Oraison | קֹ֫דֶשׁ

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And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished …
— Rev 10:1–2, 5–7

This was the text that inspired Olivier Messiaen’s transcendent Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time).  It is also truncated in his preface to the score with this haunting phrase: “In homage to the angel of the apocalypse, who raises his hand to heaven by saying: ‘There will be no more Time.'”  It is a powerful text, given that Messiaen composed this piece in late 1940 whilst held in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp, by the Germans of the second World War.  Though there is much to say about this mystical 8 movement work, its creation, instrumentation, or initial performance on a rainy day in 1941, I am consistently drawn to one movement: Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus 

An overarching and obvious aspect of this piece is stated quite nicely by Messiaen’s initial tempo marking in the score:  “Infiniment lent, extatique” (Infinitely slow, ecstatic).  He deals with concepts and preconceptions of time wonderfully in this piece in a variety of ways with his manipulation, contraction, and expansion of musical time.  Dealing with time in this manner seems to be apropos to the Revelation text, the peculiar ‘there should be time no longer’ and an entrance into something that either doesn’t include time, or transcends it in some way.

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Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Messiaen describes the movement this way in his preface:

Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I want to focus here on the words “regal distance,” which is a fascinating way of speaking to what I personally get from the score.  In my opinion, it is one of the best instances in music that successfully portrays the concept of קֹ֫דֶשׁ, (Hebrew: qodesh).  In Greek, it is ἅγιος (hagios).  In English, it is holy.

I feel quite certain that most modern people do not understand the concept of (qodesh) holiness, or if they do, feel a little uncomfortable with the idea.  Of the variety of possible translated meanings, (according to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries) qodesh can mean apartness, consecrated, dedicated, hallowed, sacred, sacrificial, holy, and my personal favorite: sanctuary.  Of the variety of possible translated meanings, hagios can mean set apart, sacred, holy, or my personal favorite: sanctuary.  These ideas circle around what holiness actually is: an ‘otherness’ or ‘separateness’ or ‘sacredness.’  It is a placement or condition of being and is a very antithetical idea to our current society (or perhaps any society).  It is most easily and temporally seen as a concept or condition of personal moral character, but there seems to be a larger, more cosmic (immeasurable, limitless, infinite) aspect to it as well.

This concept is seen, or felt, here in this movement fairly explicitly.  There is an aspect of holiness that is achieved by the eradication of Time, is there not?  Part of the nature of God (Jesus), is that He is timeless or transcends time (“whose time never runs out”).  He “Is,” or differently stated, He is eternally now.  That is a holy concept.  It is absolute, and absolutely pure.  And particularly in Christianity, He ‘is’ sanctuary (holy).  When one enters into the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ, it could be thought that one enters into eternity.  The pairing of holiness and timelessness can also be seen in 1 Peter 1:13-25.

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For Messiaen, the end of time also meant an escape from history, a leap into an invisible paradise. Hence the hypnotically simple E-major chords in the two “Louanges.” The postwar avant-garde composers who studied with Messiaen—Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis—wanted to eradicate all traces of the old world, but their teacher was not afraid to look back. In fact, Messiaen based the “Louanges” on two of his prewar compositions—“Oraison,” from a piece titled “Fête des belles eaux,” for six Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments; and “Diptyque,” a 1930 piece for organ. The scholar Nigel Simeone tells us that “Fête” was written for the Paris Exposition of 1937, one of whose attractions was a “festival of sound, water, and light.” Women in white flowing dresses played the Ondes in conjunction with spectacular fireworks and fountain displays. The opening phrase of the first “Louange” originally accompanied a colossal jet of water.

It is disconcerting to associate the Quartet with Moulin Rouge-style production values. But Messiaen always took joy in skating between the mundane and the sublime.

— “Revelations: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time” by Alex Ross; The New Yorker (March 22, 2004)

As stated by Ross above, Messiaen transcribed Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus from his 1937 work Oraison.  Oraison is a commune in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France, which at the time of Messiaen’s composition had a population of around 1750.  Given the nature and goals of The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life) in May 1937, Messiaen’s selection of the ondes Martenot (invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928) would have been an excellent choice.

But why, while in Stalag VIII-A 3 years later, would he look back to this particular work and repurpose it for his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, especially the Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus?  I think if you listen to Oraison played on the original instrument, you may have suspicions:

When I hear this played on original instrumentation, I get an even deeper, almost visceral, connection to the concepts described above, “קֹ֫דֶשׁ,” “ἅγιος,” …holiness.  It is the nature, strangeness, and mystical sonic profile of the ondes Martinot that does it I suspect.  It is even more affective than the 1941 transcription, in my opinion.  (The violoncelle sound is more earthbound than the otherworldly ondes Martinot). The build and gravitational tension building at 5′ and subsequent denoument and release into space at 5’30” to the end (or 6’30” – 7’30” in the Yo-Yo Ma recording) creates a powerful εἰκών of the “gentle, regal distance” of God (Jesus).  It is the image of the cosmic King and the holy sanctuary, the Λόγος — the Word of God.

On January 15, 1941, The Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus was first heard on deteriorating instruments by 400 prisoners and guards at Stalag VIII-A.  It was raining.  Messiaen was said to have recalled “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”  They perhaps saw what could be described as “hope” in imagining the apocalyptic angel declaring Time be no more.  There will be justice and there is an infinite Being who will provide it.

It was a perfect time in history to hear such a thing, as it remains now.

