Homo Viator Needs an Oil Change

Feast of the Righteous Theophilus

Christ_in_Desert_Monastery_Square.jpegI HAVE visited the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico several times in the last 40 years. Indeed, I became an oblate there in 1993. I think it was during that visit that one of the other guests was a woman who carried herself heavily like a depleted soul in her first days at a psychiatric facility. After breakfast one morning she mentioned that she was a therapist in Albuquerque. She said, “I come here to get back to reality.”

While one might admire the woman for her candor, one could still be concerned that her demeanor could be bad for business. It’s OK to have a wounded healer, but one who looks nearly unable to function? I hope the counselor returned to her practice fortified to share with her clients the clarity and strength she attained in silence at the monastery. And maybe it’s far better when a therapist, whether for body or soul, admits to having limitations, and recognizes that one’s expertise might tempt one fraudulently to claim competence rather than admit bewilderment.

Many of us seek our desert places, our retreats. Some visit a contemplative monastery; others go solo backpacking. Perhaps we will go see Grandma—or her grave—in the small town that was the home to everyone in the family until old Uncle Joe went to work at the refinery after serving in WWII. We pine for the integrated community at Port William, but the most we do is get in the car in Wichita or Dallas or Lincoln and drive to Yoder, Kansas to be among the Amish, or Tahlequah, Oklahoma to see the Cherokees and Benedictines. We might stay somewhere to be replenished, then leave with the resolve to incorporate some of the practices in which we’ve been involved for a few days to try to live in a more integrated way with Christ and peace at our center. Then we hit the interstate.

Much has been written, and sung, about cars in America. Essayist Joan Didion contrasted “driving” on the Los Angeles freeway and “participating in it.”

Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over….Reyner Banham observed…“the freeways become a special way of being alive…the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.”

Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys celebrated driving fast off the line and down to the beach. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers mournfully sang about the accident that followed the “Last Kiss.” Neil Young waxed elegiac about his old car in “Long May You Run.” And Bruce Springsteen’s working class heroes race and rob, as well as head down to the river to seek some form of baptism.

Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen seems to have surpassed the typical car song in “Rollin’ By.” Rather than a mere cataloging of the ways people are lured from small towns to large cities, this song combines an almost Heideggerian sense of the capacity of technology to destroy our encounter with both nature and culture: “It's a busted old town on the plains of West Texas. /
The drugstore's closed down, and the river's run dry. / The semis roll through like stainless steel stallions.” As well, the forms that provided a means to interpret existence have been eclipsed. The mission still stands, but the graveyard around it might be far fuller than the nave is on Sunday morning. And the models of life popularly provided in film—especially perhaps, examples of married life—are no longer found since “the drive-in don't play no Friday night picture. / No big silver screen to light up the sky. / Gone are the days of post-war-time lovers.”

Perhaps the finest aspect of the lament in “Rollin’ By” is the narrator’s recognition that he is utterly implicated in the scene that troubles him: “And me, I stand here at the last fillin' station / Where the wind moans a dirge to the coyote's cry. I jump in my car; I'm back out on the highway.” If he has opted for a life that is perhaps more movement than action, less thoughtfulness than mindless looking, at least he has had a vision of great historical emptying-out in the few minutes he has gassed up his car. The narrator might keep going hard away from the busted old town, but he has given us a chance to linger and reflect.

On October 28 Robert Earl Keen will do a concert at the Fox Theatre in Hutchinson with his old Texas A&M roommate, Lyle Lovett. Two evenings later they will play at McCain Auditorium on the campus of Kansas State University. I hope their set will include “Rollin’ By”; I’ll holler if they try to leave without performing it in Manhattan. The version of the song by Lyle Lovett is especially haunting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_V5ltfJMas .

 

Robert Earl Keen, "Rollin’ By"

It's a busted old town on the plains of West Texas.
The drugstore's closed down, and the river's run dry.
The semis roll through like stainless steel stallions
Goin' hard, goin' fast, goin' wild
Rollin' hard, rollin' fast, rollin' by.

And the mission still stands at the edge of the plateau.
A stone marks the graves where the old cowboys lie.
Asleep in a time, in a town just a youngster
Goin' hard, goin' fast, goin' wild
Rollin' hard, rollin' fast, rollin' by.

And the drive-in don't play no Friday night picture.
No big silver screen to light up the sky.
Gone are the days of post-war-time lovers
Goin' hard, goin' fast, goin' wild
Rollin' hard, rollin' fast, rollin' by.

And me, I stand here at the last fillin' station
Where the wind moans a dirge to the coyote's cry.
I jump in my car; I'm back out on the highway
Goin' hard, goin' fast, goin' wild
Rollin' hard, rollin' fast, rollin' by
Goin' hard, goin' fast, goin' wild
Rollin' hard, rollin' fast, rollin' by


John Traffas writes from retirement in Atchison, Kansas. He spoke about music and mystery during the 2015 Eighth Day Institute Symposium on “Whatever Happened to Wonder? The Recovery of Mystery in a Secular Age.”

 

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