Irish jam sessions are good when you get to learn new tunes with fun people.

Irish jam sessions are awesome when you get to learn new tunes with fun people, and are greeted with a wee dram of ten year-old, single-malt scotch handed off with a wink and a nod from the host.  I played at least 83% better after that…

Sigh.  And that’s a wrap for the weekend.  Sleep well, everybody!

Charlier Parker made some incredible music–music I’ve taken to slowly, but which I enjoy more with each passing year.  Right now I’m listening to “Jazz at Massey Hall,” a live recording made in 1953 during a concert in Toronto, where Parker was joined by Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus.  They’re five of the all-time great names in jazz, and were arguably each the preeminent master of his instrument when these tracks were laid down.

The concert at Massey Hall was the first time the five ever played together, and to all appearances the quintet and the concert were not going to be a success.  Gillespie and Parker had personality differences, the motivation of agents and producers which brought the musicians together was purely monetary, and the concert was accidentally scheduled for the same night as the world heavyweight boxing championship, taking place across the street.

But the music was superb.  The first time I heard the album, I thought “How does this work?  There was all this conflict, but they’re playing so well together!”  The sound is not clean.  It’s often pushy and rough,  at the the edge of acceptability in rhythm and tone, and the recording is worse: shifting levels, obvious 1950’s cut-and-paste tape editing, poor microphone placement.  Yet the music is such that it’s a must-hear record.  Outside of (or perhaps stemming from) the struggle to orchestrate and capture the event, there’s something in the intensity of the sound, of the artistic sensibilities conveyed, that redeem the record’s flaws.

This is what I hear in the Massey Hall recording.  In some ways it’s also the nature of bop jazz: a music so raw, so blazingly virtuosic and insistent that it runs along the edge of what the instruments can do.  The scream in the ultimate register of Gillespie’s trumpet, the squawk when Parker chops off an insane run, seem fitting expressions of musicians trying to reach beyond their temporal bounds.  And sometimes they seem frustrated by the limitations.  But without that struggle, without the strain and even occasional badness, what would bop be?

*  *  *  *

I don’t like struggle, or limitation.  In almost anything.  But last weekend at Mass, as Father Durban was preaching on epiphany, he described singleness as a call to “the remarkable tension of celibate life,” and something about his choice of words stuck.  It was as though the lens I’d been using to view my singleness had been flipped, and triggered the realization, finally, of the need and purpose for my sexual desire in a fruitful, sexually abstinent life.  Sitting in the pew, I failed in a valiant effort to discretely rifle my pockets for a notebook and pencil.  There were too many thoughts happening at once to remember them all.  There was something about the phrase “remarkable tension.”

I’d always understood that (of course) sexuality was a necessary and beautiful component of a single person’s search for romantic relationship and subsequent transition to a non-single life.  Sex as a motivation toward marriage.  All well and good.  But when contemplating the continued presence of sexual desire in a single, celibate life, a life not necessarily ending in marriage, I got hung up.  It just seemed like meanness on God’s part–a state which left folks frustrated, lonely, physically unrequited.

At least, a state which left me frustrated, lonely and physically unrequited…  In recent months it’s become something I thought must be a product of sin.  That somehow The Fall had doomed single people to always want something more.

But wanting something more: why had I felt that was a bad thing?

Sitting in the pew, it all came washing over me in a sudden rush: my understanding of celibacy and of abstinence were another instance of knowing the words with my mind, but not knowing what they meant with my heart or body.  That I had understood in my head that we, men and women, married or single, will always want more.  That our desires for love, physical and spiritual, will eventually destroy human relationships or ourselves if we fasten upon people or things as a final good.

But here was the knowledge sinking into my bones that the tension of desire could be good in and of itself.  I’ve known this for years as a musician, as a dancer, as a writer, as a climber, yes, even as a mathematician.  Without pull, I am unproductive.  And to embrace rather than begrudge the tension of celibacy allows it to bear fruit.  It’s a fruitfulness which becomes sterile if there is no desire.  But such fruitfulness requires the act of holding desire in check, and looking into the mirror of self-denial to find both the image of how God desires to possess us, and how we can take hold of our physical desires and wrestle them back toward desire of Him.

*  *  *  *

Two nights ago I finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisted,” a Christmas gift from Esther.  And there in the final pages, inside of three marriages dissolved, two friendships broken, a great house laid waste and a final, beautiful romance ended, was the same message.  Waiting there, too, was the promise of an even more beautiful beatific love yet to be consummated, but coming, surely.

I can’t believe PBS made that book into a mini-series.  Ok, I can.  The Chronicles of Narnia, after all, became movies.  But did they see what I saw?  “Of course they didn’t!” says a voice from the back gallery.  “They’re not you.”  But for that matter, would I have seen this, reading the same book six months earlier?  Probably not…  Timing.  So much is timing, and God always meets us where we are, takes us where we need to go.

And, sometimes, He brings Charlie Parker and Evelyn Waugh along for the ride.

It was 22 degrees F this morning at 7 AM.  And the sun was still asleep, and my thought upon hearing the alarm was that I should be, too.

My number one symptom of being really down is wanting more sleep.  Not needing it (although I can usually convince myself I do), but wanting it.  Wanting to just roll back over and let the world slide past.

I skipped running yesterday for this same reason, but under the excuse that I just had too many other things to do.  Mom was not pleased when she saw me later in the evening and said “So, how was today?” and I reeled off a long list of accomplishments without mentioning any physical activity.  She frowned at me.  “You said you were going to run.  You know what you need to do to make yourself feel better.  Make it happen!”

And that was the extra boot I needed this morning.  Crawling from bed, hiking tights above socks below shirt beneath fleece, pulling on shoes, the final motion of diving out the door into the cracking cold was at least partially driven by fear of my mother.

Thank God.

At 7 AM on a Sunday, there’s no one else out.   Perhaps a couple cars driving slow in the early dawn, or two people in the bakery straightening table clothes and preparing displays, but other than that clear roads and walks.   Heading up Main Street, the cold made every molecule of air sparkle and dance.  The air had gained a clarity that made the houses on Hamburg Mountain seem a couple leaps away instead of miles, and miles seemed like a foolish way to measure things anymore.  And to the east was the ever-brightening tinge of gold, providing a reminder that the colors now showing in the shop fronts and on the edge of Preservation Hall were previews, half-realizations of hues yet to come.

I ran up Main Street and then to the east, toward the not-yet sun, out and up Hamburg Mountain Road, switching to the next ridge over from my parents’ house and pushing closer into the mountains.  Out of town, up the flanks of Hamburg and nearer to the foothills of Craggy and Snowbird and the Blacks before turning onto Dogwood to head down towards Reems Creek.  And running that ridge, I was entirely circled by peaks: Town Mountain before me; Hamburg now behind, the Smokies and Max Patch out beyond town to my right; to my left Snowbird and Craggy; and way, way off, somewhere in that gilded fringe, Mitchell.

And the sun still had not risen, but it no longer mattered, and indeed I liked it better.  For as I dropped down into the Reems Creek Valley and then moved off the valley road to start climbing back up the Dry Ridge toward home, the rising light seemed to lift my feet just a little as they beat cadence on the  uphill, and breathing hard was not a synonym for suffering.

Standing on one leg in the shower, scrubbing between toes, I found myself singing bits and pieces of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”  I’ve never been a huge Sinatra fan.  And I don’t usually sing in the shower.  But it seemed right this morning.

Driving to church, Mom looked over at me a grinned a little bit.  “I heard you singing in the shower.”  “Oh yeah…yeah….I guess I was…”  She smiled knowingly.  “Mmm.  Was it a good run?”

I was not happy to see fog this morning, I’m not going to lie.  Before I got up I could hear the cars sushing by on Polo, and groaned a little into the pillow.  The dripping maple outside my window accompanied teeth-brushing, and I resigned myself to dampness as I pulled on a fleece.

I’m a fog snob.  I like it in the mountains, when it has peaks and valleys to play with, and where it keeps you from seeing the top of a climb, where it forces you to live in the moment of each step up the hill.  But I’ve yet to love Winston-Salem fog.  This city does not wear it with much grace.  The buildings seem concerned about their hair.  My fellow students don rainjackets reluctantly.  It’s the third day of wet in a row, so even the pretty patterned rain boots are looking bedraggled.

And the people with curls are layering on the anti-frizz cream, and the fields are turning to minor marshlands while Canadian geese encamp on the intramural soccer pitch, and Shag on the Mag, Wake Forest’s sundresses-and-seersucker spring dance, looks like it will once again be Shag in the Mud.  And if it’s like last year, it will take them a solid six months to regrow the grass on the magnolia quad afterward.

