The second of George’s meditations on Lowell Bennion’s guide, and my response.
#2 “Learn to like reading, conversation, music”
The underlying principle of Doc’s aphorisms seems to be that it matters a great deal how we spend our time and where our deepest affections lie. This matters not only to our character but to the communities, large and small, of which we are a part. As I suggested in my previous post, this is in part because how we spend our time also tends to determine how we spend our money and resources, that is, how we consume. The activities listed here—reading, engaging in conversation, and listening to or performing music—have in common the fact that they involve communing, even when done in solitude. Moreover, arguably they are not, at least not by definition, pricey or complicated activities. In ideal practice, they are activities in which we connect to a larger community or otherwise broaden our sense of the world. I have already written about the ways in which music does this, so I will focus this post on reading and conversation.
We can think of reading and conversation as synonymous, at least when they are both done right. Reading is a dialogue with the mind or minds of others as long as we are not engaged in what Peter refers to as “wresting the scriptures” which can be generally understood as a kind of demand that the meaning of what we read or hear is what we desperately, greedily, or selfishly want the words of others to mean. This clearly cannot be what Doc has in mind. The pleasure and value of reading and conversation would seem to be the way in which these activities keep us open to others and thus curb our tendencies to treat life and others like a television screen or iPhone which with the push or swipe of a finger moves us along to something else more to our liking.
I find it disturbing just how much more urgent Doc’s advice seems in an age of technology that had not yet arrived when he did most of his writing. He already knew children’s lives were becoming mechanized, overly structured, and selfishly focused on entertainment and pleasure. He knew too, as Wendell Berry has written more eloquently than anyone, that our bodies were rarely used any longer for work or even for recreation but were valued as commodities and determinants of self-worth. Things, of course, have only gotten worse in these regards. What happens to our relationships to ourselves, to time, to others, and what is our sense of community when we take the time to read slowly, for the sheer pleasure of it, or when we read because we are curious, thirsty for greater understanding, or simply experiencing open admiration for the chance to inhabit a gifted mind? What happens too when we take the time to really converse with someone, rather than merely communicate? How much deeper do our conversations go, beyond the surface of brief emails, texts, or perfunctory transactions of information? Relating to someone else requires an active engagement of the imagination, profound listening, and a temporary suspension of self-interest, maybe even temporary suspension of self-awareness. True conversation certainly involves risk since it requires honesty, humility, and vulnerability. Compassion means “to suffer with,” so reading and conversation are compassion in practice, exercises in broadening and blurring the boundaries of our otherwise too narrow worlds.
It was a long time ago now, almost 30 years, but at age 19 in 1984, I spent my last summer at Lowell Bennion’s Boys Ranch as a counselor before heading off to my mission. It was also the last summer he would run the ranch. I had always been a social person and loved conversation, but I had not yet learned to have conversations with myself, with books, or with music, I think, despite my long love affair with my favorite bands. I guess it was the outstanding qualities of the landscape in Teton Valley, the sincerity with which Doc treated us young counselors as his peers, and the exciting sense of possibility that conversations with Doc inspired in us about ideas, but I did something unusual with my time on my first day off. Instead of listening to my cassette tapes of my favorite rock bands and writing letters, I decided to spend the day at the Upper Bunkhouse reading The Brothers Karamazov, which my brother had given me and had insisted I read. I was wholly immersed in another world. I took occasional breaks and played a cassette tape recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on what was called back then a boom box and stared out across the valley. I was rather proud of myself. No TV, no movie theater, no letter from a girlfriend, nothing at all to satisfy my lust for entertainment. I consider that day foundational to the rest of my life because I discovered, even though I was alone, that I could converse with myself, with ideas, and with feelings of an elevated sort. I had, I think for the first time, a rich inner life with which to make all future conversations, readings, and music listening all the more richer. It is a paradox, but it seems we must guard our solitude if we are ever to expect to experience true communion.
“I had always been a social person and loved conversation…”
There. In one neat sentence (actually a mere independent clause), George dispatches with what is the most difficult of this triad, and very nearly the most difficult in the whole series of aphorisms, for me.
I might have written George’s narrative exactly backwards, starting with “I had always been musical and loved solitude…”
Most of my earliest memories involve music. I remember often lying in front of the biggest window in my house, watching sunlight dapple the little bits of dust in the air, and imagining the dust motes were fairies dancing to the music that was playing. My father is a serious and talented classical musician, so those “fairies” danced to a lot of Brahms and Mahler, Bach, Mendelssohn, Nielsen, and, occasionally, something “contemporary,” like Copland or Stravinsky. Singing time was my favorite part of Primary, always, and I can still remember the first time I sang many hymns, even ones I first heard when I was so little that I couldn’t read them (which left me confused sometimes—“Nineveh and Tyre” vexed me for years). I started learning violin by the Suzuki method when I was not quite 5, and that meant that almost every night of my growing up, I fell asleep listening to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and “Lightly Row,” and classical minuets, growing into Vivaldi concertos and the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in such a predictable rhythm that I can tell what year something happened by remembering which pieces I worked on—we moved from North Carolina to New Mexico just as I started the Chorus from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus; I played it obsessively, clinging to its familiarity in a world that suddenly contained cacti and chili peppers and all manner of fierce and terrifying novelties. That melody still comes to my head in moments when I’m destabilized by changes that seem bigger than I am, its stately tempo reminding me to breathe, its predictable modulation between major and not-quite-minor modes whispering reconciliation and stability. This pattern is true for all of my life—for me it will always be a wisp of melody, not the taste of a madeleine, that calls up whole worlds of memory.
We moved a lot when I was little, and people seemed not to line up in a tidy system that came easily to me, the way the notes arrayed themselves perfectly into lines and spaces and clefs; I seemed to be forever misunderstanding the key signature of school and birthday parties and gymnastics classes and sounding some awful, discordant note. The moods of my home, too, swung unpredictably between major and minor and sometimes into dissonances I could neither understand nor resolve. The world of composed sound was both refuge from the “real” world, and itself a vast world so real and beautiful to me that I was often startled when someone spoke to me or otherwise intruded.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like words—I loved them! I remember how desperately I wanted to read, the longing every bit as intense as a high school crush or heartfelt prayer. I came home from school after the first week of kindergarten and told my mother, sobbing, that I must be “mentally retarded” because I had already been to school for four days and I couldn’t read yet. I cracked the code a few days later, and I remember that moment and its joy precisely. I was ravenous ever after, begging librarians to let me check out more books than the weekly limit, polishing off Nancy Drew mysteries and Encylopedia Brown and The Great Brain and Trixie Belden and The Prydain Chronicles faster than the librarian could think of another series to suggest, trying to read my way through the whole Young Adult section the summer between 5th and 6th grade, gulping down Jane Eyre in one long day, edging closer and closer to the last light in the window at dusk, so I wouldn’t have to look up from the page to find the light switch. Sometime in middle school, I discovered poetry, and my journals are full of others’ words that captured my feelings and expressed them in clean, crystalline meter. After a painful rejection by some boy I thought I loved, I wrote “well, this feeling can’t be that bad, if there are such great sonnets about it.”
But, of course, there are actually feelings that are that bad—life with other humans is messier and more painful than its representation in polished verse and music. It turns out that our feelings want expression in forms rawer than sonnets, and that (amazingly!) real love can be more satisfying than even the very best sonnets or what I once called the “better-than-sex concerto” (Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto, in case you’re wondering). As rich and fascinating as the worlds of music and reading can be, they get lonely after a while, and, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, we all long to be “where someone loves [us] best of all.” And such love requires conversation—the messy, confrontational, imprecise, unpolished, floundering, stuttering, inelegant, even ungrammatical (the horror!) translation of our solitary experience into a language we can share. Contra the Western post-Romantic mythos of the solitary, brooding Artist, much of the world’s best art is collaborative, worked out in conversation—the wondrous sifting and refining of ideas in the loving, attentive presence of others, the opening of minds and hearts to the vistas that exist only in the exotic, foreign imaginations of our friends.
I was late to this realization, and still struggle with it. Conversation scares me. It scares me a little bit less now than it did when I was a seventh-grader carefully writing up 3×5 cards with conversational prompts to keep near the phone against the terrifying possibility that someone would actually call me, but it still makes me anxious. I might talk too much, reveal some unlovable oddity, be troubled by an idea I dislike but can’t refute. I will discover that I’m wrong—often. But this is also the only way to experience the particular and exquisite happiness of finding just the right words to convey something I’ve understood and a friend wants to know.
I love Bennion’s combination of “reading, music, and conversation.” I don’t think it’s just a trick to slip three commandments into a single line. It’s the perfect triptych of human connection—a neat and lovely description of the ways we find our way into the long generations of the human family, into the deep friendships that make us whole.