22 April 2014

Hating on Mississippi

I woke this morning hell-bent on blogging about why I hate Mississippi. Yes, it occurred to me just that way:  "Why I Hate Mississippi" emblazoned across the wide-screen of my mind's eye. A flood of impressions and feelings swept over me, a Life Review of the last 21 months of my life.  It was intense enough to bring tears to my eyes as I put the coffee on.

They're trimming the great pecan tree that sits in the front yard today. I awoke to the sounds of
a crew of four or five men outside my window, speaking in that garbled, stuttering gallop that distinguishes the speech pattern of many people here. And something in me screamed, "Would
you please speak so I can understand you?!"

But later, with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I wandered out to the front porch to see what they were up to. The crew leader remembered me from a few months back when he came by to survey the job. "Good morning, Miss Alex!" he greeted me, and my heart melted. Some.

So I'm not as angry and frustrated as I was at the top of the morning.

But still...

I won't say I "hate" Mississippi. I'll say it is an extremely bad fit. While the coffee perked, I tried to compose a "Pros and Cons" list in my head:  what do I like about this place? vs what do I find disgusting or impossible or frustrating or ugly or....about MS?

The process revealed that my misery is largely people-based:  it's the things that people say (which, of course, are products of the way they think) that throws me into despair. And the way people think is the basis for their culture. And it's the culture, I think now, that doesn't fit me.

On the plus side:  country ballads and blues music; the generally mellow, slow-to-anger personality prevalent among the people; a popular passion for gardening; the customary addresses of "Yes, Ma'am/No, Ma'am" and other polite utterances; the habitual inclusion of
food-sharing whenever people come together; and a pace of life slower than that endured on the East and West coasts of the U.S.

On the down side:  an apparent inability to move beyond the emotional and psychological impact of the slavery and Civil War eras; a resistance to new ideas and new people; the oppressive, smothering influence of Christianity; the persistent "racial-izing" of every issue; the sacrifice of candor to politeness; an often bizarre aesthetic; and the embrace of form over function in everything from conversation to floor plans to community events to attire.

Often enough, the thought has occurred "I have come to Mississippi to die." It was not an intention I held on the cross-country train ride that delivered me here; it is a sense that arises spontaneously in response to events and circumstances I encounter here. It bespeaks the magnitude of discomfort I have felt at times.

Sitting with the principal and vice-principal in their office at the local high school during my first autumn in Holly Springs, observing the jeer that spread across their faces simultaneously as I outlined an idea for adding a drama program to the school's curriculum, their near-sputtering chuckles as they accused me of "enthusiasm ... It was an early experience of a unique variety of disappointment and frustration that I have felt many times since:  encountering unenlightened, uninspired, unimaginative apathy in an educator rankles with a unique intensity.

In MS, it is only in the faces of very young children that I regularly encounter the bright shine and dance of freedom, curiosity, willingness. Though the phrase has sometimes sounded like cliche to me in the past, it feels like simple truth here in MS:  children are our future. The level of archaic thought and willful ignorance I've encountered among community members charged with the care and guidance of MS children is utterly unconscionable. It demonstrates frightful folly and shortsightedness to fulfill their roles so carelessly. What kind of Tomorrow can MS hope for when its children, its future, is being so cavalierly mishandled Today?

I say "cavalier" because, in the main, the school personnel I've met have been hugely impressed with themselves and their roles. They are proud of the multi-syllabic, all-in-caps titles that adorn their business cards (if they have one) (appearing as they do above a telephone number that is no longer in service or the misspelled name of the institution they serve). Their sense of self importance is blatant if fragile:  critique, information-sharing or offers of collaborative reinvention are perceived as either threat or personal insult and strongly resisted if not rejected outright.

And it's not that I have not encountered this kind of thing in other parts of the country. What's striking is the pervasiveness of the mindset here. It has become a trademark of Southern Culture for me: hypersensitive defense and protection of personal perspective. And an attentive devotion to the surface of things--the grandiose title on an ill-wrought business card, the meticulously-tended floral border along the grounds of a collapsing architectural treasure, the self-congratulatory articles in the weekly newspaper about academic "achievements" that would be viewed as proof of failing in the rest of the country, the home improvements effected using substandard materials and clumsy workmanship--with little regard for the depths.

soul vs spirit
surface vs depth
form vs function
simplicity vs complexity
curiosity vs conviction
conformity vs innovation
fluidity vs rigidity

It's the culture. I live in a culture foreign to my nature.

