Not Woebegone

Music has charms to soothe a savage beast. 

The words, written in verse centuries ago, are quoted frequently, even today. 

I don’t disagree. 

I’m remembering a weekend, some time ago, when I reveled in the harmonious, percussive notes of a skillfully played hammered dulcimer, listened in awe to the sweet, mellow tones of my favorite trumpet player, and wiped away tears at the conclusion of an amazing vocal duet rendition of an aria from an opera (you read that right, an opera). 

In between those numbers that weekend, I played and sang a bit myself, as well as heard several other artists who were skillfully adept at their craft. 

This savage beast’s heart was soothed.  For awhile.  But, for some reason, I hear something else in my head tonight.

Well, it’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon. 

I can even hear the quiet, smooth tonality of Garrison Keillor’s baritone voice as I write this, although I’m not quite sure why those words come to mind.  

I suppose I may have been a little down in the mouth recently.  You know—the worries of life are starting to pile up here and there; the things I usually can control have gotten away from me a bit. 

Instead of a perpetual grin, the corners of the mouth are turned down somewhat, and it’s harder than usual to work up to a smile. 

Thus, the descriptive phrase down in the mouth seems to cover my attitude most appropriately.

Every time I ever heard Mr. Keillor utter the opening sentence to the story-telling session on his radio program, I was struck anew by the name of his fictitious town. 

He avers that the name comes from an old Native American word meaning the place where we waited all day in the rain for you.  It is not exactly the correct origin for the word it sounds like, woebegone, but it comes awfully close. 

The idea of waiting in the rain for someone who never arrives just about describes the depth of the feeling of being woebegone, a word that really comes from the Middle English meaning beset by woe.  Either way, an apt description for someone who is down in the mouth.

As I sat and listened that weekend to the jaw-droppingly beautiful tones that emanated from the young lady’s silver trumpet, my inner being was touched.  And then, as mother and daughter sang their operatic duet in a language I will never understand, I ached for more. 

But more of what

I know by experience that I soon tire of the same music, played or sung again and again.  A recording would not suffice, nor would simply attending recitals day after day to hear the artists ply their craft. 

I am convinced beauty on earth is given to remind us there is more.  Something more satisfying is to come. 

More.

What we have here, beautiful as it may be, is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day.

What we have here is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day. Click To Tweet

Many centuries ago, the writer of psalms understood that, even as he struggled with his own inner sadness.  He was woebegone, down in the mouth, but still, he wrote deep calls unto deep, and told of his Creator’s unspeakable love and glory, evidenced by the world around him. 

Like Job, the afflicted one, he outlined his troubles and then reiterated, for I will yet praise Him. (Psalm 42:7-11)

Some of us drown our sorrows with alcohol, some with work, some with denial.  I listen for hours to music, reveling in the intrinsic beauty of the chords, and the harmonies, and the melodies. 

For all, it is the same.  The time comes when reality must be faced. 

The music ends, the fat lady sings, if you will. 

We who believe have a promise that will still keep us on the path.  The knowledge, the certainty, that there is more is enough to give us strength and perseverance to go on through what lies ahead. 

Not around and not under.  Through.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going on. 

The oases along the way—the music, the fellowship, the joy—those only lend credence to the promise that we’re just nomads, travelers in this world, on our way to a better place.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m enjoying the soundtrack while I’m here.

Even waiting in the rain.

Not woebegone.

 

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?
(Psalm 42:1,2 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

(The Mourning Bride by William Congreve ~ English playwright and poet ~ 1670-1729)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Wind in the Oaks

I sit at my desk and listen to the wind.

Change is coming.

At the end of the street, the last leaves from an autumn, very nearly forgotten, whirl and take flight.  The commotion is impressive to the casual witness—less so to one who has observed the scene from the vantage point of my window over the last couple of months.

From his play, Macbeth, Mr. Shakespeare’s description of life seems apropos:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The leaves go in circles.  Now to the end of the road, now across to one yard to lie breathless for a time.  With the next gust of wind, they revive, shoving each other aside in their hurry to rise on the current, only to scurry back around the cul-de-sac and alight once more.  Right back where they started.

Probably, within feet of where they tumbled from the tall oak trees last fall.

Going nowhere fast.

