Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday of Joy

Laetare Sunday.

Rejoice! Rejoice in the middle of Lent, this season of prayer, penance, and preparation for the celebration of the event of our salvation, the event that defines who we are and is the source of our hope.

Rejoice, even as we walk with Jesus on the path of our own suffering, offering ourselves and whatever we are called to endure to God our Father, as He draws us by the Holy Spirit into a deeper participation in Christ's "Pascal Mystery" - the Event of His death and resurrection. Here God reveals and gives Himself as Love.

The Mystery who makes us and all things reveals Himself as "the Mystery of Unfathomable Love."

He always remains "Mystery," higher and deeper than our comprehension, but He is the super-luminous Mystery of Truth and Love who gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And He is the Mystery who shows His love for us by coming to dwell with us, the Mystery-made-flesh.

He is with us. Our very flesh is akin to His flesh, as we were created - each one of us, and all of us, every human being - to be His brothers and sisters.

And it is Unfathomable Love that takes up all our vulnerabilities and (for the sake of Love) bears them all the way to the end. He reveals the glory of Divine Love by taking upon Himself and enduring our weakness, our suffering, and even our sins by which we have separated ourselves from Him and one another.

God loves us. He is infinitely "deeper" (as Love) than our hatred and violence and selfishness and all the horrible wounds we inflict by sin, and He wants to be with us. He is also deeper than our sorrows, burdens, fears, and infirmities.
He is with us in our infirmities. Indeed He has made them His own by love, and has begun even now to transfigure them from within.

We who live an apparently insignificant life in this frail flesh, who grow old and sick and dispossessed of everything we thought we could control as we slip away into the obscurity of death - we are grains of wheat sown deep in the earth with Jesus in His death, and the mysterious power of His resurrection already begins to bear fruit in us.

So, rejoice! There is abundant reason for joy, Jesus is with us.

He is here, carrying us in our infirmities, because He wants to be with us. He does not love our suffering. He loves us. He is transforming our suffering, and He calls on us to trust in Him to continue and fulfill this work of purification and transfiguration He has begun in us.

Friday, March 29, 2019

"Falling Out" (Digital Art)

Here is an image I created that belongs in my "Peace and Security" series of digital abstracts (some of which remain unfinished). The effort that goes into crafting a work like this is actually quite intense.

This piece is called "Falling Out."

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

My Dad and Beethoven Have Been Good to Me

The image on the cover of this "high fidelity" 33.3 rpm vinyl record is one of the oldest images in my memory.

When I was very little (about four years old) my father and I used to listen to this record and few others he had of Beethoven, as well as Brahms, Dvorak, and others.

This is an early childhood memory, so I can't say how many times we actually listened to it.

But it was one of those archetypal childhood moments that made a lasting impression on me: this experience of being with my Dad listening to this music.

In that memory, both of us were "air conducting" along with the great Arturo Toscanini (who shows us how it's done on the cover of this brilliant recording of a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1951).

For more than fifty years of my life, My Dad and Beethoven have been there for me.

Today all of that came full circle.

I was at Dad's bedside. He was breathing slowly and sometimes opening his eyes. He is no longer responsive, or at least we can't really be sure whether or not he is trying to communicate; he can't speak, his eyes don't move even when they're open, nor does he make any other bodily gestures. But I think he can still hear. Whatever happens, I will never say that he's "gone" as long as he lives in his body, however precariously, with whatever fragility. His remaining with us in these last days is still precious.

He's getting a big boost of supplemental oxygen from a non-invasive tube under his nose. But the ongoing systemic complications of recent illnesses along with the accelerated ravages of dementia exacerbated by encephalopathy are bringing to a close his nearly-84-years-long pilgrimage in this life.

Dad is as comfortable as he can be, and does not appear to be in pain. He is being exceptionally well cared for by the staff at this beautiful home, and by the medical team that gently intervenes when necessary.

We spend as much time as we can with him. John Paul was here in the afternoon and he and I talked with each other and with "Papa" about John Paul's approaching graduation and other things. The "three generations of Janaro men" had some time together.

When I was with him for a stretch by myself, I decided to play some music.

It wasn't hard to find Toscanini conducting Beethoven's 7th Symphony on YouTube. So we listened to it together.

I have listened countless times in my life to this glorious piece of music, as interpreted by a multitude of conductors and orchestras. The music has many facets. But then and there, with my Dad, the brisk, bright, vigorous clarity of Toscanini's interpretation seemed to reawaken that rapport over shared music from my childhood.

