For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)
This past week, Wendy and I went to a craft brewhouse in Des Moines. About three times a year they have an event called “Hymns at the Hall.” There was a large gathering of people that night. There were young families with children playing board games. There were older folks (I guess you have to start including me in that demographic). It was a fascinating mix of people who gathered to eat, drink, and sing the old hymns of the faith together.
Along my spiritual journey, I have experienced that music can be the subject of tremendous religious passion for some people. I grew up with hymns accompanied by a pipe organ and traditional choral music. I witnessed the emergence and growth of the “contemporary” music industry. Music within the churches I’ve associated has shifted radically in one generation. Most children today have never seen a hymnal or sung in a church choir in which you had to learn to read music and sing harmony.
So here’s the thing: I have lent my ears to friends who bemoan the changes as watering down and diminishing worship. I have witnessed heated debates over the theological implications of certain songs. My observation is this: music continues to change and evolve as does music’s place in worship. With all of the change, there are three things that are constant:
Our general discomfort with change.
Music’s ability to stir spirit, emotion, and thought (sometimes it does all three at the same time) in individuals and groups.
Worthwhile things that are discarded by culture as “dead and gone” are eventually resurrected to experience new life.
We are nearing the end of Nehemiah’s account of the return of the Hebrew exiles from Persia and the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, the people made a legally binding agreement to rededicate themselves to the law of Moses, the responsibilities of the sacrificial system, and the contributions required to keep Temple worship going. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah calls all of the musicians together from the region and forms two great choirs to march around the top of the wall in worship and dedication.
At the end of the chapter Nehemiah observes:
For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)
In other words, the music of worship and of the Temple had been silenced for many years. It had been silenced at least 70 years since the destruction of the Babylonian siege. It may have been silenced before that. Nehemiah was resurrecting a worthwhile thing of the past and breathing new life into it for the discovery of a new generation. The subtext of the statement feels as if Nehemiah is defending the action and explaining his rationale for those who are grumbling about the change (see my first bullet above).
As my friends and I shared our “Hymns at the Hall” on social media, we had friends and family who seemed to bristle at the idea of singing hymns and drinking beer at the same time. I quietly smiled to myself knowing that hymn writers such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley often took melodies of well-known songs that were sung in bars and taverns and changed the lyrics. In the days of illiterate and uneducated masses, it was easier if they used tunes that everyone knew (and everyone knew popular bar songs). Ironic that the songs have found their way back home. As I sang I watched people being stirred. You can take the hymns out of the church, but you can’t take God out of the hymns.
In the quiet this morning, Alexa is playing Gregorian Chant and ancient choral music, which is what I prefer in my quiet time with God. Later in the day, I’ll switch to more contemporary worship music as Wendy and I work in the home office. This evening we might switch to Gypsy Jazz, blues, or the music of the Rat Pack as dinner is prepared.
I don’t get too hung up on music. For me, is not a “holy” or “unholy” “either, or” binary thing. Sure, any good thing can be coopted for profane reasons, but it’s easy to turn it off or tell Alexa to skip a song. For me, music is a “both, and” equation.
Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.
Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.
I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.
First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.
I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.
Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.
I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.
I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.
I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:
Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.
I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.
Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.
Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.
Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.
Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”
Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”
I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.
Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.
Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.
First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:
“Forget the past.”
“Tomorrow is never promised.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.
For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.
There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.
I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.
Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.
Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.
Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.
Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.
“Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.
“They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.
When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).
Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.
I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.
Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.
My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.
“Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.
Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”
Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.
Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me. Ezra 7:28b (NIV)
I caught a trailer for the movie Birth of the Cool the other day. Musicians talked of the recording session of one of the most iconic albums of all time: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The musicians were surprised when Miles had no score for them. He simply had “sketches” handwritten.
“We’re just going to play,” Miles told his band.
What happened in that studio, what flowed through those musicians as they “just played” changed the history of music.