But for all my grumping, fog and rain do a good job of bringing the world back down to earth.  They dirty things up to make them cleaner.  Colors blend together and harmonize beneath the fog.  People talk less, but the ground talks more, squelching a squooshing and soaking up life.  And every now and then you pass by a girl who embraces the whole scene with her hood down, and her hair happily poofy and laced with tiny droplets, and when the sun glances out for a moment and the angle’s just right, you find a crystal diadem sparkling and alive above her face.  And you smile, and she usually smiles back, and the sun fades out and the fog settles back, muffling the wet tread of your feet.

There are some days when it’s not enough to just go for a run.  There are some days I have to leap, to bound.  This afternoon, starting out on the path was good.  But when an obliging wall offered itself, there was nothing to do but jump up and skip along that.  And then a park bench.  And then there were branches to bounce over on the trails behind Reynolda House.  And there was mud to dance around (I always end up pretending I’m Legolas when there’s mud or snow).  And rank upon rank of daffodils filling the woods.  One of those ocurrences you look at and know it didn’t happen naturally, but dear God it’s beautiful.  And you turn your face to the sun along with the flowers, and fling your arms wide, and keep on running, and you have a brief thought that maybe if you weren’t breathing hard, this is what heaven would feel like.  You know, C.S. Lewis’ heaven from The Last Battle.  The description that very much made me want to die when I first read it at the tender age of 9.  But then I wonder if maybe we’ll be breathing hard in heaven, too.  Maybe there will still be exertion and struggle.  Just not the kind tinged with despair.  The kind only filled with hope and with joy, and the beautiful pounding of your heart when it says “Yes, I am strong, and alive.”  Maybe that will still be there.  I hope so.  Days like this, days like this: they are why I run.

So, the one thing guaranteed about a blog is that if the author stops writing, people will stop reading.  They may stop reading anyway, but unless you’ve been living Groundhog Day, you probably don’t have a reason to still be looking at Walk Softly.  That should be changing.  And this paragraph is an effort to elicit response from anybody’s who’s RSS’d this blog or set notifications or the like.  If you’re still around, ‘twould be good to know. Give a holler.

But why am I restarting?  Well, basically, because I’m happy again.  Because I don’t look around me and see darkness anymore.  Because I can feel again.  The mire became rather deep last semester, and I sank pretty low.  Low enough to stop writing.  Because for me writing isn’t a life raft.  It isn’t a help in the horribly dry, hard times.  If I feel spiritually dead, and alone, and empty, I can’t write.  It just isn’t there.  Attempts to publish or even journal feel like trying to squeeze toothpaste from an empty tube.  My writing is a reflection of what’s inside me at the moment.  If it’s craptastic, I’m probably having a crummy day – the ingrown, self-referential, groveling kind of crummy day.  If it’s good, I’m probably riding an epiphany or a new outpouring of grace.  There have even been days when I’ve gotten my face fully under the chocolate fountain of God’s love with my mouth open wide and been able to let it pour over my head and get stuck in my ears.  The writing from those days is amazing.  But when my writing is dull, or dead, or creepingly mediocre – when there’s a pasted-on veneer of art over an empty cardboard shell – that’s when things have gotten bad.  I look at unpublished poetry from last fall, and I see that.  This was some sucky stuff.  But I’m not there anymore.  The seasons change, and so do we.  Or perhaps I should say, the seasons are changed, and so are we.

Thank God.  

If you want to get caught up on the details of what’s been going on, give me a call.  I want to hear what’s up in your life, too.  I’ve disappeared from more circles than just blogging…  If there’s anyone reading who lacks my number, my apologies.  But the story should seep out over the next couple months, regardless.  Just bear with me as I get back up to speed.

It was a three-by-five index card with thin blue lines and a thicker magenta header.  On the blank side someone had written “Are you happy?” in black calligraphy, slightly left of center.  I found the card resting on a chalkboard tray in Manchester 245.  Sitting in the room, waiting for statistics students who never showed, shuffling through Stephan Grappelli, Sound Tribe Sector 9, and Matisyahu while working problems for complex analysis, I convinced myself the answer was yes.  But I wasn’t sure. 

