd, then the counter swing always moves to the absurd in the opposite direction.

This kicker was a commercial on TV for a "totally natural" and quick facelift.  They don't explain that the way this quick and "natural" facelift is done is by cutting a small hole beneath one ear, tying a string to a muscle, treading the string through the subcutaneous fat layer to the other ear, pulling the string tight and then anchoring it there.  It is quick, easy (from a surgical standpoint), reasonable priced for the patient (while the plastic surgeon still earns about $2,000/hour for doing it) and really does make most people look 10 years younger because it gets rid of the sag beneath the jaw.  So how in the hell is this natural?

The next question you may ask, why am I even talking about this on this quasi-Christian blog?  The reason I'm writing about this or anything here illustrates the fundamental point I hope to make with this blog.  If Christianity is true, and I think it is, then EVERYTHING is part of Christianity, meaning all parts of reality (you can argue the metaphysical point if acts of evil are "part" of Christianity or not but that isn't what I'm talking about).  So, when I talk about the Mars Rover, I'm discussing Christianity. When  I write about emotional pain or elation of the snow-packed mountains in the spring time, I'm talking Christianly.  There is no line of demarcation, as I was taught during my evangelical days, that divides the spiritual (meaning good Christian) and the "worldly" (meaning the vast network of other things that were not blatantly Christian). In this example, I want to talk metaphysically and look at philosophical history as it applies to this topic of natural vs unnatural.

But the other thing I want to illustrate is that we humans do not live in an intellectual vacuum.  There is a convoluted flow in human history of "styles of thinking."  While it is not simple, like one flowing creek, it is nonetheless real.  Thoughts can have thousands of starting points and merge and interact in the most complex of ways, before shaping a culture's belief system.  Evangelical Christians, like most people, see themselves immune from this river of human thought. But they are not. An Evangelical Christian in America thinks radically differently from a Greek convert to Christianity living in Asia Minor in the first century.  We modern folks read our thinking into scripture and we assume they thought just like we do.  But we have absorbed two thousand years of human history, which shapes our thinking, just at that Greek person had two thousand years of thinking before them.

Now back to my topic. The first time I remember hearing the term "natural" was when my Navigator leader was selling Shaklee Vitamins to supplement his income. There was nothing inherently wrong with a MLM scheme in this case.  But he told me that Shaklee vitamins were better than other vitamins because they came from a natural source.  I was studying medicine at the time and my background had been in the natural sciences, so this didn't make sense to me. I remember saying to him, "So, ascorbic acid is ascorbic acid and it doesn't matter if it was created in a test tube by combining carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in the right order of C6H8O6, or if it were made by an orange in Florida."

He chuckled and looked over his reading glasses . . . "There is a huge difference where it comes from. We are natural so we should take from nature not from chemicals.  Natural is much better for us than chemicals."

I continued to argue, "But C6H8O6 is the exactly the same no matter if it came into the lab as a bottle of pure oxygen, a cake of pure carbon and a bottle of pure hydrogen and then mixed under the eye of a skilled chemist or, if those same elements are mixed inside the cell of an orange tree. They are exactly the same."

He seemed a little puzzled that I was continuing this argument as no one else in his years of selling the stuff had made such an argument. Secondly he was surprised, I believe, because we were taught never, ever to question the knowledge or authority of our spiritual leader. Then he decided to rest his case by saying, "Well the real difference are the trace compounds that come with natural sourced vitamin C than that made by a man.  These are the essentials of good health."

Now I was perplexed. "What trace compounds?"

He smiled and answered, "They have no names because they haven't been labeled or discovered yet, but we know they are there and they come along with vitamins from natural sources and are essential for good health."

Then it finally dawned on me what he was really talking about . . . Pixie Dust!  But I too rested my case because the last thing I ever wanted to do was to disappoint my spiritual leader by being a trouble maker.

But the terms "natural" "supernatural" and "chemical" are philosophical terms and have absolutely no base in science or reality.  The term "natural" is the number one handle on Madison Ave. for selling products with the second most seducing word is "thin" and the third is "young" and fourth "sex."  These are emotional terms built on a long course of philosophical evolution.

I'm running out of time and space but I will try to put some origins on this. But it is hard to nail it down, about as hard as trying to nail down the exact starting point of the Mississippi.  I know people in Minnesota who claim they have . . . but there are people near the continental divide in Montana that would disagree. But I will go back to these roots with my next post and trace them down to the present.

I will close this opening thought with the notion that sooner or later Christianity will merge with "natural" philosophy. Christianity always merges with other philosophies even though the New Testament extorted Christians not to. But there will be a Natural Christianity.  My Evangelical friends on Facebook already argue that eating organic, natural foods is God's will for everyone. So the thoughts of my Nav leader 30 years ago is still mainstream.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Steamroller Blues -- And Novocain for the Soul

I'm not an artist, but I wish I were. I'm not an artist but I think like one . . . or should I say, I feel like one.  My hallmark as even a young kid was that I felt things deeply. I do feel things deeply, both elation and the depths of pain. I wish I had been born a poet where I could express these things but I'm an emotional mute. But sometimes "feeling deeply" is a significant liability and must be shed or numbed.

James Taylor is an artist and a poet.  He makes a reference in his song Steam Roller Blues that I wish to hang my hat on. He wrote this song in the midst of her personal dark years (or so I believe) where he was injecting heroin.  In the song he speaks of injecting someone's soul with sweet rock and roll.  He was far too familiar with injecting.  But the reason that people inject, snort, smoke is usually to numb their feelings from things that have become unbearable.

I just finished a road trip from Seattle to Minneapolis. During this trip we listened to the book Into Thin Air. It is a personal account of a disastrous climbing expedition on Mount Everest by Jon Krakauer.  It was his attempts to tell an amazing story that needed to be told, but also his emotional exercise as a journalistic cathartic and in a spiritual penitence.  He made one statement that was paramount in his emotional journey.  On May 11th 1996, the day after the worst day of the cataclysm, after about six friends had died in horrible deaths, he self-observed that he was in this strange place of total detachment.  It was wired. But it was s self-protective defense system of the brain, where the autopilot takes over and makes us and the world in which we live . . . totally inert as a two dimensional black and white drawing of stick figures.

There is a time that injecting the soul with Novocain has its place.  I choose to do this at this time, not a chemical blockade but an emotional one.  Today I experienced the last in a string of losses and I don't want to feel anymore. I inject my soul, willingly, not as a automatic self defense measure of the brain.  I could feel if I wanted . . . but this time I don't.  This year I feel I have drank of sorrows like they were being shot out of a fire hose and I am weary. But these sorrows are normal. It is part of the terrain of growing older in this mortal life.  These are not even in the same league as those I mentioned a few weeks ago when I talked about the lady loosing her daughter and my friend who has had a Jobian season.

But I pity most, more so than the aforementioned sufferers, are those who have an IV stuck right into their hearts, where there is a perpetual dripping of Novocain, injecting their souls to keep them in a constant state of numbness.  Some of these people entered the stunned world at a point like Krakauer, where the pain was so overbearing that they choose to never feel again.  But the really sad ones who were born with congenital catheter for reasons which are not clear . . . genetics?  Taught by a numb mother, perhaps?  These are people who live robotically and never feel.

So, this time I smile and I don't suppress the pain . . . I simply choose not to feel it.  I think there is a healthy place for this approach, while standing on guard that the Novocain would take hold . . . entrapping me into its icy grave.