The Mystery of Art

MysteryThere is a fairly good chance that you know Jonathan Jackson as an Emmy award winning actor from television shows like General Hospital and Nashville, or from films like Tuck Everlasting and The Deep End of the Ocean. You might even know him as part of the band Enation. What you might not know is that he is also a philosopher poet, a budding theologian, and an Orthodox Christian. All of this coalesces in his new book, The Mystery of Art, a beautiful and compelling articulation of what it means to be “an artist in the Image of God.”

Following in the tradition of artists like Flannery O’Connor, C.S Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Makoto Fujimura and others who have spoken insightfully about the intersection of art and faith, Jonathan stitches together wisdom from saints, authors, filmmakers, and friends with stories and observations of his own to clean the lens of our perception.

This is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. I frequently find myself recalling passages and ruminating on them even though it’s been two months since I read it. I wanted to include more than twice as much of the author’s content in the post than is here. Whittling it away has been excruciating. So, I will keep my remarks brief and mostly let the author speak for himself. I hope you will be intrigued and read the book so that you too may be nourished and inspired.

Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet. ~St. Porphyrios

In the introduction, the author invites us to remember a Christianity that “experienced Christ by means of a holistic, sacramental, and artistic reality” and to embrace art’s unique ability to penetrate to the heart of things.

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological…he awakens the heart to a deeper significance.

Art as Beauty:

Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because we are made in the image of the Creator, we ourselves are creative, regardless of vocation. “We are artists in the way we love. We are poets in the way we pray.” In this, we operate in concert with the Trinity:

The artist is never more himself than when his heart is united with the Holy Spirit; when he approaches his craft as a kind of symphony with God.

Art as Mystery and Madness:

Man is at once glorious and broken–magnificently radiant and deeply wounded.

We are all familiar with the image of the suffering artist. This suffering can be “destructive, narcissistic, and tormented” or “therapeutic, selfless, and holy“. Dostoevsky is given as an example of one whose “inner illumination” made it possible to “transform his suffering and give it meaning.”

Art as Prayer and Intercession:

The artist is to become a living prayer.

With personal examples of roles that brought him close to the sufferings of others, Jonathan explains how these became unique opportunities to intercede on behalf of these people; to stand with them in their pain.

The artist’s performances are destined to become not only seamless acts of prayer but also holy acts of intercession. The spiritual artist creates from a place of wounded love and humility–like Christ.

Art as Listening:

If there were a little more silence, if we all kept quiet…maybe we could understand something. ~Federico Fellini

Silence teaches the artist to listen–it creates space inside of him to discover secrets and encounter mysteries. To be silent before anything or anyone is an act of humility…Humility has no reason to hide or falsify itself. Therefore, silence teaches the artist how to tell the truth.

Art as Belief:

The most brilliant artists possess the gift of faith, whether they are conscious or subconscious participants in this grace.

Art as Prophecy:

Creating is meant to be a form of prophecy…To be prophetic means to live in communion with the Spirit. His intentions become the artist’s intentions, through ceaseless prayer, love-filled repentance, and the transformation of the mind…When an artist abandons the illusion of autonomy, he becomes a vessel of the Divine Flame…

Contrived art for the sake of preaching to people is an offense to the mystery and sacredness of creation. Beauty and honesty are the primary inspirations of the artist: he trusts the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit to lead hearts into the truth. The prophetic artist is one who breaks open the remembrance of humanity, creating an atmosphere for the Spirit of God to breathe new life into creation.

Art as Sacrament:

Poetry is unhindered paradox and contradiction. It seeks to communicate something mystically before that thing can be apprehended cognitively. It is the music of words.

We have become a dualistic society, opposing the physical world to the spiritual. But this was never meant to be. We were created to be fully integrated beings. There is a physicality that is absolutely essential to faith. “Human beings are, in a very real sense, symphonic creatures.”

Art as Offering:

It may seem strange to portray events and characters that are not holy and beautiful or to write songs about troubled souls. But, in reality, it is not strange at all. Who better to prophetically enter into the depths of humanity than those who are living in ceaseless prayer with God?…The holiness of Christ brings us closer to humanity: closer to our true beauty and fearsome darkness. Any talk of Christianity that displays a haughty distance toward the brokenness and vulnerability of humanity has nothing to do with Christ.

Rejoice, O Artists:

Our society seems to think that joy is a conflict-free, lucid state of contentment. It is not. It is an act of rebellion: a holy and sacred rage…It is not placid, passive or docile. It is the madness of love.

One of the lovely gifts of the book is the inclusion of several original poems and prayers. I close with a short excerpt from one of those (from the chapter Art as Mystery and Madness).

O Spirit of Grace, you are complete and utter bliss. You are the ecstasy of a thousand kisses beneath the ocean. You are the rain of restoration and hope. You are the trembling inside my frame. You are the tears that have no end. You are the lightning of inspiration within my temple of wanderings. You are the heart of desire and the warmth of intimacy…Wisdom is your presence. Salvation is your embrace. Heaven is to be seen by you. I fall into your arms of love…

*All quotes in the post taken from the book. All unattributed quotes: Jonathan Jackson.

