Archive for March, 2011

Lent is an introspective time aimed at repentance (turning ourselves around) and growing in closeness to God. Lent is thus a good time (among other times) to think about hurts and sadness that can arise whenever we are part of a congregation.

Congregations can be easy places to get our feelings hurt. I’d guess this happens in congregations of different religions, but I know for sure it happens in churches. The following thoughts aren’t meant to be comprehensive, address comparatively small problems that can seem big, and don’t reflect any particular church or situation.

It’s easy to understand why we’d get our feelings hurt in church. We come there not only to worship but also to find support, friendship, and guidance. We also come to church to find opportunities to serve. But there is an emotional vulnerability to these things. If we need support (for instance, someone to call on us when we’re sick or bereaved), we can feel disappointed, even betrayed if the support isn’t forthcoming. People have stopped attending church when they didn’t feel “missed” after a period of time.

In the case of service: we look forward to offering our talents to God through service. But if we’re criticized, or if our talents are spurned in some way (or not needed), we potentially feel disappointed and unvalued. Again, we feel emotionally vulnerable because we stepped out–sometimes out of our comfort zones–in order to grow in our relationship with God, and thus we’re prone to hurt feelings.

You may simply feel that a church was rude to you, the way a store or restaurant offers indifferent or peremptory service. Sometimes, you might just get a church staff person or a volunteer who is disorganized, has imperfect “people skills,” is neglectful about returning phone calls, and so on. Churches are places of worship but they’re still very human organizations that are welcoming and attentive, or have room to grow.

Congregations experience change and have “seasons.” People we care about move away, and then the congregation seems lonely rather than fulfilling. Sometimes we feel sad in church because people we loved (including pastors and other staff) moved away, and we realize that, in certain respects, our spiritual well-being depended upon a certain pastor’s preaching emphases, a musician’s tastes in music, a youth leader’s charisma, or just the special caring that you received from that previous person who has now moved on.

As a Facebook friend commented after I first posted this essay, one thing we can do is to focus in church on worship, the way God may be speaking through the service and music, and generally to have the person and work of Christ at the forefront of our hearts and minds. Hurt feelings can be a way we focus on ourselves, however, valid though our feelings may be. So, as we refocus our hearts and minds concerning worship, we may start to see other aspects of congregational life with a different perspective.

I found a few internet sites that addresses the problem of hurt feelings: for instance, http://www.gotquestions.org/hurt-by-church.html, which helpfully points out that “The pain caused by a church is a ‘silent killer'”, in the sense that these hurts dig deeply into one’s soul and poison a person’s heart. The author urges us to examine ourselves to see what really is causing the hurt: the behavior or incident on which we’re focusing, or some other, earlier pain that is the true source of the hurt. The author notes suggests that we guard our hearts and attitudes (citing Proverbs 4:23), focus upon being humble and never vengeful (Prov. 3:34, James 4:6), and also focus upon being forgiving (Matt. 18:22, Mark 11:27, Rom. 12:19, Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:1: all these are the author’s citations). Certainly we should rely upon God’s love and power (Matt. 28:20, Eph. 3:16), as noted there.

Another site–which I read a while ago and, when I find it again, I’ll post it here—quoted that remarkable story in John 5, where Jesus healed the paralyzed man. The story is remarkable in part because of Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” (vs. 6), and his command, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (vs. 14). In the first case, the man’s 38-year infirmity makes the question seem absurd, while the command of vs. 14 seems to minimize the man’s decades-long suffering. But the point is: we can become so used to hurts–both psychological and physical–that we stop knowing how to function without them! We begin to surround our personal identity around that pain. If your pain has resulted from a hurt at church, it can keep you bitter, unforgiving, and separated from church fellowship for many years.

Still another site, http://www.victorious.org/leavechu.htm (content by Dale A. Robbins) also has several ideas if you’re unhappy at a certain congregation. One caveat I have with this author’s list is the contention that worship and preaching styles are always “shallow, external things.” After reading Corinne Ware’s Discover Your Spiritual Type (Alban Institute, 1995), I think that a person can feel sad and disconnected at a church because of issues of style, not because they’re shallow issues but because we all have different “learning styles” in our spirituality. Ware points out that people can feel unhappy for years in a congregation because they are “mismatched” spiritually. But understanding one’s “spiritual type” does require self-honesty and self-examination, and those things are important for Robbins, too, in this article.

Hurt feelings aren’t just a matter of one’s personal introspection and Spirit-led growth, although those things go a very long way. I think our congregations have a responsibility to become places that respond compassionately to hurting people. For instance, church folk may scoff a bit at people’s need for affirmation. We say, “He was too sensitive,” or “She just needs to grow up!” or “He wants to serve because of his emotional needs rather than self-giving motives.” But when we talk like that, we betray how much our congregations have accommodated themselves to the cultural rather than biblical values. But the Bible call us to accept one another and to build one another up (Eph. 4:11-16).

The apostle Paul actually takes the side of people whose faith are struggling at things we might consider irrelevant! 1 Corinthians 8 deals with the issue of eating food to idols. Some Corinthians ate this food, rightly arguing that since the gods represented by idols don’t exist, then there is no reason not to eat the food. But others had scruples about such things and were hurt in their faith when their friends ate this food. Paul comes down on the side of the hurt people! “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he writes there, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak… when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”

Romans 14:1-4 is a good, related passage: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul wants us to care for one another, no matter where we are in terms of emotional maturity, spiritual development, or whatever. Paul urges the Galatians to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), even though we all must also “carry [our] own loads” (6:5). He writes earlier, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:14-15).

I admit that Paul’s vision can be very difficult to implement in a congregation: it takes a lot of love, transformation, patience, and leadership committed not just to specific ministries but also to growing the sense of love and mutuality in that congregation. Paul’s vision in 1 Corinthians 8, in fact, makes me uncomfortable, because you can see how a person who is weak in his or her faith could force people to accommodate their needs and thus never grow or confront their own faith-weaknesses. Paul does, however, call us not only to uphold those of us who are weak (or hurt because of some comparatively minor situation) but also to avoid quarreling and situations that would upset church fellowship.