I didn't see any dramatic signs from him (or any signs at all) that he was also remembering those days, but I wasn't expecting to.

It was just being with my Dad, and Beethoven, one more time.

Monday, March 25, 2019



"Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up! I the Lord, have created this" (Isaiah 45:8).

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Saint Oscar Romero: A Splendid Crown, a Sure Reward

I have posted some of these words before, these final prophetic words from the homily of St Oscar Romero preached in the hospital chapel where, moments later, he would suffer martyrdom on March 24, 1980.

These last words from this singularly courageous and wise bishop - what resounding authority they possess! These words were sealed with his own blood. They are words that summarize the supernatural heart of all his preaching, his work for the poor, his cries for justice for the people of El Salvador, his conviction that God's love is stronger than death.

He speaks of the Christian and human vocation, and the mysterious but ultimately enduring value of our efforts to build up the good in this world when we seek to do God's will, when we work with faith, hope, and love of God.

Death does not define us and need not defeat us. The Spirit of God will bring to fruition in the kingdom all the seeds of goodness we sow in this present life, when we live and act with the hope that holds fast to the Risen Jesus:
"This is the hope that inspires us as Christians. We know that every effort to improve society, especially when injustice and sin are so widespread, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God requires of us....
"Of course, we must purify [our ideals and efforts] in Christianity and invest them with hope for what lies beyond because in that way they become stronger. For we have the assurance that we will never fail in all the work we do on earth if we infuse it with Christian hope. We will find it purified in that kingdom where our merit will be according to what we have done on this earth....
"I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to view these things that are happening in our historical moment with a spirit of hope, generosity, and sacrifice. And let us do what we can. We can all do something and be more understanding....
"If we illuminate with Christian hope our intense longings for justice and peace and all that is good, then we can be sure that no one dies forever. If we have imbued our work with a sense of great faith, love of God, and hope for humanity, then all our endeavors will lead to the splendid crown that is the sure reward for the work of sowing truth, justice, love, and goodness on earth.
"Our work does not remain here; it is gathered and purified by the Spirit of God and returned to us as a reward."

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saint Camillus is a Great Help to Us

Saint Camillus has quite a "Conversion Story" - somebody should write an article about him.⭐

But that will have to wait until next year.

Right now, we are getting a lot of "help" from this courageous servant of the sick and dying, founder of hospitals, pioneer in the development of compassionate health care, and above all lover of Jesus present in those who suffer.

He has become our friend in the midst of trials.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Universe is Changing...

I don't seem to have much energy to write. The universe is changing. My father is dying. I love you, Dad!

Lately I have been designing abstract decorative crosses. It's my mental exercise and expression. I don't know what else to say.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

With Dad on Saint Joseph's Day

This Solemnity of Saint Joseph, we find ourselves in a hospital taking care of our own father, whose physical condition has rapidly declined this past week.

It's three weeks short of Dad's 84th birthday and he is very gravely ill.

What is there to say? We have been blessed to have him with us for such a long time. I don't have any more words. He is in God's hands. We are all in God's hands.

Please pray for him, and for us his family. Good Saint Joseph, pray for all of us.

Friday, March 15, 2019

March 14: First Feelings of Spring

Some real hints of Spring in the air. It even felt like Summer, though the "look" is still mostly Wintry bare.

We got lots of pics from a day by the Happy Creek:

Yes, the water is pretty low, the sun is unusually warm, and the vegetation is hibernating.

But wait! Somethings are waking up!

The big trees still sleep, like the Sycamore with its white bark so noticeable in Winter and so lovely in its own way.

Not many places to find shade on this day here in the Valley. I had to duck under a pine tree. The horse field nearby is bare but bright. Everything is showered in sunlight.

I am grateful to God to be alive. Lord, help me always to remember your goodness.

This was originally an Instagram video that made it to my YouTube channel. Reporting from "on the scene":

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Without You We Cannot Exist

Bestow on us, we pray, O Lord,
a spirit of always pondering on what is right
and of hastening to carry it out,
and, since without you we cannot exist,
may we be enabled to live according to your will.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

~Collect, Thursday, March 14

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Happy Birthday Christina Grimmie, With Love! 💚

On this day, March 12, we remember Christina Grimmie and celebrate her 25th Birthday, with gratitude and so much love.💚

Monday, March 11, 2019

Jesus says, "You Did It For Me"

Today's Gospel reading is a witness to the ultimate significance of every moment of every ordinary day of our lives. 