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Consequence of Humility

Who are you, in truth?  Who am I…in truth?  It is a question that requires more than a passing fanciful thought, does it not?  The words “in truth” are also desperately important, and seem to be growing more important daily as we continue to seek new ways of building image, new ways of fertilizing jealousy, new ways of deception, new ‘-isms,’ and new ways of developing “grass is greener over there” mentalities. I won’t lament this nonsense here, but will seek instead for something old fashioned…. something that seems to be thrown off and a bit forgotten in our age of self-worth hyper-realities and echo-chambers.  I seek humility.

Our dictionary defines ‘humility’ this way

(h)yo͞oˈmilədē/
noun
  1. a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

I find this definition to be quite limiting and maybe even a little askew from the truth.  It is indeed common across cultures and religions to think of humility as debasing oneself or, as Wikipedia states in its overview, “Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as the self-restraint from excessive vanity…”.  This debasement, or self-effacement seems to be the most common conception of the term.  There is a truth in that yes, yet there are those who wonder of a different and richer definition that may create a more accurate vision of what ‘humility’ actually is.  To start, I think C.S. Lewis gets closer in his description of a humble man in Mere Christianity:

C S LewisDo not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Mere Chrisitanity; C.S. Lewis

Worth hearing again. “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

Even closer might be Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ notion in Greatness is Humility that “humility is an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received.”

It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said, “Who is honored? One who honors others.”
– Greatness is Humility; Rabbi Jonathon Sacks

And finally, though I’m not necessarily a fan, Immanuel Kant states that humility is “that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent”  If I could, in all my foolishness, modify the great Kant, I would change it to this: humility is that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent’s proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but incapable and decidedly irrational agent. 

So, I suppose I believe that a better general definition of humility may be something like this:

noun
  1. a right or accurate view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

I’ve decided to leave “humbleness” in my definition because all people, when thinking correctly and soberly about themselves, would most assuredly be humble.  But this is the problem isn’t it?  We seem to be in an age where people are thinking less and less correctly or soberly about any situation — not least of which when thinking about one’s self.  We are consumed with image and the troubling idea of “self-worth.”  We are constantly bored.  We are jealous and envious of others.  We prop up houses of cards that fall in the lightest breeze.  We are notorious complainers, vicious to others.  How could that kind of people know intimately what humility is?  How could we have an accurate, right view of one’s self, or our own importance?  Søren Kierkegaard once wrote,”a person who chooses his own identity is ‘a king without a country’ and his subjects live in conditions where rebellion is legitimate at every moment.”

There is another aspect to humility (other than ignorance of it) that is equally concerning, and that is false humility.  I myself have lived somewhat ignorant of true humility to some extent much of my life, but with chagrin, I confess I know false humility deeply.  Though I may not have descended to the level that Lewis describes: “…a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody,” I do know I have been in conversations where instead of saying a simple “thank you,” I have said “oh, no, no no…it was nothing… it was not my best work… I wasn’t that good… etc,” but in my heart I was grinning with a sickly pride, saying, “oh yes, tell me more.  Describe in detail what you thought was great. Gush please.”  Ouch.  …painful, and alarmingly common for me over the years.  I was all too often creating an image unto myself, manipulating myself and others, and masking a gross pride.  I wonder if this sounds familiar to anyone else.

Ignorance and falseness are far removed from real humility.  The truth is that humility is very difficult, if not impossible for a human, don’t you see?.  It means that you see yourself (and your work) accurately in the natural and supernatural world.  That is dreadfully difficult for many people….well, maybe everyone.  We want to be seen.  We want to be remembered.  We want to be looked to.  We want to be loved.  We want to be lauded.  We endlessly promote, endlessly photoshop our pictures, endlessly worry about outcomes, endlessly get angry when things don’t turn out our way, and consistently get jealous of others’ successes.

I believe it is worth searching intensely for true humility and to get sober about one’s self.  The consequence of such action may be worth the effort.  I believe the consequence of humility… true humility, is: freedom.

Oh, I see the immediate response of the brain as plain as day because I have had the responses myself.  “If I go for real humility I am going to miss out!”  “I will miss out on potential praise from others.”  “I will miss out on opportunities.”  “I will not be allowed to be angry at being wronged by another.”  “I will not be loved the way I think I should.” “I will miss out on the great prizes of life if I don’t just act humble for a show, but am actually humble!”  Well, yes, you may.  But you will be free. Free from what?

You will begin to be free from jealousy. You will be utterly free to not worry about how you are perceived by others.  You will begin to be free of anger at others’ successes or failures.  You will be free to sacrifice your desires for others.  You will be free to begin to claim a proper perspective of yourself.  You may be less tossed to-and-fro by troubles.  You will be free to actually enjoy life more, and not have to convince yourself, fake it, or buy it.

You will begin to be free to think less of yourself.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  Aren’t you tired of thinking about yourself constantly?

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This type of thinking flies in the face of what society and culture is teaching, I know that.  “Self-love” is the doctrine of the day (and false humility falls under the heading “self-love” also, lets be honest about that).  Even if this doctrine of self isn’t necessarily preached from a mountaintop, I see it on every street corner and in most people’s eyes.  Sometimes I feel it quite strongly, the pull away from humility and towards service of me, myself, and I.  Humility requires letting go, and that is one of the very things humans never want to do.  Oh, we must be the captains of our own fates, mustn’t we?  With this understood, in my very heart I believe that a transformative and life-giving humility requires a supernatural force to assist its generation and flourishing.  Kierkegaard stated the formula to essentially achieve a correct view of self and eradication of despair, thus triggering true humility: when “the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” I trust you understand what he is suggesting here — if not, answers can be found in either his book The Sickness unto Death or more plainly seen throughout the New Testament.

