Dear Alumni, Parents, Past Parents, Trustees, Students and Friends of La Salle,
At the end of a group session in one of this year’s innumerable Kairos retreats, a couple of the seniors asked me, “So, what’s your favorite musical group?” I was a bit nonplussed, to tell you the truth. I don’t know what they really expected me to answer, perhaps something intellectually or spiritually edifying like “Palestrina and the Capella Giulia singers; I’m always up for a little Renaissance counterpoint.” If they wanted something a little more contemporary, my experience spans a relentlessly longer timeline, beginning with the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in the winter of ’64 and ending with The Weekend’s Grammy controversy just a couple of months ago. Regardless, such questions are all too often a trap. Princess Margaret famously went on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program about 40 years ago. She proposed an incredible mishmash of musical selections she’d wish to have available in such a locale, ranging from Tchaikovsky to “Rule Britannia” to “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, trashing her posher than posh reputation and relegating her to nicotine and Famous Grouse fueled obscurity until Netflix raised her from the gutter (well, the chaise lounge) a few years ago.
“R.E.M.?” I tentatively suggested, hoping to be spared HRH’s fate. I wagered that this choice, appropriate to their fathers’ generation, might not make me seem too much of a relic on the one hand (whatever the male equivalent of a Karen is). Nor would I end up laughably artificial and pretentious on the other if I nominated someone too contemporary like J. Cole or Machine Gun Kelly. They approved. A good thing, since the answer has more than a little truth to it.
I certainly don’t dislike R.E.M.’s famous hits: “Losing my Religion,” “Stand,” “Man in the Moon,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Everybody Hurts” and “The One I Love.” All are fine. Popular, but fine. I appreciate them but don’t think about listening to them more than once every few years. I’m not enough of a connoisseur to enjoy the obscure early or late R.E.M. such as “So. Central Rain” or “E-Bow the Letter” either. No, the second-tier stuff is what intrigues me. Songs like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “Shiny, Happy People,” “Nightswimming,” and “Bad Day” have left me scrutinizing melodies or puzzling over lyrics repeatedly over these last three decades.
Among the more fascinating songs housed in that niche is “Daysleeper” from the Up album of 1998. The poignant and evocative melody contributes to a mood of frustration, anxiety, and tentativeness. While hardly a ballad, this song does have a plot and attempts some characterization. The titular Daysleeper appears to be some sort of trader engaged with suppliers in the Far East, normally 12 hours ahead. Taipei and Hong Kong are mentioned; the speaker remains awake overnight attending to business developments in such places.
He routinely heads home at 7:00AM, eats, and tries to unwind. About 9:00AM, he goes to bed. “The ocean machine is set to nine/I’ll squeeze into heaven and Valentine.” White noise notwithstanding, the daysleeper cannot bank on a deep and restful sleep. Those in other apartments going about their business, neighbors’ dogs barking, random marketing calls: all such distractions can engender sudden and unwelcome wakefulness in an environment that is unconducive to slumber quickly returning. “I see today with a newsprint fray/My night is colored headache gray,” the speaker comments, evoking both an imperfect attempt to create artificial darkness and how it can feel going back for a full night’s work fueled only by fitful sleep.
Twenty-three years after the song’s debut, though, the most poignant lines for a current listener must be these: “I am the screen, the blinding light/I'm the screen, I work at night.” Those few words perfectly sum up the experience of these past 13 months—the endless Zoom calls, ubiquitous screens substituting for in person communication; the blurring of day and night, work and leisure. As the former got preempted by what survival required, ranging from homeschooling the children to shopping for fragile elders, the necessary obligations of work got attended to after sunset. “All talk of circadian rhythm,” the song blandly contends. But it’s not just diurnal routines; it’s the yearly markers of holidays, vacations, the celebration of milestones, even the commemoration of death. They have all been disrupted since the second week of March 2020. And the result? Most of us are like that daysleeper, more than a bit brittle, high-strung, or fretful, less resilient and patient than an ordinary spring will find us. The plaintive line, “I cried the other night/I can’t even say why,” does not describe a completely alien and unrelatable experience.
We’re hardly the first ones. Even the governor was tense. Pilate had to balance the political maneuverings of the Jewish priestly class, the expectations of his Roman overlords, and even his wife’s “helpful suggestions.” No wonder his handling of this “Jesus the Nazarene” thing wasn’t something out of an MBA program’s Management textbook. How could ordinary people expect to do much better? Good Friday evening found the bombastic and impetuous Peter deep in self-reproach, his denials echoing in his head. Judas was in a similar bind, the reproach replaced by despair. Mary Magdalen, bereft of the leader she believed in, the man she loved, found the fact that she stayed with him till the end provided the hollowest of comfort. The kid John knew he just said yes to the man-sized burden of caring for a childless widow, having not the foggiest idea how he might shoulder it. Finally, consider that sorrowing Mother herself. Was anyone ever more abandoned, more forlorn, more alone?
If any consolation appears as we celebrate the Easter Triduum in 2021, it must come through the empathetic connections made with the characters as we listen to the annual retelling of salvation’s story. They know how we feel. Even as we cautiously work our way down the far side of Mount Covid, scrutinizing our footing to avoid the missteps exhaustion can cause, they know how we feel. They had to descend from Calvary, the stormy afternoon sky as dark as night.
He knows how we feel as well, just as He knew how they felt. Not by chance is Jesus’s greeting in almost all his Resurrection appearances the same: “Peace be with you.” This Easter more than ever, we welcome that greeting, for peace is what we need—peace of mind, peace in our families, peace in our land, peace in our hearts. Even the daysleeper occasionally finds that sweet spot. The neighbors are out, the dogs are drowsing, the traffic dead, and the sunlight obscured. He can dream.
So can we. But because of Easter, it’s not a fantasy or daydream. It’s a promise. “Peace is my gift to you.” Soon, all will be well again. Backslapping and hugs will recommence; the painter’s tape will disappear from church pews; life’s buffet will resume, the mounds of individual serving plastic wrap discarded. No longer will the drive-thru line at the Chick-Fil-A begin somewhere in Northampton County. La Salle boys will rebound into their usual frenetic routines of studies, sports, service, music, and camaraderie. We will wonder where they are on weekend nights again, those endless torpid days on Xbox and the post virtual school naps just a memory. Shortly, all our daysleeping will end, as this Easter we experience more profoundly than ever His reassuring promise to us, “I came that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.”
May God bless your families and the La Salle family this Easter and always with abundant life. May the Risen Jesus live in our hearts. Forever!
Brother James L. Butler, FSC