But the wind roars still.  Through limbs of trees, standing naked in the late winter sun, it shoves—and grabs—and pulls.  Like so many windmills twirling in the sky, the giant oaks twist their extremities this way and that, almost it seems, trying to catch hold of the leaves spinning below.

I’m sure it may be only my imagination—it is my imagination, isn’t it?—but, for just a moment—the barest hint of a moment—I have the idea that they would—if they could—reattach themselves to the leaves that abandoned them mere weeks ago.

What a silly notion.  Old dead leaves are of no use to the trees now, save possibly to nourish the ground around them as the natural process of decay and deterioration does its work.

I know this wind is blowing in another change in the weather.  A warm day today, but cool again tomorrow with the front blowing in.  Spring is coming.  Rain will fall. Stronger winds than these will swirl and stream through the treetops.

Even now, the mostly sleeping giants are showing tiny dark nubs on the spindly ends of their gray branches, nubs that will become leaves.  They will be new, green, living things—luxurious and lush—covering the entire tree with vitality and vigor.

And yet. . .  And yet today, the towering trees are naked—bereft of their former glory.

The wind blows, and merely accentuates their lack—adding insult to injury, the red-headed lady who raised me would have said.  Surely, there is something about which one could complain.

But, you know, as much as I prefer spring to winter, as much as I love a leaf-covered tree more than a bare one, I would never look at a tree in winter and suggest it would be better off with the old leaves back on it.

I complain frequently about winter, suggesting that everything is dead.  I am reminded, as I sit in my chair and watch the empty branches wave, that the tree has never been dead.  Never.

It is simply directing all its resources to the roots underground and getting ready for something spectacular to happen.  A little rest before breaking out.

It seems to me that things are a little drab right now.

Am I the only one who thinks about the past and how good that life was?  Am I the only one who wishes I could turn back the calendar a season?

Do you think we really could put the old dry leaves back on the trees?  No, I suppose not.

But, here is what I know.  Without worry of being proven wrong, I know it is true.

The earth turns and revolves around the sun; the wind blows and the rain falls.  Suddenly, without warning—well, almost without warning—the explosion of color and life will be upon us.

To everything, there is a season; a time for every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

And, the Creator has made everything to be right in its season.

And, He puts eternity in our hearts so we know to look ahead and not behind.

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Seasons come.  They go.  Sometimes, we are so busy, we have no time to consider the work He is doing in us.  But, we gain strength; and, we grow.

Sometimes, in the drab time, we sit and contemplate the reason for our very existence.  That also, is a season through which He moves us and makes us stronger.

And, sometimes, as they have this week, tears come.

And the tears, like the rain which has just begun outside my window, fall to the ground and water the future, to ensure that it will be brighter.  

Through tears, and even a little bit of dreariness, He will bring us, step by weary step—to spring once again.

There are indeed, Mr. Lewis, far better things that lie ahead than any we’ve left behind.

I wonder if the wind will still be blowing.

                              

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring )

‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
(Haggai 2:9 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

And the Stars Sang Together

I suppose I may have actually gone for a year or two without looking at them.  I really can’t remember.  I may have.

It’s not that I ever stopped believing in them.  I just never saw them, so they almost didn’t matter.  To me, they didn’t matter.

It’s funny when I actually write the words.  No, not funny.  Stupid.  And, sad.  Mostly sad.

I looked at them tonight.  The stars, I’m talking about.  I walked out into the winter night, just as the temperature showed thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, and simply stood there staring at the spectacular light show in the sky.

Do you think the light show was good at the last concert you attended?  I don’t get to many rock concerts, but they’ve changed a little over the years.  Besides the obvious increase in volume, I mean.

The light arrays on the stage are astonishing in their scope, utilizing everything from LEDs to old-style incandescent spotlights to pyrotechnics, all operated by one man sitting at a control board, or perhaps even pre-programmed and actuated by computer software at the proper time. 

The lights move up and down or side-to-side, oscillating and flashing all the while.  They don’t just highlight the musicians on stage, either.  Some are aimed at the audience and, from time to time, shine so brilliantly in their eyes that the band members onstage are not even visible at all.

Still.  The gaudiness and brilliance of those stage lights fade into a dim memory as the attentive human wanders under the night sky.  

