Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Painting on the Canvas of Time




Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 6 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel



“The art of keeping the seventh day
is the art of painting on the canvas of time
the mysterious grandeur of the
climax of creation:
as He sanctified the seventh day,
so shall we.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

The sun set on Friday night at 7:50.  I lit a candle and said this prayer:

“Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has set us apart by his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.”
 (Prayer found in Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab.)

Each week, I’ve been introducing new elements into play as I attempt to observe the Sabbath.  This was my first time lighting a candle for the occasion.

Initial-word panel with gold letters
and inhabited by dragons at the
beginning of Numbers in the
"Coburg Pentateuch," from
Central Germany (Coburg),
1390-1396.
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts.
On Saturday morning I slept in, waking naturally at 8:30.  I showered, dressed, and headed out for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I had a loose idea of an itinerary, but sought to keep any plans as flexible as possible.  I didn’t want to feel hostage to the clock on my Sabbath.

On my first reading of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was surprised to discover that I had observed Sabbaths at various times in my life—I just hadn’t realized they were Sabbaths!  For instance, when my son served as a volunteer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, I fell into a routine of accompanying him into the city then splitting off to spend time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  For me, that time spent alone in the galleries with great art was prime Sabbath time.  I’d leave the museum refreshed, relaxed, recharged—spiritually energized.

It’s always fun to walk up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its iconic Rocky steps.  At the entrance, I picked up the museum’s daily events flyer and discovered they had a special exhibition on “Hans Memling and the Iconic Image of Christ.”  This was an unexpected treat for me!  I love the early Netherlandish art of the 15th and 16th centuries (artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Gerard David, as well as Memling), even once leading an adult Sunday School class on the subject.

Occupying a modest room in a remote corner of the museum, the Hans Memling exhibit centers on Blessing Christ, a small painting on temporary loan to the museum.  As the label explains, the painting neatly combines the medieval-style icon traditions with the more realistic face modeling of the Renaissance.  To interpret the little painting, the one-room exhibit surrounded it with complementary examples of religious art of the time.

My attention was drawn to a painting of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin by Hans Memling, Netherlandish
(active Bruges), late 15th century, oil on panel,
11 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches.
From the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Also by Hans Memling, this image of Mary was another very small work, perhaps the only surviving fragment of a larger altarpiece.  Mary demurely looks down, as she often does in paintings of the Annunciation as she ponders the message of the Angel Gabriel.  It’s an unusually serene image, ideal for contemplation.

I spent some time with it.  I think it was a gift to me on my Sabbath.  

According to the story in Genesis, God created the world in six days.  On that sixth day, He created man and woman in His image.  Therefore, isn’t it part of the very built-in nature of man to create in turn?  In the image of God, we create for six days and then rest on the seventh, filling that seventh day with appreciation for God, for the creation, and for the work that we accomplish as God’s image in the world.

Over 500 years ago, Hans Memling added to the sum total of beauty on the earth.  On the seventh day, I appreciated his sublime work.

“The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation:  as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we.  The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

Detail of the illuminated manuscript above.  Initial-word panel with
gold letters and inhabited by dragons at the beginning of Numbers
in the "Coburg Pentateuch," from Central Germany (Coburg),
1390-1396.
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Sabbath: An Affirmation of Labor




Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 5 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel



“The Sabbath as a
day of abstaining from work
is not a depreciation
but an affirmation of labor,
a divine exaltation of its dignity.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 2:  “Beyond Civilization”

Yesterday, I looked through the work of one of my favorite Christian bloggers, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology, to see if he had ever weighed in on the Sabbath.  It turns out that he has—but his main blog entry on the subject was somewhat disheartening.  In “Time and the Sabbath,” Beck speaks highly of Abraham Joshua Heschel and respects Heschel’s poetic conception of time, but nevertheless remains skeptical of Christian Sabbath-dabblers.  He writes:

“(I)t seems that many Christians are using the notion of Sabbath to provide spiritual cover for a period of self-focus. It’s horribly judgmental of me to say this, but much of what passes for ‘Sabbath’ in Christian circles seems to be (a) case of self-indulgence. A means, for example, to get a little peace and quiet away from the family, to justify time set aside for the self…”


End of Deuteronomy framed
by micrographical design,
from a Pentateuch with
masorah magna and parva,
from Spain, circa 1400.
From the British Library
Catalogue of Illuminated
Manuscripts.
I hope I’m avoiding that in my approach, which is very based on the idea that Heschel expresses in the quote at the top of this entry.  Observance of the Sabbath isn’t just about that single day at the end of the week.  Sabbath requires the establishment of a different beat of ongoing rhythm to the entire week.  If I’m going to accept that single day of relaxation, self-focus, and maybe even self-indulgence, I feel a duty to counterbalance that with six days of work.  In the paragraph that follows the quote, Heschel writes, “The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day.”

