Over the last several years, and thanks to both inspiration and encouragement from my friends Chris and Kelli, I make handmade cards. I’m not doing much of it right now, but I enjoy looking through the boxes of scrap paper I have to find bits and pieces that collage together into something beautiful. Often the cards are blank inside, but one caption I keep returning to is, “Life is a journey without maps.” It’s a borrowed idea (I wish I could remember from whom; Buechner, I think), and I love the sentiment. We have often used the cards to celebrate graduations and other major transitions.
One of the glories of the English language is words can mean more than one thing. The kind of map I think our journey is without is a directional one: a spiritual GPS. Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s as far as the directions go. No illuminated mall map with the “X” that says, “You are here.” Then there are descriptive maps: topographical maps, for instance, that document the landscape to give an holistic view rather than traveling instructions. When it comes to the second definition, life is full of maps, or so I was reminded reading This Is Your Brain on Music. Indulge me in a couple of lengthy quotes to explain what I learned.
We can think of the (basilar) membrane as containing a map of different pitches very much like a piano keyboard superimposed on it. Because the different tones are spread out across the surface topography of the membrane; this is called a tonotopic map . . . The auditory cortex also has a tonotopic map, with low to high tones stretched out across the cortical surface. In this sense, the brain also contains a “map” of different pitches, and different areas of the brain respond to different pitches. Pitch is so important that the brain represents it directly; unlike almost any other musical attribute, we could place electrodes in the brain and be able to determine what pitches were being played to a person just by looking at the brain activity . . . for pitch, what goes into the ear comes out of the brain! (29)
Life is a journey with a tonotopic map, a map that shows how your brain listens to music, and what the map shows is we listen with all of our brain, all different parts catching their part of the melody. Very cool. Stay with me – one more quote. The tones we hear are actually the frequencies of vibrations (strings, voices, you name it) and the notes we name in our scales (our musical map, if you will) have specific frequencies.
There is a fundamental quality of music. Note manes repeat because of a perceptual phenomenon that corresponds to the doubling and halving of frequencies. When we double or halve a frequency, we end up with a note that sounds remarkably similar to the one we started with. This relationship . . . is called the octave . . . This phenomenon leads to the notion of circularity in pitch perception . . . music is often described as having two dimensions, one that accounts for tones going up in frequency (and sounding higher and higher) and another that accounts for the perceptual sense that we’ve come back home again each time we double a tone’s frequency. (31)
Two things. First, I thought of James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, and the way he talks about what conversion means. Growing up Southern Baptist, I was taught conversion was a one-time-walk-down-the-aisle-come-to-Jesus-turn-away-from-sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll kind of experience. But Fowler talks about conversion as ongoing and repetitive: we come to Jesus over and over our whole lives long, being born again and again and again. When we do come to those moments of profound, life-altering change, we have to take time to circle off the path and assimilate the changes, examine the tonotopic map of the heart, and notice what we are hearing, or perhaps, how we are singing in a new key.
Second, I thought of Lent, or rather the liturgical calendar as a whole: I thought of it as a scale of sorts. Each year, beginning with Advent, we set the melody for the year, counting Sundays, keeping time by marking significant events in Jesus’ life, and in the life of the church in the largest sense – the Body of Christ – repeating the cycle now for half of the church’s life, at least. Coming around again to Ash Wednesday is like doubling the frequency, like moving to the next octave, moving forward and circling back home all in one motion, taking time to reflect and observe the tonotopic map of the heart to see what part of ourselves is responding to the minor key of Lent, the restorative melody of Resurrection, the carols of Advent and Christmas, and the simple soundtrack of Ordinary Time.
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest
and when in scenes of glory I sing a new new song
‘twill be the old old story that I have loved so long
Many years ago, I had the privilege of corresponding, briefly, with Madeleine L’Engle. The last letter I received from her was a form letter sent to tell of the death of her husband, Hugh. That letter had as much to do with my learning to follow the liturgical calendar because of the way she marked time: “Hugh became sick just after Epiphany,” she wrote, “and died just before Pentecost.” She could have said he got sick in January and died in early May, but she chose to keep time, to borrow a musical term, by circling back to notes she could find on the tonotopic map of the heart. Life, indeed, is a journey with a map – a map that leads us on even as it circles around to help us find the vibrations of the Spirit that resonate in our hearts and souls and minds.
my life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation
I feel the sweet though far off hymn
that hails a new creation
through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
it finds an echo in my soul
how can I keep from singing
Life is a journey with maps — and music, as is Lent.