Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Let the Sound Bring Me Back

I admit I’m in love with Lady Gaga. I know, it’s silly to say it, and of course when I say, “in love,” I mean something more than a foolish fantasy.

I’m convinced she has one of the purest voices of today’s crowded talent of musicians and performers. When she sang the National Anthem (you can see it on youtube) in 2016 at Super Bowl 50, I was mesmerized. Patriotism and all the pseudo hype that goes with it these days falls flat for me most of the time. But her performance made me want to cheer or salute or something. It was a powerful moment.

Her song, “Joanne,” which she performed at last Sunday’s Grammys, was dedicated, she said, to her father’s sister, Joanne. Again, it was sung with so much passion and precision, while she played the piano and was accompanied on guitar by her album producer Mark Ronson.

In spite of her past outrageous outfits, masks, wigs, get-ups, and other brazen acts of defiance, protest, or whatever else she was feeling at the time, she remains a phenomenal artist. She has moved away from a lot of that gaudiness and admits she has grown as a person and a performer. And she says a lot of the crazy costumes she used to wear were often to cover up a deep sense of inferiority. They were a way of hiding behind a façade of boldness and extravagance.

Last year Netflix showed a documentary on Lady Gaga titled, “Five Foot Two.” In it she is seen in all of her humanity as well as her star power. There is a beautiful vulnerability in her that is clearly seen in the film. Most people probably don’t know that she suffers from nagging pain from a broken hip while performing a few years ago. She also suffers periodically from fibromyalgia, a muscle and connective tissue ailment that often leaves the patient in debilitating pain. And she is not ashamed to say she has struggled with depression and alcohol abuse. None of it, though, keeps her from performing at stunning levels of competence and skill.

I find Lady Gaga to be one of those unique celebrities who truly loves what she does. She claims her family and her music are her life, though she laments the fact that her hectic schedule often keeps her long periods away from those she loves. And it has often interfered with her personal life having left behind three major breakups with men she loved.

We often forget, when we see the huge sums of money celebrities make, that they are still real people not much different from the rest of us, except for their wealth and fame. But that often comes with an exacting cost in terms of privacy, relationships, as well as physical and emotional health. Many of them burn out or destroy their lives with out of control addictions.

“I just want to make music and make people happy,” Gaga says in the documentary. In one of the interviews in the film she says, “I never felt comfortable enough to sing and just be the way I am now. To just sing, wear my hair back. I never felt pretty enough or smart enough or a good enough musician…The good part is…now I do.”

Let that affirm anyone out there hesitant about their talents or abilities. If Lady Gaga can admit her fears and win through them, why can't any of us?

She once said to her fans, 
“I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much.” Her honesty is fierce. Her humanity is real. Her passion is fearless.

Entertainers serve a crucial service for us, especially in times when the world seems spinning off its axis and our own country teeters on some scary edge of catastrophe. Music can be our refuge. It can console, inspire, and lift us into needed moments of ecstasy, dreams, endurance, and love.

As Lady Gaga sings in her song, “Words,” – “Let the sound bring me back / Sounds have no regrets / And before you know it / I’ll take your words and be gone / Right to the stars and beyond.”

© 2018 Timothy Moody

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Good Earth

My recent posts on the HBO series, Deadwood, generated some interesting comments. There was a discussion about the coarse language and the repeated use of the f-word. Most, however, commented how much they had enjoyed the series and hated to see it end after only three seasons.

I watched it when it first came out in the spring of 2004 and just stumbled onto it again several weeks ago and re-watched the whole series.

There is something authentic, truly American about those early pioneer days, and the importance of the frontier and the westward expansion in our incredible history.

I am drawn to the cowboy, the rancher, the farmer. I grew up in the city and had little contact with places outside of that environment. But there was a veterinarian in my parents’ circle of friends, Fred Ryon, who practiced in the Stock Yards in Fort Worth. He was a tall, thin man with striking features. Thick hair combed neatly back, a smooth face and a square jaw. He always wore a pressed western suit with a crisp shirt and dark tie. He smoked small, slim brown cigars. He was handsome and manly and had this wonderful aura of confidence and yet he loved children and old people and was a terrific husband and father. I admired him in a hundred different ways and wanted to be like him.

Years later, there were men in the churches where I was the minister, ranchers and farmers who I enjoyed being friends with. Men who taught me to hunt and fish and love the outdoors. One of my neighbors, Dan Haile, was a tall, lanky man who looked like the guy in the old Marlboro cigarette TV commercials. He wore his cowboy hat with natural ease and it looked perfect with his jeans and boots. He had a rough, raspy voice, smoked cigars, and drank beer. I loved being around Dan. His quiet strength and his love of the land always drew me into that western lore I have always been fascinated with.

