Archive for May, 2017
“Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti – May 28, 2017
From the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks… devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Excerpts from “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang
The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi paradox.
One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders.
Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.
It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.
Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.
Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajo forest resounded with our voices. Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.
There was an African Grey Parrot named Alex. He was famous for his cognitive abilities. Famous among humans, that is.
A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.
Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.
Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans.
Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
If humans are looking for a connection with a non-human intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?
Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.
And humans create such beautiful myths; what imaginations they have. Perhaps that’s why their aspirations are so immense. Look at Arecibo. Any species who can build such a thing must have greatness within it.
My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope the telescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it.
The message is this:
You be good. I love you.
SERMON “Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti
My dad and I like to go bird-watching in the area at least once a year. He goes more often than that, I just don’t always get it together to join him. My eyes and ears scan the treetops, I soak in my surroundings, I try to distinguish one birdcall from another and note the slightest movement.
I’m not particularly good at spotting and identifying birds, but I do completely lose myself in this activity. Though I have no idea what this kid will be like, or perhaps this kid will just think anything that mom is into is dopey; all the same, I hope to instill in my child the same love of nature that my parents instilled in me. It’s also what I learned growing up as a Unitarian Universalist – our seventh principle to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
I came across an article in UU World that describes the genesis of our seventh principle. At the 1984 General Assembly in Ohio, UU’s gathered to adopt our statement of principles. According to the author of this article, James Ford, the discussion was winding to a close and they were coming to a vote.
Ford describes the events that followed with great drama:
Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call for “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. … Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.
Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe.
Why all the spiritual hyperbole here? Because this is a revelation. We are called not just to respect the Earth, but also to understand ourselves as one of its creatures. We are called not just to marvel at the cosmos, but also to find our place in the cosmos.
I’d like to tell you a story, one that I have already told you. I’m hoping it’s ok, because you might not remember it, considering I told it during the first sermon I preached here, in October 2015.
So anyway maybe it’s fitting to come full circle and end with the same story I started with.
I was in Ecuador, studying tropical ecology, and our professor told study abroad class that the only hope for species conservation was to fence people off of the land, creating different sizes of habitat preserves. I raised my hand to ask, is that the only option, we’re just choosing between creating corridors of lots of little human-free zones, or fewer large human-free zones? Isn’t there some model that acknowledges that us humans are also part of the landscape? He said no, we’d long since passed that point, the only influence people have on ecosystems is a destructive one. However realistic that perspective may have been, it bummed me out and seemed to doom conservation ecology to an antisocial corner of the sciences, forever pitting “nature” against “humans.” It also seemed to violate our seventh principle we are a part of the interdependent web.
We had to conduct different experiments in different habitats during that semester in Ecuador. For one of my experiments when we were living in the rainforest, I sat on a rickety old dock for hours at a time, watching russet-backed oropendolas weave their amazing hanging nests – which look like enormous macramé teardrops. I do not remember what my scientific question was – maybe I was asking, aren’t these nests cool? Or maybe it was, can you believe the sound these birds make? My best description is “electronic water droplet.”
Or there was the project when a classmate and I went on walks at twilight, following the paths that lead out from the research station, to look at spider webs. Again, what exactly were we trying to determine? I have no clue. But the webs we saw were utterly breathtaking. Intricate and perfect, stretching across multiple plants, with the sentinel spiders awaiting their prey, the jungle all around us raucous with the sounds of frogs and bugs and howler monkeys who sound like dinosaurs or monsters when they roar. I’m still not sure how we were not eaten by a jaguar while we were staring at spiderwebs. One final experiment I’ll describe to you folks is when we were living on the coast, and I sat high on a cliff along the Pacific Ocean for hours at dawn and at dusk, watching pelicans eat fish. This time I do remember my question: are young pelicans good at catching fish? The answer is, nope, they’re still learning. Not a terribly significant scientific discovery. But the birds and spiders of and all the proliferous life of Ecuador had a very important message for me: it called me to pay attention, to soak in all this beauty, to feel small but still held by this big and wild world. I felt immersed in this abundant life, baptized by it. I felt part of it.