The landscape is also foreign in my experience but I recognize and appreciate the natural (that is, un-peopled) beauty of Mississippi. The trees and other plants, the light and the climate, the movement of the seasons...all of these have been sustaining comfort and inspiration to me.

And I have enjoyed some precious moments with people here, encountered generosity and wisdom and humor on occasion that truly touched my heart.

But such enjoyments have been infrequent, outnumbered and outweighed by a preponderance of parochial obstinacy, indifference, well-mannered bigotry and a consistent lack of follow-through (appointments? call-backs? honored invitations? timely repayment of debts? ...my psyche is littered with debris from these disastrous encounters.) that have come to define Southern culture for me.

Illustrative of the ironic quandary that characterizes my experience here, I feel obliged at this point to urge Southern readers to take no insult from my remarks. These are my personal observations. This is the way Mississippi feels to me. I'm not warning people away from Mississippi; I'm reporting my experience. If you're having a different experience--if you love living in Mississippi, for example, I say "Good for you. I celebrate your happiness."

For myself, I vacillate between a few orientations and states of mind these days.


...to name a few.

16 April 2014

James Baldwin

This is The Year of James Baldwin. So says a "consortium of cultural organizations" in New York City. As Baldwin's name does not come up every day in my current surround, I view my stumbling upon this celebration as affirmation that I am still 'on task' in my intellectual life, still doing something right (though it is far from apparent to me most of the time).

According to Wikipedia, his complete oeuvre reads:
Together with others:
At best, I've read excerpts from The Amen Corner and Nobody Knows My Name. His name comes up again and again -- in conversation, in commemorations of one kind or another on NPR or among my poet friends. Until now, I resisted falling or following but it was not because I couldn't hear him, didn't feel something stir and moan within me, especially whenever I encountered his analysis and commentary on American culture.

It was more a case of avoiding the pain of knowing, of seeing what one can't help but see because Baldwin is nothing if not plain-spoken in his critique. It always hurt a little hearing his recorded voice on the radio, talking about the Negro experience in America. It always seemed he was telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly ... 

I am reading Go Tell It On the Mountain. A friend has given me access to her boyfriend's dormant library card and I have borrowed the title as an e-book. I did not know until minutes ago that it was his first published work and that it is semi-autobiographical (not that I didn't already suspect I was reading his life story).

I am letting him in at last. And it still hurts. It's hard not to take nearly everything he says personally, hard to maintain a strictly intellectual, subjective frame of mind when I read him. It is impossible to ignore the compromises and half-truths of my own life in the light of his precise, unflinching candor.

This morning I acknowledge that a transformation is underway. I am letting him in. The usual pain is assuaged by the signature gentleness and compassion that I perceive in Baldwin's writing, a tender sadness that carries and tempers his astute observations. I feel him grieving for America, for white people, for black people, for the intractability of the "race problem" that has defined interracial relationships here from the beginning.

His writing makes me aware that my half-truths and compromises have not brought me peace of mind but rather produced an uneasy resignation that has precluded true contentment and unbridled joie de vivre. I've been a lifelong host to squelched discontent. It likely underlies my lifelong "battle" with depression.

Baldwin left the country. Was he able to see his native land more clearly from a distance? Did exile make it easier to find his voice and the courage to speak?

Reading him now I feel ice breaking somewhere inside me...

03 April 2014

Home for Turtles

"Longing for Home"  Photographer:  El Amigo Chico

George W. Bush never felt like my president. I just couldn't connect with the guy. From his physical appearance to the way he spoke, from his personal values as demonstrated by his professional choices to his life story, I just never felt myself a member of his tribe or part of his constituency.

Like most politicians, he often began statements with the words "What the American people want/believe/need..." and 99.99% of the time what followed was not true for me.

It was a crazy time. I felt exiled in my own country. I felt invisible. And hopeless.

I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered if folks like me had long ago forsaken the U.S. and I'd missed the boat.

I didn't have a clue about what to do. I felt disoriented. At risk. My thinking was scrambled, frantic, terrified. It felt like the country was on its way down the tubes and I was desperate to escape.

I came to believe that my only hope was to set out in search of a circumstance that would facilitate my leaving the country. I threw away, gave away or stored anything I could not carry on my back. I surrendered the keys to my Oakland apartment and hit the road bound for .... I didn't know where.

One thing led to another. I soon came to feel I'd entered a parallel universe. Unlike the realm I'd left behind, Time was more flexible and keys were unnecessary and sleep had more to do with my energy level in the moment than what I had planned for the next day. Life became a series of new locations and situations -- house-sitting for friends of friends, contemplating the smorgasbord of Departure-and-Arrival possibilities offered on bus station and airport marquees, long nights at diner counters, nursing bottomless cups of coffee. 

Some mornings began with a few seconds of having absolutely no idea where I was. Other mornings began with several minutes of hearty laughter, astounded to find myself where I was. There were nights of gratitude to have somewhere warm and dry to lay my head; and other nights crumpled in despair, alone, without shelter or inspiration.


Photographer:  Felicia Simion
Through it all, the common denominator was Me. The locale, temperature, companions, noise level, amount of money in my pocket or reading material on hand changed. And changed again. But there was always Me. 

Catching my reflection in a storefront window or the bathroom mirror of a luxury hotel -- or a gas station -- I'd meet my own eyes and say "Hey! Hello there. I'm still here..." and give myself a loving embrace through my eyes.

Somewhere along the road I had a dream of Sojourner Truth. In the dream, our eyes met and, for each of us, it was like looking into a mirror. I started researching her life shortly thereafter, partly out of curiosity and partly with an eye toward developing a performance based on a comparison of our lives. I began to think of myself as a sojourner. I adopted a mantra:  I have everything I need. The Earth is my Home. Choose from love, not fear.

"Finding Yourself At Home"    Photographer:  Pia Johnson
I am entering my second decade of sojourn. There's a lot I could say about the experience, maybe will say if I ever commit to making a book of musings drawn from this blog and journal entries I've made along the way. The particulars of how people live, for example, is a fascinating study. People sleep on the floor or in beds or on futons, in houses and teepees and RVs...  People prepare meals on shiny, state-of-the-art stove tops and in toaster ovens or never prepare meals where they live. Living spaces boast floor-to-ceiling bookshelves or not a single hardcover publication on the premises. Living spaces smell like animals or like apple-cinnamon potpourri or whatever's on the stove.... In some houses there's not a sponge or rag for cleaning to be found; in other houses, each sponge has a tag indicating its precise and exclusive use.

Some places bear a close resemblance to my preferred style of inhabiting a living space. In the places that don't I sometimes long for "home" -- not the larger Home evoked in my mantra but the smaller, closer more personal sense of Home. That longing mostly reflects the level of discomfort or inconvenience I'm experiencing at that time and in that space. 

More than Home, I still long for Tribe. I recently realized that if I "won the lottery" today, I would use most of it to keep traveling, to travel further, in hopes of finding my Tribe. It's my fantasy that where I find people of like mind and heart, with whom I share values and humor and mission, any place will do. In such an environment, questions about over or under toilet paper, room temperature vs refrigerated butter, etc. are manageable and largely irrelevant, arising as they do against a backdrop of cosmic, spiritual, more humanly fundamental concerns.

I'll end up somewhere. Some day my life of sojourn will end and, wherever I am, I'll take my last breath. I'll be at Home -- in the Universe -- perhaps in some location that feels like Home...or doesn't; perhaps in a place I "own". But, as always, the fixed feature of that time and place will be Me. "Hey! Hello there.... It's time to move on."

The Christians call Death "Going home" but who knows:  perhaps it's just the site for the next sojourn.


25 March 2014

Common Knowledge, Part 2 of 2

"Interruption"     Artist:  Kuldar Leement (digital art)
Despite my statement of what I thought was "obvious" (i.e., common knowledge) -- "OK. We're starting late so if you would quickly come up and join me onstage..." -- it took almost 2 minutes for nine students to travel the 20 feet between their seats and the stage (two of them wandered out of the room). Once onstage, however, eight of them quickly responded and followed my instructions to scatter themselves evenly in the space.

The ninth student, a young man who had been first to arrive, took a seat in one of four chairs at the back of the stage. The first activity involved assuming a posture and then making a gesture that illustrated a word I spoke in a neutral tone. The list of words included "shiny," "angry," "smooth," "confused," etc. By the time I gave them the third word, the young man had approached me to confess "I don't really do this kind of stuff because I only have one attitude and I just do that one all the time." I thanked him for his confession and redirected my attention to the rest of the group.

"Living the Dream", Artist:  Mikey Parillo
What more could I say? In the 20 years since I first started this work, a lack of enthusiasm or outright resistance by a young black male participant has been commonplace. To date I have not closely analyzed my intuitive understanding of this phenomenon though it intrigues me... 

I decided it was likely that this young man did not "know" what I knew:  that the work is based in play and humans are innately inclined toward play; that I'd tailored the workshop design to have maximum appeal to "unsophisticated, small town young adults"; and that I have a long track record of engaging people who "don't do this kind of stuff."

As it turned out, my heart thrilled to observe his transformation over the next half hour. With each successive large group activity, his commitment to the process grew. By the time I introduced an activity that required four volunteers, he was the second person to step forward.

Around this time, we learned that another group had reserved the auditorium space and would arrive momentarily to displace us. We would have to relocate to the usual classroom.

To my way of thinking, common sense/knowledge during the event planning phase would have included making sure the venue was available for the full length of the event.  Still, perhaps the choice of venues evolved in a spirit of improvisation. As improvisation is the lifeblood of my work, I can understand the choice. My brand of common sense (or is it "common courtesy"?), however, would have moved me to inform the facilitator of the possible need to relocate in the middle of the workshop.

"Go with the Flow"   Artist: SuicideBySafetyPin   (digital fractal image)
Although the wandering students eventually returned and the final contingent of stragglers arrived before we left the auditorium, by the time we reached the classroom only eight of eleven students were on hand and the instructor had excused herself to tend to other tasks.

I view it as testimony to my love of this work that I count the whole experience as positive. I believe the transformation of that young man's "attitude" is proof of the inherent value and power of the work. The instructor sent an email the other day saying she'd received "nothing but positive" reviews from the students in the days since.

Many years ago, I came upon an adage suggesting that you can rely on people to be themselves. I added it immediately to a bundle of guiding principles for living. The way each of us presents -- what comes out of our mouths, our opinions, our behavior, our values -- all of it is informed by what we "know" about living and the world. 

I believe there are things, like "The sun will come up tomorrow" and "Water is wet" that might be
considered "common knowledge" but a substantial portion of each person's operating manual is subjective and particular, comprised of beliefs and assumptions and dubious secondhand information, frequently imparted with an ulterior motive, e.g., "good children are seen and not heard" in hopes of getting the kids to be quiet so you can finish your tax return; "God will reward you if you give 10% of your earnings to the Church" with an eye to increasing church revenue; "You need a college degree to get a good job" for the ego boost of boasting (or complaining about) putting a son or daughter through college; and "White people are all racist" to rationalize an attitude of unrelenting rage.

Based on how often I hear statements like "How could she do that?!" and "What kind of a person would..." and "Nobody in their right mind would...", it would seem that many of us assume there is such a thing as common knowledge. Maybe a full grasp of the chaotic lack of conformity governing our hearts and minds would scare us.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as common knowledge I'm just less and less sure of what it is.

22 March 2014

Common Knowledge, Part 1

In the early years of the formation of my identity, I was told that
  • I have no common sense.
  • I'm smart but not pretty.
  • I'm overly-sensitive.
The pronouncements were usually expressed to bestow disappointment, ridicule or anger so I understood them together as a diagram of my imperfect nature. Thus armed, I set out into the world.

I met beautiful women with no common sense and strong, invulnerable, highly intelligent men and tried to learn something from all of them to fix what was wrong with me.

Eventually, I collapsed beneath the burden of this unforgiving self-identity and found redemption in therapy. Under the protective wings of a skilled and loving therapist, I took another look at my life and myself and the World as I saw it and modified the early identity sketch.

In the main, what I came to acknowledge was the subjectivity of human assessment. What impressed my mother as obvious and indisputable aspects of my nature were interpreted very differently by other people. I also learned that time and circumstance impact the eye of the beholder.  "Fun and exciting" Los Angeles becomes "never again" after one is robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight.

With perception being so subjective and changeable and impermanent, I wondered if there was such a thing as "common" sense? What is "common knowledge"?

The concepts are distinct in my mind:  "sense" is inborn, requires no instruction, is akin to instinct but includes a cognitive aspect where it involves what I'll call "primitive" evaluation of evidence on hand (a process that assumes the presence of "native intelligence," another subjective term...). "Knowledge," on the other hand is acquired or won. It's the result of a computation based on relatively fixed and reliable data. Knowledge can be recorded and stored on a library shelf; it can be shared or taught. Knowledge is specific.

