Friday, January 17, 2020

Remembering Neil Peart: Musician, Adventurer, Truth-Seeker

Forty years ago, I was a seventeen year old kid who spent almost all his free time playing the guitar or listening to music. The Canadian rock band Rush pounded through my headphones a lot in those days.

Though I hadn't forgotten my classical roots and continued to play cello in the school orchestra and other ensembles, this was certainly the biggest rocker phase of my life. My friends and I would jam together often and loud. We played what was within reach of our collaborative capacities, and then we admired the music we couldn't play, and tried to learn from it. We certainly admired Rush. Many people couldn't (and still can't) get past the sheer volume and sonic complexity of what these guy put out.

But we loved it. It was terrific music.

When you perceive (aesthetically) the organizing principles of any craft, and appreciate the corresponding skills required to fashion something according to those principles, you "see" the beauty of the work. There is order, proportion, and a level of nobility (analogically speaking) in any successful craft, any work that human beings — who are themselves made in the image of God — achieve as an skillful expression of a concretely "intelligible," creative intuition.

Or, to put it more simple terms, "those dudes could play!"

In fact, those dudes — Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart — "played" together for four decades, and had generations of loyal followers. My son and his friends like Rush a lot. My daughters can't stand them! (This seems to reflect a more general pattern with Rush fans, but... that's another story.)

Right now the musical world is mourning the loss of Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, who died last week at the (still-too-young) age of 67. This came as a total shock to me and many others: his long battle with brain cancer after his 2015 retirement was not publicly known.

In retrospect, this is not surprising. For a man who makes virtually everyone's short list of greatest-rock-drummers-of-all-time, Peart succeeded in keeping his "private life" out of the spotlight. It helped that he lived without the peculiar drama of celebrity-dom, and therefore failed to draw the attention of those who cater to worshiping outsized celebrity fame and gawking at the human wreckage it all too often brings.

That doesn't mean his life was not interesting. Indeed, he shared many facets of his talent, his observations, and the reflections of his restless, searching mind.

Peart was a brilliant musician who redefined the scope of the rhythmic art of the "drummer" (really, he was a percussionist dedicated to continually improving his art). He was one of those players who was constantly surprising us with new sounds, nuances, and techniques in his performance.

He was also an accomplished author whose travel books are vivid chronicles of back roads, small towns, and vast spaces of natural beauty all over North America and other parts of the world. He was an avid motorcyclist who was bold in exploration while also being careful in how he actually handled his bike. He was perceptive, thoughtful, and had much feeling for "local things" — those things that are more and more difficult to find in the now largely homogenized U.S.A. and Canada. He knew how to find those places and appreciate them.

He also searched the cosmos and his own soul in a poignant and sincere way. There is an unusual level of thoughtfulness in Rush's lyrics, but Peart's extensive reading and philosophical turn of mind are even more accessible in his books. Here too he reveals his struggles and vulnerability in processing personal tragedies and suffering, as well as the simple joys and beauties of life.

Peart said that he "believed in the exchange of love." He also had a passion for the dignity of the individual. He did not see how these matters could have a place in a "religious" framework, and he sometimes expressed the Libertarian's distaste for conventional religions and ideas about God. He didn't seem to have much familiarity with the real profundity of religion that can be discovered in some of its specific expressions. Though it must also be admitted that there is a "cheap" side to the way we often talk about religion and God that can be alienating for people who are searching for deeper answers to the provoking questions arising from the mystery of reality and the experiences of joy and pain.

People who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics have an understandable aversion to any notions that seem to them to suggest either a "cosmic Santa Claus" or a "cosmic bully" as the Ultimate Being. Of course, these are distorted images of God, but they still have an all-too-wide circulation. Unfortunately, religious people (myself included) can easily appear to be "conjuring divinity" to escape the challenges of living or to shield ourselves from the awful implacable pain of suffering. Even the articulation of great religious experiences — the powerful testimonies to the truth about God — can pass by, unwittingly making a "bad impression" on someone who (for whatever reason) does not perceive therein the vital proximity of the transcendent mystery of God. We hardly clarify things when we act as if we have God in our pockets, or use Him to justify our prejudices, our partisanship, our own grasping for power.

On the occasion of his death, the sincerity of Neil Peart makes me want to examine my conscience on such things, and resolve to accompany the people entrusted to me with greater love.

Even with our best efforts, however, our witness to our faith is imperfect. And though the existence of the Mystery of God can be known by human reason, the practical articulation of this is a bumpy road for actual human beings trying to understand their particular and perplexing lives. Philosophy is worth studying and pursuing, but our actual understanding of even the best philosophy is imperfect, and certainly our particular ways of proposing arguments using complex and potentially confusing terms are imperfect.