I’m not fluent in the language of music, but I believe there is a parallel when it comes to other things in life. I have experienced “it” a couple of times on stage, and it is almost impossible to describe. The scene I’m playing becomes a separate reality. At that moment there is no audience. The present slips away. There is a sense of otherworldliness to it. I slip into another dimension. When it’s over, it feels like waking from a dream.
There is a similar experience I’ve had writing. Time stopped. The words flowed. They were not my words. They were flowing through me. The words were leaves falling from the “tree of tales,” as Tolkien described it. I just happen to be the conduit. I sat down at the keyboard to write. Suddenly I was on the lawn with two men sitting there in their lawn chairs. I was eavesdropping on their conversation; transcribing what they were saying. I have no idea how long I typed. I just wrote what I was hearing. When it was over I had thirty-five pages of dialogue.
I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I have heard those who are speak of “being in the zone.” Time changes. The ball slows down. You see things before they happen. Everything just flows.
In today’s chapter, Ezra mentions three times a similar flow in his life circumstances:
The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
…he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.
Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
Favor. Zone. Flow. There is something mystical and mysterious to it, but I’ve experienced it. It is the Hand. It is favor. It is tangible grace. Things just happen and I am doing nothing to create it, cause it, or make it happen. I’m just the conduit.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that we are made in the image of the Creator. When we ask, seek, and knock at the door of our birthright, we occasionally find the gracious, favorable flow.
Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers we have a small army of individuals who are both passionate and gifted in the spiritual discipline of prayer. I admire and respect them greatly. I probably haven’t expressed that to them enough.
It was Paul who introduced the metaphor of the “Body” to describe the universal whole of all believers. The further I get in my journey the more I appreciate what an apt metaphor it is. Different systems operating with unique parts that make up one body. Each cell, structure, chemical, system, organ and appendage are necessary for healthy functioning, yet those cells, structures, chemicals, systems, organs and appendages are not interchangeable. In fact, some operate independent of one another because they simply don’t mix well, yet they are each necessary for the health of the whole.
In the same way each member has different spiritual gifts, callings, disciplines and abilities that contribute to the healthy functioning of the Body as a whole. Teaching and preaching has always been easy for me. It came naturally. I don’t even think about it, though I know the very idea of standing in front of a crowd and giving a message scares most other members of the Body terribly. Prayer, however, has been something at which I’ve had to work.
One of the lessons I’ve had to learn in my pursuit of developing the discipline of prayer is the very thing Paul encourages of all believers in today’s chapter: pray on “all occasions” with “all kinds” of prayer. I’ve had to learn that prayer is not just a rote prayer to bless a meal or the bowing of my head and folding of my hands kind of prayer (though those are both legitimate kinds of prayer). There is breathing prayer. There is singing prayer. There is the type of prayer that is simply an on-going, silent, inner conversation of my spirit with the Spirit. Almost any time I sit down and journal my thoughts, the words on the page naturally transition, at some point, into a written prayer to God. There are set hours of the day when I can “pray the hours” with thousands, maybe even millions, of other members of the Body around the world. There are “popcorn” prayers that blurt out from my system in an unexpected moment. There are prayers of confession, prayers of thanks, and prayers for and over others.
Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to embrace the truth that while some things are not areas of giftedness, passion, or bent they are, in fact, important for my health and spiritual whole. I have never been a naturally gifted athlete (I think I still have slivers in my butt from all the time I spent “on the bench” as a kid), yet participating in CrossFit has become crucial to my overall health as I age. Likewise, I’ve never been a gifted musician or singer, yet learning an instrument, participating on worship teams, and making a “joyful noise” have taught me many lessons and have played a huge part in my spiritual development and overall health. Prayer falls into the same pattern. I have good friends who are truly gifted and called to prayer in ways that, I confess, I sometimes envy. Yet prayer remains a core spiritual discipline that is necessary for my spiritual growth, maturity, and health. It’s simply something I must work at, learn about, and develop.
This morning I’m thinking about my prayer life. It is ever-present on the mental task-list of of my daily life journey. It is an area of my spiritual life that is in constant need of attention. C’est la vie.