[Note: I have NOT consulted a dictionary for these definitions. As is the general tendency of this blog, I'm telling another story about Alex' Worldview.)

This week, my consideration of "common sense" and "common knowledge" was expanded to include musings on possible connections to concepts like "common decency," "common practice," and "good manners".

I was invited to lead a mini-workshop on "creative process" for upper class students enrolled in a creative writing course at Rust College. To optimize the potential benefit of the workshop we changed venue from their usual classroom to the stage in the auditorium.

The workshop was to begin at the regular class time, 1:00 p.m. At 1:08, with only 4 of 11 students present, the instructor apologized for their tardiness, expressed her confusion about the whereabouts of the missing students and asked whether I wanted to begin without them.

The design of my workshops both resembles and differs from that of a class. For example, there's designation of a "point person" in both --- the teacher in a class setting and the facilitator in a workshop setting -- but the roles are not identical. There is a degree of "I've got the goods and you're here to get them" in both settings but there's nuanced difference in the way the goods are delivered, based on my observations playing both roles and also witnessing both as student and workshop participant.

Teaching delivers information with specificity:  here it is; take it just as I give it -- and you will be tested later. Facilitation delivers ideas with support and encouragement to explore the ideas, manipulate them. Turn them upside down and inside out and discard them ultimately if you like -- there won't be a test on this later.

Both teaching and facilitation carry a lot of love. I enjoy both activities; my body is warm and vitality pulses through me in both roles; my thinking and awareness are keen, shiny, open. The space is charged with possibility and potential. I'm excited. It is when I am teaching and facilitating that I enjoy a rare, clear sense of "hope." In both settings I see myself as the bearer of gifts that I want very much to share.

With teaching, however, I carry the gift as it was passed to me. It's in the original box. It's clear the box has been opened but the wrapping paper and ribbon were not discarded. The original wrapping paper and ribbon and box are integral to the process, though, depending on the subject, their prominence may have diminished somewhat over time. I want students to be aware of the"waves" of tradition and ritual that brought the gift to them -- through me. I want them to notice and remember the past as legacy. I know more gifts will come in the future
and that some of them will not be understood or received fully without the gift I bring today.

In any case, tardiness to a class that meets 4 days a week, that perhaps includes a syllabus or reading list, and is a requisite unit in a degree program that includes formal testing and evaluation can be accommodated more easily than in the one-shot, 90-minute, "special guest" appearance-type design of a workshop. The workshop is an experience and its choreographed design relies almost entirely on sensitive sequencing. Each moment calls forth heightened commitment to Presence and Attention. Participants are invited into experiential moments that flow from and reach toward.

It's impossible to recreate experience. Latecomers enter and join a journey already in progress. They will have an experience but they will be out of sync with the group experience. As a facilitator, a period of rehash becomes necessary with the arrival of each latecomer that was not a part of the initial workshop design and that disrupts the flow of the experiential narrative begun by those who were there when the journey began.

I chose to wait for five or six more minutes to allow stragglers to arrive. When we reached six students in attendance, I opened the workshop.

I warmed quickly to the work that afternoon. The time -- 1:00 p.m. -- fits my biorhythm nicely. The venue -- a lit, proscenium arch stage, empty except for four chairs, baby grand piano in the wings -- felt like home to me. The theme -- "Creative Process" -- has organic, resonant relevance for me personally and professionally. The students were attentive and responsive; they asked great questions and offered soulful commentary during the brief orientation period. They sat, slouched and perched on velveteen drop-seat chairs in the shadowy cavern of the auditorium and I sat cross-legged in spilled-light at the edge of the stage.

After providing a few preliminary ground rules,  I invited them to join me onstage.

14 March 2014

How I Ended Up Here

The two most common responses I hear when I tell someone from Mississippi that I live in Holly Springs are:

How in the world did you end up there?!
Oh, what a beautiful little town...
Yesterday morning, I rolled out of bed too soon and accidentally whacked myself in the head when I opened the bedroom door. I stumbled to the bed and collapsed. Hands clasping my head and tears rolling down my cheeks, I moaned out loud "I hate this place!"

The blow to the head and the sharp unexpected pain was enough to shatter any polite politic grace of attitude. All the psychic suffering of this sojourn in MS came rushing to the surface and I lost touch with the mantra of gratitude and positivity that I typically strive to maintain.

I "ended up here" because I accepted an invitation...because I followed a vague dream without doing preliminary research...because I was afraid of the budding success I was experiencing as a stage artist in CA...

And I also believe we end up where we're supposed to be, to do what we're supposed to do. On my hardest days here, I try to keep that in mind.

For many people, the loveliness of Holly Springs resides in the abundance of antebellum homes. What I find lovely in Holly Springs is the way Spring comes, bursting blooms all over town in an array of colors that run from the delicate cheer of yellow crocuses on the front lawn to the bold elegance of magnolia blooms on Gholson to the blazing pink of azaleas climbing columns and verandas all over town.

And there is loveliness too in the easy-going pace of life here.  Screaming sirens in the night are rare. Road rage is practically non-existent and preliminary inquiries about the health of relatives is a standard feature of conversation.

There is a down side to the laid back pace. I've come to believe that the slowness here contains more "apathy" than "relaxation." Among the features of the culture that have been most difficult for me to deal with are the lack of initiative and a practiced avoidance of follow-through. Next to nothing happens here in the way of industry or start-up and isolated instances of enthusiasm and inventiveness are very often met with stolid resistance if not outright hostility.

Along with this, ignorance and archaic worldviews reign.  People were baffled when the coffeehouse opened last year -- "Why do we need a coffeehouse? I can make coffee at home" was a common reaction.  The high school principal met my proposal to offer after-school theatrical programming with ridicule of my "enthusiasm." It's a place where parents provide school officials written permission to whip their children because the Bible says "spare the rod and spoil the child."

And it's a place where boys who play piano are called "sissies."

I recently placed an ad in the local weekly offering private music lessons. I used the words "piano" and "keyboard" hoping to reach people who owned small electronic piano keyboards as well as those owning acoustic and digital pianos.

Yesterday one of two callers in response to the ad was the mother of an 8-year-old boy who has exhibited musical ability since he was very young. Only last weekend, a relative who noticed the boy's musical inclinations gave him an electric keyboard. On the phone with me, the mother remarked, "I was so glad to see your ad in the paper. There's just nothing for kids to do here in Holly Springs and he's been asking for piano lessons for a long time. I was thinking piano lessons is too sissified for a boy but when I saw "keyboard" in your ad I thought "OK, we can do that.;"

Her comments brought back memories from my own childhood. In the small town where I grew up, my passion for classical piano music was viewed critically since classical music was considered "for Whites only" by many in the Black community. It's a peculiar fixation:  the human need to draw lines around ideas and interests and other intangibles, to make sure everyone is assigned a box and movement is closely monitored to be sure we all stay in our assigned boxes.

I have not met the child yet and his first lesson isn't until next Thursday but he's already laid claim to a special room in my heart. I know how it feels to love something that you shouldn't.  I know how it feels to receive public scorn because your passion runs in an unpopular direction or runs counter to your gender/age/race/size/etc assignment.

I'm so grateful that I ended up here, in Holly Springs at this point in time, standing by the door when Opportunity Knocked and offered an opportunity to provide one hour a week in this kid's life where he can openly love piano and no one's gonna call him names.

09 March 2014

Who to Blame?

This was the title of today's sermon at the Lutheran Church where I serve as pianist since three weeks ago. (Perhaps I mentioned that I landed this gig when a church member, called as I was for jury duty about a month ago, recognized my name when the court clerk called the roll. Her brother, also an active member of the church, and his wife were introduced to me when I arrived in Holly Springs. They attended our holiday party and even stuck around to play Dixit after most of the other guests left. When the former pianist announced plans to move to Kansas, my name came up as someone in the community to consider as a replacement.)

Artist:  David Blaine Clemons "Who's to Blame?"
When I reached the church this morning, only the minister had arrived. He left the podium and his service preparations to greet me as I entered.  After hugging me (a little too tightly...again...it is apparently something I'll encounter every time I see him unless I make a request) and exchanging the usual "How are you/fine, and you" lines, he promised to try to provide me better signals from the pulpit this week.

Last week, during my first unsupervised performance, I missed a cue to accompany a 4-bar recitation sung by the congregation. I consider myself on a learning curve and anticipate some mistakes as I ascend it. I told him "I'm learning. I'm imperfect."

He suggested that we're all on a learning curve and noted my comment was in keeping with the theme for his sermon. He offered that lots of people are quick to criticize and regularly want to point a finger of blame at someone else when, in fact, they are the one at fault; and that only
God has ample breadth of vision to know who is truly at fault.