Of course, we can only do our best. We speak what we know, as best as we can in circumstances, with passion and vigor certainly — but with the affection of brothers and sisters, not the pride and hostility of ideological partisan combat. We want to remember that each person is on a journey, the depths of which we do not know. We must not judge or condemn anyone, nor should we slavishly endorse what we know is wrong in order to be fashionable or agreeable.

Let's be human instead. The dialogue that will ensue is sure to be fruitful. I wish I could have had that dialogue with Neil Peart. He was a great musician, and in this respect there are few like him. But he was also like many people because he was a sincere man, a thoughtful man, a suffering man. Before such a person I can only stand with respect, appreciation, and humility. And now that his journey is at an end, I pray for him with hope that he will pass into that "exchange of love" that is greater than any of us can imagine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Monday, January 13, 2020

"Survivor" (A Poem, New and Revised)

I have reworked and revised large sections of this poem, and it's enough to warrant presenting it here once again. It's not likely that many people read it previously (some two years ago, when it was first posted) — that doesn't bother me; in fact I hope not many people read it, because it was messy.

That doesn't mean it's "neat" now (or ever will be). In any case, I reserve the right to revise it further. This is my "writing workshop" (indeed, my creative workshop for a variety of media). Some of my posts are more polished than others.

After nine years, however, I have also begun to realize that a blog is a distinctive kind of "thing," a literary and multimedia artifact (or collection of artifacts) with an identity of its own, even though I'm not sure what that identity is.

I content for now to consider it a work-in-progress, and keep shaping it as I go.

Here, then, is the new and revised version of Survivor. I have come to realize that this poem, written in the first person, actually does come out of my own experience. In a sense, this poem is about me, but it's also about what is for so many people the intensity and trauma of life in these strange times. We are all the ones who are "running."

As for the ones who drive the runners on, I don't know who "They" are ... [read the poem, and you'll know what I'm talking about๐Ÿ˜‰].


I remember running;
years of slippery running on glassy ground
under an electric forest,
with whispering wirey trees
tangled together into angry knots.
And the birds did not sing,
or breathe,
but lay everywhere still,
like colored shadows in the long twilight.

Always every day the same;
always running, running, running away,
down endless twisting tunnels
of wind and echoes,
pursuing perpetual survival.

They pushed and prodded the crowd,
told us to keep moving:
"Run, scream, scream to hear the sound,
to feel the life inside you and hold hard on it.
Run fast, never stop,
or you will burn, melt, evaporate..."

I remember running
with a huge roaring crowd,
all of us with electric shoes
that jumped up and down,
each footfall shaking the floor,
a great thumping sound,
flooding the room, flooding our heads;
sound upon sound, gigantic, total,
always the same, the unceasing clamor,
clatter, crashing rush
of running to save our lives.

Their iron whips slashed into our flesh
as they ordered us to keep moving:
"Run, scream,
shout the song with synthetic throats.
Shout with the dance of the electric feet;
shout and run and stay with the beat.
Run to survive,
to power this deathless day."

One day I remember running
very early in the morning,
and the blue rain
was falling all over my face,
splashing, stinging,
vanishing into vapor,
into the florescent cyan mist
that was light to my withered eyes.
One day out of all those pallid years,
I was running
and, suddenly, I fell to the ground.

I came crashing down into a quivering heap
of skin, bone, lurching tendons
struggling, shot with pain,
pushing into paralysis.
Then stillness came upon me,
a stillness of wonderful exhaustion,
my eyes burning, staring at the sky.

No one came to help me, to carry me,
to pity me, to mourn the loss of me.
They drove the crowd forward
into a powerful terrified stampede:
"Run, run, never stop
for in stillness you will disappear
into the bottomless chasm of night.
Leave the broken ones to eat dust.
We are running into the fiery day,
the strong, ruthless day,
the day of war.
We are running with those who survive."

I was left behind,
left to be eaten by the dark.
My wounds were of no interest to Them
or Their proud plans,
and the crowd kept running,
running away from me.

I watched the crowd vanish into the horizon,
into a crack of sudden blazing light,
light glowing over the edges of everything,
casting strange shadows on the ground.
It was the herald of dreams awakening,
the unexpected ending and beginning,
the final day
of this giant city of evanescent steel and clay,
the first day dawning,
a new day.

In the stillness of that moment,
I felt the breath of Time.
I heard her whisper to me:
the time is now...”

