It was the last phone call I’d ever receive from Mom, the one on that clear, burning-blue-sky morning in the Virginia mountains, the same sky that looked down on buildings ablaze in Manhattan.
“Something is happening in New York. Turn on your TV.” She lived several more years in the assisted-care center where over countless lunches I’d listen to her memories but about what took place that day she had no words.
I’ll never know what sense Mom made of what she saw. Her husband had come home from the South Pacific. They had build a home, grown a garden and a family. Life had been good, the way it was supposed to be.
Years later a song captured, condensed, maybe rearranged in my mind the scene on TV, the voices trying to explain the unexplainable, give meaning to the meaningless. The lyrics proclaimed what they said didn’t exist.
It’s almost 11:00 a.m. on Friday, September 17, 2016. Bill and I are seated at a table in the far end of an elongated, almost empty, hotel restaurant near the Pittsburgh airport. We’ve reserved in the quietest place possible because for the next couple hours, I’ll be interviewing Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary before his concert with Peter Yarrow. Though this isn’t the meeting room we asked for, at least there’s a kind of indoor fence between us and the main dining area. I’ve asked my gregarious husband to eat his lunch before Noel arrives, to stay and chat while Noel and I order our meals, but to please disappear when the interview begins.
In late January I’d sent a proposal to Noel, which began something like this:
I am a United Methodist clergywoman / writer who has recently researched a curriculum piece on respecting other religions when I discovered One Light, Many Candles. That discovery led me to your recent CD/DVD, and last week I heard from the review editor at Sojourners that my review of At Home: The Maine Tour will be published. My research, listening, and writing the review have sparked an idea for a book about your music, spiritual journey, and social justice work.
Two and a half months, two more emails and a published review later, I heard from him. Since then Noel and I have been emailing, but I’ve never talked with him on the phone. His last email asked me to call him around 11:00 am after he’s had time to rest from his flight. I’m just a bit nervous. I want to present myself as a professional writer, not a giddy fan. After all, I haven’t followed his solo music or PP&M music since the ‘60s. I’m going to keep a straight face. I dial and he answers.
“Hi, Noel, Bill and I are here in the restaurant when you’re ready to come down. We’re way in the back, and I’m wearing a turquoise shirt.”
He adds, “And a big grin.”
Remember Clement Moore’s lines the moment after St. Nick comes down the chimney.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread
I’ve just received the verbal equivalent.
Now, four years later, our collaboration on this book goes on. I recall the FaithLink curriculum piece that led me into this journey. In November 2015, 130 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and its northern suburb of Saint Denis. Most prominent in the news of the day was a mass shooting in the Bataclan (theatre) that left 90 dead. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility. Almost immediately anti-Muslim sentiment and violence increased globally among people who didn’t understand the difference between the Islamic religion and a militant, fundamentalist Islamist group.
Since 2007 I’ve been a part of the writing team that produces FaithLink, a digital United Methodist curriculum for study groups on current affairs and faith. After the Paris attacks, I was in line for the next issue to be written. The editors and I wasted no time deciding that the topic had to be interfaith understanding. In doing the research I ran across One Light, Many Candles, a multi-faith program in word and song presented by Noel Stookey and the Reverend Betty Stookey. Betty had begun developing in program in her role as chaplain at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which had a religiously and culturally diverse student body. She continued that development later when she became minister-in-residence at Wesley Theological Seminary.
That Noel Stookey is married to a clergywoman who has developed such a program got my attention. I started reading more about them and was impressed with their depth of understanding, their spirituality, and their efforts to help us human beings “overcome our differences and see our commonality without fear of losing our spiritual integrity.”
Long story short, I ordered some of Noel’s latest CDs and started listening. I found in his solo music deeply reflective lyrics, occasional comic relief, profound but humble reverence, and beautiful melodies played by an accomplished guitarist. Two years earlier Bill and I had lost our only child to cancer. At age 33, she left behind her husband and their six-month-old baby. The grief was still fresh. One Noel’s songs, “Every Flower” includes this couplet, which inexplicably brought hope and healing to me:
Some [flowers] are bent by fears they cannot see And some are touched by love and set free
On the surface, “Every Flower” has a simple lyric, but the power of poetry, of metaphorical language, is that it works beneath the surface, reaching inner places like nothing else can, especially when it is woven into beautiful, engaging melodies and rhythms.
Another feature of Noel’s lyrics that I appreciated from the start was his reticence to using religious language to communicate about the Divine. That appeals to me because I’m highly skeptical of the misuse and abuse of God talk, which seems more prevalent in public life than it was even four years ago. His songs are the epitome of Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.”
For those of you who may have wondered why I post so many announcements about Noel’s projects and concerts on my FB page, now you know. Speaking of which, this weekend he has been one of many artists who are giving their time and talents to Share the Journey: A Concert for Compassion to raise money for organizations that work extensively to serve and assist migrants, immigrants, and refugee families.
On Sunday, October 18, Noel will appear in concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Tickets to this virtual event will allow you to see it anytime between tomorrow night and November 18. The orchestra will be playing some Joplin and Copeland, and Noel will be singing some of my favorites, including “Facets of the Jewel,” which is central to One Light, Many Candles, and “In These Times,” written in 2007 but curiously applicable to right now.
The book is also the reason I write so few blog posts, but we’re entering a phase of writing in which my research is focused on contemporary topics that may evoke more frequent posts. I hope so. Regardless, I’m still wearing a big grin.
