Call the world if you please “The vale of soul-making . . .” I say “soul-making,” soul as distinguished from intelligence. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions, but they are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.
— John Keats, “The Vale of Soul-Making”
Those were the first words I found as I sat down to lunch with Kris Kristofferson today – or, at least I sat down to read his interview in the most recent issue of No Depression magazine. The article updated the life of one who lettered in two sports in college, was a Golden Gloves boxer, both Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, won Atlantic Monthly fiction contests, was an Airborne Ranger, and turned down a job to be an English professor at West Point so he could move to Nashville and try to be a singer-songwriter.
He is one of the best and, based on the list of things in the previous paragraph, one who left many friends, family members, and other observers confused, disappointed, and even angry at some of the choices he made. “It was a legacy,” says the interviewer, “that had to be lived down or shrugged off on occasion, or at least be put in jeopardy every now and then for it to mean or be worth anything at all.”
Kristofferson wrote it this way: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Last week, as I was walking out of Half Price Books & Records in Dallas, I over heard one guy talking to another about a book he had found, Fifty Things to do When You Turn Fifty. My ears perked up because this is the year for me. On December 12, I will mark a half a century on the planet. Needless to say, I’m among friends as I mark that milestone; several of us were 1956 babies. Since I was cutting it close to meet friends for dinner, I didn’t get to do much more than notice the title. I did think it might be interesting to come up with a list of things to mark the weeks between my fiftieth and fifty-first birthday. Doing fifty things would break down to about one new thing a week. I’ve thought about giving it a shot.
Over lunch today, I read these lyrics to “Pilgrim’s Progress”:
(You can hear it here.)
am I young enough to believe in revolution
am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray
am I high enough on this chain of evolution
to respect myself and my brother and my sister
to perfect myself in my own peculiar way
The lyric is full of questions, which makes me wonder if, rather than thinking of things to do, I might begin to put together a list of fifty questions to ask when I turn fifty. I’ll start with the one at the beginning of the above verse: am I young enough to believe in revolution?
Notice I didn’t say fifty questions to answer when you turn fifty.
I am one of the fortunate ones who gets to ask questions beyond where’s the next meal coming from and what will I do if Congress passes their insane immigration law. I’ve been given a sizeable helping of freedom. And it’s not just another word, as Kristofferson points out now, a long time after “Bobby McGee.” It’s an important word.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with freedom to do what’s morally right. I was always writing what I was feeling, but the stuff that I was becoming aware of in the 1980s, the things that were going on in the world, were important enough that they were something that I should be talking about.”
Freedom leads to love, which is both a promise and a burden.
“Love is the reason we happened at all,” he says. “It paid for the damage we’d done, and it bought us the freedom to fall into grace . . . The kind of love I’m talking about is the kind that you feel unconditionally for your children. And if you work at it, you can get to where it includes others too. Which isn’t as easy as it is with your children, but I think it should work there.”
Good words from the guy who wrote “Jesus was a Capricorn.”
I spent part of my morning writing letters to Nestle and M&M/Mars about their lack of initiative in making sure cocoa is fairly traded and child slaves are no longer to harvest it. I wrote about it a little over a month ago; I don’t want to let the issue fade from my consciousness. I watch people unthinkingly grab candy bars as they stand in checkout lines and I think about the children who are being crushed to make such a incidental act possible. If my godchildren were harvesting the crop, I’d be fighting like hell to get them out of there. I want to work to learn how to love others like that, too.
I want to believe in, foment, and be a part of the revolution. I don’t want to choose to let things stay like they are. I want to be strong enough both to pray and to act. I want to choose to keep asking good questions long after my fiftieth year. I want to make a nuisance of myself, make a fool of myself, make a true self of myself.
Maybe freedom is another word for nothing left to lose. Some days I think we ought to sell everything we have and join Christian Peacemaker Teams. then I wonder whether part of that pull is wanting to make a big splash. If I went there, I’d really be somebody – like Steve Martin in The Jerk. But there’s more to growing an identity than making a name for myself. I may still end up there one day, but for now I’m called to lose it all right here in my little town. Not quite as dramatic, but important nonetheless. Marshfield needs a revolution as badly as anywhere. Parker Palmer, again:
“I know God acts, “but I believe that God can only act incarnationally through the various forms of embodiment that god takes here on earth, including our own human form. There is no way for God to act if we, and other created beings, are unwilling or unable to give substance to God’s yearnings, God’s energies, God’s will.
I’ll bet ol’ Parker has been heard to hum at least the chorus of “Me and Bobby McGee.” I’ll come in on the harmony.