And a Big Grin

Photo by Bill Finley

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 2013, 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. 

“Dazzle Gradually”

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photo by Bill Finley

On this first day of a new year, I begin a blog to discover people who –in the words of  poet Emily Dickinson–“tell it [the truth] slant” as I write about connections among three topics dear to me—faith, culture, and justice.  Frequently I’ll highlight a poet, a songwriter, a filmmaker, or other kinds of artists who speak obliquely so as not to overwhelm.  They want to get their message across before their audience slams a door in their faces or throws tomatoes at them or simply goes to sleep.

I know no better place to start than with Dickinson’s poem, which doesn’t have a name but rather is known by its first line which says, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”  Why do that?   In the oft-quoted and parodied court-martial scene in A Few Good Men, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) shouts, “I want the truth!” and Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) yells back, “You can’t handle the truth!”  Dickinson would agree, but she sees a way forward and it’s not a straight path.  She advises, “Success in Circuit lies.”  Tell it circuitously, gracefully, gently. Dance around a bit.  She follows her own advice as she plays with the order of that line and the next two:  “Too bright for our infirm Delight/ the Truth’s superb surprise.”  Truth can sometimes be a nice surprise, or at least a digestible one, when delivered in a way that honors our fragility before its power.

Then Dickinson makes a comparison, using a simile, which is another way of telling it slant:  “As Lightening to the Children eased / By explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.”  By explaining to kids what lightening is and what causes it, we adults help them be less fearful of it.  There are further comparisons here. Lightening is a little like truth—bright and fascinating but incredibly powerful—and we are like children—often unknowing and easily overwhelmed.  Truth has the power to blind if it’s not delivered in ways that that we can take in.

I believe in the wisdom and the challenge of this poem. I believe that creative artists of all kinds stand the best chance of getting across the truths that our society so sorely needs to hear.   Creative people can be heard in places and ways that noncreative people—however educated and skilled they may be—aren’t always heard. I think how some in our society choose not to hear scientists who warn us about global warming, environmentalists who remind us that there are limits to the earth’s resources, and journalists who seek to tell the truth and uphold the principles of a free press.

As a minister, as a writer, and as a grandmother, I am deeply concerned about the world we inhabit and the ways we are treating it and each other.  In this blog, I will be seeking out the prophets of our time who by telling it slant may help us to hear the truths we so desperately need to absorb.  I invite you to join me in my quest.