I grew up before MP3s, and streaming music, even CDs. We had cassette tapes but they tended to warp and stretch, and rewinding was a pain. Mostly we listened to records. I vividly remember my father very seriously walking me through the liturgy of using the turntable. He pulled out my favorite Gaelic band’s record and showed me how to tip the card board sleeve so the paper sleeve would slide out into my little hands. Then he showed me how to tip the record out, how to balance it just so against my palms so I touched only the sharp bright edge of the black disk (my hands were too little to bridge the edge and the center paper the way he did.)
We set the record down on the turn table and he reverently lifted the cover on the cleaning brush, and showed me how to start the platter, how to hold the brush, just the right angle to clean the record, ever time. Then there was the slow careful swing of the arm over the smooth dark edge, the little prayer for which I held my breath, the tiny lever that oh so gently lowered the arm, and finally the warm blank hiss before the first notes of fiddle and voice burst from the speakers and filled the room with the miracle of music.
It was a slow and deliberate process, reverent, mindful. To be allowed to take part in that sacred liturgy was a rite of passage, a proof that I had shown myself responsible, careful, grown up.
Eventually those shiny, zero care, CDs showed up, and much later digital music. The turn table faded into the background, forgotten in favor of convenience and expedience. Finally I was married and living most of a continent away from my parent’s and their altar of music. We had a crate full of records that had followed us through numerous moves, but no turntable. They simply came along each time like ghosts we couldn’t set down. Music was different, faster, less thoughtful. Spotify played whatever I wanted in a second, it put together a computer generated radio station for me in moments. It’s been years since I listened to a whole album of anything, it’s normal now to pick and choose this song and that, making playlists that get boring in seconds but that’s OK because there are always more. My music bounces around like a deranged squirrel high on nuts. Often it’s just thoughtless background noise I’ve forgotten even exists as the computer churns on and on and on through a nearly infinite catalog.
For Christmas this year I was given a turntable (thank you!), (and an amazing, once in a lifetime fountain pen (thank you!)). This week has been a little like the first time I picked up a fountain pen. The world slowed down, skidded out of its well worn trenches and settled into a new groove, one well known but so different and nearly forgotten. There can be a liturgy to anything, of course, but analog things tend to invite liturgy. They are slower, physical, they are so linked to our bodies that liturgy seems to happen naturally; we have to think about them.
Like my father’s record liturgy there is a fountain pen liturgy. There is the opening of the pen case, the running of the fingers over the glossy gleaming bodies, the lifting and weighing of each until the right tool for today is found, the careful choosing of the ink bottle considering color and type, intended use, and the pen itself. The laying out of the towel for blotting, the prepping of whatever filling mechanism that pen utilizes. I uncap the bottle and pen, submerge the nib, carefully fill, lift it free and wipe off the excess ink. Then all the tools are returned to their accustomed places, and at last to sit down to let ink fly over the page in slow deliberate loops. At first it’s a frantic hurry, my hand crabbing as it tries to keep pace with a mind trained for millisecond movement, for the constant stimulation of screen and keyboard.
But then, it all slows, the frantic gerbil wheel squeaks to a stop and the letters begin to flow with ease. Always the writing is better, truer than the hurried rush that came before. And so here I sit listening to an album I haven’t heard complete in, well it could be measured in decades. A record rather encourages one to sit back and take it all in, to not skip track to track, artist to artist, but to let the whole of a work soak through you. Even the bits that never made the charts, even the bits you can’t sing by heart.
This is the way of the slow physical tools of our lives: an invitation to a slower way of being, to the intentionality of living liturgy.