Writer Annie Dillard agrees that listening and noticing are good for the human soul and for the soul of creation. She wrote:
We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
There’s a difference between thinking our seventh principle is a good idea in theory, and truly experiencing it. Western culture has drawn a bright line between humans and nature, so it can be difficult to take this notion seriously, that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence. When we still our minds and open ourselves to the wonder all around us, the truth of our place in this web can be revealed to us. We don’t have to go to Ecuador and listen to electronic water droplet birds to fall in love with sitting quietly and letting nature flood our senses. We can do it in the park right down the street.
Have you ever gone very quiet down on the banks of the Charles? Have you felt the indescribable wonderment of being entirely surrounded by teeming and pulsing life? In such moments it bowls me over, the bewildering fact that we are here at all. The parrot applauds the radio observatory at Arecibo because it demonstrates our grand aspirations, the incredible lengths we will go to, to get a sense of our place in the universe. The parrot points out that, thanks to Arecibo, we have glimpsed the connection that is the very fabric of universe: the voice of creation that calls to us. Astrophysicists have dubbed the leftover hum from the Big Bang the “cosmic microwave background.” This energy from the Big Bang is always buzzing through the entire cosmos, a phenomenon elegantly reminiscent of “the reverberations of that original “Om” that created the universe according to Hindu understandings. But the parrot challenges us not just to listen across the universe to the sounds of the Big Bang, but to listen to and notice what’s right around us as well.
When we don’t pay attention, when we fail to heed the possibility of communicating with parrots, we miss out on key messages, like that we are just as much of the Earth as all the other beings on it. There is sadness in the story we heard – our narrator parrot contemplates the extinction of its species, that they will soon join the Great Silence, not because of humans’ maliciousness but because we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve forgotten our place in the interdependent web.
My memories of the Ecuadorian rainforest are bittersweet. Being the realist that he was, our ecology professor explained to us that the Amazon we were visiting was less pristine than the one that any previous group of students had visited, and that any subsequent students would be visiting an even further diminished Amazon. One night we stood up in the 200-foot tower above the tree canopy and saw a flame way in the distance – burning off excess gas from the oil extraction operation dozens of miles away. Chevron has been drilling for oil in this region of Ecuador for over 50 years. The Waorani, Kichwa, Secoya, Siona, and Cofán people of the Ecuadorian Amazon sued Chevron for poisoning their water supply, and won – Chevron was ordered to pay millions in damages and clean up the pollution their operation has caused. Predictably enough, Chevron countersued, and the suit has been tied up in court for years. The people continue fighting for clean water. Our narrator parrot explains that humans, perhaps not out of maliciousness but rather out of carelessness, and I would add greed and ambition, pillage these tropical – and indeed all – landscapes. So really, I would not argue against habitat preserves, rather, it appears we need them and we need to reintegrate ourselves with the Earth. We need to follow the lead of indigenous water protectors like the ones in Ecuador, at Standing Rock, and all over the world. We need to heed our seventh principle, because we need to drink water, and eat food, and live on this planet like the creatures that we are.
These are the lessons I take from this parrot: though we may not always remember it, we are indeed part of this Earth and we would do well to walk more gently on its soils. Since this is my final sermon, I’ll take the liberty to draw one last lesson from this story: we ought to say a good goodbye, like Alex the famous parrot’s last words to his researcher. Mark loaned me a book to use in a small group ministry I led here, and it includes a section on “blessings.” Here is what the authors of this book have to say about goodbye:
The most common blessing which we all participate in (often unknowingly) is the English “good-bye,” which is a contraction of “God be with you,” a reminder that we are held in mystery throughout our lives… There is something so especially fraught about partings that our language-molding forebears felt the need to give blessings, and we feel a need to keep saying them, even if we are usually unconscious of their full meaning.
So, just as we may be unconscious of our part in the interdependent web of all existence, we don’t usually think of “good bye” as the miniature prayer that it is. Indeed, it is the blessing of being part of the interdependent web, the blessing of our connections, that beg us to relish our time together, and say a good goodbye when we must. Let us mean it as a blessing when we say goodbye. I for one really like that parrot’s last words: “You be good, I love you.”
CLOSING WORDS “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
“Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front” by Jolie Olivetti, May 21, 2017
“To Savor the World or to Save It” by Richard Gilbert
I rise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it;
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden.
What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted.