We need to always remember that church people are human and imperfect. It’s not just that “the church is full of hypocrites,” as the saying goes. The church is full of people at different stages of spiritual and emotional maturity, and that will always be the case—and you’re one of those people! Pastors and other staff members may be your leaders in a congregation, but they’re flawed, have annoying habits, have areas of immaturity, misunderstand things, and fail—just like you. Also: if your feelings were hurt, remember that all church people are not only human, but they can’t just “know” that you’re upset. If someone has hurt your feelings try to address the situation constructively if you can, as the articles I mentioned earlier advise. If you think you must “church shop,” do so prayerfully and without rancor. (Again, in all these non-comprehensive reflections, I’m talking about those conflicts and misunderstandings in churches that are more comparatively minor “in the big scheme of things”—e.g., people forgot to check on you when you were sick, or someone was cross with you, or you prefer communion in cups but the church switched to intinction, etc.—or which have to do with a prayerful sense of how you grow spiritually and your compatibility with a particular congregation. But “the little things” do become big problems, in our hearts or in churches or both.)

I think the cultivation of a sense of humor should be a requirement in discipleship programs and new member classes! There will always be shortsighted thinking, differences of opinion and practice, frustrations, and human foibles in congregations. You might as well accept that fact up front and above all remember that you and the rest of the “gang” are people whom God loves! But God wants our joy to be full (John 15:11).

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Old—really old—movies are so fascinating.  I’m just beginning to discover some of them as I flip through the weekly lineup on Turner Classic Movies.  I was going to write about the compelling new restoration of Metropolis, which I saw on TCM and then purchased on DVD, but not surprisingly I found good reviews online, like http://deepintomovies.blogspot.com/2010/07/film-review-metropolis-1927.html and http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=7652, plus Roger Ebert’s review at his website.

Recently, TCM showed the 1920 silent film Within Our Gates. I saw the end of this film a few years ago, as I was flipping through channels and came to a disturbing image of a black man being hanged. Eventually the channel showed the movie again and I got to see the whole story, which concerns a black woman trying to raise money for a school; but a man who loves her accidentally learns her shocking past.  To say this movie pushed the envelope in 1920 is an understatement. Writer Patrick McGilligan, in his biography of director Oscar Micheaux, writes “Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s most explicit rebuttal to D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation….Even the new title was a reference to the epigraph that introduced Griffith’s 1919 film, A Romance of Happy Valley: ‘Harm not the stranger/Within your gates/Lest you yourself be hurt.’…” (p. 137).  Here is an article about the film and filmmaker: http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/vol3/micheaux/micheaux.html

Coincidentally, the same week as TCM showed Within Our Gates, my daughter had to write a report about an 1800s play, “The Octoroon,” about a light-skinned black woman and a white man in love.  It seemed like a good time to get out McGilligan’s biography which I’d purchased but hadn’t yet read.  Micheaux (1884-1951) was the first African American to produce a full-length film; in fact, he also directed and wrote films as well as a few novels. Among Micheaux’s several films this is the earliest that has survived. McGilligan writes, “Micheaux was a unique storyteller, using film methods that were as idiosyncratic and modern-minded as anything being tried in Hollywood at that time. One of his unusual techniques was repeating scenes from different subjective viewpoints to reveal the crucial missing pieces of a puzzle.” In the case of this film, for instance, the killing of the landowner is twice shown, once to tell the basic story and again to show the truth about the killing (p. 142).

TCM has also shown The Symbol of the Unconquered from 1920. This films concerns a black man who owns land on which oil is discovered, but racists–including a black man who passes for white–try to intimidate him out of his land. “Micheaux’s central motif” in this story, as in other films, “was ‘passing,’ and the sexual tension that transpires between a man and a woman of seemingly different races torn by their love for each other.” Unfortunately the film is now incomplete and is missing compelling scenes, like the defeat of the Klan!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a complete or nearly-complete copy could be found, similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years ago!  (Several of Micheaux’s films are no longer extant.)  But even in both the complete and fragmentary scenes of Symbol, McGilligan notes that one can see Micheaux’s knowledge of German Expressionist style and avant-garde film techniques (pp. 155-156).

Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, not Fritz Lang’s visionary city but the historic Illinois town near which I once lived.  That Metropolis honors Superman but I don’t know if it honors Micheaux, who nevertheless moved away when he was 20.  Micheaux isn’t so well known today but awareness of his work is growing, and he has become recognized as a pioneering figure. His films give us a truthful look at race relations of the early 20th century. In fact, Micheaux realized he was not going to get rich making provocative films with racial themes, often banned in certain parts of the county like the South, and yet he continued to churn them out, using favorite actors, financing his own efforts, and living a life of drama, showmanship, and conflict as he addressed censors and racial barriers.

McGilligan’s biography traces Micheaux’s interesting career and provides information about Micheaux’s lost and extant films. The author writes on page 3, “Indeed, Micheaux was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law.”

(After I posted this short piece, I was alerted to this website:  http://www.staceengland.com)

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Immediately following my seminary program, I was pastor of three small churches in for two years. The churches were located fifteen miles from the nearest village with a grocery store, about a half-hour from more substantial towns with hospitals and larger retail stores. “Why don’t you move to the country?” a visiting friend teased. I had a six-room parsonage to myself, with a pretty fence row, a silver-blue propane tank beneath which rabbits napped, a lawn large enough for two or three hours of push-mowing, tall shade trees which let through the light, and steep concrete steps where I could sit and look at my neighbor’s white-faced cattle, his pastures, the larger of the three churches (and its great old tree), and a landmark hill in the near distance. I heard birds call in the early morning and cows bawling late at night, and sometimes a coyote.

I’d say I was “fresh from seminary,” but freshness implies some sense of quality, and newly graduated seminarians (at least in my case) are fortified with excellent studies and a beginning amount of practical knowledge, but not yet the broader experience necessary to move knowledge on to the biblical gift of wisdom. What I had was a spirit of love and service and an openness to learn. I was also painfully unsure of myself, a quality I tried to put to work as empathetic leadership. Someone once said that serving God is like jumping off a cliff. You hold out your hands, knowing that God is holding them, and you jump. Perhaps you won’t know where you may come down, only that you will. I came down in a very wonderful place and, upon landing, injured myself on the second day when I cut my left thumb badly while preparing supper. I barely had furniture yet, let alone bandages, or directions to a health care center (since I should’ve had stitches). I ambled to the home of the elderly couple (church members) up the road. They’d have Band Aids, I thought. Two hours later, I walked home, bandaged and fortified with locally-grown watermelon and sherbet and two new friends. I still have the scar on my thumb, the closest thing to a stigmata I’ll ever have, and it reminds me of all those wonderful friendships I made before leaving to marry and pursue doctoral work. Some of those folks are dead now, like that couple; others still live in the area and we still keep in touch. I gained from that parish a lifelong appreciation of the laity; after doctoral work, for instance, I realized I was happier writing for church lay audiences rather than for academics, my original goal.