The time is now,
in the frail moments of days and years,
shining slowly,
growing patiently,
whispering softly,
with the steady strength of a rising wind,
waking sleepers
from dreams of desperate running
under the cold dying stars.

Here in today’s time,
this strange “today” where I still live -
scarred, hungry, tenaciously breathing -
people call me a "survivor."
But in this gifted interval which I cannot hold,
I tremble and hope and speak
of what I have seen and heard.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Theophany: God Reveals Himself

The baptism of Jesus. The descent of the Holy Spirit. The voice of the Father. God reveals His mystery, the Trinity. 

It is the decisive "epiphany" of the Christmas season, and the initiation of Jesus's public ministry. The Byzantine tradition calls this feast "the Theophany" - where God begins in a new way to manifest Himself to the world, to reveal His inner reality as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

We have observed on this day the beginning of the path that will lead us to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the ultimate outpouring of God’s love through the death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation.

May the Lord give you joy!

Friday, January 10, 2020

We Continue to Learn From Christina Grimmie

Digital design, based on photo (credit to photo owner)

It's possible to go through life knowing about (and even writing about) certain basic dispositions and ways of acting that are proper to a mature human personality, yet still not really know how to live these things in your own daily existence.

Then one day, you encounter another person who lives rightly and deeply, not out of arrogant self-regard but in a beautiful and authentic way. You almost can't help being moved by this person, and their way of living has a significant and concrete impact on you. It begins to change you, even if only by sparking within you the desire to change and grow, to see reality the way that person sees it.

Anyone whose life has been touched by Christina Grimmie knows what I'm talking about.

I have learned from her. There is no question about that. Indeed, I'm still learning from her, and I think people will continue to learn from her for generations to come. On this 10th day in the month of January 2020, I wanted to reflect a little on this point.

We can learn from her... not because she was always perfect, or totally coherent, or never did anything wrong. Not because we totally understand and agree with everything she ever said or did. Rather, we learn from the way she perceived life and the way she returned, consistently, to this awareness as the foundation of her actions and of the way she followed her own vocation.

Here are just a few examples of what Christina Grimmie has taught me to want for my life in a more concrete way, because of the way she perceived the value of these qualities and endeavored to live them. Many points could be cited here, but I will give three examples:

(1) Gratitude: How magnificent and real and human it is to be grateful. Be grateful for all you've been given, every day.

(2) Share the Credit: Celebrate the people who hold you up, help you, and support you in whatever you achieve; let them (and others) know that they share credit for whatever good you've done, and that they're beautiful and you love them.

(3) This is a very hard one... Don't Speak Badly About Any Person: Christina never spoke negatively about people (except maybe the guy in "Liar, Liar," and even there she turned it into a funny story and a great song). She never badmouthed people or put anyone down, even in general references. She spoke well about every person, and if they had troubles she encouraged them and challenged them.

I'm not very good at acting according to these examples, but I'm trying, and I want to be different in these ways more than ever.

For that, dear Christina, I will always be grateful to you.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Sacraments: Jesus is Always With Us

The Sacraments are at the heart of the Church. Above all there is Jesus Himself really and substantially present in the Eucharist, always with us, giving Himself to us.

It is the same Jesus who acts to bring healing through the sacrament of Reconciliation, where we bring our fractured selves and He floods us with His mercy. In this sacrament He restores the grace of God lost by grave sin; indeed there is no sin that is too great for His mercy.

And there is also strength to be found here for shaping living Christian hearts. There is abundant grace in this sacrament that renews us and draws us beyond the narrowness of soul constrained by all those “venial sins” that hinder (even if they do not break) our relationship with Jesus.

These are the sins that we acknowledge at Mass: "I have greatly sinned...through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." Even venial sins are “great” and “grievous” - though they don’t separate us from God, they fall short of God’s wisdom and glory, and they distract and delay us from becoming our true selves and attaining the happiness for which God created us.

We are indeed afflicted by these "daily sins" - the fact that they are not grave sins does not mean we should ignore them. They damage us, distort us, and render our witness opaque. They wound and cripple us; how can we recover and grow? The sacraments are remedies for our wounds, and through sacramental confession, Christ's grace renders a gradual but effective service to the health of our souls.

We need to let Jesus draw us close to His heart. Confession is not a burden. It is a blessing. Bring your troubled, anxious hearts to the fountain of mercy and healing. Go to Confession! Just go. Make it part of your life!

It's a tremendous thing to realize that we don't have to "do" the work of Christian living alone, all by ourselves. Jesus is here for us. That's what the sacraments mean. We don't have to conjure up an imaginary Jesus in our minds so that we can "feel" His forgiveness and His strength. Jesus is here. He acts. He gets involved with our lives and makes things happen.

