Previous month:
April 2014
Next month:
June 2014

May 2014

The Greater Things

IMG_2888A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard.

(Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003)

 A poem is a little thing, barely there, the best just a few lines and words on a sea of white page.  Oh sure, I wrote a poem once that had seven stanzas and droned on for some 98 lines or so, as have much brighter lights than me, but most are not writ so large.  They're more like a sparrow on a canvas of blue sky, an acorn waiting to be found, a pebble among pebbles by a stream - barely dicernible, hidden, common.  And yet their diminutive size is deceiving.  They testify to more.

So do people.

A week ago, I lay out there, in the backyard, in a hammock, watching birds swoop down and light on the bird feeder.  Little things.  I thought about how short is the life of a bird and how it passes quite unknown to the world, how its life is obscure and unknown to virtually everyone.   While we may appreciate the grace of birds, the beauty of their form, their ease of flight and freedom, rarely if ever do we think of just one bird. Yet God knows the comings and goings of a single bird; not a single sparrow falls to the ground that He doesn't blink, a tear well in His eye at what should not have been but is in a fallen world.

God made everything, sees everything, upholds everything.  These are dogmas that Christians subscribe to, but when you see a single bird, or a little poem, or the face of a Ugandan orphan, or a perfectly shaped leaf with a bead of raindrop on it lying in its fragility on the sidewalk, small ones in a sea of creations, then you know a little of the power of the dogma.  We know truth in the particular and not abstract.  His eye is on the sparrow --- indeed that sparrow, poem, fatherless child, leaf.

In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul says "we are his workmanship," and I am told that the Greek word for "workmanship," "poiema," is that from which the English word "poem" is derived.  We are crafted and made, and we bear the image of the Maker.  While we can't literally say we are God's poems, whatever that might mean, the word does suggest artistry.  And it means that even a single person is imbued with beauty and meaning, that every person is a sign pointing outside themselves to God.  Even when they are malformed and broken.  Even a city, even Manhattan, can in its compression shout glory.  

For a moment, at least, suspend theological precision and consider the poem of the world, God's world, as so aptly cast by poet Mary Oliver:

If it is all poetry, and not just one's own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world --- that lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise --- then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship, a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self.

So when you see a bird, a poem, a child, a leaf, you are seeing more than the particular.  Look to the margins of the one.  You'll get a "glimpse of a greater paradise."  The particular in front of you compresses into itself the greater things beyond itself, elusive now but ever so real.  

All that, for two swipes of the Metrocard, says Colson Whitehead.  Or a walk in the neighborhood.  Or an afternoon in the hammock.  Magical, and free.



Here is New York

Here-is-new-yorkWhenever I visit New York, I think of E.B. White’s 1949 essay, “Here is New York.” As you might expect, it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and even smells of the great city, a walking description of its streets and public places and architecture. Some things don’t change: throngs of shoppers in Midtown, the sometimes pungent mix of exhaust fumes, food, and garbage, the movement and anonymity. And yet some things do change, like the Bowery then is not the Bowery now:

Walk the Bowery under the El [the Third Avenue Elevated] at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and the advance stages of the disease alcoholism.

The poverty of the Bowery has now pushed on to pockets of North Harlem, or the Bronx. Or in the ostensibly blind man who moves through my subway car: “God bless you, have a good day,” he says. Places change but, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And the huckster.

But it’s a week ago and we’re not walking the Bowery but over a great bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, upward through a crisp blue sky, behind us an island of skyscrapers. On every suspension line accessible from the walkway, pedestrians have attached locks, some engraved, leaving behind their own personal “I was here, I exist,” as if to prove it to themselves, to reach for one moment of fame. Turning to look at the city, I realize that no one must truly understand its dogma — the labyrinth of tunnels underlying it, the water and sewer pipes, the electrical conduits, the subway tubes, the myriad conversations, wi-fi signals, habitations and office cubicles, and the hopes and dreams both realized and blunted by despair. And yet, God knows its frame, the name of the least of its sparrows.

Walking on the Lower East Side, not far from the rise of the bridge, White encountered not the flophouses of The Bowery but the more “reassuring sobriety and safety of family life.” Heading east long Rivington, “[a]ll is cheerful and filthy and crowded,” he says,

Small shops overflow onto the sidewalk, leaving only half the normal width for passers-by. In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie. Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and found relief on the pavement. They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial. This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side. . . . folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking.

Next day, Sunday, we attended church in the Upper West Side. Walking out, revived, we passed firemen washing their fire truck, a father with his young son, watching. To the firemen, the father said, “Thank you.” I know what he meant. I know he meant thank you for keeping on when so many of your fellow firemen died in the towers burning. Thank you for not giving up.

Rounding the corner of 83rd and Columbia Avenue, it seemed all families - mothers and fathers, and children on scooters, and in the sun-washed pavement I saw reflected something ricer than an atomized urban life — a community, people who greeted one another. Cafe tables lapped over the sidewalks, and families had brunch. Shopkeepers' doors were flung over to the breezes and some stood by their doors, beckoning. I began to think “I could live here.” We walked 25 blocks until, just past Lincoln Center, the Midtown bustle of upper Times Square began, and we tired, hailed a cab, and went to Langan’s, a favorite Irish pub where we passed the bar and sat in the back, where it was quieter, next to a table of ladies from the red hat club, their chatter muted by the piano and upright bass behind me.

