Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Transcendence on a Tuesday Night

Old Elvis Costello will do it to you.

I’m watching an early episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . and this one is with Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case and Jesse Winchester. The music is glorious. Crow sings a heartfelt “Leaving Lost Vegas” and I think I get it for the first time. Each of the artists has a beautiful song to share. One of those was a touching little love song about being a teenager in love by Jesse Winchester.

It’s all about a young man, a seventeen year old, who holds out a hand to a young woman. They touch. They sing the chorus of a teenaged song, shama-ling-dong-ding. Which is the name of the song. “The way we danced was not a dance, but just a long embrace. We held onto each other and we floated there in space.” That perfectly describes the kind of relationship that every romantic seventeen year old ought to have. Unfortunately we also have the need to rut and let loose and let the hormones have control (thank goodness we do).
I had that sweet relationship as a teen. It confused me, but I am so glad I had it, even though I never figured out what it might lead to. It confused me, but it also made me a better person. Nobler? Aspirational? Impractical? Whatever. It was good for me.

At the same time I’m listening to Elvis with I’m scanning negatives from Rock Island. I come to one shot among many I’ve forgotten (I processed 250 shots yesterday). This one shot struck me. It arrived during Winchester’s song so that happenstance struck me as well. There’s a couple in the shot, a young man solid as a block, dark hair, square shoulders and (I think) a spring car coat. She’s got short hair, a “pixie” cut. A sweater. Tan slacks. There is a sequence of 3 photographs.  I was a distance away, shooting with a telephoto lens – as was often my wont. In the 3rd photo the young woman sees the shooter on the hill.
She turns and throws a wave at the photographer, rather flirtatiously. 

No jealousy from the boy-friend. I doubt he even noticed. It was an innocent flirtation anyway, a wave at a distant photographer who used the camera to keep people away from the shy, easily spooked little boy holding his lens in his left hand to keep the shakes away. That boy certainly didn’t notice the wave. I’m relatively sure his response was nothing, not even an acknowledgement of friendship.

Earlier in the scan session I’d found my 1970 negatives from my first visit to Bishop Hill, the mid-19th century pietistic colony in central Illinois that marked the beginnings of the great migration from Sweden. There are no photos of the inside of the community building, but there is the fa├žade. There is the community hall with its one armed clock (hard workers don’t need to count the minutes). And a flood of memories of another type overwhelms me. Suddenly I “get it.” I understand why you would give up a predictable existence in your homeland and leave for a strange land, willing to suffer and die for your new found faith. I understand why normally placid Swedes would suddenly be ready to defy King and Crown and follow the ravings of a mad man. I understand. It all works together – for me, though probably not for everyone.

Yet the best I can articulate what I suddenly understand is to say something like “deep in every human being lies the desire to be something more and other and better than our daily selves.”

But as soon as I write that down I have to admit, “no, that’s not quite what I mean, what I’ve found, what I’ve seen” that links religious devotion, young love and a girl waving hello to a young would be photographer.

It isn’t quite what I mean, but it isn’t quite wrong either.

Something, something, transcendence, ground of being, “here and there, and sometimes even in ourselves” novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner quoted Tillich as saying to his Union Seminary class.

I guess.

But there it is: the purity of young love; the depth of fanatical religious devotion and the smile and a wave from a girl I perhaps knew. They are all linked somehow, and, well, God.