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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal/Theological Notebook: Jackson Hole Retreat – Saturday 
30th-May-2008 09:23 am
Writing in Jackson Hole
Crap. I just found out that Ellis Paul was in Milwaukee playing Shank Hall last month, and I missed it entirely. I spent an evening with him in an Amish-style pole barn back in the fall of '98, I think, with a huge smile plastered across my face as I listened to his songs for the first time – to the point where it began to hurt, I was smiling so much; you know the feeling? It might have been the night of purest pleasure and joy I've ever experienced in music, despite the hard themes in Translucent Soul, which was the recording he was touring on at the time.

And I hab a code. Sucks.

Continued From Previous Entry:

Saturday at the retreat was a late start for me, taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep in a bit. Kevin had gone off to repeat his 30-mile bike ride from the day before and had blown out a tire on his bike, which happened only 100 yards down the road from the cabins, mercifully, instead of 15 miles out. They had been branding cattle earlier that morning on the adjoining ranch property, which we were invited to watch, but that was over by the time I walked over there. Still, that turned into a longer one-on-one amble and conversation with Scott, so it still turned out to be fun. He and I leaned on the fence, looking at the cattle – especially the long-horned ones, which I'd never seen this close up – and we picked up on the conversation of the day before about being the two single guys in the group (Wurtz's priesthood, of course, being just as much a sacrament of commitment as marriage). So we talked over the idea of whether there was a specific calling to the single life. If so, I was in no way possessed of it, though I also frequently see marriage and family as so exhausting that I have no idea how I would incorporate it into my academic life and the independent lifestyle I've simply gotten used to.

I remember being out walking one night in Champaign my junior year, visiting Angie, but out for the evening with Becky while Angie taught or somesuch. Beck was graduating and noticing how many of her classmates were grabbing whoever they were with and getting engaged, and how she thought it was motivated more out of fear of losing their social network than anything else. I thought this was an impressive insight, and took it to heart, for all that I considered getting married, myself, during my super-senior year. It seemed to me that that kind of caution regarding other motives was wise, and that there was really no rush, even as I watched almost all my closest friends marry within the year. Now, I'm somewhat inclined to see youth and stupidity as perhaps essential ingredients in a successful marriage: that going in raw and without a lot of contrary life-experience of living for years without that kind of commitment might in fact aid the forming of the marriage between the two people. That maybe you get a chance to help one another finish growing up, together.

And so Scott and I spoke of this thing that our culture now calls being "single" rather than being a "bachelor" – a term characterized by its lack of someone else. Not so happy-sounding a state Though we were coming at this point of our lives from different angles of experiences, it seemed interesting to find ourselves agreeing on a certain intrinsically adolescent feeling to it; that, picking up off the story I shared above, maybe no matter what your age, there's always more growing up you end up having to do when you are giving yourself over to being with another person.

After walking back to the cabins and then deciding to postpone lunch for a bit, I found myself walking south off the property with Michael, going to take a look at a nearby stream, and then deciding to go across it and to hike up to the top of the ridge to the south, where I thought we might get an unobstructed view of the Grand Teton. As it did the day before, it felt great simply to have slope under my feet. And the harder climb of some of the steep and tangled parts of the ridge simply felt good, too. Walking in Milwaukee and hiking in the parks around it, a mile lower and mostly flat, simply doesn't take as much.

As it was, we got through the brush, through the patches of woods, over the old rotting split-rail fences and to the top of the ridge to discover – further ridges. This was bad in that it kept us from getting the unobstructed view of the Grand Teton that I had been hoping for. This was good in that the ridges kept us from walking right into the large herd buffalo that I'd seen on the south side of it when we had driven up the road the day before. We could have gone on farther, but I didn't want to make Michael do more than he was strictly willing to do, and since we hadn't actually planned to be out here, I'd not brought any water, which was starting to make for a bit of discomfort: it was around 70º in the valley, with all the extra sun for being up around 6500 feet above sea level.