As a Christian, I include the tasks of Kingdom-building within the work of those six days.  And it’s probably wrong of me to restrict that thought to Christianity because I think Heschel—like a Jewish prophet of old—was fully engaged with the work of Kingdom-building himself, as notably demonstrated when he walked side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March.  Heschel dedicated his six working days to creating a better world through his actions, his teaching, and his writing.  On the Sabbath, he graciously accepted and acknowledged the gift of a day where a little self-indulgence can be winked at.

My own sense of responsibility for accomplishing work within a six-day time frame has increased during this period of Sabbath experimentation.  I’m extremely fortunate that my day job—raising funds for a nonprofit dedicated to preserving mankind’s cultural heritage—feels like authentic service to me.  In addition, I’m co-teaching a series on “Ancient Spiritual Practices” at my church on Wednesday nights.  On the first day of the week (following my Sabbath), I attend worship and participate in an adult Sunday School class.  Plus, there are the never-ending tasks (laundry, dishes, etc.) that may not contribute to world peace but are essential for maintaining domestic harmony.  And, of course, I blog, too—and I’d prefer to believe that my blogging is a contribution to the world’s culture rather than pure self-indulgence (please indulge me in my conceit!).

In early March, I found myself unable to face writing another Tour America’s Treasures blog entry.  I was burnt out, desperately needing a break.  So I posted on Tour America’s Treasures that I was going to take a two-week sabbatical.  At that point, I was writing about the Creature from the Black Lagoon on 21 Essays, with only an occasional thought about the upcoming series that I hoped to do on the Sabbath.  I was thinking in academic terms when I wrote the word “Sabbatical,” not making the connection that its linguistic roots go back to the Hebrew Shabbat.  As it turned out, I needed that sabbatical.  One can’t be creating all the time, seven days a week, month after month;  I like that God gives us permission to take a break.  Afterwards, I returned to the blog refreshed, ready to celebrate our nation’s treasures again.

My conclusion?  The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from blogging is not a depreciation but an affirmation of blogging, a divine exaltation of its dignity.

“The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity.  Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command:  Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 2:  “Beyond Civilization”

Full-page image of a menorah,
from Commentary on the Pentateuch
by Levi ben Gershon,
from France (Avignon), 1429.
From the British Library Catalogue of
Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Pilgrimage to the Seventh Day




Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 4 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel



“All our life should be
pilgrimage to
the seventh day…”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 10:  “Thou Shalt Covet”

I’ve chosen Saturday for my Sabbath.  Here’s my reasoning…

Image of the seder table, an initial-word
panel at the beginning of the Haggadah,
liturgical poems and biblical readings
for Passover.  From Spain, circa 1340.
From the British Library Catalogue of
Illuminated Manuscripts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel would began his Sabbaths at sunset on Friday evening and conclude twenty-four hours later at sunset on Saturday.  For him, it wasn’t a matter of choice.  This was how his ancestors celebrated the Sabbath and it was how his contemporary faith community celebrated.  He knew he was part of a vast chorus of Sabbath praise, extending through space and time.  All celebrated Sabbath with him on the seventh day.

I, on the other hand, have a choice.

While I want to nurture the poetry that Heschel found in the Sabbath in my own life, I’m necessarily approaching from a different path.  I’m a Christian, worshipping on Sundays at a Methodist church.  While we Christians give lip service to the Ten Commandments (even sometimes expressing outrage when they’re removed from public buildings), we have a problematic relationship with the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath.”  Some Christian theologians even say that Jesus negated the need for a Sabbath.  Jesus is our Sabbath, available every day.

