Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17, 2009 - I Wonder As I Wander

On of the beloved songs of the upcoming Christmas season is “I Wonder As I Wander.” The song was written by a musicologist named John Jacob Niles, based on a fragment of folk music he discovered.

According to the Wikipedia article on the carol, in 1933 Niles was traveling through the Appalachian region of North Carolina, looking for traditional tunes. He was attending a fund-raising meeting held by an evangelistic group who’d been run out of town by the police (I’m sure there must be an interesting back-story behind that!). In his unpublished autobiography, Niles tells of how he first heard the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

Niles was enchanted, and asked the girl to sing the line again. He offered her a quarter to do so, and she gladly complied (this was 1933, the midst of the Great Depression: folks earned money any way they could). Seven times he asked the girl to sing it, giving her a quarter each time. Seven quarters later – a dollar seventy-five, not a bad price in the 1930s – he had enough of a sense of where he was going with his composition. What he had was, in his own words, “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material – and a magnificent idea.”

I think you’ll agree: a dollar seventy-five (in 1933 dollars) was not a bad price to pay for a hauntingly beautiful melody that’s become a Christmas standard.

“I Wonder As I Wander” is in a minor key. More often than not, hymns are written in a major key. Those hymns are bright, joyful, triumphant. The minor-key hymns, by contrast, are quieter, more introspective, more reflective. Some are even somber.

We need them both. One of life’s great lessons, for cancer survivors or for anyone else, is that not all of life is lived in a major key. “Into each life some rain must fall,” goes the hoary old cliché. When we discover joy amidst even the rain, when we can learn to sing praise even in a minor key, we’ve got it made.

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor orn'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15, 2009 - Expectancy

This time of year, we Christians find ourselves – if we can stop our frenetic holiday preparations for a moment and be still – in the season of expectant waiting known as Advent.

It’s a tough season for most folks to wrap their minds around. Anyone who pays attention to the liturgical year feels oddly suspended between the now and the not-yet. This isn’t helped by the fact that the recommended biblical texts for Advent are of two distinct kinds. On the one hand, there are apocalyptic passages that warn of the final judgment and the return of Christ to judge the earth. On the other, we’re handed kinder, gentler stories like the Annunciation: the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, announcing Jesus’ impending birth.

It can be tough, during Advent, to figure out what, exactly, we’re meant to be waiting for. Are we waiting for Christ to come crashing in and judge this mad, mixed-up world for what it is? Or, are we imaginatively placing ourselves into the Christmas story, waiting for him to be born in Bethlehem again in our hearts and minds?

I have a new appreciation for the ambiguities of waiting, ever since entering my extended, watch-and-wait treatment mode. Of course, unlike the waiting associated with Advent, the thing I’m waiting for is not good. I’d just as soon have my lymphoma remain in couch-potato mode as long as possible. Yet, I do also live my life attuned to subtle signs that could develop.

Every three months or so, I go for another scan: a moistened finger held up to test the wind. Today’s the day: another CT scan at Ocean Medical Center.

Unlike the classic prayer of Christians, “Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,” I’m very happy to keep on waiting.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

December 1, 2009 - The Glad Game

Many people have heard the name “Pollyanna.” Her full name is Pollyanna Whittier, and she’s the title character in a classic series of children’s novels. The first one was published in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter.

In the grim little New England town where the orphan Pollyanna goes to live with her aunt, she teaches others to play a little game her late father taught her. She calls it “The Glad Game.” It has one simple rule: find something to be happy about in every situation, no matter how dark or desperate.

The game’s origins go back to one particular Christmas. Digging deep in the charity barrel, hoping to find a doll for her present, Pollyanna finds only a pair of crutches. A poor kid without a toy at Christmas? What could be more pathetic than that? Pollyanna’s father teaches her, then, how The Glad Game works: be happy you found the crutches, he tells her, because “we don’t need ‘em!”

The Wikipedia article on Pollyanna gives a few examples of how adept the little waif becomes at playing The Glad Game:

“When Aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, she exults at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to ‘punish’ her niece for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant, Nancy, Pollyanna thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.”

Pollyanna becomes an evangelist for The Glad Game, bringing a treacly sweetness to her little town, until further misfortune in her own life forces her to practice what she preaches:

“Eventually, however, even Pollyanna’s robust optimism is put to the test when she is struck down by a motorcar while crossing a street and loses the use of her legs. At first she doesn’t realize the seriousness of her situation, but her spirits plummet when she accidentally overhears an eminent specialist say that she’ll never walk again. After that, she lies in bed, unable to find anything to be glad about. Then the townspeople begin calling at Aunt Polly’s house, eager to let Pollyanna know how much her encouragement has improved their lives; and Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she has legs. The novel ends with Aunt Polly marrying her former lover Dr. Chilton and Pollyanna being sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and is able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled.”

We cancer survivors hear a lot about the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. In many ways, that advice is but a warmed-over version of Pollyanna’s Glad Game. The problem is, no real person can be as relentless in playing the game as the fictional Pollyanna. Feelings of sadness and dejection sometimes present themselves, and that’s OK. They come with the territory.

If we take the “think positive” advice too seriously, we can end up denying the existence of those negative thoughts – which are only natural, after all. Sure, maintaining a positive attitude is important, but that doesn’t mean we can never give ourselves permission to feel anger, or sadness, or frustration or any of the other negative emotions that come from this kind of protracted struggle.

There’s a lot of emphasis, in some cancer-treatment circles, on mental exercises like meditation and visualization as practical ways of calming the spirit. These practices are of proven usefulness and have their place, but it’s possible to take them too far. Some of the more enthusiastic promoters of these techniques claim they stimulate the immune system, actually unleashing the body’s healing energies – as though they were a treatment modality in themselves. It’s easy to see where such exaggerated claims can lead: to the belief that, unless we devote enough time each day to pulling ourselves up by our own endorphins, we’re giving up altogether.

Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, a psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, touches on this in her book, The Human Side of Cancer. She tells of a patient of hers named Jane, who had been successfully treated for breast cancer, but who felt troubled by the fact that she sometimes worried about a relapse. Could her worries in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Jane wondered? This caused her to worry even more. The doctor comments:

“Jane was echoing a refrain I often hear from people with cancer: the notion that feeling sad, scared, upset, or angry is unacceptable and that emotions can somehow make your tumor grow. And the sense that if the person is not in control on the emotional plane all the time, the battle against the disease will be lost. Of course, patients like Jane didn’t come up with this notion on their own. It's everywhere in our culture: in popular books and tabloids on every newsstand, on talk shows, in TV movies.

For most patients, cancer is the most difficult and frightening experience they have ever encountered. All this hype claiming that if you don’t have a positive attitude and that if you get depressed you are making your tumor grow faster invalidates people’s natural and understandable reactions to a threat to their lives. That’s what I mean by the tyranny of positive thinking.”

Sometimes we just don’t feel like playing The Glad Game. Sometimes, we shouldn’t have to.