He expounded on this last idea a couple of times during the service, in the improvised prayers as well as in the sermon text, reminding us, for example, that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have limited authority since God is the true "Supreme" arbiter. "Just because the Supreme Court says it's right doesn't mean it's right" he said.

In a debate or conversational setting, I might have voiced some of the numerous questions that arose for me about his line of thinking. As it was, standing in the main hall of a Lutheran Church 10 minutes before Sunday service commenced, I did not "go there" with him.

Speaking about the human tendency to blame someone else, he told the story of a woman on his street who has criticized her husband many times "in front of people" in the12 years he's known her. He recently challenged her opinion about something by saying "Christine, you see it that way but not everyone else does."

He was happy and a little proud this morning to add, "And for a few months now, she's not so critical and she'll say 'Well, at least, that's what I think but I could be wrong' when she gives her opinion."

He said, "It must be terribly painful living day-in and day-out thinking you're perfect and right all time." I was listening with heightened humility after a few days in a voluntary, Lenten sacrifice of sarcasm and mean-spirited criticism. I responded that evidence of the imperfection of the world -- ourselves included -- is apparent; the perfectionist's dream is shattered in a hundred different ways every minute.  The lists of potential targets for our criticism and blame are long. "Yes," he agreed, "In our praise, we Christians acknowledge that only God is perfect."

For a long time now, whenever God's perfection is proclaimed I ponder the Christian tenet that we are created in His image:  So are we perfect or is God imperfect?


"The World was lost through one man -- Adam -- and redeemed through one man -- Jesus Christ" was one of a couple refrains repeated in today's sermon. For me, a knotted inquiry lay at the heart of the entire service.  The specter of a Perfect Being creating an endlessly flawed World arose again and again; also the additional conundrum of Christ's heroic compassion, dying for the "sins" of all people, for all time...and, yet, the ongoing requirement in most Christian denominations for those who believe in Him AND His saving grace to confess and confess again their unworthiness because of their relentlessly sinful natures.

Driving home, I decided that I really had no interest in discussing such considerations with the pastor -- or with most other Christians in my acquaintance -- primarily because their minds are closed, bound tightly by a set of rote, unexamined, routinely-rehearsed beliefs. There's no possibility for breakthrough, transformation, change of heart...

I have sworn off mean-spirited criticism but not criticism generally. Critical thinking, for example --  listening and pondering and exploring ideas and other stimuli -- is permitted. So I entertained a full range of cognitive interactions with the sermon this morning: deep listening, rejection, challenge, inquiry...  The capacity in humans for such activity is a gift. Those sites of interaction where the gift is willfully squandered or suppressed or denounced are at best amusing to me and, at worst, repulsive and/or dangerous.

Like sack racing:  fun and funny at a community picnic; but what if a trusted adviser defined it as a best practice for living and walking on two legs was stigmatized within the community? What if people who rejected the sack were viewed as heretics and scorned? What if, their legs encased in burlap and their hands gripping the edges of the bag, people were routinely falling and injuring their faces on the pavement, and then gathering weekly to comfort each other and sing songs like "Broke Another Tooth Today"and "My Soul Hops Happily"?

Today was my third Sunday at the piano and my fifth time at the church.  I understand from the liturgy and the hymns that as a non-believer I am at risk, to be pitied or converted, and under Satan's sway (since there are only two teams in this worldview:  God's team and Satan's team). I am not personally injured by any of this. I don't feel judged or defensive or attacked. Nor am I, so far, feeling moved to reconsider my rejection of Christian practice. I like playing piano. I like providing accompaniment to singing, group singing in particular. I like having work that allows me to do something I love. I loving confronting again the enormous and privileged endowment of being able to play piano.
Artist:  Thomas Slatterwhite Noble, 1869, "The Salem Martyr"

I am curious to see whether and for how long this community can tolerate an unrepentant sinner in their midst. Feedback suggests my musical work there is appreciated and greatly enjoyed. "R______ was solid but you are so musicial!" remarked a member after last week's solo debut.

In the fictional account of my sojourn with the Lutherans, on the occasion of some disaster -- busted pipes in the kitchen or a car wreck on the front lawn or ??? -- a funny feeling in one member grows into a whispered suspicion....and then into scattered but muted grumblings
throughout the community and finally bursts forth, blaming the non-believer at the piano for the misfortune.