Reflection by Mark Abley, 4 March 2018
When I was a child, an only child growing up in a small city on the prairies, my father would sometimes appear at the supper table with a pencil behind his ear. His eyes would have an abstracted look. My father would sit down at the table, pick at the food my mother placed before him, and as soon as possible, disappear again.
Or rather, he would disappear from the dining table and walk back into the living room, which is where the piano stood. And soon my mother and I would hear him playing some notes, usually just a simple melody or a short sequence of chords, no more than a bar or two. He was composing. Inside his head, even when he sat down to eat his supper, he was listening to music. Sometimes he didn’t need a piano – he would just take the pencil from behind his ear, and scribble some notes on the back of a used envelope or the previous Sunday’s church bulletin.
My father was an organist and choirmaster by profession. Welsh by birth, then English, then Canadian, he worked at a large Baptist church in Lethbridge, and then at the Anglican cathedral in Saskatoon. But as I’m sure Sandra and Maider would tell you, being a church musician doesn’t pay much of a salary. So my father gave private music lessons too. I suspect his favourite times in life were spent at the organ bench – perched before the keyboards and the pedalboard, his mind free of the anxieties and frustrations that beset him in daily life. My father could interpret Bach and Mendelssohn and Messiaen in a way that enabled him to express his deepest feelings, his intuitions, his aspirations. Words were more difficult for him, as they are for so many men.
He wasn’t an important composer. Mostly he wrote new settings of the psalms for his choir to sing, or variations on hymn tunes, or short pieces for the piano, often to be performed by his music students. And doing this gave him joy. My mother could be a stickler for proper manners and polite behavior, but she tolerated his eccentricities, because she had the good sense to understand that they weren’t really eccentricities at all. They were essential to who my father was. He had what my mother euphemistically, and revealingly, called “an artistic temperament.” Which means he suffered for much of his life from depression; and creativity, more than anything else, was what kept him out of permanent despair. Creativity is what allowed him to play.
I think this is true for many of us. And I’m very conscious that our community here at the UCM includes a wonderful assortment of visual artists, translators, musicians, dancers, actors, circus performers, spoken word artists, writers, filmmakers, and forgive me if I’ve missed out on your job description. But I’m not talking only about the people in this congregation who work in the arts on a professional or semi-professional basis. Imagination is something that matters profoundly in all our lives – regardless of what we do, or used to do, or will eventually do for a living.
Looking after somebody who’s ill, or dying, or suffering the ravages of age: that kind of work demands constant creativity. Being the mother or father of a baby, a child, a teenager: what holds more potential for creativity, as long as we’re not suffering from sheer exhaustion? Hunting for a job, or finding ways to survive a boring job, or coping with chronic pain, or realizing what kind of help a friend or acquaintance needs, or keeping a troubled relationship alive: all these tasks demand imagination.
You have to be creative to be an artist. But you don’t have to be an artist to be creative.
All of us have a capacity to respond to beauty. The music that Maider and Sandra are performing this morning is not just decoration, not just ornament, in the pejorative way it’s sometimes perceived in a few other religious traditions – the music that we’ve heard, and that we will hear, travels straight from the ears to the heart. In the momentary absence of music, why not take a moment to look around the church this morning and drink in the beauty we have here – the flowers with their brilliant colours, the stained-glass windows that survived the destruction of the old church, the Tree of Life tapestry, the architecture that lets light flood in and shows the movement of clouds across the face of the sky; and also the beauty in each other’s eyes.
And is this beauty irrelevant to the moral function of our community? Not at all. I think of William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” which describes the poet’s second visit to what was then a wild and secluded corner of southern Wales and is still a very beautiful spot, though somewhat less wild and much less secluded. Wordsworth recalls what his first visit to the ruined abbey, five years earlier, had meant to him, and in evoking the forms of beauty, this is what he says:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
He was writing two centuries ago, and I hope we can all forgive him for saying ‘a good man’s life’ rather than ‘a good person’s life.’ For the argument he’s making is a significant one. Wordsworth is saying that forms of beauty not only relieve the weariness that afflicts us all from time to time, but also that beauty and pleasure have the power to stimulate the deeds of kindness, generosity and love that are the best part of our lives. If we’re so ground down by daily life that we’re no longer able to feel beauty, it’s unlikely we’ll be kind to ourselves, or to other people. Sure, it’s possible to do the right thing grudgingly, but that brings us no joy. Creativity is what makes it possible for us to do the right thing – and enjoy it.
