Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: August 2010

Dictums of Dr. Drake

Robert Young Drake Jr.

I stumbled into Dr. Drake’s class kinda like the way I stumbled into college. While my friends were applying for grants and scholarships, I was busy dreaming of some great venture, some great project, some great something…or some great something else.

Then suddenly I was there. Sitting at freshman orientation for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I didn’t worry too much about what to study. As my dad would tell me, “What’s important is that you finish what you start. Study anything you want just finish the degree.”

My dad had just returned from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. At one point, he shared a helicopter ride with Scott Hamilton’s dad. Dr. Hamilton, a college professor, told my dad that “if a young man is not sure what to study in school, he should learn how to communicate. If you can write and speak well, you can do about anything.”

My dad passed on that advice. That sounded good enough for me, so I ended up studying Creative Writing and Speech Communication at UT. Almost thirty years later I can thank Dr. Hamilton for helping launch me on the adventure of learning to speak.

Now where was I? Oh yes, stumbling into Dr. Drake’s Advanced Creative Writing class wearing one black shoe and one red shoe. For some reason, two different colored shoes made perfect sense in the 80s. As I sank down into my seat, I noticed that the man standing at the front of the class was wearing a linen suit. He looked and sounded like he stepped right out of nineteenth century Southern aristocracy.

Robert Young Drake Jr. stood before us as a living testimony of another time, another world. An old Southern sophistication that was and is vanishing under concrete Interstates, concrete shopping malls and concrete lives. Listening to him talk was like sitting on a big porch during the late afternoon, sipping on lemonade and swapping stories.

His slow drawl, devilish wit, and penchant for telling stories captivated us half-dazed students who stumbled toward degrees and possible oblivion. On the first day of class, he handed out no syllabi, no reading lists, and he gave no expectations for what was ahead.

Someone raised his hand. “What’s your policy on cutting class?”

“I don’t have a policy. Don’t cut class.”

Another hand. Another question. “How do you figure our grades?”

“Do what I say and you’ll come through with flying colors.”

One day he asked if anyone in the class had ever read Charles Dickens. I nodded yes.

“What did you read Mr. Floyd?”

“Well, I started ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ but I didn’t finish it.”

“What? You didn’t finish. Oh Mr. Floyd that is a grievous sin. You must go home and pray without ceasing.”

Another day he read a story aloud, and asked us what was the main theme of the story. Someone shouted out, “Compassion.”

“Oh my. I simply hate that word. The word compassion is so over used. I think people say it when they don’t really know what a story is about.”

This was the first class I had ever attended where the professor diced our answers to pieces and never hesitated to humiliate. Of course, he said everything with that slow drawl and that slight grin.

One student made the unfortunate mistake of cutting class. Next class he reappeared.

“Well, Mr. Jones I see you’ve decided to stay at the University after all. I assumed that when you failed to come to class you had left for some pressing reason. But here you are in our midst once again.”

Looking around to all the rest us he continued, “It amazes me that people will pay good money for a University education and then fail to attend the classes. That makes no sense whatsoever.” After about five minutes of a public tongue lashing, he finally released Mr. Jones from shaming and started the class.

Some people would drop Dr. Drake’s class but no one was bold enough to cut his class.

For the next three months us stumbling students sat up wide awake with holy fear: never sure if we might be subject to a public trial on the spur of the moment. At the same time, most of us loved this class and this professor. He spoke and taught and challenged us in ways we’d never been challenged.

He mocked our simplistic assumptions and forced us to think and speak and write better. Sometimes he’d say, “People ask me if I ever see talented writers in these classes. I reply that it’s not a matter of talent. It’s a matter of work, of discipline. A good writer writes and writes and writes.”

Then he might add, “Show me a great writer and I’ll show you a great reader. If you want to write, you must learn to read.”

“The most important thing a parent can teach their child is how to read. I don’t care if the child reads comic books or Mad magazine. If the love of reading captures their soul, they’ll read and read and read. And the reading will teach them to speak.”

Religion showed in one person’s story and Dr. Drake began discussing his own faith. “Of course, I believe in purgatory. I experience it every Sunday morning sitting on a hard wooden pew during the church service. After of lifetime of such suffering, God must surely allow me into heaven.”

