Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From Once to Eternity

I’ve listened to the same song over and over and over again for the past three days. By the end of Tuesday I’d listened to “When Your Mind’s Made Up” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová 186 times. I did this as a kind of self-appointed dare, in a vain effort to weasel my way into the social life of Word Made Flesh. I don’t live anywhere near anyone from Word Made Flesh, and yet when I heard of this in-house contest they were running, I couldn’t help but take part. There’s no way I can win, and I’m probably irritating my friends at WMF to no end simply by participating, but my mind’s made up, and as the song says, “there’s no point trying to change it . . . there’s no point even talking.”

I selected this song from the soundtrack to the film Once because I figured I could listen to it repeatedly without driving myself crazy. I could have selected the artists’ equally poignant and compelling “Falling Slowly,” which won an Oscar over the weekend, but I didn’t think that song would bear as frequent repeating as this one—not because it’s not a brilliant song but because it doesn’t have the kind of catch-and-release hopeful anxiety inherent to it that flows through “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” Both songs are beautiful, but “When Your Mind’s Made Up” can go the distance.

I often dwell on songs when I first encounter them. When I was a kid I would hole up in my room and listen to Queen’s “Somebody to Love” over and over and over again, an angst-inspired self-imposed exile into solitariness, I suppose. What can I tell you? I was emo. I’m still reasonably so, actually, which is why I listened over and over and over again to the Finn Brothers’ “Gentle Hum,” Rachael Davis's “Better Than Me,” and any number of other sad songs. They say so much, you know.

You notice different things when you listen to a song over and over and over again. Watching the film Once, you’re most aware of Glen Hansard’s vocals and how Markéta Irglová colors the song with her piano and vocal harmonies. You notice the visuals—the studio producer who suddenly realizes that these musicians are not just laying down self-indulgent noise but making riveting music, the electricity between musicians who are learning the song as they go and relying on instinct and the energy of one another to make the first take the best take. Once is a movie for melancholy romantics and nostalgic musicians; the air in the film is filled with the potential for vulnerable people making beautiful music together, both figuratively and literally.

But when you listen to the song over and over and over again, you gain a new respect for the whole thing: the drummer who lays down a riveting and reliable beat to a complicated rhythm; the Solomonic bass player who opts for simplicity rather than showmanship and accomplishes both; the raw tension that only an acoustic guitar can provide and the drama that a piano adds.

The song starts small, with a wounded voice and modest guitar, builds to a nearly impossible desperation and then suddenly collapses into the same promise with which it opened: “So if you ever want something, and you call, then I’ll come running.” Despite its title, “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is an earnest appeal to a seemingly intransigent lost love to reconsider. Consequently, it accomplishes the paradox of audacity and resignation, the sarcasm born of hurt and good humor, that seems to be the sole domain of the Irish. I love that stuff, which is why despite my last name being Zimmerman, I defiantly count myself Irish whenever asked.

Man, I love this song. I could listen to it over and over and over again.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I went to a retreat for my church's confirmation class this weekend. It was . . . interesting. I can sum it up in one word, in fact: Kumbaya.

I have a fair bit of respect for Kumbaya as a song; it's simple, memorable, multicultural. But it's also wildly archaic, a fact made more starkly evident by its performance in a basement filled with middle schoolers. No hip hop beat behind it, no fuzz guitar, no instruments whatsoever, only a fifty-something man leading a room full of adolescents in an a cappela rendition of, of all things, Kumbaya.

Kumbaya is what you might call a lazy song. Here is the first verse:

Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya
O Lord, kumbaya

That's four words in four lines; one word is two letters, one word is one. That's pretty lazy, if you ask me.

So are retreats without activities, talks without points, worship services without contextualization to an audience made up overwhelmingly of adolescents. We made do with the experience, but it wasn't what it could have been, which to my mind means it wasn't what it should have been.

I read a blog post today that looks at a similar laziness in the music industry. I don't know what company he works for, but what bothers him about the music industry bothers me about youth ministry. We can complain about the ongoing exodus from the church, or we can do something about it. If we don't--well, according to this blogger, it just makes us look like something I'm pretty sure we don't want to resemble.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Moon Is a Giant Stone

Last night the moon passed through the shadow cast by the earth. It happened by pure coincidence to take place on a clear night and a convenient time where I live, so several times over the course of the evening we looked out our window or wandered out into the driveway and just stared.

