Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Taft Diary, pt. 2 - How to kill time in Cinci on a Saturday afternoon

Saturday morning I wake up about an hour before my alarm goes off. I put on some classical music and start my morning stretches. there is cold air blowing in around the door, despite the towel I have pushed up against the bottom of it. Today's weather will not be quite as nice as yesterday. in fact, the difference in temperature between the time I arrived here yesterday and the time I will leave on Sunday night is a difference of about 60 degrees.

I give Bill a call when I'm ready to go (about 1pm) and we head to our first stop: Everybody's Records. I'm on a tight budget, and this place gives me the shakes. I could drop a thousand dollars in here without even blinking. I've done that sort of thing before. I know I can't spend much money, so I just say no to everything, even the cool Tom Waits poster in the back of the store. or that Mindy Smith CD I don't have that's half the price here. A shopping basket would be helpful if I were to pull the things I wanted out of the used jazz section. I have everything I want from Miles Davis...except that one. and that one. oh, and here's another one I've been wanting... If I were an alcoholic, this would be my liquor store. I'm not even going to look at that Joy Division t-shirt hanging there, because that would look really great on me. Yes, Bill, I saw that new Rosie Thomas CD there. No, I don't have it yet, but thanks for asking... I browse the record albums, just because I haven't been able to do that sort of thing at a record store in years. real live vinyl. lots of it. a selection of old jazz on vinyl that makes my head spin. I remember now how I became addicted to buying music, why I spent my weekend nights in high school and college at a record store instead of out on a date. records last longer. I pull out a couple Black Sabbath albums and put them on the turntable in the back. I had to get the guy at the counter to come back and fix the dang thing. the anticipation is kind of like when a druggie wraps a rubberband around his arm and slaps the vein. then you slip the needle in and... oh, doesn't matter how bad it might be for you. it's gooood. Black Sabbath on vinyl, the same record that warned a pastor in my youth, in a vision in his shower (probably with his mistress), that all rock music was the same, that Resurrection band was just as bad for me as Black Sabbath, that they were both doing the devil's work. It was probably the one message that made me really want to check out Black Sabbath, if they sounded like Rez. "Born Again" certainly could have been the name of a Rez album, so who knows...

I'm getting even more shaky and weak, this time from hunger and the need for more sleep. Bill buys a small sack of music (including a bit of vinyl), I buy nothing while choking back tears, and we head to our next stop - Kaldi's Coffeeshop and bar. The place Linford used to come to from his appartment across the street to write old Over the Rhine newsletters and imagine the Inklings, the place Karin used to work, the place that I love to visit in Cinci, the place that is closing up for good in a few days.
We get our drinks at the bar, then go sit at a table near the back with shelves of used books still lining the walls (though much of the place is being torn down). We have a great conversation about our religious backgrounds, how we came to the place we are now, the path that led to our current beliefs. We both seem to share an appreciation for the process that faith is, rather than the "now you aren't saved / now you are" mentality of many mainstream Christians.

Kaldis only had drinks, no food, so we get directions to a local deli a few blocks away to have lunch. I don't remember the name of the place, but it had great local flavor and hit the spot just right. A much better choice than just stopping at Subway. Bill reminded me that he knew one of my closest friends through bible quizzing many years ago, and we talked about the old days of Christian rock and how so many had fallen over the years, and the odd response Christians often have to those who fall from grace.

After lunch, we head to a 5-story used bookstore called Ohio Books. I'm always amazed at how little I'm able to find in a place that has so many more books than the average bookstore. They're pretty short on Buechner books, but they do seem to have every issue of National Geographic ever made. I get a Daniel Berrigan book, put back the Merton biography I really want, and we close the store out. I discover that Bill has never been to some of the coolest CD and bookstores in the Detroit area, so we will have to take a trip to them when we get back.

We get back to the hotel and I go back to my room for a quick nap, then the three of us head back downtown for dinner with the Orchard at Arnolds...

A Taft Diary, part 1 - Friday (The original Over the Rhine)

Last weekend, mere hours after my last day at work, I took a treacherous drive down to Cincinnati for the Over the Rhine reunion show at the Taft theater, and it was certainly the best 3 days of this otherwise shitty year for me, one of the best weekends I've had in quite a few years, actually.

