Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal: Friday Night on the Jackson Retreat

I remain amazed, occasionally, at the way time slips by, and in the incidental details revealed to me in the "Last Played" information in iTunes: how is it that I can love and know an album as well as I know and love U2's The Joshua Tree, only to find that I haven't played the whole thing through since apparently May of 2004?

Also of note musically, I find myself currently obsessed with a track I remember from my undergrad days at 105 Oak Street that I found on iTunes the other day: Johnny Cash joining punk band One Bad Pig for their version of his "The Man in Black." Somehow Johnny – no surprise – sounds more punk than anyone. I do wish there had been a music video made of that one.

Such weighty issues.

So. Back to the story. Continued from an Earlier Entry:

Friday, late afternoon. Sitting and thinking.

We spent some time sitting on the rise we had walked to after we couldn't go any farther with the truck. Not a lot was said there, but a number of photographs were taken. We had had some group prayer with the service before lunch, but now everyone seemed to instinctively sit apart and withdraw from one another for a bit, still as a group, but feeling that now was somehow a moment for us to try to sit with ourselves a little more consciously. That gave me the opportunity to realize something very basic about my surroundings. I was rather stunned by the silence. I live off an intersection of one of the main streets of Milwaukee, just off of the high-rise downtown, with a freshman dorm across the street from me, a bar on my first floor, and two interstate highways intersecting a few bowshots away. I suddenly realized how long it had been since I'd encountered silence that total. While I had been out to Jackson a number of times over the last few years, I had generally not been there in weather where I could just sit and enjoy being outside. This was certainly not the case in my New Years visits, and last October was still a bit crisp for such. Now, perhaps for the first time since Kevin and I had blown through in August 2000, I could just sit and take in the raw presence of the place.

Not that that was the only thing bouncing through my head. I had found myself struck by a line Wurtzy had prayed at Mass that afternoon from the prayer book, that asked God to "conquer our Babel with Your Pentecost." Not only did I think it literary and poetic, it just seemed to strike at the heart of what grace effected in us, and we brought it up a few times throughout the day, perhaps as an early theme of the retreat revealing itself. Perhaps a theme of the retreat or an effect of it that we should watch to see if it reveals itselves in our lives in the coming months, or which we should consciously try to appropriate for ourselves, which may be more likely.

We wandered down from the ridge we had perched ourselves on, Michael and Wurtzy walking down the steep slope with me and going over to peer at a bit of canyon I had seen through the trees, carved in-between our hillside and the next. Kev and Scott grabbed the truck and met us below. And we wove our way back down to the floor of the Hole, of the valley, passing the now-landed paragliders that we had seen launch when we had started on our way up.

On our way out of the Elk Reserve, we ran into a species that I still had yet to encounter in all my trips to Jackson: bighorn sheep. They were down on the floor of the valley, walking below one of the buttes, and so gave us an easy, up-close view of themselves. It's striking how different they look with or without their horns. The horns add a majesty that just wouldn't be there without them. I can't say more than that, or even justify the impression as something "objective," but it seems pretty clear to me. Perhaps it isn't just fashion that we humans are so concerned about our hair.... Anyway, we were getting momentarily back on the clock, though, with Kevin having just gotten a phone call (I don't know if there's anywhere in the wilderness of the Hole that isn't now covered for cellphone access) asking him to stop by the hospital to see one of his patients briefly, and so we just barely paused to take a look at them.

While we drove northward, Kevin and Michael, sitting in the front of the truck, carried most of the conversation, talking about their families, about being married and about their children, and comparing notes on the whole experience. I found myself a bit amused listening to them, and at the comparative quiet of the back seat, where the two single guys and the priest didn't seem to have much to add to the conversation, other than my occasional "uncle" perspectives or experiences. "So much for the single guys having all the drama," I thought. The sun began to dip and tint everything orange. Marriage and dating stayed large in the conversation as we arrived back at the cabin and moved it to the porch. Kevin is particularly combative with me on this topic, as we've always had very different approaches to dating, with him asking out lots of women and me having been selective but much more likely to have longer relationships. That I hadn't been dating anyone since the winter was a frustration for him as he thinks it's more-or-less a waste of my life for me not to get married. I said that I thought it was a bit odd for him to apparently be more frustrated by it than I was, but he also wasn't entirely up-to-date on some of that sort of thing with me, and I told him so. Plus, given the fact that I'm eager to complete the dissertation and leave the city within the next year has me a bit reluctant to do any roots-planting at this point. So I explained that while I wasn't actively pursuing anything at the moment, neither was I closing off any more "organically"-appearing possibilities as they presented themselves in my life. That seemed to mollify him for the moment, while everyone else seemed to be trying to make out why it was we were talking this way about the matter. "Man, no guys talk like you and Kevin do about these things," laughed Michael later, and I had to admit that that was possibly true. Mom used to laugh to hear me talking with Kev on the phone as we'd "process our feelings" about one thing or another. A therapist and a theologian: who knew how dangerous a conversational combination that was?