The Lenten Spring Has Come!

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The lenten spring has come!
Let us begin the time of fasting in light!
Preparing ourselves for the spiritual efforts.
Let us purify our soul; let us purify our body.
As from food, let us abstain from all passion
and enjoy the virtues of the spirit,
So that perfected in time by love
We may all be made worthy to see
the Passion of Christ and the Holy Pascha
In spiritual joy!
~from the Lenten Triodion

Spring Cleaning

It is a time honored tradition, even in Appalachia where I grew up and where we were anything but liturgical. Of course, it is not the only time we clean our houses. But this is a time for going deep. For pulling furniture away from the walls to get to the cobwebs and dust bunnies. For washing windows. For pruning rosebushes and clearing planting beds.

And so it is with our souls. How perfect that Lent is a springtime affair! As I expose and scrub the dark recesses of my home, I ask my loving Father to expose the dark places in me and make them clean. As I prune away the detritus of last season’s growth, the rot and ravages of winter, I invite the Gardener to cut away that in me which contaminates, impeding my growth.

Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world”. ~Alexander Schmemann

In the Orthodox church, there are two primary focuses as we commence our lenten effort: fasting and forgiveness.

The Holy Therapy of Fasting

Alexander Schmemann describes the “holy therapy of fasting” as “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal…our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter and the world.” He points out that Adam’s fall was an act of eating, a grasping for sustenance that was not communion with God but reliance on what he could provide for himself; a transgression of which I too often am guilty. Conversely, Jesus began His work of restoration with a period of fasting…

Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone, but by God. ~Schmemann

Ours is a prescribed fast. We do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs for the whole of Lent. Olive oil and wine are permitted only on weekends. Vegetables digest very quickly and hunger becomes a familiar companion. And the hunger in my belly becomes my teacher.

In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. ~Schmemann

Forgiveness

The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition , separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness. ~Schmemann

Lent officially begins for us with the beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. It is one of the most meaningful services of the whole year. One by one, we bow before each member of the church and say these words, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and in response hear the sweet words “God forgives and I forgive.” Then we embrace. Who knows how many hurts are carried into that room? Yet not one person refuses to bow. Not one refuses to forgive.

This year I delighted in watching four year old Titus continually press ahead in the crowd, so eager was he to ask the next person to forgive him. And I thought of what it means to have that planted deep in him at this age. May he ever be this eager to seek restoration. May we all.

Wash me with my tears, O Saviour, for I am defiled by many sins. Therefore I fall down before Thee: I have sinned, have mercy on me, O God. ~Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers

The Church strengthens us in this, our first week, with nightly services. Three nights we will pray the penitential Canon of St. Andrew. And the prayers and the prostrations begin to weave repentance into our very cells.

I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’…As precious ointment, O Saviour, I empty on Thine head the alabaster box of my tears. Like the Harlot, I cry out to Thee, seeking Thy mercy: I bring my prayer and ask to receive forgiveness. ~Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

Soul Food

Even as we discipline and deny our bodies, we are encouraged to feed our souls. In addition to availing myself of the services the Church so kindly provides to us in this season, I am also nourishing myself with Scripture and with good books.

Last year, I made a commitment to begin memorizing the words of Christ. I began with the Sermon on the Mount because it is three chapters of uninterrupted teaching. I was surprised by two things: How relatively easy it was to learn (because God honored and blessed the endeavor, I am quite sure) and by how much I have come to treasure those words. When I have difficulty sleeping, I recite them and they still my mind and bring me rest. I rehearse them when I am washing dishes or working in the garden. And it is remarkable how often I have needed those words to share with someone and there they were. I also committed John 17 (my favorite chapter in the whole Bible) to memory. Over the course of Lent, I hope to add chapters 14-16 of John. To hold in my heart those dear words He shared with His beloveds in His last hours on the earth is of inestimable worth.

Here are the books I will be reading. All are re-reads, save The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This book is read in monasteries all over the world each year at Lent. This year, I am joining them.

Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus
The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris

A blessed Lenten journey to you all.

Regarding Oscar

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

A well made film has a remarkable ability to carry us deep inside the life of another person, another time, another place. It enables us to share the grief and the delight, the heartaches and dreams of persons very unlike us and, in the process, to know ourselves. Some films make us uncomfortable. Some of them help us imagine a world that is nobler and more whole. The very best of them leave us better than they found us.

Eight of these are Academy Award nominees this year for best picture. This is a diverse company, each outstanding in its own way. Though I am unqualified to make predictions about winners, here are my strictly personal viewing notes.

