Grace comes in surprising packages.
Sometimes grace, that hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize quality, arrives in a kind word from a friend, an extra week to pay a bill, a soft breeze on a sweltering day.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, for me grace arrived, unannounced and unexpected, in the form of a jazzman.
It was the first Saturday night after life forever changed on 9/11. People waiting patiently to enter the Park West Theater in Chicago were unusually quiet as security guards checked and double-checked IDs, even for those who didn’t intend to drink. A queer pall of uneasiness hung in the air.
Many of the smartly dressed folks waiting to hear the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling sing selections from his album Flirting with Twilight had had to force themselves out of the house that night, had to take a deep breath, say a few prayers, and put on something festive, even though that was the last thing they were feeling.
Inside, the nightclub glowed warmly with candlelight; a few concertgoers milled by the bar ordering cocktails while others found seats set up clubstyle in the intimate venue. But still, that nasty pall hovered.
Elling took the stage with his five-piece band and played the national anthem.
Everyone stood. Everyone sang. Some people cried.
Then grace entered the room.
“I came to sing for you tonight because someone wants us to suffer,” Elling told the hushed crowd. “Someone wants us to fail—as a nation, a culture, as a people. We fold? They win. We stay home in fear or depression? They win. Culture must continue. Joy must come out. Life is stronger than death.”
Then Elling, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician and all-around hip cat, quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
“We are not encircled by darkness. We’re surrounded by a circle of light whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. We have beheld this glory; it is full of grace. If we were to ask such a God of grace, what do you think God would say?” Elling asked.
His band answered, playing the first few notes of “Not While I’m Around,” a Stephen Sondheim tune from the musical Sweeney Todd.
Strange choice? Listen to the words:
“Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around. No one’s gonna harm you, no sir, not while I’m around. Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I’ll send them howling, I don’t care … I’ve got ways.
“No one’s gonna hurt you, no one’s gonna dare. Others can desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there. Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while. But in time, nothing can harm you, not while I’m around.”
Yep. There you have it.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house, and the pall blew away.
“It was a special honor and a challenge and a service, a moment of being a servant for whoever showed up,” Elling told me a few days later, reflecting on that night. “People needed to be fed. I wanted to make sure they knew that they had access to this other way, that you listened to this music in this other way.
“I do have a belief that what is happening is a sacred thing.”
Elling is a really interesting fellow. A Rockford, Illinois, native, he’s the son of a music minister from the conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.After college, where he studied history and religion, Elling enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Were it not for a pesky German exam that he never passed, he says he’d have a divinity degree. Not that he ever intended to be a collared minister, or to use his jazz pulpit for anything more than singing.
Elling, who refuses any religious label for himself apart from “artist,” is definitely not the Michael W. Smith of the jazz world.
Still, his deep spirituality and religious background permeate his music. Just not in the way you could sum up on a bumper sticker.
That Saturday at the Park West, Elling was funny and profound, sexy and spiritual, following in the footsteps of other jazzmen like Duke Ellington. Elling wove songs about soul food and romantic love in between quotations from the German poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Hölderlin, and from the Bible.
“I think music has this service to play. Most of the time it doesn’t need to be explicit,” he said.
“People will accept whatever information that you lay on them in a way that they’re ready for. I don’t think that it’s about spoonfeeding anybody what the deal is. Part of the beauty of it is the discovery of the individual. It’s a beautiful thing because you’re discovering art.”
And, occasionally, grace.
From GG’s first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
Editor’s Note: First off, please let me offer heartfelt apologies for taking more than a year to share this little gem of a conversation with you. In June 2015, on a Midwestern musical odyssey road trip from St. Louis to Chicago to see live performances by Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, Dawes, and U2 (among others), I had the great pleasure of catching up with two of my favorite people on the planet—Lin Brehmer and Terri Hemmert, legendary DJs from Chicago’s WXRT (i.e. the best radio station in the country, if not the world.) I lured them to Heaven on Seven with the promise of all the cajun food they could eat and a conversation about stuff we like, namely music and all things spiritual. Specifically, I wanted to hear what they had to say about spiritual or religious or transcendent or whateveryouwanttocallit experiences they’d had at live concerts for a journalistic project I was working on at the time.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited gently for flow:
GOD GIRL: I don’t know two people who have been to more live music events than the two of you. And you’re both spiritually bent, though some are more ‘bent’ than others…
LIN: I’m very spiritually bent.
TERRI: Psychedelic, too.
GOD GIRL: Have you had a spiritual experience at a concert or live performance you can talk about and if so, what was it like?
LIN: I can go first.
Woodstock ’94. I’m there in a professional capacity, part of the professional national radio broadcast team. And I spent most of all these concerts in a truck looking at videos of these people performing. But occasionally, in the evening I’d get out to see artists perform. The headliner the last night was Peter Gabriel.
