A Chronicle of Lightning Bolts
1st Place Billings Prize Sermon 2021 | Harvard Divinity School
WATCH HERE / TRANSCRIPT BELOW
A reading from Moments of Being, by Virginia Woolf:
“Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
I’ve been writing love letters to Virginia Woolf. She has become one of my most favorite quarantine companions. She tucks me in late at night and rouses me wild early in the morning. I started reading her again earlier this year with Professor Stephanie Paulsell. Virginia Woolf famously wrote herself from the stream until one day she walked herself into a river. Her texts chronicle the currents of consciousness. She is the Bard of the Bardo, swimming somewhere between being and nonbeing (which is why I fancy her more of a Buddhist than a non-believer — a meditator who is fond of those sudden enlightenments).
The title of Woolf’s visionary masterpiece — To the Lighthouse — was likely inspired by her Quaker aunt and benefactor, Caroline Emelia Stephen, who once said, “God communicates like a lighthouse–intermittently.” This mystical symbol holds together the novel’s three sections — a holy trinity of vivid impressions.
Like much of Woolf’s work, it is a book about women and creativity. Women, be they homemakers or painters, are the creators of civilization. They are the ones who keep culture alive, especially during wartime, or in our case, pandemic time. They are the space holders, gatherers, nurturers, feast-makers, merry-makers, and contemplators who color in the abstract lines.
In A Room of One’s Own — another masterwork — Virginia writes, “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” I think of my own mother, who wasn’t allowed to go to college (neither was Virginia Woolf). My mom wanted to become a writer, but she became a secretary instead. Her fast moving fingers fed our family all along. She was a silent transcriber, a modest virtuoso playing piano key punches of alphabet, the musical clatter of a document. The sound of paper being reloaded, the machinery of ink, the measurement of margins, the bell ring ding! The typewriter is an engine, a 5-speed stick shift not everyone knows how to drive. Manual transmission. Everyone in my lineage works with their hands. Tailors, typists, bartenders, musicians, masseuse.
Today, we are not allowed to touch. How do we stay in love when it is ordained that we stay estranged? How do we endure Time Passing? We must write beyond the boundaries of our own time. For our future selves. For our unknown lovers. For the soul survivors.
We have become islands to one another. Can my shoreline call to yours? Let us beam the light and make our way over the waves. Art is my raft and my religion and my aim is to become fluent in the beautiful. The deep end kick… Keep swimming… Meditation is a free swim.
Professor Paulsell recently allowed us a room of our own to free write about how art is made. I paused before the prompt, pondering my own creative flows as a she-maker, a beat-maker, and asked myself this: How do I write songs?
A chronicle of lightning bolts… I’m polishing glassware at Old Man Rafferty’s, my hometown restaurant, in a starch white collar Walmart button down, clip on tie, 19ish, making money by serving American plates of gluttony. I polish dishwater dirty chalices as chords flow loud and silent through my mind. “Hopscotch”… inspired by Julio Cortazar’s novel… the vocal chant is simply his name times three: “Julio! Julio! Julio!” but the name is maybe just a placeholder, and this kind of analysis of how I come to words (or how words come to me) is meaningless in the moment of song’s birth. I hear the beat and the chords first. A simple melodic metronome of repetition. A surf swell variation of chapter turning. Like video game levels, one room passes into the next.
A bell rings, summoning me to deliver some plates to Table 23. I go with a dish in each hand, song still in my head, each step of my foot in sync with an invisible drum. My body does its chores, my head keeps composing. No one hears the obsessive replay, over and over and over, polishing the dishwater dirty chalice.
Another time… wide awake suddenly upon my East Village twin mattress. The dream woke me up like an excited 4 year old on Christmas Day. It’s the jingle for my soon-to-be song child “Bang Bang Sun” — fully complete, fresh baked out of the oven of sleep. Thank divinity for shooting me vertical to write it down. And by write it down, I mean record it into my handheld tape cassette. Just the hum of it. The hum of it is the all of it. The rest will come later. Fit in words, tailored to the suit of tune.
And more recently… on a grocery ritual at the Stop and Shop across the street. I’m in the parking lot when a lyric comes (a rare find… I usually leave lyrics for last): “no lovers, no drugs, no lovers, no drugs, and it’s painful not to touch, yeah it’s painful not to touch. Corona, your crush, Corona, too much, and it’s painful not to touch, yeah it’s painful not to touch.”
I pick my apples playing the new verse again and again in my head — stunned by the immediate delivery. I do the motions of shopping, of sanitized scanning, mouthing the words undetected behind my mask. I drop the bags off in the kitchen and put away the perishables. I live with too many people and we are ordered to stay indoors, but I race back outside to the back alley behind the apartment to pace back and forth with my new sudden song. I hear the honky tonk guitars and heartbeat kick drums in the ether, but for now, it’s just me and my Voice Memo making out the melody of the words. A thick throaty lullaby.
After the lightning comes the thunder… the longer crackling and rumbling of wrestling with sound. The meticulous again and again of attempting perfect takes (do I even ever want to finish it or get it “right”?) I love swimming in the thunder.
And then there’s this other dimension. The performance of it. The performance also having multiple dimensions, either the “perfected” artifact of the recording (that I sometimes think only belongs to the artist — the memento of achievement, of perfect vision, an alien greeting card of genius to put away in your file of favorite things). Or is the artifact something more virtuous and generous, a maternal surrender
of everything to everyone, the raising of a child who is raised to abandon you to be their own being — their own song — another life belonging to infinite unknown strangers?
And then there’s the dimension of playing on a stage. The concert hall’s ritual room that no one can really know unless you were really there, bathed in vibration, in real time sync with me and you and everyone as I run a race on stage, an athletic feat of keeping beat, demonstrating musical magic tricks and illusions that mystify even me. Where does this music come from? I feel like Tesla juggling gravity and electricity and galaxies, and maybe you’re with me, and when you are, holy moly do we explode in glorious chorus!
Oh, but how often I knew the stomach ache of an empty room. Of sparse uncomfortable folks retreating into their phones. I think they think they are sparing me the embarrassment. They think: I won’t look; while I think: Didn’t you come here to look? To see and hear me? To hear Us? The emptiness magnetizes our intimacy.
It is true that the audience has to perform also. They have the task of paying attention and mirroring enthusiasm. It’s not easy to listen or to let go and dance. So that job’s on me. Can I hurdle the emptiness of the space to make you believe in me? Believe in yourself? Or will I cramp and limp from my miserable insecurity and collapse upon the altar for all to see? Either kill it, or die. I close my eyes when I’m in it, in the best way. And I close my eyes when I’m crumbling in, in the worst way. Sometimes getting angry helps me out of the alligator pit of spotlit loneliness. And the despair happens so often that I sympathize greatly with those who quit. (Dear Virginia…)
But just enough times, at just the right time, come the glory times — the intermittent light of the lighthouse — the moments of being that are so huge and so everything that faith rushes back to help me doubt my own doubt. I would describe them here, but in truth, you had to be there.
For now, let us use Virginia’s vision to carry one another across to the other shore, to the light, to the living, gathered again around a table, back in a classroom, back in the dance hall, for as she writes, “…we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Till we meet again… Amen.