Two Bluebirds

I’ve been rereading Ray Bradbury’s (…may he rest in peace…so sayeth we all…) Fahrenheit 451. Actually, I’m listening to it on Audible; there is a performance of it by Tim Robbins which literally makes me weep. It’s THAT good.

Anyway, as I revisit this all-too-prophetic story of a society so frightened by what is uncomfortable, challenging, or even beautiful, I am convicted. My earlier post “Dystopian Reality” goes into more detail, but as I revisit this book, I am more and more convinced that we ought to read dystopian literature with the same care with which we read history.

Most of us are familiar with the following quote by (most likely) George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

However, we ought also to bear in mind this:

“Those who do consider dystopian literature seriously are doomed to find these stories more fact than fiction, more future than fantasy.”

Okay…admittedly, I am quoting myself here and it isn’t even a good quote at that. Regardless, I believe Bradbury would back me up in my claim.

But the real reason I’ve gathered you all here today is to share the following poem, inspired by Clarisse McClellan of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: 

The bluebird blinking from my palm, its nest,
Is hollow in its o’er-bright, beeping song
And though its shallow verses are not long—
If only it would lay its voice to rest!

For I saw another bird today take wing;
It caught my eye and I dared not stroll past,
For true moments of beauty rarely last
And yet inspire me all the more to sing.

The first bird blares and yet draws not a breath
As it cries out for me to tend its feed
While yet the other bird has no such need
Though it— alive — is capable of death.

These two are of no familial feather:
One takes to flight, the other to its tether.

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Carol Contemplation (Part 1: The Text)

My favorite carol this year is one that few people have heard of and I myself did not know until this advent season. It’s title alone sets it apart from the more popular carols, which I love as well. Can you guess which it is?

Joy to the World

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Little Town of Bethlehem

All I Want for Christmas is You

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Angels We have Heard on High

The First Noel 

Alright, alright. Admittedly, there are two songs here that don’t quite seem to be like the others. (*Two of these songs just don’t quite belong!*) One, of course, is not a carol at all, but a song that I objectively don’t like, yet can’t seem to skip…it’s like some sort of disease spread by Mariah Carey’s catchy riffs, as demonstrated by my roommate’s latest Tumblr quote:

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But I digress. The other title that seems at odds with all of the angels and joy and faithfulness is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This doesn’t sound like a typical Christmas carol at all; in fact, it’s sort of spooky. Honestly, though, as much as I adore the other carols on this list (Mariah Carey aside), I feel that both the lyrics AND the music of this hymn best capture the advent attitude to which we are called as believers, as mortal flesh awaiting our salvation.

First, let’s take a look at the title.

“Let”
To let is a permission, invoking the graceful giving of a higher power. But it is also an invitation. In carols such as “O Come, all ye Faithful,” we are not praising or invoking God directly, but singing truth to our fellow believers. To “let all mortal flesh keep silence” is to pray for contemplative, anticipatory silence, as well as to call each other to rest in this silence. I think this is one reason that calm quiet at the end of a candlelight service is so magical; it is rare, silent fellowship and, in itself, an act of worship.

“All Mortal Flesh”
In the emphasis on the supernatural and divine that so often (and so necessarily) surrounds the Christmas season, we forget the gross, gory messiness of being mortal. Of being flesh. “All mortal flesh” refers to all of humanity, past and present and future. Dust to dust: flesh and bone.

More so, though, “all mortal flesh” calls to all life that was and is and is yet to be. All mortal beings, from the lambs sacrificed on the altars of old to the pets that now snuggle beneath glowing Christmas trees. The beasts that fed where Christ lay, the sheep grazing beneath the heavenly hosts. Let ALL mortal flesh await. As Romans reads, all creation is groaning with the birth pangs of the coming kingdom, just as the virgin mother with the first advent.