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American Sniper is a modern day hero tale. In Chris Kyle, superhuman vision and marksmanship are wed to a strong sense of loyalty and honor. He finds himself in a place that is more dark and difficult than most of us can even imagine, but for a moment we are there with him. Through his eyes, we taste the terror, the incessant tension and necessary vigilance, the impossible life or death choices that are his every day. We share the whiplash of moving back and forth between the relative safety and ease of life stateside and the horror that is life on the battlefield. And we see its terrible personal cost.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this film.

At every service in the Orthodox Church we pray for our armed forces in defense of freedom everywhere. I never hear those words now without a catch in my throat and a picture of what it is costing them every day to be there on my behalf.

Bradley Cooper gives an astonishing performance in this film. He is a worthy contender for best actor.

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Birdman:

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

This quote on Riggan Thomson’s dressing room door sets the tone for the film. It is, at heart, an exploration into what gives us worth. Michael Keaton plays an actor who became famous in the role of an iconic superhero some twenty years ago. His fans are not the only ones who have a difficult time separating the man from the myth. Birdman seems to have become an alter ego. A voice he can’t get out of his head. Riggan’s hold on reality is tentative at best.

But he is trying. Trying to shake off a false self he has worn for far too long. Trying to make up for some of the mistakes of the past. Trying to say something worthwhile with his life.

He is not the only one. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and is struggling to stitch together the fragments of her life, while working in the unenviable position of production assistant to her father. Emma Stone gives an extraordinary performance in this role and is hands down my pick for best supporting actress. Broadway darling and diva, Mike Shiner, who is a last minute addition to the cast, adds to the whole existential dialogue, confessing to Sam that the only time he feels like he is telling the truth is when he is on stage.

Michael Keaton is utterly believable in this film, even when he is doing unbelievable things. A stellar performance. And Zach Galifianakis is a great surprise, rendering the role of best friend and tether of sanity, Jake, with dramatic intensity.

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Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years using the same cast. It is impossible to overstate the impact of watching these same people evolve, year after year after year. Sometimes, just watching the character appear on screen with a new haircut (or new piercings) tells something about who he has become before he says anything.

Life is less than perfect for Mason whose single mom is stretched to her limits providing for two kids, and working to improve their situation. Dad is frequently absent, but is all in when he is around. They move too much, and there are a couple of drunken, abusive step-dads along the way. But there is a lot of wonderful too. Baseball games and camping trips, bowling, and bed time stories, and good friends.

This is a coming of age story, with all the best and the worst of what it means to grow and change, to win and lose, to leave and come home. These people become so real that sometimes I feel like I am watching home movies and not an award winning film. And Mason and his sister are not the only ones growing up before our eyes. Mom and Dad are also finally growing into themselves.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolute delight. The language, the cinematography, the subtle humor, and the lavish ostentation are a veritable feast. Monsieur Gustave H is the consummate hotel concierge; genteel, precise, punctiliously polite. This wins him many admirers and friends. But when a fabulously wealthy admirer leaves to him a very valuable painting in her will, he finds himself accused of her murder.

Thus begins a great adventure which includes, among other things, a daring escape from prison, a snowy pilgrimage to an alpine monastery, a deadly encounter with the henchman employed by the deceased woman’s family, and a shoot out in the upper gallery of the hotel. In all of this, he is aided by his protege, young Zero Moustaffa, the lobby boy. He is vindicated in the end, but alas his life is cut short by an encounter with militants aboard a train.

This is not a film that will change the world. But, it is quirky and compelling and nourishes that part of me that loves the creative and the beautiful. I have seen it twice already and am not done yet.

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The Imitation Game:

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Touring has always lived on the outside. He has a brilliant intellect, but little understanding of how to interact with others. Yet, untold thousands owe their lives to this outsider.

He becomes the unlikely leader of a team tasked with breaking the enigma code. This unmerry band of confederates will fight and claw and mistrust one another.

And accomplish the impossible.

However, it is decided that it would be a tactical error to let the Germans realize that their code has been broken. This leads to the excruciating task of deciding when to intervene and when not to. Who lives and who dies? It also means that these genius code-breakers will not be properly recognized for their extraordinary contribution until many years later. But this is not the greatest trial Touring must endure.

Early in the story we realize Touring is gay. He experiences a very difficult loss at boarding school when a young man who has become very dear to him dies. He experiences loss again when he realizes it would be selfish to marry his colleague Joane, even though he loves her, because he can not be in all ways a husband to her. But the most tragic loss comes at the end of the film. When, following an investigation into a break in at his home, Touring is found to be homosexual, he is prosecuted for indecency. He is forced to endure medical treatments for two years, intended to reverse his condition. They destroy his health and his mind and eventually drive him to end his own life. It is an outrageous tragedy.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a compelling and sympathetic performance, complete with all the necessary idiosyncrasies of genius. A challenging and ennobling film.

Are you paying attention? Good. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.”