A severe snowstorm was forcast for Friday morning, when I was planning on leaving, so I decided to leave the night before to avoid all that. Only I hit freezing rain and icing highways just past Bowling Green, Ohio, and made it as far as Lima (doing about 35-45 mph for a few hours) before I finally pulled over and made a makeshift hotel room out of my car in front of a Speedway gas pump for a few hours. My only consolation for how ridiculous this probably looked was that it felt like the sort of thing Tom Waits would do. I've never driven through such wet weather in my life. My car was making horrible noises that at first sounded like the muffler, but were distinctly coming from the engine. A comment by a stranger at another gas station down the road made me realize it was probably my belt slipping. It freaked me out, whatever it was, and led to a fair amount of highway "help me" prayers. I just want to get to Cincinnati...

I listen to Sam Phillip new CD on the way there as she sings "I...I love you...when you're useless...when you don't do anything" and I wonder if that kind of unconditional love is even possible to share with another or to experience ourselves. It certainly sounds like a wonderful idea. Some sort of counterbalance to the thoughts and voices that insist "you're not good enough".

Just past Dayton, and the temperature starts to rise, the rain eases up a bit, and as I pulled into Cincinnati (and no sooner), the sun comes out onto a near-60 degree morning. It only took me 10 hours to make this 5-hour trip. I check into my cheap-ass motel and try to get some of the sleep I missed last night.

My friends Bill and Heidi braved the foot of snow in Detroit to leave this morning, didn't have to deal with any ice in Ohio, and made it into town just in time for us to go to dinner before the big show at 8. It is great to have friends here to share this great weekend with. Bill is one of the few people I know whose knowledge and love of music rivals and even surpases mine. We both have CD collections that number in the thousands.
We met a random stranger coming off the bus in downtown and they asked him if he knew any good places to eat within walking distance. Instead of pulling out a gun to mug us (as a random stranger off the bus probably would have done here in Detroit), he actually walked with us down to his recommended restaurant. Really nice guy. Unfortunately the place was packed, so we ended up eating at a mall food court across the street (a mall that oddly closed at 7pm on this Friday evening before Christmas. ?.). It was then, in the middle of a great conversation about old Christian rock, that Bill confessed his early love of Air Supply to us. I told him I'd never admit to that sort of thing publicly...and I won't. (*ahem*)

After dinner we walked the few blocks back to The Taft in the cool night air for what was one of the most anticipated reunion shows of my life. Over the Rhine was getting back together for one night with their original members - drummer Brian Kelly and the legendary guitarist Ric Hordinski. and they did not disappoint.

Over the Rhine has probably been my favorite group (off and on with Vigilantes of Love / Bill Mallonee) for about 15 years now. They played a key role in my post-college years as a beacon of how faith could be expressed in art outside of the confining CCM/Christian sub-culture (or "ghetto"). As such, they opened my eyes to a whole world of literature and music and way of living in this world that was a tremendous breath of fresh air to me and my spiritual life. this original line-up hadn't played together for over 10 years, and I almost forgot how special those early shows were, and how much of an impact they had on me. They delivered a reunion show that exceeded all expectations and hit the mark perfectly for me. And somehow, during the course of the show, I felt like I was regaining some sort of center again, like the "reset" button was being pressed on my life.

Someday I hope you might be true to all it is I see in you...
The music of Over the Rhine makes me long for a better life, makes me want to be a better person along the way. Not necessarily to reach higher, but to reach deeper. There is a life out here beyond what I've allowed for myself. There are people here I connect with who remind me of who I really am, where I was heading, once upon a time. There are seeds being planted right now, in this season, and this is a beginning. Where it goes or whether it grows only God really knows. but it is my prayer that something comes of all this, inside and out, that connections can be made, to others and to that life I can't refuse...

After the show I go upstairs and talk with Dave Nixon, former pastor of the Vineyard Central community there in Norwood. It is good to reconnect with him for a few minutes, and unfortunate that that will be the only real chance I get to talk with him at length.

