By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2003
It seems a paradox that the fluid nature of music can ground us; or that the haunting ballad of a lost ship, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, could anchor us in the midst of a life storm. Instinctively, music for all of time, across all cultures has been what we turn to in good times and in bad. “The need to make music and listen to it is universally expressed by human beings,” says biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas. Music fills our souls and transports us; it is a constant friend allowing us to wade through a full range of emotions in the safety of musical measures emerging as predictable patterns. According to Plato, music is “the essence of order.”
On any given day at St. John’s Kitchen we enter the dining room to the arias of the many musicians who are fed just as surely with their music as they will be with food. Sometimes it’s Hey, Jude, passionately hammered out on the desperately out-of-tune piano, or someone reminding themselves of a Brown Eyed Girl, through song and guitar, or the gentle timbre of a recorder. They are not necessarily performing, but providing some solace perhaps for themselves and just maybe for others in the room. Yet oddly, as if the entire room were some alternative experience, even when there is no sonorous music, the place has a rhythm, a beat all its own, a beat full of passion. Perhaps an instance of avant-garde composer John Cage’s observation: “Music is sound played by millions of hearers.”
The music at St. John’s Kitchen always gives me pause. I’m reassured that people know where to turn for serenity when chaos intrudes from internal or external forces. And I’ve come to look for such reassurance from the patrons of St. John’s for I know some of these souls have had a broad experience of what it means to be human. When people are pushed to the outer limits of human experience, they become pioneers, and their lives unfold as a preface to our own, always showing the possibilities. And ultimately, there is no choice but to take the slow motion walk through dark emotions. Music, for many, is one of the mainstays for the journey, befittingly juxtaposed with the rhythmic beat of our own hearts.
The words of German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke remind us of the importance of that journey. “I love the dark hours of my being. Then I know there is room in me for a second huge and timeless life.” As with music, poetry is appreciated for its patterns but even more so for its punch, providing that direct hit to the soul. Or the kind of kick typically valued by people who need to look deeply into your eyes.
I have come to anticipate poetry at St. John’s Kitchen. People bring their own poetry which is sometimes shared privately, sometimes displayed on the Poetry Wall, or for everyone’s enjoyment, read aloud at the bi-annual Queen Street Muse Poetry Readings. Poetry at times has been the sustaining element; for one, poetry was there when there was despair and four hospital walls. For many, poetry is a way to express the pain of the unbearable hours. Although often thought of as remote, poetry is actually very accessible. For readers of poetry, there exists the opportunity to be forever linked to another in spite of disparate lives. And opportunities are plentiful for, unlike other art forms, there are more writers than readers of poetry. For poets live inside gardeners, smokers, trainspotters, procrastinators, collectors of stamps or parking tickets. With such a huge and level playing field, poetry, as a source of release and expression, offers us the clearest understanding of human nature. At St. John’s Kitchen we are rich with poets who bestow upon us refreshing perspectives, guiding all of us along our journey.
Daniel keeps a cache of pocket-sized poems of his favourites, to give out to others. “I haven’t given you this one,” he said recently. And there on this smallish page, William Butler Yeats goes to The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and in twelve beautiful lines expresses every thought that I am labouring to explain in prose. To find peace, Yeats escapes to nature, to a poem, to the music of bees, to the sacred. Some people might not read The Lake Isle of Innisfree as a piece of spiritual writing, but I know Daniel to be a deeply religious person who sees God’s hand at work everywhere. With this in mind, I read every poem he gives me.
I’ve grown accustomed to the strong influence of what constitutes “sacred” for people at St. John’s. For although it is not a religious organization, the patrons regularly bring their God with them and situate their faith in the room. God is imagined to be in the food line, at each table, in conversation, working the room. I have been invited into more discussions of belief and God at St. John’s than I have within my own community of faith. Theologian Paul Tillich would describe this as grace. When we find ourselves at times of greatest separation from society, Tillich says, when all joy is lost, and it appears that there is only darkness, it is then that we realize we are still accepted, and this is grace. That is, acceptance from something greater than ourselves with nothing demanded in return, but much given, such as the ability to look frankly into the eyes of another. The acknowledgment of this is evident at all times. So as Christians approach Advent, a season of tremendous possibility and light, things at St. John’s will remain relatively unchanged. The people I know who daily feel God’s grace are not affected by the high notes of Christmas.
One person may experience a sense of being part of the grand design through God, while another may discover this truth through nature or a melding of both, as one and the same. It was when he was at his lowest that Bill, a volunteer at St. John’s Kitchen, headed to Georgian Bay to hear the waves crashing against the rocks. That image sustained him through the winter. Sometimes it is precisely when institutions, be they home or other, fail us, that we need to feel a belonging that goes deeper; a belonging with the tides, to the creative flow, be it God’s and our own; a rootedness with time-honoured sources of strength and sustenance.
Even when it seems the preference may be for darkness, we suddenly are overwhelmed by the peace felt when a storm over a lake presents more shades of blue than we knew existed; a wildflower sprouts in an October eavestrough; poppies continue to blow in Flanders’ fields; we are forever changed as Handel’s Messiah ushers in Advent. We are reassured of the cosmic pattern and our places in it all as we visit these ports on our journey.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by William Butler Yeats I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.