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November 2009

On the Outside Looking In


"The loss of how we used to be --- made from the materials of how we used to live --- must simply be borne.  We are too far gone." (Melissa Holbrook Pierson, in The Place You Love is Gone)

"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." (Ps. 137:1)

Come along on my morning walk, will you?

Today, like most days, I walk in a neighborhood defined by the manicured lawns of services that regard the droppings of the forest out of which we came --- pine cones, multi-colored leaves, and cast-off tree limbs --- as an offense to the picture perfect lawn.  Lawns have become the background to houses, a setting, to be seen and yet not enjoyed, not walked on or played on.  Life is inside, not outside.  The people gather around 50-inch plasma screens, watching lives play out before them, narrate their existence with Facebook and Twitter.  Believe it or not, it's not important to me what you are doing right now.  But I do sometimes wonder about the people behind the mostly dark houses that I pass.

One home, though adjacent to well-cared for homes on either side, seems to bear a heavy burden.  Leaves spill over its gutters, a pine tree even taking root in one; the roof is stained and mildewed; the lawn has returned to forest, a couple years of unraked pine straw returning it to a forest floor.  An Oldsmobile sits in the same place in the driveway day after day.  No one comes out.  No lights are in the windows.  Something has happened in this home.  Has life come undone for the occupants?  Have they suffered a long illness?  The leaves and forest droppings gathered on the roof seem to press in and the house seems on the verge of falling back into the earth, dust to dust.  It's easy to turn observation to prayer --- for health, for wholeness, for life inside that will be reflected in a care for the outside.

There are elderly folks living in this part of the neighborhood, people who likely bought their homes in the Sixties when they were in their late Twenties or early Thirties, rearing children in these homes, sending them off on their own, celebrating marriages, enjoying grandchildren.  I see them more often than the Thirty-somethings that live in the new homes.  They walk to the end of their driveways to get the paper, and they speak to me, and they have that unhurried look about them.  Praying when I see them is easy as well.  I'm thankful they live, that they remind me to slow down, to notice people.

At one point the road bends and I turn up what used to be a country road, still in the county proper, forested on both sides, and yet it is changing.  On the right was once a ranch style house with a circular drive.  I recall the old couple that lived there.  It's gone now, torn down and the forest cleared to make room for quarter acre lots with large houses.  In the front of where the house stood, near the road, a contractor had the foresight and kindness to leave three trees --- a magnolia and two Japanese maples, all mature.  I look at them and imagine a mother, father, and a son and a life in the country, life in the old house that once stood here.  I suspect that lost under the ground, plowed under when new construction came, are lost keys, toys, and homework papers, tilled into the ground, and so the earth bears their memory still.  We think when we make things new we end what came before, but it's not that easy.  Memories weigh on places, still inhabit the corners of homes, circle the trees in a yard played around by children, are etched in the traces of old driveways.  I remember to be thankful for memories and to hope for redeemed memories, transformed by Heaven's perspective.

Turning yet another corner, I walk past an elementary school.  I don't like these new schools one bit.  This one, like so many other ones built in the last ten years, are more like fortresses than schools.  The old school that stood on this spot was parklike, single-story, with classrroms that had windows and doors that opened onto courtyards.  Passing them, windows open, you could her the life inside, the teachers' chalk on blackboards, the chatter of children.  Now, behind the hermetically-sealed windows and doors, I hear nothing and see nothing.  I pray for children inside, for their safety and yet for lives lived without fear because of the security God can provide.

I turn for home, trailing memories behind me, thankful for my home.  Tomorrow I'll come this way again, circling the past, remembering, praying, and watching from the outside looking in.  As I watch things change, melancholy would take root but for the promise that this is not the end of change.  History is moving toward a new Homeland of reconstructed people, places, and memories.  I just keep walking, watching, and praying.

A Thankgiving Soundtrack. . . Again

couiple [Can you believe it's nearly Thanksgiving?  Though I'd love to troll the new CDs I bought this year for new Thanksgiving songs, the honest truth is that I don't have time.  Plus, I like what I said two years ago here and the playlist I included then just fine.  Finding Thanksgiving songs is not that easy, you know!  My children say I just look for the saddest songs I can find and include them, but what do they know?  Deep under melancholy is something like joy, not happiness.  But maybe you have to live a while to understand that.  So, enjoy these sadfully joyful songs, and, above all, be thankful.  I have some ideas beyond turkey and football for how to celebrate this woefully brief interlude in the retail Christmas season, but check back for that by the weekend.  For now, just listen.]

These songs don't all have Thanksgiving as a theme, because what I treasure about the day is also the gathering at home, or maybe the longing for home, or (sadly) in some cases the trials of being home. Like every holiday, its mention also brings a certain remembrance of childhood celebrations of the day. So, that too is reflected in some of my choices. In the end, it is a subjective list, of course, and yet I hope you will enjoy the music and reflect on what light it sheds on this Thanksgiving Day.

I've recorded and posted below two MP3 files, each with eight or nine songs. You can stream these but, better yet, I suggest right-clicking on each one (where it says "Side One" and "Side Two") and saving it to your desktop. Each will take a couple minutes to download. Once you have done that, you can then click on the desktop icon and listen to the songs on your player. Enjoy!

Side One

1. In the Bounty of the Lord, by Claire Holly. A gospel bluegrass number that celebrates what God gives us. The style is reminiscent of music I listened to growing up, as I find it reminds me of those Friday nights when my father's friends would come over and play music and drink black coffee until after midnight.

2. Thanksgiving Day, by Ray Davies. Kinks front-man Davies can claim the only legitimate song about Thanksgiving! He eschews his usual sardonic wit and writes a warm tune here, and the most rocking thing you'll hear on this playlist.

3. Thank You, by Jan Krist. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without saying "thank you," and Jan manages to lace the thanks with enough melancholy and angst to keep it real. She's a good friend, and hearing her music brings many memories.

4. Gratitude, by Peter Himmelman. "I'm glad that I can see the brown eyes of my daughter. . . . Forgive me if I lost a sense of gratitude." Himmelman, an orthodox Jew, knows Who to thank. His song is a confession of how we take things for granted and forget to be thankful to our Creator.

5. Be Thou My Vision, by Van Morrison. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a hymn, and this is likely my favorite, with a very Celtic delivery by Van.

6. Covert War, by David Wilcox. Wow. If you had a family like this, you wouldn't want to go home for Thanksgiving. Fireworks at the Thanksgiving meal! Sad, but real.

7. Come Thou Fount/ Grain By Grain, by Matt Auten. Gorgeous hymn, and a reminder that God is the fount of every blessing.

8. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, by George Winston. Watching Charlie Brown is a part of every holiday. Besides, it's a bit of a pick-me-up.

Side Two

9. Wanderer's Song, by Brooks Williams. One of my favorites by Brooks, this song is about how all roads lead home.

10. River Where Mercy Flows, by Julie Miller. I love Julie's songs, and the tenderness and fragility of her voice is disarming. Thank God for His mercy.

11. What Wondrous Love, by Jars of Clay. Another hymn favorite. Thank God for his wondrous love.

12. Thanksgiving Song, by Mary Chapin Carpenter. New to the playlist this year, this original song is from Carpenter's recently released Christmas album. "Grateful for each hand we hold, around this table. . . ."

13. America, by Simon and Garfunkel. As my Uganda friend reminds me, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and this is a song about America, and a nostalgic reminder of another time. This is the unique place I'm thankful for.

14. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by The Innocence Mission. It seems like The Wizard of Oz used to come on sometime around the holidays every year as I was growing up. Thus, I identify it with home. It has a lullaby quality to it also, as sung by Karen Peris.

15. The Water is Wide, by Karla Bonoff. What a great song! This traditional tune was arranged and sung by Bonoff with some guitar and vocals by James Taylor late in the song. It's a song about trying to get home.

16. We Will Dance Someday, by Brooks Williams. A great upbeat song of hope about the Home we will enjoy someday. That hope makes me thankful.

17. Homecoming, by Jerry Reed Smith. An instrumental coda which reminds us, I think, of where our real Home is, where it will be Thanksgiving all the time.

Body Passing (A Poem)

Body Passing
for Imogen

“Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)

Somewhere a clock is ticking, ticking, time
distilled to moments stretching down a
hallway, a corridor of memories. My eye dwells on

A gnarled magnolia trunk just beyond the
window, frayed and weather-marked, suggesting
hurricanes and nor’ easters, but which still stands.

Not so, her.

She is at her end, reclining toward eternity,
her body bearing the scars and wear of long life,
ninety-one years of sun and wind and rain, bent at

Times but not broken, not cut down even now
in spirit, her breath a rattle in a cage, voice a
whisper and, yet, she bears up with grace.

The tree will die and return to dust, the house
give way to entropy, overtaken by ivy, by weeds,
the salt air taking it down bit by bit, yet

Not so, her.

She will rise up on wings of eagles, run and not
grow weary, her memories deepened by grace,
her person intact, reformed, her body merely


One More Summer: A Review of "When We Get to Surf City," by Bob Greene

39057974 In 1992, when journalist Bob Greene was 45, he received a letter that would change his life.  Gary Griffin, a musician in Jan and Dean's touring band, had picked up a copy of one of his books, Be True to Your School, and wrote to say how much he enjoyed it.  A phone call later and Griffin had invited Greene to come to one of the band's gigs.  Not only did Greene see the show, he ended up singing and playing guitar with the band for the next 15 years, something he would never have dreamed possible.  He did what journalists do: he wrote about it.

When We Get to Surf City is Greene's account of his summertime on again-off again touring with Jan and Dean --- part travelogue, part biography, and part memoir.  I thought it would be a sad book, the recordation of a declining over-the-hill duo playing to crowds either reliving nostalgic memories or oblivious to the legends before them.  I was wrong.  The book demonstrates the value of friendship, of working to be the best at something you are passionate about, and of the timeless value of good songs.  I finished it not sad but warmed by its humanity and by the common decency of the people that inhabit its pages.  Its humble prose suggests more about life than it articulates.

Jan and Dean were a promising duo in the early 1960s.  Contemporaries of The Beach Boys, they had a #1 hit with "Surf City" in 1963, a song that became their signature.  The chorus, "Surf City, here we come," became a mantra of longing for many landlocked high school kids who dreamed of hot rods, surfing, and endless summers --- of someplace ther than where they were.  They followed it with several more #1 hits before being overtaken by The Beach Boys and, of course, The Beatles. 

By the time Jan Berry had his tragic car accident in 1966, an accident that left him to a long recuperation and lasting damage, the duo were a footnote on the popular music scene.  Neverthess, they did not stop touring.  Berry fought his way back and partner Dean Torrance stood by him.  Despite a broken body, slurred speech, and a muddied memory, Jan retook the stage, even though he had to relearn his own songs before every concert.  They played everywhere --- state and county fairs, festivals in small and medium-sized towns, corporate events, and oldies shows with the likes of Chuck Berry, Fabian, Gary and the Pacemakers, Ben E. King, and more.  Winters became a mere interlude to be endured until summer and the real life of touring.

What I like about the book is not the fact that we get to peer into the lives of Jan and Dean, at Jan's difficulties and fears and the relationship he had with Dean.  Such a telling can feel like voyeurism, making me wonder what the person written about would think.  It is, after all, personal.  And yet the spotlight Greene shines on the duo has the effect of endearing them to us rather than destroying some ideal we had of them. In fact, given the decadent lives of most rock stars, Jan and Dean and band come off as hard-working, conservative, all-American guys.  In other words, they are much better human beings than we might otherwise have thought.  They are passionate about what they do, are conscientious, and, above all, value each other.  In fact, in the end, that's why they keep doing it.

And then there's the songs.  They are timeless.  The idea that you can go to a place like "Surf City" endures, as it captures a longing for an experience, time, or place where everything feels right.  Audiences continue to interact with that song and others sung by Jan and Dean because they tap into something universal, something that continues to resonate in the human soul.  Although the author may not speak of it as a spiritual longing, that is its essence --- a desire to transcend the mundane toil and troubles of the world, even if it is ephermeral. 

At one point Greene is riding with Ben E. King, and he asks him what he's thinking about when he looks out at an audience of middle-aged people who are past their prime, past high school dances, surfing, and late-night parties.  Listen to what he says about his songs:

On "Save the Last Dance for Me":  "You think about what the last dance used to mean to you --- all the dances you went to when you were young --- and then you think about all you've been through in life, what's behind you and what's ahead.  All your years of setbacks, all your years of hope."

On "Stand By Me":  "[M]akes me think. . .[a]bout how important it is to have at least one person in your life you can count on.  Someone you can call when there's no one else to talk to."

Timeless.  Seen the way Ben E. King sees them, or the way Jan and Dean see them, oldies take on a new glow, reapplied and fresh every night as they are sung by musicians who still believe what they say, who look upon an audience not as something to be endured but as human souls to be given a gift of understanding, of songs that connect to their deepest longings.