Frankly, Heschel’s Sabbath is more appealing.  The idea of every day being Sabbath reminds me of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004):

Mother:  “Everyone’s special, Dash.” 
Dash (muttering):  “Which is another way of saying no one is.” 

The Incredibles (2004).

Given that I set an alarm clock for work five days a week, I think I’ll join with Heschel on that pilgrimage to a special day.

Heschel observed the Sabbath in the Jewish context of his family and his synagogue.  I don’t have that.  I go to church with my family on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, but it feels very different from the Sabbath as Heschel describes it:  “…the Sabbath was given to us by God for joy, for delight, for rest, and should not be marred by worry or grief.”

Where is this day of joy and delight?  I used to think that American Christians in the Norman Rockwell days observed Sunday as the Sabbath, but a day of blue laws and prohibitions from conventionally fun activities is antithetical to Heschel’s description of Sabbath.  Heschel is not a Jewish Puritan.  For him, the Sabbath is a time for joyful feasting.  The Sabbath is a time for sex.

Here’s the crux of my problem, embedded in a seeming paradox:  Sunday doesn’t work for my Sabbath because I go to church on Sunday.  A meditative service might work fine for me on the Sabbath, but we tend to have services that conclude with a benediction that challenges us to go out into the world and make it better.  That’s a fine benediction in my mind, and I’m not complaining.  I like it.  But that’s a benediction to launch me into my six days of work.  It’s simply not appropriate for the middle of my day of rest!  It’s what I want to hear after the batteries have been recharged.

So, after long thought, I’ve chosen to commit to the Jewish tradition of Sabbath from sunset to sunset, Friday to Saturday evening.  I know I need to make a firm commitment because the rhythmic nature of the Sabbath is important.  I can’t allow it to be shifted by mundane demands.  The world can wait as I take my Sabbath.  I’ll answer the phone calls and emails on Sunday. I’ll go out and change the world after church.

“But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity.  It needs the companionship of all other days.  All days of the week must be spiritually consistent with the Day of Days.  All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day;  the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds.  For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living;  the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience;  our awareness of God’s presence in the world.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 10:  “Thou Shalt Covet”

Two initial-word panels, with the lower one depicting
the Havdalah ceremony, from the Haggadah,
liturgical poems and biblical readings for Passover.
From Spain, circa 1340.
From the British Library Catalogue of
Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Holiness of the Seventh Day




Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 3 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel



“In the language of the Bible
the world was brought into being
in the six days of creation,
yet its survival depends upon
the holiness of the seventh day.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 8:  “Intuitions of Eternity”

On the seventh day, God surveyed the list of remaining work projects, pondered it long and hard, then did just one task on the list.  That was it.  The other tasks could wait a day.  The seventh day list was crumpled up and tossed into the celestial trash can.

Initial-word panel from the first
page of Genesis, from a miscellany
of biblical and other texts
including the Pentateuch,
France, 1277-1286.
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts.
At some point in my professional life—probably around 15 years ago—I turned to lists to rescue me.  I was drowning under a sea of promised work assignments and personal projects, and I needed a way to ensure that most were accomplished.  I embraced the then-popular idea of being available 24/7.  It sounded great at the time.

Since then, I’ve created over 5,000 lists (365 x 15, minus a reasonable number of vacation and sick days).  Every morning, I compose my daily list, combining genuine work activities, long-term personal projects (like my blogging), and the daily grind jobs like laundry, dishes, and cleaning up after the dog.  My “big picture” task list is stored in the computer and covers broad goals for the month. After printing a copy of the “big picture” in the morning, I hand write all the achievable tasks that I hope to accomplish within the week.  Next I assign numbered priorities to the day’s tasks.  Then I get to work.  During a good work day, nothing feels better than crossing tasks off the list!

Thanks to this system, I’ve been able to manage my professional workload, write two blogs, and maintain reasonable order at home.

But now I’m messing with success.  Inspired by The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, I’ve decided that—for me—the Sabbath should be a day without a list.

Two weeks ago, I didn’t run off a list on Saturday morning.  I didn’t check my work email.  I didn’t do the laundry.  I didn’t even blog!  (You can check that:  no 21 Essays or Tour America’s Treasures blog entries were published on April 6.)

