Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Made Up Names
So much for assumptions.
I came to town to play on National Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion" with my boss, Emmylou Harris. When she introduced me to Garrison Keillor, the show's host, he looked at me with that most owl-like visage and replied in a glorious baritone voice, "Phil Madeira... sounds like a made-up name."
I thought of saying, "Look who's talking- Garrison Keillor", but let it slide.
Years ago, I thought about changing my name. I've always preferred my given name, Philip, but most people are too lazy to pronounce both syllables, so I gave in long ago to being Phil. To complicate matters, Madeira is often misspelled by anyone who knows the "i before e" rule. Consequently, I did go through a phase of trying to find a 'made up name', but nothing suitable was coined, and here I am, Phil Madeira.
The other thing Mr Keillor said was "You must be from the Midwest", to which I heartily answered, "No". I am not sure what about me gave him that impression. Perhaps it was the large Hohner accordion hanging from my neck, giving credence to a surmised background in polka music. I think of the Midwest as pedestrian and white bread, and the accordion often bolsters that image, albeit wrongfully so. But I will leave the accordion to defend itself.
I went to college in the Midwest, specifically to Taylor University, in Upland, Indiana. With the exception of Iowa, I'm not sure that there's any more Midwestern place than Upland. It's nondescript, in the middle of bloody nowhere. There is literally nothing to do there, which is exactly why a group of stodgy Methodists built a college there in the 1800s.
Indiana had, well... nothing.
As we took a right turn and saw Taylor's shallow buildings rising abruptly from the corn, we said nothing. I think we were all hoping that it was some other college, and that we had taken a wrong turn, but alas, that was not the case.
Had I been a more conscientious student, all would have been different. I would have been accepted, like my siblings before me, into that grand institution of Christian higher education, Wheaton College in Illinois. My parents had gone to Wheaton, along with their classmate and friend Billy Graham. My siblings had gone there. My siblings' spouses had gone there. My siblings' spouses' parents had gone there. There was a time when I believed that all Christians went to Wheaton College, "For Christ and His Kingdom".
It must be a wonderful thing to have such a great college experience that you want your children to attend your alma mater. My parents, particularly my mother, loved their Wheaton experience, and certainly thought it would be the best scenario for the education of each of their children.
I was the only person in my immediate family who did not attend Wheaton. I had little choice, after being rejected by George Cramer, the school's registrar, and a former parishioner of my father's church. You have to be pretty damned undesirable to get rejected by a college whose alumni roster includes your parents and your siblings. I always knew George had it in for me.
When I was a senior in high school, I really didn't have a plan for college. I fatalistically assumed that I would wind up at The University of Rhode Island, although I had no idea what I would study. I applied to Taylor, because a family friend, Jack Diamond (not a made up name) went there and did well enough to transfer to Wheaton. Mind you, Wheaton was where I was expected to go.
One day, an admissions counselor from Taylor called and asked if she could visit with my parents and me, as she was traveling through New England. During the meeting, my mother suggested I read some of my poetry to her. I had written a series of poems about apathy called "Who Cares About Apathy?", which at the time seemed like a catchy and poignant idea. These poems were actually quite dreadful, but my senior English teacher, a bovine-nosed woman named Mrs Karr, had given my work an A+, so it seemed worth it to my mother to present it to the counselor.
On the basis of the creativity my paper revealed, I was invited to join the class of 1974 at Taylor University in the fall of 1970. My student number was 70666. I liked that.
Turning that corn field's corner and seeing my new home was a real let down. The architecture sagged with mediocrity, and the buildings were separated by great distances on an uninteresting and very Protestant tract of land. I would discover these distances, during miserable winters, to be impossible to traverse without getting windburned and frostbitten.
My parents both wore hopeful smiles, believing in something unseen, and blocking from their minds the fact that had I achieved something more, we would be unloading my luggage in lovely Wheaton, Illinois, where much of my spiritual heritage had been forged, and where my parents had met in the mid 1940s. You know the type of smile I'm talking about; it's actually an exaggerated version of a smile, like a grimace, I suppose, which should be called a "grinace". These smiles appear when one encounters grave disappointments, achingly sad truths, and news of misfortune.
In my parents' minds, and perhaps even in mine, I would have my freshman year in a sort of Purgatory, where the better angels of my nature would ferry me across the mundane waters of required liberal arts basics, and land me where I was supposed to be, Wheaton.
While standing in line for my first glorious meal, my mother took pity on a tall, gangly, bird-like boy, and began talking with him. Her compassionate mind was thinking "Paw thing", and she took it upon herself to brighten his day by showing interest in him. The complication of her charity was that my father and I were conscripted into the conversation.
"Wheruh you from?", Mom asked. In a moment which makes me wonder if God isn't mean-spirited after all, Steve replied "Wheaton, Illinois". "Oh, Dave and I and our two uthuh children all went to Wheaton", Mom announced.
The next thing I knew, Steve, the bird-boy, was inviting himself to join us for lunch.
Great, I thought. My last meal with my parents, and I have to share it with this weirdo from Wheaton. After our meal, Steve said, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if you and I turned out to be roommates." I sure didn't think so.
"Yeah", I said.
A half hour later, Mom was the first to walk into my new room, and I heard her say "Oh NO!" and then recovering, "er, what a surprise".
Sure enough, the bird-boy was my room mate after all. He had already chosen his bunk, his desk, and had hung his artwork all over the room. His chosen medium was flesh. Steve was an amateur taxidermist. His work included a stuffed pigeon and a rabbit's head mounted on a piece of plywood. I later would learn that he was a scavenger, and anything left on the roadside would wind up in our room, despite my protests.
