One day a week, there’d be a sign in Mrs. Portin’s window announcing: Bible Club today. I’d see it on the way to school in the morning and look forward to hurrying back to our street as soon as school was out.
Songs with words on big cardboard cutouts, flimsy flannel graph characters moved about on unchanging background, snacks, memory verses and prizes to be earned — I loved it. Somewhere along the way I responded to an invitation, prayed the prayer and was saved.
Within a few years my mom was taking my little brother and me to a small Baptist church. I enjoyed the new friends, activities and sense of family.
I arrived at high school in the fall of 1968. To call it a turbulent time is an understatement. The war, political assassinations (I saw Robert Kennedy speak in the parking lot of my neighborhood grocery store about two weeks before he was shot), drugs, protests and an overwhelming sense of alienation hovered. I was trapped in two worlds, the entrenched conservative Christian setting and the rest of my life, out of control, but somehow more alive.
Along comes the summer of 1971. I was encouraged to work at a summer camp our church was connected to. I went, with very little awareness or expectations. Something happened. I was caught up in a spiritual experience (don’t think I’m referring to tongues or other sign gifts — we were true Baptists and those were not an option). Everything aligned and made sense. The Bible was there and we were taught that it related to all of life. There was a clarity born of convictions that guided decisions and life direction. I felt I had found my home and family.
The seventies became a time of immersion in a narrow segment of Christian sub-culture. The Bible was the guide and there was clear agreement on what to believe and how to live. Along with this structure came the forsaking of my worldly past. Music was the biggest shift. I loved the music of the 60s, especially some of the fringe stuff. There was the common pop in that era defined by AM top-forty radio. I was more drawn to the somewhat underworld of FM AOR (album-oriented rock). I worked kid jobs to make money to buy albums. A great Saturday was one spent walking to the bus stop in our suburban neighborhood and riding some ten miles downtown to hang out in record stores.
My renewed or revitalized Christian commitment brought an end to such frivolous living. Now, all was for Jesus: time, money, friends, even music. I spent the 1970s in a Christian ghetto in which music, books, entertainment, friendship and more were all defined and bounded by my Christian beliefs and convictions. (As an aside, if I was going to miss a decade of secular music, the 70s were a good choice — missing disco was no great loss.) By the end of the 70s I was married and working for a conservative Christian organization and I had shifted my politics to the right.
And then it happened. I think it was sometime in early 1980. I have often labeled it my second conversion. Connie and I began attending a mainline church, a conservative one, but it was still a big jump. A friend suggested that I might like the music Bruce Cockburn, specifically the Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws album. The artist was a Christian, so it was safe.
I found the LP in the discount bin of a local variety store. I listened. I loved it. “Wonder Where the Lions Are” became the closest thing to a hit. I didn’t care. It was a mix of folky, mystical instruments and vocals. Over and over I listened. I worked my way back, getting all of his earlier albums. Most were more along the folk vein with Christian imagery. There was an occasional hint of jazz that further drew me in. In “Wonder Where the Lions Are," there was a line that (inadvertently) had words that named the organization I worked for and it was also a name for where we lived.
Soon I was trying to find out more about this artist (in the pre-Internet days, this was a challenge). I read that Cockburn was working on a new album called Humans. I found out the release date and got the local Christian bookstore to pre-order a copy for me. Where Dragon’s Jaws encouraged me to think more openly, to seek mystery Humanswas gritty, life-is-messy stuff. It was noisy, cluttered, much more busy-city than rural-idyllic. It was 1980 and I had definitely stepped through a door on my pilgrimage. While I do not think music alone caused the shift, it was both an influence and a support.
In 1984, Cockburn released Stealing Fire. This was a perfect album for an imperfect time. It was time for a job shift; my faith and beliefs needed a bigger playing field. The intensity of Stealing Fire fueled my change. Cockburn saw injustice and refused to look the other way. I could relate and found strength for the change and next steps.
It was in this time that I first saw Cockburn in concert. He was at an old dance hall near where I lived and I went with my friend Rick. It was a perfect night. In the small, crowded house, we stood close to the band. Since then I have seen him in concert in numerous locations — solo, with a band, acoustic, plugged in, theaters, clubs and concert halls. I’ve gone with family and friends, sometimes with a group and sometimes with one other person.
Over the years I have bought every Bruce Cockburn album, waiting for the arrival of each new release. In a closet I have old vinyl, even though I have no turntable. I have collector’s editions and imports. I have him on compilation discs as well.
As the 80s progressed, I broadened my music selection. I started reading more diversely. My beliefs and practices shifted. Cockburn’s music was the soundtrack of much of that change. The new albums showed influence of the changing times, with punk, techno and eventually some bits rap and hip hop. He seemed to get more political and less spiritual as time progressed, but only if you define “spiritual” per my old values. Was Cockburn shifting more to the left or was I becoming more aware of my own journey as I listened to his music?
In the 90s, I continued finding new music and following new artists. In the intervening years, there have been other artists I considered my “favorite” for an time, but Cockburn has remained something of a touchstone along the way.
In the mid-90s, he released The Charity of Night. Soon thereafter, it was time for another change and Cockburn once again provided the perfect soundtrack. My family was going through a difficult season; it would be fair to say it was a dark time. “Strange Waters” was there. It was, and is, a song that I can connect with at almost any time on any day. It has buried itself deep within me.
About a year ago I went through yet another shift of job, faith and life. This was the first time that there wasn’t a new Cockburn album for the moment. “Strange Waters” and other older songs came back to help along the way. But the music of the year and the transition was provided by other artists who were newer to me — possibly artists I would not know except for the discovery of Dragon’s Jaws some thirty years back.
I like to think I now listen to diverse music, varied in style and influence. I have little knowledge of, or interest in, “real” Christian music these days. At the same time, many of the artists I follow hold to the Christian faith without being a part of any “Christian” industry or system.
Music feeds my soul. It is prayer. It breathes life. It comforts and challenges. It understands. While I consider myself free of “Christian” music in the industry sense, I still find myself drawn to music rooted in religious traditions. Blues, gospel, country, jazz, folk and country all have story lines of innovators and artists coming up out of a church background or having sung in a choir.
There is music that is honest, alive. Through whispers, a conversational tone or angst-filled shouting, it communicates from soul to soul. It teaches, challenges and feeds me. I need it. And I wonder how different my life would have be if, thirty-plus years ago, someone hadn’t said they thought I’d like Bruce Cockburn’s music.
August 1, 2012 will mark 15 years since my dad died, a few days after his sixty-sixth birthday. And it was too soon. He’d quit smoking about ten years earlier. But it wasn’t soon enough.
My dad was a complicated man. Our relationship was distant through my childhood and young adult years. For reasons I can’t explain, he seemed to soften in his last decade. To be clear, “soft” for him was a matter of soft compared to what he’d been before. He could shoot a look or a quick word that would leave almost anyone, from business associates to my young sons, wondering if he was joking or frightfully intimidating.
We gathered at the community center of the “senior” neighborhood for the service. I said a few words, a prayer, and then we listened Neil Diamond songs on a borrowed boom box. Dad loved Neil.
Back at their home with Blanche, his second wife, we faced the distribution of his earthly possessions. My brother didn’t want much. I couldn’t let things go. Emotion drove me to bring home boxes that were soon in the far back of a closet. I don’t think I’ve looked through them in the intervening years. If my memory is correct, there are baby clothes, a wedding ring, a few trinkets, papers and pictures.
We also brought home his chair, a classic lounger, plush and overstuffed, the color of a young fawn. It rocked, it reclined and was great for watching TV or taking a nap. Soon it was in our family room, generally treated as mine, but I knew it was always his.
After a few years we purchased new furniture for the family room. I reluctantly agreed to let the chair move, but not leave our house. It went first to our living room and then upstairs to one our son’s rooms, now a guest room.
Time went on and the chair was rarely used, but there was still some sense of “having” it. Then about three years ago, our fourth grandchild, Kairi, entered the world. Sometime in her first year her mother mentioned she’d like a rocker for the nursery. An idea perked and we moved the chair the half-mile from our house to her room.
It was perfect. I loved the idea of her parents rocking her to sleep in my dad’s chair. When visiting, I’d sit with her and tell her stories of the great-grandfather she’d never know.
Soon Kairi became a chatting toddler. She’d ask me, “Grandpa, want to see my toys?” which meant a trip to her room. In a few minutes she’d give me a run-through of her treasured possessions, we’d play hide-n-seek (she always hid in the closet), have a parade, maybe a tea party and then settle in the chair for stories.
The arrival of Kairi’s “big girl” bed pushed the chair to their living room. I like to think I’ve let it go, that I won’t need to bring it back home if they indicate they need the space or are done with it. I like to think a lot of things, and then reality sets in.
I live in a college town. I know the fate of unwanted furniture, sooner or later left by the curb with a quickly scribbled “I’m free” sign, eventually taken by students who will lounge the night away in various stages of inebriation playing video games before sleeping (still in the chair) through class the next morning.
A chair can last for years in this state. Soon no one remembers where it came from or who actually owns it. Roommates transition on a staggered timetable, adding to the confusion. The chair remains. Some day the slumlord will be stuck disposing of the chair while looking for new renters. They will probably put it on the curb with another paper sign before actually hauling it away.
A few days ago, in the late afternoon, I stopped by my son’s house under the guise of dropping off a jacket he’d left in my car, but really to see the grandkids. As I walked into the living room, there was Kairi, sitting in the chair with a blanket, toys and two of her “beebees,” which is her name for pacifiers. She had one in her mouth and the other in her hand. Her hair was somewhat out of sorts and her cheeks were a bit flushed, the look she has after a good nap.
She glanced at me and mumbled something through her beebee. I told her I didn’t understand and her mom said, “Take out the beebee when you’re talking to grandpa.” She took it out and asked, “Can we go for a bus ride?” which warmed my heart. Riding the bus downtown to visit pet shops and get a snack is a bit of a grandpa ritual. I told her I was leaving town and we’d go as soon as we could upon my return. She said okay. I bet she’ll remember next time she sees me.
It’s easy to remember my Dad leaning back in the chair, full of life, laughing, waving his arms and telling another story with his mischievous smile and special mix of angst and biting humor. Along with that image, I now hold one of Kairi nested in the chair, just this side of her nap, surrounded by stuff she loves, stuff that signals security for her. The chair will soon enough be gone, but I’ll hold all of these memories as long as I can.