It’s Friday afternoon at 3:15 and I’m shredding troubles. All day I’ve started my classes by asking my students to write down anything that’s bothering them and seal it in an envelope. No one will read what you write, I promise. After a few minutes, they put their names on their envelopes and sign across the seal. Then I ask them to trust me to hold them for a little while. It’s the first day of class. Every one of them hands me an envelope, and I stash them out of sight.
Summer is officially over. For a week, every conversation I have includes the words, “How was your summer?” and almost everyone answers with some form of “It was great, how about yours?” We talk as though each of us existed in our own private Junes and Julys. I had my summer; you had yours. Now that school is back in session we reunite the space-time continuum and walk together through the same days.
Why do we think we can own the summer? In my summer it was hot, and the rain finally fell. I woke each morning without an alarm to a cacophony of birds perched on my deck and the steady breathing of Fred and Rusty, my two external heartbeats. I played piano and violin, cleaned my house, read, worked out, and went for long bike rides. You could draw a circle around my neighborhood with a radius of twenty miles and plot my summer inside it with room to spare. It was that kind of slow, simple summer.
We put our house up for sale in May, so it was also a summer of savoring. I spent many mornings running rags over bookshelves, scrubbing sinks, mopping tile. I rubbed lemon oil into cabinets, cleaned dust and dead bugs out of light fixtures, and planted a new pot of flowers by the front door. It’s funny how easy it is to fall in love with your house again when you are trying to sell it. If I ever write that book of poems, I’m going to call it: I Love It Here: Poems about Letting Go. It was a good summer.
In late July as summer ambled on, the ensemble I sing with sang a funny little song as the congregation processed out of the sanctuary. It’s number 714 in the Gather Hymnal, for any Catholics or Episcopalians who might be reading. It’s called “God Whose Purpose is to Kindle.”
Like many hymns and anthems, including “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” and “Rise, O Voices of Rhodesia” (who knew?), number 714 is set to the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth, the choral symphony. In the fourth movement, the chorus sings the words from Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, Ode to Joy.
You know the music. I encountered it for the first time when I was eight or nine as “Bells are Ringing” in John W. Schaum’s Piano Course A—The Red Book. “Bells are ringing, hearts are singing, hymns of love and life worthwhile. All mankind with one great mind unites in free and joyful style.” If you are really interested, you can watch some little kid named Daniel practice it on YouTube. “Bells are Ringing” was by far my favorite piece in The Red Book. I would bang out those joyful chords every time I sat down to play. (As an aside, I don’t begrudge “Bells Are Ringing” its space in my memory, but do I really need to have the full text of “If a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood” and “Motorcycle Cop’s on Guard” claiming neurons? Shouldn’t there be a backspace key?)
According to the tiny print at the bottom of the page in my hymnal, a man named David Elton Trueblood wrote the lyrics for this rendition. If Wikipedia is to be trusted (note to any students reading this essay: it’s not. I use it here because this isn’t a research paper on David Elton Trueblood. The quality of evidence needed varies with your purpose.), David Elton Trueblood (1900-1994) was a highly accomplished scholar, theologian, and academic who “wrote 33 books” and founded the Earlham School of Religion at Earlham College. He was an active Quaker.
Writing Quaker reminds me of an essay I meant to write this summer about the day with three Qs. One July afternoon as I was walking the dog, two quail and a small squirrel danced down the street before us. The quail would glance back at the squirrel and strut forward a few steps, and then the squirrel would sit up like a prairie dog, sniff, and follow them. Rusty did that tilted head thing at me, and I shrugged back to say I didn’t get it either, and we followed a few feet behind them for a hundred yards or so. We finally crossed the street only when we realized they weren’t planning either to scurry away from us or show us how to play the game. It was a good summer.
The reason #714 made me curious about Dr. Trueblood is that the lyrics he wrote for this universal anthem of joy chastise us for being joyful. He wants God to “overcome our sinful calmness” and forgive us for “our tranquility.” I thought if I learned about him I could figure out whether he was being deliberately ironic or simply should have stuck to his day job and left lyric writing to someone less heavily committed to rhyme.
Another way to say that is that I was taking it personally.
The Ode to Joy Beethoven made famous was German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem. The singers open with these words, “Oh friends, not these tones. Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!” I love that plea. At another point in the poem Schiller writes, “All the world’s creatures draw joy from nature’s breast.” In the final, ringing lines, the chorus, looking for “the Creator,” sings “He must dwell beyond the stars.” It’s a powerful, hope-filled claim.
David Elton Trueblood replaced Schiller’s triumphal ending with these words: “Save us now from satisfaction when we privately are free, yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor’s misery.” The last booming words we sing out (joyfully?) as the congregation files out of church and into another week in a weary world are “our neighbor’s misery.” What?
And then the song followed me home.
The last thing I did before leaving home for church the Sunday after we sang #714 was to read an article in the newspaper about a woman who was stoned to death in Syria. She was silent, the article said, as men pelted her with stones until she died.
Oh friends, not these sounds.
It was a gruesome summer. The article I read just before I left home for church on Sunday said they put the woman in Syria in “a small hole.” That detail.
On another day, in a spot that falls inside that circle summer drew around my house, three teenagers, boys the same ages as the ones I teach, beat and killed two homeless men while they were sleeping.
Can you see why I wanted to know if David Elton Trueblood was being deliberately ironic? “How can you say it was a good summer?” he’s asking me. How can anyone sing about anything? It was a gruesome summer.
During the bloody summer of ’14, I imagine some disinterested biographer writing someday, while pain erupted across the planet and the very limits of civilization were being tested, she brimmed with inexplicable joy. She pulled the summer over her head like a down comforter on a cold night and snuggled in. She remembered the days when she could barely stand upright against the world, when sadness made her dizzy, but these weren’t those days. Ladle it out, her heart said of this welling joy, there’s plenty more.
And then, as the days kept passing while I tried to figure out what I was trying to say in this essay, Robin Williams died. I’m breaking a sweat doing Muay Thai kicks when his name catches my eye in a headline flashing across my iPad. A few minutes later my husband comes in to tell me the details, and it’s too much. Robin Williams. Syria. Gaza. Ukraine. Ferguson. Beheading. Another beheading. Oh, friends, not these words.
And somehow there it all is at the end of the summer. I’ve been trying to finish this essay for a month. Early every morning I tweak a few words, move a paragraph or two around, and then I hear the neighbor’s garage door open and realize I can see the branches of the white plum outside the window. It’s time to stop writing and get ready for work. I still don’t know what it is I am trying to say to David Elton Trueblood about joy and misery.
Because the thing is, if I am going to be honest, I know there is a place deep in the pit of my stomach where I could go if I let go my grip on joy and not be certain of returning. You might call it “a small hole.” Because the thing is, while I am delighting in yet another beautiful, ordinary sunrise, someone is doing despicable things to someone else in my back yard or on the other side of the world. And it matters immensely if I know the person who is in pain, and it doesn’t matter at all if I know that person, and both of those things are true. Someday, I am sure, physicists or theologians will discover that we do not stop at the edges of our own bodies.
If David Elton Trueblood were standing before me, chastising me for joy in the face of my neighbor’s misery, I would say to him, “Oh friend, not these words.” We have to strike a deal, I think, with our neighbor’s misery. We have to figure out how to be with it without being swallowed by it. Somebody, I think, has to hang onto joy. Misery is not allowed to win.
At the end of class I ask my students if they want their envelopes back. They look at me like I’m crazy and shake their heads. One boy says, a little incredulously, “It worked! I didn’t think about my problems at all.”
This is what I know how to do. It’s the end of the first week of a new school year. I feed the shredder these small envelopes full of pain and watch while it turns them into confetti. That feels like it should be a metaphor for something.