Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I have two portraits hanging on the wall of my study. One is my confirmation pastor, the other is Ian Tyson.

Ian and Sylvia were there at the creation (a certain kind of creation) with Dylan, Baez, and the others in Greenwich Village. Ian confesses that Dylan’s song-writing stirred something in him: “I can do that!” and the result was “Four Strong Winds,” the first of hundreds of ballads that authentically wed the plains of the west to the European-based folk traditions of the east. (Ian, a Canadian cowboy of Welsh descent is a product of that same poetic marriage.)

After his break-up with Sylvia and the waning of the urban folk movement that they, ironically, had helped to create, Ian was in a variety of kinds of wilderness for a while, and re-emerged from those same Alberta roots as the chronicler of the land of the west and the men and women who, quite actually, live their lives there as he does. As such, he occupies a musical niche that is almost unique. Geographically, it’s bounded by Alberta to the north and Texas to the south, British Columbia to the west and Dakota to the east. (Of course it’s not that limited.) Psychologically, it’s the real thing happening to real people, being sung by a poet-rancher who doesn’t deny the reality of his years. I am most distinctly not a cowboy, but Ian Tyson has caught me in the web of both of those regions: the geographical and the psychological.  And the spiritual: Tyson’s combination of lyrics, tunesmanship, and a voice like Canadian whiskey come together with his life story to create real art – music that speaks to you and for you and takes you somewhere – somewhere that is west of here.

One of the things that I admire mightily about Tyson is that he is not travelling the retro circuit. I doubt he’ll ever appear on one of those bring-back-the-sixties galas that PBS must think appeals to us boomers. Rather, he’s writing new songs in his ranch cottage and singing them in places like Elko, Nevada; Lewistown, Montana; Sheridan, Wyoming; and Edmonton, Alberta; playing with a couple of young sidemen at Holiday Inn ballrooms and high school auditoriums. That whiskey voice has become grainier with a recent virus. And he plugs along.

I travelled with friends to hear Ian in Sheridan a few years ago -- in a Holiday Inn ballroom. Ian’s concerts are always a melding of the old folkies and the newer cowboys, but this was a cowboy crowd. I was one of the few without a hat, and probably the only guy in the place wearing penny-loafers and argyle socks. We sat in the front. Shortly into the first set, a young kid sitting behind us, maybe twenty years old, called out, drunkenly, “Play Magpie.” Ian went on with his introduction and played another song. Between numbers, the kid reeled, weaving, from his chair, and shouted louder, “Hey, Ian! Play Magpie.” The small band continued with their set. The young cowboy began to mutter more loudly, even during the performance, that he wanted to hear “Magpie.” My sister-in-law turned around and said, politely, “Could you please be quiet.” He stood and lunged toward her with a kind of “Oh, yeah?,” at which point I jumped to my feet, chivalrously to my sister-in-law's defense, faced him chest-to-chest and said, “Hey, pal…” There was just the slightest second of tension, broken when the woman at his side said, “Come, on, honey, let’s get out of here,” and he was in fact, escorted out by a couple of burly guys.

Tyson went on with his between-song patter as though nothing had happened, but as soon as the door closed on the kid’s exit, Ian announced, “Now we’d like to do a little song called “Magpie.” The song was greeted with laughter and cheers.

Later, Ian signed a poster for me, adding the line, “Thanks to the front row.” But here’s why I relate this story: I want it to be remembered about me that I got into a fight with a cowboy at an Ian Tyson concert!


If you’ve never heard Ian Tyson, this YouTube video from a few years ago is as good an introduction as any.

Here’s Ian Tyson’s Web site. I see he’s going to be in Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony next September. Caryl and I are thinking about it…

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I recall reading a while back about a study that found that bullies enjoy being bullies. This conclusion ran counter to the perception of the bully as a miserable kid whose anti-social behavior is a cry for help. I have a feeling that the label probably encapsulates both types. And then there’s another kind: I was a bully.

In childhood I was always a “good kid.” Good grades, good friends, happy home, happy demeanor, good reports at parent-teacher conferences. I mean this quite honestly, and by “good” I also mean “normal.” I was a typical kid – the occasional playground scrap or rasslin’ match being part of that definition. The little anecdote I will relate here did not change that. I continued to be a good kid, and now I’m a good guy.

But there was one time in sixth grade when two friends and I (two other good kids) literally ambushed a classmate, ganged up on him, and attacked him with large snow blocks crashed over his head. He ran home crying; we ran the other way.

That was it. Although I was not otherwise perfect (see “typical,” above), that was about the extent of my career as a bully. I am not being disingenuous, hoping that the reader will say, “That was it? That’s nothing!” Rather, I offer this as a kind of laboratory example, a part of a theory of how an episode here and an episode there may add up to more bullying than is accounted for by the serial anti-social types. And I add this commentary:

1) We picked on “Raymond” (not his name) because he was “different.” He had a quiet personality and a slight physical deformity that got our attention. The kind of thing that would elicit sympathy in most caring adults became a cause for derision in the sixth grade. We developed a nickname for him because of it. (As I write this I almost weep.)