Inevitably during an eclipse someone has to explain something to somebody, and last night was no exception, so I did my perfunctory posturing as someone knowledgable about such things and diagrammed the orbital structure of our solar system with my hands. My wife stopped caring long before I stopped talking, and to be honest, so did I, because explanations simply aren't near as compelling as the sheer oddness of the moon gradually disappearing from view. So we opted to just stare, wondering why such a thing would happen, half-wondering if we'd ever see the moon again--dumbstruck with wonder.

And of course life went on. We interspersed our dumbstruck wonder with our regular routines--feeding the cats, checking e-mail, fretting--and this morning the moon was where it should have been, thank you very much.

It strikes me that we encounter these eclipses more often than we realize in life. Something interrupts our routines and we try to make sense of it but we realize that in a very real sense we would never be able to, not in a million years, so we try to keep doing what needs doing and endure the dumbstruckness that settles over us like a hopefully passing shadow. My friend with cancer, my friend struggling to pay two mortgages in a limping economy, my friend whose son is injured--sometimes the scope of it is so overwhelming that it seems grace, not trouble, is the eclipse, and that grace passed us by long ago, and now we're back to living without.

If I were a photographer of any merit I would have taken a picture of the moon as it crossed through the earth's shadow, because when you get down to it, the moon is a giant stone, and a picture of a stone crossing was my assignment. L. L. Barkat, whose become a blogger buddy over the past several months, invited me and many others of her blogger buddies to create photographs related to her forthcoming book Stone Crossings, which comes out next month. Barkat writes about grace in this book--not the ethereal, enigmatic grace that we celebrate with greeting cards and scented candles but the hard-fought grace that defies, subverts, judges and redeems the world on which its shadow falls. Grace is a hard thing to write about because it's so abstract; the only way to lasso it and pull it to earth is to write very honestly about yourself, about real life in all its rockiness, about things that are true. That's what I'm anticipating in Stone Crossings: an honest, real, true book about grace.

Check back here over the next couple of months to hear more about Stone Crossings from the inside, and till then, hop on over to L. L. Barkat's blog and tell her I said hi.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

People Are So Nice!

The irony is not lost on me that I have asked people point-blank to say nice things about my forthcoming book about narcissism, and I am not blind to my own bloated blog-ego in posting those nice words for public viewing. Nevertheless, in addition to the folks whose endorsements have already served as blog posts, I've recently been sent the following kind comments from people who are truly thoughtful in every sense of both words. You would love these people, and you would love their books. So go get em.

“David Zimmerman offers a thoughtful look at what it means to live missionally. His words will help move you to a more God-centric life—the one you were created for.”
—Margaret Feinberg, author of The Organic God and national speaker

“David Zimmerman’s wry and witty Deliver Us from Me-Ville is a wonderfully insightful look into today’s self-consumed society. Never preachy, but always packed with delicious allusions, footnotes, self-deprecating asides, Me-Ville entertains even as it instructs. David knows his Bible. He also knows The Blues Brothers, Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What’s NOT to like?
—Robert Darden, associate professor of Journalism at Baylor University and author of more than two dozen books, including People Get Ready and the upcoming Jesus Laughed

“As I engaged with this book and began to discover the masterful way that David exposes the veiled, yet heinous human pride residing in all of us, I understood why David is the humble servant of Christ that he is. I found myself laughing at his stories one moment and feeling rightly convicted the next. Deliver Us From Me-Ville continues to whisper its message into my soul months after finishing the book. Reading this book is dangerous to our self-centered schemes and well-managed facades of spirituality.”
—Mike King, president of YouthFront, pastor at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, and author of Presence-Centered Youth Ministry

“Dave Zimmerman offers a timely and challenging guide out of worshipping and serving the contemporary ‘holy trinity’ of me, myself and I, reminding us that our purpose can only be found in the relentless pursuit of Christ and His Kingdom. Deliver Us From Me-Ville challenges our materialistic and selfish American-Dream distortion of Christianity, while providing a road map to the place where we belong.
—Walt Mueller, president, Center for Parent/Youth Understanding and author of Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Scene

Not too terribly long ago here at Loud Time I was waxing nostalgic about the idea of music. The subject of that post was the absurd melodrama August Rush, with its clever but forgettable soundtrack, its ridiculous plot and its impressive visual representation of music. Despite its flaws, I liked the movie for the idea it presented about music.