There is no doubt a mountain of other things to be said on this subject (and I am certain I have failed in some of my generalizations and descriptions above), yet as a moderate conclusion to the matter here, I have learned that I cannot trust my own heart and what it desires.  I have been disappointed in the results too many times.  I have looked back on my actions, either accidental, well-meant, or foolish, and have seen them to be wavering, many times self-seeking, and at best the results are short-lived.  But what joy! I am tasting a true humility more and more these days because I am grounding myself transparently to the power that established me.  I am letting go through a power not my own and building a correct and right view of my worth as a human being on a cornerstone that will never be moved.  I am sacrificing more for others.  I am able to let go and be happy for other people and finding myself worrying less about how I am perceived.  I am tasting, like drops of water in an immense desert, freedom and joy.  I wish this for you, (and me), dearly.

Be ye humble in truth.

Removing the Blindfold

Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything G.K. Chesterton ever said, I recently ran across this poignant quote that was posted on his curated Twitter feed:

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I have seen many people recently investing a great deal of time in doing a variety of things that I can only believe and describe as self-sabotage. (I say recently, but it may be safe to say only my perception of it has increased).  What are just a few of these things:

  • Complaining (about anything, particularly about “1st world” problems).
  • Feeling the world or members of the world have wronged us in some way.
  • Falling prey to traps that we ourselves have laid in our own minds.
  • Assuming we are owed something because we are unnaturally entitled.
  • Jealousy
  • Being arrogant.
  • Entering into silly sadnesses that come from things like a favorite team losing a game.
  • etc.

I’m sure you get the idea here, though the list could be quite long.  This is by no means a condemnation of any particular person …except perhaps myself.  There also is not an assumption here that true, life-changing and devastating events do not happen to people. What I am pronouncing is that I have succumbed to all the dismal things just listed and more… too many times to count.  Have you as well?  In quieter and more honest times, I begin to understand my many errors and I see what surrendering to these things does to me.  What does it really do?  Why do I call these things self-sabotage?

With each unfortunate and ungrateful act, I put a blindfold over my eyes.

0114_blindfold-800x480I am convinced the concept of seeing and sight is an important one and the metaphor here is quite simple.  A blindfold causes one not to see.  All of the listed issues above are ideas that cause one’s sight to stop at the self or to be bent back inward towards the self.  How far or how much can one see when this is the case?  About as far as a blindfold will allow.  It is painful to imagine how much I’ve missed because of my complaining, my arrogant behavior, my entitlements, or my self-aggrandizements.  I know for sure I have missed little joys, beauties, kindnesses from others, sacrifices, and smiles from others.

Even more importantly, I also know I have missed opportunities.  Opportunities have come along life’s way to give instead of expect, to open instead of close, to bow instead of glare, to stop instead of walk away, to be quiet and listen instead of talk, and to smile instead of frown.  I missed opportunities to see what is real.  Though I find it increasingly difficult to maintain a relationship with true reality, I know that taking the time to remove my blindfold would have helped me to do so more frequently.

Often I find myself advising my students to get in a proverbial helicopter and to imagine flying high above when faced with particular day-to-day difficulties.  This idea is very similar to removing one’s blindfold.  What happens the higher you go?  You can ‘see’ farther.  This ‘seeing’ leads one’s mind to a quiet (though slightly still-cloudy) understanding of reality.  I find, in at least a small way, this flows in the same stream as Chesterton’s quote above.  He posits that giving thanks is the ‘highest’ form of thought.  What happens in the heights — what happens when flying high above?  Wisdom, understanding, sight, peace …..and thankfulness.  I think our blindfold is removed up there.

Thanksgiving in America recently gave us a cursory opportunity to apply once a year lip-service to something that is intensely difficult to do: give thanks.  I do not mean this as hyperbole.  A true giving of thanks in your heart is hard (and is seemingly getting harder for the youth of contemporary society).  It requires us stop doing what we are really good at: thinking of ourselves.  It requires us to stop complaining and to lay down entitlement.  It requires us to stop being arrogant ‘look-at-me’ people.  I know this is hard – from experience.

It requires us to take off our blindfolds to see.

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And perhaps if we do, we will be blinded by the bright and glorious light of thankfulness.  Maybe we will experience gratitude, which is happiness doubled by wonder.  Maybe we will find real Truth and real Grace.

Other(s)

I recently ran across a poignant and beautiful poem by John Vance Cheney (1848-1922) during one of my frequent poetry deep-dives.

frases-de-john-vance-cheney

Not only did Mr. Cheney have an epic and wondrous beard-mustache combo platter, he also had a wide-ranging and meandering career path — starting with practicing law in New York, then moving to California to teach music, then to postal work, and finally to the library sciences where he seemed to have found some solidarity.  Along the way, he wrote extensively.  He composed essays for major magazines of the time as well as poetry, which was later compiled and published in 1906.  Several of his poems were found to be of substantial quality and included in collected volumes, such as 1904’s “The World’s Best Poetry,” edited by Bliss Carmen. (which is where I stumbled across it)

— The Happiest Heart
Who drives the horses of the sun
Shall lord it but a day;
Better the lowly deed were done,
And kept the humble way.

The rust will find the sword of fame,
The dust will hide the crown;
Ay, none shall nail so high his name
Time will not tear it down.

