Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

SOME REJECTION

As I said at the time …

Gee, I’d never before had a rejection slip before that said the poem belongs in a chapbook. Know of anybody who’s open?

It had been a slow winter, and spring had just been killing my allergies. La-de-dah! Be grateful you don’t have the little bastards called black flies down your way; they’re our current plague of the calendar. [This must have been April or May.]

Well, if I’m lucky tonight, maybe I’ll find love at the contradance. Would make a nice change. ­

Your poem “Hunger” has me wondering: is the One We Love going to be the person who rescues us from the sharks? Or is that person the shark itself? In the end, I suspect it’s the latter!

DON’T KNOCK VANILLA

There we were seated in the social hall, waiting for a final rehearsal to begin for our round of Christmas performances.

One of the baritones was nibbling away at a takeout carton of unmarked ice cream – as he admitted, from a top-of-the-line local hamburger joint. “I’m a New Englander,” he explained. “I eat ice cream all year.”

It was vanilla. I heard the echoes of mocking from a girlfriend’s mother way back, quite the New Yorker, something about being unimaginative.

I don’t care if she was a endocrinologist, she was so wrong.

As taste goes, what can be more heavenly than pure vanilla?

Actually, the simple things done well can be the best indicators of quality, even sophistication. Care to begin that list?

On the other hand, there are many ways to cover up flaws and errors. Just keep adding more doodads and trinkets. Not so when it comes to simplicity, which is all about truth.

If you think all vanilla’s the same, by the way, think again. Madagascar beans are the most popular, for good reason. But Tahitian is more floral and truly delightful, as I discovered in a gelato served at the Union Bluff hotel in York Beach, Maine. And then the Mexican beans have developed their own devoted following.

ENGAGING THE POWERS AND PRINCIPALITIES

Like it or not, practicing an art means wrestling with power, including, in St. Paul’s phrase, the “powers and principalities.” Powers of destruction, on one hand, and sustenance, on the other. Destruction that can, as we’ve seen too many times, include the artist. Hence, the fascination with Faust. With madness. Alcoholism. And on. Self-absorption and inflated self-importance rather than humble service.

We hazard much, often without the slightest awareness of the risks afoot. For the Christian, these involve Satan’s dominion over “the world,” which includes the realm of the arts; in Asian teachings, we can turn to the traps of Maya, that spider web of worldly attraction and deadly illusion. Either way, cause to be wary. Need for disciplined faith. Yes, let’s introduce something we’ll call Satan, just to thicken the drama.

Which raises an ancient point of conflict for a Christian artist: I’m not at all sure art is a proper activity for a Quaker. Through much of Friends’ history, most of the arts were considered superfluous and dishonest engagements taking our attention away from true worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is the way one expressed it while returning an unread novel to a neighbor.

Yes, “we Quakers read only true things,” or used to. The exclusion of not just fiction but theater and paintings and sports as distractions from worship. Traps of the flesh?

And yet: discipline is essential in spiritual growth. Self-discipline, route to true freedom. And where is the mind without imagination? I continue to read and write fiction and poetry. I love symphonies, string quartets, and opera. I’m a baritone or occasional tenor in four-part a cappella singing. When I practice my art, I am fed by this love/compulsion/infusion.

So we’re back to the ways and spirit in which we engage the powers and principalities, and the ways we order our lives.

AN INVITATION TO FELLOW WRITERS

My Chicken Farmer I Still Love You (even though we ain’t got scratch) blog is launching a new weekly feature at the beginning of the year, and I’m open to suitable participants. What better place to begin than with writers already connected in my circles – especially those who regularly check in here at the barn?

The feature, dubbed Wednesday Writer, will profile poets, novelists, and others active in the small-press literary world, especially in its digital dimensions (think ebooks and blogging, for starters).

If you’re game, contact me through the comments tab on this posting. I won’t have to publish your response, but your comment will give me an email address where I can send you the details and a questionnaire to answer. (Don’t worry, the questions are pretty loose and meant more as prompts than anything else. The real point’s to let others see us as real people.)

Here’s one more opportunity to give your work exposure. Remember, too, writers form a community of shared concerns and thinking.

So take a break, drop me a line, and maybe it will be the break you’ve been needing.

A LITTLE HOLY CONFESSION

Coming, as most of us modern Quakers do, from other faith traditions, it’s fair to ask ourselves just what we carry with us into the Quaker circle.

My own family, for instance, was quite active in the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, now merged into the United Methodists. Despite the many Sunday mornings spent listening to quarter-hour sermons, however, I find myself remembering very little. There was one telling us not to waste time (because time was a gift from God), another about our bodies being temples that should not be abused by smoking or drinking, another about non-conformity as a Protestant duty (this back in the gray-flannel ‘50s!), as well as the annual money sermon, reduced to a plea for financial support. Surprisingly, I recall no Bible stories. The senior pastor, a quiet and bookish man, quoted many volumes along the way, yet my sense is that he was likely much more effective in his hospital visits and pastoral counsel than he was in the pulpit. The youth pastor, meanwhile, taught me more about organizing and managing successful political campaigns and establishments than about matters of the Holy Spirit.

More influential, I suspect, were the short trailside vespers of our Scout troop. One boy, a preacher’s kid, even spoke of the church being the people, along the lines of the Quaker argument I’ve previously presented. And then there was the twilight circle of rowboats and candles when we camped at Lake Vesuvius – that awe of the stilling day and waters reflecting something of our current worship.

It all seems so long ago, and so far back. Yet a few turns later, emerging from a yoga ashram, I encountered a circle of Friends who began opening the Scriptures to me, and then a few Mennonites who restored the hymn legacy, and something from that past took shape, in a new way. Maybe the last laugh, though, belongs to those EUB officials of my youth who tried to steer me into their ministry – and a faith I soon rejected fully. After all, it opened the way that landed me into free Gospel ministry here.

TIFFANY?

From the pews in the sanctuary, the five stained-glass windows over the altar appear curiously bland in contrast to the two vast arrays to the left or the rear. Only if you cross into the chancel and catch a glint of sunlight might you sense something quite different is at hand before you.

That’s how I first noticed that unlike traditional stained glass, none of this set had been enhanced by paint. All of the color was in the glass itself, yet there were no muddy patches where colors overlapped, as might be expected while mixing pigments. Some of these resembled Impressionist painting or bookmaker marbling. Moreover, when direct sunlight hit some of the pieces, the color blazed with gold or copper or fine jewels.

Look at that gold blazing.

Look at that gold blazing.

 

A little context.

A little context.

Could it be? I’d heard that one reason Louis Comfort Tiffany obtained such incredible effects in his work was that he used such materials in his glass. For starters, the only way to get a gold color is to use gold.

As I started to seek documentation, some fascinating connections appear.

As it turns out, the Tiffany Glass Company and its successor, Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, created thousands of ecclesiastical church windows. Many of these were designed and executed by his studio, rather than Tiffany himself, but they would nonetheless bear his stamp and influence.

Tiffany’s 1890 Hay Memorial at Emmanuel Episcopal in Pittsburgh presents some striking similarity to the set at the 1895 St. John’s Methodist in Watertown, Massachusetts.

A simple design.

A simple design.

Such a range of colors, shifting with the light.

Such a range of colors, shifting with the light.

Both are narrow arched windows with greenish bottom panels ringed in copper tones. The central cross resembles the crosses at Watertown. And the mention of Tiffany’s love of exotic Oriental painting and his travels in northern Africa might explain the two Watertown windows dominated by palm trees.

The Watertown congregation originated in 1836 in the Whitney family home, and they remained active supporters at the time the 1895 stone building was erected. Their David Whitney Jr. relocated to Detroit as a young man, quickly became that city’s wealthiest resident, and built an 1894 mansion that still features its elaborate Tiffany windows.

