Saturday, October 16, 2010

E Ala E: The heavens declare the glory


I learned the Hawaiian sunrise chant "E Ala E" at an unlikely place -- the parking lot of a hotel on Kauai. It was taught by a Niihau native who was a Marriott employee. She teaches the sun chant to tourists at the Kauai Marriott.

The Niihau islanders bring this chant, every month, to healing ceremonies for Kaho' olawe, the island sacred to Hawaii's ocean god, which was desecrated and finally abandoned by the military.

A week later, on the island of Maui, we drove to the top of the volcano Haleakala for sunrise, and as gold and red colors filled the sky, a ranger just behind me sang the sun rise chant, with rabbinical power, a goosebump moment.

Last week in our PUMC Discipleship class we studied the Creation stories, including Psalm 19, 4b-6. "In the heavens he has a set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and nothing is hidden from its heat." I had paired that Psalm to a sunrise photo and liked the bridegroom/wedding canopy image and "strong man runs the course with joy."

Last month we had two wonderful sun-rise encounters, while on a Tauck America's Canyonlands Tour. At the Grand Canyon, we arrived at our lookout point in pitch dark, dressed for the chill, to watch the wonder unfold.
At Bryce, the light cast on the hoodoos was also well-worth losing sleep.

It was a spiritual experience, deepened by opportunities to interact with Navajo guides who shared their faith. Thanks to YouTube, here are sun-awakening songs from Native Americans who have somehow, in a white man's world, retained their inner strength and harmony with God and nature.

This Comanche Peyote song greets the dawn on Sunday morning. From the caption: It is to be sung on the birth of a new Sunday. When the sunlight hits the sky in the early dawn morning. When the very edge of the sun rays meet the silver glimmer of the clouds and the sky. It's lyrics are in reference to the beginning of a new day. A new day that brings comfort and happiness. This songs asks for God (The Creator) to make the prayers a reality.

Here is an early morning blessing from the Navajo.

After these glories of Creation, it seems small-minded to worry about whether to interpret the Genesis Creation stories literally. To quote from the Disciple study: "The Jews, who have lived with Genesis for a long time, are amazed that Christians want to literalize the poetry...The symbol of seven days is a faith days are poetic symbols to show form and to remind us to order our lives as God has ordered the universe."

As suggested by Psalm 90:4: "A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night."

In other words, worry less about creationism vs evolution and more about keeping the Sabbath, more about blessing each new day, especially on the seventh day.

One more -- a beautiful Cherokee morning song.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Well-Planned -- or Summoned Lives?

Should you plan your life out in your 20s, like Harvard Business School prof Clayton Christiansen advocates? Or let it happen according to circumstance? David Brooks, in today's New York Times oped piece, presents the contrast:

The person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, “What should I do?” The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”

Instead, I think the best answer is, like Dion says, "Both."

Reading Christiansen's lecture reveals that, when he was a Rhodes scholar, he dedicated an hour every day to "reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth." He says that a shocking number of HBS students have not contemplated their purpose in life.

People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

Another Christiansen quote from this well-worth-reading essay:

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Christiansen essentially teaches in parables: When people ask what I think they should do, I rarely answer their question directly. Instead, I run the question aloud through one of my models. I’ll describe how the process in the model worked its way through an industry quite different from their own. And then, more often than not, they’ll say, “OK, I get it.” And they’ll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have.

How to choose between the Well-Planned Life (which Brooks attributes to Christiansen) and the Summoned Life (a roll-with-the punches approach)? I would say you can do both. Think ahead what your moral, ethical, and religious guidelines are going to be. Then adapt and stay fast on your feet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bay Head and Rokeby

Bay Head -- those in our family know what Bay Head is.

Rokeby is the 43-room house on the Hudson River owned by Livingstons and Astors, now inhabitaed by impecunious descendants. Very different. But in a New York Times article today, there are a couple of points worth taking note of:

"Like most family histories, Rokeby's story is wildly subjective, and its 'truth" depends on your vantage point."

"It's the place that makes my heart sing and my head ache. But it's kind of amazing that 50 years later, Rokeby is intact, family owned, and debt free."

Here's the line we might need to heed:

"The between people needing space and the stuff needing space, because nothing can be thrown away."

Think: Attic.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Creating Sabbath Peace

Creating Sabbath Peace Amid the Noise is an article I want to ponder.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rituals -- family and monastic

Procession is a form of ritual walking. A family may process into the dining room on a special occasion. A procession invites the spirits of the occasion to be present, and it renders the place of gathering the hopeful goal of labyrinthine mystery. Thomas Moore, Meditations. p. 60

Tradition is a pool of imagination, and not a basis for authority. ...Traditional rituals and images rise out of an historical fog in which founders and authorities are more mythological than persona, and in which so many different layers of meaning lie packed together that the sacred literature becomes genuine poetry. ...We could be guided by countless generations of ancestors without becoming oppressed by the words and structures they have left behind." p. 84

Why I like Gregorian chant

Modal chants mirror and model the monastic life. "It doesn't have the drive toward ending or the insistent relationships between notes and chords that modern music has. Endings and climaxes appear melodically, for the most part, with a felt lift in song and a sure entropy in musical energy. Thomas Moore, "Meditations," p. 38

Sometimes...monks wil land upon a note and sing it in florid fashion, one syllable of text for fifty notes of chant. Melisma, they call it. Living a melismatic life -- we may stop on an experience, a place, a person, or a memory and rhapsodize in imagination (draw, contemplate, build, paint, or dance). (Versus living one point after another,) ...stopping for melisma gives the soul its reason for being. p. 44

"Silence is not the absence of sound, but a "toning down of inner and outer static...allows many sounds to reach awareness...(nature) was well as conscience, daydreams, intuitions, inhibitions, and wishes. One cultivates silence not by forcing the ears not to hear, but by turning up the volume on the music of the world and the soul. p. 68

Monastery bells: "Overtones are those elements in every experience that last long after the literal act -- memories, shock, emotional residues, reactional behavior. They are also the meanings and implications of deeds, their nuances and reverberation...Monks are more interested in these (overtones) than in the literal facts. They are professionals in spiritual resonance. When the bell rings, they stop and listen." p. 98

Listening, obeying

"Obedience means to listen closely to others for words of direction. . . I can see the deep will that guides me in the thoughts and reflections of my neighbor." Thomas Moore, Meditations, p. 12

"To have a conversation with Christ...just keep listening until you hear something, said my novice master...Now, having read Jung, Ficino, Yeats, Rilke, and Dickinson, I've discovered how to listen meditatively." p. 13

"Wasted time is usually good soul time... But there is something especially fruitful in a regulated life...The ritual quality of appointed times releases us from the burdens of free will." p. 83

"The truly artful life, not the merely aesthetic one, is religious, and vice versa." p. 105

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Advice for those trying to pare down their possessions: (Me).

"What does it take to really own and possess? It means loving a thing so much that one can't be parted from it, can't stand to see it neglected and misused, can't trust that someone else will care for it sufficiently.

" shopping, buying, and possessing we are never satisfied -- (which) indicates that we never fully possess or fully own. "

from Meditations, Thomas Moore, p. 22

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

One Chimpanzee Cannot Be a Chimpanzee

In Harold Kushner's "Living a Life that Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success" I found a heartening description of friendship, and I offer it to those who are my friends and to whom I might learn to be a friend. Starting on p. 119.

"Friendships are a key to survival in an unfriendly world,...a way for us to be recognized as unique people, to be reassured that we are appreciated for who we are. One step less intense than marriage or parenthood, genuine friendships are a mirror reflecting back to us a flattering image of ourselves. The fact that they are voluntary, easier to enter or leave than family, marriage, or professional relationships, reassures us that people remain our friends because they genuinelly like us, even when we have hurt or disapointed us. It has been said, 'When a friend makes a mistake, the mistake remains a mistake, but the friend is still a friend.' And friendships are a way of being important in another person's life, knowing that someone we like and care about is happier, more secure, and more likely to make right choices because of us.. As Patricia O'Brien said of her friend, 'she needed me, which is no small thing.' "

Why the chimpanzee title? An anthropologist who studied this species said that a chimp needs other chimps in order to become what it was meant to be. Kushner: "We need other people, and we need to be neede by other people, in order to be who we might be, who we yearn to be."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

House on a Hill? Or House with Porch?