So I manage to get out to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers before Peter Gabriel, and that was fun, they were fine. And then Peter Gabriel came out…and he does all these songs that have this real emotional, powerful effect on me and, as he often did, he ended the show with one song that always lays me to waste. But first he passed out candles—somehow he managed to pass out candles to thousands of people, so there are thousands and thousands of people in this field in upstate New York at 11 at night and it’s just a forest of lit candles. And you hear the strange percussion that just creeps up your spine of the beginning of ‘Biko.’
And I go, oh my God, he’s going to do ‘Biko’ now and I’m not going to be able to handle it. Because that song just destroys me. It was business as usual in whatever room it is in the lyrics and goes into ‘Biko.’
By the end you have 40,000 or 50,000 people all with lit candles lifted in the air chorusing, ‘Biko, Biko, Biko…’
(Lin’s voice cracks with emotion and I get all verklempt here myself )
And I generally tear up when I hear ‘Biko’ on a stereo, but that, I said, well this is a moment that some day I’ll tell Cathleen Falsani about.
(Terri starts laughing)
GOD GIRL: I was in seminary at the time, so you planned that well.
LIN: In ’94?
GOD GIRL: Yep….Lord, you almost got me goin’ there. That song!
TERRI: That song is just amazing. That’s a great story.
LIN: (to Terri) Come on! You can do better than that!
GOD GIRL: It doesn’t have to be a story about something that happened to you. The idea is, is it possible to have this spiritual or religious experience, whether it’s the audience or the performers themselves, and not even realize that it’s happening?
TERRI: Does it have to be live or could it be recorded?
GOD GIRL: I guess it could be recorded. Why not?
TERRI: Because I’ve had many spiritual experiences listening to recorded music. But one that comes to mind just off the top of my head is this: my sister was killed in a car accident more than 30 years ago. A 19-year-old kid. Somebody took my baby—I was 16 years older than her. Just a wonderful kid. Off a college. Somebody fell asleep [at the wheel]…so that’s why I started going to St. Clement’s. I thought, no amount of therapy or anything is going to help me through this. I need to pray. So if I go here for six months, I’ll be fine.
That was more than 30 years ago and I’m still there.
So I was really close with a couple of high school kids there—Lin knows these folks—Erin and Aileen—and out of the mouths of babes: they came to me once and said, ‘We think you should join the choir. We’re going to do the Mozart Requiem and we think this might be therapeutic for you.’ I thought, how did they think of that? I mean, they’re 16 years old. And I said, ‘I don’t have time. My schedule’s really busy…’ And they said, ‘Make time.’ Then they started really badgering me. So finally I talked to the choir director and he said, ‘You can miss rehearsals. It’ll be fine. I understand.’ So I said, OK I’m going to commit to this, I’m gonna do it.
And they were absolutely right. It was the most therapeutic thing, getting up and going to rehearsals for this thing, and understanding the requiem mass and how it reflects the whole spectrum of grief, and how healing that music is. So I did it and it was amazing. We did several performances and every time we’d get off stage I’d go off and find a place and cry. Amazing.
Well, not too many years later then, because she was getting ready to go off to college, Erin was in a near-fatal car accident a block from my house. I’d just seen them. I’d been out on the block at the choir parties. She was DOA and they resuscitated her. She was literally six weeks away from being in college where she was going to study to be an opera singer.
And, of course, she had to change her plans because [the accident] ruined her vocal cords and all kinds of stuff. She was in a coma for a week. And she walk up and had a head injury nightmare for years. Now she’s in her forties…
LIN: I can’t believe she’s in her forties now!
TERRI: It was just really horrible…but she finally worked it all out, and she’s wonderful. We’re still really good friends. She’s a musical therapist. …The moment I remember vividly was she was in a coma. I learned a lot about how to read the monitors and REM and different levels of [consciousness.] You think of someone in a coma as if they’re sleeping but they’re not. It’s pretty chaotic. They have a lot of anxiety and it’s really not pretty to watch. One day I came in with a Walkman—it was that long ago—with a cassette and I had our recording of Mozart’s Requiem and I came in and put the headphones on the pillow next to her head and turned on the Kyrie. And all of a sudden I saw her leaning her head toward the headphones, and I started reading the monitors and she had calmed down. She had a moment of peace that she hadn’t had in like five days. And it took my breath away.I thought it would be a nice thing to do but I had no idea she would have such a physical and psychological reaction.
I’ve encountered that piece of music over the years. One time I was having a hard time. I was in Door county—I was just thinking about this because I was just there a week ago. I was on the bay side and I couldn’t sleep at all. I was having a really hard time. So I finally got up, got in the car, drove across the peninsula and watched the sun come up with the Mozart Requiem playing on cassette—the same cassette of our performance—and I thought, you know what? I can do this. I can get through this.
It was a moment of feeling a strength I hadn’t felt in quite a while.
