Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Map of Lost Waters

As children, we mapped our world with creeks. We knew where they flowed—to the frog pond, into ditches beside the old railroad bed, north toward the Stillwater River. One ran all the way to the Mall. We followed them as far as we dared, walking alongside, wading in. Sometimes the banks were so slippery with viscous mud and clay that we could barely walk. We scooped up crawdads and tramped down stair-steps of sedimentary rock full of fossils. We knew where the vines were strong enough to swing out over the streambed. We knew which creeks ran all summer, and which ones were dry by late July, turned into reedy gullies at the edge of the cornfields. We knew where they ran fast (good for racing sticks) and we knew where they pooled around the fine red roots of the willow trees. We memorized their great stones, and their bars of gravel. We named the places near the water that held magic for us (Witches Lair, Glenwood, The Toy Fort, Warlock’s Will), but we did not name the creeks.

A mysterious series of fires around our area led to rumors that those who wouldn’t sell their land would be driven out. Then, there were bulldozers, massive earth-movers and backhoes leveling everything: they just plowed it all under. They knocked down farmhouses with the furniture still inside and trees that had stood for a century. We were still boys, and we got very excited by the thunderous power of those machines, which seemed like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel on steroids. More often, though, we saw the workmen as our enemies, and we sat on the margins of the carnage mourning and bemoaning. They left no tree standing upright, and no sign of our subtle network of streams, just hard orange clay.

Once, a heavy rain hit, and the whole wasteland flooded. A temporary lake formed, four feet deep at the center. We dubbed it “Pond Superior,” in a burst of childish irony. We waded through it too, but it was featureless except for the name we gave it and the deep tread marks of the heavy equipment that we could feel with our feet. It was lifeless, full of muddy, brown, opaque water. Later, they gouged out a deep, straight ditch nearby, lined it with cement, and drained off the stagnant pool. For a time we scrambled over the eroding sides above the apron, building dams out of the clay for fun, trying to block the mini-gorges that formed. From this I learned definitively that nothing will stop water from finding its way down-hill.

Even in that stripped expanse, we children always sought the water, and knew instinctively that it was important to understand where it went, how it was all connected. When they laid the sewers and covered them over, we followed the streams underground, walking in the dark maze of pipes for what seemed like miles. We were following again the path of the flow, just a polluted trickle, among the raccoons and rats and cobwebs. This is a sad thing.

Our childhood stream-world was a paradise, a living web that included both our streams and our imaginations. I watched them bulldoze it, bury it, and encase it in concrete. I remember feeling that I had lost a friend. To this day, it is rather like a phantom limb, this thing that was part of me, that was severed.

There is an often remarked-upon naming practice whereby we call our housing developments and shopping malls after what was destroyed in order to build them. This is how unrelieved expanses of blacktop dotted with anonymous, air-conditioned boxes come to be called “Walnut Creek,” or “Greenbriar” or “Willowbrook Estates.” We name our “developments” after what used to be there, after what we have lost. It’s a last nod to the felt power of an actual place, and an attempt to convert that faint flash of recognition, that vestigial magic, into marketing. It’s an attempt to activate our sense of what we have been cut off from, to make us feel our phantom limb, and then to associate the ghostly tingling of remembered completeness with the knife that cut us.

“Development,” is a kind of name too, one that perpetrates a similar lie. “Development,” as it is currently practiced, is not the organic result of natural processes as the word (and its cousin term “growth”) insidiously suggests. “Development” is not inevitable and it is not usually necessary, no matter what insinuation the name might be asking you to accept. There is always another way.

We can have streams flowing through our towns, and in our backyards, with farms behind them. It is possible for us to live in places that are not all unnatural concentrations of near-identical houses, surrounded by close-cropped green-green-green fertilized faux-pastures, grass that no animal can safely walk on, let alone eat. In the place where I grew up, and all places like it (plats, subdivisions, suburbs) no one knows where the creeks go anymore. Or where they went. Or that there ever were any creeks there at all.

When we live like that, we are impoverished.

This is a sad thing.


I believe that musical art should be like poetry.

To make good poetry you have to go spelunking beneath habitual mind and seek out our treasure: the invisible connections between things. It's a practice of finding the hidden light that secretly illuminates the world.

We do not need more celebrations of ego to reflect back to us from their shiny surfaces the sad fact that our outward-manifesting lust is driven by money and prestige. For God's sake already, if we know one thing it is that ego will not save us. Not ours, and not anybody else's. All ego ever does is churn up the surface of the water like a motor boat.

