A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 323: Sunday God Quote – Tolkien

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“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 322: Saturday Life Quote – November

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Ronald Kok, November, Gatineau Hills, Quebec

November by Elizabeth Coatsworth

“November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.

With night coming early,
And dawn coming late,
And ice in the bucket
And frost by the gate.

The fires burn
And the kettles sing,
And earth sinks to rest
Until next spring.”

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 321: I Shall Be Released

biograph

I began this week blaming “Stranger Things 2” for causing my nostalgic flashbacks to the 1980’s, particularly flashbacks of the musical variety. It has given me a reason to ponder which bands and musicians contributed to those important years of mine, from teenage-hood to twenty-something. To finish off this week’s journey for me, I’d be remiss not to mention the man who I “discovered” in that time of my life; or, maybe, more accurately the man who found me during that time of my life, because that is the way it happens with Bob Dylan – You don’t chose his music, it chooses you.

Of course, I know Bob Dylan is not a 1980’s musician (whatever that means). In fact, true to form, it is impossible to pin any kind of label like that on Bob. He’s been making music for public consumption since 1960. His newest albums are still crackling with energy and a drive to create that seemingly will not end until the man dies (if someone like Bob can truly die like the rest of us… I’m sure he has a plan when that day comes).

Many fans and music critics consider the 1980’s to be one of Dylan’s weakest decades. It began with a couple of albums from his Christian period (a greatly ridiculed but even more greatly unappreciated time of his life), carried on through a couple of solid efforts (Infidels stands out for me), through a couple of rotten efforts and finished with the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy which was actually really, really good.

But for me, the Dylan album (or albums) that charted the course for my Dylan fandom for years and years to come (on until today) was the career retrospective called Biograph. The album came out in 1985 and I purchased the original 5-disc release of it. It is funny to consider it a career retrospective now, 32 years and many albums later in Dylan’s ongoing career. It wasn’t so much a greatest hits collection as a compilation of various sides of Bob, that is, each record side was arranged not chronologically but thematically. Songs Dylan had recorded in the ’60’s were alongside newer songs from the ’80’s, for example. It remains an excellent and concise image of this enigmatic artist, whose songwriting ability and lyrical and visual scope is sometimes staggering.

Biograph came out when I was a sophomore in college and it was the very start of my own Dylan phase. By the end of the ’80’s I owned a copy of every Dylan album (and a couple of bootlegs) on vinyl. I remember laying them all out on my living room floor and taking a photo of them. To me then, Dylan opened up my mind to the possibility of all the ways music could function in life – expressions of desire, anger, lust, pain, humor – spiritual cries of doubt and faith – demands for justice and pleas for peace – poetic explorations of beauty, of confusion, of the joy of words. It was the true beginning of my own musical journey, my forever curiosity to discover new sounds and ways of communicating through song.

Because of how his music found me and took ahold, I will always have a special place in my heart and in my own creative soul for Bob. Here is a video of a live performance in 1999 of one of my favorite Dylan tunes, “I Shall Be Released”. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 320: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

u2

U2 DOES NOT SUCK

My apologies – I had to get that off my chest. In the past few years it has become en vogue to hate on the world’s most famous Irish lads. Somehow it seems you get hipster cred by trashing them. I’m not sure where this came from exactly. Certainly, people must have their reasons beyond the fact that they are massively successful (though oftentimes that’s enough to get you hated in today’s celebrity landscape). However, for me, any band that inspired a gospel choir to cover one of their songs most definitely does NOT suck.

This week I’ve been considering the bands and music that had a huge and lasting impact on me in my formative years in the 1980’s. I would be a dirty rotten lying liar if I did not include U2 in that list. For me, the albums they made in the mid to late ’80’s are a crucial part of my personal soundtrack. As is often noted about that time period, there was a lot of vacuous pop music on the radio as well as banal and uninspiring rock n roll. Many of us turned to music from other eras (particularly the ’60’s) to find something of substance. U2 was an ’80’s band unafraid to venture into those 60’s-era waters of non-ironic, life-affirming, justice-seeking, peace-love-and-rattle-and-hum musical territory. And I, for one, loved them for that.

Sure, Bono can be annoying. He also comes across as a decent human being in an environment full of a hell of a lot of indecency. Maybe it’s time to cut him some slack. And the band as a whole? They’ve been together for about 40 years – FORTY! Don’t you think there must be something real there that keeps them together doing what they do for so long?

Haters gonna hate, but U2 ain’t going nowhere.

In the late 1980’s I was a twenty-something guy who believed in big things, in ideals, in a God who loves people and wants justice to win the day. In U2 I found a band that echoed my inner life and lived it out on radio stations everywhere. Around that time I also had one of the greatest musical experiences of my life: I was part of a Gospel choir. It was like tasting a slice of heaven to be involved in that kind of powerful joining of voices, singing alongside men and women of so many different ethnic backgrounds, swept along in song in praise to Someone all about the big things, the high ideals, love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace. Imagine, then, how it hit me to hear a Gospel choir cover the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m looking For”? Well, for me, almost 30 years after hearing it for the first time on their album Rattle and Hum, the chills continue and will likely continue for the rest of my life.

Here is that live performance that was included on the album. The video quality is poor but the song itself is about as perfect as you can get this side of heaven. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 319: Scatterlings of Africa

juluka

All this week I’ve been reflecting on music of the 1980’s that deeply impacted me during my late teens and early twenties. I remember the beautiful bombshell that was Paul Simon’s Graceland. Released in 1986, the bulk of the material on the album was recorded with some of South Africa’s greatest black musicians, including the otherworldly vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an all-male choir that backed Simon up on some unforgettable tracks. I was blown away by Simon’s album and the music he introduced to many of us.

Around this time, a good friend of mine introduced me to a band from South Africa called Juluka. I remember him playing their music as we sat in his apartment. The rhythms and vocals, words in African languages, unusual instruments, chanted choruses overlaid in infectious music had me hooked from the first song, “Scatterlings of Africa”. I used to drive around in my Plymouth Scamp with a boom box in the back seat (that was my stereo system), blasting that cassette tape of Juluka my friend made for me. In my mind’s eye I tried to picture the band. Remember, this was a long, long time before anyone could Google for obscure bits of information about anything. I had no idea about this band beyond that tape.

It became an obsession for me to try to track down more of their music and more info about the group. Somehow I found a cassette tape of another one of their albums, Work for All, in the cheap tape rack of the local supermarket. I grabbed that thing like a starving man grabs a slice of bread and played that tape over and over. As Juluka fever gripped me, I came to learn that they were a mixed race group, formed by two friends, white and black, in the midst of Apartheid-era South Africa. Those co-founders, Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, were essentially doing something illegal in their homeland. The authorities had shut down their concerts, prohibited them from playing at some venues, and in general made the whole crazy idea of a band made of people with different skin colors in South Africa a major challenge.

But Juluka endured and thrived, becoming a major hit on the continent of Africa and eventually all over the world. They were one of the bands that Simon credits with his own journey of African musical discovery. Mchunu would leave the band after a few years to return to his family farm. Clegg continued on with Savuka and as a solo artist. I had the pleasure of seeing Juluka live when they briefly rejoined for a world tour in the 1990’s. I have since seen Johnny Clegg perform here in Ottawa and, let me tell you, if you get a chance to see him and his band, it is an unforgettable experience.

Here is that track that had me from the first few notes and chanted words. If you’ve never heard Juluka, just try and not be swept along by this  magical blend of sounds and beats. I dare you. If you need more incentive, remember that it was music like this that ultimately killed Apartheid. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 318: Once in a Lifetime

talking heads

I blame “Stranger Things 2” for getting me into an ’80’s frame of mind. The second season is supposed to take place in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. So Steve and Nancy would be my classmates. Jonathan would likely have been my best friend.  We would hang out together and play bizarre records for each other.

Speaking of bizarre, Talking Heads were a band that dominated my imagination and tantalized me with confusing lyrics and white-boy-funky music when I was a teenager/20-something. They created their greatest songs and albums in the 1980’s. Long before Paul Simon had introduced the world to African musical forms, Talking Heads were experimenting with what would come to be called “World Beat” music. Their album Remain in Light is a masterful concoction of primeval rhythms and cryptic words.

To me, the quintessential Talking Heads song is found on this album: “Once in a Lifetime” – Danceable, weird, totally different than anything else on the radio at the time, it contains everything that made me love these odd intellectual rockers. Here is the full length version of the song with David Byrne being David Byrne in the obtuse and ultimately satisfying and funny video. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 317: King of the Mountain

Midnight-Oil

I have been casting my mind back to the music that propelled me through my formative years. The 1980’s were many things to many people. These days they are most popular as the backdrop to the “Stranger Things” TV phenomenon. To me, there is a soundtrack to the ’80’s, the music I hear playing behind all my memories of that time.

I’m not a nostalgic music listener, that is, I love discovering new music and don’t like to dwell in the past. However, there remains some great music from those years when I was in my 20’s, stuff that deserves to be remembered. One of the bands that dominated my imagination and CD player was Australia’s Midnight Oil. I consider them like The Clash Down Under – Explosive guitars and vocals, spitting out songs about contemporary issues, justice, racism, etc. It is impossible to ignore them when you hear their music, love it or hate it, they will be heard. Midnight Oil served to remind me that music, even in the often shallow 1980’s, still mattered.

Through the magic of YouTube I discovered this little gem: A simple, cartoonish, almost “Primitive Art” animated version of one of the Oils biggest hits, “King of the Mountain”. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 316: Sunday God Quote from an Atheist

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” – Carl Sagan

It may seem counterintuitive to put a quote by an Atheist as your Sunday God Quote of the week. However, I couldn’t help but notice, though I am a Theist, that I agree very much with what Carl Sagan said.

I know that one problem Atheist have with God-believers is this notion of heaven, of an eternal somewhere in the great by-and-by, with streets of gold and shiny angels. It can be especially galling to the Atheist when they see the notion of heaven used to subjugate people, get them to accept their “lot” in life with a promise of something glorious after death. Or when heaven is an excuse to destroy the earth you live on, to strip it bare of resources and pollute it because, after all, it is all going to be burned up and replaced in the end. Or simply because it is too unbelievable, too much of an almost literal pie-in-the-sky mentality that distracts from the reality, both good and bad, of the life and the world we have to live here and now.

Though I am a Christian, have spoken and taught about heaven and the afterlife described in the Bible, have sung lots of songs about eternity and eternal life, and believe in resurrection (a necessity, I find, to accept that “Jesus Christ is Lord” thing), I have never been particularly motivated in my life by a great promise of a Hereafter. To me, the concept of a possibility of a life after this one doesn’t give me my motivation to get out of bed in the morning, to go to work, to love my family, to do good things, to consider people, to work for peace, to take care of my environment, to hug trees (which I do now and again) or snuggle with animals (which I try to do more often than now and again). Heaven is too out there, too vague, too undefined, to be something I cling to on a daily faith basis. And, frankly, I find believers who spend inordinate amounts of time thinking and talking about it kind of annoying. They are so often missing out on the original gift their God has given them: Life. Here. Now. Right in front of their flippin’ nose.

The older I get, the more I find Life fascinating. Perhaps it is because of that creeping sense of mortality. But I am learning not to be afraid of that inevitability, or even to soften the blow by talking of heaven, but to instead realize that if God has given me this time, I have a responsibility to give that time back, to live to the fullest I am capable of living, to embrace my gifts and abilities, to love people without holding anything back. In this way I am in total agreement with Carl Sagan: “Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

Amen, Carl. Preach it. I may get me a turtleneck or two just to be more like you.

I realize that the concept of Heaven has been very, very important for oppressed people groups or people in terrible straights or conditions. In that kind of circumstance, the pondering of a God who loves you so much as to embrace you and bring you Home one day is lovely and, honestly, comforting. But for a North American Christian like myself, one who has known nothing but religious freedom all my life, who has been given so much, I choose not to focus on Heaven but on earth and on what each day brings to me. Here. Now. Right in front of my flippin’ nose.

Until Death It Is All Life

Ronald Kok, Until Death It i All Life, Craft Foam Mosaic, 2017

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 315: Saturday Life Quotes – In Flanders Fields

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Ronald Kok, Remembrance, Mixed Media, 2017

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

John McCrae was a physician and poet from Guelph, Ontario. Though his training allowed him to be in the medical corps, he volunteered to be a part of a fighting unit in World War I. McCrae was in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of France. In 1915, after presiding over a funeral for his good friend, he was inspired to write the poem that is perhaps the greatest memorial contribution of any soldier of any era: “In Flanders Fields”.

The legacy of his words lives on in the poppies that dominate this time of year in Canada and elsewhere. Many pin a paper poppy to their jackets or shirts, over their hearts, in the days leading up to an including Remembrance Day – today, November 11.

This week I’ve done my own act of remembrance through the truthful and powerful paintings of A.Y. Jackson, showing the devastated landscapes he witnessed in the Great War. Jackson’s work reminds me of the human toll and the reality of the blood, mud, anxiety, violence and tragedy that is war. There is no glory in his images.

It is important, too, to remember John McCrae not in some iconic, glorified way, but as a Canadian man who gave us a brief but enduring tribute to the men he saw broken and killed by conflict. His intention was to give a small act of remembrance.

McCrae would not live to see the end of the war as his life was taken by disease, a common fatality of war that is often overlooked. As my own act of remembrance this week, I’ve included an artwork I did recently. I found that I wasn’t able to properly convey the emotions of considering the sacrifice and horror of war. But maybe that confusion and frustration on my part is fitting. We should never be able to make “sense” of things that are ultimately senseless.

Below is McCrae’s poem:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 314: A.Y. Jackson, Veteran’s Week #5

vimy-ridge-souchez-valley

A.Y. Jackson, Vimy Ridge, Souchez Valley, 1918

Vimy Ridge. There are names of locations that are meaningless to many which hold endless meaning to others. To Canada and Canadian history, Vimy Ridge, or just Vimy, is crucial to the formation of a national identity. The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place from April 9-12, 1917 in France but the name resounds the most thousands of kilometers away and across the Atlantic.

The comments on the Wikipedia page for Vimy Ridge will suffice to explain:

Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training… The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

Here is that massive memorial

vimy memorial

As I have never visited this memorial in person, I could only guess that it is powerful to be there. This year, marking one-hundred years since the battle, was particularly significant, though the memorial sees thousands of Canadian and other visitors every year.

Memorials can be impressive and important, but to me the painting by A.Y. Jackson of Vimy Ridge gets to the truth of it all, where boots on the ground, severed limbs and spilled intestines, smoke, fire and fear told the real story. In Jackson’s depiction the trees are shattered, the ground gouged with fissures. It is ironically lit by a spring day sunshine, giving a false sense of peace to a place of battle.

In my mind, Jackson’s painting provides the reminder that simple pieces of ground can cost a great price in life and wounded bodies, in trauma and death. It can also be the place where great acts of heroism and sacrifice were on display, as well as great acts of barbarity and violence.

Ultimately, it is just another place on the map, with trees and grass, soil and flowers, soaking up the rain, drinking in the sunshine. In that way, perhaps it is a fitting memorial to a defining moment of national identity. Canada is also just another place on the map, with many features similar to other countries, with people who experience the same problems and joys. But that same-ness doesn’t equal insignificance, just as the simple ridge in France doesn’t equate to being just another piece of high ground in the landscape.

We are the ones who infuse meaning to places and events. A.Y. Jackson has grounded us in that reality. It is not Vimy Ridge that defined a nation, it was the people – then and there and beyond – that defined and continue to define Canada, for better of for worse.