Hope Springs Eternal


A Talk

We remember things in threes. Faith hope and love; Hope trust and affection; philosophy poetry and religion. Youth Maturity Age.

But we’d rather remember just one, or have one of the three be greatest: Faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love; love, justice, and gratitude, and the greatest of these is gratitude (or love or justice).

Sunday mornings in Portland remind us of blessings: of faith, hope and love; of affection and gratitude; and we sing of those blessings.

We find blessings best amidst peace, joy, and communion. And we find those best here in a noise-free, no-insult zone; a no-competition, hate-free zone; a shared comfort-for-all zone.

It’s a place for acceptance and trusts, smiles, blessings, and hope.

**  **  **

Here’s the Angel of Amherst, on hope:  Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words — And never stops at all

I think of hope as poised on the cusp of unfolding melody.

Hope, trust, and affection lift us from the start of a melodic phrase and carry us to its end – and from the end to a new beginning.

We have to love our melodies – even our lamentations – to stay with them and share them and caress and tender their phrases.

We have to trust that our notes will be well-placed and our tone steady in its unfolding. Hope lifts us through, from silence to song. It carries us over the fears and the gaps.

**  **  **

A melody, at its best, is love and goodbye.

Our lives, at their best, are melody, love and goodbye.

Hope is the thing with feathers  —  That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words —  And never stops at all

And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

Love is help in a storm, but so often it has strings attached.

Hope has no strings attached.

Charity is help in a storm, but so often it too has strings attached – now you owe.

But hope has no strings. Hope is a gift, a blessing, without fine print at the bottom.

The Amherst singer ends her poem with the thought that hope, unlike love or charity, asks nothing of us in return:

And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land  — And on the strangest sea

Yet never in extremity it asked a crumb of me.

** ** **

We can’t make hope happen; nor can we make love happen. Yet we can make things easier for both love and hope to sing through our lives.

We do this by cultivating a spirit of openness, friendliness, and communion, and by diminishing noise — the noise of TV news that upsets and agitates; the noise of too many Text messages and emails that threaten to block out openness and communion.

Yet we have to reflect on the bad news even as it threatens hope. The news of Orlando or Syria or The West Bank or Rwanda or Venezuela can darken hope but can’t be shut down.

Sometimes it’s more local news that sullies lives: that imperious boss or inconsiderate coach, or drunken bum next door. Losing patience with the world or our neighbor, hopelessness or hatred intrude.

**  **  **

Just a week ago reading about Sherlock Holmes – or Conan Doyle – I caught him thinking hopefully about big things – not local crime, but war, peace and justice.  It’s from the film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death.

There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out. We’re beginning to think of what we owe the other fellow, not just what we’re compelled to give him. The time’s coming when we shan’t be able to fill our bellies in comfort while other folk go hungry — or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold; when we shan’t be able to kneel and thank God for blessings before our shining altars while men anywhere are kneeling in either physical or spiritual subjection. And God willing, we’ll live to see that day.

Holmes was good at solving crimes but bad at predicting the next decades. The new age of sustained peace, generosity, and justice just never arrived.

Yet perhaps something like that utopian illusion helped Holmes get through the London blitz, and prepare for the day that bombers would quit the skies of London and Dresden.

He didn’t live to see that day of sustained peace and justice, nor will we — though we work for it nonetheless. And to keep the dream alive we strain to

 hear the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul.


**  **  **


thHere is perhaps the greatest conductor of the last century talking about singing and not being abashed by the scary unknown. It’s Wilhelm Furtwangler, a German conductor who was famous for surprising everyone – even himself – with his spur of the moment, surprising phrasing in concert.

To be alive is to face and deliver surprise and the unexpected. No two Furtwangler performances were identical. He knew we all live in a world of the unforeseen. The unforeseen gives hope a grip. Hope might guard us against terror, or open us to wonder.

And the unforeseen is ubiquitous, not just in the uncertainty of post-war Europe, but in the uncertainty of the near future of a conversation – which way will it turn? – or the unforeseen is in the uncertainty of the near future of a musical phrase.

We are both conversation and phrase,

always edging into the new and uncertain.

**  **  **

220px-DBPB_1955_128_Wilhelm_FurtwänglerFurtwangler is in charge of 100 instrumentalists, yet he doesn’t try for iron fist control of his players. Nor does he want too much control over his intuitions, his impulses. They are feathered things that must sing, full of hope.

We often try to reduce the unforeseen to a controllable level, to prevent a sudden impulse that escapes our ability to control, yet also responds to an obscure desire. Let’s allow improvisation to have its place and play its role. I think that the true interpreter is the one who improvises.

Those sudden impulses – grasping for more light  (often – not always) — get us through to new and better places, new and better phrases. Our lives, after all, aren’t a dull drum beat or a repetitive formula, but a melody or conversation that can change — and get stuck — and begin to soar again.

**  **  **

Dante warns, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

If you’re in hell, you don’t have a hope.

If you’re hopeless, you’re in hell.

So listen for the promise, the hope, the beckoning affection in that emerging, opening phrase. With any luck, it will be there. You’ll find it in Devin’s “Summertime”  -– or in Dame Judith Baker’s “An de musik” — or in Iddo Bar Shai’s Haydn.

When the worthy dream, or beautiful song, of peace and justice withers, breaks, or gets trashed — shouted down, by real-time events — then anchored in hope, we get up from the dust, and dust off. We let hope – hope, trust, and affection, these three — have another shot.

We let them pierce the darkness once again and show the way back to the tune.

We let an Amherst “tune without words” carry us on. A tune without words, because the feathered thing uplifts without telling us moralistically what the lesson is — or that we were so stupid for losing our way, or for losing hope.

**  **  **

Wilhelm Furtwangler dives intuitively into the unknown of his music. You can hear him conduct Beethoven on You Tube. He dives into the unknown each time, no matter how many times he’s played or rehearsed it.

A good musician knows that like life, unless one gets mechanical, there’s no certainty about what comes next. It’s not just that mistakes or disasters intrude. It’s uncertainty about whether you can pull off the wonderful, the better than best, the sweeter than sweet.

And before the phrase finishes, you still remain feeling your way ahead. You really don’t know what the finish will be. If you can’t be mechanical, you improvise.

** ** **

Back from soaring music, back to the simple tunes of life:

Improvise !

You try a new trick on the unhappy kid.

Nothing but wails, and both of you need a better path.

Maybe sing to her

(without words of blame or impatience).


Hope is the thing with feathers –

 That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops at all


And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.


I’ve heard it in the chillest Maine –

And on the strangest Bay

Yet never in extremity it asked a crumb of me.





The film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the sixth in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series. The writers loosely adapted Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, setting it during 1943. (You can watch the film on Youtube).


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