The happiest heart that ever beat
Was in some quiet breast
That found the common daylight sweet,
And left to Heaven the rest.

A relatively common notion is illuminated here, perhaps described more luxuriously by Shelley in his famous work “Ozymandias” first published in 1818.

— Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These poems describe how time is the great equalizer of men.  No tower built by men will stand.  No name so great it will be remembered, except for whispers,misconceptions, and most probably misrepresentations.  I don’t think this idea is particularly groundbreaking. Even Woody Allen used the term “Ozymandias meloncholia,” which he defined as “the realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line.”  There is no confusion or lack of understanding in what this cosmic idea is relaying.  Right?

Why then are we doing what we are doing?  If we knew that all self-elevations or self-aggrandizements were futile, why are we incessantly and aggressively advocating for them (perhaps more than ever before in history)?  Why are we worried about how we are seen or what accolades we receive?  Self, self worth, self image, selfie, me, my, I, mine… perhaps it is has been this way for a long time (or forever), but with the further implementation of social media on our broken culture, is it safe to say most things are now particularly ‘self’ driven?

In my field of choral conducting and choral composition it is certainly obvious.  An easy example is now instead of pictures of the choir one is working with, we see pictures of a large “me” face in front of the choir, selfie style.  I understand the unsavory nature and pressure of self-promotion in this field, maybe more than most, but adding oneself to a picture in that circumstance is elevating self and grasping more for celebrity than service, isn’t it?  Are we concerned people wouldn’t recognize the fact that we were there?  There are a plethora of other types of “look at me” posts, that slyly mimic “I’m just keeping my close friends and family up-to-date” posts, but aren’t.  Lets get real.

clipartbest-com-5br0a2-clipartI think many of us live these secret lives of thumbs-up watchmen and women.  Are we getting the proper due we think we deserve?  Disappointment looms when we get 25 thumb responses on Facebook, while someone else gets 250, …or 1000!  Someone has enough followers on Twitter to be ‘verified’ and we don’t.  Someone got published by so-and-so and I didn’t.  Who are they and how did this happen?  I’d do anything to get that!  They are obviously more important than I am…  but look at who I just worked with!  Everyone looked as happy as possible to work with me in my selfie (that doubled as a photo of the choir) where 1/4 of it is my face!
….and we are left disappointed.

I speak to this, because I know this feeling.  I know it very well unfortunately, and wish I didn’t.  I know it and have participated in it.  I wish I fully embraced the poem above (and will continue to try).  I find that I have been, for nearly two decades, sucked into a ‘self-importance arms race,’ which happens to be a lie.  How many pieces do I have published?  Which publishing house am I with?  Do I have important friends?  Do I have a CD?  How many copies did the CD sell?  How many make believe Facebook friends do I have?  Did I conduct here or there, and for this group or that? Did I get this award or that?  Why are people lined up for another Eric’s autograph and not mine?  Did I get selected for this award or that?  How many people are telling me they love me or my stuff?

…I’m tired of me and I.  I get tired of thinking about myself, or being prodded by our society to relate everything to myself.  I have been for a long time.  Aren’t you?

I’m finding more evidently, with each passing year, that it will never be enough.  This “it” can be any earthly thing, and it will never be enough.  I hope you see this truth in your own life and career.  No matter how high we nail our name, time will tear it down.  Its so fast paced today, that people will see your name on high, laud you, and then forget about it immediately because they are worried how high their name is nailed.  So if self and seeking self goes, what can take its place?….  how about:  Other(s).

What if I stopped wondering if people were taking notice of me simply because I didn’t have the time to care?  I was too busy doing something for someone else.  What if when I worked with a choir, I didn’t take a picture of myself with them, because I cared about… well… them.  Maybe I’d kindly and graciously take pictures with individuals if they asked or I’d simply reach out and speak encouragements to them.

Maybe I wouldn’t even take a picture…


Image Sean Penn, instead of doing what he did here, awkwardly getting in front of his camera to take a picture of himself in front of the snow leopard…   Though a bit exaggerated and little non-sequitur, it captures my point a bit. (and from perhaps my very favorite movie!)  One of my favorite lines of the movie is “Right here.”  When we are worried about self promotion and what accolades we are receiving, the last thing we are concerned about is ‘right here.’ We are, in that case, concerned with the eternal ‘somewhere else’ that always seems better than ‘right here.’

Again, what if we stopped wondering if people were taking notice of us simply because we didn’t have the time to care?  What if we were just too busy serving those in front of us, and left to Heaven the rest?

I need to retire my crown and sword of fame, put them in the attic, to be lost and forgotten.

Chesterton’s Bed

Confession:  I have guilt issues.  I seem to be saddled with a constant companion on my shoulder that whispers incessantly, “get this done….don’t forget that…don’t be so lazy…don’t do this, its a waste of time…”  I wonder how many deal with this?  I would venture to guess that if many currently do not, it will eventually become an epidemic as this post-enlightenment culture continues to evolve   I do suspect that it secretly is already an epidemic…though concealed in some faux virtues.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton was a fantastic author.  I might even say he is among my very favorites.  I’d certainly go so far as to say that he is an author that today’s Christian readers should absolutely read…but won’t (which is whole different issue).    His writings and essays encompassed a great many things besides faith.   His unique style, full of wit, wisdom, deadpan, and irony, speak to truths often hidden or muddled in societal fog.  Though I think his “Everlasting Man” was his best work and worth looking at intensely, I think his minor essays are also little gems, and here is one entitled “On Lying in Bed”:

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom. Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the color in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled color like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed, the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.

