Friday, January 27, 2012


"Salvation" is a word I use very reluctantly. It means too many different things to too many different people and most of those meanings strike me as more imaginative and thus debilitating than they do as providing a clear indicator.

But for all that, in my heart of hearts, I guess I do think "salvation" means something and is worth attending to ... even if I can't define it adequately and get pretty testy when I or others try. Or anyway that's what I think today: There are salvations in people's lives... good, bad or indifferent, still, salvations.

After sitting around gabbing with three other people participating in "The Wisdom Project" yesterday, Carl (Karl?), one of the participants, button-holed me as I was about to leave the senior center where the conversation took place. We sat in the lobby of the center.

Carl is a lanky, angular man in his 70's, I'd guess. His face is relaxed and gentle, as is his way of presenting things. His tone is upbeat, but not sappy ... Carl has been to hard places and yet smiles ... not the sappy and desperate smiles of someone who fears something and longs to overcome the harshness, but the smile of someone who has come out the other side and chooses.

Carl grew up in Holyoke, a nearby community known for its Irish Catholics and its blue collar history -- a history that once meant the paper industry. When Carl was about to graduate from high school, he received a full scholarship to college. His stepfather, however, had four daughters to provide for and he yanked Carl off the college path, took him to a local Veterans Administration hospital, and signed him up as a bricklayer's apprentice. His stepfather also took Carl's wages and applied them to his abundant family. And now, so many years later, Carl can look back and say, "I was a bricklayer."

Carl's two sons have done well -- one selling a company he started for $7 million and then moving to Switzerland to live with a Swedish wife. The other, not quite so enterprising, is nevertheless competent and whole. Carl is pleased, even if he mentions in an understated parenthesis that "there are no grandchildren."

The friendly gabbiness with which Carl delivered his tale was in some sense wondrous. The implications of one aspect or another were enormous, in human terms, and yet Carl retailed them simply with his gentle tone and no whining.

And in the midst of it all, there was his salvation -- or what I chose to think of that way. Carl plays mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass. He loves "the old music" and gathers with several friends on Sundays to play and sing. He doesn't do blue grass -- it's too fast, he said. And occasionally he has to fill in on bass because the other fellow who plays it ... well, his hands get tired. For all the years Carl was a "bricklayer," there was music in his life. Music he loved. Music that loved him back. Music that carries and informs him to this day. Carl did not say he "loved" music. I said that. To say he "loved" music would be too fancy for Carl, too desperate, too pretentious, too talk-the-talk instead of walk-the-walk. To express too much gratitude for salvation is to give the things from which we are saved more power than they deserve.

There is music of a million million kinds and my hunch is that everyone has the capacity for a similar salvation -- not a gushy, frightened salvation of God or heaven or enlightenment or peace, but something steady and quite ordinary. It's so-what or what-did-you-expect in one sense. And in another sense, it's enough to bring a smile to the lips. It is a salvation that reaches beyond the furthest heavens and yet never gets out of the living room. It is timeless because, well, it's right now and what other possibility is there?

Carl invited me to one of his Sunday afternoon jam sessions and perhaps I'll go.

I like music as well as the next fellow.

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