This world is not my home

30 October, 2014

Riding  to work this morning I descended into one of my typical commuting ruts.  Turning right from our road onto Watauga St. most mornings I am struck by the silent beauty of the edge of the Appalachians, as Buffalo Mountain looms over our town, dominating the horizon as I start to descend Watauga towards school and work.  It might have been the chill this morning, an unusual October dip into the ’30s Fahrenheit, but I wasn’t moved by the mist-shrouded mountain.  I was thinking of this commute.  Sometimes I enjoy sunshine and butterflies en route; other times I barely escape with my life.  I was thinking on the darker side of things this morning.

You see, I ride my bike to work.  Every day.  Rain, sun, butterflies, and all. Last winter I noted with grim satisfaction one morning that it was all of 2 degrees (F) as I left the house.  It’s not all a self-righteous exercise.  I love getting on my bike anytime, and it helps buoy me most days as I head to work, as I blow off steam on the way home.  (The thing is, I also love my work, but it is–after all–work.)  The bike makes mid-day errands a cinch, and reduces my stress when it comes to parking.

On the other hand, though, I DO sometimes brush with the darker side of life on American roads – the fact that they are the site for an unconscionable number of deaths.  Driving through Charleston, SC recently I was reminded of this fact by a flower-wreathed cruiser cycle at a street corner, a memorial to a cyclist killed in traffic.

Motorists have on several occasions failed to pause at a particular stop sign on my morning commute route; I count myself fortunate that each time I or they could able to brake in time to prevent an accident.  As with a recent encounter on campus at my school, I sometimes try and express what feel like justified reactions: Why were you talking on your cell phone?  Is that conversation worth more than another person’s life?  What if it was your son/daughter/father/priest riding this bicycle – would that make you feel worse / prod you to be more careful in how you approach driving?

Or course I’ve yet to have the chance to talk with the people who have almost killed me on the road.  Most people seem to think that a wave and smile is enough to smooth over things as I sit there, life flashing in front of me.  (I do sometimes have that cliched flash of intense and kaleidoscopic memory in these near-death experiences, it’s an odd thing.) I tried to engage the lady who almost ran me over at school; I refused to give way, holding her up as she sought a rare parking place in the center of campus. she shouted out her sedan window, “I’m sorry!”   When I asked her to “Please pay attention when you drive,” though, the woman didn’t seem to realize that I was addressing a systemic disrespect that underlies driving habits.  “I said, ‘I’m sorry!'” – a response that seems out of proportion in light of the mortal consequences of her misstep on the gas.

I can sympathize with inattention or ineptitude; I am far from a perfect driver myself.  There can be something more insidious at play.  A few times it has seemed that some sort of road rage prompts my near-death experiences. A roaring engine, a flash of brightly-colored steel, and a huge Tennessee truck will turn right across my path, as my brakes screech.  Do drivers who make this kind of gesture begrudge me the narrow, glass-strewn strip of pavement that I claim as I pedal through town?  Do they think that _I_ am breaking the law to travel on the road?   To the guy who told me to “Get on the sidewalk” the other day – it is in fact illegal for me to ride on the sidewalk.

That guy isn’t going to stop for a lecture, but I remain open to the possibilities for education that these brushes with death afford me.  For instance, I think drivers might be gradually catching on to the standard arm signals I use to indicate that I am turning.  Perhaps they don’t remember learning them, as I did, in Drivers’ Ed.  On the whole, though, it just pisses me off.

Is that extra 10 seconds worth another person’s life?  Is that cellphone conversation or text worth the maiming of a fellow human?  This morning the words of an  Albert Brumley hymn drifted into my head as I sat at the traffic light at the bottom of Watauga St. – “This world is not my home.”  As I continued into the Tree Streets, I sang to myself the verses I remembered,  connecting them to my bitter recollection of drivers’ impatience and carelessness: “I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”  I thought, “If the world is such a place that something as mundane as driving around can result in arbitrary death, and people aren’t concerned about it enough to change, I don’t want to be part of it!”

This version of the song fits with the music that went through my head along with my rash and self-righteous rants:

After a meeting concluded, I took a second to find the original Brumley verses and sing through it, trying to remember where I had heard the song.  No success on remembering a source for my memories, but I liked the song.

Looking through internet traces of the song, I sorted through my theological and emotional responses to the mix of things swirling still in my mind: biking, dying, singing.  Looking for lyrics, I found that some versions use the trope of self-reliance to say that “I fixed it up with Jesus”; my brushes with reformed theology make me prefer versions that hew to Brumley’s original text, ascribing agency to the Divine: “My Savior pardoned me.” (See

I also found a number of other songs that use the idea of estrangement from the world, often pairing the song with verses like Hebrews 11:13 (“ These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” – KJV)  The countering view is that the Earth is an important and somehow durable part of the post-second-coming Kingdom of God. (Writers like Mr. Pope cite Romans 8: One version (from Alfred Graley) is set to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree”:

This one from the 1854 Southern Harmony is more plaintive in describing the earth as a wilderness of woe:

Some versions alienated me;  this rendition by the Whites [] serves as a musical exemplification of the sort of dispensationalist division between physical and spiritual reality perpetuated by some Christians–makes me grit my teeth. Almost as much as errant drivers.

Even as I am irritated by the brokenness of the world we live in, I do find hope. I make hope, kindle it.  With Brumley text in hand, I sought solace in playing and singing the song with a student at the campus Farmers’ Market.  The sun broke through and started heating up our chilled fingers, and I was reminded that there is an ultimate reality beyond distracted driving, one where singing and community are the basis for life.  THAT world is my home, one that I long for, desperately.  I can try to sing myself into that world, as I did today; sometimes I hear a hint of harmony that lets me know I might be near the right path.



Banjo Jamboree, Day 2

5 July, 2013

The Saturday screening had a larger crowd – helped by the larger crowd at the festival in general on Saturday, but also the positive buzz about the film that grew through the weekend.  So many folks were asking to buy posters and DVDs, but due to postal snafus, I had no merch to spare.  The posters I did have on hand were an especially hot commodity.  The first one that I posted to announce the screening disappeared (granted, it was during a rain shower, and someone saved it from being soaked….) and the second one prompted many questions about who would receive the poster when the festival was over.  In the end, I think it went to the Czech Radio host who helped MC some of the festival.  Maybe that was in part because he looks like the father/bass player from Cherryholmes.  Hmm.

In addition to the screening the second night of the festival, I was able to get out and experience more of the festival.  I shot some video of a group playing the song “Still Climbing Mountains” by E TN legends Blue Highway. ( here is another video of them doing the song:  )

During the afternoon I rehearsed with the new band “Beyond Belief” – a group that is in part a continuation of the band Relief (broke up this year) as well as a revival of the groups Metropolitan Country and Fifty Fingers. We rehearsed original material by Zbynek Bures and Zdenek Roh, and I enjoyed playing alongside Zdenek Jahoda’s fine mandolin and Svatka Stepankova’s solid bass and soaring voice.  She rocks it out on Cheryl Crow’s “Are you strong enough to be my man”….

After the final headlining group (my roommates in the performers’ dorm, the Belgian Louvat Brothers – fine new acoustic jam / chamber -grass)  I jammed until LATE with Honza Maca of Poutnici  (the current band has a number of younger folks – to see an earlier lineup that includes Robert Krest’a of Druha Trava fame, watch the new hit documentary film “Banjo Romantika“) and Zdenek Jahoda, formerly of Monogram, another top CZ band.  Ondra Holoubek joined on his new resophonic ukulele.

Here are some images:


Banjo Jamboree, Day 1

5 July, 2013

The oldest Bluegrass festival in Europe takes place in a suitably historic spot.  The part of its history that you can see in this post is a bit more recent – the Republic of Czechoslovakia (founded in 1918 out of the still-warm ashes of the Hapsburg empire and the rubble of the first World War).  The First Republic, as it is termed by Czechs (“Prvni Republika”) is a golden age, during which the country was the 10th larges economy in the world (think about who the major players were and weren’t in that period…don’t think folks in Europe were counting Indonesian or Chinese cottage industries in their tallies…).  The traces of the first republic in Caslav include the site for the Banjo Republic festival, an outdoor letni kino (summer movie theater) and swimming pool.  The building has the modernist flair of the first republic, including the elegantly minimalist metal railings that characterize villas and office buildings from the period.  There is something slightly nautical mixed in with this style: an occasional round, porthole-like window, the railings that look like the top deck of the Titanic, etc.

This  makes me smile since the tramping culture that thrived during the 1910s – 1930s also included an element of sailor culture: the greeting “ahoj,” wearing striped shirts and round white sailor caps, navigating the waterways of the Czech Republic, and –more recently–shouting out choruses of the Czech translation of “Sloop John B.”

But Back to Caslav.  Or rather: Čáslav.  The film and I were guests at the festival, thanks to the Bluegrassova Asociace Ceske Republiky – is that full enough of borrowed words for you?  the BACR is the primary bluegrass association in the country, and the organizer of the festival, along with local folks who arrange a lot of the details.  Petr Brandejs, a musician, bandleader, and educator, was my main contact with the BACR, and he brought the projector and speakers for me to use for the screenings.

We didn’t get time in the main program (which takes place at a stage erected in front of the movie screen in in the outdoor theater) but showed the film while the main stage acts were performing.  Despite the competition, we had a good crowd (ranged from 30-50) both nights of the festival.  Here are some photos from the Friday night screening, which happened in the First Republic-era swimming pool building: