Monday, January 31, 2011


We had been at it for months.  What started out as an exciting quest had grown to become a tedious search.  One evening as my family was leaving for another hunt for a new home, my then-seven-year-old-son drew a picture of a stick figure family standing in front of a house. His commentary of our home search came across loud and clear:  there was a big, fat X over the picture with the words “NO NO NO” written underneath.  It seemed we had exhausted more than just the MLS listings.

About that time, my sister-in-law came to our rescue.  She went for a walk in our neighborhood and found the house that would soon become our home.  It was only two blocks away from where we'd been living.  This wasn’t the first time she'd helped us make the perfect match.  She was also instrumental in getting my husband and I together in the first place.

I did a little exercise for the fun of it, contemplating how I came to find the things I value most in life.  So many times, I’m given precisely what I need exactly when I need it by means of another person.  These gifts have come in many forms:  besides my home and my husband, I’ve been given words of comfort, encouraging smiles, inspiring examples, and opportunities to serve that have helped me find a whole new facet of my life. 

God often works through people to inspire and bless His children—a touch of the Divine clothed in humanity’s hands and hearts.

Another way of putting that is found in the lyrics of a song my sister sent me (yes, another gift). 
Click on the link to hear it performed:

Geodes by Carrie Newcomer
No, you can’t always tell one from another.
And it’s best not to judge a book by it’s tattered cover.
I have found when I tried or looked deeper inside.
What appears unadorned might be wondrously formed.
You can’t always tell but sometimes you just know.

Around here we throw geodes in our gardens.
They’re as common as the rain or corn silk in July.
Unpretentious browns and grays the stain of Indiana clay.
They’re what’s left of shallow seas, glacial rock and mystery,
And inside there shines a secret bright as promise.

All these things that we call familiar
Are just miracles clothed in the commonplace.
And you’ll see if you try in the next stranger’s eyes,
That God walks 'round in muddy boots, sometimes rags and that’s the truth,
You can’t always tell but sometimes you just know.

Some say geodes were made from pockets of tears,
Trapped away in small places for years upon years.
Pressed down and transformed, 'til the true self was born, . . .  
We have come to believe there’s hidden good in common things.
You can’t always tell but sometimes you just know.

Carrie Newcomer
(1958 -      )

Carrie Newcomer is deep.  She has a rich, deep alto voice. She is deeply rooted in her Quaker faith.  And she reaches deep into the soul.

An article written about her by Megan Quinn in the Daily Camera begins, “Each day, singer Carrie Newcomer tries to see the sacred in the ordinary.”  Judging by the lyrics she writes, she is accomplishing this effort.  A fan commented on that article that she is very giving, donating a portion of her proceeds to soup kitchens, thus feeding not only the soul but the bodies of people in need.

Newcomer has released a dozen albums since her first solo came out in 1991.  Before that, she sang with the group Stone Soup and has two albums with them.  She was invited by the cultural outreach division of the American Embassy in India to represent the U.S. in 2009, touring India for a month.  While there, she saw that love and hope bridge cultural differences.

Quoting from the biography on her website,

About her impressions of India, Newcomer says, “Music can be a language deeper than words.  I love our differences.  Cultures are rich and what makes each culture unique is to be celebrated, but I was powerfully moved by what we share as a human family.”

Carrie Newcomer is a folk artist who combines her faith with her music. She makes universal truths meaningful by attaching them to personal stories. 

Concluding, again quoting from the bio on her website,

The Minneapolis City Pages wrote, “Newcomer’s musing is deeply introspective, but she offers it with a poet’s sense of nuance and a folkie’s common touch, turning philosophical theory into the stuff of people’s daily lives.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Botched Job

I sure botched that one.  Here I was just trying to be helpful and I found myself in the middle of something, only having made things worse.  The details aren’t important because it’s more of a recurring pattern than an isolated event.

It seems like life gives us plenty of opportunities to miscommunicate, miscalculate and mismanage.  In fact, with all the opportunities for mistakes it’s a wonder things go right as often as they do!

I learned something important while researching the story of the quintessential “botched job” written below.  The person responsible for the misfortune had a desire to do the best possible work under difficult circumstances.  I find this strangely comforting.  People generally have good intentions, even when the outcome of their efforts is undesirable.

It reminds me of a phenomenon I learned about recently called “the fundamental attribution error.”  This is the term for the tendency people have to misattribute mistakes as character deficits rather than consider the situational factors that led to the poor outcome.  In other words, if someone messes up people readily jump to the conclusion that the person responsible wasn’t careful enough.  Studies have shown that the reality is that more often than not, the person was doing the best they could under the circumstances they had to work with. 

This is scientific support of the maxim to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation,
and without being allowed the preliminary trials,
the failures and botches, that are essential for training.
Lewis Mumford

Ironically, in regards to the blunder I mentioned earlier, I made the “attribution error” myself.  I assumed the people involved would blame me, but I learned after apologizing that they were very understanding. It is sweet to be on the receiving end of the counsel to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Attributed to Philo, and Plato, and John Watson, and Ian MacLaren, and famously quoted by Marjorie Hinckley—I don’t want to be guilty of a misattribution error in print, you see.)

Sir Thomas Bouch
(1822 – 1880)

Thomas Bouch had a genius for design and efficiency.  He gained renown in the emerging railway business early in his career by designing the world’s first roll-on-roll-off ferry in 1850.  Up until that time, travel came to a screeching halt whenever trains approached a wide body of water in order to transfer from track to ferry and then back to the railroad track.  His ferry system streamlined the transfer.

Bouch further distinguished himself as a brilliant railway engineer.  His bridge designs were elegant, simple structures that were both attractive and economical.  He had the reputation for being able to “thread his lines between unlikely places.”   He was so dedicated to his profession that at times he charged only one-fifth of the going rate for his services.  Between that and his economical designs, even areas with small railway traffic could afford to construct his railways and bridges. 

The crowning jewel of Bouch’s achievements would also become his greatest sorrow:  the Tay Bridge near Dundee, Scotland. At the time of its construction, it was the longest bridge in the world.  There were major setbacks; the worst of which was the discovery that the riverbed was not as solid as surveyors predicted so the center section had to be redesigned.  Despite this fact, it was ready for use within a few weeks of the planned completion date in 1878.  The Tay Bridge was considered a triumph of engineering.  People marveled at the ability to cross the Tay estuary in only eight minutes—an hour less than it took to make the journey by ferry. Bouch was showered with accolades.  Queen Victoria even traveled to ride his bridge and knighted him Sir Thomas.

The Tay Bridge outside of Dundee, Scotland (before the disaster).
Then disaster struck.  Less than twenty months after the bridge was opened for travel, it collapsed during a violent windstorm.  Unfortunately, a train was crossing the bridge at the time and nearly four-score people died.  There was an inquiry and it was determined that the bridge had been poorly maintained and built of sub-standard materials.  And poorly designed.  Bouch was devastated and died of illness a year after the inquiry pointed the finger of blame at him.

After the Tay Bridge disaster, the saying went abroad that “Don’t botch the job” came from the botched Bouch Bridge.  When I looked up the definition of “botch” in my 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, I was surprised to find how the word was defined.  Long before the Bouch Bridge disaster, the word meant “ill-finished work in mending; a part added clumsily.”  Though Bouch’s name became associated with “botch,” it was not the source of the word.  It seems this major botch was really an effort to do the best job under difficult circumstances.  The important thing is lessons were learned from the errors and people still remember Bouch for his contributions, and not just for his one big failure.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Creating "En-theos-iasm"

“That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” she said. “He calls Pachelbel a composer and it’s the name of a piece of music.” I listened to my co-worker assert this repeatedly before I finally tentatively suggested that Pachelbel was, in fact, a composer. But my mealy-mouthed contradiction wasn’t very convincing. If she and I were to debate the question, I had nothing but the facts on my side, for she had all the confidence and gift of persuasion.

Before resolving the matter, let's meditate on the music.  There’s a difference between listening to Pachelbel’s classic Canon in D and working through the piece, playing the notes and feeling your soul swell with the sweet strains.  When you join hands with the composer to create your interpretation of his work, it touches you deeply.  You own a piece of it, along with the gift of sharing its soul-swelling joy with others.

The same thing can happen with classic books. A powerful thing happened to me when I began crafting words together to tell about the books I was reading.  This opened me up to receive inspiration and a connection with my Creator that made me excited about life, filled with enthusiasm.

The root word of enthusiasm is theos, or God. As I join hands with the Creator, seeking to step outside myself and give to others in meaningful ways, I feel joyful and capable. I love life; I love the people around me. I value their gifts and mine. I don’t feel small because others around me are great. I can see the genius in all of us.  I’ve even gained the confidence I need to convince a skeptic that Pachelbel is a composer!

“As you take the normal opportunities of your daily life
and create something of beauty and helpfulness,
you improve not only the world around you but also the world within you.”  Dieter F Uchtdorf

To hear a powerfully presented two-minute summary of President Uchtdorf's message, click on this link:
Johann Pachelbel
(1653 – 1706)

Johann Pachelbel was born in Germany to a family of humble means.  Early in life, his father recognized his musical talent so arranged for his tutelage by the organist of his local church in Nuremberg.  His abilities propelled him past class boundaries, so he was able to study in a school normally reserved for only the upper-class.  Although he was admitted, his father still had to pay the bills and he eventually ran out of resources and was forced to withdraw. 
This disappointment served to open the door to other opportunities.  Pachelbel soon found another school administration that was so impressed with him that they waived his fees, allowing him to attend on scholarship.  He eventually learned both German and Italian musical techniques which enriched the development of his own personal style.
Pachelbel became a church organist, often composing a new piece of music every week.  He was also an educator and mentored many musicians, including the Bach family.  He tutored Johann Sebastian Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph. In the Bach household there was a coveted piece of Pachelbel's music which Christoph forbade his younger brother from playing.  That ban effectively worked its magic to impel the young Johann Sebastian to study Pachelbel’s style.  He snuck a peek at the manuscript by moonlight every night for six months.
Pachelbel’s most famous work, Canon in D, has inspired scores of artists.  His influence is easily detected in many modern works of music and film.  He has been called by some “the intellectual progenitor of Bach” and by others “the father of modern music.”  His influence is expansive, crossing continents and centuries, but it also touches us personally as we take joy in his “soul-swelling strains.”