What is that you say?
To save, one must serve?
To savor, one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.
Forgive me, God of justice,
Forgive me, and make me whole.
by Dr Yolanda Pierce
Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.
Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.
Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.
Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.
Let us not rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child… someone’s beloved son.
Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.
Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.
Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.
Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.
From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” by Audre Lorde
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.
Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.
My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
SERMON “Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front”
Last Sunday, I was on the bus getting shuttled from City Hall back to Fields Corner where the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace had begun. I recognized the woman who I invited to sit beside me from previous years’ walks, but I had never really met her. She introduced herself and asked if I had lost someone – meaning, had I lost a loved one to homicide, was that why I was there at the walk? I told her I was there as a supporter. She said nothing. I asked her if she was honoring anyone at the walk, and she showed me the two buttons she wore – two of her sons were murdered. Also, three of her nephews – her sister’s sons. The bus rolled off City Hall Plaza and eventually we made our way onto the expressway. We passed billboards and navigated traffic in the rain and wind. I asked, tell me about your sons, what were they like? Her eyes lit up: “They were wonderful. They were amazing.” She showed me pictures on her phone. Pictures from a different peace walk, one that she organized in Upham’s Corner for 11 years. Pictures of her at a breast cancer walk, since she has also lost family members to breast cancer. She showed me pictures of newspaper clippings about her peace work. She told me about a place where she feels great peace, where she embraces forgiveness – at the four different prisons where she regularly works with people who are incarcerated for murder.
As I listened to her story, did I feel guilty that I’ve led a life with so much less loss than this woman? Yes. This word privilege is so loaded and so inadequate. As I sat next to her, I felt like my relative affluence and my whiteness glared like a neon sign, since I am so protected from the effects of a system that I ultimately benefit from, the very same system that means she as a working class immigrant woman of color is subjected to so much loss and violence. I felt guilty that my family, my circles of friends are shot through with vastly fewer holes than hers.
Did I feel guilty that I wasn’t sure what to say as she spoke about her unimaginable losses? Yes. People usually don’t want you to tell them you think they’re strong or brave, because they don’t want to be strong or brave, they would rather have their loved one back, or not have cancer. So I didn’t say much, just listened and asked questions and expressed my sorrow. And I sat with these guilty feelings that bubbled up in me, and then let them go, and made room for love instead. I made room to witness her story and be humbled by it, to feel grateful for what she was teaching me.
When I first started working at ReVision Urban Farm and homeless shelter in Dorchester almost 10 years ago, it was much harder for me to get past the guilty feelings. I didn’t even always realize I was feeling guilty when I’d act defensive or pretend to be someone I am not, trying to hide or downplay my relative privilege when I was talking to shelter residents or my coworkers. I would trip all over myself to say I had bought my clothes at the thrift store or to seem like I was a “good” middle class white person. I soon learned that everyone read me for exactly who I am and no one was judging me unless I was pretending. All my embarrassment and need to apologize threw up a wall between us. I realized that the point was not to feel guilty for being who I am, but instead to just be grounded in myself so we could all enjoy one another’s company while we ran a shelter and grew vegetables together. Guilt is a barrier to relationships; guilt gets in the way of the possibility that we can work together to break all these patterns that benefit some at the expense of others. If I’m too busy feeling guilty, I miss out on the fact that my humanity is wrapped up in everyone’s humanity. Guilt robs me of the knowledge that my own liberation is at stake too. We don’t work for change for other people, but for all of us.
I wanted to preach about guilt this morning because this is a common response to bringing up the topic of racism and white supremacy, in any setting, including at church. And I talk about this stuff a lot, in a lot of different settings, so I am wary of giving off the impression that I enjoy making all of us white folks feel bad about ourselves. I don’t. I recognize that it’s sometimes a byproduct, for myself as much as for anyone else. But it’s never the point to make anyone feel guilty. Also, this topic is timely because there is a lot of upheaval in the leadership of our Unitarian Universalist Association right now, in the wake of people calling out a persistent pattern of institutional racism, and as a result almost 700 UU congregations all over the US have agreed to devote their morning worship to learning about white supremacy and racism in the past month.
It’s often said that UU’s don’t “do” guilt. Don’t we, though? The paradox of our faith tradition is that while we reject original sin and we insist on the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we also sometimes leave our church buildings feeling worse than when we came in. We hear about an issue during the service, or during social hour, an issue like climate change or poverty or violence, and we are guilt-stricken, wondering whether we are doing enough, despairing that we can never do enough. Unlike, for example, Catholicism with its rituals for admission and absolution of sin and guilt, us UU’s recoil from words such as “sin” or “guilt,” but still we find ourselves steeped in culpability and disappointment at our inevitable human failings.
When I was an intern at the Peace Institute I learned an activity to talk about feelings. The activity is called “Feelings as Messengers,” and the basic premise is that it’s really important to feel our feelings because they often have crucial messages for us. If we are feeling angry, it might be because someone has crossed the line, has stepped over a boundary with us, and so we need to reestablish that boundary. If we are feeling sad, it often means we need some time to grieve and let go of something, to nurse a loss.
What about guilt? What message might it send?
According to Audre Lorde, in the piece I read from earlier, guilt can be a wake-up call, an uncomfortable but sometimes necessary starting point to transformation. Lorde writes, “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” To me, this passage means we have to face the great wrongs of our society and the anger of those who have been wronged, even if it makes us feel terrible at first. Instead of avoiding or ignoring these wrongs, let us be unflinching as we learn about them. We learn about oppression not because anyone benefits from our guilty feelings and our urge to apologize, but rather because knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss only for those of us who have the luxury of choosing ignorance.
Perhaps something that can help us heed the messages that guilt is trying to send us is to not harbor the illusion that we are innocent. I sometimes catch myself feeling surprised that I’m not pure and exceptional. “But I’m one of the good ones!” I want to protest when I learn how racism is not just interpersonal but instead a widespread system of dominance and oppression that I am unwillingly complicit in as a white person. If I can let go of the idea of my innocence, then it’s easier to wrestle with the guilty feelings rather than be afraid of them and get stuck in them.
James Cone, the great Black theologian, speaks of the “myth of American innocence.” It’s true, we imagine we’re the good guys. The version of American history I was taught in school holds that the American experiment perhaps made some mistakes in the past but good progress is inevitable because we are the protagonists, this nation is ultimately noble and pure at its core. Trump winning the election threw into stark relief that we are not free from white supremacy. The litany that the group read to us earlier put it this way: we still “sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.” Not only is there now tacit permission to express outright bigotry the likes of which many of us have not witnessed in generations, but also we are reminded that this country was built on a particular narrative about whose lives matter and whose do not, and still, 400 years later, we have not yet replaced that story with a truer, more human one.
Victoria Safford, a UU author and minister, wrote an essay on Universalists that addresses the contradictions in Universalism – how can we all be good and yet still cause each other such harm? Safford wrote, “the early Universalists did believe that every person is redeemable, salvageable, possessed of worth and even dignity no matter what.” Safford qualifies that this is not because humans are faultless but rather because God is infinitely forgiving. She goes on to explain, “They held that we are punished not for our sins but by them, every day; that in the soul something shrivels, disintegrates, and starts to die when we collaborate with evil. Our wholeness, our holiness, is torn; our spirit becomes sick.”
If that’s the case, if we are punished not for our sins but by them, if something dies in us when we collaborate with evil, however unwillingly or unwittingly, then our souls call us to go right towards our failings rather than recoiling from them. We prayed the litany this morning not in order to make ourselves feel bad, but because we need spaces for lament in our worship, we need to cry out in anger and in anguish, we need to name what is wrong even if it hurts. Facing this evil together, lamenting it together is a tool in our spiritual quest for dealing with guilt and seeking wholeness.
As I come to the end of this sermon, and to the end of my internship, I want to say that we do good work, holy work at this church.
We take care of one another, because we care about one another. We do social justice work because we care about our community.
It can be hard to take a look at ourselves and say, yes we have beautiful intentions and yes we do good work, but to still ask, how can we truly honor our banner that says, Black Lives Matter? How can we truly honor that rainbow flag that flies on Church Street? How can we live into our affirmation that love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law?
This is what it means to put Love Out Front, the other half of my sermon title and the name of the Social Action Committee’s initiative to talk about anti-racism as a church.