To the extent there are redundancies in this book, like the many times Greene proclaims his wonder that he is playing with Jan and Dean, he can be forgiven.  He is, after all, living a dream.  However, in all these summers of interaction, of sharing stages, meals, and hotel rooms, you would think that deeper questions about life would come up.  Jan and Dean and band were either oblivious to spiritual issues or, as is more likely, guardedly private about most areas of their life outside touring.  The later is likely the case.  Life on the road rarely intersected with life off the road.

In March 2004 Jan Berry died of a seizure, and Jan and Dean ceased to exist.  Nevertheless, Dean Torrance continued to tour under the moniker of the Surf City Allstars.  Good songs are, after all, timeless, and Surf City is forever on the horizon, a summer beyond our reach.

I recommend When We Get to Surf City.  It lives up to its subtitle as "A Jouney Through America in Search of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."  It hints at a greater journey we are all on, a search for not just one more magic summer but a life when all is set right. 

Surf City? 

Here we come.

It Won't Be Long, Yeah (With the Beatles)

41W+HTbeiHL._SL500_AA240_ When I first heard the Beatles' second U.S. album, Meet the Beatles, in 1964, I was all of six, and I'm sure I thought "what's the big deal?" or something like that.  I rounded the corner of our living room, peered around our stereo record player in a floor cabinet as big as a small dresser, and my sister was lying on the floor listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," swooning over the album cover with four moptops in shadow, and I thought, "Yuck.  Girls."  Big deal.

But big deal it was of course, even though it was outside the world of a six-year old.  I came to the Beatles music via their last albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road, and then worked my way back through the catalog, entranced, a discography in reverse, navigating my high school years in a daze of sorts, mesmerized by great rock and roll, peeling away layers of production and multi-tracking to get to the essence of the Liverpool boys, and that's what you have with With the Beatles, the earlier British release of Capital Records' Meet the Beatles (the latter with reordered tracks, sidelined covers, and the addition of the #1 single "I Want to Hold Your Hand").

If you peruse the crisp black and white photos in this beautiful reissue, you see that the Beatles were in fact boys, youthful, the seriousness of the cover photo belied by the mostly smiling faces within.  The topics about which they sing (no, that's topic, singular) is love --- lost love, unrequited love, hoped for love, and so on.  I can almost (but not quite) imagine how the teenage girls fell out over these songs. . .

"Since you left me, I'm all alone" Swoon

"Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you"  Eyes closed, fainting

"Please Mr. Postman, look and see, if there's a letter in there for me" Puhleassse

"I wanna be your lover baby, I wanna be your man"  Woah.  Granted, "lover" didn't quite have the same connotation then as now.

But I'm six, remember, and I'd rather play cowboys and Indians than listen to a bunch of girls yabbering about some funny looking guys.  I mean, what's the big deal?

I know now that John, Paul, George and Ringo were working nonstop, touring, barely eating, sleeping in dives, playing in rowdy bars in Hamburg, drinking and carousing, that this album was recorded in 28 hours over the course of six days (as much time as they would later spend on one song alone!), and that it was the first British album to sell one million copies.  There is a lot not to admire about these guys.  But two things stand out: tremendous creativity and an unparalleled work ethic.  Without both, they would not have been so successful.  With both, their relentless schedule and manic following nearly killed them within three years.  Who would want that?

I'm not six anymore.  I'm not 16 either.  I can't hear this music now the way I heard it then, fresh and new, hear the needle touch vinyl for the first time, smell the record fresh out of the slipcase.   Now it's an artifact, heard and experienced through three decades of listening to the music in different contexts, through countless articles I've read about them, and memorable conversations where their names were invoked.  I can't any longer hear John Lennon's voice without remembering the shock of his death, how a woman in my law school class wept when she heard and left the room, without conjuring up images of lying on the tile basement floor of my bedroom riveted by the sound of their voices knowing that they could never be what they were.

They were not innocents of course.  And yet it was a time of innocence, before assassinations and race riots and ugly protests.  Before we knew presidents lied.  Before we stopped believing in the American Dream.  A time when we were all six, when we walked in wonder and were unaware of what could and did happen in a world of brokenness. 

We were not innocents of course.  And we can't go back.  We can only go on, carrying forward all that is true, good and beautiful, waiting for a time when innocence will be restored, when songs about love have a new and deeper meaning. "It won't be long, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."  Those boys were on to something.