Perhaps it was our pedestrian pace, but sitting there among the familiar wood-grained walls and white tablecloths I felt as if I had been in New York for a long time. Two days ago, I remembered, I was was walking in Central Park, all the way from the south entrance near the Children’s Zoo, past the Carnival of the Mall and Bethesda Terrace, through the nearly wild and relatively unpeopled Rambles, to Belvedere castle, where we climbed to see the Great Lawn and Reservoir and the north park beyond, and Harlem. The outer landscape gave way to the inner, and I remembered that almost 32 years ago, we were sitting in our hotel on our one-year anniversary, eating wedding cake left and saved for that day, and I had that sense, as you do at times, as God must at all times, that all times are present now. We were here, I think to myself, and New York is still here.

“At the corner of Lewis,” says White, “in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on — some kind of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency.” It goes on still. Walking back through The Mall,stopping at the terrace, three African-American males, shirtless, have attracted an audience with their dance. Some white girls dance on the sidelines, egged on. On a park bench, we stop and pose for a picture, just across front he band shell. White: “Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative.” Today, Shakespeare is being read.

“To an outlander, White says, “a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.” Sucker joints? Saloons? Some things change (air conditioning), some don’t (riding the wrong subway). And yet people long to be with people, else why would you live in New York?

The night we arrived we went to a concert at a club in Greenwich Village, just down from the fabled Bitter End, and we walked along streets where a youthful Bob Dylan was just a pedestrian, freewheeling, a nobody, while Woody Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital. I put out of hand to touch the building, something solid to root my dreams. After the concert, we sat talking with an old friend, a New York transplant from the Deep South. Until 1:00 AM. Until 1:00 AM. And that’s just the kind of thing you can do in New York, until 1:00, or 3:00, or all night if you like. Because you can. Because something is always open. And that’s the best kind of talking, late, when you can say what is on your heart, when you can drop the workday reticence. When you can be real.

I could live here, I say. I could forgive the man who cursed at me for getting in his way earlier that day. I could be gracious to another sparrow, falling. I could worship and work and listen to music and sit up and talk to all hours. I could walk 25 blocks at a time. I could greet people. I could smile. I could be disappointed and be enlightened and even change.

But I can do that anywhere, can't I?


A Kid in the City: Sara Beth Go's "Wish It Had"

Front_of_CoverWhen I first met Sara Beth Go (then Sara Beth Geoghegan), it was at a house concert in my home in 2009. She was loudly banging out tunes on our Baby Grand. When I asked her about the volume level, she unapologetically said “That’s how we do it in Nashville.” Well, OK. It was a sweet if loud evening of stories, jokes, sing-a-longs, an impromptu high school chorus, and sweetly sad love songs and fresh takes on faith from her then new release, Tired of Singing Sad Songs. I asked her back, and back, and back.

Is she tired of singing sad songs? Apparently not. But it’s OK. Unlike her last offering, you won't find direct references to Christian faith in her latest, Wish It Had, or the slightest of nods to the CCM music industry (which is just fine), but what you will find is a kind of sweet snarkiness, a wit and whimsy reflected in these songs of longing, these parables of unrequited, moribund, or complicated love — one person’s attempt to navigate in a world where love is still a precious and rare commodity.

Point in fact: The lead track, “Kids in the City,” gives voice to twenty-something relational longings: “I don’t know where exactly this is going to go/ Kids in the city we don’t wanna be alone/ Puttin’ up signs and looking for hope.” (Whimsy? Check out the video.)  There’s plenty of break ups, “I thought we’d grow old/ the day your mother told me I was pretty/ Now it’s such a pity” (“Wish I Had”) or the holiday blues of “It was the worst New Years ever/ When you told me your heart wasn’t in it” ("Worst New Years Ever").  And yet as much as there is a longing for love there is an appreciation for how the memories we form make us who we are: “Funny, it’s funny what you remember/ All the pieces, the pieces come together/ To make you who you are/ To tell a story, a story that’s your alone” (“Pieces”). In such lyrical territory, you might think that, as Neil Young (aging rock star, kids) once quipped, “these songs are guaranteed to bring you right down.” Not so. What you get with Sara Beth is not an earful of simmering angst, or world-weary muddling through, but life and love as adventure. Hope remains. She still believes.

Sonically, the mood is boosted by the buoyancy and playfulness of the songs. A little ukulele here, bells here, the ba-ba-ba of background vocals, strings, an up and down bass line. It’s so fun to break up and look for love, the songs seem to say. Of course not, and yet Sara Beth’s point seems to be that love is worth it, worth the risk:

You might say I’m foolish and reckless
But I will not put a fence around my heart
Just be safe and protected
And yes it hurts more than it really should
And yes it will be worth all the good and bad.

(“All the Good”). Love is scary, and messy, and risky, and yet Sara Beth says go for it: “"For me in life, it's never been black and white. I want to connect the dots from A to Z and make this really pretty, but it's still a tangled mess. God is simply asking that we trust Him, that we believe the gospel."

And that, people, is what it comes down to. A grand adventure. A trust walk. A two-steps-forward-one step back kind of GPS-less walk in the direction of Love.

So go buy Sara Beth Go’s Wish It Had. Play it loud. And hope that when she does meet the right man she still has something to write about. I think she will.