* * * * 

There’s a student who I first saw this summer, cruising back and forth from the library on an electric wheelchair.  He drove his wheelchair slowly, calmly, and wore his isolation like a crown.  With dignity, and pain.  He never smiled.  He was outside the caf the other evening, and I did a double take.  A girl behind his wheelchair was talking to him, but that wasn’t the odd part: what didn’t make sense was that she was moving twice as fast as the other walkers, while simultaneously arguing the merits of a particular fantasy card game, and with no apparent need to pause for breath.  And then I saw her feet, planted firmly on the back platform of his wheelchair, her hands gripping the seat as they whizzed by.  And he was still looking straight ahead, calmly, almost unmoving.  But the faintest thread of a smile was twitching at the corners of his mouth.  When I see him on campus, he’s not driving slowly anymore.  

* * * *

The Post Secret guy came to Wake Forest last night.  I’ve seen some of the books, but never followed the website.  We got there 15 minutes before the talk, and ended up standing in the back row of a crowd of more than 600 people.  He showed postcards that hadn’t been published in the books, and talked about the idea of secrets, and then invited people in the audience to share their own secrets.  And a girl in front stood up, and told about how she’d tried to kill herself the year before, and how her sister had saved her, and how she’d never told anyone that it was thanks to her sister she was still alive.  And then I realized I knew her.  That it was Nina.  We sing together in choir.  Her sister is my friend Becky.  We go to daily Mass together.  And I didn’t cry.  But I think my heart tried to turn inside-out.  I think I presume that I would be able to sense that kind of unhappiness.  Really, I just don’t know.

* * * *

I finally turned the romantic-relationship part of my life over to God two weeks ago.  20 years of being attracted to girls (yes, it started that early), and it’s taken me this long to give up.  Taken me this long to say “I don’t know what the crap’s going on here, I don’t know what I need, and if I’m perfectly honest I don’t know what I want.  I need you to show me these things.  I don’t care how long it takes, and I don’t care what needs to happen.”  Those are dangerous, scary, scary words.  I’m gritting my teeth right now.  I’m clenching them the way I did when I wanted to stay angry at my father as a four year-old.  When I desperately wanted and hated his hug simultaneously, when I would push away and hit at his arms before finally breaking down and crying in them.  And he would say “Did you really want to stay mad?  Did it really make you happy?”  And I’d squeeze my fists and say “YES!” and he’d smile sadly, sidewise, with eyes that seemed to look far beyond me, far away to a place I did not understand.  Then he’d look back, straight into my eyes, and say “Is this better?”  And I’d lose my grip and rest in his arms, and sob.  “Yes,  this is better.”

Tommy and I threw a cookout for the math grad students and post-docs last night, largely in an effort to build solidarity with the new first-years, but also because hey, it’s Labor Day weekend, and beer and hamburgers are fun.  The party was a smashing success.  Everyone had a great time, the food was delicious, and people are now excited about organizing more social events.  Apparently we set the bar. Score!

And I say we, but Tommy’s involvement was fairly limited.  He was kind enough to make a last minute run to Food Lion for ice, cheese and a two liter of Coke, and it’s entirely due to his suggestion that the post-docs were invited (I didn’t even think of it).  But the invitations, organization, alcohol provisioning, food purchasing, vegetable prepping, hamburger making and grilling fell to me.  Voluntarily, because I knew this party wouldn’t happen if I didn’t make it happen.  Voluntarily, because I didn’t want this to be another “byob and pay us back for the meat” event.  But then, when somebody disses your acquisition of Mike’s Hard Lemonade (even when he’s not helping pay for it), further comments that the Cottonwood Low Down Brown Ale you bought was a little too sweet for his taste (after drinking it), and finally drinks one of your (more expensive) bottles of Rogue instead of his own Sam Adams, it bites.

Do you remember The Little Red Hen?  In our Golden Book version there were a host of selfish and self-absorbed freeloading barnyard animals who refused to help in any part of the hen’s breadmaking.  

“Who will help me grind the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen.  “Not I,” said the Dog.  “Not I,” said the Cat.  “Not I,” said the Pig.  “Oh, not I,” said the Sheep.  And so the Little Red Hen ground the wheat into flower all by herself…

Naturally, at the end of story all the animals want to share in the loaf.  And the hen, a model social conservative, lets them smell the bread and then eats it – all by herself.  

As I kid, I loved that story.  My mom did, too, and I think I know why.  But the older I get, the more I wonder if the hen got indigestion.

