MWD13 - On Listening the Whole Way Through

Tomorrow is my birthday! That doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it seemed fine to mention it. It is my newsletter after all. But enough about that. Let’s dig around in here and see what’s edible, shall we?

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It would make sense for a reader/writer type to point to English teachers as the most formative, most inspiring, most beloved of their early years. And while that was mostly true for me in college, it decidedly was not true in high school. My favorites back then were all connected to math. I did (and still do) love math to the point of distraction. Literature is all chaos and uncertainty; math is tidy and beautiful and endlessly true.

That said, I remember being in an English class when I first began to realize the possibilities living inside language. The teacher handed us a copy of e. e. cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” and the earth shifted on its axis.

I think I’m supposed to be embarrassed by that memory, that I’m supposed to shove it down in the same place where I put my early fascination with Ayn Rand and my bizarre fashion choices involving Keds and two pairs of different colored socks, mismatched so the alternated colors would stack. The latter items do cause me to cringe, but when I flip through my collections of e. e. cummings, I remain entranced.

Perhaps my favorite, enduring into adulthood, is this:

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any — lifted from the no

of all nothing — human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Undoubtedly, one reason it has endured is Eric Whitacre’s choral setting which is – to me – exactly life and love and wings.

I am a singer, have spent my life in choral ensembles, but I don’t think you have to be a singer to be swept up in the tide of this song. Often, I do not even hum along, much less sing, yet in the silence at its close, my breath releases in concert with the dying of the sound, and I realize I was participating in the making of this song (and its making of me) once again.

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Speaking of youth and foolishness and music, Daniel Levin Becker has written a most revelatory reflection on R.E.M.’s 1992 album Automatic for the People. I was particularly taken with this idea of the ways we map ourselves onto the artifacts of our youth without even realizing it.

“I remember it understated and almost monochromatically sad, and yet here are these flourishes of instrumentation, these weird moments of incongruous gaiety, these borderline too-eccentric Stipe-isms, these resplendently anachronistic touches that seem calculated to make the whole record sound like a transmission from a dozen venues at once, an arena and a wheat field and a circus tent and some kind of Avatar soul-forest. It’s jarring, like thinking back and suddenly realizing your middle school science teacher was a drag queen. What were you paying attention to? Not the time at the time, not the place. I remember it understated and almost monochromatically sad, but maybe I’m just describing the self that fell for it.”

For the record (terrible pun), the most powerful R.E.M. album, start to finish is Green from 1988. The last time I listened to it all the way through, I was struck by how cohesive and thought-provoking it felt. Just now, looking at the Wikipedia entry on the album, I see where at least one member of the band felt it to be the most eclectic, the least unified of their efforts, and sure, it’s not one-note. But the tracks build upon each other, creating a cumulative effect that I find remarkable.

I often wonder about my children and others of their generation who have grown up in the era of streaming music, where their entire experience with music is with a “single.” They will never experience the unique joy of opening a new cassette, un-accordioning the liner notes, lying flat on your back in the floor of your bedroom, and letting the story of an album unfold around you. Nothing for an hour or so but your empty room and those sounds. No easy way to skip a track that doesn’t immediately strike your fancy. No other device beckoning, tempting you to turn the new soundtrack of your very life into nothing more than background music.

I hate background music.

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I’ve been chewing on a piece lately, something trying to reconcile two vital truths:

  • our need to sit with our grief, to be present in it, and

  • our emerging suspicion that there is a future presenting itself here if we would only claim it.

The problem arises because of our care for others. We worry that it isn’t ok to savor or even celebrate some of the golden moments when others are hurting so terribly. We don’t want to diminish the tragedy, so we tread lightly even when we, like Sam Sifton of the NYT realize,

“This is stolen time we’re getting. With not much to treasure, I can treasure that.”

What to do then when you realize that the only way to dream your way forward into a better future is to recognize those treasured gifts, identifying and naming them one by one like a child playing duck, duck, goose, chubby fingers gently touching each sacred, tousled head before her? If we don’t give ourselves permission to isolate the things we prefer about this strange, new world, we will not be able to envision a future made up of those preferences. If we won’t acknowledge there is a point C, no amount of Point A and Point B will get us there.

Margaret Renkl in this piece on losing power after the Nashville tornadoes, helped me think through this notion a bit, in part because it isn’t about Covid-19 but about another natural disaster and its aftermath. We, too, lost power as a result of tornadoes that came through our town on the night of Easter Sunday, and I particularly appreciate the way Renkl acknowledges the difficulties and tragedies while still embracing the “something more than a gift” present in these moments:

“To take a walk at night in a city that has settled into silence and a darkness that has become far too rare is to return to something precious, something lost for so long you’ve forgotten to miss it. When it comes back to you unbidden, when that big pie plate of a moon and that star-drenched sky bless you as you walk down the middle of your street, right down the middle of the street, with your head thrown back and your mouth fallen open, that’s something more than a gift. It’s a walk through the past, a walk in the present and possibly — if we can’t change our lives in time to head off the coming environmental collapse — a walk into the future. All at once.”

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Unexpected Joy Department:

The Hood Internet is creating 3-minute mashups of the top songs for each year of the 1980s. A new one comes out every Thursday. My favorite so far is 1983, but I’m holding out for 1989.

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And Now for Some Truly Shameless Self-Promotion (or what I’ve posted lately)

I’ve got an interview with middle grades author Kaela Noel set to publish tomorrow, but the week has been fairly quiet. The bright spot was this tremendously good novel-in-verse from Elizabeth Acevedo. Clap When You Land alternates between the voices and stories and homelands of two girls, both of whom suffer the loss of their father in a tragic airplane crash. It takes the form to a new level and gives gorgeous voice to these two girls.

On Carrying On and Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land

Preparing for a flight, one must decide: checked bags or carry-on only? Much depends on the trip, of course (duration, destination), but some of the decision comes down to preference. How much baggage do we want to carry? Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land brings the reader face-to-face with two young women, strang