Finally, I run into the pastor as he’s leaving his office. I pose the question, “Tiffany?”

“Technically, no.”

“His studio, then?”

“Yes.”

Regardless of the creator’s name, these five windows are marvelous, especially when struck by sunlight. Unfortunately, their placement on the west side of the building means the Sunday morning worshipers would not get to view them at their best.

Vespers, anyone?

Three of the five windows around the chancel in late-afternoon sunlight.

Three of the five windows around the chancel in late-afternoon sunlight.

CHURCH WINDOWS

I’ve long joked that our Quaker meetinghouse has the prettiest stained-glass windows in town. That’s because they’re clear, looking out to the hardwood trees surrounding the grounds and all of the seasonal changes. The colors are those of snow and ice, spring greening, fog, mist, rainfall, autumn foliage. Admittedly, the new synagogue, with its view over a hillside to forest beyond, and the Methodists, at the edge of a millpond, can make rival cases. I’ll plead to being partial.

Crucially, though, transparent windows remind us of the world beyond the house where we sit in worship, a reflection of our awareness that our faith is a constant part of our various daily life activities. They remind us as well of the powerful rhythms of nature and God’s creation.

On the other hand, most congregations – including the Evangelical United Brethren of my childhood – gather within rooms of filtered light cast by stained-glass designs. I was puzzled by it then, and remain so today. Yes, I know the colored windows of the great medieval cathedrals were illustrated storybooks for the illiterate populace, but what I encountered always felt second-rate and often mildewed. Few individuals, I suspect, could say much of anything about the event being depicted or express any understanding of the decorative filling. Pointedly, the translucent windows cut off any view beyond the room. Perhaps the intention is to create a holy space – one set apart from normal life; perhaps, too, this hints at eternity as a departure from the landscape we know. But a shady or even creepy quality always seemed to lurk in the shadows. This is, I will note, quite different from the icon-based frescoes of Eastern Orthodox custom.

Apart from a few December afternoons at the National Cathedral in Washington, when I finally experienced the dazzling sunlight through the windows and recognized how Rose windows earned their esteem, my encounters with stained glass were few and fleeting. That is, until late one afternoon last year when I arrived early for our weekly chorus session and stepped from the room where we rehearse, crossing into the sanctuary on the other side of the sliding shutters. The square vaulted room is dominated by two imposing displays in traditional style – painting, essentially on pieces of colored glass that are then leaded together. Something about these, though, suggests quality sustained by wealthy donors. The impressive room has demanded closer investigation.

If the late 19th century brought about a flowering of stained glass in America, it was also a time before the spread of public art museums. Windows like these, then, would have been art made available to all for their wonderment.

The south wall of the sanctuary is dominated by this traditional design, which includes a row of named angels along the bottom.

The south wall of the sanctuary is dominated by this traditional design, which includes a row of named angels along the bottom.

A detail of one of the angels.

A detail of one of the south windows.

Traditional stained-glass style using cut pieces painted with enamel.

Traditional stained-glass style using cut pieces painted with enamel.

A decorative window in a social hall where our chorus rehearses.

A decorative window in a social hall where our chorus rehearses.

ART GLASS PIECES

When it comes to art museums, I head straight for the paintings. The other displays, including art glass, come later.

Actually, glassworks as art rather than craft came to my attention largely through the glass-blowing compatriots of my now ex-wife (we’d save clear bottles for her circle to melt down and reform as fine-art creations) and her grandmother, a knowledgeable antiques dealer who specialized in glass collecting, which was quite appropriate considering our location in a former glassmaking mecca that included Toledo, Tiffin, and Fostoria, Ohio. (At the end of the 19th century, an oil boom meant plenty of cheap natural gas, allowing affordable conversion of sand into glass.)

These days the Henry Melville Fuller Paperweight Collection at the Currier Art Museum in Manchester has expanding my regard for glass artifacts, even if I do head first to the paintings.

My favorite paperweight has a cobalt-colored core enveloped by clear glass. How they ever produced the swirls of bubbles remains mystifying.