Another day, he decided to introduce grammar into our conversation. “There are no rules.”

“Write what’s in your heart. Discover your voice. Grammar is your servant not your master. It may help you say what you need to say more clearly, but never let it confine you from saying what you must say.”

He taught me that writing is not about fame, not about fortune. Most writers are poor. Writing is about finding and speaking my voice. It is the discipline of listening and speaking and learning to articulate. He taught me to read.

On the last day of class, he gave each of us a blessing. As he turned toward me he said, “Mr. Floyd, my hope and prayer for you is that one day by God’s grace you’ll actually finish a Charles Dickens novel.” The class burst out laughing. I laughed.

And in a strange twist of irony. One day I did read Dickens and fell in love with his words, his characters, his world. And I am always haunted by the cry for justice that echoes all through Dickens.

Dr. Drake died almost ten years ago. And sadly, I never expressed my deep appreciation for his influence on my life. It took years for me to even realize the deep and resounding impact of this thoughtful provocateur. Yet, I still find myself quoting him and listening to him and responding to him.

I continue to write. I continue to read. I continue to learn.

Dr. Drake freed me from the oppressive weight of wanting to be recognized. He freed me to a life of learning how to speak…how give voice to one moment in time..how to discover that articulate word. As Czeslaw Milosz once wrote,

“To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”

Dr. Drake spent his life teaching students to pound that one sentence into this fleeting world of glory. And for that I am forever grateful.

Rhythms of Love

Photo by Filhi bahthi photography via Creative Commons

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, reading, thinking…sitting. Music is n the background. “Celebrate Good Times” begins to play. And suddenly the celebration breaks into my world, my reading, thinking, sitting. My head starts nodding. Soon my shoulders join in. The sounds that were outside me seem to be reverberating from inside me, and my body is moving to the rhythm. Looking around I notice other people responding, moving, smiling. We exchange glances. In a room of strangers, the rhythm visibly connects us for few brief moments.

I’ve had experiences like this in stores, parks, churches and living rooms. The rhythm breaks in upon us and suddenly the room, the people are connected and moving to an unseen current. Music fascinates me, moves me, breaks in upon me. It comes from outside me through a speaker, a guitar, a drum, a singer. But soon it is inside me at the same time. My body, my mind, my emotions all respond, all echo back the rhythm. Somehow I’m connected, caught up in the rhythm.

And oddly, it lingers inside long after the music has stopped playing. The sounds, the words, the feel continues to resound within me. Though I speak about myself, I believe I’m describing an experience that is real for most of us. One moment we’re sitting alone and the next moment we’re caught up in an ocean of sounds that moves us, fills us, connects us.

Not all songs move us in the same ways. Hearing different songs can stir different feelings and different thoughts. For some strange reason, I used to force myself to listen to all sorts of music as some kind of imagined training. In college, I’d sit in the music lounge for hours soaking in all sorts of sounds. I’d join Columbia House Music Club again and again and again. I also joined the “Classical Heritage Society” and the “Jazz Heritage Society.” I’d listen to music I loved and oddly enough music I hated.

I remember picking up John Coltrane’s “Sun Ship” as yet another attempt at my musical education. I never figured it out. There were a few shining moments, but most of the time, I was immersed in chaos. I couldn’t hear one dominant rhythm. Instead, I felt caught up in a swirl of chaos. The music was disorienting.

It made me think of being caught up in the currents of a raucous ocean. Once my dad and I decided to “catch some big waves” by swimming at Myrtle Beach in the middle of an electrical storm. My mom was screaming and pacing up and down the shore while my dad and I were laughing and waving. It was fun but also disorienting. The currents above and below the surface pulled, pushed and turned us all around. When we finally decided to get out of the water, we had a hard time. The undercurrent resisted our every step.

I can only imagine the stress, confusion and disorientation of being caught in a storm at sea. With no land in sight, with no instruments of orientation, it’s easy to see how one could be truly lost of sea. I understand that pilots can experience a similar disorientation in the air. Without reference to his instruments, a pilot may literally not know which way is up. It is now believed that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s lethal crash into the sea in 1999 was a result of spatial disorientation. He thought he was flying up and flew straight into the water.