In time, we turned toward another topic of great importance: food. We decided to warm up the grill with our most basic grill foods: brauts and hot dogs. Wurtzy tried to bring some beer to a boil and cook the brauts in those for a while first, though the altitude made boiling things a bit more labourious, as he had realized when preparing the cream of tomato soup we had had with our cold cuts lunch. While the coals started burning and such preparations were underway, Wurtzy or Michael broke out some of the cigars he'd brought to share with Kevin and one another, while I positioned myself upwind so as to avoid the stench but to still enjoy the conversation. The Babel/Pentecost theme came up again as we talked about discerning things about people, and Kevin spoke excitedly about the "boundaries" thinking he had been doing of late, and the application of that concept in relationships he worked on with his clients.

There was also a certain amount of us sounding one another out on our basic ecclesiologies, it seemed, trying to get a feel for one another's approaches to understanding the life of the Church and how we each thought that that functioned or ought to. I tend to get particular on this, not just because of it being an academic specialty of mine, but also because I'm eager to break down the all-too-common "left" and "right" categories that creep their way into such conceptions from polarized politics today. I both think that those categories defeat actual thought and conversation, and am slightly anxious to make sure that I'm not dismissively identified with one or the other simple view. That was a precursor to Scott, Michael and I getting into a long talk about faith and reason. Michael held that academics have gotten out of hand with challenging the magisterium, while I thought that that was an overstatement, and too characteristic of the polemicized language being used today, and that most of the conversations in question – almost always about liturgy and ecclesiology in the Roman Catholic Church and not questions of dogma or credal content – were not only legitimate and proper under the umbrella of academic freedom but were also within the normal process of the development of doctrine. It seemed to me an easy but misleading tactic of oppositional thinkers in a given debate to invoke language of "dissent" or "challenging the magisterium" as a way of simply trying to win the argument, rather than playing it out. Scott weighed in with the position that there was room for innovation but only within the parameters of natural law & defined doctrine, and I agreed with that, arguing that that was in fact the case with most of the debates in question, even large controversies like that regarding the birth control encyclical in 1968 – that even that heated debate was properly conducted in light of those touchstones.

The sun dropped down and I was stunned by how the temperature instantly seemed to drop some ten degrees. We had been shockingly lucky in terms of the weather for our gathering, getting the best long weekend that the Hole had seen this year. Down at the bottom of the valley, it was hitting around 70 degrees each day and was fabulously clear. That was one way in which God seemed to bless us and toss us a freebie.

It was cool enough after the sun set, though, that we ate inside around the table and broke open the bottle of Six Grapes Port as part of after-dinner drinks. Michael, alas!, was vocal in his distaste for sweet dessert wines of this sort, and I'm not sure that anyone other than Kevin and I had more than a glass. That didn't stop us from finishing the bottle over the remainder of the evening, for which I assumed I would pay a brutal penalty, but, to our surprise, Kevin and both found that the wine never seemed to hit our heads through the evening, and being as light as I am, I am very aware when that happens. I can't think that two or three brauts and the rest would have been enough food to prevent that from happening. I had also had some of the exceptional honey-tasting and buttery local root beer that I'd discovered and raved about out there from the previous October, but which I had forgotten the name of. Now, having laid in a 12-bottle case of it when we grabbed our groceries, I knew that it was in fact Henry Weinhard's Root Beer: and that maybe it has magical anti-alcohol attributes that protected me from the port.