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Selma

If I have been able to see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~Sir Isaac Newton

Selma introduces us to some of these giants. From the intimate portrait of Dr. King and his lovely and courageous bride, to the snapshots of ordinary men and women who risked everything to make the world right, this film allows us to step inside their lives for a space. To feel the anguish of being dehumanized and unheard. To feel trapped by a system that every day betrays the ideals it espouses.

These were men and women with the audacity to imagine a world that did not yet exist, and with the courage to make it be so. Many of them did not live to see their dreams come to pass. But they believed in the inevitability. Knowing them, being with them, makes each of us more human.

Every day you and I live in a grace purchased for us by the courageous acts of those who have come before us. May their memories be eternal.

theory

The Theory of Everything

Three things I have “known” for some time about Stephen Hawking: Brilliant physicist, pernicious atheist, physically challenged.

Labels. Categories.

“The Theory of Everything” makes him real.

In this film he becomes curious and funny, quirky and disorganized, and vulnerable. I was surprised to like him so much. His relationship with Jane is sweet, and terrifying, like all relationships are at the start. But in her he finds a partner of great fortitude and persistence who pushes through the hardest trials, and in the process, calls out the very best in him.

While I certainly disagree with a good bit of his philosophy, I must admit that his story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.

As acknowledged by the Golden Globes, Eddie Redmayne gives an outstanding performance in a very demanding role. And Felicity Jones is lovely. (Though I am still rooting for Emma Stone)

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Whiplash

If you have ever given your sweat and blood to something you love, especially if that something is music, if you know that anything worth having comes at a price, you will find yourself in this film. It is visceral and intense. I literally found myself feeling nauseous at times.

The pin-ups on the wall of Andrew Nieman’s room are drummers. The greats, like Buddy Rich. Someday, he wants to be one of them. And to make it be so he practices relentlessly, til his fingers bleed. When we meet him he is a first year at Schaffer Conservatory of Music.

Enter Terrence Fletcher, prestigious (and feared) director of the studio jazz band at Schaffer who invites Nieman to take the position of alternate drummer. Nieman quickly discovers that Fletcher employs a vocabulary of terror and intimidation to push players past their perceived limits and to their ultimate potential.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.

The film is shot mostly in tight frames: in practice rooms, at a table with not enough air, in a crowded theater. This contributes to the palpable feeling of entrapment. There are plot twists aplenty, and just when you think you know where it is going, you don’t. But everything fits. And it goes where it should in the end, whether that’s where you wanted it to go or not.

J.K Simmons is extraordinary in this film as a bad-ass masochist whose conducting hand conveys just enough tender, artistic underbelly to make him human. If he does not win the Oscar for best-supporting actor, it is a travesty.

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It has been a good year at the movies, and  I am grateful to artful storytellers who give us all the opportunity to see the world through their lens.

May your tribe increase.

The Cash Legacy

I had the great good fortune to be born into a family that sings. All the time. Rare is the family gathering without guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, piano, or at least a hymnbook. The afternoon after we laid my grandmother to rest, we crowded into the front room of the farmhouse on the hill, still so full of her presence, and sang with my grandpa. The old familiar hymns were balm to his aching heart. And ours.

Maybe your family doesn’t look like that. But you can get a little taste of what it might be like. Of course, in this case, your family will be made up of Broadway caliber vocalists and Nashville front line players. And the songbook: all Cash.

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The Cash Legacy: A Musical Tribute to the Man in Black is the newest original offering from Studio Tenn. Billed by its creators as a “theatrical concert”, it has the ease of those family gatherings. One song moves fluidly into another without the intrusion of dialogue. Now a rip-roaring hand-clapper with everybody piling in. Then a ballad that is so tender, so personal, all you can do is listen and let the hurt of it, the beautiful truth of it, seep into those places inside you that need it.

It is an evening of memorable moments, but here are a few that have been playing themselves over and over in my head all day…

The evening opened with “Daddy Sang Bass”, plus a little taste of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. It was a lovely invitation to all of us to enter in. My brother and I liked to sing this one when we were little, so right from the get go I had my first personal connection. In a poetic turn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” came back round at the end, except by then we had cried and laughed and sat in this rich music together so that we had grown into one another and all felt part of that circle. I don’t think anyone wanted it to be over.

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Carrie Tillis sat on the edge of the stage with an autoharp in her lap and brought her easy grace to “I Still Miss Someone”. Others began to add harmonies so gentle that I was not sure when they began. Ridiculously talented guitarist, Jake Bradley, showed us his vocal side when he joined Tillis for “Long Legged Guitar Pickin Man”. Their exchange was so playful and fun to watch. Clearly both were having as much fun as we were.

One of the most compelling ensemble pieces was the bluesy “Five Feet High and Rising” where they sang into and out of each other so seamlessly I swear they were breathing together.

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The first time Griffin House stepped up to the mic, my mouth fell open. He sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash. Not in an affected way. Just a tone that is so very like. He and Laura Matula joined forces on the iconic “Ring of Fire”, and both honored it and made it their own, their voices a delicious pairing.

