Song By Song
The apartment faces North, and in San Francisco that means that the air that blows through is coming down from Alaska. It’s always cold here. There is a battle over the heat, one person mindful of the cost of having the house cozy and one person who wants the house cozy, dammit. Much of the time, I’m in blankets and sweaters and sometimes as a statement, a coat.
My friend in the East is watching 12 inches of snow fall. I miss the snow. My body has become acclimated to constant Springtime, but I do miss the magic of the seasons. The quiet and relentless snowfall. The blood-red forests of Autumn. That moment at the end of the sweltering Summer when the Fall announces itself in one ancient sigh.
As I write this I remember that before I went to bed, I read that 100,000 people were being evacuated from towns in California because of a failure of a dam. In a flash, I remember that my dreams involved fleeing, and were restless and worried. Where do that many people run to? I saw that the officials in charge were flying over the dam, dropping rocks on the breach to stop it. Really? That’s the best case scenario? I can’t imagine anything seeming more dire.
So much for waxing poetic on the gorgeousness of Winter. I see beauty in the rainfall, the steppes of grey in the sky, the sound of the wind on the chimes and the rain on the windows. And there, a couple hours away, people are stuck in a traffic jam trying to get far enough away from a lake letting loose.
This has been a question for the past few weeks. Where does poetry fit? How do you find your voice to create art when the world seems so dire? Even these blogs, intended to be inspiration through playing music, have been mired in conversation about how to weather current events. Where is the spark to create beauty again? How do we allow ourselves to do it?
I was thinking about this and then read this piece on the blog Brain Pickings:
(…) it is, rather, a commitment on behalf of the artist to serve not only truth but beauty by remaining in contact with the timeless and the eternal; to fortify us against the urgencies of a turbulent present and embolden us to transcend our primal reflex of fear, so that we may lift not only our spirits but the whole of our consciousness and continue to evolve toward a more humane humanity.
Oh to create uplifting, transcendent, soul-strengthening pieces of work. What happens as I write those words is immediate defeat. How can you enter into creating anything with the dream of changing the world? I can’t think of anything that clamps down on creativity more. I think of the unslept, fleeing families in Oroville at the moment. What good will a poem do for them right now?
I made it a point to buckle down to play more drums this week. Maybe I’m not creating anything of use or inspiration for the world, but I do need to keep my chops up. I am learning a new Zeppelin song. I need to just physically work at that, and play through the set, work on those things I’m constantly trying to improve. I wanted to get lost in that place without words, that place of geometry and algebra and primal communication beyond story. What lets loose in the moments of freely beating the drums is a deep language, connected to all time and all language. Drums are the first instrument, before words. Drums are the signal to gather, the calling forth of spirit, the connection to a past so long that only our cells remember. Drums are magic. This week, I got lost in the magic for a while. I consoled myself with rhythm.
There is a section in one of the songs that I’m learning that I can’t play smoothly. So I slow down the part in my looping app, and just play it over and over, like a meditation. Like meditation, I try to be compassionate with myself as I flail through the fills at half time speed, as I have to stop and really spell each hit out, note by note, as if I don’t know how to play drums at all. Then very, very slowly, I manage it a little faster. The progress is slow, but it is gratifying. There is progress; in that alone I marvel. I feel that I had forgotten what forward movement felt like.
This is another part of my brain than all the other stuff. All the political stress and the worry about the planet and the pressure in myself to write the paragraph or the story that will right all wrongs, that falls away in the math of the drums. The fill starts with the left hand, then a triplet next to the eighth-note run through the toms. I work to break the chains between the limbs that prevent certain patterns and try to let go of frustration.
After all of that, then I just play. I have been experimenting with meditation techniques while I practice, falling my awareness into the center of myself while I play. Falling into the center of the music, as if the edges of myself are blowing away in the eye of the song. I am in the center of music, and my limbs build the mathematical cage in which I drift.
Where is time in this place? Only the song keeps track, and when there is no song and only drums, then time breathes deep from across an infinite plane that reaches back, so far back it is wordless. I think endlessly of time and space, of our souls and where they have traveled. Is time a construct for only us, is it only the human mind that registers the forward and back? When I play now, does it echo across the eons to the place where drums first spoke? Am I merely contributing my voice to a song that was started long ago?
Or do I play drums in a tribute band, eking out a living by providing a night of escape and romantic trips to memories of golden days. That too, I guess. Maybe one day, some writing will come that will strike beauty in the world. Maybe one day, a song I play will move someone to hope. Maybe one day, I’ll find the voice that will inspire change and love and a new way of being in the world, like a match that sets compassion to wildfire through humanity.
Meanwhile, I will wake up each morning, shuffle from bed to couch and work for these two hours to speak honestly, to find the way to say something meaningful, and to hope that over time just one perfect note of beauty falls from my heart. In creation lies hope. I’m going to get back my hope. Today, I claim it.
I’m sure the work that comes will seem unbelievably trivial in the light of the problems of the world. We can aspire to Rilke, but for most of us, we will just take a stab, just reach and try and a bunch of trivial things will fall out in the attempt to wring beauty from our imaginations. I am pre-celebrating the trivial. Pre-celebrating the moment in which I am just laughing, just marveling, just rapt with a simple, beautiful expression that is political only in that when we create something purely for beauty, that alone speaks volumes of hope, of peace, and of humanity’s purpose on the Earth. When we create something purely for beauty, we uplift the collective, and give energy to those heroes who are, at this moment, creating creative solutions to our dire problems.
We are here to witness, to interpret, to be uplifted and to learn. Poem by poem, song by song, let us lift our voices to contribute to that long conversation that started with that first word, falling from forgotten lips and breaking the silence of eons.
You can hear me read this piece here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/song-by-song