I often express my struggles with anxieties, frustration, and sometimes with a loneliness where it is difficult to recognize the hand of God at work. But this is not the central, determining experience of myself. At the center is Jesus, who has taken hold of my life through the Holy Spirit, Jesus who I first encountered in the sacrament of Baptism, and who continues to engage my life continually in my personal vocation and especially through the healing and renewal He offers in the sacraments.

Our parish church before Mass during Christmas
Above all, in the Eucharist I have been given gratitude; I have had a taste of the thanksgiving that is so much more than a polite acknowledgement, the thanksgiving that wells up in the center of life, with the awareness that I exist as a gift, in the image of God. And that Eternal Love is calling me to His embrace through concrete moments and gestures and words. I am not defined by my faults and limits (although, so often, it seems that way). The meaning of my life is this gentle calling, and the grace and mercy it contains.

It is not a one way relationship that I construct. In the Eucharist He gives Himself to me. If I allow Him to work in me, He will open my soul, and create in me the capacity to love Him.

By grace, God enables me to love Him. This is completely, radically, and entirely the work of God. To Him be all the glory. But what makes the saving work of Jesus eminently and clearly divine is that He makes me - as a whole person - a new creation in Himself, a person-in-relationship to Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is my own personal love and my own personal life that Jesus gives to me, sustains in me, and perfects in me as I journey in hope toward the promise of God’s kingdom.

In the sacraments Jesus accompanies us concretely, walks with us, and makes our steps firm and secure.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Keeping the Christmas Lights On Through January

Here are some pictures of our Christmas tree, which is still standing in all the glory of its electric lights and polyvinyl chloride branches! I always like to give special attention to some of the hand-crafted wooden Christmas ornaments from Germany that continue to brighten up this time of year in our house. Our tree stays up through Epiphany week and beyond, because...

(1) ...we continue to celebrate the wonderful truth that God has come to dwell among us, and to reveal and give Himself to us. 

(2) January is dark and brutal enough to endure without having to kill the lights and dismantle our ersatz greenery. It perks up the house and our spirits during the cold month. There's no need to go through "post-Christmas withdrawal." 

(3) Our tree may be a cheap plastic imitation (aside from these nice ornaments) but it still carries our little family history and is an image of hope for the new “Tree of Life” in the eternal garden of a resurrected, transcendent Paradise for which we yearn. And we just put it up Christmas Eve. Why rush?

(4) February 2nd marks the “40 days” from Jesus’s birth to the rituals of the temple, the sacrifice of turtle doves, the joy of Simeon and Anna in seeing the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people (see Luke 2:22-38). It remains a cultural tradition in some places to mark the full 40 days as the season of Christmas and Epiphany, and the old form of the Roman liturgy marks “Sundays after Epiphany” for these weeks (n.b. we follow the current “ordinary form” of the Roman rite where, liturgically speaking, the Christmas Season ends after this Sunday’s feast of Jesus’s baptism... but we can still keep up decorations and cheer through Candlemas). We also grab all the clearance-sale Pannetone and Stollen we can.

(5) When Ash Wednesday is approaching and we’re finally putting stuff away, we only feel like we’ve procrastinated for a few weeks instead of a month and a half. By that time we’ve had enough of the tree, and are๐ŸŒฒtired of bumping into it. Also, the iconic significance of the Nativity scene (in reference to Christ's infancy) is no longer apt for the season; the Scriptures read in the liturgy have passed on to the Lord’s public ministry and Lent’s preparation for sharing in the Easter mystery. 

But by that time, we’ve been carried through the worst part of Winter’s dark days, and I begin to have the first (usually vicarious) warm feelings of Spring when pitchers and catchers report to baseball’s Spring Training camps. Soon they will be playing meaningless exhibition games that will quickly be forgotten in April, but are like water in the desert for the thirst of a baseball enthusiast in late February.๐Ÿ˜‰⚾

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Vistas of Winter

A camera can capture hints of the subdued beauty of January.

Here with my zoom lens, I try to glimpse how the late afternoon sun, with its peculiar angle this time of year, brightens the bare trees. And it's striking how the mountains are everywhere visible through the leafless branches. Of course, "late afternoon" this time of year starts between 3:30 and 4:00 PM heading into a sunset just after 5 PM. But the days are slowly starting to get longer.

These are vistas that only Winter gives us.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Christmas and the Presence that Saves Us

I spend a lot of time "inside my head." I have always been this way. I ponder things, or I worry about them. I become preoccupied with my own insecurity and anxieties to a point that hinders me from decisive action, or robs me of the opportunities for silence and peace.

