From Intended Consequences:
Perhaps the worst thing about living in Missouri is the distance from the ocean. A thousand miles to the Atlantic and two thousand to the Pacific, the city of St. Louis sits securely landlocked in the middle of the Midwest. You start to feel it too when summer begins, when the rising temperatures, blinding sun, and boiling air start prompting visions of crisp blue waves and white sand beaches, of running and diving into the surf, then stretching out and relaxing in the shade. There are plenty of swimming pools around but it’s not the same, pools are crowded and boring compared to the sea, like playing with Hot Wheels instead of driving an actual car. And the only way to get to the coast would be to fly there for a week and who has time for that? So here I am, in a coffee shop in a mall, watching people drink iced coffee while I write a pointless essay about wanting to be somewhere else.
The last time I swam in the ocean was over fifteen years ago, my tenth grade spring break in Destin, Florida. My friend’s grandparents had a house down the beach a couple miles from the hotels. It was quiet, and at night if you walked down to the water and listened to the waves rushing over the sand you felt alone and content in a universe as infinite as the ocean is mysterious, the moonlit waves drawing back and back and back into rolling darkness. One night at 3am or so I awoke and went down to sit by the water, and for no reason at all jumped up and ran figure eights in the sand, as fast as I could, until I couldn’t breathe and collapsed on the beach with burning lungs. Not sure why I did that—I think it had something to do with freedom.
Another memory from the trip took place a hundred yards out from shore, nothing tragic, no shark attack or near-death drowning, just a feeling of staring out at the horizon, faintly sinking and rising, melting with the sky, and feeling close to God. Moments like those rarely happened to me back then and I didn’t recognize what it was at the time, but now I know it was Christ reaching down to bless me, to let me know as a kind of bread crumb that He loves me, that God watches over us, even when we don’t believe, and with Him is complete and radiant joy. Everything fused in that second on a raft off the coast of Destin, and since then there’s been nowhere else I’d rather go to get away for a while, away from dry land, from routine, and from real life.
Walt Whitman wrote a poem entitled, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” about walking the edge of Long Island and feeling humbled and inadequate. The poem begins: “As I ebb’d with the ocean of life/As I wended the shores I know/As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok/Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant/Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways/I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward/Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems/Was seiz’d by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot/The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.”
Whitman uses the Native American name, Paumanok, for Long Island, the place of his birth. I wonder if the Native Americans had a name for St. Louis. If they did it probably had something to do with rivers.
One of my church brothers told me a while ago that we have to treat every day like it’s Day 1. It made sense then with what was happening in my life and I remember this statement from time to time when the cares of the world start weighing on me. Regardless of our progress in any area of life, our families, work, friendships, spiritual growth, there’s an open invitation to help other people out, and when we make that our goal and pursue different ways to help others, new doors open up and new opportunities present themselves.
Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail talks about brotherhood in idyllic and majestic terms. He so exalts the idea it seems that if he had one dying wish, he’d ask for all Americans to live as brothers and sisters, bonded by love, securely able to withstand social turbulence and survive whatever conflicts arise with a foundational, brotherly love intact. Dr. King dreamt of such a place, of one national family. The late Sixties weren’t so different from today. Violence between police and citizens, especially African American citizens, plaguing the news every week, sharply divided political parties clashing in dismal arguments, and frightened people yearning for peace, stability, and brotherhood.
Since the beginning of this election year I’ve made a point of trusting God for our national welfare, and instead of panicking over the latest catastrophe, praying and reading Scripture on behalf of those in power, the civil authorities, and the oppressed. Prayer helps more than anyone gives it credit for, and God hears every syllable of every word we speak in love. Families pray for each other. Brothers look out for one another automatically, as a rule. Jesus teaches in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” (Luke 16:10) The Lord promises that those who do show faith and responsibility in the less important things will be promoted to leadership roles in the kingdom. Details like kind words, respectful manners, and common courtesy reflect a heart that belongs entirely to God and go a long way toward healing people.
When families disagree, the details are what hold them together. My brother might hate the fact that I’m a Beatles fan, but as long as we keep it respectful, and I don’t make fun of his weird antler statues, there won’t be a problem. The same dynamic works for politics—as long as people operate under the agreement that we are or at least should be a family, the major disagreements won’t tear us apart, and reconciliation will occur. Details hold families together when the world tries to break them down. Details matter.
Details matter so much that fifty years ago people sacrificed their lives for equal seating in restaurants and on buses, for the right to eat and drink in the same places as everyone else, and for the right to be regarded publicly as citizens by their government, because those superficialities revealed the state of America’s heart toward African Americans. Martin Luther King knew that better than anyone, which is why he gave his life for brotherhood, the kind that fills the heart and manifests throughout the world. He closes his Letter from a Birmingham Jail like this: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
Kind of Blue
Jazz originated in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, evolving to produce some of the most creative and varied music the world has ever heard. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue holds the honor of being one of the most highly valued jazz albums, and one of the most influential records of any musical genre in history. Recorded in New York in 1959 and released that year, the album features Bill Evans on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, John Coltrane and Julian Adderley on saxophones, Miles Davis on trumpet, and pianist Wynton Kelly on one track.
The use of improvisation makes jazz unique, gives the music life and power, and carries an emotional energy through the sound waves like currents of electricity. The solos on Kind of Blue feel like echoes of an invisible music more real and powerful than the notes we hear from the trumpet and saxophones. The drums, bass, and piano maintain a gentle structure for the horns to dance over, trancelike, then more upbeat, alternately crying and singing, sadness, weeping, fusing into mellow joy.
A departure from the style of his earlier work, Davis shifted from hard bop to modal jazz with Milestones in 1958, furthering his experimentations with modality on Kind of Blue. At a time when American music, culture, values, and society were rapidly changing, artists like Davis cleared new paths for others by simply doing what they loved. The Sixties saw wave after wave of brilliant, unprecedented, soulful music flooding out of the United States and Great Britain, a creative movement founded on the bold work of fearless artists of the 40’s and 50’s. Popular music contributed a uniquely powerful voice to the national community, a vitality which healed and bonded people when bitter disagreements kept trying to make our nation split.
People talk about jazz’s quality of incorporating “wrong” notes into the music, pressing on through failed attempts and using the rhythm as a platform to speak hints of some far greater truth, so that really there are no mistakes in jazz, no “wrong” notes, because it’s all one big try anyway. The musicians get together and give it their best shot to reach the unreachable, maybe they come close and maybe they don’t, but at least they gave it a shot. Miles probably wouldn’t care too much that the Library of Congress selected his album for the National Recording Registry, or that Rolling Stone ranks it among the top 20 albums of all time, but he definitely does care that his music speaks truth to people, revealing the eternal.
America has a lot of music playing today, jumbled, broken music, jagged signals flying around and scattered voices trying to sing along. The invisible music of truth gets drowned out by all that noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still playing. Another thing people say about jazz is the most important notes are the ones you don’t hear—not that those notes aren’t being played, only, silently. Miles teaches us the best thing one can do in life is miss.