The following morning, the world was still functioning just fine.  I easily caught up on my work email, I did the laundry, and I blogged.  But I was rested.  Even better, I had the prospect of another day of rest just six days away.  There are six days for service and creation (I can still be available 24/6!).  But there’s one day set apart for rest (not available:  24/1!).

Getting back to my opening story, remember that one task God accomplished on creation’s first seventh day? 

God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.

“In the language of the Bible the world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.  Great are the laws that govern the processes of nature.  Yet without holiness there would be neither greatness nor nature.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 8:  “Intuitions of Eternity”

Detail of above:  Initial-word panel inhabited by dragons.
From the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sabbath: A Tent of Thy Peace




Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 2 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel



“What was created on the seventh day?
Tranquility, serenity,
peace, and repose.” *

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

In retrospect, I see there have been pieces of Sabbath time scattered through my life, without my realizing what they were.

Micography of a tree with birds,
from a Pentateuch from Germany,
second half of the 13th century.
From the British Library
Catalogue of Illuminated
Manuscripts.
At the age of 14, my son began volunteering on Saturdays at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Since he had a terrible sense of direction, I volunteered to take him to the museum.  I walked him to the Academy, left him there, and continued up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  And I kept doing that for the next four years, long past the time when he needed my guidance.  I just wanted my quiet days in the city, calm time spent intimately learning the collections at the art museum.

Calm time with art is a Sabbath thing to do.  I’m in that narrow segment of people who find great art to be cleansing.  According to Sabbath lore, the soul yearns for cleansing and refreshment after six days of work.  Art works for me.  The art museum makes a good church.

- - - - -

The Boston Marathon was bombed on Monday.  The raw violence was shocking.  The evil behind it, unfathomable.

The next morning, the Boston Museum of Fine Art issued this statement:

In response to the tragic events at yesterday’s Boston Marathon, general admission to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), will be free to the public today, Tuesday, Apr. 16.  The Museum’s galleries and special exhibitions will be open for visitors who wish to find a place of respite during this painful time for our community.  Drop-in programs, including art-making activities, tours, and story hours for families and children, will also be available.

“Our entire community was affected by yesterday’s tragedy,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “We hope by opening the Museum’s doors and offering free admission we will be a place of comfort, refuge, and peace.”

The phrase “comfort, refuge, and peace” leaped out at me—three words often used in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath.  I don’t think you lose any of Heschel’s meaning if you replace the words that I quote at the top of this essay with these Art Museum words:

“What was created on the seventh day?  Comfort, refuge, and peace.

As a society, we don’t often think in Sabbath terms anymore, but an event like the Boston Marathon bombing can shock us back to fundamentals.

Before escaping to New York City in 1940, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) lived in Europe, watching the rise of the Nazis as he worked and studied in Germany, Poland, and London.  One by one, he lost most of his family.  Heschel’s mother was murdered by the Nazis, his sister Esther died in a German bombing, and his sisters Gittel and Devorah died in concentration camps.

You don’t really sense any of this background tragedy when reading The Sabbath.  It reads more like a joyous dance.  He kept his Sabbath as a palace in time (to borrow his very beautiful and poetic words).  Maybe by holding so tight to the Sabbath, Heschel was able to maintain that needed place of comfort, refuge, and peace in his life.  He didn’t give in to despair.

When I first read The Sabbath a year ago, I instantly made the connection that those weekend visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art were Sabbath time for me.  In that first reading, all I saw was the joy.  Later, I learned that he wrote the book in 1951, when all the wounds of Holocaust loss were still fresh.  I think Heschel would agree that the observance of Sabbath is a healing salve for evil times but that wasn’t his central point.  He argues in The Sabbath for the basic human need of weekly celebration—a weekly rhythm of joy—in all times.  Then, when we most desperately need that place of comfort, refuge and peace, it will be there.  It will be our tent of peace.

“Six evenings a week we pray:  ‘Guard our going out and our coming in’;  on the Sabbath evening we pray instead:  ‘Embrace us with a tent of Thy peace.’  Upon returning home from synagogue we intone the song:

Peace be to you,
Angels of Peace.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

*  A quote from Genesis Rabba, a midrash to the first book of the Torah, cited by Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath.