My favorite paperweight has a cobalt-colored core enveloped by clear glass. How they ever produced the swirls of bubbles remains mystifying.

A blown-glass vase created by an art student. We saved clear beer bottles for the cause.

A blown-glass vase created by an art student. We saved clear beer bottles for the cause.

 

PASSING FROM THE FAMILY AND FROM LOCAL HANDS

Last week brought an announcement of the sale of our local, family-owned newspaper to a corporate rival downstream. You could watch the deterioration over the past decade as Foster’s Daily Democrat slipped from a feisty competitor to, well, adrift – and the absence of detailed copy editing became evident to the casual reader.

I’ve already argued about the lack of a viable business model for today’s newspaper industry – and much more of that underlying mindset plays throughout my Hometown News novel. Good journalism requires investment, after all, and you have to pay good people to do the job thoroughly.

Family owned since its founding by Joshua L. Foster in 1873, the quaintly named Dover paper was one of the last in the country to remain free of media-chain management. For all of the potential problems that run in families, the perception on the street has been that the local ownership generally produced a level of commitment and understanding the larger, bottom-line driven conglomerates lack. Again, my slant here plays through the novel, and I hope you’ll see why. Besides, most of my career was spent in smaller operations with enough of the big-biz side for an inside look.

How long the two papers will retain their current identities is a matter of conjecture, but I’d bet it won’t take long to merge the two. The process will not only eliminate healthy competition but also reduce the range of community dialog and debate. There will be one reporter covering municipal meetings, not two — and the radio and TV stations will summarize their versions from that what they clip from the paper. We’ll be one voice less in what calls us together. One independent voice less, at that.

Hometown_News

PIPE ORGANS

Waiting in silence.

Waiting in silence.

For a classical music enthusiast like me, one of the great things about living in New England is the plethora of fine pipe organs. They’re found not just in many of the historic steeplehouses, but also in places like the city hall in Portland, Maine, or the music hall in Methuen, Massachusetts, built especially for the massive Wurlitzer, and, of course, Symphony Hall in Boston.

(They’re not, however, found in our Quaker meetinghouses, except for the occasional harmonium or a modest electronic organ in a corner. I could even point to my quibbles about the expense of building and maintaining great instruments in a house of worship, but let me add how much I appreciate listening when they’re played in good hands.)

Their very variety can be remarkable. Locally, we have an 1876 Hutchings instrument that two Eagle Scouts rescued in unplayable condition from the old Methodist chapel, carefully dismantling, numbering and cataloguing the pipes, storing them in a barn, and eventually seeing their restoration in the congregation’s new building. (Hutchings, by the way, created the original part of the organ at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1900.) Hook and Hastings, meanwhile, is credited with an 1850 one-manual instrument at First Baptist, a 1908 two-manual at St. Charles Roman Catholic, and a 1911 two-manual at St. Thomas Episcopal. First Parish (U.C.C.) has an impressive 1995 Faucher hybrid that incorporates the building’s earlier Goodrich and Hutchings instruments. Expanding the circle a bit adds a wonderful 1975 two-manual baroque-style instrument at Durham Community Church and the oldest playable organ in America, the circa 1665 Brattle, now at St. John Episcopal in Portsmouth. (Manuals, for the uninitiated, are the number of keyboards, one atop another. And don’t overlook the incredible bass notes played by the pedals under the feet!)

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when I stumbled upon a four-manual keyboard in Watertown, Massachusetts. “Is it still playable,” I asked. “Oh, yes. I sit down to it from time to time,” I was told. “It has a lovely, soft sound. It was built by Aeolian-Skinner but never made leaner,” meaning the E. Power Biggs’ influence in the ‘60s, especially through his performances and recordings on the Flentrop organ at Harvard’s Busch-Reisenger Museum and his advice – or misguided advice, depending – to organ owners in that era.

I love the soft, late afternoon light in the chancel.

I love the soft, late afternoon light in the chancel.

 

 

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