He goes on for a couple paragraphs about how wallpaper isn’t scriptural and Michaelangelo was probably lying in bed when he first imagined the incredible imagery of the Sistine Chapel.  But he then returns to the philosophy of lying in bed and its resultant reception…

The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous that the exaltation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics. Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence. A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met Ibsenite pessimist who thought it wrong to take beer but right to take prussic acid. Especially this is so in matters of hygiene; notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning. It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. This alarming growth of good habits really means a too great emphasis on those virtues which mere custom can ensure, it means too little emphasis on those virtues which custom can never quite ensure, sudden and splendid virtues of inspired pity or of inspired candor. If ever that abrupt appeal is made to us we may fail. A man can get use to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.

Some things of note here I’d like to emphasize.  Here is one: “If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”  In my case, and the case of many others, I think this is the root cause of the guilt regarding not just lying in bed, but a whole plethora of activities that our current society would deem as indolent.  When we go for a walk, why do we do it?  These days it seems that a majority do it in response to a mandate of health or obligation to a pet, not necessarily to interact with nature or to whistfully imagine as one strolls along.  When we go for a drive, why do we do it?  Perhaps its a bit irresponsible with gas the way it is today to just “go for a drive” with no inherent reason, yet I remember hearing about the fabled “Sunday afternoon drive” that families used to take.  Why did they do it?  Certainly not to go to Walmart or “I have to” errands.  We live in an age that not only requires reasons for doing everything, but if you aren’t doing certain things or not supplying reasons for other things, you receive pressure from the society at large that you are a waste – get to work!  Produce!  …of course all this coming from a society that watches hours and hours of reality television.  (I won’t be hypocritical and label watching reality television as a waste of time, though.  You can make that fairly obvious judgement call yourself….)  Ce la vie.

Chesterton does label early risers as misers, but I’d also like to point out I know several people with the gift of being a morning person and they aren’t necessarily misers.  I may agree with Chesterton in this: because they get up early, they have a much greater chance at becoming misers.  But again, this is highlighting the idea that one doesn’t get up early simply to get up early anymore…one gets up early for a reason that may or may not be virtuous.  In doing this, some lord it over those that don’t and getting up early becomes an act of pride, not nature.

Ok, so this isn’t a rant against being productive, don’t misunderstand.  Instead, I am attempting to honor a quiet, sacred space.  Creativity lives there.  Peace lives there.  Have we as humans outgrown this?  Why do we need to remember and protect these ideas, instead of lambasting them (and in my life, feel constantly guilty whenever I approach them)?  Why…to dream.  To create.  To breathe.  To center.  To contemplate.  To make up stories.  To “paint the white ceiling” as Chesterton suggests.  How whimsically beautiful.  But alas, as I suggested at the beginning, it is difficult to free oneself from the notion that if you are not working and accomplishing, you are becoming a waste to society.  Here is a tenuous balance, and Chesterton masterfully approaches it in his last paragraph and offers a caution:

For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.

A final confession: No I didn’t write this from my bed.  I probably should have.

Gravity is…

Gravity is…       What?

I find this to be an incredibly important question.  I think it is fascinating to have come so far with science and technology…knowledge has greatly increased… yet we still have a veil between us and that which invisibly surrounds us, which holds the universe together, which makes the stars and planets move in harmony, which keeps our feet on the ground…that which makes apples fall to the ground.  What is it?

In 2003, Dennis Overbye wrote a short essay for the New York Times titled “What is Gravity, Really?”  He began like this:

”Gravity . . . it’s not just a good idea. It’s the Law,” reads a popular bumper sticker.

Gravity is our oldest and most familiar enemy, the force we feel in our bones, the force that will eventually bury us, sagging our organs and pulling us down, but for all its intimacy, it is a mystery.

He goes on to highlight the story of gravity, from Newton to string theory, through Einstein.  He even mentions Cardassian expansion and other near-crazy theories.  In the ultimate moment of the essay, he quotes Dr. Sean Carroll who poignantly says:

…and none of our current ideas is standing up and declaring itself to be the right answer, so we have to be bold.

I will be bold and offer a unique suggestion.  It isn’t entirely something of my own devisings,  and has been hinted at a number of places in literature, most notably by our friend Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century work “Paradiso.”

Dante's 'Primum Mobile'

When Dante reaches the last (ninth) physical sphere in Canto XXVII, he finds that it is in fact moved directly by God himself.  Not only this, but more importantly this movement thus causes ALL physical spheres it encloses to move.  He says this:

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

As in a circle, light and love enclose it,
as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing,
only He who encloses understands.

No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;

He ascends thus further (actually ascends may be an incorrect term, what if we say transfigures further?), and reaches the very abode of God Himself.  In these final moments Dante desperately tries to put it all together…to see how the spheres work together…to see and fathom the fullness of existence.  He saw “Of the High Light appeared to me three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension, And by the second seemed the first reflected As Iris is by Iris, and the third Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.”  How incredible.  I even composed a piece awhile back about this unbelievably glorious moment in literature called “the Wheel that Moves the Sun and Stars.”  Ultimately, at the close, Dante says this:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

So, what do we know moves stars, planets, our sun … any mass?  Gravity?  Let’s ask the question like this:  once set in motion, what is holding the movement of all things in harmony?  Gravity?  What if it was Love itself (notice it is capitalized here).  The Love that moves our hearts to love, moves our hearts to sing – could it be that is what moves the sun?  Could it be that this Love is moving everything, holding everything together, in some divine harmony?