Illustration from a collection of liturgical poems for Passover
and for Shavuot (circa 1340, from Spain),
showing the Havdalah ceremony.
From the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Sabbath: Eternity Utters a Day



Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 1 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel




The Sabbath arrives in the world,
scattering a song in the silence of the night:
eternity utters a day.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 7:  “Eternity Utters a Day”

Beginning of a liturgical poem for
Shabbat Seqalim, from an illuminated
manuscript from Germany, composed in
the first half of the 14th century.
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts
.
In two days, I begin co-leading a five-session evening course on “Ancient Spiritual Practices” at my home congregation, Haddonfield United Methodist Church.  Session three will be on observance of the Sabbath.  I volunteered to teach this course mainly so I could lead this session.  And—as usual with my teaching—I’m leading it not because I’m an expert but because it forces me to dig deep into a subject that intrigues me.

Last spring, our Senior Pastor George Morris touched on the Sabbath in one of his sermons.  Afterwards, I told him it was a subject that interested me.  In response, he offered me a book from his library.  It was the first fruits of his great library give-away, as he spent the next couple of months divesting himself of his office library as he prepared for retirement.

So my copy of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel arrived second-hand, previously loved.  It’s a small hardcover edition with wood engravings by Ilya Schor.  The full title is The Sabbath:  Its Meaning for Modern Man.

I read it and loved it. 

But I didn’t start practicing what it preached.  I wasn’t ready.

While I loved Heschel’s philosophic and poetic ideas, the traditional observances didn’t feel right for me—not quite meshing with the dangerous snarl of religious ideas derived from Anabaptism, Methodism, monasticism, aestheticism, existentialism, and methodological naturalism that shape my spiritual life.

Both this blog series and the “Ancient Spiritual Practices” course represent my attempt to smuggle a practice of the Sabbath into my week.  Through these two efforts, I’ve clandestinely recruited a community to hold me accountable to a time of tentative Sabbath experimentation.  It won’t—it can’t—be through anything resembling strict traditional observance.

I just know that I need the poetry of the Sabbath in my life.  I hear an ancient call:

“A thought has blown the market place apart.  There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees.  The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night:  eternity utters a day.  Where are the words that could compete with such might?”
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 7:  “Eternity Utters a Day”

A miniature:  Shabbat in the synagogue.
From an Italian Festival Prayer Book, 1466.
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price


Friday, April 12, 2013

21 Essays on 1951


No, I’m not finished with 1954 yet.  But I’ve decided to mix things up for the spring and summer, covering both 1951 and 1954 for a little while.  The precipitating reason is that I’m scheduled to co-lead a course on “Ancient Spiritual Disciplines” at my church in a couple of weeks and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to blog about one of my favorite books, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (1951).

June and Art Price, September 1, 1951.
So let’s look at the world in 1951…

Harry S. Truman was President of the United States in 1951.  Milton Berle was “Mr. Television.”  And my parents were married on September 1, 1951, in Riverhead, NY, as celebrated on my blog June and Art.  (Lots of great pictures there!)

On the international stage, it was the last year of implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe, the Korean War dug into a deep and bloody stalemate, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were tried and convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.  On a lighter note, Dennis the Menace and Lucy Ricardo were introduced to the world. So was Holden Caulfield.

As always, the focus of 21 Essays is very personal—I only write about subjects that particularly appeal to me. In reviewing the highlights of 1951, the following leap out at me:

--   The publication of The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
--   The publication of Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
--   The publication of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
--   The release of The River
--   The release of Strangers on a Train
--   The release of Scrooge
--   The release of Early Summer
--   The release of The Man in the White Suit
--   The release of The Tales of Hoffmann
--   The release of The Thing from Another World
--   The release of An American in Paris
--   The release of Outcast of the Islands

In reality, I think I’ll be doing a bunch more 1954 essay series and only following up with a few of these 1951 ideas.  But I’m completely open to suggestions for essays on other subjects or to receiving volunteer essay contributions.  Just keep it positive—this is a place for sharing cultural history enthusiasms.