Most of my experiences during those two years are, because pastoral, confidential. But one aspect of my time at that parish was collecting classical recordings, especially opera. I browsed mall stores, used record shops, and mail order brochures. In Willa Cather’s story “The Wagner Matinee,” a farm lady is taken by her nephew to a Boston concert of Wagner’s music and, afterward and deeply moved, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her everyday rural life. I understood the feeling but since I had the benefit of recorded music, my rural life and my new passion for music enriched one another.

I had a reason for my unintentionally highbrow hobby. During my last year of seminary, I lived next door to a church organist, a good fellow more cosmopolitan than I. He disliked Italian opera, like Verdi and Rossini (he’d mockingly hum the opening piano of the Petite Messe Solennelle ), but he loved English music, Mozart, and Wagner. “Now, Stroble,” he said one day, when I wanted over to his room, “this is called the ‘Wagner chord,'” and he played the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, turned up to Led Zeppelin level, where the themes of romantic passion and death are established in the unresolved dissonances of the music and the use of harmonic suspension. My friend (who was my best man a few years later) went on to inform me the innovativeness of this particular chord (difficult to assign to a particular key), Wagner’s advancements in tonality and chromaticism, and the way he used fragments of melody to depict psychological states and themes of an opera’s plot, so that whenever someone sings, the orchestra establishes more about them than the actual words sung.  If I remember correctly, it was my friend who identified motifs from Tannhäuser and Die Walküre in the cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”

A collector of rock and jazz albums, but untrained in music beyond childhood piano lessons and high school band, I found this all fascinating and wanted to discover more.  My friend and I attended a choral concert one evening. Among the pieces was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of the Burns poem “Ca’ the Yowes.”  The chorus and the ethereal young soprano came together to make the hair on my neck stand up.

While waters wimple to the sea,
While day blinks in the lift sae hie,
Till clay-cauld death sall blin’ my e’e,
Ye sall be my dearie….

From then on, I wanted to see if other kinds of classical music would do the same. I wanted to find more music that could deeply touch my heart.

While still in school, I started my “quest” by visiting the record store in a corner of Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, CT (http://www.deadmalls.com/malls/chapel_square_mall.html).  I’ve pleasant memories of the store where I found Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Karajan, Don Giovanni, conducted by Karl Böhm, and also an LP of Mozart’s marches and dances, plus a record called “The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Vaughan Williams’ double last name confused me and I looked for his music in the W’s.  I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that Mozart interested me because my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, played Mozart every day; checking out Mozart for that reason seems like such a dumb-graduate-student thing to do.  My friend liked the scene “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco,” where Don Juan, confronted by the Stone Guest, is confronted with his sins, urged to repent, and is dragged to Hell. That scene was affecting when played very loudly, as my friend enjoyed doing after I brought the LPs back to the dorms.

Once graduated from seminary and established at my three-point charge, I read up on music and acquired several recordings.  Some were classics of the LP era: Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Rudolf Kempe, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Der fliegende Holländer. I also purchased Böhm’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. I diverted from my friends’ tastes when I found some Verdi in used LP stores and mail order outlets: Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Toscanini’s Falstaff, and Otello with Jon Vickers.  I also bought an old set of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and, oh horrors, a used copy of the Petite Messe Solennelle, which I enjoyed. I passed over a new LP set of what later became a favorite: Puccini’s Turandot with Sutherland, Caballé, and Pavarotti. One day at the parsonage I had Marriage of Figaro turned up loud so I could listen as I raked leaves outside. The first act concluded with the aria “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,” where Figaro sends the annoying Cherubino off to “victory and glory in war!’ Just then a long V of geese flew over, making their own victory sign. It was one of those wonderful little moments when happy, small things coincide unexpectedly and memorably.

Eventually I purchased (used or new) LP sets of most of Wagner’s operas, even the Furtwängler and Solti recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen. By the end of my pastorate I’d also found discount recordings of the 1953 (but then newly released) Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss, now recognized as one of the greatest versions. Of course, the whole 16-hour drama begins with one E-flat chord, sustained over 64 bars, depicting the depths of the Rhine River, then journeys among hundreds of themes until Brunnhilde sings her long aria at the end of Götterdämmerung, throws the ring into the Rhine and leaps with her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre. I liked to play the whole thing over periods of days, although in my loneliness at the parsonage, I found the operas emotionally draining. I was overwhelmed by the orchestra’s depiction of the bellows and flames of Siegfried’s forge (more self consciously dramatic in the Solti recording than any other); I’d never heard such music.  I was also knocked over by the the orchestral conclusion of Götterdämmerung. If I want a good cry, I just play that section, not just because of Wagner’s music but because it reminds me so strongly of this special time in my life. The famous “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser has nearly the same effect.

Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden,
er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden!
Vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang,
drum preis’ ich Gott mein Lebelang.
Halleluja in Ewigkeit!

(The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
Hell and death cannot frighten him,
therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!)

….but so does the end of Die Walküre in the Krauss recording (with Hans Hotter as Wotan). Wotan’s heartache:

Denn einer nur freie die Braut,
der freier als ich, der Gott!   (For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!)

….and his threatening authority, in the closing words:

Wer meines Speeres
Spitze fürchtet,
durchschreite das Feuer nie! (Whoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire.)

I could list other examples.

Although I loved my work at the parish and the dear people, I disliked living alone, and I missed my seminary friends who, like me, had scattered around the country. Somehow a “journey” of musical discovery helped me deal with my loneliness.  When I started dating an old friend in another town and then when we became engaged, the loneliness grew, so the music became more comforting and interesting. But I also wanted to learn; learning for its own sake was important to me then and now. Discovering new (to me) kinds of music, broadening my taste so to speak, was important as I simultaneously learned to be a good pastor and caught up on reading delayed by the busyness of my seminary program. I might have waited a few years and purchased operas on CDs, recently introduced at that time, but I liked vinyl, and still do.