(Steve would eventually transfer to Wheaton, where perhaps he studied taxidermy. Years later, he surfaced in the Colorado Springs area, where he had built a home from scavenged materials. No lie.)
My parents soon left, and I donned my freshman beanie and set about the work of embracing my new home. I didn't realize it then, but I had just entered the epicenter of Evangelicalism- The Midwest. If I thought for a moment that my home life had been flavored with the taste of Christendom, the spirituality I was about to experience was of a flavorless, over-cooked variety, like English pub food without the glorious architecture and beer.
At first, I fell hard, mesmerized by the thrill of being with a crowd who thinks like you think. My first experience of the sensation of camaraderie was the childhood discovery a fellow Yankee fan in Red Sox country back in Rhode island. Now here I was at TU, with 1400 people who all loved Jesus, and who wanted to change the world for Him. It was an amazing thing, like being in a gigantic youth group.
Truth is, that rebel yell in my heart cannot be stifled for long, and eventually my colors will show. My proclivity to be set apart, to be different, to be Phil Madeira, will always override my desire to belong. My rebel yell sometimes manifests itself in the form of a grand profane moment, in which I am exposed as an odd sort of Christian, and subsequently rejected completely or tolerated generously and sweetly as someone who has yet to truly understand the change that Christ demands of his followers.
I'm a lousy joiner.
Like the housekeeper who doesn't do windows, I don't do religion, although I can make a case for doing windows. The case for religion is weak, and no one has made that clearer than Jesus Himself.
So, I sought out like-minded rebels, but they were hard to come by. I didn't want to throw out the Baby Jesus, just His bath water.
Although I felt a kinship with the rebellious crowd, I was apprehensive about becoming too emeshed, because most in that scene were frequent drug users. Refugees from religion, there was a bitterness among this group, most of whom had been steeped in Midwestern Evangelicalism to the point of spoiling.
I wasn't interested in smoking pot, although I had many evenings breaking the Taylor Pledge by splitting a $1.50 bottle of Boone's Farm Apple Wine, or drinking Drury's, a dreary beer served at Newt's Glass Bar, so chicly named because the bar was constructed of glass bricks. Yep, that's how they do things in the Midwest.
Eventually, I gave in to my curiosity about weed, and occasionally smoked in the confines of my off-campus room. I remember going to a chapel service, high as a kite, and trying to remain inconspicuous by wearing welder's glasses.
Someone told me I was having fun.
I hold no affection nor sentimentality for my short-lived pot smoking days.
That nothing-to-do-bubble in Indiana was less protective than one might imagine. I've often thought had I gone to the University of Rhode Island, I might not have ever done anything rebellious, since partying was a way of life at big state schools. What grain would I have gone against in such a hedonistic place?
I gave my soul to a Taylor girl, a Christian Education major who gave me a considerably unchristian education. Rather than celebrate my enlightenment, I mourned the loss of my ignorant innocence, as well as the loss of the girl, who didn't last long at Taylor. She was an outsider, too, and that's what did me in. Perhaps your average college boy would be high-fiving fraternity brothers after conquering such supple landscape, but I knew that it was me who'd been conquered, not her.
A few months after my heart had been broken, I met guitarist Phil Keaggy who was playing a concert at nearby Marion College. On the night we met, he told me that he thought someday we'd be in a band together. Three years later, this assumption or prophecy or wild guess, call it what you will, came true when I made the trek to Upstate New York and joined his band and the cult which he was a member of. But that is another story.
I had a philosophy teacher in my Junior year named Herb Nygren, and it was he who opened up the world to me, and made faith intriguing. If there was a single thing that my college education gave me, it was the sense that spiritual exploration was not only interesting and entertaining, but necessary in order to stave off the crippling atrophy that seemed to make invalids of so many religious people, from Jesus' time to the present.
As I pondered my own beliefs, questioning God seemed to be a Biblical expression of faith, and even worship. Searching for God would have to include a scrutinizing of him in order for a mutual satisfaction to occur between Creator and creature. The tale of Jacob wrestling with God in the wilderness and limping away, the victor, alluded to a picture of God Almighty wearing a "Question Authority" tee shirt, and saying "Bring it on" to honest doubters.
Evangelicals hammer away at the idea of a personal relationship with Christ, which I resonate with to this day. Yet, they depersonalize the concept with rigid theologies, particularly Calvinism, which foists a determined, willful God on hapless Christians who have no choice in the matter of following Him or Her. The notion of God choosing some for Heaven and some for Hell, does not sound like the gracious Shepherd I heard about in Sunday School, going to the ends of earth to find one lost sheep.
Calvinists, whom often call themselves "Reformed", love the box they have created for God; in preparing this concrete place for him, they sequester him in finiteness and smugly declare the subservience of his love, a muted affection smothered and dwarfed and beneath a gargantuan Will which God's own tears cannot erode. Calvinism seems to be at home in the Midwest, as squared off as a road map of Indianapolis.
The red clay on my Southern soles doesn't blend with the dry dirt of the Midwest. My blood doesn't want to freeze, and my will doesn't want to surrender. Like Midwesterners, I'm holding my ground, but it's a different kind of soil. This dirt tastes like it's been trod over by gospel-singing negros, woman warriors, and spirit-filled portrait painters, with names like Sister Rosetta, Flannery O'Connor, and Howard Finster. The ground I'm holding is my faith, flexible and evolving, open and mystical, childlike and offensive. I don't want to put a name to my beliefs, lest they feel contrived or made up.
May God Almighty recognize me apart from the labels I've acquired:
"gangstuh" (my mother's pronunciation)
7 on the Enneagram
8 on the Enneagram
not a Christian
...and forgive me for the labels I've bequeathed.
Meanwhile, my Southern Born Woman smiles and knows my type, but is content to call me baby, which is not a made up name.