And so, I’m going to finish writing this post and take a few moments to stretch my pray muscles and pray for you who took the time to read it.
Have a great day, my friend.
Note to readers: Occasionally people reach out to ask my permission to “share” or “re-post” one of my posts like this one. Please know you are welcome to share any of my posts at any time if you think they could be an encouragement to others. – Tom
[The prophet, Elisha, said,] “…get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him. 2 Kings 3:15 (NRSVCE)
I mentioned in my post the other day that while we’re at the lake Wendy and I are limited in our television viewing choices to the collection of DVDs we have there. So it was that last week I pulled out that oldie, but goodie of the cinema: Die Hard. The movie played in the background as Wendy and I sat at the dining room table with our laptops going about our work.
In case you never caught it, the underlying musical score for Die Hard is one endless string of creative variations on what most Americans know as the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The iconic melody of that familiar hymn comes from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony. As I sat at the dining room table, tapping away on my keyboard, the melody suddenly and unexpectedly took me to another moment, in another place.
London. 2009. The Royal Philharmonic. It was our first night in London and Wendy and I had tickets to hear both Mozart’s and Beethoven’s final symphonies in one program. Wendy’s favorite was Mozart, but mine was Beethoven. There is a moment in Beethoven’s ninth when the music suddenly stops and a lone voice begins to sing. I will never forget the moment I heard that voice. I just began to cry as I listened. A chorus of voices joins the orchestra and the music continues to build to one of the most amazing and moving musical climaxes ever. What most people don’t realize is that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote his final symphony. He never heard a note of it with his ears. He only heard it in his spirit. Amazing.
There is something deeply spiritual about the language of music, and I have learned over time that music is a language all its own. It has a special place in creation. Music is an integral part of heaven in the glimpses provided in God’s Message and the theme of music is woven throughout the Great Story.
In today’s chapter the prophet Elisha calls for a musician. When the music begins to play the power of God comes upon him. The language of music was the conduit of God’s Spirit. I get that. The language of music is a spiritual language (both for spiritual light and spiritual darkness, btw). Music has the power to reach deep inside to touch hidden places inside us. Music has the power of inspiration, conviction, revelation, exhortation, and even transportation.
My body last week was sitting at a dining room table in central Missouri. The melody of Beethoven’s ninth playing beneath Bruce Willis’ machine gun suddenly and unexpectedly transported my spirit, in that moment, to the Royal Orchestra Hall in London. My eyes began to mist over. Physicists tells us that all of time is contained in each moment. Perhaps music is a gateway.
This morning I’m thinking about this powerful medium we call music. I’m mulling over the incredible breadth of music that has spoken to me, moved me, and inspired me over the years. Beethoven to Berlioz to Bach, Miles Davis to Bob Dylan to Yo-Yo Ma, Gospel choirs to bluegrass banjos to steel drums and a Reggae beat. I’ve come to accept that I will never know (in this life journey) fluency in the language of music that I desire. I still can experience its power in ways human beings throughout the millennia of history couldn’t even imagine. I literally have access to the entire catalog of human music in the palm of my hand.
I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise. They’d been working on it as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was requested that He be excluded from this particular exercise.
I figured this lends itself to a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have had photos of these three gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible for many years. [see featured image of this post]
Those who have followed my blog for any length of time may not be surprised to see Miles Davis’ name on my list. I reference the famous jazz trumpeter on a fairly regular basis and I even posted a review of his biography a number of years ago. Nevertheless, it seems a bit incongruent for this Iowa white boy with little musical ability and strong spiritual priorities to find the heroic in a gifted, conflicted black musician whose demons and appetites led to tragic places. It may not seem an obvious choice.
My exposure to Miles began with a Christmas gift. In fourth grade I began taking drum lessons at Woodlawn elementary school. That year my brothers gave me a couple of record albums to inspire my budding, percussive aspirations. One album was Buddy Rich. The other was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. For those who are not familiar with jazz, it is perhaps the best known jazz album of all time, and for good reason. It sparked a love affair with jazz.