This column was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper in 2004.

The first house we bought was on a steep hill. You went in the
front door, up the steps to the second floor, and out the back

One side of the driveway was an embankment with a three-foot stone
wall. The other was a sheer drop, protected by a one-foot stone
wall. In the winter we did not attempt to shovel the driveway. We
just clambered up from the bottom of the hill (precarious when
you are seven months pregnant and carrying groceries) and waited
until the thaw. Or we gunned the motor up the hill and hoped we
could get back down.

One memorable day my car ended up at the bottom of the hill,
planted cross ways on the stone wall, and was blessedly rescued by
two Mormon missionaries who happened to be passing by.

Only the young, you say, would make such a foolish house purchase.
Or else it was a beautiful house. Or it came at a bargain price.
Yes, yes, and yes, but those aren't the real reasons.

The real reason for our purchase was that my husband grew up in a
house on a steep hill with a curvy driveway. And they didn't
shovel in the winter. It was a family point of honor that if you
had a car, you could get up the hill past that icy curve.

Your childhood environment, as it turns out, is a major factor in
what kinds of living spaces you will like as an adult. A house or
a room or a piece of furniture that made you uncomfortable as a
child -- you will avoid it as an adult. A staircase, a chair, a
porch that you loved as a child -- you will resonate with it later
in life.

Architects and savvy real estate agents began to take childhood
experiences into account in the 1960s, when Gaston Bachelard
began to write about the poetics of space. In this new field of
"Design Psychology," Princeton-based author Toby Israel's recent
book, "Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places," breaks new ground. She does in-depth interviews with three architects -- Michael Graves, Andres Duany,
and Charles Jencks -- digging into the emotional roots of their
early environments, finding out "how places from the past contain
the seeds of future choices, for home locations, dwellings, and interior design."

On the practical side, Israel's book provides self-help
worksheets. Take her questions, interview yourself, and come up with your own
"emotion-based environmental roots" analysis. Use this to buy your
next house -- or remodel your current abode -- and you are
will most likely be happy with the results.

Her book, lavishly illustrated in black and white and color and printed on glossy stock, is published by John Wiley. It sells for $32 and is available for $37 including shipping by mailing a check to Toby Israel Consulting, 429 Walnut Lane, Princeton 08540.

Israel refers to Bachelard’s "land of that Motionless Childhood,"
motionless because it stays in place while our lives move on. By
recalling the memories of childhood, we add to our store of

She urges the reader to "go into the storehouse of memory and
come as close as possible to retrieving the poetry of lost home."
Reflecting on these memories can help us make better decisions. With clearer vision, we can strive to create homes and other places that mirror our most fulfilled selves."

But Design Psychology is not<$> about nostalgia design," cautions
Israel. "Instead, the point of Design Psychology is to identify
the primal, satisfying, existential essence<$>of these places in order to use the 'high positive' associations they trigger as a touchstone from which to design." If you have fond memories of a primitive, old-world kitchen, for instance, you need not install a wood burning stove. Instead you create a space that is simple and earthy, with a lively close-knit quality that encourages the
family to gather there.

Israel offers a Design Psychology Toolbox, exercises to do and
questions to ask yourself. For instance, in what way(s), if any,
do you think your personality is reflected in your present home? If
you think your personality is not<$> reflected in your home, why
do you think this is so? In what way(s), if any, do you think your
home reflects anyone else's personality?

Overall, do you feel comfortable that your home reflects who you
really are? If not, what changes would you make to your home so
that it expresses who you are?

Ponder how your family's environmental experiences differed from
generation to generation. How did your environmental genealogy
influence your own environmental perspective and values, and was
this influence positive or negative? What sense of home do you want to
pass down to future generations as part of your legacy of place?

Create a time line of city settings you lived in from birth to
Present and indicate your age at this place. Now calculate how many years
You have lived in each of the following settings: city, town, village,
suburb, or countryside.