I meet a few people from The Orchard (Over the Rhine's online discussion group), chat some small talk a bit, and then we head back to the hotel to try and get some more respectable sleep. Tommorrow Bill and I will search Cinci for some used record and bookstore action. already the weekend has been worth the price of admission and the risk it took to get here. Tommorrow things will get even better...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rebuilding Community

(a rough draft of where I am)

Earlier this year, I wrote about listening to UnderCover's Balance of Power late into the night on my own this past spring. The first time I did this, over a decade ago when it first came out, my social circles were wide and varied. At one point in that early 90's week, I had around 10 friends over one day, and none of them knew each other. I knew each of them through a different social circle, and I was the only person each of them knew here (egotripping, I know, but it was pretty cool!). Fast forward 15 years, to that night this past spring, when I found myself at a place in my life where I didn't know a single person I could call up to come over and join me for the evening. My social circles, my community of friends, had dwindled down eventually to the point where I had all my proverbial eggs in one basket. And then that basket got knocked out of my hands, so to speak. It is a place I have never really known before. A stifling aloneness. To be sure, I still had and have friends (I've been very lucky in my life, and quite a few of my lifelong friendships have deep, strong roots, regardless how much time or distance may pass between us), but most of them are now either living out of state, or are living busy lives with spouses and children, and that depth of community is no longer here. And so, this year has been a time for me to deal with the pain of loss (and the poisonous bitterness that can accompany that, as I also wrote about), and try to begin rebuilding something of a community in my life again. Because if I know one thing about myself, it is that I need others in my life. despite my love of times of solitude, I need friends in my life. I need people who are there for me, who I can be there for, who can delve into deep waters late into the night every once in a while.

I was going to counseling earlier this year for the first time in my life, and it was ok (I certainly have always appreciated and encouraged the idea of personal counseling), but as the money started to run out, I realized that the conversations I was having in counseling were the kind I used to have with close friends, and the whole thing started to feel like emotional prostitution. Like a substitute for the real thing. Friendship with a time limit that I had to pay for. And though this counselor came highly recommended, she wasn't getting to the psychological core of things like I had hoped. (my new favorite blogger, Cary, recently wrote a paragraph about the latest Kaufman movie that just about knocked me flat with it's piercingly accurate description of my inner life. I wish I could have read it earlier this year to print out and show the counselor and say "see this, this is me. make it stop!").

In recent months, I have been exploring various community building possibilities. Last week I went to a book discussion group with 11 others who were complete strangers to me. and it was good. I signed up for this one because they had chosen one of my all-time favorite books, High Fidelity. I met some nice people and we talked for a couple hours, and though I don't know if I'll see them again for a while, it was a seed planted. It was a beginning.

Online, I've been connecting with a few people who I wish lived in this area, as they are kindred spirits and obviously interested in the same deep waters I seek out. some live on the other side of the country, some don't even live in this country, and none are within driving distance of myself.

Probably more importantly, I have been going to a church on a semi-regular basis, and getting to know some of the people there. David had been recommending Trinity to me for as long as I can remember, and I can see why. It is a very traditional (I like to say almost a "Catholic wannabe") church, without all the snazzy entertainment production or gimmicks of many modern churches, and also without the "turret's syndrome" expressiveness of some of the charismatic congregations I've known. And every single sermon I've heard there has had depth, relevance, and a few quotes from authors in my personal "hall of fame" (C.S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, etc. etc…). The pastor (and the new associate pastor) reads and integrates books of serious substance, and that's a rare find. I've met quite a few people there who I hope to develop a continuing deeper friendship with, as well as getting to better know a couple folks I knew before even going there. But of course even they are about an hours drive from my house, stretching the idea of a "local community" a little thin…

Speaking of David, he and Sarah came to Michigan in October for a wonderfully refreshing weekend at Trinity House. Sarah played an intimate concert (with her seemingly innumerable siblings as bandmates) on Friday night (and if there's a song that's rivaling Mindy Smith for airtime in my head, it's Sarah's "The River"), and David spoke there next morning. Getting a chance to talk with David and Sarah for a bit that weekend, listening to Sarah sing her life-affirming songs, and David speak clarity to the moment we find ourselves in as both of them bear witness to the Kingdom being lived out in life's messy everyday, I was reminded of how much I crave the kind of community they are a part of and help to create. I hope to write in more detail about that weekend, but for now, I'll just say that David and Sarah remind me of a passage from Madeleine L'Engle's book, "Circle of Quiet":
"It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don't like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.
This doesn't mean that two people who love each other don't need time alone… But there is a kind of exclusiveness in some loves, a kind of inturning, which augurs trouble to come.
Hugh was the wiser of the two of us when we were first married. I would have been perfectly content to go off to a desert isle with him. But he saw to it that our circle was kept wide until it became natural for me, too. There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down."

I have sat at Dave & Sarah's dinner table talking until the candles burned low (long enough for us to have plenty of candlewax to play with and pour in various shapes on that dinner table itself!), I have experienced their "expanding love", their almost unparalleled hospitality, and the community they are a part of (in Nashville, my home away from home) and in some way share with everyone they meet. To me they are a witness to and living example of the reality of the kingdom to come. And they are a part of a much larger community of like-minded kingdom-reality seekers whose very existence as a community (worldwide) has inspired and challenged me more times than I can tell.

That bit by Madeleine L'Engle isn't necessarily just about lovers or married couples. I think it applies to all types of love, including friendships. And I think this is the warning sign I didn't heed in my own life, that my friendships of late were not expansive and inclusive ones. They spiraled down to just a few, and then less than a few, and ultimately that path leads to an unhealthy solitude that is more akin to solitary confinement within one's own skin. It was leading me towards an angry insanity (which is what lead me to counseling, which may prove to have been nothing more than a way to hang on through a pretty dark storm or two, which may be all it needed to be). And I've also been at fault with other relationships, other deep friendships I simply haven't put the time or effort into to keep alive, vital, and current.  Close friends become occasional friends as the "cares of this world" choke the life out of my days.

I've been reading through some old journals recently, and I am reminded of how deep some of these friendships have been, how much certain people have meant to me, and I am alarmed at how easily such relationships can fade into the background. One of these still horrifies me to think I carelessly let her slip out of my life, possibly for good, someone I loved very much and is now lost to me, despite repeated attempts to find her.  Community requires cultivation, and for the longest time I have just been coasting. And anyone who has coasted long enough knows that eventually you come to a stop, and you don't have to do a thing for that to happen. In fact, that's how it happens. And to get going again requires a whole lot more effort than is required to keep going. And I have to admit, I am tired. And discouraged. But old friendships tend to rekindle quickly, and deep roots are still there, regardless the surface neglect suffered.

There is a balance I haven't been able to find, let alone maintain. For most of my life, relationships have been my top priority. But one's own life needs to be lived as well, and lately I can't escape the feeling that I should be doing something "more important". I spent my whole life cultivating friendships, and I find myself ironically at this place where, because I haven't really cultivated my own life, I don't have some of the friendships I thought I had cultivated. And of course, another early warning I either ignored or didn't fully understand, from C.S. Lewis, that friends walk side by side on a common path. Friends don't generally face one another. That is a different kind of love. and in cultivating "friendships", I lost sight of the path I should be walking, of the object that could be a common focal point for potential friendships. In focusing on friends, I find I've lost some of them, like trying to grab water. Friends are there in total freedom or not at all. Trying to "hold on to" friendships can be the very thing that ruins them. People take different paths in life, and no matter how much you think the path you are on is the right one, you can't force another to walk with you on it. And in facing the friend to try, you lose sight of the path. Chase after the friend, and you can find yourself lost. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure where I am right now (in life OR in this blog entry!). But reading through some old journals is helping me to remember where those deep roots are. And, like I said, I'm not "without" friends right now (one of my closest friends, though living days away, makes a concerted effort to call fairly regularly, for which I am grateful). The local landscape is just a little bit barren at the moment, as far as I can see. If I can find that path I should be on, I think I'll find that community that was probably there all along waiting for me.

Next week I'll be out of a job I probably shouldn't have been doing this long in the first place, and things seem a little bit out of focus right now. But I am praying, and I hope you will too, that I find that path that realigns my vision and reawakens my purpose. I feel like I'm walking in water with my toes barely touching the bottom, my head barely out drawing breath. I can't see where I am going right now, and I hope I find my way to more solid ground soon instead of in over my head. The water seems to be rising all around, and I know we've all been seeing a lot of people dipping below the surface. Sounds dire, but at some point we all dip below the surface for good, and maybe that's what these times are here to remind us. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold…I'll meet you brother on the other side". Times like this can cause one to worry about the cares of one's own life (legitimate and numerous), or these times can be the common ground out of which community is formed and grows (think: Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers). Reaching out to others can be rather counter-intuitive when one's very survival is in question, but community is, paradoxically, the only place where one's survival has a real and lasting chance.

Friday, December 05, 2008

"I’m a good listener, and I’m a better listener when people disagree with me."
-Barack Obama