It’s Just Life

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The chorus of this song was a random idea I’ve saved for a couple years. I didn’t have a sudden burst of inspiration for week 44 of #songaweek2018, so I went back over past notes and found this idea saved as a voice memo. The only thing I changed for this song was “why we carry on” which initially was “why you carry on.” Otherwise the words and tune you hear in this chorus are exactly the original idea around which I built the rest of the song.

So many influences here. The general political climate in our nation. The mass shooting in Pittsburgh. A moment at a stoplight with a homeless man. My plodding through a volume of famous and obscure works by H.G. Wells. The Pale Blue Dot poster that hangs by my desk – a cherished gift from a friend.

This song is constructed slightly differently than my – and many songwriters’ – standard format of multiple verses, a repeated chorus, and one bridge somewhere after the middle to break things up a bit. You could say it either has two different verse formats, each repeated once; or one verse format repeated twice (“So talk to me . . .” and “oh sing to me . . .”) and one bridge repeated twice (“what a waste is there . . .” and “if I hadn’t rolled my window down . . .”). And a single repeating chorus.

The tune for what I’m calling the bridge (“what a waste is there . . .”) actually grew from another quote that didn’t make it into the final song. It came from a G.K. Chesterton book I’m also plodding through, the Father Brown mysteries. (Why am I such a sucker for books by dead Englishmen with initials for names? Besides H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton I’ve also read nearly everything I can find by P.G. Wodehouse. And then of course there’s J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Apparently a trend of their time and culture. Along with the cringey moments of racism and sexism their readers must stumble through.)

But the Chesterton quote – I loved the way it flowed so much that I copied it into my notes for possible later use: “I knew Jupiter Jesus out in Denver; saw him for weeks on end; and he was just a common crook.” (from “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” in The Incredulity of Father Brown).

I sang those words till I had a tune and chords I liked for them. Then as I worked further on the song, I tried to keep them intact as my first bridge, but eventually had to “murder my darlings” and let those words go from this song. Maybe they’ll show up elsewhere someday. I just think they’re too good to only be used once, now that they’re in public domain!

Not much more I want to say about this song except an emphasis of one main idea in it – that sometimes when everything feels dark and wrong and impossible to set right, it’s good to step back and look at it all from a wider angle. In the grand scheme of things, every atom matters. But I can’t see or feel how much it all matters until I roll down the window, put down the phone, embrace life with an active presence and all my senses. That’s when life feels more approachable, manageable, liveable, too.

The videos are all from the International Space Station, downloaded from this website – I didn’t set out to do this, but I think you won’t see any views of the United States here. That feels like a timely reminder for me and my fellow citizens, that the world doesn’t actually revolve around us.

So talk to me
So tell me how it goes with you in these dark days
Before the dawn
And stay with me
Believe me when I say to you it’s coming soon
Keep holding on

There must be a reason why we carry on
We’re here a little while and then we’re gone
There, there, it’s alright, it’s just life

What a waste is there of exquisite things
The young are the food of war
We are just a mote of dust

Oh sing to me
Open up your soul and let the truth fly free
Into the night
Be not afraid
The killers have no power over shining stars
And rising suns

There must be a reason why we carry on . . .

If I hadn’t rolled my window down
I’d never have seen his smile
And he was just a homeless man

There must be a reason why we carry on . . . 

How Many the Fallen

I started writing this song for week 25 of #songaweek2018 from the center of a Nerf gun battlezone. I was the lone adult at home while my son and three of his cousins took up their battle stations and went at it. That morning was the lull in a busy week, and the best time I could find to work on songwriting.

Earlier in the week, the amur maple in our front yard broke irreparably in a summer storm. The next day, my brother-in-law and his family came to visit for several days, and one day we all went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. My kids were eager to show their cousins a certain painting I’ve previously showed them, where if you look closely enough in a dark place in the woods, you can see the profiles of two ghostly faces, the remnants of another painting underneath the more visible one.

And running through everything last week, the horrendous news of my government thinking it’s a good idea to separate children from their parents – and doing it, to thousands of families. I haven’t had anything to say because it feels a little like saying the earth orbits the sun, or things we drop fall because of gravity, or everyone needs food, water, and sleep. Children belong with their parents. Tearing families apart is abominable immigration policy.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about this news story when I wrote this song, but it was keeping me up at night, throbbing like an unnoticed alert at the back of my head, a perpetual lump in my throat. I am both a child and a parent, and this action of my government leaves me breathless.

So as my mind and heart were processing all that in the background, I wrote into this song a baby, a tiny hand, the trusting heart of a child, the courageous heart of a parent embarking on an impossible journey into a better day for their children. What’s happening at our southern border isn’t what this song is about, but the heartlessness of my government towards people trying to cross that border has directly and indirectly added countless lives to the numbers of the fallen, the fading, the lost. (And it’s been going on a long time. Start here for an introduction to the US Border Patrol’s scheme of “Prevention Through Deterrence.”)