Mellow and relaxed after food, drink, and a fine day, we busted out the guitars and started revving up our instruments and voices. McGlinn began recording some material on his laptop, not yet hooking up the larger microphone assembly he had brought along, but merely just recording directly onto his Garage Band program through the little microphone built into his new iMac. To my dismay, he seemed to want to start and stop recording each song individually, which meant that a lot of the spontaneity was lost, whether in-between chatter or entire stretches of music themselves, when pressing "record" was forgotten in the moment.

I think Kevin began playing initially, this evening. He was, understandably, in a John Denver mood over the weekend, and a number of Denver's songs were forthcoming over these days, as well as some of Kevin's own. But I'm afraid that I disremember what was played Friday other than, I think, his "Indiana," which I believe Wurtz requested at some point that night. Michael and Kevin will have to supply me with their parts of the setlists, or else this account will mostly focus on my own stuff, as I am clearly consumed by my own vanity. So I hope to edit and update this material soon with further information from them, for memory's, and justice's, sakes.

Kevin's first was followed by a rather fast, maybe even edgy, version of my "Tunisian Blue" which was – to my dismay – not recorded. Scott interjected at one point with a request. Though he was not prepared to play an instrument or to write a song on the spot, he wanted to know if we would be open to hearing him read a poem from his current reading in Tennyson, and this was met with enthusiastic approval. His reading style is clear and robust, and I believe that he first hit us with "Ring Out, Wild Bells", which went over with a certain amount of approval, climaxing, I thought, in what perhaps served as another invocation for our time together:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
It was perhaps a bit striking, though, to see that we were unprepared for lyric without melody and rhythm. I think poetry has been the art in greatest decline in both production and appreciation in the last century, and I suspect that Scott's listeners were evidence of the trend. Later I was asked to pull out "On My Way," which Kevin is fond of as it recounts our 2000 Road Trip, and we noted how some of the lines were of the road and view we had traveled up just a few hours before:
The mountains stand together
Yet each peak is alone
I rode on with my brother
And our thoughts were not our own:
Highway conversations
Past and present scenes
Hopes, fears, jokes, regrets
All that our lives might mean
We fell into the spontaneity of the scat second half of the song as easily as ever, and I was pleased and humbled by Scott and Wurtz's appreciation for the song, and so we shared a bit more of that story with them. I've missed the jams with old friends, my friends at Marquette not being musical ones in this way, and so collaborating on a tune like this with Kevin singing and Michael playing leads was purest refreshment.

Michael kicked in a bunch of pieces that night, reaching back to the Kingston Trio stuff his Dad taught him. As he recalls it, there was Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" was something he reworked spontaneously, and then a trio of Kingston Trio pieces, with "MTA," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," and "Tom Dooley." John Denver's "Country Roads" came up, and then Jim Croce's "Time In A Bottle." Michael rounded out the night by bringing up Denver's "Leaving On A Jet Plane" and "Annie's Song."

Perhaps the weirdest part of the evening for me was the fact that I ended up playing the djembe a number of times, and that this was even requested. Anyone who knows me musically knows that I'm what might politely be called "rhythm challenged." I get too excited and nervous, and as soon as I really start thinking about what I'm doing, my hands inevitably do something other than what I wanted them to do. But I will also say that I've improved a ton in the last ten years and can reasonably keep a beat, and with Michael dictating a simple rhythm to me here and there, I was able to offer something passable so that Kevin could play guitar or mandolin, instead. But it was definitely the other side of music for me: a robust and deeply humbling encounter with my limitations!

I remember wasting a certain amount of brain time trying to remember the opening chords of Groove Armada's "Hands of Time," which had been a song that had been on my mind of late, tying into the themes we had discussed earlier and which seemed symbolic of my frustration with the last year when I seemed to be "losing" it all to teaching and not finishing, though the irony there is that I want to finish so that I can teach, if merely for more money. But that evaded me through the time I was thinking of it, and then the mood went beyond such things.

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the climactic musical moment of the evening was a jam and spontaneous song that will probably be remembered by the name "Dingo Dance," the recurring theme of which was the Dingo that Michael hadn't, in fact, seen in the woods the day before. The various verses largely consisted of Kevin and Michael making fun of one another and of us all, which was mostly received with laughter and egging one another on. After that, the night broke up with that laughter, like a joke that couldn't be topped. Good times.

Tags: catholicism, food, friends-notre dame era, musical, mysticism/spirituality, personal, photography, theological notebook, travel, travel-2008 wyoming, wine

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