I dwell below upon the first portion of "The Final Judgment" in hope, to focus the light on the real, fragile, human neediness of the persons with whom Jesus has identified Himself, and through whom He offers Himself to us, asking for our love. 

I want to be one of those who are called "blessed of my Father."

My prayer is that, by His mercy and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I might love Him in others by serving Him in their poverty, weakness, and needs. I beg for His forgiveness because I fall short and fail in this love every day. 

I am well aware of the corresponding judgment of vv. 41-45 upon those who have failed to love.

What is at stake here is nothing less than our identity for all eternity.

Obviously there is a teaching here on the necessity of social mercy as well as social justice, on the Church's "preferential option for the poor." We often talk about "helping the poor," but we who have an abundance of riches don't really do very much. We have agencies and bureaucracies to handle the complex business of poverty, and - like everything else in these times of epochal upheaval - "poverty" has become a gigantic, appalling, complex, and dangerous reality.

We have become so accustomed to an atmosphere of trauma, change, instability, and fear that the "wall of poverty" makes us terrified of the possibility of encountering real physically and deperately poor people. This is an alienation we must want to overcome, whatever the real practical possibilities may be for external actions in light of our actual circumstances.

But this "fear of the poor" is a consequence of a deeper problem. Our relationship with God is so weak (mine certainly is, at least) that we don't know how to live the most fundamental human interpersonal connections right in front of us. If we cower before the prospect of having anything to do with the needy "out there," it probably means we are isolated from one another.

I know that the "hungry," the "thirsty," the "sick," and even "the stranger" are not first of all some "scary people" far away and seemingly inaccessible to me. "Going out to the margins" begins at home. It begins with the persons who have been entrusted to me, who are under my roof, my wife, my kids, and also my parents and the many ordinary people whom I encounter and who hope to find something vitally human in me - kindness, attention, affirmation, encouragement, empathy, humble guidance, or any gesture of self-giving love, however small the moment might be.

Mother Teresa was very earnest when she invited us in the context of family life to smile at one another. She wasn't advocating a forced or artificial cheerful mood, but rather a chosen gift of one's self even when it is difficult.

"When, Lord, did we see you in need...?" If I may insert a bit of 21st Century "Midrash" here, then I'll illustrate a particular point like this: "'When did you see me in need?' replied the King. 'Well, for starters, how about EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. You woke up next to me every morning for 25/30/40/50/more YEARS. We lived together all those days. We raised kids. We spent almost ten cumulative years watching T.V. together. Were you aware of me? Did you love me the way you promised you would? That was me, in need of your love, all that time.'"

We are all "poor" in front of one another. We must love and care for one another, not in sentimentality and illusion, but in reality: real person to real person. If we truly love those entrusted to us, our "neighbors," we will also be drawn (together) to the "margins" in the sociological sense. A real "Communio," in which we serve Christ in one another, always engenders a passion for mission.

If there is no desire in us, no sense of solidarity, no sorrow that opens our hearts to the needs of the poor, no impetus toward engaging in works of mercy, then it is likely that we are a group of Christians who are failing to live in communion with one another. We easily substitute comfortable mutual conformity, ideology, or superficial activism for real love. Imperceptibly, we put limits on the attentiveness of our love. Then some measure other than the heart of Christ creeps in and subtly defines our being-together. If we don't wake up and return to God's love, eventually we will lose the sense of that communion-in-charity (caritas, agape) that vivifies our ecclesial life as brothers and sisters. It will be replaced by disconnection, or else there will arise among us the idolatrous and violent instincts of the post-modern tribe.

May God preserve us from such a forgetfulness of the face of Christ. Rather, let us worship and give glory to Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And let us serve Him in one another, and seek Him out and serve Him in every person, especially the poor who endure the most dire hunger and thirst, who wander the earth as strangers, who are cold, sick, troubled and in need of so many things.

By this loving service He strengthens us and draws us closer to Him.

"The king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you 

from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, 

you did for me.'"

~Matthew 25:34-40

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Opening Our Hearts to the Lord

No matter what condition we are in or what evils we have done, God can still reach us. No sin is too great for his forgiveness and mercy. "Ask, and it will be given you" (Matthew 7:7).