But how can we speak of “mortal flesh” without considering the Incarnation? Indeed, how can we speak of Christmas without the Incarnation? In these two words, we find also our Lord and Savior: immortal God in mortal flesh. From the very title of this hymn, we see the scope of the narrative it tells; not only does all creation suffer under mortality, but the Creator who enters into this messy, painful, shivering mortality. We cannot forget that, Christ was born to die, so that, as another carol declares, “man no more may die.” This counterintuitive gospel is at the heart of this carol; Easter and Christmas are not kept to their separate seasons, but held together in Christ.

“Keep Silence”
Keeping silence is a weakness of mine. I love to sing and talk. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me because everyone seems to be singing, dancing, and wishing each other good tidings. I honestly feel guilty if I don’t listen to Christmas radio nearly 24/7. Silence, especially this beautiful-but-noisy time of year, is something that takes great discipline. And yet, before the angels sang, there must have been a stillness in the air, rent only by cries of pain, animal sounds, and — at last — a baby’s first cry…the first cry of the Firstborn of Creation.

But if we keep our silence, we will learn to listen. The distant roaring of a still winter’s night. The twinkling of the stars like the jingle of bells. The singing of choirs instead of the blasting of the radio. This silence is not the absence of noise, but the noticing of sounds other than ourselves. It is to await something other than our ordinary daily race. It is a disciplined contemplation of the world around us and the creator of this world, who, though he deserved the fanfare of the heavens, entered first with quiet humility.

The Verses
If the title was not already loaded with insight, the rest of the text for this carol is absolutely astounding:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

How many Christmas carols speak of “fear and trembling”? And yet this is vital, for it calls the faithful not only to come and worship, but to reorient their minds (as so often depicted in the Psalms, which also feature the “fear and trembling” motif) toward not only the hope of Christ, but His fearsome righteousness and grace.

It also alludes to Philippians, where we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This speaks of an active contemplation; although keeping silence, we are actively engaging with what it means for Christ to be born unto us. And as we read on to find that “Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand,” we might again be struck with fear and trembling. If a righteous God is descending to our realm to demand the payment of our debts, Oh Lord who can stand?

But the hymn does not stop here.  We might fear and tremble before the coming of a God we have wronged, but the second verse reveals that He came not to demand his recompense from us, but from himself. Christ, “In the body and the blood…will give to all the faithful, His own self for heavenly food.” In these lines, we make the journey from Christmas to Holy Week, finding that Christ’s birth and death are not separate at all. Just as the Infant Jesus was placed in a feeding trough, he is the sustenance for his flock. In His birth, our “Lord of Lords in human vesture,” prepared the way for salvation and communion. He descended not to demand payment, but to ransom us of His own eternal and infinite, yet mortally-clothed, worth.

Verse three is in a more typical Yuletide spirit, though its language is remarkably strong. “Rank on rank” and “vanguard” are more warmongering words than the usual “herald angels” (“Who’s Herald?” as the Peanuts might ask.) But we see here that although Christmas brings a newborn, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “he is not a tame lion.” Our humble, baby Jesus is not at all separate from the conquering Savior who will clear away all darkness and vanquish the powers of hell. Perhaps this Revelation Christ does not seem compatible with tender Nativity scenes, but this hymn reminds us that they are one and the same.

In the final, powerful verse, the supernatural reappears as the “six-winged seraph” and “cherubim, with sleepless eye” hide their holy eyes from the Divine Presence. The scriptural descriptions of these beings are, frankly, terrifying, so it is no wonder that the angels atop our Christmas trees are more friendly entities. However, the sheer majesty of our Lord is expressed here; even the most glorious of creatures cannot bear to look upon Him, yet this same Lord clothed himself in mortal flesh to redeem his fallen images. How terrifyingly beautiful? How wondrous and yet how fearsome?

This hymn’s text begins with mortal silence, but ends with divine and ceaseless cries of “Alleluia, Lord most high!” This advent, although it is nearly at its end, let us first contemplate in silence and then join in rejoicing as we remember the truth of the gospel, of Christmas and Easter and Revelation bound together in the person of Jesus Christ.

12 (Truthful) Thank-yous for my Roommate

Sites like Odyssey feature posts like “12 Things to Thank your Roommate For” is “13 Reasons You and Your Roomie are Basically a Couple.” Well, these are sweet and all, but they’re not nearly as relatable as you’d think… at least not for my roommate and me, being rather odd, creative souls. And so, inspired to one-up Odyssey and to give my roommate the shoutout she deserves, I thought I’d make my own list:

12 (Truthful) Thank-yous for my Roommate:

1. Thank you for letting me move in with you out of the blue to escape a rather unfortunate situation.

2. Thank you for understanding when I eat your chocolates that it’s a necessity.

3. Thank you for quoting me on your Tumblr; it keeps me humble and will remind posterity that I was indeed always this awkward.

4. Thanks for being my personal iPhone photographer. (See any good photos on my social media? They’re by my roommate.)

5. Thanks for bringing me towels when I bring umbrellas or phones or any other random item to the dorm shower instead and find my forgetful self utterly stranded.

6. Thanks for not letting me use knives for any and all purposes. My mother really appreciates this one.

7. Thank you for checking out my dates and being always on the lookout for red flags. (And for tolerating my giggles after a good evening.)

8. Thanks for letting my friends become your friends and completing my little circle.

9. Thank you for all of the hugs; I forget about them and am terribly awkward, but I need them as much as anyone else.

10. Thanks for not complaining about my constant dancing and singing and puns. Really, you deserve a crown in heaven for this.

11. Thank you for letting me throw story and character ideas at you randomly and helping me sort them out; you are definitely made to be a creative writing teacher.

12. Finally, thank you for having my back and being my closest friend during these past three years. This one is cliché and cheesy, but it had to be said.

Poems and a Creek and Such (revisiting an old spot of time)

When I was a freshman in college, I had the not-uncommon experience of feeling 150682234% overwhelmed. It was honestly a feat of grace and strength that I stuck it out, but by the second semester, how happy I was that I did!

As that terrified, homesick 18-year-old, I went on a choir retreat and nearly had a complete breakdown which resulted in the composition of what I consider my first “real” poem. Now, I am not quite as proud of it and see its many faults, but here is the link to it just the same: Poems and Trees and Such

This past semester (my second-to-last as an undergraduate) has been a whirlwind, but it has also been characterized by a level of calm which I never thought I’d achieve as a freshman. Naturally, when I revisited the site of my first poem (written in that state of anxiety), I wrote more poetry in an outpouring of gratitude, mixed with a certain melancholy that the time has flown by faster than I ever imagined possible.

In the craziness of this semester, though, I forgot this scribbling and only just rediscovered it as I leafed (pun, as always, intended) through my journal. So, now that I have a bit of breathing space, I’ll share it:

This stream I knew is dry now
and its rocks are all laid bare.
It buzzes, stinging, where once it washed
with water and with tears.

The rattling, skeleton tree limbs
stretch but don’t quite reach
across the dusty canyon bed
or seasons since we first did meet–
I and this crumbling, crackling creak.

But still the lone lorn pools reflect
in their barren, dirty sheen,
the ghost of the girl gone and grown
who now returns to where she’d been.

I see myself in retrograde:
this fount is as I was.
I was first the barren stream,
the jagged soul with aching limbs,
and he, the babbling merry thing.

Then it was green and I was young,
but worn in ways I am not now.
I came to cry, but now to sing,
for here first from my heart did spring
a gush of poetry.

And, in being made so free
by nature then to nurture words
and, drinking of living water,
to be rewritten by the Word.

And now, although I have come back,
content as I was not then,
I find I cannot return that
happy favor to this friend.

My cup o’erflows and I’ve grown strong;
now I’m the one bubbling in song.
My ghost meets me in the creek-bed’s death
and, thankful, I draw in freshened breath;
Although we have now traded place,
I bless this stream and its gentle grace.

Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren

 

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.