A commission for Texas Choral Director’s Association I am finishing up is once again using the text of a favorite poet of mine, Robert Bode.  The piece is actually about a forest fire and it is called “Conflagration.”  Yet the fire is only the first half.  The last half is what happens when the landscape is covered with ash after the fire is over.  On second thought, not with ash…with nutrients… waiting to be used by green shoots bursting forth.  Robert closes his poem like this:

What is this power
That pulls the tree
From the forest floor?

…that gathers the seas
and scatters the stars?

Is it the pull of the sun?
Is it the breath of tides?
Is it the gravity of Love?

It is the pull of the sun,
It is the breath of tides,
It is the gravity of Love.

What makes the tree burst forth from the ground toward the sun?  It loves the sun.

What makes the tree cling to the earth digging roots deep?  It loves the earth.

The tree stretches and holds fast because of gravity – because of love.

We stretch forth, sing, smile, give, receive… we are moved like a wheel, all at one speed.  I feel like we can fight or participate in this great work though.  There is a bit of a choice here for participation.  Participate in what?  Let me answer by asking a final question.  Why in Dante is love suddenly capitalized to Love in the end?  Why is it capitalized in Robert’s poem?  Just a thought.

What if, really,

Gravity is…     Love.

When a Tin Man’s heart is returned by a dove.

Remember when our songs were just like prayer

Like gospel hymns that you called in the air

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring …  and ring.

This is the first lyric of the poignant tune Stable Song, by Gregory Alan Isakov from his album That Sea, The Gambler.  Try as I might, I may not be able to capture the unique and indescribable moment of inspiration quite like these simple words.  I feel like this is hinting at something more than inspiration though … perhaps even an annunciation.


excerpts:

That tall grass grows high and brown

Well I dragged you straight in the muddy ground

And you sent me back to where I roam

Well I cursed and I cried, but now I know

Now I know.

And I ran back to that hollow again

The moon was just a sliver back then

And I ached for my heart like some tin man

When it came, oh it beat and it boiled and it rang

Oh, its ringing.

The imagery here is layered and beautiful and I think it describes a very rare and strange event.  Certainly Mr. Isakov is referencing inspiration, most likely musical inspiration, but I will (as all great art requires) inject a personal and prismatic intent which layers it a bit more than musical inspiration.

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring

Can you recall the story of Pope Gregory and his dove?  It is a tradition that details the late 6th century clergyman’s reception of the beautiful chant melodies of the liturgy.  The myth holds that a dove descended unto the shoulder of Gregory, who dictated the whispered heavenly tunes to a nearby scribe.  Though Gregory indeed had much to do with the transcription of these chants, nearly all were oral tradition from Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian music.  Ok, so a lovely farce.  But it is a beautiful and time-tested image which has also once again installed the dove as the bringer of divine inspiration (and musical!)

The dove is a special bird and one that usually brings with it special things.  In fact, throughout the world in fairy-tales and stories, doves often signify something divinely chosen, such as a true king.  Somehow the bird also came to represent that part of the divine that could not be represented by the physical – the spirit, and sometimes even divine authority and authorship.

The Last Supper, Andy Warhol

Perhaps this avis’ most beautiful moment came in the first century when the Spirit in the fashion of a dove descended upon the head of Jesus as he rose from the waters of the Jordan River.  This white-winged annunciation completely cemented an already rich history of allegory and imagery regarding the bird and its ushering forth the metaphysical in the physical.

This actually is why I love the story of Pope Gregory so much, as I think many musicians do, even if it is utter nonsense.  I know, quite intensely, I wish this for myself each time I sit in front of a piano or hover a pencil over a sheet of staff paper.  I am listening.  Listening for what though?

And here is the truth.  I have no idea.

I never have.  So strange is the idea of inspiration and the spirit to me that if I am being honest I have to say that I am guessing half the time.  And the music only gets better when I stop trying to maintain any modicum of control and allow this “guessing” to take hold.  The music is invariably better and always makes more sense in a deep and layered way.  How crazy.  It makes me wonder about transferring this idea into the whole being, not just musically or artistically.

What man could possibly control this dove that descends from the heavenly spheres bringing with it a divine message, musical or not?  I think whether we are composers or not, we are waiting for a dove to descend upon our shoulder to whisper some truth, some answer, to speak into our lives in some magical way.  All too often (and common in composers too!) we, as Mr. Isakov suggests, drag into the muddy ground cursing and crying, begging and pleading, railing…sometimes for something small and sometimes for something immense, like our tin man hearts, somehow strangely missing.

But what a joy is this:  The dove sometimes comes whisperings little annunciations to us as a great gift if we will receive it.  The proclamations are so precious.  And Mr. Isakov gives us a grand vision: the dove carrying our heart, and when it comes it is beating and boiling!  It is on fire!  And it is ringing…and singing.

And it turns us back into the wild haired gale.  Turns our faces back into the howling gusts of hope.

Come inspiration.  Bring annunciation.

This tin man needs his heart back.

Alchemy in Heaven’s Architrave

In honor of the first real glimpse of the beautiful herald Snow, I wanted to share one of my favorite poems by Walter Leslie Wilmhurst, of which I believe to be the very pinnacle in describing our white guest, who brings both joy and toil.