Looking at the timeline, decide what kind of setting you lived in
Most from ages infant to eighteen, and judge if you like that kind of
setting. Also, is there a place that has had a major impact on you?
As an adult, did you choose to live in a setting same or different
from what you had as a child? Are you happy in your current setting?
Why or why not?

Other tools that Israel offers include drawing mental maps and
going through self guided visualizations of favorite childhood places.

Israel applies her design therapist's eye to the selection
and furnishing of her own house in Princeton. She describes how
she and a team of architects from Witherspoon Street-based KSS Architects (including
Michael Shatkin, Merilee Meacock, and Peter Mattioni) applied her tools to designing a charter school
in Jersey City. Another chapter tells how she trained design
professionals in the Manhattan-based Mufson Group.

But what gives Israel's book its special eclat are the in-depth
interviews with celebrity architects. Interestingly, Israel was
turned down in her interview request by the likes of Denise Scott-Brown and Frank Gehry. Of the three who did agree, Andres Duany is a
New Urbanist planner who advocates "walkable" communities, Charles
Jencks is a noted critic, and Michael Graves is, of course,
Princeton's own reigning prince of Post Modernism, the
antithesis to look-alike big box buildings.

Though Graves is relaxed and accommodating to interviewers, he generally veers away from discussions of his personal life to focus on his work. But over the course of six hours Israel’s probing questions helped Graves to discover new insights about himself, and Graves' groupies will be fascinated by his candid replies. For instance, he tells of his grandmother's wonderfully creaky old Carpenter Gothic

"It was an extremely pleasant house -- made pleasant by my
grandmother. There was a pump in the kitchen, and dark, floral
wall paper. Always waiting for us the huge Thanksgiving-style dinner my
grandmother prepared. I can remember my grandmother telling us
stories, cooking. It was all very loving. The stories were all
about her family, and they were all true, though we didn't know that
until we grew up."

The most startling insight was that his visits to the Cleveland
stockyards, where his father, grandfather, and uncle worked, has
been a significant influence on his design for libraries in Venice, California, San Juan Capistrano and Denver, and even his own Princeton home.

His memories of the stockyards fall into the category of a
"transcendent place," not a place that represents family, love,
and affection, but a place remembered as "an unforgettable living
presence in itself, exciting all five senses and inspiring
exuberance, calm, or awe." Graves describes it:

"An exaggerated building with great elevated passageways all made
of wood which crisscrossed in the air, more like Piranesi though I
didn't know that at the time. It was not just the passageways, but
that you looked on the animals in their pens. There was a
character to it that I've never seen since.

"I talk about character a lot. I wasn't so aware of it when I was
in school. Now I'm more aware of what that experience meant; it
was dramatic. This was an exaggerated building. For me it was the
recognition of character. It affected how I later came to regard
Modernity -- particularly its lack of breadth.

"Understand that I'm from a place in the Midwest without much
culture, without much building," says Graves. He has no warm
feelings for the nondescript houses of the Indianapolis suburbs. "The library, the church were real buildings but they were so ordinary that you wouldn't think twice about them. The profundity of the stockyards was a result of its
contrast compared to my house, school, shopping center, etc."

Though the suburbs offered good streets for bicycling, but that was about all. “It had biases,” says Graves, “in that we didn't go to theater, exhibitions, galleries. We didn't travel. We weren't deprived. We just didn't do those things.”

The depth of his youthful naivete can be indicated by the fact that when he
went to architecture school in Cincinatti, he had never even heard
of Frank Lloyd Wright. When he went to Harvard for a master's
degree, he was the only one in the class who had never been to
Europe. And when he visited Rome at age 27, to spend two years at
the American Academy, it was a seminal experience. He describes it
as a return to his (non literal) roots. "Graves clearly
acknowledged his own development while in Rome," writes Israel.
"He was able to let go of Modernism's 'moralism' and let color
replace whiteness. In Rome, culture and conviviality joined hands
for Graves on both a personal and an architectural level."

A short teaching stint at Princeton University turned into a lifelong stay. Princeton offered the safe streets of the Indianapolis suburb, but it had more cultural opportunities.