Beauty, I’m arguing, can be a spur to compassion, and to show active, helpful compassion for others is a creative act. It means reaching out, escaping the prison of our own concerns, and understanding what afflicts another person. An act as simple as writing a card of solidarity or condolence, or sending an e-mail to a person going through hard times, is a small gesture of imagination. But it’s a gesture that can mean a lot to the person who receives it.
“‘Tis a gift to be simple. ‘Tis a gift to be free.” Imagination can return us to a state of innocence that is perhaps the nearest that adults ever get to the joyful simplicity in a young child’s life. But imagination is not always innocent. Like everything else in this fragile, breakable world, imagination can be misused.
Not long ago, I happened to notice an article in the New York Times that used the phrase “abundant creativity.” Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, maybe not. Here’s the full sentence in which that phrase appeared: “It is a lesson in the abundant creativity of American business in interpreting the tax code.” The article described how a Congressional amendment to create a tax break for manufacturers had led to the World Wrestling Federation claiming the tax deduction because it produces wrestling videos, and Starbucks claiming the deduction because it roasts coffee beans, and supermarkets claiming the deduction because they spray some of their fruit to make it ripen. A maker of gift baskets in California successfully argued before the courts that it too was a manufacturer, on the grounds that the amendment defined manufacturing as “combining or assembling two or more articles.” The final quote in the New York Times article came from Connie Cheng, a tax lawyer with a big accounting firm, who said the following: “Every time you write a rule, there are people out there who think ‘How do we get creative with it, and how do we get around it?’”
Creativity is a gift, but how we use that creativity is up to us. Engineers can use their creativity to make ever more powerful weapons or ever more deadly chemicals. Writers and designers can use their creativity to induce the rest of us to make unwise or destructive decisions. That’s what the advertising industry depends on. “I’d like to teach the world to sing / In perfect harmony” sounds like it could be the beginning of a Unitarian song. I can easily imagine it appearing somewhere in the teal-coloured songbook. It conjures up such sweet happiness. But in fact, as I’m sure many of you remember, that line appears at the start of one of the most successful commercials of all time, a song that turned the innocent phrase “the real thing” into a mantra for the Coca-Cola Corporation.
The title of this morning’s service comes from the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He began his career in the late 19th century as a young exponent of what came to be called the “Celtic Twilight” – a devotion to myth and fantasy and folktale in a rapidly industrializing world. I can understand the impulse; I feel it myself. When he wrote lines like “I will arise and go now / And go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there / Of clay and wattles made,” Yeats wasn’t just referring to an uninhabited island in Lough Gill – he was evoking the desire to escape from the commotion and ugliness of large cities, and find tranquility in rural solitude. But this wasn’t enough for him. In his middle age Yeats could see the failings as well as the beauty of the Celtic Twilight, and he had come to realize that poets may need to engage with the turbulent world around them. He gave the title Responsibilities to one of his major collections of poetry, and it came with the epigraph “In Dreams Begins Responsibility.”
Yes, we need to dream. Without dreams, we’re lost. But dreams are not enough. Sometimes dreams have to be translated into action.
Yeats did this. After the Easter uprising of 1916, and especially after Irish independence in the early 1920s, he became a kind of spokesman for his country. He was even appointed to the Irish Senate. And yet, in the midst of all his public activities, Yeats became an even better poet than he was in his youthful days in the Celtic Twilight. Some of the poems in his last few books are the finest he ever wrote. He had learned that imagination is not an escape from the world but an obligation.