House made me laugh til I hurt, not once, but twice. First on “Busted” which he began singing and strumming while lolled out on the couch. His facial expressions while he poked fun at his ill fortune were priceless. But even better was “A Boy Named Sue”. Sitting on the steps with a bottle in his hand and confiding to his listeners his ironic story in rapid cadence with the most hysterical faces, he had us all laughing out loud.

Laura Matula broke my heart with “Give My Love to Rose”. Truth is, I might have teared up just writing about it. It was a powerful moment. She poured herself out in this song and sang it with such empathy I could see her kneeling at the railroad tracks with this dear, dying man, holding his face in her hands. I have included a video of her singing the song at Sun Studios, where Johnny made so many records, so she can break your heart, too.

I have seen Matula in several Studio Tenn productions, but last night she was dazzling. Girl got some pipes and when she is singing all out, I feel it in my chest. Because she is also a gifted actress, she is captivating to watch. Especially fun was her sassy delivery of “Cry, Cry, Cry”.

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Patrick Thomas was one of my favorites in last year’s The Hank Legacy, and he did not disappoint last night. His powerful voice was just right on “I walk the Line”. And when he sang “The Man in Black”, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. But I especially loved seeing him with Matt Haeck on “The Unclouded Day”. Face to face, guitar to guitar, they sang this favorite hymn from my childhood like they meant it, and it was all I could do not to sing along.

Sara Jean Kelley showed considerable range, from the quiet, plaintive “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the lively and playfully vindictive “Jackson” (a duet with Haeck).

All three girl singers gathered round the piano for a sweet and spare trio setting of “Flesh and Blood”. Do you remember those albums Dolly, Linda and Emmylou recorded a number of years ago? Their exquisite harmonies reminded me of those. I kept forgetting to breathe.

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When Matt Haeck stepped quietly into the spotlight with only his guitar and began to pick broken chords, slow and purposeful, I knew it was time for “Hurt”. I had been waiting for it all night, but wasn’t ready for it. Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords. And every heavy, sorrowful day was in that moment. When you can barely put words to the grief. Then the grieving builds and you feel like you are dragging an impossible weight and everything is so loud and the piano is pounding those incessant octaves and it builds and builds until you think your heart will burst.

And then…

Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords.

And the silence hangs after.

And still it ends too soon.

I beg you to do yourself a favor and see this show while you can. It plays til March 6 (including Johnny’s birthday, Feb. 26). Get your tickets HERE.

*All photographs and videos in the post copyright Anthony Matula www.ma2la.com

worthless

It all began this morning when Mike and I arrived in the bathroom at precisely the same time to take a shower; I because Kenzie was arriving soon and this was my window, he because he had to leave for a meeting. Of course, he assumed I would yield to him. Because he has the job that actually pays money, I guess. He didn’t say that. But he did get the first shower.

And all day I have wrestled with an issue that has been pestering me, drooping from the front edge of my brain for weeks now. What is it that I do? Who am I anyway? A friend I haven’t seen in some time innocently asked me, just this morning, what I am doing these days. One of my kids even asked, not that long ago, how I fill my time now that all but one of them is grown.

I don’t know. How do I?

God knows, I am not writing. If you have ever followed this blog, you know that. I don’t know why I stopped. But, I can’t seem to make myself start back. When I was writing every day, there was less pressure. So…one day I ramble or write something no one cares about? Maybe next day will be better. But now, when I haven’t written for two months, it should be something really good, right? And I can’t handle the pressure. So I don’t write anything. I just sit around resenting the people who are out there doing it every day. People whose lives are far more productive than mine. And still they find time to write. Still they have something to say.

And maybe that’s it.

Maybe I have nothing worth saying anyway.

How can I be this old, and this tired, and have accomplished so little?

Sure, I have raised some pretty great kids. But so have plenty of other folks who also held down full-time jobs and brought home a pay-check every week. And the truth is, though I love my kids and am proud of them, not one of them has had an easy road. So what was it that I thought I could give them by walking away from a job that I loved and giving myself entirely to being their mom? Would they have been better off if I had been less involved?

I honestly don’t know.

This past Sunday, the teaching of the Church was on the Pharisee and the Publican. Humility. And I sat and piously nodded my head and resolved to spend some time this week thinking about that. But I am pretty sure self-loathing, and rage against feelings of being invisible and under-appreciated and maybe having wasted my life thus far, are not exactly what the priest had in mind.

On the up side, I gave myself permission to write it all down. On the not so up side, it kind of looks like so much vomit on the page and I wonder if, in a couple of hours, I will pull it all down and hope nobody saw it.

Here is what I really wish I knew: What is it that gives value to a life? How do you know if you are doing/being that kind of person, the one that matters, the one whose absence will be felt, the one whose presence will live on, long after they have gone?