"I liked it OK, but 30 years ago it was a different place. The
university wasn't co-ed. Nor was it as popular as it is today.
Since then, the explosion of everything in the immediate area has
brought a kind of roundness to the town's life which is quite satisfying.
It's a university town, a commercial center with a variety of people.
Princeton is like a small, contained city, but avoiding all the
negatives of a big city. It's a good base. In some ways it's like
Verona, rather insular yet manageable, though Princeton has
greater choices."

His house in Princeton is a former Princeton University warehouse used to store furniture. Israel compares the warehouse, which came with 44 long and narrow rooms, to the stockyards, with its line of narrow pens. Graves admitted there might be a connection, that he might have been subliminally attracted to the warehouse for that reason, but he is more enthusiastic about a different conclusion, that both the warehouse and the stockyards attracted him because they had character. Said Graves: “The interest in character , itself, is something I see as a distinguishing character of my work. If I were building a hotel in Egypt it doesn’t look like a hotel in Ohio. . .

He also thinks he was strongly influenced by his stay in Italy. When he found the warehouse it was in ruins but, says Grave, “had a certain integrity. It didn’t seem to be styled. I find out later why that character came through. It was built by Italian masons. They built it as a Tuscan warehouse, a Tuscan barn.”

When it comes to his struggle to make a house a home -- about the financial pressures Graves had when he was young, the collapse of two marriages (who was Lucy??), his current lack of leisure time, and his bachelor existence --- Graves goes into some detail,
wistfully admitting that his house never achieved the sense of conviviality that he remembered from his grandmother’s home.

Israel pointedly criticizes the lack of psychological training for today’s designers. In particular, she castigates Peter Eisenman for his design for the World Trade Center, office towers “which would appear to be collapsing – buckling at the news. If, in a moment of insanity, such buildings were actually to be built, they would enshrine and extend our trauma rather than heal the American psyche. How could designers come to propse such a disjuncture between people and place.”

For most of us, though, this book is a rich source of speculative conversation on one’s own environmental memories and those of one’s friends. It could certainly be a useful in making decisions on what houses to buy or how to decorate. Speaking of houses.. .

If the house on a hill was my husband's fond memory, mine was of a
childhood spent in an small farmhouse set close to its newer
neighbors on each side, and the farmhouse had an L-shaped porch, complete
with swing. Oh I loved to sit on that swing and watch the cars and
people pass. Every other house I've lived in since then has had a porch
of some kind.

Until we moved to the house on the hill. And several years after
We moved into the house on the hill, we built a deck on the front
That could pass for a porch. Now I know why. Now that I have "gone into
My storehouse of memory and retrieved the poetry of my Motionless
Childhood," I realize that I needed<$> that porch.

Does my current house, an aging Cape Cod where we have lived for
30 years, possess a porch? No, and to tell you the truth, I
Never really resonated with that house. So if you see trucks parked in
Front of it, and you see workmen digging footings on our front lawn,
you'll know that Design Psychology triumphed again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Church's Digital Challenge

Thanks to Pat Hatton for forwarding a blog posting at "Church, Culture, and the Media," a site owned by the United Methodist Church, I posted this comment on "Digital Culture Demands Relevance, Change."

The field of healthcare was slow to adapt to digital media, and the global church faces some of the same problems. How to "certify" the "real" Gospel?

Healthcare started out by setting up a "seal of approval" system, aka Good Housekeeping seals. They were supposed to be the guideposts for consumers to select the most accurate information.

As United Methodists, we have the advantage of "first claim" on the eyeballs of our current members, and it's up to us to take advantage of that and strengthen that digital bond.

But I worry about the spiritually lost who are turning to Google for solace and comfort. About 10 years ago a "newbie" Christian in our church began spouting some weird ideas. Where did she get these ideas? From a website, from an online course she wanted to take.

We looked at that site together, and I was appalled. Rank heresy. I was able to steer her to something more mainstream and later she signed up for a Disciple course and is now on Disciple IV.

Would that still happen today? Perhaps the "standard" Christian sites have proliferated so they don't pop to the top of Google. (Is someone studying this?)

Further, should we United Methodists, or a consortium of churches, be paying for Google search words in order to get "first chance" at reaching the spiritually lost?