I stood in my shirt sleeves tonight, the glory of the heavens spread out above me, and, for a few moments, forgot how cold it was.  The blue-black canopy of space overhead was overwhelmed by the constellations and galaxies, and the night sky was alive with light.  Pure, brilliant, untouched Creator’s power.

For the better part of twenty years, the Lovely Lady and I lived in a house which was part of a commercial zone in our little town.  We could often see the big orb of a moon as it rose on the eastern horizon, or hung like a giant smile overhead.  And, the sun had no problem showing its face day after sweltering day through the long humid summers. 

But, to walk out the door and look up at the stars in the sky was never as easy as that.  The man-made lights shone garishly in our eyes like so many rock-concert LEDs obscuring the main act, the stars, if you will, overhead.

It’s easy, when you don’t often see the stars, to forget how spectacular that light show is.  Over a period of years, one might be forgiven if it’s not on their top ten list of the most important things in creation to take time for.

It would be foolish, however, to decide that the stars are no longer shining in the sky.  Just because we don’t take the time, or make the effort, no one would aver that they don’t exist anymore.

I wonder.  Do you suppose any of those stars gave up on me in the years when I wasn’t able to walk out under the dome of the heavens in the middle of winter and be blown away by their splendor?  Maybe just one called it quits.

No?

The faithful in northern Greece were encouraged to stay just that—faithful—in the letter written to them by the apostle Paul. He described them as stars that shone in the sky, in the midst of a damaged and deceived generation. (Philippians 2:15)

Nearly every day, I read of someone else who is advancing the claim that our time—those of us who follow Christ—is ended.  We’re not needed anymore; not relevant to our culture.

I could have made the same claim during all those years of living under the halogen glare of parking lot and street lights on poles.  Who needs stars when you have automatic lights that shine on demand?

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The stars are irrelevant!

And yet somehow, they’re still shining.  Still in their constellations.  Still wheeling across the cosmos in synchronization with every other ball of burning gas set into motion all those centuries ago by our Creator.

And our sun, dwarf star that it is in a galaxy of giants, ushers in each new day, and season, and year, just as if it is as relevant today as it was on the day when the stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy at the marvelous creative power of our God. (Job 38:7)

Somehow, I think I’ll keep shining too.  

No one may be looking at the little light right now.  There may never be a single voice that testifies to the power that makes my light visible.

It doesn’t matter.  He made us to shine.

Not like the fake, gaudy light of the stage array, nor even like the brilliant, confusing glare of Gideon’s lamps in the enemy camp. 

But, simply with the bright, steady light of His love and grace, we shine.

With the bright, steady light of His love and grace, we shine. Click To Tweet

Lighting the way to Him.  For a world blinded by too many lights that illuminate nothing at all, we are lighting the path to Him.

We shine.

                               

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(from The Peace of Wild Things ~ Wendell Berry ~ American farmer, author, and poet)

 

Look up into the heavens.
    Who created all the stars?
He brings them out like an army, one after another,
    calling each by its name.
Because of his great power and incomparable strength,
    not a single one is missing.
(Isaiah 40:26 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

                              

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

How Low Can You Go?

I knew she’d listen to every note I played.  I wished the professor had suggested she sit somewhere else.  Somewhere she’d hear other musicians and their mistakes.

Instead of mine.

The young high school junior was visiting her university-going sister on campus.  No doubt, it was an exciting time for her.  I still remember that age.

Wide-eyed and inexperienced, the world held exhilaration at every turn.  College years would be a chance to be out on your own—away from the careful direction of overprotective parents.  A campus visit ahead of time offered a stimulating preview of the freedom that was to come.

Her sister is a member of the little chamber orchestra they are kind enough to allow me to participate in at the small liberal arts university.  Since the visiting young lady is also a French horn player, the professor thought it would be nice for her to sit in the horn section.

On my right.  Where the bell of my horn points.

I just knew she would hear every mistake and bobble proceeding out of the wayward instrument.

Well.  There was nothing for it but to get through the hour.  I started my warm-up.

I like to start with long tones—mid-range notes lasting several seconds each, descending down a scale before coming back up to finish on the original note.  After a few moments of that, I play some arpeggios—open chords—mostly descending until I reach a point at least two octaves below the starting midrange note.