What a simple promise! But do we really take Jesus seriously? Do we really believe that he is the gift of the Father's love and mercy, that he has the power to heal and transform our lives?

There is no human person in the world who cannot ask God for mercy. No human predicament, no degree of moral and spiritual disgrace, is beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

In fact, God knows all our sins and our sorrows and our deepest need for healing, and he wants to save us. He loves us first, and when we seek him it is because he has already called us, mysteriously, in the depths of our hearts. But he wants us to seek him and "ask" for him, because this is the way we open our hearts to him. He respects our freedom. Indeed, he loves our freedom; he creates and sustains us as persons and wants us to be free. Still, his love is greater than our hearts. He anticipates us, awakens us, draws us, and showers upon us his mercy, not to the demand of our measure and expectations but in response to our recognition that we really need him.

But sometimes, we ask for him and we don't feel like we're getting a response. He seems to delay. Why?

God is good, all the time. If we ask for his mercy and healing with a true desire, he works to change us according to his wisdom and love for us. He is Love. If his "timing" seems slow to us, we know that he wants us to keep asking; he wants us to experience our total need for him, our total dependence on Infinite Love.

Ask, keep asking, and never give up. You shall receive; it is a promise from God. “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22).

"Before Jesus, no sinner is excluded... because the healing power of God knows no infirmity that cannot be healed; and this must give us confidence and open our heart to the Lord, that he may come and heal us" (Pope Francis).

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Journey Toward Easter 2019

We have finally begun the journey toward Easter, which is on April 21 this year. That's almost as late as Easter can be in a calendar year.

The date is fixed each year for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (always regarded as March 21 in this process). Full moon this month falls on March 20; thus the first full moon of Spring is April 19, which sets Easter for Sunday the 21st.

I prepared this graphic for the Latin Rite observance of "Ash Wednesday" yesterday. May everyone have a fruitful preparation over the next six weeks as we prepare to encounter Jesus in the annual observance and celebration of his redeeming death and resurrection.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Time of Conversion from the Destructive Power of Sin

Pope Francis has emphasized the connection between new life in Christ and our stewardship for all creation in this year's Message for the Lenten season.

I am struck by the very accurate way that he points out how the sincerity of our love for God shows itself in our attitude toward the world, its resources, and its beauty: Do we see created things as gifts to be received with gratitude and used for our authentic good and the common good of present and future humanity, or do we see them as materials to be exploited and dominated for selfish ends, with no real regard for the needs of others or the future.

Here the Pope points out aspects of our sinful dispositions and actions that we so easily fail to notice, and underlines the need for repentence and conversion in relation to these sins.

Francis notes that the celebration of Christ's Resurrection "calls us yearly to undertake a journey of preparation, in the knowledge that our being conformed to Christ (cf. Rom 8:29) is a priceless gift of God’s mercy.

"When we live as children of God, redeemed, led by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14) and capable of acknowledging and obeying God’s law, beginning with the law written on our hearts and in nature, we also benefit creation by cooperating in its redemption...

"Yet in this world, the harmony generated by redemption is constantly threatened by the negative power of sin and death.

"Indeed, when we fail to live as children of God, we often behave in a destructive way towards our neighbours and other creatures – and ourselves as well – since we begin to think more or less consciously that we can use them as we will. Intemperance then takes the upper hand: we start to live a life that exceeds those limits imposed by our human condition and nature itself."

The Pope expresses powerfully how our sins impact the natural created world as well as destroy others and ourselves: "The root of all evil, as we know, is sin, which from its first appearance has disrupted our communion with God, with others and with creation itself, to which we are linked in a particular way by our body. This rupture of communion with God likewise undermines our harmonious relationship with the environment in which we are called to live, so that the garden has become a wilderness (cf. Gen 3:17-18). Sin leads man to consider himself the god of creation, to see himself as its absolute master and to use it, not for the purpose willed by the Creator but for his own interests, to the detriment of other creatures.

"Once God’s law, the law of love, is forsaken, then the law of the strong over the weak takes over. The sin that lurks in the human heart (cf. Mk 7:20-23) takes the shape of greed and unbridled pursuit of comfort, lack of concern for the good of others and even of oneself. It leads to the exploitation of creation, both persons and the environment, due to that insatiable covetousness which sees every desire as a right and sooner or later destroys all those in its grip."