In high school I continued to love jazz music. While my friends at Hoover High School were listening to Def Leppard, The Police, and Journey I was home listening to a wide selection of jazz from Weather Report to Grover Washington Jr. to Chuck Mangione. But, while many of my jazz favorites were flirtations and brief love affairs, I began to realize that Kind of Blue somehow became the true love that always hearkened me back. There was something about Miles that sunk deep in my soul.
Through my post-college years and into my 30s I lost my way creatively in many ways. When I lost my way creatively I unknowingly wandered from the person God created me to be. Unfulfilled, confused, and life-less, the disconnect led me to chase after passions into dark places. By grace, I found the artist’s way back. I began to reclaim my birthright as a child of the Creator.
It was during that journey that I hearkened back, once again, to my true love – Kind of Blue. It was then that he began to emerge as an artistic hero. I began to listen to more of Miles’ music. We were now on a journey together. Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool were added to the list and I began to hear his own artistry evolving through the chronology of recordings. I loved the way he both honored the genius of a classic like Porgy and Bess while layering it with his own artistry. Sketches of Spain made all sorts of artistic connections for me to Picasso and Hemingway and I began to appreciate Miles’ own artistic journeys and explorations. He seemed to fill the well of his soul and music with input from such a broad, rich diversity of sources. I got that. I identified with that. It stoked my creativity and inspired me. Miles Davis, through his music, became a pied piper, a mentor, and a muse for my own creative journey.
As I learned more about Miles the man, I was fascinated. Like many artistic geniuses, he seems to have been a complex person. I don’t think he was particularly easy to be around. Unlike Winston Churchill, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed his company over dinner. Yet, even in his frailties, struggles, and failures I found myself identifying with that basic struggle those of us with artistic temperament have to create something beautiful amidst the ugliness of your own humanity .
Miles was a man of intense passions that he struggled to control. He faced and fought his own personal demons. Temporary victories gave way to repeated defeat. His soul carried scars. He hurt those he loved most. I get that, too.
Perhaps the greatest reason that Miles has become a creative hero to me is the fearless way he opened himself creatively to everything. I have twice posted on his theme “there are no wrong notes.” He was fearless in attempting new things, pushing the envelope, absorbing what others were doing and then weaving it into his own work. He wasn’t afraid to re-invent himself, push into places no one expected him to go, and where few seemed to understand. He was willing to try, to dare, and to explore new horizons. And, as he got older it seems that he never stopped. I hope that I might reflect even a small fraction of that spirit of creation.
We are blessed that the progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s has been slowed by meds. We’re thankful for each day we’re able to continue to enjoy together. I’ve read that music and images are positive stimuli for those suffering with Alzheimer’s, triggering memories and hopefully lubricating the brain to continue remembering.
With that in mind, I put together a little video for mom (and dad) for Valentine’s Day this year. Some old family photos and music that hopefully gets the synapses firing in a positive way. The Dixieland jazz that accompanies photos of her as a little girl is from Bix Beiderbecke, an Iowa native. My mom’s dad loved Dixieland and attended the Bix festival in Davenport. My mom told me that when she was a teenager, the Crew-Cuts’ Sh-Boom was her favorite song. She repeatedly played it so much that it drove her father crazy (I remember having similar thoughts about N’Sync), so that’s what I chose for pictures of her as a teen. The Lord’s Prayer was sung at their wedding, and I can remember my mom listening to Whitney Huston’s CD a lot, especially after watching The Preacher’s Wife.
Our plan to take the folks out for Valentine’s dinner was scuttled by weather, but I had a chance to swing by their apartment this week and play them this video. It was fun to hear their memories, laughter, and to witness her tears as she watched. At the end of the video she wiped her tears and said, “God has been so good to us. We have been so blessed.”
I hope she will enjoy watching this video over and over again. And, I hope it will continue to remind her of God’s faithfulness and blessings through the home stretch of her life journey.