(Note: If you are reading these journals mostly for puppets you can probably skip this one.)
And, almost as if crossing the border into Switzerland had curative powers, my fever and any lingering symptoms seemed to vanish as I entered the land of clocks and chocolate. But there was one thing very different this time. As I emerged from the SNCF train from France into the station, I was corralled through a customs check point past soldiers with automatic weapons. And while they didn’t check passports, they certainly symbolized a change coming to the Schengen Group of countries with its open borders. And frankly I will be happy to see the whole Schengen concept go. The three month limitation for staying in all of Europe has been a hassle since it began. I much preferred the old separate countries, separate borders approach. But that’s getting a bit political for these essays and is based more on personal experience than any ideology.
Nevertheless I was back in Switzerland, not for puppets, but rather to check in with my friends at L’Abri, a study center in a small village called Huémoz. L’Abri Fellowship is a Christian place engaged in trying to understand the times and to provide honest answers to honest questions. They tend to shy away from the kind of Christian propaganda that infests too much of the Church as well as everywhere else these days. They downplay the use of tech devices and focus instead upon study and practical work. It is in a small measure a way for me to gauge the temperature of the times by meeting the students who happen to be staying for various durations in the course of a three month term. I went there back in 1978 and if you want to know why I treat things the way I do in puppetry, music, history in general, L’Abri probably takes the biggest credit.
Yet things change over time. And L’Abri has gone through several phases over the years. The 80s were not an especial highlight. The 90s were an excellent period. The 00s were interesting as well. On my last visit in 2016 I was a little worried that L’Abri would not be able to stem the tides of politically correct oversensitivity and the increasing juvenilization of practically everything. My visit this time left me feeling much better about the state of the institute. And the students. And so much depends upon the mix of students who come. Last time I was here there were possibly too many students coming from a similar mindset. And in order for L’Abri to work there really has to be a mix. The politically correct need to rub shoulders with the homeschool students who need to meet some Europeans who need to be a bit shocked by a few wild card students. And that’s what I found this time. Though there could have been a few less Americans and couple more men and it would have been perfect. But there’s no telling who’s going to come. And age-wise it was a good mix. Students as young as 18 mixing with twentysomethings and a few in their 30s and even a couple of men in their 60s passed through. One in particular, Clint, was looking for the L’Abri he wanted to visit in the 70s. I helped him interpret the present state of affairs.
One thing I was wondering about, given my thoughts about Geekdom, was how much pop culture fantasy and science fiction would dominate the conversations. These subjects certainly had been present last time. Shortly before I came a guest lecturer had given a talk comparing Voldemort to the Islamic State terrorists. And when it was finished the students general attitude seemed to be “What was the point?” And that gave me a hint of hope. Maybe, just maybe, these students are beginning to see that the insanities left to right of the tragi-farce of contemporary life can’t be easily bottled into trendy fantasy references.
And so I arrived with a little bottle of historical question marks in the form of a lecture with aural and visual examples of Blackface Minstrel music, the most taboo subject in American music history, just to see if the easily offended mood had increased or decreased since my last visit. And also to make the point that American musical style was defined by both it’s black and white elements, with other cultures adding a little spice here and there to the Anglo-Celtic/Western African stew. I didn’t pull any punches. I don’t think either the doctrinaire on either left nor right would be happy with my explanations. But the whole point was this: history is always, unfailingly, much more messy than our ideologies. And in the midst of racism, flattery, opportunity, stereotyping, confusion and entertainment one of the greatest bodies of musical heritage was born. Like it or lump it. (What does that mean?)
But it was in discussions with the students that things came alive for me. Jessica, dealing with the unraveling of her life, had come to try to put things together and find a new direction. She became a friend through several honest conversations. Connor, who left shortly after I arrived, nevertheless impressed me with the sincerity and depth of his questions. Soo Min from South Korea, also pondering new possibilities, was quite curious about making films. Olivia seemed to just enjoy being there having come from a stable family, fishing in Alaska during the summer, not dealing with anything in particular. She decided to stay to be a helper (low paid worker/student). When I asked why? (Usually students want to keep working of their issues longer as was the case with Jessica.) She simply said “I want to help out.” In a ‘Big Five’ personality test I’m imagining she’d score fairly low on trait neuroticism. Then there was the wild card of the term, a current helper named Jim, a psychedelic ranger investigating shamanism and lysergic experiences while also holding, somehow, onto his faith. We ended up having a talk one evening that I wished I’d recorded. An honest guy seeking, maybe finding too much, but a truly memorable soul all the same. I mustn’t forget Kristy who came to my attention when she discussed regretting a tattoo she had gotten. And had another of a tree that in discussion revealed a deep artistic outlook. And then there was Ashley, almost archetypically blonde Southern Californian girl, and uniquely talented in her challenging paintings. And then there was Tiffany with her head shorn like a penitent and her outlook sober and penetrating, not given to playing the kinds of games she’d played a few years ago that had brought her house of cards tumbling down. And lastly I’ll mention Sophia, who had come to spend time with her sister Clara, as well as ask a few questions of her own. During a walk our words ranged across a depth of subjects as this 25 year old was revealed to have purposely tested herself by coming to Europe, spending a year in Iraq, and basically wrestling with maturity. And that was a theme I saw over and over this time. That juvenile spirit of the times was finding an answer for a few who weren’t content to live in this overly protective world we have worn as mask. And that gave me hope. (My apologies to all of the students I didn’t mention… but you were part of this too!)
Finally a word about my older friends, workers and helpers, former workers: Jasmine, Cindy, Richard and Karen, Gian and Prisca, Greg and Lisby, Per-Ole and Amelia, Becky and Rodman, Dave and Anna (who are moving in December). Coming back to Swiss L’Abri always has a touch of a return home to me. Not that it has ever been my home. Yet many important people and ideas stem from this place for me. This has been my 8th visit since my time as a student back in 20th Century. Each time, while different, has been a taste of something larger in my life. It is the place I circle, returning in different moods, experiencing a slightly different place each time. Enlarging history, L’Abri’s and my own along the way.
My stay ended fittingly with a grand Thanksgiving dinner, a former student having donated three turkeys in memory of someone donating a Thanksgiving turkey during his stay. This brought everyone together in a swirl of talking and laughing and sharing. Pies were made. Amelia’s parents from the states had come to help with the festivities. And everything was underscored by fond memories and meaningful friendships.
An old friend I hadn’t seen in several years dropped in to give a lecture. Ellis Potter, former Buddhist monk, then Christian convert back in the 70s, during the central moment of L’Abri’s influence, now pastor in Basel, nevertheless always retaining a certain je ne sais quoi from his Zen monastery days. He speaks in unusual measured rhythms that can veer from calm seriousness, to fart references, to deep emotion within the span of a few minutes and somehow it all seems of a piece. (He critiqued Christian filmgoers as being ‘shits and nipples counters’. Rather than attend to the meaning of work, they tended to count curse words and body parts.) He spoke about and played parts of Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend, which had been composed following the death of Krzystof Kieslowski in mid-90s. Ellis accomplished the difficult feat of bring the beauty of that music into the room, as well as reminding us all of the much more elusive meaning of beauty in this sad world. And that is the kind of thing that L’Abri does on its best days.
From a train leaving Palermo in Sicily on my 12 hour journey to Rome
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Also you can click on either of these to titles to read about my other stops at L’Abri: