Paul Simon, The Voice of American Wandering, In Concert

Paul Simon played at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday with a full band, and I had the pleasure of seeing him and his opener Sarah MacLachlan, a singer I’ve seen twice, with my sister. Simon is a master and his presence fills the stage.

In his 70s, that legend of the 60s was swaying on stage, nodding and stretching out his arms, bobbing his wrist to simultaneously conduct the band. He led with his fingers and his chest like a much younger man.

The instruments: Mandolins, accordions, xylophones, trumpets and the staples: drums, a piano, and guitars. Some sea shells added sound too and a chime that looked like it was made out of spoons, although it surely wasn’t.

The crowd was mostly white, old and young. We sat and stood, bounced and bobbed, cheered and called.

He played my favorites: America, The Boxer, Graceland, Homeward Bound, Call me Al, many I did’t know and finally, alone on stage, The Sound of Silence–the classic that drew me into Simon and Garfunkle in my freshmen year of college.

There is no word for Paul Simon but master: he moves and commands attention with that easy grace of someone fully self-possessed, with the comfort that lacks self-consciousness and hesitance. His twirling wrist signaled the band and his hips moved with his guitar, whether it was acoustic or electric.

He carries that hard-won air of someone who has passed through the stages of craft and relationship:  1) being enamored with music, sound and fame–then 2) the ever-looming disillusionment at the pitfalls of an industry, fickle audiences and imperfect others, and then finally 3) to fully embrace the American musical scene as an institution and his role within it. To be a master, he didn’t abandon music or the audience, but took up his instruments and his listeners–the imperfections and all, and loved American folk music and its people, thereby lifting it–and us–to a higher level.

That’s what a true master does–he doesn’t abandon the imperfect world to seek a purified craft, but embraces the whole endeavor and so raises the water-level of the culture.

Paul Simon’s America

Simon’s music has wandered decades; he’s been and is the voice, the poet of America. His chords are the anthems of American folk music and the playlist of my dishwashing. The lyrics frequently touch on the peculiarities of the life of the poor. The Boxer for instance, tells the story of a young man gone out to seek his fortune;

“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.”

Simon’s heritage, the New York Jew, the Yankees fan, the hippie all bring together strains of America that unite our disparate factions and allow us to remember and cherish the collective past, something our nation often seems to struggle with.

Somehow, we believe that we are a class-free society, that one person can strive and rise, bootstrap-style to upper echelons. We are cantankerous; hard work is its own reward; we welcome the stranger, but aren’t afraid to put up our fists when we have to.

Wandering

Yet we are also highly individualistic and have a sub-culture of roaming–whether for itself or transplanting for work. There is a roaming spirit in Simon’s music that I think speaks for America, for that impulse to strike out alone, to wander, to be pilgrims, in a way, never quite at home.

The wandering spirit pops up in other areas of culture; I think of Jack Kerouac, On the Road and The Dharma Bums. More recently, writer Mary Karr surfed as an idealistic young woman before heading to college after a terrifying encounter hitchhiking. The drive to get up and go, to seek, seems part of our cultural ethos, or maybe it’s just a strain that interests me.

There is nevertheless always a tension or a balance between wandering and stability. The ability to tramp around depends on the stability of most of society–otherwise whose trains would they jump onto? Whose fields would feed them? But the wandering impulse is also a check to a way of a life which has forgotten to wonder.

When I think of the wandering pilgrimage type of life I course cannot help but think of St. Francis and the medieval European pilgrims trailing about from place to place, Canterbury or St. Juan Compostela. We are pre-programmed to search, and that makes sense to  me. Though I live in my home-metropolis, I still search.

But back to Paul Simon: what he captures to me is that wandering spirit, of seeking, of longing, and in the American voice, the poor pilgrim always searching out home. To see him was an honor, a legend who set the water-mark.

Questions: Do I have it right? What do you think of Paul Simon? Is there someone else who also or instead epitomizes American music? Who is your favorite music artist? what does that person’s work mean to you?

My DC Pilgrimage for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy

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The National Basilica in Washington DC

In September 2015, Pope Francis announced that 2016 would be a Jubilee Year of Mercy. This is a special year because the next scheduled Jubilee Year is 2025 so it is very early. This is essentially the Pope’s theme for a year and wherein he also offers a jubilee indulgence. I am excited because there is an opportunity for pilgrimage, details at the end of this post.

Pope Francis said:

“I entrust the organization of this Jubilee to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, in order that it may come to life as a new step on the Church’s journey in her mission to bring the Gospel of mercy to each person.
I am confident that the whole Church, which is in such need of mercy for we are sinners, will be able to find in this Jubilee the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy, with which we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time. Do not forget that God forgives all, and God forgives always. Let us never tire of asking forgiveness. Let us henceforth entrust this Year to the Mother of Mercy, that she turn her gaze upon us and watch over our journey: our penitential journey, our year-long journey with an open heart, to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.” (Announcement by Pope Francis, Vigil of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 14 March, 2015)

I am excited about this because I have recently come to see some things about myself in a new, most honest light. The timing of this Year of Mercy couldn’t be better.

I think it’s very easy for the Church to seem scary, like a house full of rules, judging eyes and hypocrisy. But that’s not the point at all! If it is, we are no better than the pharisees whom Jesus criticized in his own time.

Pope Francis said the Church is a field-hospital for sinners; Jesus said, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31-32).” And truly, if our vision is clear, we are all sinners.

The rules of the Church are meant to guide us in a healthy, happy life. They are not meant to condemn us for imperfection. Thisdifference is the entire message of Jesus in the Gospels.

Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy is helping to make that clear, in case it had perhaps become shadowed. He is making opportunities for we the faithful and also, for non-Catholics, so that hopefully the Church will be revealed as less intimidating and as more profoundly merciful and loving, and therefore more approachable. We believe that the Gospel is for everyone, that it is good news for all people. Let us show that it is truly good news by showing what He has done for us!

Here are some ways to celebrate!

  1. Go to Confession; receive God’s forgiveness.
  2. Check out the Year of Mercy events in your local parish or diocese.
  3. Perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
    1. Corporal Works: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, comfort the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead.
    2. Spiritual works: counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear patiently those who do us ill, pray for the living and the dead
  4. Make a pilgrimage to a Door of Mercy!
    1. This is a unique and cool opportunity; there are Doors of Mercy this year at most cathedrals and major churches. All you have to do is visit a Door of Mercy and pass through it. (Confession and Mass recommended beforehand).
    2.  Pope Francis said, “The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim traveling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. “
    3. The image of pilgrimage is especially meaningful to me because of how inspiring I found the stories of Christian pilgrims through out the years and because of my own efforts at making a modern pilgrimage and experiences thereon. Nothing quite captures my view of the faith and my love of the Middle Ages in one neat swoop.

So I’ll be making a pilgrimage to the National Basilica in Washington DC when the weather warms up. Date to be decided, but all friends are invited.