It means that we are not afraid to ask hard questions and listen to the messages that guilt sends us. It means we are not afraid of guilt because the benefits of understanding the roots of oppression far outweigh the cost of discomfort. Putting Love Out Front means we believe we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality that calls us to face all the harshness of reality, to witness others’ pain, and to keep on a spiritual quest for wholeness.
It is my prayer that the First Parish of Watertown continues this work, taking it on and making it your own, as though all our lives depend on it, because they do.
From “A Brave And Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every [person]
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
“Mindfulness and Music”
Homily by Guy Urban for Music Sunday at FPW May 7, 2017
A year and a half ago, I got hearing aids. My audiologist told me that I was border-line — my perception of higher frequencies was declining, as expected at my age, but probably not enough to require hearing aids quite yet. But I decided to try them out.
The main reason was my classroom teaching. My mild hearing loss mostly affected initial consonants in people’s speech. Usually this is not much of a problem: if you say “Zhee wiz, that was great!” or “I’ll zhee you tomorrow”, I have no trouble understanding, even though both of them sound like “zhee”. But I teach music theory. When I ask a student, “What note is this?” or what key, or what chord, and they say “zhee major”, I can’t tell if they’re saying B, C, D, E, or G. In the bland uniformity of the musical alphabet, lack of context is my downfall.
I went to the clinic expecting the hearing aids to sound hissy and metallic. They didn’t. In fact, it was like suddenly being transported to a new reality. The technician suggested I go out to the waiting room and see what it felt like. It felt like I was dropped into a great river of human conversation, moving air currents, shoes brushing against carpet. It felt like I had had a jolt of electricity shot through me; it’s not just that the world around me felt different; I felt different. I walked back into the technician’s office with a smile of beatific, wide-eyed ecstasy, and started to tell her the big surprise… but she had been doing this a long time, and, like Timothy Leary in the early days of psychedelic drugs, she gently urged me to get used to them gradually, and not turn them up too loud too soon. I guess she had seen it all before.
My ability to discern my student’s answers in class was not suddenly perfect (freshmen, especially, often mumble or speak meekly when called on in class); but there was a definite transformation in my everyday connection to my environment. My most vivid experience was walking down a sidewalk around my home in Watertown. The sonic environment was like a physical texture, a rich dough of sound with many individual particles of reality, and yet also like a single, organic, almost tangible ether surrounding me. I heard the leaves rustling in the wind (who would have thought that such a sentimental poetic cliché could actually be experienced!) I heard dogs barking, and people talking, somewhere far away; the slightest ripples on the cloud of sound, but definitely there! I heard birds, insects, and a kind of universal breathing; the breath of the world around me. A reservoir of memories flooded my emotions. I suddenly remembered lying in my back yard as a kid, with my eyes closed, and “hearing / feeling” this breathing of the universe. I remembered feeling that my own identity seemed both diminished and enlarged, as I merged with the world around me. I hadn’t remembered, or thought about, this kind of experience in decades; I had forgotten that it existed until this moment.
I want to stress that, what I was experiencing was not coming out of my imagination, or my thoughts, or from philosophical musings. It was coming from the physical sound I was hearing, the sound of the world around me. It was probably the most concrete phenomenon I’ve experienced in years. I was not thinking about it, conceptualizing about it, responding to it, extrapolating from it. Most certainly I was not “losing myself” in it. I was just experiencing it, and it bowled me over.
I’ve read, talked and thought a lot about mindfulness, about “being here now”. I think I understand the concept. But I had forgotten how concrete and physical “now” really is. I had thought (probably like most people) that being “in the moment” mostly meant shutting out distractions, making myself stop thinking about what I had to do later, turning off the “inner monologue” that is always piddling away in the background of my consciousness as I go through daily life. But these are all negatives: don’t do this, don’t do that. What I had forgotten—in the comfortable routines of what I charitably think of as “late middle-age”—was that the world right now is a real, physical thing; not a quiet time-out, but a sharp slap in the face. It’s not zoning out, it’s waking up! The closer I am to the physical reality of the world around me, as experienced through my senses, and not filtered through conceptions and assumptions, the more energetically alive I feel.
