I’m an orphan thirty years on
how I miss my father’s voice and my mother’s arms
I was you once, and now you’re me
it’s in this circle that we make a family
Jubilee, Gretchen Peters
And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song
But I feel them watching
And I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along
The Last of the Family Reserve, Lyle Lovett
I have less reason now to visit the sky under which I was raised, but it still informs and affects my life, calling to me from memory. My parents lie beneath this sky, snug in their graves and now of the landscape itself. I hear their whispers in the susuration of the wheat and I feel their presence in the narrow canyons of the Blue Mountains. I come here less often now, but come I will as long as there is the ability to do so.
Memories and Sky, Rumors of Far Despairs (www.humptulips.org), Stephen C. Ellis
When you attain a certain age, your thoughts turn to weighing the consequences and measures of the distances remaining to be traveled, and to the contemplation of the mysteries and conundrums of the distances left behind. The future is singular: it has a route to be traveled to an end not yet attained or understood; the past is a river’s delta: it has many branches, some real and well-traveled, and others the stuff of fantasy, but no less well-traveled because of it. When both are finally added together, the sum yields but a single life.
I need little reminder of this fact, for I have attained the age when such contemplation begins in earnest. I will soon begin my eighth decade of life, so I feel comfortable engaging in such thoughts. It is time for me to assess what I’ve accomplished and failed to complete, and to sharpen my focus in consequence of the results of my assessment in order to better navigate whatever lies ahead.
So far, my life has proven to be a creature of dreams composed wholly of rhythm. There are many rhythms within my dreams: the coruscations of light captured by artists’ brushes; the raptures and lamentations of the soul sung by poets; the individual tunes and harmonies rendered in song and symphony by the composers; and, underneath it all, the stolid thump of my own dogged tread. Within my dreams, I am but a single member of a great chorus composed of the totality of life itself as expressed in its plentiful, myriad forms, and my worth will be judged only in accordance with whatever additive effect I was able to provide in the time allotted to me.
Some composers seem to understand this notion. Take, for example, Gretchen Peters’ superb new album, Blackbirds. It is the work of a mature mind, full of lyrics that resonate with meaning for someone my age. Her summary of a life nearly lived to its full is found in the song entitled Jubilee:
there ain’t no boat, there ain’t no train
to take us back the way we came
ain’t no shelter from this hard rain
the cure for the pain is the pain
the cure for the pain is the pain
I am as certain as I can be that the pain she has in mind is life itself, and that the cure for such pain can only be found by continuing to travel that portion of life yet remaining to us with all of the fervor we can muster. The chorus of Jubilee says it best:
so I sing holy holy from this prison where I lie
my arms reaching up to touch the sky
I sing holy holy, hallelujah I am free
come on down and join the jubilee
Lyle Lovett reached a similar conclusion in The Last of the Family Reserve. Its chorus is lighter in keeping with its other lyrics, but it makes a similar argument for joining in as loudly as possible:
And we’re all gonna be here forever
So Mama don’t you make such a stir
Now put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve
None of us makes sense as the single entity we perceive ourselves to be. We only make sense as a member of life’s grand chorus. In the end, we must be content with a future in which we will not figure, except for the ripples we’ve left behind. Our comfort must come from recognizing and acknowledging our part in this shared work, however miniscule or grand others may judge it to have been.
Perhaps Billy Joel summarized the content of my dreams best in The River of Dreams:
In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams
So join the jubilee and sing, damn you, sing! As loud and as long and as lustily as you can.