Nothing is ever simple inside my head.

I would get stuck there, perpetually trying to figure things out, were it not for the fact that there are other people in my life who call me out of myself. They require me to live in the vital space of relationship, with its surprises, problems, requirements for action and empathy, joys, sorrows, moments of time, and all the features of a concrete otherness that continually provokes me to "go beyond myself."

I can be immersed in my own thoughts or worries and suddenly Josefina comes bouncing into the room (as she often does) with a question about school or with stories about what she did that day, or Eileen needs to talk about a work situation, or someone else in the house has a need for help or a gift to share. This changes the moment, and introduces something new from outside myself.

I can no longer pretend that I construct my life alone, by myself. These other people are here. They are concretely, irreducibly here, in my history, in this moment. 

This particular relationality in daily existence is basic to the experience of being human. It is necessary if we are to remain sane. It is also a sign of a greater, deeper, historical presence that comes from outside ourselves and saves us definitively.

Jesus is here.

I can't "hold myself together" with a comprehensive understanding of myself, or with the accumulation of stuff, or with anything that I try to capture with my conniving and my worrying.

Instead something happens. Someone comes. Someone Else is here.

This is what Christmas teaches me. Of all the billions of people born in human history, there is one who -- right now -- says to me, "I am the meaning of your life."

"I am what you are searching for," Jesus says. "I am the one who comes to transform your life into a relationship with me, which is the real way of living yourself. You can't 'make yourself' although you keep trying to, in an effort that leads to desperation again and again, because what you're looking for is beyond all your thinking and understanding and expression; really, you know it's out of your reach...."

"But don't be anxious. I have come to dwell with you. I am here, right now, right where you are. And I love you."

Whatever darkness you suffer, remember that He is here.

Whatever sorrow, confusion, guilt: He is here.

He wants to bring you through. He loves you.

"I have come into the world to be its light" (John 12:46).

Rejoice! It's still the Christmas season. Happy Christmas Season!

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Forty Year CHALLENGE

January 2 was Happy Birthday number 57 for me. It seems like I just turned 50 a little while ago! But much has happened in these years besides my getting older, stiffer, and whiter-in-the-beard.

I have lived these years, and I am grateful for them.

As I grow older, I feel "closer" to my whole life. I have a better understanding and appreciation of not only the limits and naivetรฉ of my teenage years, but also the aspirations, work, and achievements of that time.

So here I did a “Forty Year Challenge” (how’s that, young folks?)... well, forty-ish  close enough.๐Ÿ˜Ž The differences are, well, pretty obvious! Also I’m a bit arthritic on the guitar these days, but there are ways to “compensate” and make things work. 

What I really need is to FIND THE CASSETTE TAPE that has all the instrumental guitar songs/pieces I composed forty-ish years ago and played by memory. I don’t remember them and they are not written down.๐ŸŽธ๐ŸŽถ The tape is somewhere, but where?

I wrote music for cello and strings, but it’s not very interesting, whereas the guitar stuff was pretty good but I play guitar by ear and composed by memory  and now I have lost the memory. I could remember them if I could FIND THE TAPE!! Dang, where is it?๐ŸŽต Where did I put it?
Dear God, I thank you for my life. I thank you for drawing my heart, through the years, with all the hints of beauty and goodness in things, the signs that point to you as the Source and Fulfillment of all things. I have not been able to rest content in any of these things (for this also, I thank you) — but my restlessness is stirred by the promise inherent in them, the promise that urges me toward you, but that has only become cohesive, focused, and convincing for me through Jesus Christ. You have come to dwell with us, Jesus; you have revealed your glory through a human face.
You have made my life worth living, and you have made my journey in this world — with its trials and tribulations but also its adventures and joys and music๐ŸŽถ — a cause for wonder and gratitude. Thank you!
And dear Lord, please help me find that tape?๐Ÿ˜‰

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

God Became the Child of Mary

The year 2020 has begun. New year, new decade, but Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

"Mary is a mother who contemplates her child and shows him to every visitor. The figure of Mary makes us reflect on the great mystery that surrounded this young woman when God knocked on the door of her immaculate heart. Mary responded in complete obedience to the message of the angel who asked her to become the Mother of God. Her words, 'Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word' (Luke 1:38), show all of us how to abandon ourselves in faith to God’s will. By her 'fiat,' Mary became the mother of God’s Son, not losing but, thanks to him, consecrating her virginity. In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey his word and to put it into practice" (Pope Francis, Admirable Signum 7).