“Watch now … he will run to the middle of the road and stop …” We were watching a chipmunk on a warm, sunny spring afternoon. Chapel service was over. The inmates had returned from chow. I was spending some time visiting with them in the prison yard.
“It’s just two notes – the tonic and the dominant. He adds a few frills, a Dies Irae …” I was listening to Stephen Hough discuss Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
It’s wonderful when self-reflection combines with a willingness to change. Life suddenly becomes richer, fuller. In the simplest things one finds immense pleasure. But self-reflection takes time, and change requires faith and courage.
Jesus was incarcerated. He was a big boy from the city. His large frame housed a gentle spirit. I sat next to him on the stone wall near the prison yard along the side of one of the facility roads. Jesus had dropped a crumb of bread on the grass in front of us. On the other side of the road appeared a chipmunk. With motions quick – the typical stop-and-start movements of these little creatures, it moved to the side of the road opposite that crumb of bread, and shifted its glance from the bread, to us, and back to the bread.
“Watch now,” said Jesus to me. “He will run to the middle of the road, stop, then turn around and run back. And then, he will pause, look around, and sprint all the way across the road to get this piece of bread.” After several seconds, the chipmunk did exactly as Jesus had said. The creature shot out to the middle of the road, stopped, reversed his course, went back to where he had come from. Then suddenly, he made a beeline across the road and went for the bread at our feet. We burst out laughing, taking great glee both in the antics of the critter and the accuracy of the predicted behavior.
“How did you know that?” I asked. I was amazed at the intimate knowledge of chipmunk psychology and behavior demonstrated by this convicted felon doing time in upstate New York.
“Chaplain,” said Jesus to me, leaning in a little closer and bending his head in my direction, “I have a lot of time, and I’ve been watching the chipmunks.” Then, looking down at the tiny animal, Jesus broke off a few more pieces from the slice of bread he had acquired at the prison mess hall. A big smile was on his face. I sensed great peace in his heart … and joy in his soul. He was in prison, but he wasn’t just “doing time”. He was taking time; and he was learning, growing, noticing things around him and within him. In this rural mountain environment which was so different from the ‘hood’ where he grew up and did his crimes, Jesus was discovering new things about the world, and it delighted him. He was a faithful attender at chapel every week, and a source of strength and comfort to his fellow inmates. And on that warm, sunny spring Sunday afternoon, sitting next to him, I found myself learning from him. Maybe I was even a bit envious. I would leave the facility in another hour – back to the freedom of “outside”. But would I value the blessings I was immersed in?
Aside from the octave, the most powerful interval in music is the fifth – called the “perfect fifth”. Sing the Christmas song: “Do you hear what I hear?” The note on the word “hear” is a perfect fifth above the notes on “do you”. Rachmaninoff takes Caprice #24, composed by Niccolo Paganini, and transforms it into a masterpiece for piano and orchestra. In its purest essence, the piece is two notes – the “tonic” (the “A” in A Major/minor), and the “dominant” (the “E” in A Major/minor).
Rachmaninoff adds a grace note, and suddenly everything is different. (Grace has a way of doing that …) But musicians and scholars agree that, had the composer not turned the simple tune upside down, we might never have heard of this piece for piano and orchestra. It certainly would not have been as popular as it is. In Variation 18, Rachmaninoff starts the melody not on the tonic, but on the dominant. And rather than working his way up, he lets the music cascade down – and in a major key. It is a magical moment – a moment, says pianist Stephen Hough, when the entire audience listens, and breathes a deep sigh. All seems right with the world.
Time. The capacity to notice – to observe and learn. And the willingness to turn things upside down. To “come round right”, and be filled with joy.
Jesus – the felon – was tuned in to Jesus – the Messiah; and though he had done wrong, this city boy found forgiveness. In spite of being incarcerated – or perhaps because of the time it afforded him to take notice – he had come to see creation as a sign of love and light. He let creation embrace him and entertain him.
Rachmaninoff, the composer, turned a tune on its head – and mysteriously, intensity was transformed into magnificent beauty.
Before you run out of it, may you let time embrace you, turn you around. May there be beauty equal to your life’s intensity. It doesn’t have to be Rachmaninoff … but let some piece of music thrill your soul. And may some part of God’s mysterious creation teach you something and bring you some laughter.
Thursday blessings to you!
Is it too late to turn things around? NY Times – Lag in Confronting Climate Change