Sunny Days and Switchback Trails

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

I like sunny days. The way the sunlight illuminates everything, the feel of the heat as it ever so slightly cooks your skin, the way everything feels alive and awake all add to my delight on sunny days. It makes January feel like spring in California; it makes the flower shoots in my garden make sense. Sunny days feel good.

It is easy for me to be cheerful, optimistic and future-oriented on spring sunny days. Farm work is so much less muddy.

In a bit of small talk, the recipient of my comments on beautiful spring weather admitted she liked it, too, then added conscientiously, “I know we need the rain, though.”

“The rain makes these days possible!” I added joyfully.

There is some wisdom there.

During the same week, I discussed life setbacks with a friend. Holding up a square appetizer plate, angled to pretend it is a mountain, I described our experience on a switchback trail. The mountain was Lassen. My husband and I were youngsters in love camping with our best friends and climbing a mountain. We did not expect a monotonous set of switchbacks. The path was long and arduous, one hot step after another. Then, sunny days did not seem so glamorous.

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Photo by Thomas Fields on Unsplash

Still, we were focused on the mountaintop. At one side of the mountain, where the switchback curved around, we looked down to see a verdant meadow with a narrow brook and sprinkles of wildflowers in the valley below. Every time we turned that corner, I cheered internally, “that’s the reward! That is where we’ll go when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do!”

This was a spiritual exercise for me. The mountaintop features heavily in many faith traditions as a place of wisdom, clarity, and closeness to God.

What I learned in the past couple years is that life follows a similar pattern. It can be trying, requiring all the endurance one can muster. We can complain and dwell on our tears. Or we can focus on the future, the goal, the reward.

“The rain makes these days possible.” On the path, we must journey somewhat where it is dry and difficult, but then again, the path will turn and we’ll face the meadow. We will feel the gentle spring sun. The path will turn, the vistas disappear, the cloud cover renew. This is life.

On one hand, we can simply endure the days we do not like, or we can find the good they hold in store so that it is not only the sunny days that matter. The days of promise are not the only times we feel hope. Rather they feed into the rest, not just in memory but the spirit of what we enjoyed so much can be translated to a new setting, applied in a new way.

At one time, it felt like the difficult times were all there was: “here we go again,” “when will it end?” were our slogans. As we curled up in the good times, the difficult times seemed far away, increasing the shock when they did return.

That is the lesson for me. The good times are good, but they will change, and that’s okay. The rough times are rough, but they will change, so let us not lose hope. Indeed, the rain makes it so we can appreciate the light of the springtime sun all the more. It clears the air, brightening the sky. Hard times force us to pause and evaluate priorities, sometimes dropping the things in life we put up with as a matter of convenience. After the work of hard times, the rest of the good times feels all the sweeter, and living it intentionally makes it more restorative than if we never struggled at all.

Even as we endure, be it in good times or in bad, let us keep in mind the mountaintop, our destination, our goals, the reasons we press on.

A Girl and Her King: Turning the Corner

She reflected on the events of the past week, how close to the precipice she had been. It was first a fever, than inconsolability. Yet her child still tried to play. Then he became tired. Like those days one year ago. She had no energy to fight with the king in these days. She wished she could muster up the mental energy to share with him what happened.

What had happened? There they were, her baby on the bed, lying so very still. He was so tired. He only slept. Her child, whom a week before she could not pin down, as fast as any of his siblings, lay so still, asleep. She rested her head beside him, stroked his arms and legs and feared to think, “Would I lose him, too?” She could go mad with fear.

And then, with the visit from a friend, a new trial of medicine, he sat up. An hour later he stood. An hour later, he sang and swayed. A day later, he was himself again. They turned the corner now.

She thought perhaps she could tell herself they were off they edge, that they now moved toward the meadow again. It seemed best to let those thoughts wait for tomorrow.

Yes, Philothea’s child had come through again. They were turning the side of the mountain. They might see the meadow again. She breathed with excitement as she traced her finger along the pencil curve on the wall. Soon, she could think of it. Soon.

A Girl and Her King: Drawings on the wall

Philothea reached her home just as the storm settled in for a strong blow. On her walk, the wind first held her back and then pushed her forward. Light rain that speeded her step moved in sheets as the wind blew. “This is just one side of the mountain,” she told herself. “Another day we’ll see the meadow…and then we’ll eventually see the other side again.” These words played in her mind again and again.

It had been a terrible day. It was a day of movement, conversation, and worry. There was no silence that day. There were but a few moments when she tried to remember those words and the mountain, trying to find her way through the voices of those telling her how she felt, reassuring her in ways she did not need, distracting her from the understanding she had gained in that simple, short conversation.

When she returned home, Philothea rushed into the doorway out of the rain, took of her coat and hung it on the hook near the door. She removed her scarf and draped it over the collar of the coat so they both could dry. Her feet flexed with relief as she removed her boots and tossed them near the threshold. She stood in her home, surveying the scene of simplicity and quiet.

In this one room she beheld her table and chairs with her cabinet of shelves that held the ominous teacup around which so many of thoughts centered. Across the same small room sat a gathering of chairs and a fireplace. Through another door with a large wooden frame was her kitchen. There was a hallway with two bedrooms: one for her children and one she shared with her prince.

As Philothea surveyed her room, she fixed her eyes on the large wall behind the two spaces of this room. It was a plain wall on which a vision could be written. She took her drawing pencils left haphazardly on the table and walked up to this blank wall.

From the left bottom corner of the wall, she drew a line to the center as high as she could reach. Lifting her pencil, she walked to the right corner and bending down, began the same line, meeting just above the other in the middle, as high as she could reach. Her right arm could reach higher than her left.

Philothea walked back and forth along the wall, tracing the trail on which her life journeyed. Smooth at the bottom and gradually more perilous, ever going back and forth, back and forth, along this room, along this wall, until she reached the top. The top plateaued before the peak. She did not finish the path. She did not know what the rest would look like. But she drew this reminder into heart of her home.

Reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 3

Continuing the conversation as I read Only the Lover Sings, by Josef Pieper.

Thoughts about music

What do we perceive when we listen to music with the ‘right ears’?”

I have been married five and a half years. My husband is a musician. He is the kind of musician who breathes music, who writes music more fluidly than he writes English, whose vision and life goal is to be an old man with a beard, quietly writing music in his study, preferably at the top of a tower. For at least three of these years I have nagged him with the question, why does music strike the listener so?

As a lover of the field of psychology, the words of “why” and “human” come together so frequently, it is for me as musical sounds are for my husband. In the invaluable Hitchcock movie, The Wrong Man, Manny says he likes to figure, like many musicians, he seems to be good at numbers. That’s the type of musician my husband is.

From The Wrong Man

 

So when I ask the questions, “why does ‘Let it go’ capture so many people?” “Why does ‘O God beyond all Praising’ give me chills?” “Why does —- sound so ugly?” he gave answers here and there, but it never quite satisfied. We were both looking at the music through a theoretical-scientific approach. I even thought it would be good to research the brain studies done while listening to music. That might open the door.

Along came Josef Pieper. It appears, it is not a scientific question at all, but a philosophical question. After all, if it can give you chills, if it can make you weep, if there is just that something about it, it must speak to that something spiritual, where no mathematical or scientific instrument can reach. For this we need, philosophy.

“…thus has the nature of music variously been understood in Western philosophical tradition…as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as manifestation of man’s will in all its aspects, as love.”

This is a revelation to me. Pieper puts into words so perfectly the sense that was just beyond my grasp.

Continuing, because music also involves the role of the artist performing the music, it cannot be divorced from that personhood. We do not only have the potential of music to do that which he describes above but we see music is capable of other things:

“Thus the musical articulation may include a shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest “goods”, the rejection of any ordered structure, the despairing denial that man’s existential becoming as a goal at all or that such a goal could be reached.”

And the other instrument in this dynamic? Music also involves the role of the listener who receives it.

“We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection—as contribution or hindrance, and both, once again beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching or education.”

I give you the conclusions he reaches, you’ll have to obtain a copy of the book to see the steps yourself. I will have to read this at least three more times to understand them myself. We learn from Pieper that music is related our quest, our movement whether towards perfection or destruction. His next step fascinates me all the more.

“…prompted by the disturbing observation equating the history of Western music with the ‘history of a soul’s degeneration’.”

He references a claim that we can see the development of Western music with the degeneration of the spiritual domain of the person. I’m fascinated by the influence of marketing in American culture for those who do not take their primary culture from their religion or ethnicity. What happens when Black Friday and Superbowl Sunday become the two biggest holidays of the year?

My mind is struck silent and requires meditation to ponder this question. For those whom mass marketing fills the cultural vacuum, what will the impact be with the only music they encounter is that which has been turned out through a marketing machine?

Certainly part of the answer will connect to the “shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest ‘goods'” in this culture of instant gratification. Marketing deepens as music is never waited for. We don’t need people to play before us, we don’t need disc jockeys to hear our song requests. We download it and play it when we like. We don’t need speakers or sound systems. A person’s phone could have better speakers than anything else in their house. He or she can listen anywhere, any time. Instant gratification.

And because music is digital and personalized, it does not require any community to hear it, I can listen on ear buds. I am an island unto myself. When I am lifted up, I am lifted up alone, my feelings are witnessed only by me, they are not shared. And so they need never be defended.

The music of “Let it Go” was transcendent and uplifting. So often popular music is trite or banal or ugly. The message of the words resonates with the anxiety of the age. We are overwhelmed by our world and our responsibilities. Contemporary Christian music is sickly sweet and all to often high enough to make a contra-alto’s vocal chords bleed (or so it feels should I ever attempt to participate through singing). In the anxiety of our age we look for comfort, we want to know we are loved, we are perhaps too anxious to allow ourselves to be accused.

Have you ever heard “God of Mercy and Compassion“? An exquisite rendition can be found on Lent at Ephesus by the Benedictine Sisters. This is amazing stuff. But culturally, we want what is easily accessible. If we are content with that, we will accept what the marketers push at us, and so it deepens.

Click here to read my reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2

Click on the Literature Tab at the top of the page to see my reflections on other works.