2) I have a distinct memory that our teacher didn’t like Raymond. This certainly does not excuse our behavior, but now, upon reflection, it seems that her unhidden disdain for him gave us kids a bit of permission. God bless those teachers who recognize the children who are having a hard time and don’t contribute to it.

3) Raymond’s mother called the principal, and we were called into his office (the one time in my life). I can visualize the hall bench upon which I sat waiting for my turn. I can’t remember if the principal called my mom, but I had a good talking-to with him, and I’m forever grateful for it.

4) Again, no saint here, but I have an antipathy for seeing people mistreated, and a sensitivity for the underdog. This incident and my visit with the principal may have contributed to that.

5) There is much discussion these days about how to bully-proof our classrooms and get through to the perpetrators. I support all of this, and have been part of some programs, and I am concerned about the factors that lead to the development of anti-social kids and adults. But I often reflect on my own limited experience and I find it somewhat chilling how easily we good kids turned on Raymond because he was “different,” and I wonder how much of the problem of bullying has to do not with “professional bullies” but with isolated incidents of otherwise well-behaved children picking on “target” kids – one day a taunt from Susie, the next day a jab from Billy, etc.

6) I think a simple well-placed word from our teacher on the general subject of bullying and people’s feelings might have had some effect, but I’m not sure.

7) And by the way, I didn't enjoy it.

Were you ever a bully?


Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

                                                ~ Sins of the Father
                                                    W.D. Ehrhart

Monday, February 7, 2011


In our Church Forum last Sunday I presented “Three Christian Poets.” Here’s one from each of them.

John Donne (1572-1631) This poem is both a prayer and playful word-play on the poet’s name:

Hymn To God The Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)

Hold me against the dark: I am afraid.
Circle me with your arms. I am made
So tiny and my atoms so unstable
That at any moment I may explode. I am unable
To contain myself in unity. My outlines shiver
With the shock of living. I endeavor
To hold the I as one only for the cloud
Of which I am a fragment, yet to which I'm vowed
To be responsible. Its light against my face
Reveals the witness of the stars, each in its place
Singing, each compassed by the rest,
The many joined to one, the mightiest to the least.
It is so great a thing to be an infinitesimal part
of this immeasurable orchestra the music bursts the heart,
And from this tiny plosion all the fragments join:
Joy orders the disunity until the song is one.

                                                ~ Instruments (2)

R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


To be “cathedraled out” is a cliché of tourism. I have not yet reached that point (but then I am not that well-traveled). My continued interest in touring churches is connected to my conviction that the greatest work of art in the history of the western world is the Christian Church – the architecture, the poetry, the painting, the music, and the rest – a grand work of art.

Penelope At Rest, St. Oswald's Church
Many church buildings are living museums, “living” in the sense that they house the religious artistry and music of the ages while continuing to be centers of active congregations. When we visited the 12th century St. Oswald’s Church in Ashbourne, England (which displayed the oldest church key in Britain, no kidding), we were moved both by the heartbreakingly lovely seventeenth century marble tomb effigy of five-year-old Penelope Boothby, and by the lively children’s art display that was going on in the narthex.

November 14, 1940
But an even more arresting juxtaposition of the church ancient and modern is Coventry Cathedral. Established a thousand years ago by Leofric and his wife, Lady Godiva, the cathedral was bombed to rubble by the Germans in 1940, with just a shell of walls and the spire remaining. (It is said that the equally ancient Oxford, just forty-five miles away, was spared by Hitler because he intended it to be his seat of government when he conquered England.) Walking in the empty space of the old church – which has now become an open-air amphitheater for the production of plays and concerts – is an emotional and reflective experience. In the shattered altar space is a shrine to peace, with the words “Father Forgive” inscribed behind two charred beams that fell in the shape of a cross. (Churchill may have ordered the bombing of the magnificent Frauenkirche in Dresden in retaliation for Coventry. Today, the two congregations are sister churches in a ministry of reconciliation.)

The old (left) and the new
And the “modern?”  A short passage across from the blasted walls is the entrance to the new Coventry Cathedral, which was begun immediately after the war and dedicated in 1962. It is magnificent. The 1950s and 60s are usually not recognized as the paragon of architectural design, and, indeed, the “magnificence” of the new Coventry has not so much to do with an upward-oriented heavenly grandeur as with an inviting and welcoming sense of breadth. (I am reminded of an analysis I heard somewhere: “Church design prior to 1945 emphasized ‘God’s holy place;’ since 1945 it has emphasized ‘God’s holy people.’”) Caryl and I were thoroughly absorbed in exploring its interior spaces, including the striking "Gethsemane Chapel." New Coventry is not trying to recreate something out of the middle ages. It is what it is: a center of a vital community and a place that will seem “modern” for a long time to come. (And there is nothing of the museum about it.)

Gethsemane Chapel
Someday I want to return to evensong at York Minster or an organ recital at Westminster Abbey. But what I really want to do is pay my grateful respects to Lady Godiva at her statue in the Town Square, and then worship at her new Coventry Cathedral.

(Click on the link above and take the Virtual Tour of the cathedral.)

Lady Godiva, Town Centre, Coventry