I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else. “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . . but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.
It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully. And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through. It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.
We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful.
I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective. But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together. Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.
I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”
And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable. And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing. And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture. Breakage. It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values. Including lives.
How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?
How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.
If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides. And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.
And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song. Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.
And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.
“Motet” is 14 minutes long. The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.
Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful. Listeners lean in. They pause, and then linger. They close their eyes. Some cry.
And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.
Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”
This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”
And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant: “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time. So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”
We cannot, in short, be separated from one another. Cause cannot be separated from effect. And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really. We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.
And this is precisely the thing. “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context. It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.
And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.
Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls. It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.
And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture. It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.
“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey. That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still
Not unlike our covenants with one another.
That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves. The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken. The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”
In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.
Sacred song in secular space is not a break. It’s a return.
And here is its promise as best I know it:
What has come before is not gone. It is here with us, here for us, still. Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.
This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean. It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean. It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.
In two days, “Motet” will close. The song will once again fall silent.
But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.
It is not, yet, too late.