Francis then exhorts us to embrace the Lenten penitential preparation in light of this integral vocation which Jesus brings about by His power at work in us. He gives us a larger perspective on the significance of Lent and the classical practices of this season: "Lent is a sacramental sign of th[e work of] conversion. It invites Christians to embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in their personal, family and social lives, above all by fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

"Fasting, that is, learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to 'devour' everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts. 

"Prayer, which teaches us to abandon idolatry and the self-sufficiency of our ego, and to acknowledge our need of the Lord and his mercy. 

"Almsgiving, whereby we escape from the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us. 

"And thus [we] rediscover the joy of God’s plan for creation and for each of us, which is to love him, our brothers and sisters, and the entire world, and to find in this love our true happiness."

The entire text of the Pope's Lenten Message for 2019 can be found HERE.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Happy Birthday Eileen Janaro!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to this beautiful and great lady, Eileen Janaro! 

I love her, and I am so grateful for her! What an incredible gift she is to me, to our family, to her students, and countless others.❤🌹

Monday, March 4, 2019

Compassion Means "Giving Your Time" to Be With Others

Do not underestimate the value of the time you spend with someone who is suffering.

You are afraid because you can’t solve the person’s problems. Of course you can’t. So don’t pressure yourself. Give your time. Stay with the person, and be consistent about it.

In human things time and presence are the media of love.

In today's world, we need to remember (or perhaps learn anew, in a deeper way) that there are layers of human suffering that cannot be "fixed." The only way to touch a person at this level of their pain is with love, simple love. And this kind of love requires time.

If you spend a few hours with a suffering person, they will probably still be suffering when you leave. But don’t think you have wasted your time; you have to keep coming back—every day or week or whatever you can give.

If the person acts grouchy or doesn’t seem to appreciate you or give you the feeling that your visits are "successful" or "meaningful," don’t give up and go away. Don’t stop coming.

Obviously you can't force yourself upon a person who really wants to be left alone, so it might be right to space things out if you think they really need it. But it's not necessary to jump to this conclusion just because the person is not very sociable, or because you can't think of a way to be useful to them and you just feel "odd being around" when there doesn't seem to be any need for you.

Don’t try too hard to be helpful or make the person feel good. Just be familiar, be natural, and be there.

Certainly, if possible help, comfort, console, encourage them, listen to them. You might start to enjoy spending time with this afflicted person, who will surprise you by drawing on the deep resources of their experiences and memories (when they are able to). You will find things to do, to talk about, and to learn. This is great.

But don’t depend on this. Pain makes for a fickle friend, unfortunately. You must give the time as a sacrifice and "expect nothing" in return.

This means that you are often going to feel awkward. You are going to feel that you are not in control and, for the most part, you are going to feel unappreciated. But this is good. It means you have begun to enter into and to share the burden of the awful loneliness and intolerable dullness that are at the heart of another person's pain.

This is the way of compassion.

Some years ago, I first wrote about the foundational importance of just being-with-a-person in solidarity and love, with the sacrifice of our own time. I'm learning more and more how true this really is. Even when we have our own illnesses, needs, and hindrances (which make us all the more aware of the limits of what we can do, physically, to improve the situations of others), we cannot forget those who have been entrusted to us interpersonally—those who need our love, and also whatever time, presence, and care we can give them.

"Staying with one another" is at the heart of living as human beings. This is true for all of us.

I would say especially to young people, and to all those who are blessed with lots of energy, good health, and emotional stability: "Your vitality and constructive aspirations are a joy to me! Live fully, with love for God and one another. You have natural gifts that predispose you to the corporal works of mercy (among other things), and you can also grow in the life of grace and as human persons through the sacrifices of this kind of service.

"There are many ways to help those in need. By all means use your energy to assist with the many practical difficulties that sick and suffering people (and their families) must endure. But please do not forget that deeper and harder sacrifice of sharing time with the person in pain. Simple love passes through time, patience, and perseverance and entails the willingness not merely to 'help' but also to suffer with the person."

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Trumpet Will Sound...

Saint Paul preaches to the Corinthians about the mystery of the resurrection, the victory of Jesus Christ over death and the hope of eternal life. This is what gives value to life in the present age, and gives us the courage to persevere through every moment of time and every difficulty, to do His will and trust in His mercy.

"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters,
be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain"
(1 Corinthians 15:54-58).

Saturday, March 2, 2019

March Comes in Like Linus

So, it's ... March. Already. 