What we do in fact desperately need is an art that can reach into our shadow places and show us what is hidden there. We need artists who go down deep, who are more like pearl divers than they are like media personalities or world-dominating corporations. We need artists who can offer us the wonder of touching those small, improbable by-products of irritation: the precious stone of hurt turned into beauty, brought up at great risk from the depths. A pearl-diver's art would say: see--this radiance is hidden in your dark waters too, down in the muck and in that hard, rough, unbeautiful shell. Just look: it is a beauty that might redeem us all if only we can find it.

What is music for? What does it mean to listen?

In defense of the feeling listener:
“Art is a hammer to shatter the frozen sea within us” Franz Kafka

What does it mean to really listen? To listen means to take sound into both your body and your mind. To internalize the shapes, the motion, the feeling, communication, and the intention carried with it. Music is so much more than a mere entertainment—even when it is supremely entertaining. It is almost as if we are caging it, restraining it, hiding it under frivolous uses to see it as mere entertainment.

I’m only interested in music that reaches for something, in which the effort to bridge the gap between humans, between pain and understanding is made audible. I want to take that effort, all the ache and feel of it into my body and learn it, let it ring, let it purify me and teach me to release. Our lives are an urgent matter here on this earth–I’m told that some Buddhist temples in Korea have large clock faces on the walls as a reminder of how fast and continuous is the flight of time. (be wise in time, eternity is near!)

Music that is not trying to break through into something emotionally true is useless to me. I cannot waste time on music that is self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, vapid, creepy, or bland. I need the messages from wisdom that we all have in us. I need to hear the voice of wisdom channeled through sound. I want to hear 2 seconds of the music and know (and I mean know) that the composer or the singer or the musicians have sat long and quietly, have stilled themselves and listened for the knowledge of the world to speak to them through their bodies about what is urgent, what is essential, what is in the interests of our very best selves. I want to know that having done so, they have then labored selflessly to realize their moment of clarity, however small or large, that they have struggled to make a poem of it, distilled and concentrated it down to pill form (or exploded it out to journey form) so that I can take it into my spiritual DNA and be transformed. It absolutely MUST have some urgent message other than “dig me!” It must not be ingratiating, slimy, manipulative, or pushy. It must not be merely artful—that will not suffice. The music has to find a way to edge into the cracks of my emotional life and break its way in, past the usual, constructed, defended consciousness that wants to be safe, to be closed off from feeling, separate.

There is an urgent need (on my part, and for our society at large, I believe) to get into those cracks we all have in everyday consciousness and to force them wider apart. As Leonard Cohen's song famously points out: “There’s a crack in everything/that’s where the light gets in.” We all need the light to get into our small, constricted selves, and open us up to the big mind, the shattered world in which we are as wide as the sea, and everything flows. The crust on us modern folks is something to behold, I tell you. Our culture has made a life’s work out of cultivating the frozen sea Kafka was so desperate to shatter, and you can bet it will be a life’s work for any single one of us to undo that making. We are all living with an unprecedented storehouse of unprocessed feeling these days, a direct result of the vast array of numbing strategies that have come to obscure the real work and presence of a human life. I’m not big on idealizing traditional societies, but we have at least come to understand that all those scruffy rituals came about in a search for efficacy, transformation, and as a way to deal with the terrible and joyous things that arise as a result of an human consciousness strapped to an animal corporeality. The extent to which we look away from the facts of those myriad arisings is the extent to which we are in denial, suffering from restriction, walled off from the true energies of our lives. If we ignore our feelings, they will surely kill us.

So the practice of sympathetic listening is one of feeling with. If we can attune our responses to the music, if we can internalize its state, and feel its movement, its tensions and releases, we are building the capacity for compassion. I believe in music that invites us to feel with it. Anything in our feeling lives that does not increase compassion is killing us a little bit. Anything that seals us up in our comfortable expectations and rewards us for being what we already are in isolation helps to close us off from others, from love, from the true nature of our interconnectedness and interdependence. In the end, this move even isolates us from ourselves, in that it helps us to keep walled off whole areas of our own denied emotional experience.

If art encourages us to rest in complacency by being itself so slick and polished as to be a product, if it organizes itself toward merely presenting attractive surfaces in order to manipulate us into an economic transaction, if it exists primarily as an egotistical foisting of Self onto the world, then it harms us, it isolates us, turns us into consumers, it shuts us down when we desperately need to be opened up. Art should open doors to understanding of the non-verbal ground of our existence, to the natural world, the big “what-is.” It's not sufficient for our art merely to open the door to the gift shop or the record store. Listen to the music and ask yourself: what door is this person trying to open? Like as not you’ll find it is usually the door to fame and fortune, to approval, to some sentimentalized posture, or the pose of profundity. All too often what we hear in the depths of our musical art is the sound of the desire for personal gain on the part of the composer. This idea of gaining will kill us. Let us substitute the idea of opening: to wisdom, to joy, to compassion, to peace, to free feeling, to release.