Influences: Artistry, Music, Writing, etc.

The application process for Starr King involves around 10 essay questions about a variety of topics. One of my favorite questions to answer was this: Name five writings, films, or artistic works that have influenced you and explain how they have helped shape your life. For me, the first challenge was a matter of cutting back from all the various works I could think of to the five that were most representative. I tried to get a mix of mediums, but the reality is that I’m most attached to words and music so everything is either writing or song. There is also callback to my first post here, and that e.e. cummings poem that inspired my first lay lead service. Beyond this being content wise interesting, I find the difference in writing style between the three pieces I’ve posted so far interesting; the blog post is casual, this is somewhat formal, the reflections are in between. 

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle for the first time during a particularly formative period of my life. After a year and a half of undergraduate study of biochemistry, I had found myself deeply unsatisfied with the path I was taking and questioning what direction I would take and which decisions were the “right” decisions to make. At the suggestion of a friend, I began reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books and was immediately hooked. When I finished reading Cat’s Cradle, I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling trying to absorb some of the experience I had just had. What was hitting me the hardest was the teachings of Bokononism, a religion that’s holy book begins with the words “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies”. In this fictional religion’s fictional holy book, believers are told to “live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” As a person struggling to do the “right” thing, the idea that you didn’t have to know exact and perfect truth to make decisions that were good was world changing for me. This concept of foma in general was also important to me because I regularly felt like I was drowning in a sea of people, religious and non-religious, who were obsessed with “truth” to an extent that seemed to only really provide barriers between them. I knew very few religious people at the time, but those who I did know were very focused on making sure other people knew the “truth”, meanwhile the very large number of atheists I knew at the time were very prone to ridiculing religious people for believing things that weren’t “true.” I had long been of the belief that religion, science, and any other ways of knowing things were for the most part just different paths to understanding the universe, and that what really mattered was to be kind to others and live in a way that makes you happy without hurting anyone else, but in a world where everyone seemed obsessed with knowing the “truth” it was complicated to express that. Cat’s Cradle gave me a jumping off point to discuss this idea with other people, and laid the foundations for my current belief that maybe absolute truth is unknowable, and so we create metaphors to try to explain all of that vast unknowable reality.

“Twice The First Time” a song by spoken word artist and rapper Saul Williams was really my first introduction to conscious hip-hop, a genre of music that to this day is heavily influential in my life. In my youth in almost exclusively white exurbia, the only hip hop I had access to was top 40s, commercial rap, which was routinely criticized by both my peers and parents as being reflective of what was wrong with “black culture”. I was uncomfortable with that criticism, because it seemed strange to me that people could criticize popular hip-hop was reflective of “black culture” without also finding critiques of “white culture” in other popular music, and because I enjoyed listening to the music. As I developed a consciousness of privilege and oppression, that criticism became even more uncomfortable. I was introduced to Saul Williams (along with other artists such as Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, The Roots, and Mos Def) by a friend during my Sophomore year of college, and was instantly hooked. This song in particular stood out to me because it seemed so honest, to be telling so much truth in a five minute package. Toward the middle of the song, the beat-boxing that provides the foundational rhythm of the song drops out and Saul Williams states “not until you’ve listen to Rakim on a rocky mountaintop have you heard hip hop”. Though in the years since I first hear this song I’ve found on each listening a new set of lyrics that speak to me, this moment in this song is the moment where I realized exactly how wrong popular conceptions of hip-hop could be, and where I started to really grasp the importance of letting people tell their own stories rather than imposing culturally constructed narratives on them.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society speech is powerful both in its content – a progressive vision for America – and it’s style – a masterfully framed and beautiful piece of political speech writing. I read this speech first while reading a book discussing George Lakoff’s theories about political framing and ways in which different framing can be used to more clearly communicate progressive values. As different concepts were introduced, different speeches were presented and the reader was invited to consider how that framing changed how people would receive those messages. As I read the speech, I was struck by how different both the ideas and the language were than the political language I was used to. My political awareness was formed during the Bush years, and reading a president talking about the importance of quality education and caring for the poor was beyond anything I had considered would be possible in the future, much less in the past. Reading it made me, and continues to make me, hopeful for a public discourse that includes conversations about our duty to care for one another, and reminds me of the importance of saying these things in a way that people know how to hear. It reminds me of the possibility of public speech to transmit radical ideas, and that if a time existed in the past where a president would talk about a “place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community” and try to implement policies that could make that place real, certainly there can be a time in the future where we can focus on more than just the accumulation of wealth.

I became familiar with the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as a sophomore in High School, and I believe that my deep love for it affected much of what I would go on to do in my life. Though some of my friends who shared my passion for the musical were mostly interested in the love story of Marius and Cosette or in Eponine’s pining for Marius, I was drawn to les aimes de l’ABC, and their passion for and dedication to attempting to change the world for the better. Now, it was obvious to me even then that they had failed to reach people and that more effective community organizing would perhaps have made their efforts more successful, but even though they failed to achieve their goal, I was still drawn to the idea that passionate dedicated people could make a difference.

The title line to e.e. cummings’ poem “love is the every only god” became stuck in my head at the end of the summer in 2011, as I was beginning my work at Preterm and my time as a Worship Associate. A fan since early in college of cummings’ disregard for proper use of punctuation, capitalization, or sentence order, I had been looking through a book of his poetry, idly in search of a clever or interesting sounding phrase when I happened upon “love is the every only god.” I sat and stared at the page and thought that perhaps it was the most true line of poetry I had ever read. I struggled with the god part of it though, as a person who had never been particularly comfortable with belief in God the lack of capitalization made is more simple for me. The phrase felt true though, true and powerful in a way few things have ever felt. Faced with the reality of this line of poetry feeling so true, while containing a reference to a thing called god that I had never quite believed in, I spent a lot of time thinking and dealing with the concept of god. Overall it was very good for me, and that line became the title of the first lay lead service I ever participated in as a worship associate.

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One thought on “Influences: Artistry, Music, Writing, etc.

  1. Reshanne says:

    There are those who focus on the love story… there are those who focus on the spirit of change and revolution… and there are those who focus on the righteous, dichotomous, horrifyingly blinded zealot that is Inspector Javert. Even more fascinating is his portrayal in the novel, where his moral ambiguity is not justified by faith and a troubled childhood, but is tipped into complete amoral non-ambiguity by his obvious sick joy over his own power… but at the same time, his character is sarcastic and witty, a real mean spirit but not a dumb crook- rather, a calculating mastermind! By his death you pity him because he finally feels a shadow of human selflessness and simply cannot handle it. He is such a strange and fascinating creation of the author, reflecting the worst in humanity with the label of justice.

    When someone writes a good bad guy… I’m telling you…

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