Seeing What Could Be

There's a great scene in the movie Begin Again where Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears Gretta (Kiera Knightley) singing solo with just a guitar at a bar. As the song progresses, Dan slowly sees the other instruments on the stage come alive and transform Gretta's song into something special. The rest of the bar pays little attention to the performance and the end of the song is met with a smattering of applause. Dan, however, is enthralled and immediately offers to produce her.

I really enjoyed the whole movie, though I resonated with this scene in particular. Dan doesn't just see what's there — he sees what could be. He's what Frederick Douglass calls a "picture-maker":

Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

The rest of the movie involves Dan and Gretta working together in order to unlock Gretta's full potential as an artist. Where others only heard background noise, Dan heard something more — and he was right.

I wonder if we can't switch ourselves to "picture-making" mode more often. We would build up instead of tear down. We would embody charity in interpretation of another's actions instead of judgement. We would make the world a better place by closing the gap between what is and what ought to be whenever the opportunity presents itself. I can see this world in my head. Can you?

Praising Praise Music

On Sunday mornings, you'll likely find me en route to Devil's Teeth Baking Company to grab some breakfast sandwiches and beignets with Asha. There's a good chance that in the car ride over we will be getting our weekly sermon from Chance the Rapper's beautiful song "Blessings." The hook unapologetically resounds:

When the praises go up
The blessings come down

You'll find me — the self-proclaimed atheist — unironically singing along for the entirety of the song, one of many gospel-infused tracks on Chance the Rapper's excellent album, Coloring Book. In a later track, "Blessings (Reprise)," Chance proclaims "I speak to God in public." In a stirring musical tribute to Muhammad Ali, he makes it clear that he wants to wear his faith on his sleeves. I love Chance's genuine gospel music.

Does this present a contradiction? Alain de Botton's intriguing book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion says no. He begins with a controversial statement: "The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” I have some qualms with that, though I resonated with de Botton's overarching message. He writes:

I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content - a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.

In short, my aversion to the supernatural shouldn't prevent me from engaging with the good stuff. So, I'll praise praise music if it resonates with my soul. I'll enter churches and reflect deeply on the nature of our existence. I'll walk the pilgrim's path in the mountains.

The religious might object to my secular participation in what they find sacred. That's okay — I'd understand. I'll take my chances at offense if it means that I feed my own becoming.


On retreat at a meditation center, I inadvertently broke my silence on the last of five days of quiet. I hadn't faced much difficulty with staying silent on the retreat. There were, of course, moments where automatic reflexes kicked in and I felt an urge to utter an apology when bumping into someone. However, I quickly found myself dropping further and further into the Noble Silence.

Part of what made it easy to settle in had to do with the sense of temporary community at the center. Everyone arrived ready to respect the quiet. We took seriously our responsibility to collectively nurture the silence. Quiet is a public good mauled by the tragedy of the commons. To enter a community of intentional silence was a breath of fresh air. Or, rather, it was an earful of fresh silence.

The ease of settling in made my inadvertent breaking of the silence all the more memorable. During the retreat, I quickly adopted a routine of getting up early and making a cup of coffee before our morning sit. I found that the ritual not only comforted me in a unique way — the solitude of the dining hall was an even deeper kind of quiet found only at the bookends of the day — but also the energizing caffeine banished the haziness that too often can visit during morning practice.

Before dawn on that last day, I began walking down the path to the kitchen to brew a cup when the immensity of the night sky halted me in my tracks. Piercing, radiating starlight punctured my chest, swelled, and then I gently breathed, "Wow."

I've experienced wonder and awe many times in my life. The moments of rapture come in many beautiful shapes and sizes. The release of "Wow" in the starlight may have been the most pure expression of awe in my life as yet because of the quiet that preceded it.

Silence, solitude, quiet, sanctuary — whatever you call it — offers fertile ground. So much grows there: reflection, transformation, healing, tranquility. So much can flow from a rest in that space, too. As we move on from a moment of quiet, we carry with us the fruits of its fertile ground. Often, we don't even know that we still carry them. Resting in the quiet, we tip silent dominoes that fall for many moments in the future.

Where is your quiet? What grows there? How can you come again to that space as to nurture you for the road ahead?

Off to find mine.

Forward, Forward, Forward

I'm still in a daze after our country elected Donald Trump. I've been searching for something to hang my hat on. Eventually, I remembered an old ad from Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The ad's source material comes from a stump speech that Obama gave in Fredericksburg, Virginia in the pouring rain. It's vintage Obama on full display: enthusiastic and full of promise. So much has happened since we first elected Obama, but I still find the ad a salve in these complicated times. It's sappy, I know. But I think the words are instructive.

Throughout his speech, Obama plays with literal and metaphorical references to the storm they are in:

I understand times are hard. This won't be easy. The storm hasn't quite passed yet. Sometimes the skies look cloudy. And it's dark. And you think, "The rains will never pass."

I definitely feel a fear for the future. So much feels unknown and what feels known already scares me.

But Obama doesn't stay in this despair for too long. Only as he can do, Obama pivots to the audacity of hope:

But here's what I understand: that as long as all of us are together, as long as we are all committed, then there's nothing we can't do. That's why we started off this campaign saying, "Yes we can."

Then, he brings us all into a community of hope:

That's why we understood that black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, young, old, rich, poor — it doesn't matter, we're all Americans. And our destiny will be shaped by us.

I think the inclusivity of hope is so important and an antidote to the vitriol of the 2016 campaign.

He then turns to the young generation so crucial to his organizing and election:

And this young generation that's out here... The young people of America understand that the clouds, these too, will pass. That a brighter day will come.

I like to think that Obama is referencing one of my favorite adages: "This too shall pass." I'm sure folks have seen the map of how young people voted in 2016, showing that politics might look different in the future.

Crucially, hope is an active thing. Obama closes with his call to action:

That you if you are willing work for it. If you are willing to roll up your sleeves. If you are willing to lock arms and march and talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, make a phone call, do some organizing, yes do some community organizing. Then I promise you, Fredericksburg, we will win Virginia. We will win this general election. And you and I together, we will change the country and change the world.

The only way out is through. Know hope and move forward, forward, forward.

A fresh sheet of paper, a good pen, and a cup of coffee is a recipe for focus, clarity, and problem solving.