Tonight people around the world will sing “Auld Lang Syne,” a 1788 poem by Robert Burns. It’s a song that invites memories of good times with friends–not just in the past year, but throughout our lives. A literal translation of the Scots phrase is “old long since,” meaning “days gone by.” Burns’ version comes from a long oral tradition, dating back as least as far as 1588. His lyrics of this drinking song spread across Scotland through its inclusion in the Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians helped popularize the song in North America, and for decades it’s been played in Time’s Square after the ball drops.
I’ve put together a video for Noel Stookey’s adapation of the song, which he and George Emlen arranged as “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne.” About it he says,
For the past 4 years or so on New Year’s Eve in Blue Hill, a large group of townsfolk gather in the Congregational Church to bid farewell to the old year with poetry and song. My good friend (and former musical director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, group Revels), George Emlen and I felt that a counter melody to “Auld Lang Syne” would make a nice musical statement as well as a metaphoric intertwining of the old year/new year. The search for its perfect lyric is probably not over yet – but on my holiday CD Somethin’ Special, I wanted to at least get the concept out among folks to sing.
Tonight in Blue Hill, Noel and George will again be leading the townsfolk in their “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne” and celebrating old friends and new friends with their song. With this video I wish you a happy new year filled with joy, peace, and the warmth of friends.
In the spirit of “telling it slant,” I offer my friend Alex Joyner’s review of poet Christian Wiman’s new book. I especially like this quote from Wiman: ” What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)”
A Review of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light
The poet Seamus Heaney paused in the middle of dinner andleaned over to make a confession to Christian Wiman, who was, at the time, the editor of Poetry magazine. Knowing Wiman to be a Christian not only in name, Heaney admitted that he “felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged. That was trying to emerge.” (88-9)
Wiman still wonders at his response to the confession:
What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities…
Welcome to Alex Joyner, a writer who in his blog Heartlands reflects on spirit and place, heart and land. Alex is an ordained minister in the United Methodist tradition, currently serving as the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Author of 6 books, he writes regularly for FaithLink and Ministry Matters.Streetlight Magazine has recently nominated his memoir piece, “Spirit Duplicator,” for the Pushcart Prize. Congratulations, Alex!
“Thank God he liked my sermon.” That’s what I thought, with some relief, when the Pulitzer-prize winning poet Franz Wright hit up my comment section after I posted the last Sunday’s effort at Franktown United Methodist in 2008. After all, Wright was known to like a literary brawl. He once excoriated Meg Kearney, a fellow poet, just for inviting him to ‘like’ a Facebook page for the Pine Manor writing program. His dismissals of work he found less than stellar were legendary. So when I saw the ‘FW’ commenter on a sermon in which I quoted his work, I was wary. Had he been Googling his name spoiling for a fight?
I had only just discovered Wright. He appeared with the poet Mary Karr at the Festival of Faith & Writing in 2008 and I was struck by his haunting personal story and his stark, honest words. The son of James Wright, himself an acclaimed poet, burdened with the father’s abuse and legacy, tormented by substances and demons, suicidal, distraught, depressed, at times homeless, Franz found a poetic voice that eventually sang with his discovery of God.
His poem ‘Baptism,’ in the 2003 book that won him the Pulitzer, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, captured the sense of release and transformation he found as he became a practicing Catholic. I was quoting part of it in my sermon that day, though I hadn’t gotten up the nerve to use its arresting opening that makes it brilliant and reflects Wright’s wonder at late-found faith:
That insane asshole is dead
I drowned him
and he’s not coming back. Look
he has a new life
a new name
which no one knows except
the one who gave it.
The Apostle Paul couldn’t have said it better.
The sermon was a meditation on life after baptism. On what you do when the insane asshole has been drowned but the old passions persist. On what we do with the new life and new name, unknown to all but the ‘one who gave it,” we have been given.
I quoted another Wright poem, ‘Walden,’ describing a turtle immersed in water, soaring in that ‘half underworld’ element, sensing a power: “There is a power that wants me to love.”
This was the truth Wright wanted to be seen in his work, which only seems to shiver in cold New England light. “It is not too much to say that (as a writer) this is what I live for:” he wrote in that comment on the sermon, “those exceedingly rare, even miraculous instances of contact with someone outside the literary world (at least this is true for poets), of feeling someone has understood you, understood that what you are engaged in is anything but a literary matter–that it is simply your work, the glove with which you touch the universe, as well as your spiritual quest and your physical sustenance.”
Later he posted another a comment. What if, he mused, “in this frustrating and lonely and frightening ordeal we were to perceive it as something different, something not to grieve about but to rejoice in–a physical, lived illustration of the soul’s true nature, which is its immortality, its changelessness and agelessness. This also leads to other issues regarding the nature of the life of the soul, which are far from being so black and white, but still: what if we could experience this aging dilemma and ordeal as proof of something marvelous and infinitely reassuring?”
Franz died of lung cancer at the age of 62 in 2015. His obituary in The New York Times talked about the “anguished themes” of his poetry and talked about his estrangement from his family as a “rupture” that “ran through his work like a glittering dark thread.” But it gave scant attention to the ways his searing self-examination gave way to a larger hope.
For bare knuckled Christians, there are few equals to Franz Wright. I’m glad he liked the sermon. But I’m more grateful that he found a way to trust his art and his God.