So far it's ☁☁! Linus is my go-to coffee mug lately.😉

Friday, March 1, 2019

Avril Lavigne's Got Her "Head Above Water" & Her Voice Strong

After her long and painful battle with Lyme Disease, Avril Lavigne is happily in remission and making new music. Her new full length album Head Above Water was released on February 15, with twelve songs including the powerful and inspiring title track that meant a lot to me personally when it was released last Fall.

I could definitely relate to that song, in its overall imagery and in the very poignant prayer it articulated. (I wrote an article about it on this blog back in September - see HERE.)

Now there's a whole new "big record." Woot!⭐ I am really excited for her. She did it! She's got the Lyme under control. She managed to write, record, and release a full length album. I'm amazed. Knowing what I know about music and Lyme, I feel ... proud of her!

This weird disease brings together people from many different backgrounds and circumstances of life, who find that they share a common experience that can be difficult for others to understand. We have learned to appreciate one another's very particular (and sometimes very peculiar) sufferings, struggles, setbacks, victories, and overall tenacity.

Thus the old, gray-bearded professor discovers a surprising sense of "kinship" with a performer who, through most of her career, has been known as the Punk-Pop Princess.

Actually, it's not completely surprising. The professor is himself a guitarist (and was once a pretty good one too), and anyone who reads this blog knows he keeps an eye on contemporary music.

But still... my interests more recently have been with independent music and emerging venues like YouTube (and now, Instagram), rather than mainstream pop. Moreover, during the years of Avril Lavigne's rise to international superstardom, I was going through the worst period of my own Lyme odyssey. It was only when she announced her illness in 2015 that I thought, "Oh, I should find out more about her," and began to listen to her music.

There was a lot of music: five albums and five world tours in 12 years. There was also the whole "Avril Phenomenon," which hits many of the themes I continue to examine in my Media Studies Project. Avril's image is an example of the workings of our enormously "expanded" collective imagination; it's a multimedia story we've "seen," "heard," and "read about" from her own performances and recordings, along with countless media-generated interpretations. It has been woven together - moreover - during a time of rapid transition in media technology.

On the "outside," it has all the elements of the classic "rock 'n roll fairy tale": talented small town kid gets 'discovered' by record exec, makes the album her way, becomes an overnight sensation and, eventually, a generational icon. Wow, awesome!

It also has (on the outside) some of the elements of the classic "rock 'n roll cautionary tale" of life-spiraling-out-of-control: ambitious kid with complex personality and (perhaps) unresolved issues becomes famous rock star too young too fast, is bombarded and "traumatized" by hyper-exposure to the immense power of the whole realm of modern high-speed brain-and-body-stretching technology; she travels the world, is seen and heard (live or through media) by millions of people, has a total blast, parties hard, and is constantly hounded by paparazzi who usually end up with pictures of her flipping them off. Nevertheless, she has her remaining adolescence and young adulthood relentlessly scrutinized and distorted by tabloid gossip.

She puts out more hit records, and experiments with various musical and fashion styles - which cause some to think she's having an identity crisis and others to create an "Avril is Dead" conspiracy theory in which she is replaced by a double (or a clone). She tries marriage twice and goes through other relationships, ends up partying even harder and drinking (probably too much) and singing about partying and drinking and "getting wasted" and "never growing up." Then she CRASHES!, before the age of 30, and disappears.

Did I miss anything? In any case, you get the idea.

Sounds like a template for a celebrity melodrama (except the "crash" at the "end" comes from a place entirely different from what the script usually calls for).

But this story is not the real story of a human being. It's a distorted projection of superficial impressions that gets in the way of what the artist is trying to express through her creative work. Obviously, the story is connected to some real and not always edifying events, some difficulties, excesses, and flaws. And the artist contributes to the cultivation of this Big Story, more or less voluntarily. An artist's ego seeks attention, but real artistic sensibility is not long satisfied with this kind of attention. Yet "the music business" can make artists feel trapped in the perpetuation of this external image. We also trap them with our expectations and our fickleness.

As for the "inside" of the story ... well, we have no room for an "inside," because that requires respect for privacy, and the recognition of the ambivalence of a human life in progress, with unresolved problems and paradoxes that defy categorization. We have to admit that we don't really know and don't understand most of the story of any person.

