Under Milkwood with Rhonda Vincent and Niall Ferguson:


I am on chaplain duty. I am tired, numbed by the mountain high experience of inauguration and the ceaseless sentries of emails that line up like sick patients waiting at the dispensary to be tended. I read the words of Jesus and understand better his call to “come away to a desolate place” where I can recover my soul. And how shall I? Through prayer? Prayer, yes. And I prayed tonight as I listened to my own Christmas album, which we have been working on through this past year, and to be released to fund student scholarships. I have been, until tonight, still going over parts and musical phrases with a composer’s ear. Yet tonight I was caught off guard and was moved by the music without my own criticism. I began to praise the Lord in the quietness of my own silent room for the Incarnation. It must be a terrible case of narcissism that came upon me, but I cried at my own songs. I trust the misty eyes were sacraments of a soul impressed by the touch of the Master and not the touch of insane self congratulation! I sighed at my own predicament and began to listen; listen to the cadence of history from Ferguson, Blue grass from Vincent, and poetry from the Mumbles’ master of words.

So the “black bandaged night” of Dylan Thomas’ Milk-wood surrounds me, an old scratchy live BBC recording from the Welsh bard himself downloaded from iTunes. “Mr. Waldo, a cat doctor…a slice of cold bread pudding under the pillow” makes me laugh. That is good because listening to the beautiful, mournful Blue grass of the bonnie lass, Rhonda Vincent, moved me to tears with her “Missouri Moon” and “The Water is Wide.” I had already teared up at the Christmas music. Now I sniffle at the sweet mandolin and perfectly tuned, warm toned American songs of Rhonda Vincent. So I am most thankful to move my attention to Dylan Thomas. He awakens me from melancholia with his story of funny families of Richards, Pews, Williams, Morgans, and Jenkins in Swansea and Mumbles Road. I do enjoy his lilting description of the cobbled-street, coal-stained, sea-salted Welsh villages with their rows of houses and chimneys and and colorful characters like Reverend Eli Jenkins and his white hair, opening the door of his manse to the morning, looking up “at the eternal hill.” I listen. As the day marches on in Milkwood, I pause to read Niall Ferguson. I read his Introduction to War of the World, a history of the bloody Twentieth Century. It is too much. For now it is too much. I return to Dylan Thomas. Better. The recording had kept going. It is now twenty minutes into the recording but only early morning in Milkwood and Dylan Thomas has his audience, and me, now listening in to Mr. Pew the schoolmaster taking tea to Mrs. Pew with darting sarcasm. Dylan Thomas sketches the people and places like a poor French impressionistic painter; creating with thick and dancing, alliterative lines, bright and distinctive, murky and mingled, all designed to mesmerize me into buying it. I do. “Kettles and cats purr in the kitchens” he says, as the day marches on. The characters are many and familiar, as if I had been raised myself in Mumbles or on the Gower and know them all. Ah, I do love to hear Dylan Thomas read aloud. How unintelligible it would be to only read Dylan Thomas without voice! Life Under Milkwood moves onward as my eyelids droop. And I will listen to a little more and save the rest of Milkwood’s day for tomorrow night. Then, DV, I will return to the village and to the shops and the chapels and the eternal hills and fish freezing Mumbles Bay and the old women gathering cockles while the tide is out and the cats perched on white-washed fences and the bells of the chapel and the dramatic preachers walking like prophets of doom and the “children’s voices crying out” as they play under the stern schoolmaster in the spring. Maidens milking goats and the cock crows, the morning as busy as bees, and horse shoes clocking, sheep coughing, and “all the spring” and “clocks strike” as the women are “scratching and babbling” in the village shop where everything is sold. Morning is moving on beneath the “the young sun.” But I am dropping off Under Milkwood.

It has been a desolate place and recovery is underway thank the Lord. Goodnight to Dylan Thomas and Rhonda Vincent and Niall Ferguson, though you, of all, have darkened my happy desolation.

I shall pray and the weight of a day shall be cast down like my old, cotton robe removed before bedtime and “the eternal night.”

Tomorrow, if the Lord allows, will hold more for me to do than I can ever do and the tasks will pour over to another day; but not before I return to “black Bible night” of Dylan Thomas’ Milkwood and the heart-helping mountain music of Rhonda Vincent. But no Niall Ferguson. He is not desolate enough to heal the soul. He is too close to the real places. I need a soul’s mountain air. So I will read St. Mark and listen to the primrose grow at Bethesda churchyard in the spring in Mumbles through the scratching noises of a day that has long gone but yet still here somehow.

I listen to “Just as I Am” from Rhonda Vincent, and turn off the light. The desolation is complete for the night on this third day of chaplain duty.

Good night, Lord.