Recently, after returning from Christmas with my son Luke who manages a large ranch in southern Oklahoma, Ingrid asked which I like the most, urban life or country life. Those were the words she used. Which sort of tickled me. I said, Well, I love living in the city. There is so much to see and do here. I mentioned that I enjoy living near downtown and that I like the energy of life there. But, I said, I also love going to the country and being in the wide-open spaces of the large fields and the distant fence rows. That I relish going with Luke to feed the cattle, ride in the gator up and down the narrow roads through the thick timber and brush. That it refreshes me to see the long vistas, to get a renewed perspective, to see the cattle and horses, to admire their beauty and their function on the ranch, to play with Luke’s dogs, Maggie and Gus and Trapper, and to enjoy getting to fish and swim on the place. I like being in my jeans and boots and cap. Having a cold one from the cooler in the cargo space. Watching the deer run through the trees.

There is something essential about the land, the grass, the animals, something earnest and fixed and tenacious about all of it that enlivens me and galvanizes in my humanity something real and fundamental and good. I can get out of my necktie and dress shoes, out of my pretenses and stressors, and feel somehow anchored in the good earth and sense the magnificence of it all.

I’m still shopping for a western hat, one that feels and looks just right. Once I find it, I may, at last, be home. Another urban cowboy.

© 2018 Timothy Moody

Friday, January 5, 2018

We Must Gather Again and Mend

In general, but not in particular, because there are many opposite examples, but generally speaking, we are a nation of lazy, greedy citizens.

Our laziness resides in the fact that we continue, year after drubbing year, to tolerate a Congress that is 98% corrupt and in the pockets of huge corporations, including Wall Street banks and the giant tech companies, not to mention the entire network of media communications.

Our indifference to the blathering incompetence and the arrogant disregard of representative government by so many senators and House members in both parties is staggering. That we as a people allow this says something alarming about our character.

Leo Tolstoy, the brilliant Russian novelist, once wrote in one of his many essays, “If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” 

And if we were to take to heart that wise advice, what would we see? A society in crisis.

Because of technology, especially the proliferation of the smartphone and social media, we have lost ourselves in a haze of distractions. We don’t seem to care that our nation is not producing anything. Our greatest products are financial—stocks, derivatives, commodities—investments in anything and everything other than our own infrastructure, our own people, our own future.

Our streets, bridges, and freeways are crumbling while billions of dollars are poured into more high-rise condos, huge office complexes, and corporate towers. Beyond that, billions of tax dollars fund a defense budget that climbs into the stratosphere, what poet Wendell Berry calls “another transaction in the commerce of violence.”

We are hopelessly divided as a people, refusing to be coaxed into cooperation. We are militarized. We are angry. We are spiritually empty and mindlessly disarranged.

Do we not see this?

Apathy cultivates ignorance, and unless we care about the state of our nation, the gobbling up of our resources by the ravenous greed of those now running the country, then we are destined for misery and failure.

Call this whatever you choose, but sin, bad behavior, wrongdoing, evil, is not original in us from birth. It is originated by us in our lifetime. It is not our nature to be self-destructive. We have accepted that as our fate by the misguided and the manipulative and it may one day end us if we continue to believe it. We are always at the mercy of our choices. And we can do better if we want to, if we decide to. We’re not required to live this way because of some moral flaw. If this is our karma then it’s the result of our own choices.

Novelist Raphael Lafferty has written, “To you who are scattered and broken, gather again and mend. Rebuild always, and again I say rebuild. Renew the face of the earth. It is a loved face, but now it is covered with the webs of tired spiders.”

I have no easy answers. I am momentarily at a loss for how we rebuild what is broken and scattered. But I do know it can be done, and that we must as a nation find ways to begin it now. And I think it starts by getting out of our laziness and greed. It’s our choice.

© 2018 Timothy Moody

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

More from Deadwood

One of my Facebook friends posted a comment about my recent essay on the HBO series, Deadwood. He stated that he stopped watching the program because of the excessive use of the f-word in the episodes he saw. He considered it a sign that the writers don’t “have the skills to express thought other than shock.

I agree that the series overuses the word as well as some other pretty raunchy ones. But I cannot agree that it is because of any lack of skill from the writers. In fact, I think the writing is brilliant.  

