First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air" by Tom Schade

(newsletter memo originally published in June, 2006)

I have now equipped myself to listen to my IPOD portable music player through my car radio. I can now listen to whatever I want as I drive along down the highway of life. No more will I be endangering myself and others by trying to sort through disorganized piles of compact disks while driving. Yes, there is a confusing tangle of wires hanging from my dashboard that has to be arranged just so, but, in theory, it is much simpler and more useful.

Warning: All those who need to believe that the Associate Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts listens only to serious, informative, and spiritually uplifting books on CD while driving should stop reading now. The same warning applies to those who need to believe that the same minister only listens to our choir’s two CD’s, or to recordings of our Sunday morning services in a spirit of self-critical improvement.

Actually what I most enjoy is to set the IPOD on a setting where it plays any of the 2000 songs I have downloaded to it in a random order. I never know what is coming next. Aretha Franklin leads to Ella Fitzgerald to Pat Metheny to Van Morrison to Beethoven to Del McCoury to Bob Dylan to the First Unitarian Choir to Tony Bennett to U2 and on and on and on.

Now, here is the odd thing. As I drive along, it seems that there is logic and an order to how the songs are coming up. There is a connection between the artists, or one song lyrically is answering the question raised by the song before, or they have the same rhythm and beat. The other day while I drove through the rain, it was one sad song after another.

So, after a while, I begin to imagine that there is disk jockey in my IPOD who knows me, knows my present mood, and knows my music library and is choosing songs just for me.

Sometimes I concentrate really hard and wish that the disk jockey would play a particular song next. The DJ never does, or, at least, he or she hasn’t yet. Nonetheless, it is surprising how often the next song, while not what I asked for, is an even better choice. I am trying to learn how to be more trusting, to give up my expectations and stop asking for the next song. I just try to enjoy whatever comes. Just like I learned to give up my expectations about what constituted “a cup of coffee” in Spain.

As you can imagine, I have a running argument with myself over the presence of the disk jockey in my Ipod.

My rational self tell me: Remember that there is no disk jockey in your IPOD. After all, how could one fit in there and how would he or she breathe? You are indulging in the most human habit of imposing a pattern on random events. You are the one seeing the connections between the songs, and you are the one who is imagining all the messages in the shuffle play option.”

But then I answer myself: “As much as it is a buzzkill, I admit that it is just random sequencing. It is probably also true that thunder is not the sound of God bowling. Honestly, in some part of my mind, I have always known these actual facts. But does it really cause me any harm to imagine a DJ spinning just the right songs for me as I drive home? In fact, imagining a disk jockey in my Ipod unleashes my creatively. Listen it just went from John Mayer’s “Your Body is Wonderland” to Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On.” Now I have all this to think about, speculating about first love now and first loves in the 1920’s. If I only saw this sequence as random, would I even stop to think about it at all?

Wouldn’t the worst thing be if that I stopped listening to it actively, but just listened to the songs passively? No, I will not succumb to the passivity, to the numbness, to the despair of nihilism. I will believe in the DJ.”

“Skeptical Me” can only laugh. “Why do you have get so dramatic all the time? You carry on like St. Stephen, or Martin Luther, or Michael Servetus at the stake. It’s just you at work here. You are the ones making the connections in your thought processes. You don’t need to believe in a mythical DJ to do that. The danger comes from the fact that you are imposing your old experience of Top 40 radio from your childhood (The Dadd-I-o of the Radio on WHOT AM in Youngstown, Ohio circa 1963) on a completely new situation. Face the facts. If you don’t push the shuffle play button, it doesn’t happen. The random play is just part of the IPOD software.”

Myth-loving me shouts: “Aha, You admit that there is a programmer somewhere who wrote the code. So if you don’t believe in the DJ, you still believe that somewhere someone wrote the operating system. And how do you know what powers and capacities this almighty creator of the operating system has built into the code? Just because you cannot imagine how the Great Programmer designed the Disk Jockey function into the Ipod, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t done.”

Skeptical Me replies: If this so-called Great Programmer did design a disk jockey into the Ipod software, how come he or she didn’t call it “Disk Jockey” function, but called it “shuffle play” instead?

Myth-Loving Me: “His ways are not our ways.”

And so argument goes on, mile after mile. And then, I notice that my Ipod has just played “Abide with Me” as arranged by Theolonius Monk for a Saxophone section, “Grace” by U2, and then “Give Me the Faith” by the First Unitarian Choir. I rest my case.

Driving by Tom Schade

I love to drive. I love getting on the open road, preferably a four-lane superhighway and settling in to a long drive. I love watching the sky and the hills and the trees and the other cars drift by in what seems like slow-motion because you are going so fast. I love listening to music while I drive, and I love listening to the silence and to the hum of the highway.

My parents told me that when I was young, just two or three, I would stand behind my father’s shoulder as he drove down night-lit roads. And even now, if I cannot sleep, I close my eyes and imagine myself a small boy laying on the backseat of a moving car and drift off to the steady sounds of the turning tires. I love to drive.

My love for driving is one reason why I enjoy having a longer commute than many people.

I have often said that one reason why I like to drive is that it gives me time to think. And yet, I often cannot remember anything that I have thought about when I get to wherever I have been going. So what have I been doing?

Let me back up here to say that being able to think about what you would like to think about is pretty important. And it is almost impossible. If you are like me, you think about what you happen to think about; I am not in control of my thoughts. My thoughts just seem to happen.

I would be a much better person if I could direct my thoughts to the subjects that I want to think about. Just imagine being able to call up the concentration that would allow ten to fifteen minutes of focused thought about a difficult problem. It would be wonderful, but I can’t think more than 15 consecutive seconds about a single problem. With thirty minutes of undistracted thinking time, I am confident that I could work out the issues in the Middle East and win a Nobel Peace Prize for the mantle. But no, I start to think about the Middle East and off my mind wanders into all sorts of non-productive areas. Like speculating on the differences between the Middle East, the Middle West, the Middle Kingdom and Middle Earth. Which leads to a perennial subject of my deepest thinking, which is how did Middlesex County gets its name? There is no Nobel Prize down that mental pathway, I assure you.

But I digress, which is my exact point.

I would also like to be able to not think some of thoughts I do think. To be able to listen to your story, without comparing it to mine. To hear you express your grief at the death of your mother, without being overwhelmed by my memories of my own. To be able to meet people who are different than me without stereotypes and preconceptions rising up like a veil to obscure my view. To be able to think of now without being distracted by then or when; to be able to think of here without thinking of there or where, this and not that or what, or but.

When I am driving I should be thinking about driving, about what is going on right now, right here. I should be observing all that is going on around me, and not obsessing on any of it. Eyes sweeping ahead, to what is near, and what is far, and then checking what is going on behind me. Eyes always in motion, never coming to rest, always watching, never staring. As I drive, when I find my mind wandering off, to think about the Middle East or Middlesex County, or how many Chevy Malibus they seem to be selling this year, or whether the forests seem thicker and greener this rainy summer, or how the Cosmic DJ in the Ipod knew exactly the song I needed to hear next, I have to bring my mind back to mindfulness of the conditions of the road, and the position of the other cars, and their relative speed and what is going on all around me. After all, it is a matter of life and death, how well we pay attention to our driving.

I used to say that I loved to drive because it gave me time to think, but now, I wonder about that. Perhaps I love to drive because it asks me to think in a different way, one that calls me back to reality again and again.

more pictures



This will be a spot where you can get copies of newsletter memos, sermons or other writings from the First Unitarian Church.