The world is in need of responsible creativity – more than ever before, I would say, because the world is in such peril now. To say something that normally can’t be said from the pulpit – of course I’m not a minister – the most powerful human being on the planet is someone who boasts about his abusive sexual behavior, who shows no desire, or perhaps even ability, to read anything longer than a Tweet, who seems to be ravenous for war, and for whom compassion is a dirty and unmanly word. But beyond that single individual, I could recite statistics about environmental decay and violence and poverty and child abuse and military spending until either you’d get up and walk out of the sanctuary and leave me standing here, still reciting my litany of ugly facts, or else you would go numb with grief. And numbness is the polar opposite of creativity.
What we need to find are creative means of speaking truth to power. Creative and loving ways of caring for our global home, as P.K. Page suggested in the poem “Planet Earth.” Creative means of showing politicians and corporations that there really are alternatives to the path of destruction we seem so reluctant to quit. And, in our own lives, we need to find creative means of avoiding numbness and sustaining hope. Creative ways of looking beyond the sheer horror of the news – not ignoring it, but not letting it get the better of us, either – and of refusing to give in. The pain and evil in the outer world can be overwhelming at times. To face the worst, without surrendering, is a critically important act of imagination.
Where I think we often go wrong – all of us, but especially artists, and certainly I include myself in this – is in confusing the essential work of creativity with the recognition and applause we think we deserve, the recognition and applause we come to need. I think occasionally of the incredible spiritual discipline of Tibetan monks who work for weeks or even months creating a bright mandala out of sand, shaping millions of grains of colored sand into intricate shapes and patterns, making something that is both austerely mathematical and wildly beautiful – and then destroying it. It takes just a few moments to blot out what took weeks to create. The sand is collected in jars, wrapped in silk, taken to a river, and released back into the natural world. The meaning of the mandala is in its beauty, but not just in its beauty. The meaning is also that it cannot last. Nothing will last forever, including the tyrants and patriarchs and gun-loving psychopaths who rule so much of our world. And the meaning, too, is that beauty has a meaning far beyond the applause and recognition that may or may not be bestowed on those who make it.
This morning, before daylight had fully displaced the night, I heard a cardinal singing. That’s always a welcome sound in a long Canadian winter. It reminded me of a line from the poet Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Hope may be small and fragile, but it can take flight and soar. Hope can sing.
I grew up in the shadow of my father’s hope. For him, hope was the thing with octaves. Even when he was dying, he asked me to mail a few of the psalm chants he had written to the editors of a new collection that was being put together in England. But I grew up in the shadow of my father’s depression too. And it scarred me. My own creativity took shape in the wind-tunnel between his music and his mental illness. What it took me decades to realize was that I was wrong to think of him using his imagination only when he was sitting at the pipe organ in a church or wandering through the house with a pencil behind his ear. A couple of years ago, I wrote to a man who had been one of his students in Saskatoon and had gone on to become the organist of Winnipeg’s Anglican cathedral. In his reply, the man told me the following:
“The main thing about your father as a teacher was his tremendously encouraging approach. It was such a refreshing change from the intimidation of my piano teacher. I recall with gratitude his generosity in allowing me to practice on the organ for hours. He was so patient with me. He certainly did not have his eye on the clock – I was paying him for 45 minutes, and if I was ever there for an hour or an hour and a half, it was a quick lesson. Our conversations wandered widely. We had a very good time in the lessons.”
All of this came as a surprise to me. Of course children can never understand the full story of their parents’ lives. But what I’ve belatedly come to see is that my father was using his imagination, exercising his creativity, not only as a composer and performer but as a teacher too. When he was a boy, hoping that he would become a celebrated performer, I don’t suppose his dreams extended to the idea that he would earn a living as a teacher, occasionally with talented students like the man I reached out to in Winnipeg, but more often, far more often, with children and teenagers without any particular gift for music. Yet that’s what he did, day after day, year after year, just like all the teachers and former teachers in this congregation, including the ones who are exercising great imagination downstairs with the children now.
My father never fulfilled all his dreams – very few of us do. But he took responsibility for them. And he never gave up.
That’s what we all need to do: take responsibility for the world, for each other, and for our own selves. For God’s sake, and our own sake, keep on dreaming.
Namaste. Amen. Blessed be.
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