So for me, sometimes listening to recorded music when you’re alone, even more than when you’re in a big crowd, can either mess you up or take you out of whatever gloom you’re in. Sometimes I find it even more intimate because they’re aren’t any people around. But your story (she’s talking to Lin here) is amazing.
LIN: I think we’ve both had moments at work because we have a very insulated experience. We’re in a sound-proof booth and we can be in there hours without people interfering with us, less so for me because I do have a producer—the pesky Mary Dixon—
TERRI: I love her. She’s the best.
GOD GIRL: Love that Mary. Give her a hug for me, please.
LIN: And depending upon what’s going on in your life, music can really whipsaw you. There are a few songs where it’s kind of beyond understanding, where you don’t know why this song does what it does to you. But you et caught up in it. And you can be alone in the studio with no one else around, and it doesn’t have to be a sad song—like Garland Jeffrey’s ‘R.O.C.K.’ rock anthem that came out in 1980 that nobody listened to and nobody cared about, and I think we’re the only station left that probably still plays it, but I consider it one of my theme songs.
The chorus is, ‘R-O-C-K rock saved me from a fate worse than death.’ It’s a music-for-salvation kind of song. And when I’ve had rough patches in my life or am caught in a moment of reflection about what I’ve done with my life and what I’m doing with my life, and there I am in the studio doing a radio show for literally dozens of people in the Chicago area, and I think, I haven’t played this song in a while. It starts out with this in-your-face piano fill, and it builds. And that first guitar chord hits and I’m like, Oh shit, here it comes. And I melt.
KELLEY: I think it’s amazing when you don’t even know, when it’s not the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just the music, just a chord progression or all of a sudden you find yourself weeping at just the sounds.
LIN: I have explained to people that whatever else happens at my funeral—and I hope there’s a lot of whisky and a lot of beer—but at some point the John Fahey song ‘Sunflower River Blues’ must be played because of all the acoustic, instrument music I’ve heard, that song—it’s almost got an Indian Hindu drone—that song completely takes over my mind.
Because in my mind, it’s very much like the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That has a progression that sounds like a man trudging to the end of his life. Aaaaa aa aa aaaaa … What happens at the end is that the song resolves itself musically baaaa bump bump baaa bump… so there you are, you have this struggle, but at the end of the song it slides you back up again. It’s kind of the same thing with that John Fahey song.
TERRI: Well, you’ve got to carry that weight a long time. I wrote that to Mavis [Staples] once when she was going through a hard time. I said, ‘Well, you know what the Beatles said, boy you’ve gotta carry that weight a long time.’”
You know there’s another piece that has that same kind of progression, Mahler’s Fifth, the fourth movement. I do a lecture series on the symphony and what I do is I throw a box of Kleenex in the audience and I say, take one and pass it down. Because by the end of this, if you don’t weep I don’t want to see you here next week because you’re not my friend.
GOD GIRL: Because you’re dead inside.
TERRI: I’m serious. … It’s not a four-movement symphony, it’s five movements, so it’s not the last movement. I said, usually you can feel the progression, you can count the bars—one, two three four; two, two three four—and you instinctively, physically move with the measures. But with this, it’s more like water swirling. It’s almost Eastern. There’s not that Western, Beethoven kind of thing. I said to him, ‘He wrote this for his wife, who was pretty weird. She was kind of like the Yoko Ono of her time, and not in a good way.’ But I said, ‘He loved her passionately. How many of you have been in a dysfunctional relationship?’ And everybody raised their hands. I said, ‘In the wrong hands this movement can sound like a Hallmark greeting card, isn’t everything beautiful. But when it’s played well, like by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does, there’s a subtle sense of angst and just a little bit of dissonance that just takes your breath away. Because in every beautiful thing there’s that push and pull, a complexity, that everything isn’t just that simple. It’s a beautiful piece of music because it takes you first into this dark place and then takes you out into this gorgeous, shimmering piece of music. I can hardly breathe when I hear it.
LIN: And she’s noted publicly how much Mahler looked like a young Lin Brehmer.
GOD GIRL: Is that true?
TERRI: Yep. I actually did that on a blog. I put their pictures side-by-side and he does! But you don’t live with a psychotic woman, Lin.
I don’t know if these experiences are strictly spiritual or religious or if they’re just overwhelming emotionally or if there’s really much of a difference between religious and overwhelming emotionally, but when my two brothers and I get together at least once a year—they’re all very bad musicians; I play guitar, my brother David plays banjo, and my brother John plays mandolin—and my son Wilson is a very good guitar player. Really the only time we play our instruments to any great extent is at our family reunion and because we’re such bad musicians the only kind of music we can play is old-timey folk songs. And one of the things my father loved beyond all measure when he was still alive was to have all three of his sons and his grandson singing Woody Guthrie songs and singing songs from the songbook of O Brother Where Art Thou? We’d sing ‘one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away,’ and with my son, who is actually musical, we’d get a two- or three-part harmony going and it was really, for a bunch of amateur brothers getting together, it was really beautiful. And my father would say, ‘Boys, no matter what else happens, when I die, I want you to promise me that you’re gonna get together and sing this song for me.’ So when my father died, we had a little service for him … in the retirement home’s little auditorium with a stage. My dad was a very affable guy, everybody in the community knew him. So it was a packed house in this little auditorium of these old people and some of the family that we had that flew in, and my two brother sand my son on stage singing, ‘I’ll fly away, O Lordy, I’ll fly away…”
And that song now, when I come across it in the soundtrack while watching the movie or hear it someplace else because it’s a fairly easily reproduced song and you hear folks singers play it all the time, it takes me to a very special place.
GOD GIRL: I think the Irish call that a ‘thin place.’
LIN: I love that.
TERRI: What is it?
GOD GIRL: A thin place. It’s where the veil between this and the more, or this world and the next is so thin it’s gossamer—you can almost put your hand right through it.
LIN: Oh yes. That song brings me to a thin place in a small hour….OK. No more crying.
TERRI: Music will do that to you!
LIN: We have based our entire careers on a belief that music can make people cry and it can make people laugh and it can make people say “I’m gonna get through this day because I heard ‘You saved me from a fate worse than death, R.O.C.K. rock!”
TERRI: Radio is a thing where we can’t see our audience so we can’t see how they’re responding. And once in a while, someone will come up to me, like this one guy who said, ‘We were listening to you in the hearse on the way to bury my father and you played “Hey Jude” and that was just perfect.” I had no idea.
And then there was this other guy. I had just played ‘Don’t Give Up’ by Peter Gabriel—
LIN: OH GOD!
TERRI: “—and he said I just want to tell you that I woke up this morning and I was very depressed. I was going in to be tested for HIV. I got up and got ready and I was running early so I just sat there on the couch, zoning out with the radio on. I’ve heard that song a hundred times but I’ve never heard it like I heard it today.’ He said, ‘I had this transformational moment while I was sitting there on the couch listening. And I’m calling to say thank you for playing that, and no matter what happens, I’m not going to give up. I do have friends. I do have a reason to live, no matter how long it is.’
Who knows how long we’re going to live? You don’t have to have AIDS to know that. It could be a minute.
I said, ‘Would you please call me back and let me know how this turns out for you?’ And a few days later he called me back and said, ‘I’m OK. But I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. That song renewed me and gave me a sense of purpose.’ He was just a lovely guy.
I know two people who came out of their comas while listening to the radio and later told me, yours was the first voice I heard coming out, and my friend would put [you on the radio] because they knew I’d like it and recognize your voice.’ The voice is like the human musical instrument and it does have a lot of power.
GOD GIRL: You were on the air, Terri, on 9/11 right?
TERRI: Yes. You were too, Lin.
LIN: I was on the air when it happened.
GOD GIRL: I was driving into my office at the Sun-Times during the hand-off from you to her and you two were the voices I was listening to as I drove down Lake Street into the city, looking at the building ahead of me going, ‘Please God, no.’ We didn’t have any idea how many more planes were in the air or what might happen next. It was terrifying. I don’t can’t remember what you two said, but I do know that just hearing you was comforting.
LIN: Well, that was the day we stopped playing music and we just talked to the listeners.
TERRI: This showed me how weak newspapers can be in their coverage. Somebody wrote an article about how radio stations responded to 9/11 and they said they turned into ‘XRT and ‘they were playing the same old blues song.’ Do you know what I was playing? It was right before we cut off the music. I was playing Pop Staples’ ‘Hope in a Hopeless World,’ goddamit. That was a damn good song to play at that moment, and this guy’s saying I blew it off. He didn’t call me to ask what the song was or if there was a significance to why I was playing it. And, my God, I couldn’t have picked a better song.
So it’s been more than a year since Kelley and Terri and Lin and I had lunch and talked about the power of music and the spirit. After lunch, Kelley and I headed to the United Center to see U2 perform. They played “Gloria” live for the first time in many years. It was the first time I’d watched them up close and in person perform the song that, as a 12-year-old, jump-started my soul and set me on a trajectory that I’m still following today, 30-odd years later. The first time I heard “Gloria” on my friend Rob’s living room HiFi in the early 1980s, it felt like my soul did a back-flip. When I heard it again, live for the first time, at the United Center, my soul did a full floor routine with flips and round-offs and splits in the air, while tears streamed down my face and goosebumps covered me from head to toe.
Frederick Buechner famously said:
Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.
Behold, the spiritual power of music.
Amen and Hallelujah.
My conversation with Terri and Lin originally was meant to be research for a series about spiritual experiences at live music events. Sadly that series was killed before it took off. But my brilliant soul brother Tripp Hudgins has picked up that ball and runs with it at Sonic Theology. From time to time we conspire together on such things, too.
We’d LOVE to hear about your own spiritual/religious/woo-woo experiences at live concerts or in your encounters with music elsewhere, so please tell us things in the comments or send us your stories via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share them here in future posts.
While he waits for the Brazilian faith healer to arrive, Paul Simon is supposed be meditating quietly with his eyes closed.
Instead, he’s peeking.
“I want to see what’s going on,” Simon said, recalling his visit to the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola in Abadiânia, Brazil, where, in the summer of 2014, he underwent a “spiritual operation” performed by João Teixeira de Faria — a medium and psychic healer known as João de Deus (or “John of God“).
Eventually, John of God enters the room where Simon and about a dozen other pilgrims, a few lying on gurneys, await with varying degrees of patience, anxiety, and faith.
“He speaks in Portuguese — I assume a prayer — and he leaves,” Simon said. “And then everyone gets up and leaves the room. And I say to my guide, ‘Well, when is the operation?’ And she says, ‘No, that was it. You had it.’ … I felt nothing.”
While in Brazil — a 10-day trip he took at the urging of his wife, the musician Edie Brickell, who had traveled to Abadiânia for her own “spiritual surgery” several months earlier — Simon began writing the song “Proof of Love,” a six-minute epic that is, arguably, the centerpiece of his masterful new album.
I trade my tears
To ask the Lord
For proof of love
If only for the explanation
That tells me what my dreams are made of…
Stranger to Stranger, his 12th solo album, is rich with the singularly vivid storytelling that long ago earned Simon his place in the American music pantheon. He invites listeners on a sonic journey with more than a whiff of spiritual exploration — a familiar theme for careful listeners to his half-century of music-making.
A Half-Century-Long Musical Conversation
Expressed in his music, Simon’s spirituality is experiential, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto might have called “numinous” — it expresses a connection to the “wholly Other” that is deeply personal and awesome (in the literal meaning of that word). In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James might have described it as “mystical,” as in “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge … illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”
It also is in a sense ineffable, a conversation about transcendent experiences that unfolds as much in the sound as it does in actual words that Simon sings.
Since the 1960s, Simon’s musical dialogue with his audience has been an adventure: through the mean streets of pre-Bloomberg New York City, on a bus across America, with a runaway bride, into the townships of South Africa, Chernobyl, the Amazon, fatherhood, the deep South, the ups-and-downs of enduring love, questions about mortality, and dreams of the afterlife.
That conversation (and adventure) continues with Stranger to Stranger at the velvet rope of a nightclub, with a homeless “street angel,” in a hospital emergency room, at the riverbank, an insomniac’s bedside, and a village in central Brazil that some might describe as a “thin place” — where the veil between this world and whatever lies beyond it is like gossamer.
Simon, who turns 75 this year, hadn’t made the journey to see João de Deus because he was physically ill. In fact, he’s in pretty great shape. But he has suffered from violent nightmares for most of his life and in the months leading up to his unlikely pilgrimage, the bad dreams had become more frequent — sometimes once or twice a week.
“I was kicking and punching in my sleep,” Simon said, “and Edie was saying, ‘You better go down there.'”
Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006
C: Can everybody hear us ok?
I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.
B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.
C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.
How would you describe yourself spiritually?
B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.
I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.
I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.
And that was the beginning.
I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.
And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.
So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.
C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?
B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.
C: What flavor?
B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.
My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.
We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.
So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…
C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?
B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.
But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.
So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.
C: What do you think God is now?
B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.
But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.
If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.
I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’
Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.
I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.
So that’s what I currently work on.
C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?
B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.
She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.
Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.
So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.
We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.
But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.
Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.
But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.
C: I know I wouldn’t have…
B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.
So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.
C: And here you are.
B: And here I am.
C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?
B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.
C: You’re in good company, Bruce.
B: I think so, actually.
But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.
You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.
I don’t know the answer.
I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.
And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.
C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?
B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.
B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.
So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.
B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.
But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.
So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.
C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?
C: It’s a pop quiz.
B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…
C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?
B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.
But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.
But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.
C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …
B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.
But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.
What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.
C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…
D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.
I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.
I’m accused of that.
C: They’re always great stories.
Do you worship? And if so, how?
B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.
I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.
But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’
But I think it does.
C: How do you figure it out, though?
B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.
I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.
C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.
B: Oh, man, yeah.
C: It’s a great story.
B: Well, I don’t know…
C: I think it’s a great story.
B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.
So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.
We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.
And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?
C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?
B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’
The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.
But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?
C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.
AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?
B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.
This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.
AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.
B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.
It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.
AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.
B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.
AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?
C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.
Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.
I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.
So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.
B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.
C: Are you sure?