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Encountering the Creature from the Black Lagoon





Celebrating cultural highlights of 1954...
Creature-blogging, essay 6 on
Creature from the Black Lagoon





Encountering the Aurora Model

Turn back the clock 42 years, walk into my bedroom and look at the shelves over my bed.  There you’ll see my collection of Aurora monster kits.  There’s King Kong, Godzilla, the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and, of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Aurora models were assembled from molded plastic pieces that you glued together using rubber cement.  I heard that you could get brain damage from the smell of the cement so I always attempted to assemble them without breathing.  I took small gulps from time to time, trying not to inhale through the nose—in retrospect it was probably close to the gulping way the Gill Man appeared to breathe on land.  Even though I was clumsy with most assembly projects, the Aurora models must have been pretty simple because I don’t remember any serious errors.  My Aurora monster models looked really cool.

You were supposed to paint them but my few experiments with color were pathetic.  The Aurora Gill Man was a very respectable dark green and he stayed that way on my shelf.  Color photographs of the Gill Man makeup from the 1950s always look inappropriately gaudy with their bright red lips.  In my mind, a colorized Creature looks like an unpainted Aurora model.



Encountering Mermaids

My family often took vacations to Florida and—for as long as I can remember—I associated the Creature with the tourist attractions at Marineland, Silver Springs, Homosassa Springs, and Weeki Wachee Springs.  These were the Gill Man’s natural habitats, where he could swim freely or run amok.  I was right, of course.  The Gill Man was never really from the Amazon.  He was a native Floridian.

Ginger Stanley's water ballet
in the Black Lagoon.
Weeki Wachee still operates as a weird and wacky tourist attraction today.  Over half a century ago, some creative visionaries built a below-water-level theater where audiences could enjoy a show of mermaids gracefully swimming their way through basic fairy tales.  Every now and then, the mermaids would discreetly steal a long breath of air from hoses hidden in the scenery and then swim back into the action.  They were exemplary swimmers and superb breath-holders. The underwater shots of Kay swimming in Creature from the Black Lagoon are of Weeki Wachee mermaid Ginger Stanley (later Hallowell), often doing trademark Weeki Wachee somersaults.

Ginger Stanley, circa 1951.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
At Weeki Wachee, the male divers (usually playing princes or comedy relief) often swim like the Gill Man.  That trick where the Gill Man swims upside down subtly mirroring the movements of Julia Addams—you see that all the time at Weeki Wachee.  I think it’s the legacy of Ricou Browning, who worked at Weeki Wachee in its early days prior to his association with Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Director Jack Arnold cast Browning as the underwater Gill Man when he saw how well his Weeki Wachee moves worked on film.

Much as I love the Marineland scene in Revenge of the Creature, I always wish they’d figured out a way to work Weeki Wachee into the series.  The Gill Man should have received at least one opportunity to swim with the mermaids.

Encountering Tom Weaver and Ricou Browning

Several years ago, I took my son to a monster convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  My friend Mark Clark, author of Smirk, Sneer and Scream and the recently published Star Trek FAQ, met me there and introduced me to some of his colleagues.  That’s where I met Tom Weaver.  I shook his hand.  Then I awkwardly stood there star struck, unable to find anything intelligent to say.  No one knows more about the Creature from the Black Lagoon than Tom Weaver.  He’s interviewed everyone involved, read all the surviving production material, and, most importantly, retained his initial monster kid enthusiasm.

I couldn’t have written these pieces without Tom Weaver’s research.  Where I’ve made errors, they’re because I neglected to proof them against Weaver’s commentaries and writings.

I met Ricou Browning at that convention, too.  I thanked him for his Gill Man, his work on Sea Hunt and Flipper, and his contributions to the James Bond movie Thunderball.

In my dreams, I swim like Ricou Browning and write like Tom Weaver.

Ricou Browning as the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Encountering Dave Edmunds in the Black Lagoon

On his 1979 album Repeat When Necessary, Dave Edmunds featured a song called “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” written by guitarist Billy Bremner.  I listened to it a lot in college.  It’s a great novelty song, perfect for Edmunds’ style (and benefiting from solid backup by his legendary Rockpile companions—Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams).  Here it is:



Reference Sources

Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection) DVD commentary by film historian Tom Weaver
Various discussions on The Classic Horror Film Board (in my opinion, the greatest and most civilized of all film discussion boards.)
Back to the Black Lagoon documentary with film historian David Skal

When processing Creature information, it all boils down to this:  If Tom Weaver says it, I believe it.

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© 2013 Lee Price