The currents of air and water and sound waves can propel us forward but also disorient us. We could be going forward; we could be going backward. We may lose our sense of direction.

We are immersed in a world of currents and rhythms. From the beating of our own heart to the fury of storm winds to the pounding of rain, we live in all kinds of rhythms and forces that impact us both inwardly and outwardly. There are also rhythms or currents of ideas, emotions, memories, and symbols that move through culture. The force of these rhythms are just as powerful as the physical force of ocean currents that move above and below the surface.

We cannot step outside of the rhythms of our world. We are all born at a time and place. We are born immersed in families and towns and eras with specific rhythms and struggles and currents. If I am born into a world where slavery is the norm, it will be very difficult for me to resist or act or think outside this force. If I am born into a land at war, I may have no memory of peace and find it difficult to even understand peace. If I am born into a family where divorce is the norm, I may repeat the pattern in my own life or never even marry.

Like the watery chaos of Psalm 46, all of us know the chaos of a world of conflicting ideas and emotions, of undercurrents that impact our dreams and our actions. The music of Scripture breaks into this world of competing currents with a strange alien rhythm. Sometimes when people first read the Bible, it might seem a bit disorienting. It should be. In fact, if it’s never disorienting we may not be paying close enough attention. The Word of the Lord breaks into our world as a challenge to the false rhythms of idolatry and oppression that reverberate on our planet.

In ancient Egypt, we discover the Hebrews trapped in a world of enslavement, oppression, and manipulation. The Word of the Lord breaks into this world as an alien rhythm, challenging the power structures and the whole conception of reality. After leading these nameless, powerless slaves into freedom, the LORD calls these people, His people and He gives them His rhythms that are rooted in love to God and love to man.

In Psalm 1, we hear a song inviting us to meditate or groan aloud these rhythms of love and worship and respect and honor. These rhythms directly challenge the constant rhythms in the counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners, the seat of scoffers. The world of the wicked, sinners and scoffers is built in resistance to the love of God and is rooted in self-preservation. It always leads to oppression and devastation. As the Psalmist sings, he reminds us that currents of the wicked produce a crop of chaff, of nothingness.

Like the disappearing world in “The Neverending Story,” the Psalmist realizes the end result of wickedness. Not some kind of naughty pleasure, but rather to destruction of all relationships, of all meaning, of all hope, of all beauty. The end result is absurd nothingness that blows away in the wind. There is only one sound powerful enough to withstand the gale force of oppression and emptiness: it is Torah, the Law of the Lord. The Psalmist proclaims that those who dwell, live, abide in this Law of Love will bear fruit in all seasons.

Yet even as I’m caught up the wondrous promise of the Psalmist, I am aware of my own duplicity. There are times when I speak words of love and life and encouragement. There are times when the rhythms of love seem to resonate in my every fibre. And yet, I know the fruit of selfishness. I hear James speaking directly to me when he cries out, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” I am not the man who lives in Torah day and night. I am the man who aspires to live in Torah but knows the way of hatred and anger and mockery all too well.

Isaiah says that the Lord looks for one true man, but found no one.

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there
was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
and his righteousness upheld him. (Is 59:15-16)

He enters into our watery grave of idolatry. He entered into the alien rhythms of all world in complete resistance to love, a world that cannot build without breaking, cannot speak without cursing, cannot embrace with killing. Jesus, the Son of God, comes as the one true man. He steps into this world of complete disorientation where no one knows how to step forward and everyone stumbles in the dark. He comes as the true light. In His light, in His path, in His words, we behold the true and genuine rhythms of love. He is the God-Man from Psalms 1 who dwells and lives and acts in Holy Love. He enfleshes Torah, he embodies truth, He reveals the Father. He reveals Love between the Son and the Father. In His Life, His Death and His Resurrection He sets in motion reverberations of life that continue resounding and will eventually stop every false rhythm–even death.

So we turn to Him. We behold Him. We cry out to Him, “Lord have mercy.” It is then that we realize, He has embraced us and His song is beating in our heart. Yes, we are still learning His song, but we are no longer adrift in a sea of chaos. The music of the heavens is pulsing through us. Ours heads, our hands and our feet are beginning to dance.