This weekend I went to a high school band concert; three bands performed at different degrees of sophistication, the high point being a symphonic arrangement that recreated the sounds of a "ghost train"--complete with crickets and train whistles. I was a little restless in the audience; I enjoyed the music, but mostly I was marveling at the surreality of the experience. I was, at one time, one of those high school students: counting measures of rest, controling my embouchure, nursing grudges against the percussionists, enduring an unrequited crush on the piccolo players, keeping one eye on my music stand and one eye on the conductor's baton.

These kids were all dressed in black; girls in dresses, boys in tuxes. The net effect was a sense of uniformity, common purpose: despite all the drama that I know exists behind a high school band, this weekend was all about the music.

The theme of the weekend continued on Sunday with the Grammy's, celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. Fresh talents paired with living legends--Beyonce and Tina Turner, Be Be Winans with Aretha Franklin, and so on and so forth--Kanye West paid tribute to his mom, Cirque du Soleil and the cast of Across the Universe paid tribute to the Beatles, and Cyndi Lauper paid tribute to Amy Winehouse. The capstone of the evening came when living legend Herbie Hancock, who earlier in the evening paid tribute to George Gershwin, took home the record of the year Grammy for his album paying tribute to Joni Mitchell.

Running throughout the weekend, on my car's CD player and otherwise in the back of my mind, was the music from the film Once, a movie that achieved more completely what August Rush attempted. The film takes us through a once-in-a-lifetime encounter between two musicians--one, a singer-songwriter whose heart has been broken by a woman in London; the other, a singer-pianist who left her husband on the continent in search of a better life in Dublin. We're led to expect romance, but instead we're treated to the unfolding of a poignant creative process.

Pivotal to the movie is what I've taken to calling "the scene," in which the "broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy" teaches the expatriate singer his song "Falling Slowly," a song you should have already downloaded by now. The scene takes place in the back of a music shop during the lunch hour. The boy is in his head, remembering the pain of his loss, forcing his way through an emotionally draining song. The girl is focused entirely on the boy, learning the song by watching him sing, watching him suffer. We don't "see" music visualized like we did in August Rush; we don't "see" music systematically stripped of drama like Saturday's high school band concert; we don't "see" music celebrated like we did at the Grammy's. Instead we see music being made--a delicate, vulnerable process shared by all the musicians involved.

I used to be a musician; what I miss from being a musician is not the showmanship of performance or the drama that attends to the life of a musician. What I do occasionally miss is that moment of creation, when people really listen to each other, really watch each other. I miss those moments when each artist realizes what the others are doing and adds his or her own artistry. Music is a creative process, and I think that's why it captures our imagination. The idea of music is participation in creation, and while it can be made in isolation, it's made all the more poignant when it's made together. It's quite a scene; everyone should see it, and even moreso, we ought to live it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Winn Shows His Witt

Winn Collier, author of several books including the recent Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon and a fun guy to hang out with at conferences, sent these very kind words about my forthcoming book.

I just finished Deliver Us from Me-ville. I feel like I´ve
emerged from a brawl, with a fresh shiner to show for it.
But I´m limping away happy. The tough love and artful pen
discovered in these pages forced me to see the small world
I´ve been living in - and I want out. Thankfully, Deliver Us
from Me-ville has shown me a way; and on the whole, the
process wasn´t really even all that painful. Zimmerman´s
funky wit fused with his well-crafted prose to deliver wise,
straight words.

Clever, huh? Winn's got a way with words; made me want to read it, at least.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Meme-bo No. 5

L. L. Barkat memed me:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

I don't get memed that often, and this one is among the more intriguing. So I'll bite.

1. I picked up a sufficiently pretentious book--Seven Storey Mountain--in a sufficiently pretentious edition (1948 hardback) to make me look thoughtful and classically intelligent rather than juvenile and stupid, as would have been the case if I had already gotten the giant graphic novel (a pretentious term meaning "comic book") out of my backpack.

2. Page 123 is yellowed with age, being as it is unprotected by the acid-free mandates that came to publishing much later than 1948.

3. The fifth complete sentence, appearing halfway down the page on the eighteenth line, reads as follows: "This, as I see it, was also a kind of a grace: the greatest grace in the positive order that I got out of Cambridge."

4. Though tempted to look backward and determine what antecedent is characterized here as "this," I will instead follow the rules of the meme and write forward:

All the rest were negative. They were only graces in the sense that God in His mercy was permitting me to fly as far as I coulde from His love but at the same time preparing to confront me, at the end of it all, and in the bottom of the abyss, when I thought I had gone the farthest away from Him. Si ascendero in coelum, tu illic es.

I think the Latin is a reference to Psalm 139, rendered in The Message as "If I go underground, you're there!" But I'm only guessing; coelum, according to Wikipedia, is a body cavity.

5. Your turns, Web, Elaine, Jenn, Margaret and Pete! (Margaret's The Organic God was thisclose to being my entry, by the way.)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The End Is the Beginning

I finished reading Thomas Merton's breathtaking New Seeds of Contemplation today. I ran out the ink in more than one pen underlining ideas and taking notes as I went through the book, but today I turned to the last page and read the last line:
We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

And so now I know the origins of the title of nature's most nearly perfect book: Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose by Brian Mahan. I knew that he had Merton in mind as he wrote his book, and I knew that the concept of forgetting ourselves on purpose was explicitly borrowed from Merton; what I didn't know was that the title and beginning idea of Mahan's book was the last, summary thought of one of Merton's finest works.

It strikes me that there's a great responsibility attached to the last word, at least in part because what we declare to be the last word is never really actually that. Someone inevitably picks up where we left off or--worse, we who offer last words are tempted to think--says something like "Glad that's over" and gets on with their own life, their own thoughts.

I'm sure I've written about this before, but it was such a striking conversation for me that I regularly repeat it. I was talking with a friend of mine about the dynamics that settle in when we are regularly gathered together with a small group of people. My friend observed that my impulse is to go for the "last laugh"--the joke that busts everybody up so that all conversation is overtaken by laughter. He, by contrast, intuitively goes for the "last word"--the idea that causes everyone to stroke their imaginary beard and settle into quiet contemplation.

The last word and the last laugh work against each other, since people who are settling into quiet contemplation are not generally prepared for riotous laughter, and people can get so caught up in hilarity that the last word goes unheard or unsaid. Regardless of which predominates, however, eventually our time together ends and we become re-occupied by new thoughts and new jokes. Life goes on, no matter how desperately we try to punctuate it.

That's the way it's meant to be, I think. No idea of human origin is so commanding that it says all that need be said. No joke is so uproarious that people will never find anything else funny ever again. There's a last word, but inevitably, there's a word after that.

The last word of my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, as I think of it, will be "So be it." Then again, technically that's the last line of the "Afterword," which itself suggests that the real last word came earlier: "Give yourself to the Lord, and sleep well." But then again, again, the "Afterword" is followed by a whole host of other comments--a list of ideas for further reading, a list of acknowledgments of people who helped me develop the book, reference notes for the quoted material in the chapters, and even a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
May God in his mercy lead us through these times, but above all, may he lead us to himself.

That's an awful lot of last words; it almost makes me laugh.

The hope of really any author, particularly authors of nonfiction and especially those writing about spirituality, is that the end of their book will be the beginning of someone else's new journey. That journey, it's implicitly understood, does have an ending that stretches beyond each of us along the way. God, suggests Bonhoeffer, is leading us through these times, but one day we'll reach our destination when God leads us to himself.

As he approaches the Shire at the end of his adventure in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins observes, "Roads go ever on." It's a nice thing to remember as we come to the end of a particular journey: the ultimate journey is ongoing. Samwise Gamgee, however, offers a nice counterpoint to the notion when he takes the last word in The Lord of the Rings: "Well, I'm back." To which J. R. R. Tolkien offers the literary equivalent of an "amen":
The end.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...