Review and Reflection: “Rock-A My Soul” by David Nantis

Music is universal.  It’s older than we know (at least precisely), and evolves continually; it comes in a variety of genres, each with staunch adherents.  It speaks to us.  It speaks to me.  And it speaks to David Nantis, director of campus ministry at the fine Jesuit institution (and my alma mater)  of The University of Detroit Mercy, who recently authored Rock-A My Soul:  An Invitation to Rock Your Religion.
For the record, I’m not a big rock fan.  I’m not Catholic either, and that did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of Rock-A My Soul.  I am a spiritually seeking Unitarian Universalist who prefers folk to rock and mantra to heavy metal.  I don’t think I’d have come across Rock-A My Soul if not for Facebook.  Dave and I were Microbiology lab partners some 20 years ago, and although I’ve only seen him once in all the years between then and now, Facebook reconnected us in the way it does with so many past friends and acquaintances.  As a wanna-be author myself, I was initially interested in his book because it was written by someone I knew, and if a mere mortal I’d shared petri dishes with decades ago could publish, perhaps there is hope for me.  But the book captivated me and spoke to me, despite my difference in musical tastes and faith.
Nantis begins with a history of rock music, including the introduction of Christian rock in recent decades.  Christian rock is often seen as the compromise genre for those attracted to the soul-shaking rhythms of traditional rock-and-roll but offended by the lyrics, and Nantis seeks to “explain how these two cultures [rock music and Christianity] can not only coexist but can also help each other without one co-opting the other.” (Nantis 28)  Nantis offers little discourse on the lyrics that can be so offensive (and not just to Christians), but instead maintains focus on music connecting flesh and spirit through its intoxicating rhythms and energy.  Now, that’s not likely to satisfy the religiously conservative parents of teens, but his point is worth consideration.  Rock is about strong emotion, and the words are part of that picture.  I’ve struggled with the lyrics of songs that advocate violence, causal sex,  or are derogatory toward women, and despite not being terribly conservative about anything, I’m not thrilled to expose my sons to those lyrics in the hopes that they’ll just catch the rhythms.  Fortunately, there are other choices than just offensive lyrics or Christian rock.
Uniting flesh and spirit is a priority for Nantis.  These two are easily separated in many conservative and orthodox faiths, with the flesh cast aside as evil aside from very particular circumstances.  I may be drawn to folk music for the lyrics, but I listen to chant and attend Kirtan (call-and-response Sanskrit, Hindu chant) because it pulls my body and soul together.  Under the influence of chant, these two entities merge, and the energy and peace can carry me far beyond the actual chanting event.   It’s not the lyrics.  It’s the rhythm and tonal qualities  that keep me coming back for more.
And it is in the sound, the rhythms, are where Nantis’s heart rests.  As a drummer, he’s attuned to the rhythms of life and an ear for how they fit together and beat with the world around us.  Additionally, he emphasizes the mindfulness that rock evokes.  When one is immersed in music, especially music with a strong rhythmic component, it’s impossible to be anywhere else except in that moment.   In an era that nearly demands us to continually split attention from our email, to phone calls, to our social networking media of choice, and finally to the life in front of us that doesn’t require electricity to run, cultivating mindfulness is a chore.  Nantis doesn’t advocate listening to rock instead of spending time in silent prayer or meditation, but he presents it as an opportunity to immerse oneself in a single experience:  listening to a piece of music.
Beyond the mindfulness that can occur with rock, Nantis draws on his familiarity with St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, with a focus on repetition and imagination.  Repetition’s importance in spiritual growth, Nantis notes, reaches beyond rote memory and into noting how the repetition affects us, how we respond to it.  This strongly parallels part of the purpose of mantra and kirtan:  in addition to being a focal point for the attention, a phrase of either can resonate with us differently at different moments.  The words and music are the same, but our response varies.  Watching that response, observing the mind’s actions, gives us insight into ourselves and increases our ability to be self-observant. 
The day I finished Rock-A My Soul, I chanced an invite to a small Metro-Detroit club to hear some local bands.  While I enjoy live chant, folk, and classical music, generally, I’d decline an invite to hear rock live (I’m rather sound-sensitive).   But since I’d just read Rock-A My Soul, full of enthusiasm for the genre, I was compelled to give a live experience a trial.  I could hear and feel plenty through the foam cylinders in my ears, and while I can’t say I’m a convert to live rock, I have a better understanding of Nantis’s enthusiasm for it.  As much as I listened (and felt) the rhythms that only live music can generate (no matter how loud folks turn up the bass on their car stereos), I watched the musicians.  The drummers in particular seemed at one with their craft, seeming to be completely absorbed within the rhythms they created.  While the guitar and bass players watched each other and the audience with regularity, the drummers of the three bands I heard that night appeared entirely engrossed in the beats they created; them embodied mindefulness, at least mindful drumming.  They were mesmerizing in their level of concentration. 
While I’m not turning my radio to the rock stations and trading my Mike Cohen and Peter Mayer for electric guitars, reading Rock-A My Soul brought me to a deeper understanding of the attraction rock music holds for so many (not-so-noise-sensitive) people now and in decades past.   I can see where my experience of other genres of music has fostered my spiritual growth, and I can put that in more precise language than previously.   Thanks, Dave Nantis, for this delightful, informative marriage of rock and spiritual thinking.  You’ve opened my elements of both that I’d had yet to consider.  Write and rock on.

Book Guilt

I’m in a reading dilemma.  Not a lack of material sort of problem.  That’s not happened in my recent memory.  It’s finishing what I started that’s giving me fits right now.  Unfinished book guilt, I guess.

I’m just a few chapters from the end of  If You Want to Write (Barbara Ueland),  two-thirds through The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra),  a mere three chapter into After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (Jack Kornfield), and  three-quarters through The Canon (Natalie Angier).  Since starting these, two to six weeks ago, I’ve read at least a half-dozen other books in succession.  A few days ago, I spotted a borrowed copy of Contact (Carl Sagan), so that’s front and center each evening.

I started the others with earnest interest and rapt attention, at least initially.  While my understanding is minimal, I find quantum theory and relativity fascinating, and sermons over the years linking particle physics and spirituality, especially Eastern spirituality practices) increased my interest.  The Tao of Physics came with my minister’s recommendation and arrived quickly via Paperback Swap.  I leapt in and could barely set it down while reading the first half.  Perhaps the material is less gripping, or perhaps reading it at 10:30 at night is just too much for me, but I’m no longer making meaningful progress.  I try to read, but my mind skips off in other directions, pages turning without my comprehension.  Oh, the guilt!  I should be soaking up every word, making connections, finding meaning!

The Kornfield book sat on the shelf for a year or two.  On a recent shelf sweep, it made the cut to my nightstand.  Again, the material was interesting (real living after spiritual experience, essentially), but this time, I felt inadequate.  After all, I’m barely having spiritual experiences of the kind referred to in the book (remember that lonely meditation cushion?) .  Why concern myself with after until there is a during?

The Canon, a perky and fast-paced trip through current scientific thinking, was a gift from my father a year or two back.  Again, I started off quickly.  Math, physics, chemistry.  They flew by.  Then I hit biology.  Perhaps teaching biology this year worked against me.  I’ve had enough, and this felt like a re-run of the lessons I’d taught for the past six months.  How many pages until Geology?

Finally, the biggest guilt-producer of all:  the writing book given to me some 20 years ago by my now-deceased Uncle Bryce.  He inscribed it, believing in me as a writer.  I went on to PA school and vowed to write (and read that book) later.  After writing two posts on my uncle, I pulled it out and began.  It starts beautifully but becomes, about half-way through, redundant. I’m simply bored.

I intended to seek advice from those of you with unfinished piles teetering on your nightstand.  What would you do?  What do you do?  I still want to hear what you do, but I’ve discovered my own solutions while writing: I’ll continue with The Canon, fast forwarding to Geology.  The rest return to the shelves or Paperback Swap.  I’ve found what was useful to me now, and that’s sufficient. Goodbye, guilt!