I think we mostly talked about Michael's family, about the three kids he and Beth now have (I was last at their house just after the birth of Charlie, their first, before they moved away from Nashville) and more back story on him and Beth than I think I had heard before. That was fabulous for me, as I love drawing people's stories out of them. Biography/autobiography – published or oral – is, as in Augustine's Confessions, perhaps the most powerful source of spiritual insight, to my mind. Hearing what others have gone through, had to endure, or had to learn is as rich an encounter of another person as I could ever imagine.

There wasn't much more to it than that. Maybe some talk building off of the retreat experiences thus far, themselves – I cannot remember. Our spiritualities and ways of being Catholic are very different, mine and Michael's, his having a traditional Catholic Marian core that mine does not; mine being an odd mix of the patristic and the post-modern, I suppose: a potentially confusing and surely idiosyncratic blend of my studies and my experiences. We do overlap, though, on the way that our spiritualities express themselves, and are fed, through music. And Michael has been in many ways perhaps the biggest encourager of my music since we first met when I was hosting him for a Notre Dame football weekend as Kevin's long-term friend, and since we heard one another at a jam session that weekend at my fellow teacher Phil DePauw's place, after which Michael stunned me with the offer to produce my recording in Nashville, which became Life and Other Impossibilities. And here, too, on this walk, Michael was still asking about and encouraging my music, as well as sharing the twists and turns of his own musical journey, which has taken an interesting twist from the work on Virtues toward movie scoring. My own paucity of writing over the last few years – it seems less easy, now, to write songs without the musical circle around me that was constantly producing such that I enjoyed at Notre Dame/South Bend – didn't faze him in the slightest. He just kept on encouraging. And that, perhaps more than anything else, sums up why I listen so closely to Michael: that generosity of his encouragement, which makes me listen to and learn from his different spirituality as seriously as I listen to and learn from his music.

So, after getting up to where there were still large banks of snow lingering, we turned and looked out over this section of valley in the Hole with its winding watercourses and ranch life, deciding by what path to work our way back. I had picked up a postcard that I had promised to send to my niece Grace – who especially loves to receive mail after she had learned about how mail works in her preschool class – that had a big picture of the Tetons and of buffalo on it, after Leslie had told me that Grace and Haley found the very word and idea of buffalo to be hysterically funny, for reasons we'll probably never know. Trying to capitalize on this, I was composing some of the note I would write on the postcard in my head while taking this walk. Given that I constantly was trying not to step in old, dried piles of dung – cattle, buffalo, elk, sheep, others – while on this walk, I thought I'd add that detail to the note, as the girls also find the subject of poop – a leftover of potty-training – to also be hysterically funny. I found no need, however, to photograph that particular detail of the ground.

This last photograph, as Michael and I began to come down out of the hills toward the little valley where the cabins were, strikes me as an especially good shot. At the very least, I thought it might make a decent desktop picture for anyone who was interested. I don't know how long that fence had been standing, but it was now visibly starting to fall apart, and it seemed to convey the years of this isolated Western space, and the long, harsh winters that are characteristic of it.

We got back and, after explaining where we had been, I made myself a late, mid-afternoon lunch. There was some debate for a few moments about what to do with the remainder of the day. I suggested doing as we had done yesterday: driving to some particular location for a different view and a place to walk to or sit. In particular, I was eyeing the view of Mount Moran in front of us and suggesting that a more close-up view of the mountains would be welcome, or even to go to their foot. Wurtz suggested, though, that we didn't do anything in particular and that we just enjoyed the space we were actually in for the day, and this idea won the field. We sketched out a schedule involving dinner and then an evening campfire. Again, I find myself not recalling many specifics of the conversation this afternoon: it became a rather free-flowing mix of subjects and music there on the porch as people came in and out of the cabin with drinks and food, or occasionally reading material. Kevin continued to talk about the "boundaries" psychology he was reading and practicing. I asked Wurtz about his experience of the priesthood, now that he had been at it for four years, and whether it was what he had expected in his long build-up to it from his undergraduate days, or whether it was a thing like turning thirty, which we both found to be the sort of thing that felt a bit of shock; that, in my words, at the time, "Whatever I thought 'thirty' meant, this isn't it." There was talk of school: of what I was doing with my dissertation on Francis Sullivan and the possibility of "an ecclesiology of charisms," of Scott's work in combining early American history with the study of the history of natural law thinking, and of Wurtz's upcoming doctorate in Liturgy at San Anselmo in Rome, which he would begin in the fall. We spoke of blogging, of my experiences with LiveJournal, and of Wurtz's new blog, which he had set up with an eye toward Rome and as a sort of ongoing, open letter to family and friends of his experiences there. That had been the part of blogging that took me by surprise, as I found myself writing of what I was doing a lot more than I thought I would, beyond the purely "theological notebook" I had envisioned this to be when I began.


As the afternoon wore on, there was more of a sense of people isolating themselves from one another, and taking time for individual prayer and meditation. Michael had taken to sitting on a log facing Mount Moran for such times, and I found myself pacing around the ground while playing quietly to myself on Kevin's guitar as I conducted my own time in thought or prayer, mostly mumbling to God. I had remembered earlier – and talked about the memory with the guys – that one earlier, oddly influential moment in my spiritual journey had been the production of Fiddler On The Roof during my senior year of high school. (I played the tailor, Motel Kamzoil, who married Tevye's oldest daughter, Tzeitel, with the solo "Miracle of Miracles," which I rushed horribly, not being skilled enough to listen to the orchestra at the time: there's a video I would gladly burn.) But though I learned something of the pain of displaced people and of the human cost of politics from that play, the thing that had perhaps the biggest impact on me was the character of Tevye and his casual way of speaking to God. Tevye wasn't terribly smart, not always even wise, and his desire for wealth and status came across as understandable but pedestrian in the audience's clearer view of the blessings he had in life. All of that seemed very real to me, in the way that we always seem to be unable to see what is most rich in ourselves and our lives. But the way he talked about it all with God – just yammering at him, complaining, even yelling, as well as the more careful language of formal prayer and piety – this struck me almost as strongly as anything has ever struck me. Tevye was honest with God. (This is seen most famously in his scene/song "If I Were A Rich Man", which Gwen Stefani – alas! – recently bastardized.) I began to see that this is what God so liked about David, despite murder and adultery: there was, under all the crap, a fundamental honesty there, a nakedness toward God, and I found myself aspiring to that: aspiring to the simplicity and even idiocy of the peasant milkman of the story. And so I stalked around the grounds, playing guitar and mumbling to God. And this, too, I call prayer. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Wurtz was shooting a series of shots of Michael, me, and then Kevin during this time, and I thought them kind of striking, since I knew what was going on in them, and – maybe only knowing that – that they captured something there.

After this I shot another set of portraits of Michael for potential use for an upcoming recording project of his, this time making use of the moon I had noticed rising above the hills to the east. I love the effect in movies where you shoot a scene through a zoom lens with the moon in the background so that you can magnify its proportion in the frame, and I suddenly wanted to see if I could do that successfully with Michael. Plus, I liked the shirt he was wearing today much more than the red t-shirt I'd shot the previous set in.

We began grilling dinner, delicious burgers made not of ground beef, but of ground buffalo (something else to impress the nieces – that I'd eaten a buffalo!). I cannot recommend trying this highly enough. The taste is subtle and different, but definitely more rich, even having just experienced Billy Burgers back in Jackson on Thursday. I don't mean they were "rich" in the "chocolate cream pie" sense of "rich," but just good – the richness of being good. (This would be one of many occasions on this trip where I would bemoan the weakness of the English language in having a vocabulary for describing the sense-experiences of taste.)

We enjoyed the setting sun as an ongoing spectator sport, taking in that strong and changing palette of colours, with Wurtz capturing some great shots of the early, golden part of that sunset (which I've copied over into my photo album) and then seeing some brilliant reds appear after the sun had dipped below the horizon and the sudden cold came once again. Having only really discovered the light meter in my camera and its effect on perception and quality when I was in Geneva, I now tended to take a series of pictures each time I tried to photograph the light around the mountains, using a variety of settings for the light and knowing I would only be able to judge the best of them afterward. And then we loaded up and drove east for our closing event of the evening.