The low pitch I end on is quite low, somewhere in the vicinity of what a tuba player would call mid-range.  Since my warm-ups always include that note and those leading down to it in the scale, I like to think I have developed a rather nice tone in that range, a range most horn players never attempt.

I end my warm-up by playing the arpeggios on up to the original mid-range and then up another octave before sliding back down to finish on the original note with which I began.

I saw her turn her head to look at me as I finished my warm-up.  I thought perhaps she wanted to say something, but the professor was already talking, introducing the young lady to the whole group.

It wasn’t a relaxing rehearsal.  We played a piece I only remember reading once before, so many of the passages were unfamiliar.  I stumbled and muffed more notes than I care to count, acutely aware of the girl’s presence beside me through all of them.

She heard every note.  Every one.

At the end of the rehearsal, I said a few polite words to her.  I hoped her visit would be all she was hoping for.  She was also polite.  We talked for a few seconds and she asked one question.

“What kind of range do you have?”

Immediately, I jumped to the obvious conclusion.  I supposed she meant: how high can you play?

I jokingly mentioned the highest note I’m comfortable playing is a high G, but pointed to the young lady on the other side of me, suggesting that she was the one who played the high C’s when necessary.

The girl wasn’t quite satisfied, starting another question.  

“But, what’s the low. . .” 

Before she could complete the question, her sister called her over to discuss what was next in their day’s schedule.  She never got a chance to ask what was on her mind.

I went on about my day, not thinking again about the girl’s curiosity.

I’m thinking about it now.

She wanted to know about my low range, not my high range.  She had heard my warm-up and knowing that most horn players avoid those low registers, wondered about how low I could go.

I’m wondering the same thing tonight.

Do you know I don’t have a very good high range when I play my horn?  Most players with similar experience to mine are quite adept at playing the highest notes on the horn.  Even many young players have a high range much superior to mine.

I wish it weren’t so. 

I want to play the high notes.  But, I can’t.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.

Why can I play the low notes (the ones most horn players eschew) with ease, but I can’t reach the high pitches?  What’s the problem?

As Mr. Tolkien puts it in his description of the scatter-brained innkeeper in his famous tale, even though he thinks less than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through a brick wall in time. . . 

I’m somewhat the same, thinking less than I talk (at times), but I believe I can see the answer to my problem.

You’ve probably already arrived at the solution, especially since it’s been explained at length up above. 

I’m good at the low notes because those are what I concentrate on every time—every single time—I pick up my horn to play.  My warm-up is a regimen I perform—without fail—before I look at a piece of music, before the conductor raises the baton for the first time, before even the first tuning note is sounded to be sure all the instruments are capable of playing the same pitch together.

I play low notes.  Every time, I play low notes.

I’m good at low notes.  Really.

But, I want to play high notes.

And, the Apostle said, the thing I want to do, I don’t do.  But, the thing I don’t want to do, that’s the very thing I do. (Romans 7:19

Of course, he’s talking about more important things than playing a horn, but then again, so am I. 

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform. Click To Tweet

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform.  It is true in all walks of life.

If I practice complaining, one would never anticipate that I would rest patiently and with confidence.

If I practice arrogance and pride, I will never perform with humility.

If I live continually in defeat and expectation of loss, I can have no expectation of joy or fulfillment.

When the time comes to play the brilliant high notes in a concert performance, if I have resigned myself to practicing only the low and middle registers during every rehearsal, I will never—ever—shape my lips to sound the right notes.

I read today the words of a friend who is, by all earthly wisdom, fighting a losing battle.  His battle is for his life.  I was shocked to read of his laughter and joy as he fights the battle.

But tonight, I understand.  He is practicing for the performance still to come.   In anticipation of what he calls a joyful death, he’s decided to practice joy now—today, and for the rest of his days, however many he has.  

I’ve been working on the low stuff for too long now.  I’ve gotten much too accomplished at it.

I want to play the high notes.  I want the folks who are doomed to sit and listen to me to hear the good stuff.

It’s time for a new warm-up routine.

Today’s as good a time to start as any.

 

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
(Aristotle ~ Ancient Greek philosopher ~ 384 BC-322 BC)

 

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.