The Radical Defiance of Giving Thanks

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Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~I Thessalonians 5:18

Much of the time I feel like I lead a charmed life saturated with beauty and grace. Gratitude, for me, is as natural as breathing. But there have been seasons in my life when choosing to be grateful was an act of radical defiance. A trembling candle held out against the gathering dark. Maybe you know what that feels like. Maybe you are there now.

Gregory Petrov knew. A priest, he had been imprisoned by revolutionary forces in a Siberian gulag. Here, he would meet his death. In his personal effects, they found a prayer. He had titled it “Glory to God for All Things”–words uttered by St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. An act of radical defiance. “A song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Last night we prayed his words. At times, their piercing loveliness caught in my throat. My heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears.

Wherever you find yourself on this day, I offer you his words. Perhaps they simply give voice to the deep joy in your heart. But, perhaps they are a vehicle for you to ride into a place of gratitude. A borrowed thanks. A radical defiance against your own gathering dark.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

How glorious art Thou in the springtime, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings Thy praises with a thousand tongues. Thou art the Source of Life, the Destroyer of Death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding garments, white as snow. All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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When the sun is setting, when quietness falls like the peace of eternal sleep, and the silence of the spent day reigns, then in the splendour of its declining rays, filtering through the clouds, I see Thy dwelling-place: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of Thy presence, and call to us in their majesty. We turn to the Father.

How near Thou art in the day of sickness. Thou Thyself visitest the sick; Thou Thyself bendest over the sufferer’s bed. His heart speaks to Thee. In the throes of sorrow and suffering Thou bringest peace and unexpected consolation. Thou art the comforter. Thou art the love which watches over and heals us. To Thee we sing the song: Alleluia!

When Thou didst call me to serve my brothers and filled my soul with humility, one of Thy deep, piercing rays shone into my heart; it became luminous, full of light like iron glowing in the furnace. I have seen Thy face, face of mystery and of unapproachable glory.

Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love
Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments
Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others
Glory to Thee, rewarding us so well for the good we do
Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love
Glory to Thee, raising to the heights of heaven every act of love in earth and sky
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but Thou canst restore a conscience turned to ashes. Thou canst restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With Thee, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Thou art love; Thou art Creator and Redeemer. We praise Thee, singing: Alleluia!

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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*I assigned myself the arduous task of choosing only a few stanzas to share with you. I encourage you to read the whole of the prayer HERE.

**All bolds in the text are mine.

On Becoming a Man…

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This is a frontier of tension; it is at once beginning and end, origin and completion.  Here is where two opposing forces reach toward each other to create a vital frontier filled with danger and possibility.  ~John O’Donohue

Best Beloved,

This morning the world continues its incessant hum and people rush about as though it were any ordinary Monday. But you and I know different. Today is a threshold day. And because you are a philosopher poet, because you ponder and reflect, I have an idea that the weight of it is sitting on you.

How I wish I could be with you today. To have long talks about life and faith and dreams. To share a delicious meal and watch you close your eyes and pause to let the wonder of it settle on your tongue. To walk with you in comfortable silence; to give and receive hugs; to laugh. But you are far away. So I send you this letter. Because I too tend to ponder these liminal moments.

This I would have you know…

You are a uniquely gifted individual. Your peculiar accumulation of talent, intellect, compassion, and experience has never before existed on the earth. The world desperately needs you to grow into the fullness of who God made you to be. Work to develop your giftings. Talent will only take you so far, but talent AND persistence are a force to be reckoned with.

Never be afraid to fail. Some of the best lessons come from audacious efforts that fell short. Next time, you will bring that experience to the table. Be wise. Be prudent. But also be brave.

You are loved extravagantly. All the time, no matter what. By your family, by your friends, by God. Nothing will ever, ever change that.

Nourish your heart. You give so much of yourself away to those you love. Be sure to replenish your stores. Make music, paint, draw, and feed yourself with the music and art of others. Stay close to nature. Read wonderful books. Surround yourself with people who encourage and love you, and who will challenge you when needed. Practice gratitude.

Walk closely with God. You must decide for yourself what that looks like, but never lose your great love for Him. He loves you so.

Hold fast to your passion and curiosity. Continue to drink life in great, lusty gulps. And allow your joie de vivre to spill out on others. They need you to help them see more deeply, more clearly.

Live YOUR life. In endurance sports it is common to hear someone say, “Hike your own hike” or “Run your own run.” It is easy to get caught up in the pressure to be what someone else envisions for you; pressure to be “successful” (whatever that means), to be wealthy or famous, to fit into some box the culture–or the counter-culture–has designed. I pray that daily God will reveal to you more and more the man He has designed you to be, and that you will know the joy of living out your truest self.

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I take great delight in you, son of mine. I respect and enjoy you. And I couldn’t be more proud of the man you are becoming. I close with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes”. It expresses my fondest wish for you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Happy 21st birthday, beloved! God grant you many years!

Like Beads on a String

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Sometimes it seems we assemble our days
like beads on a string. Now and again
we take them out and run our fingers
over them. And remember…

First flutter.
A movement inside.
Tiny growing miracle.
Secret and wondrous.

Born. Suddenly the world
has more color. Deep, vivid,
vibrant. The fierceness of my love
startles me. And I know I would give my life
for you.

Blue eyed girl seizing the world
with both hands. Drinking words like milk,
creating imaginary realities, telling stories.
Dancing through life with abandon.

Young woman, pouring yourself out for those
without water, those destroyed by war. Seeing
the invisible ones.

Gypsy soul stamping your passport in Paris,
London, and Rome. Traipsing across
Europe and Asia with a backpack. Sipping cappuccino
in an outdoor cafe in Salzburg. Smoking
a hookah in Turkey. Leaving a fragment of your heart
in the warm soil of Africa.

Life giver. Ushering your little one
into the world. Weaving your own thread
into the great tapestry of women that are
your heritage.

Mommy. Tender, gentle, radiant.
Laughing and loving.
Planting, playing and praying.
Teaching your daughter to be generous
and kind, with your words, but mostly
with your life.

Woman. Courageous, curious, and
wise beyond your years. Receptive and open
to experience, to people, to ideas.
Crazy, mad cooking skills, and deep devotion
to food that nourishes both body and soul.

Friend. Grace giver. One who loves
extravagantly.
Intuitive.
Hospitable.
Loyal.

Beloved.
For all the reasons.
For no reason at all.

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Dearest Daughter, when I run my fingers over the string that is my life, some of the most brilliant beads belong to you. Thank you for coloring my world. I pray that your string will be long and full of dazzlingly beautiful beads.

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Steel Magnolias

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I’m crazy about the new venue. So intimate, it feels like you are all mixed in among the characters. It was true during Fiddler on the Roof. The actors began to wonder onto the stage a few at a time and it was like arriving in a new town early in the morning and watching it come to life around you.

And it was especially true during Steel Magnolias. So far as I knew, I was sitting in Truvy’s shop, among that lively bunch of wild and familiar women waiting for my own turn in the chair.

From the time Truvy walked into the beauty shop, adjusting her more than ample bosoms, slathering a new coat of lipstick over the old one, and varnishing her bleached blonde locks with enough Aqua Net to create her own personal ozone hazard, I knew it was going to be a fun evening. She dished up plenty of wisdom with her beauty treatments, just like most hairdressers I’ve known, but she also had the good grace to laugh at herself, and pretty much everyone else. :)

And boy did we laugh!

We laughed at Annelle whose every action screamed the fact that she was uncomfortable in her own skin. Over the course of the next couple of hours, she would blossom, in fits and starts. But that hunger to fit in, to be liked and accepted was ever a palpable reality. So much so that I was astonished to see the actress afterward and observe that she was nothing like her character.

We laughed at Clairee whose polish and good manners, confidence and subtlety, did not for a minute hide her vivacious interior. Instead, it gave it precision and potency. Her humor always took me by surprise. A truly elegant Southern lady AND an untamable spitfire.

We laughed at Shelby who we first met on her wedding day. Shelby who arrived in curlers with a bag of baby’s breath and a magazine picture of Grace Kelly. Shelby who, for all her lithe, sweet, pink prettiness, possessed within her the iron will she had absorbed from these strong women. Shelby whose wedding colors were blush and bashful. Feisty, mischiefmaking Shelby.

We laughed at M’Lynne whose matter-of-fact humor frequently bordered on sarcasm, but was too Southern to dip over the edge. We laughed at her husband who was out that morning shooting all the birds out of the trees.

We laughed at Ouiser before we even saw her. At dinner, friends and I predicted that Nan Gurley would incarnate Ouiser. And we laughed just imagining how she would play her. It was so much better than we imagined. Ouiser with the outlandish fashion sense and psychotic dog. Ouiser who has been in a bad mood for forty years. Ouiser who people are nice to only because “I have more money than God.” Ouiser who decides to go have her colors done?! Ouiser who will be offered as a punching bag in a moment when we all really need a good laugh.

Woven all in and through the laughter are strands of memory and difficulty and hard things that have been weathered and walked together. There is a love and a belonging. There are the things that don’t have to be said because they are understood by all.

Some of the most poignant moments came at the mirror. A mirror is a very vulnerable place. In this production the audience sat just back of the  “mirrors”. So when one of the women had the moment of considering herself, the way she looked or who she was (and maybe those are too tangled up most of the time) we saw it. For a space, I had this feeling it was only she and I in the room. It was raw and exposed, intensely intimate and tender.

If you know the story, you know that it takes an excruciating turn. This was powerful in the extreme. It was played with restraint, not manipulative or sentimental. But deeply honest. And the honest wrestling, the yearning to make it somehow make sense, the uncomfortable place of not knowing what to do or say or be was so true that it pierced me to the heart. All the sorrow and longing I have ever known seemed to be connected to that moment.

Steel Magnolias is a profoundly human story. Southern women, to be sure, are their own peculiar brand of human. :) But anyone who has lived life, truly and deeply, will find parts of their story in here.

I highly commend to you Studio Tenn’s performance of this wonderful work. It is intimate and artistic, cleanly and beautifully articulated. I have seen a great deal of theater in my life, and this was, without a doubt, one of the most moving experiences.

You have nine more opportunities this weekend and next. Buy tickets HERE.

Cavorting With Angels

“Don’t Die.”

It was the last thing my seventeen year old said to me before we headed out the door to the airport. I confidently promised we would not. But now, as I leaned into the stone, gripping a hank of chain for dear life and feeling the great yawning chasm 1400 feet below, it occurred to me that I might have been a bit hasty.

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I blame Hugh and Lisa.

Last fall we sat across the table from them, comparing notes on some of our favorite hikes, and Hugh began to talk about Angel’s Landing. He talked about sharp drop-offs, about walking along slender fins of stone, about the lengths of chain that were sometimes the only barrier between you and falling, about the sections with no chain, about the lady who just last year dropped to her death. My heart pounded as he talked about it. It sounded terrifying. And amazing. And somehow I knew in that very moment that one day I would find myself there.

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Angel’s Landing sits atop a towering stone spine with dizzying drop-offs on either side. It received it’s name in 1916 when Fredrich Fisher, while exploring the canyon, observed, “only an angel could land on top of it.” Yet, on this day, a number of less than angelic beings were clawing, crawling, pulling and praying their way to the top. And we were among them.

When we decided to give Mike a little more time at altitude to acclimate for Grand Canyon, visits to nearby Bryce and Zion Canyons seemed the perfect solution. Both were places we wanted to see and the combination would give us a chance to hike high (Bryce) and sleep low (Zion). And as soon as Zion was on the table, so was Angel’s Landing.

We began researching the hike. We watched a number of YouTube videos including this ridiculous one shot with a GoPro. They made my stomach hurt. Most of the time I thought we were insane to even be considering this. But, every now and then…

We had decided we would go as far as Scouts Landing, and then evaluate whether to attempt the remaining half mile along the ridge. I did not feel one bit better about it when I got there. What those people were doing looked impossible. A couple of strong, athletic looking guys who were just coming down stopped to talk to us.

“You going up there?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t either.  Just kept taking the next step. I might have even crawled a few times. But then, somehow, there we were.”

I told Mike I could do that much. I would start. However, I reserved the right to turn around at any point.

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I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared pretty much the whole time. But here is what I quickly learned. What ever was out there–ahead, or behind–looked impossible. But what was right in front of me was doable. Pull yourself up over this boulder. Grab the next chain.  Lean into the rock here because there are no chains and the path slants sharply.

Any time I stopped to look back at where we had been, I wanted to throw up. But I could always do the next right thing.

I kept thinking of my friend Gail. I don’t know how many times she has said to me, when I am in a situation that seems too hard and I can’t think how I am going to get to the other side and I wish everything were laid out nice and clean before me and it never is, “Just do the next right thing.”

There was always an awkward little dance as we encountered hikers coming down and we had to figure out which of us had the safest place to lean into or wrap arms around to let the other pass. Unintentional intimacy made us fast friends. Many spoke kind words of encouragement as we passed, and their generosity was like a long, cold drink of water. Refreshing and invigorating.

When we finally crested, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. After I had securely installed myself against a cleft of rock to keep  me from falling, I think I did a little of both. Then I took deep, full breaths of the cool air and felt the sun on my skin. I looked out over the valley and drank in the astonishing beauty of it. I gave thanks for safety and strength, for exhilaration and joy. And for the boy at my side with whom I had shared it all.

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Of course, we still had to get down from here. On the way up I had refused to look down at the valley floor below. But on the way back, that would not be possible. Occasionally, I caught myself holding my breath. But by some combination of walking, and scooting, and turning around and backing down particularly challenging sections, I finally found myself back at Scout’s Landing with all my pieces and parts still attached.

That night I lay in bed thinking back over the hike. My stomach started churning and my heart pounded and I found myself as frightened as I had been standing there at Scout’s Landing. Something about seeing it from afar and not having a task that demanded my attention made it far more terrifying. I have been thinking a lot about that ever since. There is a truth in there that I need to keep close to me.

A friend asked me recently why we do crazy things like this. It’s a fair question. And maybe this is it: It’s good practice. Frequently life throws circumstances at us that seem insurmountable. In those moments, it is easy to despair and lose hope. But, every time something we thought would kill us doesn’t, we are made stronger. And hope becomes more resilient. I will never hear Gail’s words–Just do the next right thing–again without thinking of this day.

Of how the impossible became possible
one terrifying step at a time.

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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

*Special thanks to Mike who took all the photos in the post except #2 (public domain), half of the bottom shot, and the obvious selfie. :)

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