Deadwood is about a raw, unruly town of endlessly muddy streets, soiled revolting men, the subjugation and debasement of women, corruption and scheming so widespread hardly anyone is honest. It’s a drab, filthy town of derelicts and degenerates, con men, and crackpots.

Al Swearingen (Ian McShane) owns the Gem Saloon and Brothel and he’s about the vilest character you’d find in an HBO series. He seems invincible in spite of a brutal beating by Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and a stone in his bladder that nearly killed him. I’ve never seen such writhing pain, which left Al temporarily paralyzed in his right arm and with a bloody right eye with a hideous glare. He finally recovers. The only thing left as damaged as ever is his soul. He does not recover that.

His competition comes from Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), owner of the Bella Union Saloon. It’s a brothel as well, though a more upscale establishment than Al’s, if that is possible in a place like Deadwood. “Cy,” as he’s called, is a polished, well-dressed owner with wavy salt and pepper hair. He may be more cultivated but he matches Al Swearingen’s ruthlessness if not his sleaziness.

Sheriff Bullock is a straight-laced man with a powder keg with a sizzling fuse inside him. He seemed to be the only moral man in town until he slept with the lovely widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) who then becomes pregnant. Bullock is married and his wife and son arrive in Deadwood just as the news of the widow’s condition is known across the camp. You want to root for this guy, but he keeps making it difficult to do.

And there is the ravaged, forever hammered, gutsy Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). I love that character. Horrendously abused as a girl she found a way to display a grit and fearlessness that gives her an impossible dignity. Her humor is biting and hilarious. And her alcoholism, though tragic and destructive, reveals deep interior wounds still hurting the little girl who endured them. Inside all of her brokenness is something unbreakable. I can’t help but love her.

The mousy, miserable E.B. Farnum, who operates the local hotel is a man of limited skills. He uses proper English and tries to appear well educated but he’s a man in perpetual defeat. Used by Al Swearingen, dismissed by Cy Tolliver, the power men in town, E.B. flits about trying to find a place of prominence. He craves the gold claims he knows of but he hasn’t the intellectual or character resources to reach them.

There were only three seasons to this great series. Across them came a variety of oddball characters, outlaws, drifters, barbarous men, and women, but also people of heart, grace, kindness, and love.

Deadwood represents a much larger place than a town. It’s a microcosm of a country. It shows us the bawdy, uncivilized part of our humanity. It says evil can be alluring. That goodness, though original in all of us, innate, ultimately indestructible, can be rended, hidden, and ignored for some temporary and useless act of selfishness.

This was not a series to entertain as much as it was one to instruct.

© 2018 Timothy Moody

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Shining Light in Deadwood

In the wild and violent HBO series, Deadwood, the Reverend H.W. Smith (Raymond McKinnon) seems oddly out of place. In the midst of Gold Rush outlaws and moral misfits, he is a tall, gentle man, with a kind heart.

Deadwood is a savagely unmanageable town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. And Reverend Smith, an upright mystic, and a man of the Bible, struggles to extend the goodness of God to the ruthless and the wicked.

A smallpox plague strikes the town and “Preacher” Smith works tirelessly to aid the sick and the dying ignoring the risks of contagion. He somehow escapes the plague but then is afflicted with epilepsy and eventually insanity.

In his illness, he finds comfort in the piano playing at the Gem Saloon and Brothel. He is seen there hugging his weathered Bible, his eyes glassy and bleak, smiling broadly with his head raised to heaven and his body weaving to the music. The bar owner, the incorrigible Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), tells the preacher he can’t be in the there while customers are there. “It ain’t proper,” he says as he pulls Rev. Smith from the piano bench and out of the saloon. Others in the crowd don’t want him there either. The preacher’s presence seems to be a moral rebuke to their gambling and whoring.

But as Rev. Smith says, he was only there to enjoy the music. In his quivering fits and his random quoting of long passages of Scripture, people ignored him or thought him a crazy and a useless irritant. From this dismissiveness, Rev. Smith often feels alone and isolated. The saloon brings him into the company of others and the music calms his turbulent mind.

In spite of the abuse of those against him, and his own ailing health, Preacher Smith maintains a sunny spirit still always hoping for the best from himself and from others.

In these times of madness, vulgarity, rage, and meanness, I want to be with people like Reverend Smith. People still in possession of some innate innocence; people imbued with humility and humanity; people who love, who extend themselves generously and unconditionally; people who laugh ecstatically, who are warm and tender; people rugged but gentle, aware but not obsessed, smart but not arrogant; people who understand the ache of being here, but have a longing to be there, anywhere there is acceptance and goodness.

Writer Mary Ann Brusatt has written extensively about zeal. She says it is a deep inner quality that affirms life. She writes, “This spiritual practice includes a wholehearted delight in the senses and a passionate love for who we are and what we have been given. We are encouraged in its pursuit by our companions on the path and the countless teachers who stretch our souls. Our zeal moves us to live compassionately and to serve others. It shows up in our prayers, rituals, family life, and community activities.”

“The countless teachers who stretch our souls.” That’s what I want in my friends, in my companions, and for myself to be that to others.

Preacher H.W. Smith had this. In his slow debilitating decline, his life was luminous in such a dark world.

© 2018 Timothy Moody

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Our National Lack of Self-esteem

There is a brokenness in our society, a pervasive moral collapse, a reckless disregard for community, neighborliness, courtesy, and compassion.

Our government leads by this example. Both parties are incompetent to guide us into a more responsible living, into a serviceable structure of humanity. Our leaders are dominated by greedy oligarchs who don’t just want more, they want everything, even if it costs our society its dignity, its soul, even its future.

What is on display here daily is a wretched lack of self-esteem. The loss now influences all of us. We’re all affected in ways that keep us shamed by our actions.

When we feel powerless, aimless, without any higher goals than the accumulation of things and the momentary thrill, we then mute our intelligence. We live by raw emotions—anger, appetite, urges. We don’t think, we don’t consider, we merely react. We push. We disregard. We threaten. We act out. And we fail.

Self-esteem is a learned process. It builds on genuine successes that are the result of healthy choices, reasonable goals, and mature thinking. If we don’t seek self-esteem through conscious awareness, through personal responsibility, through character and integrity, then we will most likely seek it in popularity, material possessions, power, or sexual exploits.

We see this now in the crisis of men in leadership positions whose power, wealth, and dominance in their careers, was used to sexually harass, abuse, manipulate and rape women who sought their approval for their work, or in many cases, simply worked with them or for them and were endlessly teased and tormented by senseless sexual intimidation.

These men, and many more unknown men like them, lack any valid self-esteem.

In spite of the celebrity status, the vast wealth, the seemingly unlimited power and influence of the men who have been publicly shamed by the revelations of their abuses, they most likely are men with deeply wounded egos, raging self-loathing, and the inability to provide and maintain healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships with women or anyone else.

The gifted and wise writer and novelist, Madeleine L’Engle, writes, “A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

What that self is becoming is determined by each individual. If the self becomes stuck in shame, in profound emotional injury, or is stunted by ego issues, then it stops growing and gets sick. And until the self discovers real successes and not faked or manipulated ones, and is able to relate to others in genuine concern, then it remains unhealthy and barren.

People in these circumstances survive by lies, domination, trickery, posturing, and wielding the upper hand.

There is far too much of this in the leadership of our nation. And that includes leaders across the board—politics, religion, education, media, and entertainment.

Poet Nayyirah Waheed has said, “If someone does not want me it is not the end of the world. But if I do not want me, the world is nothing but endings.”

Sadly, we see this too often today in those we expect to guide our society.

Who we follow is also our choice. And it is time to seek those who display the personal qualities that inspire and challenge, that encourage and affirm; people who operate out of a healthy self-esteem. Those people are out there. We have to want them.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Season of Visions

And in this season
we call Christmas and Holidays,
Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, Germany’s
Saint Nicholas’ Day, and the Philippines’

Giant Lantern Festival, Columbia’s
Day of Little Candles, and Toronto’s
Cavalcade of Lights, France’s
Joyeux Noël, and Russia’s Grandfather Frost,

let us find unity, cooperation, friendship.
Let us revel in the pretty lights and the decorated trees,
the wintry days and the cozy nights,
the happy faces and the party fun.

Let us feel the grief of the losses of others,
the struggling families in an unbalanced
economy, the addicted caught in some
endless torment, the shamed haunted by

a long-ago abuse, the ill unable to enter
into the many festivities, the lonely shut off
from the busy happy crowds, the prisoners
locked in their regrets and dishonor, the

mentally infirm whose minds no longer work
and whose memories have lost their power.
It is a season of birth, of lights, of glory.
It is a time to remember the dead, to honor

the living, to celebrate, to be generous; a time
to embrace one another, to hug someone warmly,
to smile into the eyes of children; a time to look
beyond the many cruelties and the abasement of people.

A time to see the vision of Jesus fulfilled in our hearts,
not of righteous elites but humbled humans
blundering along, seeking a Star to guide us, exploring
the enduring and inexpressible mystery of love.

© 2017 Timothy Moody