SNOWFLAKES downfloating from the void
  Upon my face,
Spilth of the silent alchemy employed
  In deeps of space
Where viewless everlasting fingers ply
The power whose secret is the mystery
  That doth my world encase;
Power that with equal ease outshakes
  Yon architrave
Of massy stars in heaven and these frail flakes
  Earth’s floor that pave;
Swings the flamed orbs with infinite time for dower
And strews these velvet jewels not an hour
  Of sunshine that will brave;
Yet of whose clustered crystals none
  But speaks the act
Of the hand that steers each ceaseless-wheeling sun
  And to whose tact
Fire-wreath and spangled ice alike respond;
Thoughts from the void frozen to flower and frond,
  Divinely all compact;
Snowflakes, of pureness unalloyed,
  That in dark space
Are built, and spilt from out the teeming void
  With prodigal grace,
Air-quarried temples though you fall scarce-felt
And all your delicate architecture melt
  To tears upon my face,—
I too am such encrystalled breath
  In the void planned
And bodied forth to surge of life and death;
  And as I stand
Beneath this sacramental spilth of snow,
Crumbling, you whisper: ‘Fear thou not to go
  Back to the viewless hand;
‘Thence to be moulded forth again
  Through time and space
Till thy imperishable self attain
  Such strength and grace
Through endless infinite refinement passed
By the eternal Alchemist that at last
  Thou see Him face to face.’

I applaud you if you actually read the poem published in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917), and didn’t skip ahead to this sentence.  If you did, how dare you! Go back and read it.  This lyric is definitely worth digging into with its intense, difficult language and metaphysical intent.  It reveals much that we take for granted on a daily basis, a simple example being the architecture of each flake of snow which falls from the airy spheres.

I love to think on the possibility that this poem presents:  that all snowflakes are not only built, but designed.  Designed how?  With prodigal grace… though I believe that no grace is prodigal. I think the point coming across is that it is so extravagant, so luxurious to think upon that each flake among trillions could be lovingly designed and created that it seems almost wasteful, especially considering the fact we never even notice it.

And then this beautiful lyric: “Air-quarried temples though you fall scarce-felt And all your delicate architecture melt To tears upon my face”  What a waste! …or is it?  Could the universe and all things, no matter how seemingly insignificant, really be that special?

Finally he exhorts us to relate this to ourselves, to our divine architecture, and the knowledge that we will melt as tears one day, be that soon or later.  And I agree that we must Fear not! though I differ slightly in his explanation in the penultimate line.  I hearken to the inferences of Kierkegaard in The Sickness unto Death when I say that the imperishable self will not see the eternal Alchemist face to face through endless infinite refinement, but through the strength, grace, and refinement of Another, who was equally white as snow.

Snow has begun in earnest, finally.  Its beauty, if not unmatched, is at least truly incomparable.  This wondrous habitué is a blessing in this season of winter, though when coming with its natural companion — wind, can be a blessed beast with teeth.

Watch with care, but watch!

A Resolution.

So a question.

Have you ever entered a new year with a resolution (or two) that quickly collapsed like a house of cards?  The thing about a house of cards is that it only takes the slightest touch or the gentlest of breezes for it to crumple.  I think the same can be said about a resolution made on December 31st.  Here is a statistic or two (certainly not definitive):

1. Approximately 40 – 45% of all American adults make one or more resolutions per year.

2. Approximately 12% of all new year’s resolutions made end in success.

Why do we enter into such futile endeavors?  Oh, they are full of hope of course, but when the chances are 9 in 10 of failure, I’d say that’s pretty futile.  But why do we do it?  I fancy that it is our way of continually trying to combat one of the most inescapable forces in the universe: entropy.  Before eyes glaze over thinking this will be a thermodynamic discussion, let me just use this word in a simple way:  All things move from order to disorder.  This is notably true in the physical world, but I remain quite sure it happens in our day to day life as well.  Think about your kitchen table, your office desk, your body…any number of things.  Everything moving toward disorder is of course a simplistic and clumsy conjecture, but I think that it is the very reason we make resolutions each year.

We sweep the floor, vacuum the carpet, brush our teeth, organize the closet, clean the city streets, throw out old things once loved, all in the hopes of renewal, whether it is brief or groundbreaking.  And the idea of the the new year’s resolution hinges on being groundbreaking, but it doesn’t take into account that entropy is inescapable.  We will once again be in the same position to make resolutions.  December 31st next year, how many will try to quit smoking (again), how many will go on the South Beach diet (again), how many will go to Anytime Fitness five days a week (again)?  Well, the simple truth is…half of us.  And the other truth is almost every single one of us will fail.

_______

I will not lie when I say my instinct is make a great number of resolutions this year.  Why?  I think many know this year has been one of the most tumultuous and cataclysmic years in the three decades I’ve walked.  It has not been particularly fun, and in many ways despair has been a constant companion.  I have lost a great deal.  Home and scenery has changed.  My heart has perhaps never felt as empty as recently.  So coming close to the birth of a new year there are so many things I could think of….to change….but I keep getting the nagging feeling that something is amiss with this road.  I could resolve this and that, but I do know in my heart this:  am I someone else at the tick of 12:00 and one second?  No.  I am Eric. I remain Eric, and will remain Eric.  And the surface resolutions (that will probably collapse by February) I could make matter not to what is really important –  ….and here is a blessed thought:  what if a resolution could be made that cuts my universe so violently that entropy doesn’t matter anymore?

Here is my supposition:

I resolve to abide. Yes, but not just abide, but abide in love and as love.