A human story is always more profound than what we can see "on the outside," and has deeper dimensions than even the particular personal subject can express from within. We can recognize some of the good that people do, as well as some of their limits, mistakes, selfishness, and violence. We can help them according to our responsibility in relation to them. Too often, however, we prefer to divert ourselves (and one another) with misplaced curiosity and caricatures of people that can be manipulated to our own perceived advantage.

Obviously, the work of people in our social spotlights is subject to both appreciative and critical evaluation. It is also important to make a mature assessment of where, when, and in what manner it can be integrated into the pedagogical environment of the children and adolescents entrusted to us, whose humanity we want to educate as much as possible toward an integral realism and encompassing compassion.

But instead of making these efforts, we usually settle for the superficial and the sensational. We are caught up in the rootless momentum of our wildly powerful, "driven" society that does not know where it is going and does not care about the wreckage it leaves behind. People in the spotlight are "lit up" enormously (and usually fleetingly) into gigantic caricatures for our adulation, excessive expectations, the indulgence of our invasive curiosity, and as objects on which we project our own fantasies of grandeur. Too often, they end up as targets of our dissatisfaction, rage, or open contempt.

Our culture's strange obsession with "celebrities" says more about us than it does about the actors, entertainers, public figures, and artists that we alternately idolize and skewer.

How can a person with an artistic vocation and with the precise, often burdensome focus of an artistic temperament possibly survive in an environment such as this? That is an enormous question. Let me put on the table something we can begin to handle: "What are we expecting from our popular music artists in these times when everything is too big, too fast, too much?"

I want to look at the value of their art, in relation to the whole range of the analogous predication of beauty, a range as wide and diverse as the whole world of being itself. What does that mean? Well, for starters, I want a musician to make good music. I want a songwriter to write good songs and a singer to sing them in a way that brings them to life.

This brings us back to Avril Lavigne. (I have not forgotten about her.😉)

Avril has proven consistently that she can write and sing songs that range over a wide spectrum of emotions. Her artistry is direct, intuitive, even visceral when she grasps a theme and drives it home with the whole force of her distinctive voice. This means more than volume and pitch (though she has plenty of both); it's her whole way of enunciating the right phrase at the right moment with the right emotional intensity so that it wafts through the ears or cuts down to the bone.

The words of her songs are usually simple; the key is the coherence between a phrase and her very particular, dramatically gauged articulation of it. I sometimes say that my favorite lyrics of Avril are "Yeah," "nana" and "lalalala." She knows just where and how to insert them. Her singing voice is her own unique craft, and as such she can "own" songs that would ordinarily be classified under different genres.

There's even a real CD. With a booklet. Like the olden days!
When she was 17, someone asked her what genre her music belonged in, and she responded without batting an eye: "it's 'Avril Lavigne'!"

This is especially evident on the new album. Critics have complained that Avril doesn't have a coherent style. They accuse her of dabbling, going through the motions, singing a bunch of generic songs,

They are not listening!

Some music critics seem to have already made up their minds that this album is just the last chapter (or the epilogue) to "the Avril Story" that I outlined above. Because that story is "so over" - it's "so last decade;" this album is a comback "attempt" that "falls flat." "She hasn't kept up with the trends in music." "It needs more of this, it needs less of this." Blah blah blah.

I don't agree.

I have listened to the Head Above Water album several times over the past two weeks. It's overall a very good piece of work. Her voice is stronger and more agile than ever, and she makes full use of it. The singing is solid and has some epic moments. The overall mood of the album (i.e. in most of the songs) is calmer, more mature, more subtle in its themes.

There are themes of struggle and recovery in these songs, but they are set within the context of relationships. Thus the album is not about Avril's experience with Lyme Disease, though some of the real human drama of this sickness might lie under the surface.

It's also not a "worship album" (surely no one was expecting it would be). God only gets mentioned in the title track, which was written about a particularly vivid experience during a terrible time. Another song uses some religious themes in a metaphorical way. Otherwise this is not a "religious album" except insofar as it expresses and portrays something of the drama of God's needy, often mistaken, afflicted, resilient, hopeful human creatures. That's nothing new for Avril as a songwriter, though I sense some deepening and enrichment going on.

This may be an album that ushers in a new phase in her musical career. It's not an album that "can't find its style or consistency" nor is it a "weak effort of a has-been artist" (some of these critics have got me mad, ha!) - it has a very precise style: it's genuine "Avril Lavigne."

It's a style I have come to appreciate.