What Tommy did makes me mad, but what am I going to do about it?  The only way to do anything is to compromise the hospitality and generosity I worked so hard to present last night.  And the only way to actually be generous, to not have simply put on a show, is to just let my resentment go.  What am I holding onto?  One beer?  A few hours of work and some money I could afford to spend?  

Or maybe I simply enjoy the righteous anger at having been ill-used.  Am I that petty?  Possibly.  But if that’s the case, I deserve a quote from Juliette: “Bitch, Puhleeze!”

That goes for you, too, Little Red Hen.

We have a new housemate, a girl named Juliette.  A first-year grad student in the clinical psychology program, formerly of Indiana University, Bloomington.  Someone who was abnormal enough to be interested in a non-air conditioned, crooked-door, green living room with mismatched furniture and bamboo roll-up shades, and two guys as housemates.  When her deposit check arrived back in June, we figured she must not be too up-tight.

Juliette provides great reminders of how to live more extensively.  The image of extension is the one I’m shooting for, because the past week has been a series of reminders of what there is to do outside of Wake Forest.  Of what there is to do outside of the doors of our house.  Like hiking at Pilot Mountain.  Like biking around downtown.  Like eating breakfast, lunch and dinner on the patio.  Because we’ve got a patio, by golly.  But after last fall, Tommy and I forgot how to use it.  We also forgot how to moderate the inevitable personality clashes aside from avoidance.  But with the third variable of Juliette added, our house dynamic becomes much more stable.  Nice.

Over breakfast Juliette wanted to know what my plans were for the day.  “Eh, not much….run, do rock rings, eat, go listen to the freshman orientation pre-law talk.  That takes me up to 3 PM.”  “How about after that?”  “I don’t know.”  “You should take a nap.”  I don’t think I showed it, but I was shocked.  I would never consider such a radical idea.  If you don’t know what to do, why not do….nothing.  Just switch off.  As opposed to dinking around on the internet, or poking at math you’re not focused on, why not just sleep?  I am so darn driven, the idea of taking a nap as a viable activity would never cross my mind.  

I was going to entitle this post something like “The wisdom of small children,” but that’s not accurate.  Because as a kid, I hated naps.  They were a maternally-generated obstacle to awesomeness.  Naps were not fun.  Naps were the anti-fun.  I knew kids who liked naps.  They also tended to enjoy sitting still and smiling and picking grass, as opposed to assembling arsenals of pine cones or building complex structures out of sticks and scrap steel.  I thought they were lame.

But Juliette is right, and while I’m still not napping (no, I’m writing this – I once again succeeded in finding something to do), she’s got an excellent point.  Hopefully I’ll take her advice this semester.  And I suspicion I’ll do well to listen to her advice on more points than just napping.

The joints of my toes are swollen and painful enough that I’m walking like a duck.  We lost the game 6-0.  I re-opened a nasty, weeping skinned knee gained Monday in beach volleyball.  And I have grass stains on my Appalachian-beat-Michigan shirt.  This is fabulous.  Seriously.

Because this is the first time since high school that I’ve played ultimate without ankle pain.  And I was BAREFOOT.  I got pulled into a pick-up game while wearing flip flops.  Sprinting, cutting, diving, losing ignominiously on the upper quad in front of Wait Chapel, there was nothing but glory.  Even with easing back into running, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to chase down a long intercept again.  But I did.  And the belief in my physical self that returned with that catch was amazing.  The belief in myself as whole person, not simply as sadder-but-wiser goods.  Such a little thing.  But so nice.    

Weird how confidence should be so tied to the physical.  Weird how the mending on that front should coincide with my research starting to look up, and overcoming house tensions with Tommy, and no longer being apologetic about getting through grad school in my own way.  I knew things were getting better when I stopped caring whether Dr. Berenhaut thought I understood things in our research – when I started shrugging and pausing discussions with “You know, I don’t have a clue why that’s true.  Could you re-explain it?”  When I stopped caring about whether I ended up with some flavor, any flavor of doctorate.  Because oh yes, that was definitely part of the drive to jump into a JD after AmeriCorps.  But no, I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to teach first.  Maybe sail around the world second.  I can’t know if I’ll help more people as a lawyer or as a teacher, but I know teaching will make me happy.  So I’ll try it.  Law will always be there.

All of these developments served on a platter of ultimate frisbee.  

And I need to say, to all of you, to God, Thank You.  I did not get here alone.