Jeremy Begbie suggests that music itself is not hope but it is a dynamic of hope because it is sweeping us forward. In Christ, we are caught up in a true dynamic of hope. We are joined together in a song of love the will not fail but will overcome every false rhythm and conquer every lying word.

Autumn Report on a Summer Morning

Photo - Autumn Sun and Leaves by Adam Hillliker (via Creative Commons)

Today I as I reflected life through poem by Michael O’Siadhail, I saw a snapshot of my own life–both the joy and the ache. In “Autumn Report” O’Siadhail describes the haze of autumn’s tilted sun casting light across his path and life. A superscript above the poem quotes from Dante’s Comedy, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (in the middle of the road in my life).

This superscript casts its own light across the glory of this “summer’s afterthought.” As I read, I realize O’Siadhail is catching a glimpse of his own momentary existence. As I as read on, I realize he is catching a glimpse of all our momentary existences.
He is writing from a place that sounds insignificant at first,

…- so propped in this sidestreet
doorway, a gap on the pavement between two vans
affords a patio where sunlight swabs our regrets,

In this sun-captured moment, he “snatch(es) the tenor of the whole.” From one tiny spot, in one fleeting moment, he beholds the whole of life and glory of being alive. And from this one place, he offers a brief account of his life. He writes,
I tender friends and shareholders an interim report:

In this place of seeming insignificance, O’Siadhail begins with praise, with rejoicing, with proclamation of good news. For even in the fading summer of his life, he has been blessed to live. Makes me think of something GK Chesterton once wrote, “Merely to exist for a moment, and see a white patch of daylight on a gray wall, ought to be an answer to all the pessimism of the world.” From his tiny, unnoticed spot in the universe, O’Siadhail rejoices in the glory that surrounds him.

Even in this fall, wholehearted life reverberates
some almighty gaiety, invites me to adore
the immense integrity; wines my veins until
I’m sure my frame will warp under such
exuberance. I’ve never felt so near the centre
of all that is.

O’Siadhail’s proclaims that the glory of this being aliveness “wines my veins.” He is drunk with the joy of life bursting forth within and around him. Once again I turn to Chesterton for commentary. He writes, “At the back of our brains, so to speak, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair may suddenly understand that he is actually alive, and be happy.”

In this moment of joyous realization, O’Siadhail wants to write, to speak, to sing in the primal wonder of Eden.

…history has
accumulated this moment, now funnels through me
the urge to utter. In this instant, I’m Adam
the first to mouth, to feel the garden overflow
in word and rhythm.

Yet even in this moment of wonder, he is fully aware of his many weaknesses, his failures, his shame. As he remembers, “idly watch(ing) the digital clock matchstick away my time…,” he also remembers the power of love that unjailed him.

…Some all-embracing love
forgives my shortfall and I am glad to present
this reconciled account.

Before he moves on from this brief autumn reflection and re-immerses into the “entrepreneurial everyday rush(ing) forward” O’Siadhail offers an assessment and challenge to himself as well as his hearers.

…Why hedge our bets
or play too cool; detached we might miss
the passion to broaden the bore, deepen the joy?

As I pause on this humid summer morning to reflect on O’Siadhail’s “Autumn Report.” I find myself quickened to the heart. In the midst of a life the is rushing past us, we might do well to pause remember the glory of being alive, the opportunity to step forward into the risk of loving and living deeply.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore, make up your mind to risk frustration.” In the midst of disappointments, in the midst of failures, in the midst of loss, we are tempted to retreat into the safety, into passionless pragmatism. But everyday each of us are invited to “broaden the bore, deepen the joy.”

Whether we work as accountants or actors, cashiers or clowns, all of us are alive. All of us have the privilege of being immersed into the vital stream of existence. All of us are invited to take the risk of loving deeply, living fully, bringing our whole selves into the splendor of the moment. Let us not lose this glorious moment in the ashes of regret or the disappointment of dreams not realized.

Instead, let us lift up our voices in thanksgiving the Creator of all and breathe deep the glory of this life He has given us. Let us follow O’Siadhail as he spends his life in rejoicing, blessing and praising.

…Please give me
a few moments more, just to exult in this
last reflux of summer, luxuriate its praise.
Then gambling on, I’ll bless the breeze and go.

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