Thank You, Music

posted August 30, 2005

This summer, I have been trying my best to practice what I sometimes preach: talk less; listen more. And most of all SLOW DOWN, (you move too fast. Got to make the moment last.) It hasn’t been as hard or nasty as I thought it would be. As readers of this blog know, I got married in May, went on a glorious honeymoon to the west coast with my husband, Tom and have generally been living in that kind of marital bliss which doesn’t want to be distracted by the pokings and proddings of the outside world.

A few weeks ago, a pair of robins built a nest right outside our dining room window underneath the eaves of the porch and we watched transfixed as the nest grew, the mother sat still for days and eventually two little bald blind heads poked up, yellow beaks vertical. Those baby birds grew black feathers so quickly and it wasn’t more than ten days later that they flew away.

Like the robins, we’ve been nesting. We have been painting our old Victorian and growing blueberries in our garden. Tom built a kayak and I’m learning to cook Thai food. In short, it’s been a lovely time, but not one that lends itself to the kind of introspection one wants to share with a bunch of people one mostly doesn’t know.

That being said, all honeymoons must come to an end, and now with the cool breezes of September almost upon us, I feel like spreading my wings and checking out the big old world again. I feel like I have things to say again. First of all, and I hate to break it to you if you are just now rubbing your eyes Rip Van Winkle style coming off the Cape or back from the Hamptons (or just out of your air conditioned office), it has come to my attention that Bush is still in power. I was sure somehow that if I stopped paying attention, something would happen over the summer to end his hegemonous oligarchy, but no such luck. I was hoping the high gas prices would keep people off the roads or lead us to buy grease cars, investigate biodiesel and hybrids, but the SUVs are ruling the roads and traffic was at record highs this summer, according to AAA.

As a student of Buddhist psychology and Christian theology, I feel the need to point out (at every chance I get) that this over consumption of limited resources is a manifestation of greed and delusion; that violence begets violence, that Islam is a beautiful religion dedicated to peace, and that Al Qaeda and its allies are uneducated proponents of a rogue branch in much the same way that the Ku Klux Klan is nominally Christian but acts in every way but. Every time I see images from Abu Graib I practically lose my will to continue living in this country, which is why I spend so little time watching TV or listening to the radio or reading newspapers. But I also realized that I have all these nasty attributes myself. Did I turn off the air conditioner on the hottest weekend of the year? No. I cranked it and sat in my office and read the new Harry Potter book.

I am a notorious control freak, and a big part of my summer was spent working on my novels, The Big Idea and Effelia and in general keeping so busy I barely had time to listen to music, all my resolutions about slowing down notwithstanding. But music, as always, is the spirit that gets through the cracks in my armor, the armor that tries to protect me from having to feel that sadness about American atrocities, Rwandan atrocities, Al Qaeda atrocities. The armor of busyness is my preferred protection since it denotes respect and sometimes amazement from my friends and family. When people see how hard I work, I can hardly be faulted for tuning out the pain of the world, right? How could I work if I am always weeping, right? But then I hear a song, a silly song like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Punky’s Dilemma” and I lose it in the kitchen as I am chopping carrots. Who knows why? (It’s not like it’s “America” or “Bridge over Troubled Water.”) And here’s the blessing: I finally slow down enough to ask myself Why are you working so hard? Isn’t it more important to stand still and let yourself be moved by a song?

Thank you, music. Thank you, music. Thank you, music and musicians!

Music is wordless and irrational. I like to live in the top of my head when at all possible so as to avoid the pain of the body, the feelings and sensations that come up when I’m “down there.” But music wrecks all that. I’ve been listening to books on tapes on my iPod—wonderful books-Middlesex, Gilead, The Life Of Pi, The Kite Runner, The Brothers Karamazov, and of course, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince—that keep me up in the attic of my rational thoughts. But every now and then an Aimee Mann song sneaks into the narrative and I’m back in the world of feeling. I remember that I am a musician first and foremost and that this is my heritage, my brothers and sisters waking me up and saying, hello! You are alive.

So when I am at my most well, I pick up my guitar at these junctures and play along, even though it means singing through tears.

I drove to Bennington Vermont this June to retrieve an ancient trunk full of old 16mm reels of film taken by my great grandfather, George Franklin, a man about whom I know this: he was a very successful and wealthy lawyer. He died in McLean Hospital from depression when my grandmother was only 19. I had the films turned into DVDs and have been watching them over the past few weeks. I listen to the Beatles as I watch them, because there is something unnerving about watching old movies and not hearing that familiar whirr that the projector makes. No whirr on a DVD. I also should say, I don’t know for certain whether or not my great grandfather was the movie maker, but I think he was. The footage is all of scenery. No shots of his wife or son or daughter. Somehow in my gender-biased way, I believe that if my great Grandmother Elsie had wielded the camera, she would have been more interested in the people than the landscape.
It’s eerie, watching the world of 1920 go by. My ancestors were in Italy (on vacation as tourists, no doubt) for much of this filming, and I wonder what it felt like then. I don’t know what year the films were taken exactly; was it before or after Mussolini took over?

Watching the films, I am reminded of a bit of wisdom I learned from the poet David Whyte. He says, “The language of poetry takes us outside of our small selves and calls us to look at ourselves and the world with open eyes.” I would argue that the same is true for filmmaking, novel writing, songwriting, gardening; anything that brings you out of your Habitrail thoughts and into a fresh experience. These films were my great grandfather’s way of doing that. They are crude, and behave more like still photography than what we think of as motion pictures today. But what is interesting is the way in which he seems fascinated with what he is seeing. He holds the camera on an image for far longer than a cameraman would today. He holds it long and longingly, as if making love to it. Perhaps he was.

The grass is green for one more day.

The news will always be bad.

If you share what you have, you will never be hungry.

If you share what you have, you will never be alone.

-Nerissa Nields

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