We were not allowed to make a campfire on the grounds of the cabin, but we had been told by our hosts that there were park grounds, trails and areas where we could make a fire off to our east, about four miles. So we loaded up the truck with instruments and drinks and drove until we found this spot. In the fading light of the midnight blue of the sky, we gathered wood from under the trees and piled into a fire grate and had a goodly blaze going without any struggle. A bar was set up on a nearby picnic bench and logs were dragged around the fire for seats while the instrument cases were opened and guitars were tuned. The second bottle of port was opened, a 2001 Quinta do Noval Porto Late Bottled Vintage from Portugal, along with a cabernet, and the cigar guys lit their stinky weeds. Farther to the east, a mile or two away at most, we heard some wolves howling.

There were small stretches of conversation, and the occasional break for drinks, but most of the campfire got turned into music, and talk about music. The music took a bit of a different turn. There was a more random, stream-of-consciousness feel to it, around the campfire. I think we started with everyone joining in on singing U2's "Bad," which we had already heard from Kevin's iPod two or three times that weekend, and even discussed at some length as we drove down the hairpin turns from where we had parked and perched on Friday. What was embarrassing, though, was how, given that recent listening, the lot of us couldn't remember the lyrics at all, and we stumbled through repeating various snatches of it, almost at random, with the occasional feeling of success as we remembered some new stretch of lines. Still, it was probably the song that most allowed for that, and our flaws didn't impede either its moments of moodiness or of triumph.

Michael launched into something I didn't know the title of (which makes sense as I later found out he was making it up on the spot), which had a quieter mood, which Scott and Kevin then picked up on by singing Art Garfunkel's "New York," which I'd not heard in a long time, and which reminded me to buy my own copy of the 1981 The Concert in Central Park, which I used to listen to all the time when living with Chris Urosevich. Michael then tried to get me to spontaneously sing to a chord progression he was doing, but I thought it was supposed to be a song I didn't recognize, and I dropped the ball on that, not having a spontaneous thought in me at all. Now I hear it on an AVI file from my camera and melodies and words instantly appear in my head – like thinking of a great comeback line a day too late. Michael went on to sing ABCs and numbers over the rhythm, but I should have come up with something better. With U2 still rattling around in my head, I took Kev's Takamine and played a version of "Running To Stand Still" which I realized was too fast as soon as I started singing, but I refused to try to unobtrusively cut the tempo in half and stuck it out, trying to see if I could pull out an interesting feel or mood to the song despite the obvious mistake.

Other things that made an appearance that night included "This Romance," the first song that I wrote when I got to Marquette. It's an island tune, oddly enough, and I should have saved it for when we were back at the cabin and Kev had his djembe. From an earlier discussion that afternoon about recording projects on Apple's Garage Band program, Michael then requested my "Made In The U.S.A.," which is a classic rock tune I wrote more-or-less about biker chicks after Harley-Davidson's 100th anniversary celebrations in Milwaukee a few years ago. I had never played this in public before, as I had realized I had no idea how most rock guys are able to sing the things they write about women with a straight face. Somehow I'd heard all these things for years, songs that have great sounds, but never imagined how laughable it would be to actually try to sing them. It gave me a new rationale for freakish substance abuse among the rockers. Over the course of the evening Michael contributed "We Just Disagree," a cover of the Billy Dean version of the song with Kevin joining in, as well as a small portion of Vince Gill's "I Still Believe In You." There was even a surprise bit of intro from the Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane." We got one major reading out of Scott, a longer poem of Tennyson's that Scott said was a favourite of his, "Ulysses," which I found a bit overpowering in one hearing, with the images just starting to wash over me like waves, and which I knew I would have to re-read on my own in order to get the full enjoyment of the piece. We all grabbed on to particular images, though, talking about a few favourites afterward, lines like:
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
or
Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
In the end, we realized we forgot to bring a large container of water to put out the fire as thoroughly as I'd been trained to do. We compensated by walking over to a snow bank that remained, not too far from where we had been sitting, and picking up large sections of the crusty snow to bring back and drop on the fire, which we had stamped down to coals. This took just long enough in walking from one place to the other to be painfully cold, and we laughed about how we howled about our hands and fingers even as the snow burned in its freezing. This went on for a while, to get the job done, and with that, it was time to call it a night.

Continued
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