Although my experience outside with the hearing aids woke up something in me that had been lying dormant for quite a while, there was one part of my life in which I retained this connection to the physical senses: music. Although I love talking, theorizing and B.S.ing about music, ultimately the experience for me lies in the actual experience of musical sound in the moment. It’s not the ideas, judgments, or even emotions inspired by music that mean the most to me, but rather the mindful experience of the musical sound. Yes, there are many emotions that come along with the music, but these are a result, or product of the sensual experience; they come after the fact. The electric jolt of the actual sensation of hearing music is the fount from which flows everything else.
The musician who probably has delved more deeply than anyone else into “music as experience of the world”, is the composer John Cage. He was born in 1912 and died in 1992. He is famous for being in the avant-garde of 20th century modern art, and for the invention of mixed-media “happenings” — but I mention him here because he was also one of the most publicly conspicuous American apostles of Zen Buddhism during his lifetime. He studied with the Japanese scholar and author D. T. Suzuki, and applied Zen Buddhist principles to his musical composition, and to his life. And, he was the source of a lot of great sayings and aphorisms that vividly capture the mindful experience of music.
Cage believed that our conventional definition of music was much too narrow. “Every thing we do is music”, he said. Music, for him, meant mindfully experiencing sound in all its forms: natural, human, intentional and unintentional (although he considered “unintentional” music as less limited by human expectations.)
“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.”
His compositional process often utilized what he called “chance” or “indeterminacy”. He used musical forms generated by the I Ching, or by the pattern of textures in the paper he was writing on—not as a joke, but as a way to create music that transcended the composer’s intentions, and thus freed the listener to create any kind of meaning she wanted to. It’s like when I heard the sounds around me after getting the hearing aids: my reaction was not based on any large “meanings” or intentions, but on the tangible experience of sound in its immediacy.
Perhaps Cage’s most famous composition was 4’33” from 1952, in which the performer sits silently for 4’33”, then leaves. The “idea” of this piece is so fantastical and weird that we forget that this is not “conceptual art”—where we read about it, and think about how clever (or possibly stupid) it is—but rather a real concrete musical experience, in some ways more vivid and engaging than a more traditional, “normal” performance. When we hear a pianist play a more conventional piece of music (especially one with which we are familiar), many things may go through our minds: did the player make any mistakes? is the piece “pretty”, or is it abstract? when it will end? is the player nervous? should I applaud now? should I go to the grocery store later?
Whenever I actually listen to 4’33” (as I do every time I teach my 20th Century Music course), thoughts such as these disappear; my consciousness engages with the sound of air circulating in the classroom, of distant police sirens, of traffic outside the window, of students breathing and shifting in their chairs. These “meaningless” sounds become meaningful because Cage’s piece has framed them and allowed us to experience them mindfully, not as background to something else, but as direct experience of and engagement with the world around us.
I don’t actually listen to Cage’s music very often, but his attitude towards musical experience very much defines music in my life. My goal, every time I perform for anyone, is to create a frame in which a listener can join me in living mindfully in the musical moment. In this way, I feel less distinction between performer and audience; —we are both sharing a moment’s experience that is unique, and not easily defined by words or “ideas”. Likewise for the notions of “active” or “passive” musical experience: my favorite moments as a performer are when I do not feel like I am “making” music happen, but rather experiencing it as listeners do. And I hope that listeners are not passively letting my performance “flow over them”, but are rather actively engaging with each moment of musical sound as it happens; not with a predetermined “correct” response, but with whatever unique configuration of meaning emerges from the moment. As John Cage also said, “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.”
I want to end by sharing with you a piano piece by John Cage. Unlike 4’33”, it does consist of actual notes. It is an early piece (composed in 1947), called Music for Marcel Duchamp. It has an unusual sonority, because the piano strings are “prepared”, meaning that the typical piano “sound” is altered by means of physical objects placed between the strings.
It also has an unusual form, because its phrases and larger layout were determined by throwing the I Ching. I believe that the novelty of these differences do not draw attention to themselves, but rather help you to avoid preconceptions and assumptions about what a piano piece should sound like, and allow you, the listener, to engage with it simply as it is, without comparison to other musical experiences.
So as not to encourage the inner question: “is it ending now?”, I would like to leave you with one last quote from John Cage:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but actually very interesting.”
(play Music for Marcel Duchamp…)
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