B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.
from the ONE/(RED) World AIDS Day concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, from U2.com:
‘The old joke goes something like this: A musician walking down Manhattan’s 7th Avenue stopped a passerby and asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The cheeky New Yorker answered, “Practice, practice, practice.”
For Bono and the organizations he co-founded—ONE and (RED)—the answer Tuesday night in New York City’s historic music venue was, “Progress, progress, progress!”
Read the post in its entirety HERE.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Compassion can be tricky business. It’s a lot like empathy—the human ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what someone else experiences and feel what she or he feels—that’s hardwired into most of our hearts and minds.
But compassion transcends empathy. It’s more than that, and it asks us to be and do more, too. Compassion has a conscience and heartbeat, legs that will march, arms that embrace, and hands that beckon, rise in solidarity, and defend when necessary.
As the Innocence + Experience tour heads into its final stretch, compassion (and its inextricable partner, action) have emerged as a theme that unified fans from North America and Europe.
From the racially motivated tragedies and traumas in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the epic strides made this year toward true equality for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters via the Irish referendum and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and how very close we are to seeing the first AIDS-free generation become a reality, each night’s concert stoked compassion and sent it home into the streets.
If compassion isn’t tied to action, it’s little more than an interesting notion. But when it causes us to move beyond ourselves and our comfort zones, when it inspires us literally to reach out—to the margins, to our neighbors, to those seeking refuge, justice, comfort, or grace—it becomes the special sauce (and a tangible sign that the Spirit is in the room and not down to street having a pint.)
Standing in London’s O2 and Glasgow’s Hydro SSE last week, waves of regret and joy washed over the audience as the lads took them by the hand and asked that we recall the “stolen voices,” those whose lives ended too soon or too violently, taken by preventable illnesses, war, ignorance, greed, or the most pernicious of all killers: indifference.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Bono told the audience in London, recalling the words of the late Nelson Mandela.
Bono changed the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to include alongside Dr. King and Jesus Christ, precious Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and broke our collective hearts.
Images of bombed out buildings that could have been from Syria last week or Sarajevo two decades past, flashed across The Cage while the band sang “October.”
A few verses from “Zooropa” introduced an extraordinary rendition of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that had the entire Hydro crowd on its feet, dancing, arms (and consciences) raised.
We’re gonna dream of the world
We want to live in
We’re gonna dream out loud
“What do you want?” Bono asked the Scottish audience the second night at the Hydro, an extraordinary show where compassion flowed like lager, filling the cup of mercy to overflowing. “What do you want? A Europe with it’s heart open or a Europe with its borders closed to mercy? I know what I want. A place called home. A placed called home, somewhere, anywhere. Here! HERE! Open. Open people. OPEN!”
As the band heads to Paris and then on to Belfast (for its first concerts in nearly 20 years), before their homecoming in Dublin at the end of the month, the calls to compassion and action feel as if they’re continuing to reverberate long after the U2 crew has left the building.
As Bono said one evening in Scotland, there’s something in the air, isn’t there?
Yes. Yes there is.
Intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes…
The morning we drove to O’Hare to meet Vasco after his 30-plus-hour journey from Malawi to Chicago, my husband and I turned on the car stereo and hit play on the CD in the six-disc changer. What came up was Paul Simon’s album, “Graceland.”
These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long-distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slow-mo
The way we look to us all
Those are the words from “The Boy in the Bubble,” the first track on Simon’s 1986 album, long a favorite of mine. It seemed appropriate — prophetic, even — traveling music for the short trip to the airport that ended a 20-month effort to bring Vasco Sylvester, the 10-year-old AIDS orphan we had met in Blantyre, Malawi, to Chicago for life-saving heart surgery.
On our way home from O’Hare, while Vasco rode in the back seat, watching wide-eyed as this strange, new land passed by, the words of the album’s eponymous song, “Graceland,” took on a new meaning for me.
Poor boys and Pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland . . .
In those first days with Vasco in our home, we had very little common language, but we did have music. When Vasco arrived, he knew two “American” stars and asked about them: Barack Obama and Bob Marley. (He sometimes confused the two, pointing to the late dreadlocked Jamaican musician and asking, “Obama?”)
One night at dinner a few weeks ago, apropos of nothing and clear out of the blue, Vasco pounded a little fist to his narrow chest and said, “Jah Rastafari!” saluting the air. “Where did that come from, little man?” I asked.
Mac, Vasco’s caregiver from Malawi, explained that many of the street children in Malawi idolized Marley and Rastafarian culture in general. Vasco, who lived on the streets when he was 6 or 7, after his mother and father died from AIDS, picked it up there.
He knows Marley’s music, that’s for sure. Whenever Vasco hears the strains of “One Love,” “Buffalo Soldier,” or “Natural Mystic,” he nods and bops around, and, when he’s got it slung over his shoulder, strums his three-quarter-size acoustic guitar and sings along. Music is pure joy for this magical little boy. It’s the language we both know by heart, even if we can’t find the right words to say so in English or Chichewa.
