Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hymn of the Pearl

Within the Acts of Thomas is a beautiful poem describing the exile and redemption of the soul. The text is known as the "Hymn of the Pearl".

When I was a little child,
and dwelling in my kingdom of my father's house,
and in the riches and luxuries of my teachers,
I was living at ease.

[Then] from our home in the East,
after they had made preparations,
my parents sent me forth.


Then they made with me an agreement,
and they inscribed it in my heart so that it would not be forgotten:
"If [you would go] down into Egypt
and bring the one pearl,
which is in the middle of the sea
surrounded by the hissing serpent,
then you will put on your glorious garment
and your toga which rests over it.
And with your brother, our second in command,
you will be heir in our kingdom."


The Hymn of the Pearl.

The Apostle Thomas sings the hymn while in prison.

The hymn tells the story of a boy, "the son of the king of kings", who is sent to Egypt by his family to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. He is promised rich rewards on his return. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin. Later, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. The boy receives the letter, remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns. The boy is everyman, as spoken by Thomas; the "king of kings" is Jesus.

What is our purpose in life and how is it that we stray from that path? When we are young, it only seems that life is much simpler. Our parents guide us and instruct us in the ways of the world. We need not make decisions for ourselves. But as we grow older, we journey on, meet new friends, and make our own decisions.

What choice we make are often wrong, for the path of life is fraught with indecision, betrayal, and confusion.We are tempted by wealth and power. Material comforts become an opiate that distracts us from the true purpose of life. The pearl we seek is not wealth, but wealth as symbolized by our real values, the lessons we were taught as children. And that lesson is to serve others.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Up to the Mountain

It is the best of all possible worlds and couldn't possibly be better.
Voltaire - Candide

I went up to the mountain
Because you asked me to
Up over the clouds
To where the sky was blue
I could see all around me
I could see all around me


Some days I look down
Afraid I will fall
And though the sun shines
I see nothing at all
Then I hear your sweet voice, oh
Oh, come and then go, come and then go
Telling me softly
You love me so
Patty Griffin - Up to the Mountains

The Cranky Old Man asked me what Candide's words have to do with the lyrics from Up to the Mountain.

Very little, if you take them at face value. Voltaire's Candide is a satiric view of  life, which Voltaire sees as a cruel struggle for survival where hope and love count for nothing. Candide travels throughout the world while one misfortune is heaped on another, all the while expressing the notion that God has preordained everything and it is for the best. Patty Griffin's Up to the Mountain is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech. In the speech King compares himself to Moses who led his people out of bondage and to the promised land. From the mountaintop Moses viewed the Promised Land, but he was to die before reaching it. The speech was delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. The next day King was assassinated. The lyrics are a reaffirmation of the hope that exists in every soul that God's voice does speak to us, telling us softly that he loves us so.

Cranky thinks to himself that if we have to choose, we choose hope over despair.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The very thought of it

Marcel Proust said it best in "The Remembrance of Things:
"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."
The ocean, a new book, a cup of coffee, a rose, even the musty smell of a basement - all these smells conjure up for me a memory of some time and place from the past. My first memory that I can recall is standing on a gigantic steamer boat, the S.S. Rose, and looking out over an endless sea. I was no more than three or four at the time and my family was returning from Panama to North Carolina. My father was a career army officer. We had lived for a year in Panama where it had been hot and humid. We lived near the jungles and my mother would later tell me stories of how I was always almost lost in the jungles. But, I don't remember any of that.

It is the boat, standing on the deck and looking out at the immense ocean that I vividly recall. The scent of the ocean’s salty green brine that hits not only your sense of smell but taste with its salty sweetness. At sea decaying fish and seaweed are consumed by ocean dwelling bacteria and produce a sort of fishy tangy smell. The smell is unique. Anyone who been on a boat that has recently been fishing knows this smell can stir up a flock of seagulls in to a ravenous frenzy.Perhaps it is this primeval need for food that stirred in me this memory. The memory is more visual than olfactory, but that is not unusual. Smell is a more subtle sense than sight. It embeds its effect in silent ways and calls out to our need for basic survival, the need to eat.

What I do remember is that it was the instance between dusk and night. When the sun is setting, the sea turns from turquoise to iridescent orange, and then in a moment both night and sea turn purple then black. The rippling of the waves and the wake the boat makes the scene animated as if thousands of hands in a multitude of colors, turquoise, orange, purple and all sorts of shades in between are waving at me at the boat silently glides through the water. In my memory, I am shorter than the railing. At times I have my hands on the thick rail watching the show and smelling the air. At other times I stand there hands at my sides awestruck by the immensity of the boat, ocean, and sky. I was too young then to process this thought, but I have often wondered since whether it was at this moment that I understood what it was to be part of the universe. To describe that moment as spiritual is fitting even though at that age I would not have understood the word. Spiritualism is after all deeply confusing even as we grow older.The one thing that even a child can understand is that we are a part of something larger, and that try as we might we can never understand it all. As Marcel Proust might have said, we are tiny almost imperceptible drops within a cosmic universe. The thought is both humbling and reassuring. Humbling for who are we to think that we can in any way make an impact on the world. Reassuring in that we know that in at least one sense our atoms will continue to form and reform in a myriad of different life forms and continue to be part of this universe until the end of time.

Every return trip to the ocean invariably brings back this memory. But even the smell of fish at a local restaurant like the The Fish Market, here in Wichita can involuntarily trigger this memory. The very smell of it - Halibut, Salmon, Mahi-Mahi, Grouper, Tuna, Haddock, Oyster, Clam, Calamari - will bring back that time, place and smell of long ago. The memory like mementos stored in a cigar box is carefully tucked away, safe and secure.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The games people play

"It's like kids playing house: 'You play the father, I'll play the mother.' ... You know, you dress up, you play, they pay, you go home. It's a game — acting's a game."
                                 — Robert Duvall

I think Shakespeare said it first, life is but a game. It is the the basis of at least two of his plays -  first in , A Midsummer Nights Dream and then  As You Like It. The monologue that expresses the thought best is by melancholy Jaques, who says:

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." — Jaques (Act II, Scene VII, lines 139-166)
Enough of Shakespeare. If we can't live in the future, let's at least live in the present.

Listen to Robert Duvall, whose acting career spans roles from To Kill a Mockingbird and Apocalypse Now to Lonesome Dove and most recently Crazy Heart. The NPR podcast is coming, but here is the link to his thoughts on the subject of acting and living. Acting and living are really the same things, aren't they? So, if you could be someone else, anyone in the world, all you have to do is close your eyes, act it out, and imagine it.