I also explored Benjamin Britten’s operas, although his music had a depth beyond my abilities to understand and fully appreciate. I found Owen Wingrave, The Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice, Albert Herring, and others. I need to revisit his music again sometime. When I saw his opera Peter Grimes in a used record store–that uninteresting, white cover of the composer-conducted 1959 recording–I snatched it up and was quite overwhelmed by the music and drama. His music didn’t quite stir me the same way until I found the War Requiem (its cover uninteresting and black) a few years later.  But I did send an appreciative letter to Peter Pears who, during the last year of his life, kindly wrote back on a postcard.

On trips to visit parishioners in the hospital, I listened to the two classical stations of the area.  One of those stations had a long retrospective on Glenn Gould—whom I’d never heard of—when he died.  I enjoyed Karl Haas’ daily music features, “Adventures in Good Music.” I miss those programs. One evening, as I was driving after dark after a hospital visit, the “Adventures” show featured Eric Satie’s music, and Haas concluded the program with “Gymnopedie I.” I listened dreamily to the peaceful music: a piece I’d heard somewhere over the years but hadn’t known what it was. Suddenly I was frantically swerving, trying to stay on the road. A deer has strolled into my headlights. … I bumped its butt with the right fender, which may have injured it but it went off into the woods. Depressed at hurting the deer, I drove slowly home, white-knuckled, “Gymnopedie I” floating away.

I liked the Saturday broadcasts from the Met. I liked Fr. Owen Lee’s commentaries and wondered if I might ever become so knowledgeable. (The answer is “no,” but I still enjoyed his insights!) Back then I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a receiver from which I recorded some operas like Parsifal. Parisfal was fascinating to listen to. I waited for the last chord of the prelude to resolve, but next comes Gurnemanz—

He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr,
Schlafhüter mitsammen,
so wacht doch mindest am Morgen. 
(Hey! Ho! Forest guardians you, and sleeping guardians at that.  At least wake up with the morning.)

—The prelude ends on a chord that does not resolve! Of course, I thought of my friend and his explanation of Wagner’s innovations in tonality. The desolate third-act prelude is, I’ve read, even more tonally innovative.

One year, the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcast was Tristan und Isolde—but it was Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t yet be with my family because I had to preach the next morning. I don’t know why I listened to the opera anyway, since I was already blue. It seems like Figaro or one of Donizetti’s comedies would’ve been a cheerier choice for Christmas Eve… but, as they say, nobody asked me about it beforehand.

I never became an opera fanatic, despite what this piece may imply. After I left the area I found the 1953 LP of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony in a used record store and realized—as I explored more of his music, several years after I’d purchased that collection of shorter pieces at Chapel Square Mall–that I’d found the composer closest to my heart. So my essay about Vaughan Williams, elsewhere in this blog, continues this modest story, as well as my amateur (the word is French for “lover of”) essays about Mozart, Verdi, and other composers.

I still love to listen to and read about opera and appreciating contemporary singers like Natalie Dessay, Anna Netrebko, Nicole Cabell, Bryn Terfel, Elīna Garanča, and others.  Just this past week, during a visit to Manhattan, I walked up to Lincoln Center’s gift shop and purchased some CDs and DVDs.  I found the DVD of the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute, which my family and I saw at the Met a few years ago. As if I needed another set of the Ring, I also purchased the widely-praised 1955 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Joseph Keilberth, recorded for the first time that year in stereo but not released until recently. As for books: some time ago I found the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee; if I’d had this fascinating book at my little parish, I might’ve gotten nothing else done!

Even more felicitous, my daughter is a technical theatre major and has had occasion to work for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis! This past year she worked on the productions of Eugene Onegin and the new Willy Wonka opera The Golden Ticket. Although we don’t know which productions she’ll work this coming summer the theatre is daringly staging John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as Don Giovanni, The Daughter of the Regiment, and Pelléas and Mélisande. She learns about aspects of opera far beyond my own modest home listening and theatre-going.  Her former choir, the Summit Choral Society, toured Europe a few years ago, and we enjoyed visiting Bach’s Eisenach home, Schubert’s Vienna home, and Mozart’s house in Prague.

An opera book I’ve enjoyed is Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Koestenbaum’s interesting connections of identity, desire, and music. I realized that another aspect of my “quest” for music was the sense of place, one of my own strong sources of desire and identity. I’ve written about that sense in some of my other essays, but I should think about that more. Are there cognitive and neurological insights that link music, emotion, companionship, and the feeling of being at home? I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out–and so these thoughts are, in pale reflection of Wagner’s mastery, unresolved and developing.  But I know that the music I’ve mentioned here never fails to take me back to that three point charge, that little parsonage along the state highway, way out in the country, when so many good things in my life were just beginning.


For Jim

(This essay originally appeared in a different form in Springhouse magazine.)

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My mother remembers that, when I was young, I was a bit of a slob. She was startled that I kept my first house pretty tidy. She saw no evidence in my childhood of this sudden expression of cleanliness. I’m sure that, like most children, I didn’t have good housekeeping skills. But children aren’t automatically neat; they have to be taught, encouraged, and bullied into this habit, and perhaps the training will someday take effect. It did with me.

Since my wife has a demanding job with very long days, I try to care for the house. We also have a professional cleaning service, but there are always dishwashing, picking-up, laundry, waste-basket-emptying, and other daily chores between the cleaning team’s visits. Much of my own professional work–commissioned writing, other writing projects, and preparation for college classes–is done at home. So my mind and heart are divided among the work I need to do…. and washing bath towels. I do like this saying of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, which has become a motto for me: “If you hold your head in the air and think great thoughts when you should be doing the obvious chores in life, the great thoughts won’t come.” I’ve known colleagues who impose upon underlings chores that they should at least occasionally shoulder, if for no other reason than to keep their heads level to the earth.

One’s house becomes messiest when one has less time to devote to it, which dampens one’s enthusiasm for the work. But keeping house can be therapeutic, too. When I’m downhearted or have a problem I can’t yet fix, I’ll go through the house and “pick up.” I’ll strip and make the beds. I’ll even tidy up the basement, always low on the list of household priorities. Cleaning house gives me a mild sense of control, of being in charge.

We’re cat people, so part of housekeeping entails cleaning abandoned fur. Our little buddy Domino shed with impunity; considering all the white and black hair on the floor, I marveled that he wasn’t bald. Our other cat Oddball, and our present cat Taz, shed much less; at least there aren’t many “tumbleweeds” of cat hair beneath furniture and along baseboards.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke felt an overwhelming sense of wonder at his furniture as he polished it. “I felt moved, as though something were happening, something, to tell the truth, which was not purely superficial but immense, and which touched my very soul. I was an emperor washing the feet of the poor, or Saint Bonaventure, washing dishes in his convent.” The humility of his work, the goodness of work, gave him a spiritual sense of glory. I wish I felt that way more often when I’ve my bottle of “Homer Formby” in one hand and a rag in the other!

There is a popular conception of Benedictine spirituality that links work and prayer (but see http://www.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard1.html).  I’ve tried praying while housecleaning, but it’s more difficult (for me) to focus upon intercessory petitions. Sometimes I can do the next best thing: getting my mind in a prayerful sense of peace instead of a regretful ingratitude for everyday chores.

I remember my great-aunt Ruth kept her house spotless. If she was reading a book, she put it back on the shelf rather than leaving it out. Those habits gave her satisfaction. I used to marvel at that, but I’m becoming that way more and more. Being proactive saves time later. But one of the hazards of a very busy life is that one forgets what tasks lie ahead, so I usually have a few neat piles of projects at hand. For instance, right now I’ve our tax materials in a pile as I do computations to give to our preparer. Writing projects, books to read, bills to pay, form piles placed strategically around the house. You know you’re too busy when you dust and clean around those piles from week to week!

Having one’s house on the market provides an element of stress to housekeeping. If no one but you sees the house, you can keep it as tidy as you want, with elbowroom for imperfection. But if strangers are scheduled to traipse through your house, with the aim of purchasing the house, you feel like you have to pick up more diligently, lest the potential buyers say, “Well, it’s not very clean, so I’ll offer a few thousand dollars less.” One time I had to rent a storage room for a couple months when a realtor grumbled about a few storage plastic boxes, kept in the basement, which would detract from a nice presentation.

Or, insidiously, you fear the censure of people who may disapprove of your skills as a housekeeper, as if that reflected upon your character.

We do fear coming up short, even as we avoid elusive perfection. As Wendell Berry puts it, “One is afraid that there will be no rest until the work is finished and the house is in order, and the arm is in order, the town is in order, and all loved ones are well.”

Perhaps that was the problem of Martha, in that famous Gospel story of her and the contemplative Mary. Jesus did not correct Martha’s work, or her desire to work hard, but rather her fearfulness and fretfulness. That Christ doesn’t go over our work with a white glove, but instead looks to the place and the peace of one’s heart, is something all busy housekeepers can happily ponder.


Several years ago, the comedian George Carlin had a routine about one’s “stuff.” when one checks into a motel, one puts one’s “stuff” in a certain place and says proudly, “This is my stuff!” Everything else in the room belongs to someone else but this stuff is mine! We like to be in the presence of our own things, our own keepsakes, kept for the sake of beauty, memories, pride of ownership or whatever. We keep them, and keep them clean, like we keep a promise. Our “stuff” gives us a sense of identity. My and my family’s house, for instance, contains antiques from my hometown.

But how do you keep control over your stuff? Years ago I loved to watch The Mike Douglas Show. One afternoon, two actors visiting the show, a man and a woman, performed an excerpt from a play, essentially a bickering couple. I didn’t catch the beginning, but what I heard was, to me, loud and obnoxious. Afterward, Mike Douglas said that the play was by Noel Coward. I thought, impressed, “Oh! Noel Coward!” Then in the next instant I thought: “Why did I not like the play, but then did like it when I learned that the author is famous and respected?” Nothing about the play had changed. I knew more about the play, though.

I thought a couple years ago as I sorted our belongings in preparation for a move. I had ten bookshelves of books in our finished basement.  Prior to the move, I pulled all the books that I thought I’d not read or use and donated them to the local library’s book fair. Now I’m down to the essential books, I thought. But just a week before we moved, I went through the bookshelves again and pulled six more medium-sized boxes of books and donated them, too. Why had I earlier thought those books were essential? Nothing had changed except my attitude about how much “stuff” I want to own.

Similarly with other belongings. I’ve sold or donated items that, not so long ago, were keepsakes. But with the move imminent, we just didn’t need that stuff anymore. Emily sorted through her large collection of stuffed toys, for instance, and gave away about three-fourths. A year ago, though, she didn’t want to part with any.

What makes a keepsake? We have some kind of experience or association with that object, or else it wouldn’t be important in the first place. Time is a big factor too: how fresh can that association/experience remain over the long haul? Value may or may not be a factor: given the choice between Grandma’s wedding ring and a plastic commemorative cup from a Ice Capades, one has both emotional and monetary value while the other is purely a cheap souvenir. Yet, if not forced to make a choice, we might hold onto both and cherish them in different ways because of their particular associations.

What makes a difference, though, is quantity: what if you have too many keepsakes? That’s where some people fall into the trap of clutter: their homes are packed with things they hate to discard because, for whatever reason, they’re meaningful items. Moving, inconvenient and emotionally disruptive though it is, becomes an excellent time to judge what are your more precious keepsakes. Grandma’s ring stays; your favorite books stay; favorite knickknacks are carefully packed; but other things can be moved on. The difficult process of relocating your household can give you a change of attitude and, in some ways, makes you freer to enjoy your precious memories in a “lighter” way.

Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive.

Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent, “much and quick” culture. (As an aside, I think churches also succumb to “much and quick” thinking when, in an attempt to evangelize and minister, they expand facilities too quickly and cultivate an attitude of impatience and false urgency in their programs.) Abundance isn’t bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it. Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensate pleasure. But, as Morris surveys biblical passages, the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13), craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition.

On the other hand, he tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy.

Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may plant the seed; on the other hand, we may feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message on money. We may also have to catch the vision of living “non-possessively” through life experience. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we’ll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations. In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We “grow” a heart for the needy. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other and ourselves…. over bananas.


Vaughan Williams is quoted in Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London, 1980), 234-235.

Rilke is quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), 70-71.

Wendell Berry’s quote is from his book What Are People For? (San Francisco, 1990), 12.

Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), 140-149.

(The first half of this essay first appeared in Springhouse magazine and in my book Journeys Home. The second half first appeared at my other blog, “Journeys Home,” paulstroble.blogspot.com.)

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Over the winter break, my daughter’s car needed repairs.  I sighed when the service department called and discussed the needed work; the cost exceeded the car’s value. It was a gold 2002 Saab 9 3 purchased when we lived in Ohio, and a good first car for her to drive around her college town and to travel home for breaks. She used that car for her 50 hours of driving instruction and another 50 hours practice-driving. We remember the difficulty of concocting bogus errands (e.g., visiting an ice cream place in another community) to use up the 50 hours. I was a “jumpy” instructor but I tried to think of experiences where she could learn how to merge, to pass, and other challenges, while building confidence.

For a trade-in, we got her a red 2005 Saab 9 3 Aero. She laments that, now, even more classmates will be hitting her up for rides. Of course, as we transferred seat covers, the GPS, CDs, and other items from one car to the other, we all felt wistful that a service appointment for the old car had unexpectedly led to its replacement. On the other hand, the number of necessary repairs and replacements for the car were lessening the pleasure of driving it.

My first car was a 1963 Chevy. In his book The Ferrari in the Bedroom, the humorist Jean Shepherd tells the story of “Lillian,” an old car which swore at him (the transmission had a repetitive noise that sounded like an oath) as he tooled up U.S. 41. My unnamed car was friendlier than the resentful Lillian, but no prettier. Only ten years old the year I got my license, the car had a serviceable, box-like body, a rusting underside, and a thin coat of rust on the hood and roof. It had no AC, of course. It had a poor AM radio and a hole in the floorboard. The stick shift, which emerged from the steering column, took a little effort. It wasn’t my car, but my mother’s; the title was in her name. My dad’s stepfather had owned it, and when he could no longer drive he gave the car to my mother, who had done him and my grandmother many selfless favors.

I learned to drive in that car, when I was 14 or 15. A clear stretch of Illinois 185 east of Vandalia seemed a good place for Dad to teach me. Dad was a truck driver, he knew driving. Generous and eager to help, he could also be imperious and impatient, and he made me hurt and nervous as he taught things I did remember:

Never let out the clutch too quickly; you’ll kill the engine.
Never ride the clutch, you’ll burn it out.
Always look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before you pass.
Always check your tire inflation and oil, especially before a trip.
Always pull up to the next gas pump so that someone can pull in behind you.
Always top off the tank when filling up; you’ll get more miles. (This is the only one of these things I had to unlearn later.)
Always remember that speed cops hide on interstate entrance ramps.
Always drive the speed limit through Odin, IL, because a state trooper lives there.

An acquaintance read this essay several years ago and declared, “I got pulled over by that same cop in Odin!!!”

Once I got my license, I drove the Chevy for a few years. I don’t think I felt the need for a fancier car; I was quite pleased with the Chevy. I made the car uglier still. I dented the fenders twice trying the master the vagaries of backing-out and turning, once at the IGA and once in the high school parking lot. If my dad was imperious, my mother was fussy and couldn’t understand why I might have to learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again. As I recall, the car needed servicing only once. Some pipe in the engine cracked. We simply drove up to Yarbrough’s auto lot on U.S. 51, found a wreck with a comparable part, and bolted the part on. So simple, compared to the highly technological and electronic aspects of cars today.

One summer I had a girlfriend in Farina, Illinois, several miles down Route 185 in the southeast corner of the county.  My folks hated the thought of me driving to Farina: the busy Illinois 37 crossed 185 near Farina, and many people had been killed at that intersection.  From their anxiety, I had an image of a Road Runner cartoon where the coyote looks both ways at a completely empty highway, and once he steps into the road he’s suddenly flattened by a truck!  When I arrived at the intersection, I found it reasonably safe with clear visibility both ways: not a place for carelessness, but not a death trap, either.   

Without air conditioning, I drove the car with the window down in summertime.  The hot, rushing air blew my long hair. Pollen collected on the worn seats. My feet became dusty from the dry breeze that entered the hole in the floorboard. Once I tried to wax the car, but the finish had long since faded and the paint could no longer shine. For many weeks the hood showed great white circles where the wax had baked hard.

I never drove the car very far: just around the county, and to college during my first year.  The background photo of this blog reminds me of driving west of town to visit a buddy at his family’s farm; during one such trip, the Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica” came on the radio, surely one of the great “on the road” songs!  Eventually Dad traded my old car at Oldfield’s Auto Sales in Vandalia. For the trade he bought me a bright red Dodge two-door with black vinyl seats. I loved the Dodge but, as we drove away, I looked wistfully at the Chevy. In a small town one often sees former cars being driven around by new owners, but we never saw the Chevy again. It probably went to scrap.

Something about our first cars haunts us. My dad remembered his parents’ first car: a 1925 4-door Ford sedan, purchased with seventeen head of cattle from John Eakin in Vandalia. I’ve known people who kept their first cars, caring tenderly for them over the years. Adolescence can be a difficult time, and amid those struggles, one finds solace and pleasure in the ability to drive. Perhaps that is why we don’t forget our first cars. Thinking of my old Chevy reminds me of that special freedom gained as a teenager. It is a freedom which, once acquired, mastered, and then taken for granted, never again seems quite so sweet.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)

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I had David Letterman on TV before I went to bed the other night. The guest, Tom Brokaw, discussed the recent events in Egypt within the context of our “extraordinary period of populist uprisings” since the fall of the Soviet Union, which in turn liberated millions of people and placed eastern European countries “on the right track.” Brokaw noted that “Jeffersonian democracy” and reform hasn’t necessarily taken place following the end of despised regimes. The process has not been smooth in the Philippines, South African, and other countries; Russia has a former KGB agent as president; the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s certainly did not result in a democracy. Years after Saddam’s ouster, Iraq still works toward democracy. In Egypt now, the military is still in control. Brokaw remarked that, when comparing democracies and dictatorships, the differences are qualitative rather than quantitative.

The next day, sitting at my favorite Barnes and Noble cafe, I started with a couple of online articles and then made a little “journey” among other articles. Starting with two religion sources, I found Christianity Today’s blog, where Timothy Morgan reported (Jan. 30, 2011) that one Coptic priest “has expressed his view that Christians should take part in peaceful protests in order to show solidarity with the thousands of Egyptians who are in the streets protesting for President Mubarak to leave office immediately.” Later in the article, the reporter noted that at that time, “It was unclear if evangelical churches in central Cairo were at risk.” (http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/01/egypts_churches_1.html; accessed 2/15/11).

Steven Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century’s blog, meanwhile notes that even though he wants to work for justice, he also prays for justice because his own effects are so small compared to God’s power. On the other hand, when President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast that “we pray that the violence in Egypt will end,” Thorngate wishes Obama would use his tremendous influence to help direct Egyptian events: for instance, “by increasing pressure on …Mubarak to step down immediately—under threat of cutting the rather massive military aid the U.S. sends Egypt’s way.” But however the Egyptian events evolve, a related question, Thorngate notes, is America’s need to get “our own house in order when it comes to human rights,” since America’s “foreign policy is idealistic in rhetoric but pragmatic in fact, and it’s always strategic to pick a winner.” (http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2001-02/praying-egypt-isnt-enough; accessed 2/15/11).

Those comments made me “surf” some more, to a piece Jackie Northam, “Mubarak’s Fall Spurs Calls to Rethink U.S. Policy.” Northam writes, “The U.S. gave unwavering support to Mubarak because, among other things, he backed the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord, considered critical to stabilizing the region. Analysts say that treaty and other U.S.-backed policies enraged Egyptians and many others in the Middle East.” Northam quotes Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs: “People have feelings about American policies–they have very strong feelings…I think we should take those views seriously. It doesn’t mean American policy is going to be determined by Middle Eastern public opinion, but in so far as countries in that region are able to develop credible democracies, the United States is going to have no alternative but to at least respect those opinions, even if it doesn’t necessarily agree with them.” Northam quotes another authority, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, who believes the Middle Eastern public sees the U.S.’s support of Israel and would like the U.S. to treat other Middle Eastern countries the same. Meanwhile, according to Northam’s piece, Israelis have worried about the effect of Middle Eastern peace if the U.S. distances itself from Egypt and Jordan. (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/15/133763952/mubaraks-fall-spurs-calls-for-u-s-policy-rethink; accessed 2/15/11).

That led me to think of a Newsweek cover story, published in the mid-00s about emerging movements for democracy in the Middle East. I don’t have a copy and couldn’t immediately find the article online, but I did find an interesting piece by Niall Ferguson in the current Newsweek, “Wanted: A Grand Strategy for America,” wherein Ferguson sharply criticizes President Obama. When the “revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy” swept Iran in 2009, “he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations.” In the case of Egypt, the President did not support Mubarak (dismaying the Saudis) but also did not lend “support to the youthful revolutionaries” and seek “to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests.” Meanwhile–as Northam noted–Israelis feel insecure what will happen. (http://www.newsweek.co/2011/02/13/wanted-a-grand-stategy-for-america.print.html; accessed 2/15/2011).

I also found another Newsweek piece from last year, by Joshua Kurlantzick, “How Democracy Dies,” subtitled, “A global decline in political freedom is partly the fault of the middle class (March 12, 2010). Kurlantzick notes once the war on terror began, the West shifted attention from 1990s democratization movements. Unfortunately the Iraq war, and its connection to Iraqi democratization, “tainted” democracy among many Middle Easterners. But he also notes that the middle class in developing countries linked democracy with the recent economic downturns and thus have not encouraged democratization. He comments that “on nearly every continent, democracy is sputtering out,” and he names the Philippines, Cambodia, Russia, Venezuela, and Kenya as examples.
(http://www.newsweek.com/2010/03/11/how-democracy-dies.print.html; accessed 2/15/2011). Brokaw’s similar perspective is more hopeful.

An aspect of world movements worth watching is the increasingly widespread use of communication media. Lance Ulanoff’s article in PC Magazine, “What Do Egypt and Jeopardy! Have in Common?” noted the role of social media in the Egyptian protests. Although one can’t really call the protests a “Twitter/Facebook revolution,” since the protests continued after the Egyptian government ended Internet access, the role of social media in the formative stages of revolution are still notable.
(http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2380392,00.asp; accessed 2/15/2011.) In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman has already described the role of the Internet in globalization—scarily, in the recruitment of young men to groups like al-Qaeda. If the events of Egypt develop into a viable democracy, we may see an interestingly “Jeffersonian” aspect of communication technology in globalization.

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The last few years I’ve been exploring works of the contemporary composer Ned Rorem. These thoughts are my very modest attempt at understanding and sharing his works.

Rorem was born in Richmond, IN in 1923. He lived in France from 1949-1958 and wrote about those years in The Paris Diary and The New York Diary. Among his hundreds of works are “Spring Symphony,” “Sunday Morning,” “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” “Eagles,” symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and songs. Many artists and conductors have performed his music, including Bernstein, Ormandy, Previn, mezzo Susan Graham, Itzhak Perlman, and others. Time magazine once called him “the world’s best composer of art songs,” a quote one often sees in any discussion of his music. According to his bio (http://www.nedrorem.com/bio.html) he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for “Air Music,” and also a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. Among many other honors, he won the ASCAP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the French government named him Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Much of Rorem’s music is available. So far I’ve downloaded some of Rorem’s chamber music like “Book of Hours for Flute and Harp,” and also the “String Symphony,” “Sunday Morning,” “Seven Motets for the Church Year,” “Three Motets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins,” “Three Hymn Anthems,” the second piano concerto, and the cello concerto. I also have a CD of Susan Graham’s lovely recording of several songs.

Rorem is well known for his prose writing. The Paris Diary (1966) made Rorem “a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires,” according to Alex Ross in his appreciative article, “The Gentleman Composer: Eighty Years of Ned Rorem” (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/20/031020crmu_music) Rorem has also written essays, a memoir called Knowing When to Stop (which ends at 1951, the year of his first published diary), and a series of diaries, two of which I love to dip into.

I discovered Rorem via a book catalog listing of Lies: A Diary (covering the years 1986-1999). The description introduced the book as a compendium of musical analysis, gossip, cultural observation, and sexual fantasies, a combination which sounded intriguing. There aren’t many of the latter (one concerns the sunglass-wearing cop who questions Janet Leigh in Psycho). But I’ve enjoyed Rorem’s many comments on music, culture, celebrities whom he knows, and the domestic life of him and his partner, organist James Holmes. The entries for 1995-1999 are heartbreaking as Rorem writes of Holmes’ decline and death from cancer and AIDS. As the introductory essay states, a diary may be among the best ways to depict the tragedy of AIDS and its slow, cruel progress.

Not long afterward, I found a copy of The Nantucket Diary, which covers the years 1973-1985. This, longer diary is also very enjoyable to dip into as Rorem similarly makes judgments and observations about the musical world, grumbles about slights and medical problems, and shares aspects of his and Holmes’ domestic relations and their lives in both New York City and Nantucket.

Here are a few representative entries—I hope I haven’t quoted too much.


“In writing vocal music I have never used special effects–no whines, shrieks, whispers, elongations, nor even world repetitions. My aim toward poetry is, I suppose, to intensify rather than to reinterpret. In a word, my music is expressivity, rather than novelty.” (ND, p. 39).

“Alcoholism, like homosexuality, is something outsiders never quite grasp. But whereas alcoholism is by all standards bad, homosexuality is not. Homosexuality is only a problem to those who make it one. Yet even during the sixties, when youth practiced tolerance in the antiwar movement, gayety was never a real part of the scene. Radical liberals have always been more queasy about sexual “deviation” than have capitalists, while tolerating, even encouraging, drugs and drink.” (ND, p. 153)

“Sopranos, like cheesecakes, are of two kinds: velvet or satin, vanilla or chocolate, silver or gold. The moist voice of Leontyne Price versus the diamond streak of Judy Collins.” (ND, p. 165)

“An artist declares: “I never repeat myself: that way lies sterile boredom,” and the public thrills: an artist never repeats himself! Well, you know and I know that they know that the declaration is pure bunk. An artist may consciously try to avoid self-imitation, yet it’s not for him to know, finally, whether in fact he succeeds…. The best of us have no more than four or five ideas during our whole life; we spend that life chiseling those ideas into various communicating shapes. that sentence states one of my four or five ideas, and I’ve said it over and over.” (ND, p. 409)

“The startling lack of charm in all of [Elliott] Carter’s music, early and late, when he himself possess so much of it. To say that his music “reflects our time” and can’t afford charm is to know all times. You who know all times, tell us: What time was ever without anguish? (Tom Prentiss in his latest letter: “Concerning repetition: E. Carter declares his dislike of it, which is just as well; we need listen to his work but once.”)” (ND, p. 443)

“Has anyone, even Britten in War Requiem, made music about war that is as harrowing as the bare bones displayed daily in newscasts? The whole question about what should and shouldn’t be set to music (and why one chooses this text and another chooses that text, and how their musical–as well as their literary–approaches differ) is settled only by the realization of the mad illegitimacy of any setting of any text.” (ND, p. 535)

“Poulenc never penned an original note: every measure can be traced to Chopin, or Mussorgsky, or Ravel, or Stravinsky, or even Faure whom he reviled. Yet every measure can be instantly identified as sheer Poulenc, by that mad touch of personal chutzpah that no critic can define” (Lies, p. 15)

“Debussy looks like Mandy Patinkin” (Lies, p. 56)

“I gave you the best years of my life.
Yes, and it’s I who made them the best years” (Lies, p. 107)

“Last night reread Letters to a Young Poet for the first time in 45 years. I never quite bought it in 1943 while a student at Curtis, and I still don’t buy it. Humorless biblical clichés about dedication and sacrifice. But Rilke was not that much older (only 27) than the Young Poet when he penned these truths, and still no doubt felt there were formulas for a good life.” (Lies, p. 134).

“The Beaux Arts Trio, for whom Spring Music was written as a gift from Carnegie Hall, have had the music for close to a year without giving a sign of its receipt, much less of whether they like it. Since the premiere is tomorrow, I swallowed my pride last week and phoned the Trio. It hadn’t occurred to them that the composer might want to hear it. Rehearsal yesterday.
“Spring Music lasts 31 1/2 minutes–seven minutes longer than I’d projected–and I’m glad: Its imminent public failure will carry more weight.” (Lies, p. 207)

“Went to Angels in America, from duty and guilt (I never go the theater anymore but am always sounding off about it), and from opportunism and curiosity (maybe Kushner will write me a libretto). Well, you can’t laugh it off, and I did sit through till the end. But nothing that long can be all good, and much of it is easily trimmed. Well-acted but unmoving, often vulgar. Not just the endless “fuck you” screams from one and all, but also the pandering to the all-too-willing audience…” (Lies, p. 255)

“I do read. The usual Simeon, including the dud Maigret et le voleur paresseux and the Balzacian masterpiece Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk. The short stories of William Maxwell, which, in their potless New Yorkerish idiom, never quite take the plunge, though they move the non-intellectual heart. To re-examine the last of Flaubert’s Trois Contes, called “Hérodias,” is to discover how much of a slave the master was to brand names, like Judaic tribes and types of precious stone; how the story, paradoxically, is high camp without humor; and how Wilde’s Salomé owes its very existence, if not its superiority, to this narrative.” (Lies, p. 336)


It occurs to me that living a very artistic and cultural life holds an analogous attraction as Thoreau’s Walden: not many of us are going to live a solitary life beside a pond, and fewer of us are going to contribute importantly to art and culture and to share time with famous people (Rorem shared a cab with John Updike and later regretted his testiness to what seemed like Updike’s foolish question about composing). But how enjoyable to imagine such a life, as one reads Rorem’s thoughts about other composers (he was friends with Barber, Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, and others), and complains about the acclaim lavished upon certain performers, while composers are treated indifferently. (In an interview, Rorem notes that “America is the only country in the whole world that is embarrassed by art. The minute art is mentioned, it becomes a conspiracy. Like Mappelthorpe and the NEA. With all of this discouragement, a composer is not even a despised parish, because in order to be despised he has to exist. A composer doesn’t even exist in the ken of the intellectual public. The irony is that there are more young composers around than there ever were before.” Quoted from: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/distler/rorem-interview.php)

In the earlier quoted article, Alex Ross notes that “Rorem was among the last American artists to pull of a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves.”

Ross continues: “A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter…Indeed, Carter has benefited from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling…. ”

Ross concludes,”To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away.” (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/20/031020crmu_music)

After reading Rorem’s many expressions of appreciation of and love for Holmes—and his inability to comprehend how he could live without Holmes’ companionship and practical skills—I feel sad (for what it’s worth) that Rorem has had to live without him for twelve years. (Holmes died in January 1999, aged 59.) I plan soon to order Rorem’s more recent writings. A quick survey of the internet reveals recent performances of his works, for instance the new Hudson Chorale.

Works quoted:

The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985, by Ned Rorem. North Point Press, 1987.

Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem. Da Capo Press, 2002.

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