Ok.  But what does that even mean?  Abiding means to endure without yielding.  I call on my hero Søren Kierkegaard once again from one of the best books ever written “Works of Love”:

What marvellous strength love has! The most powerful word which has been said, yes, God’s creative word, is: “Be.”  But the most powerful word any human being has ever said is, if said by a lover:  “I abide.” …As he truly is the lover, there is no misunderstanding which sooner or later will not be conquered by his abiding, there is no hate that ultimately will not have to give up and yield to his abiding – in eternity if not sooner.  …love never fails – it abides.

It turns out probably one of the only things that we can interact with on this blesséd planet that entropy cannot touch is this beautiful, complex and often irrational (yet somehow completely rational) thing called love.  But what a silly thing to resolve to abide in it, right?  How naive, how childish, how foolish.  How does one even do it?  Shouldn’t I make a more pinpointed resolution to eat fish twice a week or cut up that credit card or do sit ups everyday?

What if we resolved to abide in love instead – to endure in love without ceasing…or try desperately to?  What if I gave myself over the notion that the best possible thing I could do is love….everyone.  To be a slave not to entropy but to something that clears it away like a great flood.

Many will recognize this poignant moment:

“I had power over nothing.”  Tom’s character resolved to kill himself because of his circumstance.  He wanted control, as we do each December 31st.  We want to get control of everything in our life….and we do….for a few days.  But we are subject to a will not our own.  We are privy to decay and time…and great loss.  How many resolutions will it take to recognize it?  This isn’t a resolution to “get better” or “be healthier” or “change.”  It is a resolution to be. To not lose hope.  To not drown in dark water’s of despair.

So, I must keep breathing, abide, watch for the tide to change.  I know I will lose again, I know I will fail, struggle, succeed again, win, be fulfilled.  I know I will meet and say goodbye.  I know I will lose control, desperately want to gain control.  But to resolve to love, to give everything of myself to all I meet and am given – my family, my friends, my enemies, random though they all seem sometimes – even though I may not want to.  What better resolution could I make?

________

To all.  I wish only the best of things this upcoming year.  I do know the best of things won’t come to all of us, though.  We were never guaranteed it, although our hope should never cease.  May the Creator of this universe bless you, mostly because I believe in the depths of my heart that he wants to.  To be sure his love, which is the perfection of abiding, is what is holding us together.  His love is gravity.

Dancing on a tightrope

Freddy Nock essentially doing something insane:

First off, I’m pretty sure I just wore those Puma’s yesterday…

Second, you know my love of amazing stashes.

But most importantly this spectacle has something to do with a recent work of art I commissioned from an amazing and dear friend Matthew Whitney, a Seattle based artist.

I asked Matt what the title of this piece should be and he said “Logische Takt”  This concept (logical tact) was coined by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  In order to learn about it with some minor depth, here is an excerpt from The Practice of Everday Life by Michel de Certeau.

Characteristically, Kant treats the relation between the art of operating (Kunst) and science (Wissenschaft), or between a technique (Technik) and theory (Theorie), in the context of an investigation that has moved from earlier versions on taste toward a critique of judgment.  He encounters art, on the road leading from taste to judgment, as the parameter of a practical knowledge exceeding knowledge and having an esthetic form.  Kant discerns in what he calls, in a stroke of genius, a “logical tact” (logische Takt).  Inscribed in the orbit of an esthetics, the art of operating is placed under the sign of the faculty of judgment, the “alogical” condition of thought.  The traditional antinomy between “operativity” and “reflection” is transcended through a point of view which, acknowledging an art at the root of thought, makes judgment a “middle term” (Mittleglied) between theory and praxis.  This art of thinking constitutes a synthetic unity of the two terms.

Kant’s examples concern precisely everyday practices: “The faculty of judgment exceeds the understanding…. The faculty of judging what clothes a chambermaid should wear.  The faculty of judging by the dignity appropriate to an edifice what ornaments will not conflict with the goal in view.”  Judgment does not bear on social conventions (the elastic equilibrium of a network of tacit contracts) alone, but more generally on the relation among a great number of elements, and it exists only in the act of concretely creating a new set by putting one more element into a convenient connection with this relation, just as one adds a touch of red or ochre to a a painting, changing it without destroying it.  The transformation of a given equilibrium into another one characterizes art.

To explain this, Kant mentions the general authority of discourse, an authority which is nevertheless never more than local and concrete:  where I come from, he writes (in meinem Gegenden: in my region, in my “homeland.”), “the ordinary man” der Gemeine Mann) says (sagt) that charlatans and magicians (Tashenspielers) depend on knowledge (you can do it if you know the trick), whereas tightrope dancers (Siltánzers) depend on an art.  Dancing on a tightrope requires that one maintain an equilibrium from one moment to the next by recreating it at every step by means of new adjustments; it requires one to maintain a balance that is never permanently acquired; constant readjustment renews the balance while giving the impression of “keeping” it.

So the work of the tightrope dancer shares space with the work of the artist.  Time never ceases, and it brings with baggage full of new ideas, new boundaries, new factors, and new relationships.  The artist (or tightrope artist) must do the nearly impossible feat of transforming the balance of the previous moment to the balance of the present moment.  The best musicians do this, especially when in an ensemble experience.  The best dancers do this.  The geniuses of every art-form do this.

I suppose the best thing to do is begin to think of living life (the art that it is) as a tightrope dancer, constantly seeking this logische Takt.  Balancing theory and praxis.  Balancing conjecture and reality.  Balancing what you think “should” be with what “is”.  Or seeing both, and taking the careful steps forward with arms out ready to transform the moment to a state of balance.

It seems to me this is how most of us move forward through life: