Finding the Seam

Finding the Seam

My Watercolor from Several Years Back

I admit that this is highly unorthodox, but I’m going to post the talk I’m planning on giving before the Samaritan Sunday School class at the First Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas later this morning (hoping that none of the class members will find and read this in advance). This is a class of adults that I came to love deeply about twenty years ago when I was asked on a number of occasions to speak before them.  They even invited me to attend a weekend retreat at Lake Murray Lodge in Oklahoma, serving as a conference speaker.  The memories of them have always been rich, even though we drifted in different directions over the past decades. Recently they found me again and invited me back last Sunday.  Today I will close out my series with them.  Thanks for reading:

Finding the Seam[1]

          Good morning. The title of this morning’s meditation is “Finding the Seam.”  I shared with you last Sunday that my mind has already surged ahead to summer, that I have already booked a cabin in Colorado so I can pursue my passion of fly fishing for wary trout.  I only regret that I still have twelve weeks of classes to endure.  Once that final bell sounds, I will experience escape velocity.  I’ll begin by visiting Mom and Dad in St. Louis, but only for a short time.  I believe it was either Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain who once remarked that fish and house guests begin to smell after three days.  So I’ll only trouble my parents for three days.  Then I’ll point my Jeep west for a nice, extended over-the-road trip, Jack Kerouac-style, to pick up, as though it were a hitchhiker, a life that I dropped off a few years back.

I recall the words of the author Robert Travers, snickering at the reputation of the frustrated artist, and identifying himself as an unfrustrated fly fisherman.  I don’t think I have ever been a frustrated artist, but I do know that I regard myself as an unfrustrated fly fisherman. It was not always so.  In my redneck days of rod-and-reel river fishing, I heard people say that if you spend the beautiful day outside and never catch a fish, it’s still been a good experience, imbibing the beauty of the outdoors.  Well, I knew that for me that certainly was not true.  If I fished all day and got skunked, it sucked.  But once I converted to fly fishing all that changed profoundly.  There is a ritual that comes with rigging up.  I used to want to jump out of the vehicle, and get my line into the water as quickly as possible. I always wished that I could have the rod-and-reel ready and baited up, and that I didn’t have to drag a tackle box and folding chair and minnow bucket and stringer and lunch pail and all that stuff down to the river’s edge.  I just wanted to catch fish and catch ‘em fast.

Fly fishing, for me, was a revelation, an entrance into a new world.  Indeed I’ve heard some speak of fly-fishing as reverently as religion.  In fact, Norman Maclean opens his famous book with this hook: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”[2]  I have to testify in all seriousness that Colorado fly-fishing always restores my weary soul.  I take my time, rigging up the fly rod, tying on tippet and flies, pulling on waders and boots, all the while sensing the river rolling by as it has for millions of years. And then, to approach the river, survey its dynamics, and step into the stream—at that point, I feel my breathing change and sense that my heartbeat has settled down. And yes, if I fly fish the entire day without a hit, it’s still been a most magnificent day to be alive, outside, and away from the daily routine.

Ever since I read the book by former New York Times editor Howell Raines titled Fly Fishing Through the Mid-Life Crisis, and then saw that marvelously engaging film based on Maclean’s novella titled A River Runs Through It, I knew I was missing out on something spectacular in this life.  Even in high school, when I read Ernest Hemingway’s two-part short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” I knew I wanted to hold a fly rod in my hand one day, and step into a mountain stream.  It would be different from what I had known as a child growing up with a cane pole and later a rod and reel.       
Over the past decade, every time I stood in a stream, beneath the shadows of a Colorado canyon, Emerson’s words from his very first book would come whispering back out of the atmosphere to soothe  me, as he wrote: “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”[3]  Drawing from another Emerson metaphor, I can testify that when I enter that place, I cast off my years like a snake does his skin, and remain forever a child.  In the river I find perpetual youth.  In the river, I return to reason and faith.

As I listen to the sounds of water rushing over and around the rocks, past my boots as it cuts through the banks, I hear Maclean’s words coming back to me: “Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”[4]

Now, when one steps into that swift stream, the casual eye will see only a large volume of water surging past.  But there is so much more going on, as anyone observing long enough will come to realize.  The water is running past in channels, or separate lanes, if you please.  Some of those lanes are flowing faster than others.  And oftentimes you will notice that there are pockets of water that are hardly moving at all.

What the fly fisherman is looking for are the seams dividing those channels.  More specifically, the fly fisherman is looking for the seam that separates moving water from still water, or at least the swifter water from the lazy current.  The trout, you see, are lined up in the slower lanes, where they can just hang out with as little effort as possible, and they have their noses in the seam, watching the swift current carry the insects by.  The fly fisherman drops his fly in the seam and lets the current carry it down the lane, past those lines of fish, in hopes that the fly looks real enough that one of them will dart out and take it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are institutions of American literature, but few people really know what these nature writers are doing. Their school of thought is called New England Transcendentalism, and it urges that for every physical element we perceive, there is a higher, corresponding truth.   And that is where I am going with this morning’s remarks about fly-fishing in mountain streams.  This morning’s topic is about that seam that divides the forces, the fault line separating the dual channels.  There are several modern thinkers I wish to share with you this morning who had intriguing ideas about these seams we find in life.

Paul Tillich, early in his life, published a book titled On the Boundary.  His “boundary” is the same as the “seam” I’ve just been discussing.  The boundary is what separates opposing forces—it’s the seam that separates opposing ideas.  It is the seam that not only divides the camps, but appears to hold them together in tension.  Tillich found that boundary cutting through his religious traditions, his university responsibilities and his daily tasks.

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he described the human condition as a rope stretched over an abyss, between the beast and the person of excellence.  The actual life is the journey across that rope, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous across, a process and not a destiny.  Life is that narrow seam, cutting through the abyss. On one side are the traditions and on the other are the discoveries. We keep threading the path, one step at a time, between the standards and the experiments.

Karl Barth, a contemporary of Tillich, and likewise indebted to Nietzsche, used the same imagery when he described his life as a dialectical theologian.  He said he had to walk a narrow precipice and keep moving so he would not be in danger of falling to one side or the other.  He was describing the extreme party positions of his day, between the Protestant Liberalism of the late nineteenth century, and the Neo-Orthodoxy of the early twentieth.  Barth testified that the challenge lay in threading the seam between them, always moving forward.

What is that fault line?  What is that junction in the midst of the dualism?  Where are the seams in your life?  Well, I’d like to take the time to point out a few possibilities for thought this morning.  In his first book The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that there was indeed a seam in the human spirit, but not a division between soul and body as Plato and all his descendents assumed.  Taking his lead from ancient Greek theater, Nietzsche said the two patron gods Apollo and Dionysus personified this dualism, with Apollo representing our reasonable side and Dionysus portraying our passionate side.  Apollo was the tradition and Dionysus was the exploration. These sides are not to be equated with good and evil, by any means.  Nietzsche urged that either extreme was unhealthy.  In the centuries following Greek theater, Aristotle himself urged that all forms of extremism are wrong; the healthy human soul should seek the Golden Mean, another nice synonym for the seam, the fault line that passes between the extremes.  It is easy to see the two sides of reason and passion in our individual makeup.  One side of our makeup is given to order, to rules, to convention, to propriety.  The other side explores the drama, the new, the adventure, the creative impulse.  Neither side can yield a fullness of life.  Regimentation is no way to live life in its fullness, but neither is recklessness.

Another seam that could be found in personal life, if I may draw from the world of basic mechanics, is that line separating Intake and Exhaust.  As human beings, we require nourishment as well as exercise, intake as well as output.  And in our everyday social lives, we take steps to take care of ourselves, and we also find opportunities to reach out to others in our circle.  Throughout my life, in the workplace, and among my circles of friends, I’ve seen many suffer from a dreadful imbalance, and I certainly have suffered it myself.  Exhaustion occurs when you spend all you have in personal resources to prop up others, and neglect your own basic needs.  I still remember the first time I heard the word “burn-out.”  It was used by NFL head coach Dick Vermeil, when he abruptly retired from coaching the Philadelphia Eagles after a Super Bowl loss.  He had been driven like a locomotive, sleeping little, skipping meals, and even keeping a cot in his coaching office instead of going home at night to his family.  Finally, he collapsed in exhaustion and retired.  In his press conference, he described his personal life as “burned out.”

Then there is that other extreme—the individual who lives only for the self and develops a kind of spiritual autism.  When people are elderly we sometimes use the word shut-ins to describe a lifestyle that no longer leaves home, and experiences no one coming in to check on welfare.  They turn in on themselves and eventually their world is just an internal world.  Likewise there are those who in younger years find ways to close themselves off from meaningful contact.  Many times they are diagnosed with clinical depression.  Some are brutally honest and say they just don’t like people and prefer to be left alone.  At times they can degenerate into suspicion and paranoia.

I have often in the past held up Jesus of Nazareth as a prime example of one who poured himself out in the service of multitudes, but balanced it with retreats into solitude where virtually no one knew where he was staying.  He avoided the exhaustion by taking quality time to pay himself and revive.  You could count on it.  If the New Testament record testifies to his spending an entire day teaching, arguing, healing and resolving disputes between parties, you could then find him in absentia the following day.  He is in a mode of prayer and meditation.  In solitude he regains his focus and determines what to do next in his ministry.

Another seam that I would like to address this morning was brought up last Sunday, and that concerns what lies between the individual and the social dimensions of our being.  I once heard a psychology teacher defining introvert and extrovert in the following way: the introvert knows the self and stands confidently in that identity, whereas the extrovert depends on others to define his or her identity.  Some people are more private, so they may be referred to as introvert, whereas others are more gregarious and are therefore deemed as extrovert.  But the human being functions in solitude as well as corporate activity.  And as a teacher I’m just as concerned with one extreme as the other.  Parents are understandably upset at a son or daughter that comes home and broods, choosing to withdraw from family and friends.  Other parents are equally perturbed at the child who comes home with the cell phone perpetually in the line of vision, knowing it’s going to stay there for the duration of the night.  Because, you see, some teens are terrified at the thought of being alone.  If no one out there is talking to them, then they have become meaningless.  And Tillich testified that the fear of becoming meaningless is one of the gut-level anxieties that plague the modern consciousness.

And finally, the seam dividing Time from Eternity. While living for two years, two months and two days in a cabin beside Walden pond, Henry David Thoreau penned these words:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.[5]

That makes my heart flutter.  In the sixth century before Christ, two pre-Socratic philosophers argued over whether the essence of life was time or eternity. Heraclitus said “You cannot set foot in the same river twice.  All things flow; nothing abides,” while Parmenides argued that time is only illusion; there is only Eternity, there is only Being.

Henry David Thoreau, bending over to drink from a flowing stream said:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.[6]

Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

So, life as a river surges forward, cutting a path between the extremes: Reason and Passion, Intake and Output, Individual and Social, Time and Eternity.  At any rate, it moves forward, in a perpetual flowing stream, never stopping. Emerson mused that few people could look at a flowing river and not make the transcendental leap to contemplating life as a moving stream meandering along its path, enriched by the seams embedded in that contextual flow.

That is my testimony this morning.  Life’s river is comprised of many seams dividing the channels.  And in those seams are clues that offer a greater understanding of life’s choices and rich possibilities.

 

[1] Sermon delivered at Arlington First United Methodist Church, 6 March 2016.

[2]Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), p.1.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 24.

[4] A River Runs Through It, p. 113.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 142.

[6] Ibid.

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2 Responses to “Finding the Seam”

  1. Elaine Jary Says:

    David, A beautiful image, and inspiring words. Thank you for sharing your talk. I am in awe of your literary knowledge and creative thought process. As you would say, “I’m not worthy!”

    Elaine

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    • davidtripp Says:

      Elaine, you are much too kind and always encouraging, thank you! Today I saw that lovely commission you just finished and it is absolutely stunning. Someone is going to be so proud of his little girl! Thank you for bringing joy into others’ lives with your art.

      Like

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