Reflections on a Memoir: Part I

The Traveled Road, by Bryce Butler

My Uncle Bryce died of bladder cancer in 2001, five months after the birth of my younger son.   In 2003, his long-time companion, Marilyn Mowry published a collection of his writing, some from a memoir workshop and others from a series he wrote for the local newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, titled “Dead Man Walking.”   In 2005, Marilyn died as well, leaving me with boxes of Bryce’s writing and over 150 copies of his book, “The Traveled Road.”  Lat  week,  I finally read that book.

I’d tried to read the book several times over the years, but a few pages in, I’d always end up in tears.  Bryce’s death was the fourth in my very small immediate family in a span of four years:  two grandparents and my stepfather passed in the preceeding years.  Those dying before him were elderly and largely ready to die.  Bryce’s death, at 56, hit me differently.  He was younger by three decades, which was part of my struggle , but mostly he was younger than my father.  Mortality pounced a generation closer, and his death reminded me that folks my parents’ age could die.

So why read the book now?  In part, I picked it up to search for clues:  insight into my younger child who bears my uncle’s name as his middle name.   In the years following Bryce’s death, I’d occasionally talk with Marilyn, often about the disposition of his writings to me, an agreement we came to before she received her diagnosis of cancer the year following her companion’s death.  In our occasional conversations, I’d update her on my younger.  She commented more than once on my son’s similarities to Bryce, and my father has reinforced this view that perhaps my younger received more from Bryce than his name.  These comments also have come with a sigh and sense of sympathy, followed, on occasion, by vague reassurance :  Bryce came out okay, mostly.

My little one, now eight, has challenged me since the start.  An inconsolable but highly attached infant grew into an even more attached and rather irritable toddler.  Each year found him a bit easier to parent, but he’s always been a puzzle.  Tantrums, tics, uneven social skills, vague neurological signs, and unparalleled intensity are bottled with a brilliant and creative mind in overdrive.  So last week, I opened “The Traveled Road” and began again, looking for connections and clues.

I didn’t crack the case, but in Bryce’s writings I saw shadows of my younger son.  Formal writing filled with detours into details, some pertinent, some not, reminded me of my son’s speech, which is prolific and somewhat wandering.  His childhood loneliness surfaced repeatedly in his tales of his younger years, and a lack of social grace pervaded his tellings. While my younger doesn’t say he’s lonely, I know he struggles with relating to peers and adults, unable to navigate the more subtle  nonverbal language most of us take for granted, and I sense that, at least as a child, Bryce missed those cues, too.   Bryce’s temper, especially toward his brothers, strikes a familiar chord as well.  My son, too, sometimes acts in rage that seems unconnected with his thoughts.

While I finished the book, my goal was not to see what happens next for my son.  Despite some similarities, whether biological or coincidence, my son is his own person in a different time and place.  I’d like to think it’s a more understanding time with greater support for the outliers.  I’d like to spare him some pain that Bryce articulated in his essays but know that sort of protection is every parent’s prayer.  Bryce lived his life, traveled his road, and learned to love and be loved and to appreciate his time on this earth.  Whatever path my younger’s life takes, may he, too, learns those lessons.

Reading Room

That’s it. I am not going to the bookstore.  Never mind that I have a quiet (read “kid-free”) afternoon and evening.  Ignore the educator discount sale, granting K-12 educators 25% off all books.  Resist the lure of all those ideas and information bound up and collected in a place with coffee. I’m staying put.
I’m an absolute book junkie.  New, used, borrowed, I love them all. Paperback Swap, my local libraries, any bookstore.   But my shelves are full — double-stacked in places, and I need nothing.  I have dozens of books still unread, books I really want to read.  My children’s shelves aren’t lacking either, so I can’t use their need to read as an excuse just to be in a place with all those books.

Several of my most recent acquisitions are books about writing.  Though stacked neatly next to my favorite reading chair, they’ve had no effect on my writing. I’m not blogging more often. I have yet to compose a query for articles that remain half-baked in my brain.  I haven’t even finished my holiday thank-you notes.  There the books remain, most bindings uncreased and pages largely unread.  Hmm.
The stack of guides for spiritual seekers of all kinds take similar rest on my nightstand.  Several sport bookmarks a quarter to halfway in.  Despite the number that I’ve begun (and, to my credit, the number I’ve finished), I’ve yet to commit to regular spiritual practice.  My meditation cushion is downright lonely.  Huh.

I’ve sought solutions in the written word for as long as I can remember.  Curious about a subject?  Bring home that section from the library.  Considering a new course of study?  Collect texts and tomes.  Concerned about self/children/marriage/the world?  Read more books. 

I’m not advocating an end to reading, and I’m not vowing to stop purchasing, borrowing, and swapping books, but I’m raising my own awareness of the obvious fact that reading alone isn’t equivalent to taking action.  It fails to fix problems and develop new habits.  It can encourage and inspire, inform and distress, entertain and perplex, but it doesn’t write the essay, conquor the clutter, or care for the children. 

So I’m staying home.  I’m sure I’ll read from my burgeoning shelves tonight, but first, I’ll finish that thank-you note, and that’s a start.

The Best Laid (Lesson) Plans

I’m definitely conflicted this time of year. Despite 16 years having passed since fall meant a return to school, fall means a fresh start. New notebooks, paper, and binders. Anticipation, both enthused and anxious about new classes. And, notably, unlike the rest of life, a beginning with a definite ending in sight.

About this time every year, I find myself surrounded by scrawled lists of curriculum plans and piles of books. I’ve planned in notebooks, on calenders, on computer-generated planner pages, and in my head, all with moderate initial success that diminished come October or so, where recording what we actually did took the place of planning what we would do. That’s fine for my younger guy, since he generally takes us further than I would have planned, but with my older at age 12 (7th grade age), it’s really not enough for either of us. I need to know that a course will get finished in the span of our school year. He needs a path to follow with signposts telling him how far he’s been and how far there is to go. He needs me to make a plan.

So here I am, surrounded by the papers and the books, slowly scheduling out Geometry, Latin, Biology, and more. I’m trying out some scheduling software this time around, Homeschool Tracker Plus, and (as I was warned) the learning curve has been fairly steep. It allows homeschoolers to share lesson plans with others, which can be quite the time saver, but I’m not sure that time savings will be evident this year, given the amount of work I’ve put in learning how to make the program work best for me and my family. I’m not one to schedule down to the hour, and that seems to be one of the program’s strengths. Right now, my favorite feature is the library function. With a swipe of my neutered Cue Cat (bar code reader turned ISBN reader), I can catalogue my books. Using the resource function, I can sort these by course as well. Hooray! It’s too soon to tell if this software will meet my needs, but the latent librarian in me is deeply satisfied.

Books Abound

This last week has been a feast for my bibliophile self! Thursday found the boys and I setting up the library book sale and, of course, preshopping. I’m on my own for the return for clean-up this afternoon, and I’m looking forward to some end-of-sale shopping prior to my shift. I’m surprised there’s anything left by the end of the sale, but there are still goodies to be found, all discounted greatly.

As a family, we took a record four trips in six days to the same library, returning what we finished and picking up holds, always with “just a peek” for “one or two things.” Our peak volume out was 70 titles, although we’re down after another round of returns. My older son spends a good amount of time requesting whatever his current obsession is — Bone comics and Peanuts cartoon books are current favorites. They don’t take long to read, and I suspect he spends more time requesting those stacks of book than reading some of the volumes. I wonder where he acquired the habit of requesting-as-hobby? Hmm.

To top it off, my first order as a Scholastic Book Club homeschooling teacher arrived this week. As a child, I loved those newsprint mini catalogues, and that adoration hasn’t abated. I’m glad to have homeschooling friends with whom to share this resource, and it does make for more books that pass my eyes.

All this makes for a fairly precarious situation on my bedside table and a bookcase in every room.