When he cried inconsolably, coming out of a haze of general anesthesia after a cardiac catheterization last week, I quietly sang a few lines of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” into his ear, and when he went back into the hospital three days later, feverish and listless, I played a recording of Marley’s “No More Trouble” from my laptop next to his hospital bed. The music is comfort. A salve. For Vasco and for us.
Vasco’s cardiac catheterization nearly two weeks ago showed, blessedly, that his damaged heart still has structures well enough to rearrange into working order. His doctors had worried that his heart, battered by years of compensating for the large ventricular septal defect with which he was born, might not be strong enough to handle the open-heart surgery they hoped to do. But what they found showed that his heart is as strong and fierce physically as it is spiritually.
A few days later, though, when he spiked a fever and became violently sick, we rushed Vasco back to Hope Children’s Hospital, where his team of incredible physicians (who are treating him for free), discovered that the wee man has a bad case of malaria. He also has two different parasites in his digestive system and bladder, and has been exposed to tuberculosis, though thankfully his lungs are clear and he’s not contagious.
Vasco’s on a number of medications to treat the various infections and is feeling much better, dancing and singing and strumming on his guitar. These infections, however, have pushed back his open-heart surgery a few weeks. If all goes well, he should undergo the surgery to repair his broken heart, once and for all, in about a week.
Meanwhile we’re passing the time playing soccer and T-ball in the back yard, watching movies, going fishing and listening to music.
Just last week we discovered a marvelous new CD and DVD set of music called, “Playing for Change: Songs Around the World.” Released at the end of April, the set contains video and audio recordings of songs performed — simultaneously — by musicians from around the world. The songs include the popular standard “Stand By Me,” Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” and Marley’s “One Love.”
From buskers in Santa Monica, Calif., sitar players in India and a mass teen choir from Omagh, Northern Ireland, to a traditional singing group in South Africa, street musicians in France, Congo, Nepal and Cuba, Bono in his studio in Dublin, and a Native American drum circle, they all perform the same song, which producer Mark Johnson then mixes into a seamless global collaboration.
Some of the proceeds from “Playing for Change” are helping to build music schools in Africa for children much like Vasco. He has watched the DVD of the performances dozens of times (you can find them on YouTube or at www.playingforchange.com), and we listen to the music daily.
On bad days, it makes us all feel better.
On good days, it reminds us of how much we share, even when our language, culture, religion and skin color are different.
One love, One heart
Let’s get together and feel all right!
It means, essentially, that a child who is not taught by his mother will be taught by the world.
In the Kijita language spoken in parts of Tanzania they say Omwana ni wa bhone, meaning no matter who a child’s biological parents are, its upbringing belongs to the community.
And in Chichewa, the language Vasco Sylvester speaks, they say Mwana wa mzako ndi wako yemwe — your child is my child.
Hillary Clinton borrowed from these African proverbs in naming her book It Takes a Village. In the week since Vasco arrived in Chicago from his native Malawi, the truth of those proverbs has come to life in front of his eyes.
Ten-year-old Vasco’s mother and father both died of AIDS several years ago. He wound up living alone on the streets of Blantyre, one of Malawi’s major cities.
Little is known about how he ended up homeless and fending for himself at the tender age of 6 or 7, but we do know he was told he had been cursed by a witch doctor and that ants were eating his heart and he would die.
Blessedly, Vasco now knows that’s a lie.
He also knows that, although his biological parents are no longer with him, he has scores of men and women who love him and are dedicated to raising him in every way.
As a community. As a village –even if they live on the other side of the world.
Vasco has a major congenital heart defect — a large ventricular septal defect, to be exact. He’s in Chicago to have it repaired by the kind doctors at the Heart Institute for Children at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospitals.
Over the last week, Vasco has spent a lot of time with his doctors undergoing a battery of tests to determine his overall health and precisely what kind of open-heart surgery doctors will perform.
He has also had the chance to explore this wondrous village of ours. Watching him discover the sights, sounds and generous souls that enrich our city has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Whether climbing on the jungle gyms of the Morton Arboretum’s children’s garden, peering over the edge of the Sears Tower observation deck at the massive city below, riding on a Wendella boat down the Chicago River or running from exhibit to exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, squealing with delight and snapping pictures of the fish, turtles and seahorses, he was filled with a kind of palpable joy that brought smiles to the faces of the strangers around him.
Generous offers of assistance have continued to pour in, and so have the presents: a Razor scooter he uses to zip around our backyard in Oak Park; a Nintendo hand-held game that he totes around everywhere, tapping away at the screen even though he doesn’t quite know how to work it yet (and neither do the grown-ups he lives with); a compass given to him by a young friend (so he’ll always know where he is); an iPod loaded with some of his favorites: Akon, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and the popular Malawi musician Lucius Banda; a child-size guitar that he strums blissfully, singing to himself when he thinks nobody’s looking; a free dentist visit; T-shirts, hats, CDs, underwear, socks, coloring books, a football, a soccer ball.