The very last line of the last verse, “into the fray,” was inspired by my friend Jen Bluhm’s song “Into the Fray,” which I learned was taken from a poem which came from the movie  The Grey. Which relates a bit to the line about the painting as well – that so much creative work exists, and has existed – so much good work that will never hang in a museum or get a million views or a thousand plays or even a second glance. So much is fading, so much is lost – and yet, it all – all of us, our works and actions and interactions – are expanding this mysterious circle of life.

All of the above are my reflections on what was influencing me as I wrote this song. I’ve been using these blog posts expressly for that purpose – to talk about the background of the songs I’m writing – but sometimes I think talking too much about the origin of a song can take away from the experience of listening to it with your own ears and perspective.

So here’s the song, in its own words, for your own listening ears and thoughtful consideration.

I held the edge of the universe
It sighed like a baby
And slept in my arms
I heard the very last note of the concert
They played at the end of all things
Then I lifted my voice

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

The tree that broke in the thunderstorm
Will crumble to soil
And grow living things
The painting speaking to me from the wall
Keeps past lives under its skin

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

The morning holds out her tiny hand
And begs to go walking
Into the day
You know you never can tell what’s beyond
the horizon but you go willingly
into the fray

How many the fallen, the fading, the lost
Expanding the circle of life

Your Own Personal Times Mirror

My local credit union provides an added service to its members. While we are waiting in line, inside or in the drive-up lanes, the latest news headlines flash on colorful screens to keep us informed. I guess.

This morning, the first headline I saw told me about a “skeletal body” found in a “rusty barrel” on the living premises of a paroled convict in Texas. The next was about nineteen people missing because their Chinese tour bus was wrecked in the typhoon in Taiwan. My short-term memory apparently overloaded because I can’t remember the details of the third one, something about a catastrophe that stranded a large group of people, maybe factory workers, somewhere else in the world.

After these helpful headlines, the screen flicked to sports scores.

Is this progress? Technology has made it possible for me in my car or house or clinic waiting room to look into another person’s car or house or waiting room practically anywhere else in the world. If my media sources deemed it important, they could show or tell me about a soft-skinned newborn baby peacefully nursing in her mother’s arms in Afghanistan; or a young student from Minneapolis who spent a summer in Nepal and saw the world open up to him in numerous ways; or an autumn afternoon bicycle ride and picnic that was the highlight of a disabled French woman’s year.

Situations like these are not news, precisely because they happen every day, everywhere. And just as certainly, people get hurt in small ways, every day, everywhere. These stories may not be “news,” but they are often little stops on the path to some “big” news story.

“Everything matters if anything matters at all,” wrote Pierce Pettis. What led up to the sensational story about the skeletal body in the rusty barrel? A million “small” details, I’m thinking. A cruel joke on a school playground . . . a child’s choice to reject a friendship . . . a growing volume of hateful voices inside a teenager’s head . . . a thousand little cruelties that grew into the habitual and hateful behavior of the self-loathing now-paroled convict.

Or not. I know that sometimes people do things for no observable reason; there is no painful childhood, no discernable pattern of small details leading up to the scene of the crime. I’ve given up the search for a handy universal explanation of everything. But I wonder if more of us paid attention to the smaller details of our own lives and the lives of those around us – our compulsive behaviors (why, I might ask myself, do I always laugh nervously when someone mentions “x”), the look of pain or numbness in the eyes of a coworker when she speaks (if I take the time to look her in the eyes) – maybe then we could work for change on the level where change most often happens – the embryonic one.

These days, news, like most things, feels like a product to be consumed. It is there to entertain us, to add to our intellectual stores of knowledge, to warn us against danger (and according to the news, danger is lurking everywhere, everywhere, dammit!), to show us something pretty and tender and sweet now and then to preserve our hope in the human spirit (so, yes, now and then we do hear about the French woman’s bike ride and such).

It’s still possible, though, to use news as a tool for information-gathering – not for the sake of simply storing that information and then yanking it out to write up a nifty blog post (hey, why am I laughing nervously right now?); but to ponder that information and its influence on the issues that affect me and my community – and then to act – responsibly – on that information. Reflection on the news can inspire people to live more wisely and compassionately as family members, friends, coworkers, and citizens of communities both local and global.

Am I suggesting everyone seek out solitude as much as I do? Nah. But now and then, it probably wouldn’t hurt to turn off the Blackberry, the TV, the radio, the computer; set aside the paper (or the iPad), and reflect on whatever new information you just took in (you do remember what it was, don’t you?).