For a child who had only a handful of possessions before he arrived in Chicago, it has been like Christmas morning every day. When he hears the postal carrier climb the front steps, he bolts to the door to see what new delights might be waiting for him.
Are we spoiling him? Probably. But I can’t think of a child more worthy of being spoiled a little.
One of the many beautiful things that we’ve learned about Vasco in recent days is how generous and kind he is. Whether it’s a stack of Pokemon cards or a banana, he always offers to share what he has with someone else. He says thank you. He takes care of his things, carefully putting them back in their boxes and tucking them away neatly in his room.
Vasco has had very little formal education. But he is quick-witted, naturally musical, inquisitive and so very bright. He has learned three times as many English words as I have Chichewa. He wakes up each morning wide-eyed and soaks in whatever the day holds like a thirsty sponge.
On Thursday morning, we went to the studios of WXRT-FM (93.1) to visit the morning host Lin Brehmer and his sidekick Mary Dixon, so Vasco, our young music lover, could see how a radio station works. His eyes lit up when he saw stack after stack of CDs and LP records. (Brehmer put an LP on the turntable and played it — the first time Vasco had ever seen such a thing.)
If you were listening during the 9 o’clock hour, you might have enjoyed some of Vasco’s handiwork. Brehmer let Vasco hit the broadcast button that sent tunes by the Doors and the Shins out over the airwaves. Vasco was obviously pleased to be able to share music with the urban village that has welcomed him with open arms and hearts.
In the car on the way there, we taught Vasco how to say Brehmer’s catchphrase: “It’s great to be alive!”
When he shyly pronounced it for Brehmer in the studio, the radio host let loose a belly laugh.
It’s great to be alive, indeed.
UPDATE: Lin played Vasco’s aircheck this morning on WXRT. Here is the sound set to a few pictures of V rocking out with his friend Ian last week.
And they call, can’t you hear it?
Roads of the earth
And roads of the spirit . . .
— Bruce Cockburn’s “Child of the Wind”
Mali. Mozambique. Central America. The Himalayas. Kosovo.
I’ve never been to any of these exotic locales, but I feel as if I have because of the more than 30 years of music made by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
He is, in a very real way, a citizen of the world. Apart from being one of the most accomplished and innovative contemporary guitar masters, Cockburn is a consummate storyteller, and for as long as I can remember, his musical stories have taken this kid from the suburbs to the far reaches of our world of wonders.
I last caught up with Cockburn 18 months ago in Bozeman, Mont., when he was at the tail end of a lengthy tour. Not long after, the singer left for a long holiday, first to Argentina (where he planned to learn Spanish and how to tango) and then to Nepal.
More than 20 years ago, Cockburn traveled to Nepal on a fact-finding mission with the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, an international development organization that helps communities in the developing world create ecologically sustainable agricultural projects among the desperately poor. Cockburn has been involved with USC Canada’s work since 1970, the year I was born.
In late November 2007, Cockburn, now in his 60s, returned with the USC Canada team to see what progress has been made in the generation since he’d first visited Nepal, a longtime monarchy that is now the world’s youngest republic, snuggled in the Himalayas between China, Tibet and India.
This time, Cockburn took a film crew on a two-week journey where he traveled far beyond thriving Katmandu to the remote, largely Buddhist Humla district to visit some of the organic farming and micro-investment programs begun with the committee’s help.
The result is a beautiful and moving documentary film called, “Return to Nepal,” which was released late last year. (Click HERE to watch clips or order a DVD.)
Nepal is one of those magical places of my imagination that conjures images of flapping Buddhist prayer flags, smiling women and children swathed in colorful layers of wool, silk and cotton; prayer bells ringing in the background as herds of sheep wend their way through the foothills of the Himalayas.
But Nepal has not been as peaceful as my imagination would have it be. Throughout my lifetime it has been rocked by political and military turmoil, unrest that I first learned about as a teenager, in the lyrics of Cockburn’s music. In “Return to Nepal,” which Cockburn narrates, the hardships of Nepal aren’t ignored, but they never eclipse the beauty of the spirit of the Nepalese people and their mystical land.
“Step off the tourist path, and you find a different land altogether. It is to this hidden Nepal that I am traveling,” Cockburn says. On his 1987 journey he “discovered a country that is beautiful, complex and desperately poor. Wherever we went, I was moved by the Nepalese resilience and by their efforts to improve their lives. So now the winds have blown me back here to see how things have changed.”
The film opens with a close-up of Cockburn’s hands strumming his guitar. His music — some familiar tunes from his 22 albums, such as my favorite, “Child of the Wind,” and new tunes he wrote as journeyed through his return trip to Nepal that he calls, “Humla Meditations.”