6 hours ago
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
For a thousand miles across the Great Plains the wind blew through the open slats of the truck and the harps jostled in their trusses and keened mercilessly. By the time I pulled into the market stalls in Chicago some of them were still humming, but it was nothing like their highway music.
If I live for another hundred years I won't forget that sound.
There was no demand for harps anymore, and every one of those poor sons of bitches was destined for slaughter or salvage. You might think you've heard some piteous sounds in your life, but you haven't heard anything until you've heard a harp being slaughtered. It seemed like the dying just went on forever. It was like listening to a house full of music burn.
That was a desperate time in my life. I needed the money, but after three trips I couldn't take it anymore. When I'd unloaded my last bunch of harps in Chicago I started talking. I wrote letters to the editors of local papers. I made phone calls. With the help of my daughter I started a Facebook page to call attention to the plight of the doomed harps. A young couple in Aberdeen started a shelter, but in six months they only managed to find homes for three of the harps, two of which showed up almost immediately on eBay and went unsold. One of those was eventually found busted up in a truckstop dumpster near Rapid City.
When the shelter couple lost their lease I agreed to foot the bill for a couple storage units at a place just outside of town, and with the help of a few friends I hauled all the remaining harps out there and packed them in so tight they could barely breathe. There was no light or heat in those units, and it was the dead of winter. The thought of it kept me up nights.
Then, just as spring was finally breaking out in earnest, I got an email from a woman in the western part of the state. She said she had a big family spread and was willing to set aside a parcel of land for a harp sanctuary.
In early May I rented a truck --the same sort of truck I used to drive back and forth to Chicago-- and loaded the harps. On the trip out there I got to hear their old highway music one more time, but I swear it sounded different headed west. Lighter, I think.
The woman had recruited a lively group of volunteers to help us move the harps out into the range. After we got them all situated --there were 61 total-- we walked silently back across all that open space; behind us we could already hear the harps beginning to breathe again.
By the time we got back to the woman's ranch house, dusk was settling. It was a warm night, but a gentle breeze was blowing and the harps had begun to really sing.
We all just stood there in the driveway and listened until there was nothing but the darkness and the music of those harps moving on the wind. Pretty much everyone agreed it was the most beautiful goddamn thing they'd ever heard.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
The woman, however, quickly discovered that she rather enjoyed being a river. It was never boring and all day and all night she was singing and moving and going places. All she had to do was shake her hair and all sorts of interesting things happened. Sometimes --often, actually-- she saw faces and heard voices, and some of these were familiar to her from her days as a sad and beautiful woman. As a river she had the marvelous gift of being in many places at the same time. She traveled again and again, ceaselessly, past the little town where she had grown up and lived her entire life. Nothing there seemed to have changed since she had been turned into a river.
She heard the happy laughter of children, the voices of fishermen, and the women who gathered in the shallows to thrash their laundry on the rocks. Everyone seemed happy. It was possible, she realized, that the people she had once known loved her more as a river than they had as a woman. She herself had never been very happy in that place and had always felt that she was a burden to her old mother, whose own life had been a constant trial since the gods had turned her husband into a serpent for cursing the wind.
Every day the woman who had been turned into a river felt more and more delighted by her existence as moving water. She had never been so free as a human, and often had occasion to wish that she had affronted the gods much earlier than she had. It was liberating to have no bones, and no appetite for anything but grace, transition, and transformation. She did, though, love the rain, and looked forward to the quiet and endlessly fascinating changes that winter brought. Any displeasing trespass she was capable of disgorging with relative ease, but many pleasing things also, of course, found their way into the river, and these things she collected, treasured, puzzled over, and dispensed as gifts and surprises to favored visitors.
At some point, however, the gods recognized that their punishment had been received as a reward, and their response was swift and merciless. Jove ordered the river's desiccation, and the once moving water became an arid trench, and the woman was turned to sand.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Me? I can hardly stand, period, so understand that I'm not pointing fingers.
Good lord, here's a horn chart from Nigeria (c. 1972) that's straight off a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record from my salad days.
Okay, listen, I do have a message: somebody has to discover the worlds this world refuses to discover.
Once upon a time I intended to be one such person, but I've run out of gas and I've been having a hard time breathing and getting out of bed in the afternoon. I am 100 years old today. That is, I'm sure you'll agree, a long time to live, and almost certainly too old to still be buying Hold Steady records. The fact of the matter is that I may not live through this night, and that possibility, repeated over too many nights, will take an old man's thoughts on dim and bittersweet journeys.
How many kindred spirits, I wonder tonight, does a fortunate man encounter in his lifetime? I'm thinking of truly kindred spirits, the sorts of people in whose company one can be both fully himself and fully alive, and at the same time have the unswerving sense that he's being seen and understood with absolute clarity.
I don't have an answer to this question, unfortunately. I'm sure there are those who, owing to the place or circumstances of their upbringing, or just plain misfortune, never bump into a true kindred spirit in their entire lives.
I once imagined a band of kindred spirits, possessed of almost genetically-linked imaginations, instinctively inclined to easy collaboration and boundless curiosity, working together over many years to create an encyclopedia of that collective imagination, complete with elaborate and fictional biographies, histories, maps, bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, photos, and art.
I guess what I was after was a scene, a movement, something that would be assigned a name that would resonate into posterity.
It didn't happen, of course. I met the occasional kindred spirit, but they've been surprisingly rare. Most people just aren't crazy enough, and the world conspires against long term relationships of any sort. People are always pulling up stakes, acquiring new affiliations, growing up and old, and settling in and down. I've long despised the word "bohemian," but in my dotage I do find myself wishing the modern world turned out more people who genuinely fit the job description, as it were. Plenty can master the pose --and that's often all it takes to make one's name as some sort of artist or eccentric-- but the real deal strikes me as a very rare creature indeed.
I never entirely gave up on my encyclopedia --it has, in fact, sprawled off in many unexpected directions-- but I lost a good deal of steam as I aged, and in middle age turned much of my attention to a series of suicide scrapbooks. I now have a half dozen of these things, compiled at ten-year intervals. In many ways I like to believe I was ahead of my time in at least one respect; back in the 1960s I had an acquaintance who was one of these courtroom artists, and I hired her to produce aged portraits of me as I might look at fifty, sixty, and seventy. I can now report to you that many of these renderings, which she did annually over that thirty-year period, turned out of be uncannily accurate.
I've also written and updated countless versions of my own obituary, penned reviews of the dozens of books I never published (or wrote), as well as fond remembrances from a long list of old friends, acquaintances, and the scores of fictional companions who have proved to be my most steadfast collaborators. I've even, on at least a half dozen occasions, mustered the inspiration to compose poems in my own memory.
Paging through these scrapbooks now, on what could very well be the last night of my long and mostly happy life, I see photographs, random notes on scraps of paper, quotes, book and record receipts, old gym and library cards, as well as dozens of other forms of identification that prove I was once a reasonably active member of society; several sets of dog tags that once jangled from the collars of beloved dogs (and dozens upon dozens of photos of those dear creatures), postcards and other mementos from out-of-the-way places I've visited, and various other found scraps and curiosities.
There are a half dozen set lists (compiled at different junctures) of songs to remember me by, or at least songs that were once capable of stirring in me some old happiness or sense of the preciousness of life.
For each scrapbook there is, obviously, a suicide note (in some decades there are dozens), as well as letters to friends and family members, and some attempt to divvy up my possessions, or at least to insure that certain objects of significance to me were placed in loving and properly appreciative homes. With each passing year I have assembled an ever larger (and, frankly, obsessive) photographic inventory of my favorite things, including individual books and records.
In 1990, when I turned 80, I decided that I wished to have my cremains cooked down until they corresponded as closely as possible to my birth weight. I've made it clear that I don't wish to have my ashes merely flung about, but would prefer to have some inspired person incorporate them into some beautiful piece of art.
Traditionally the last dozen pages of each of my suicide scrapbooks have been blank, and black. That was always meant to be symbolic; so much life yet to be lived, and all that. I now wonder, though, if there might not have been a bit of optimistic thinking behind the gesture --it was possible, after all, that there was still more life to come, and more material for future suicide scrapbooks. I'm not sure, however, that optimistic thinking could properly be said to have ever played a role in the assembly of something so portentous as a suicide scrapbook.
The scrapbooks --along with the tottering mess of my encyclopedia-- are here beside my bed right now, and they will perhaps be of some mild interest to some stranger should this, in fact, prove to be my last night as a resident of this beautiful and merciless world, and this the last entry in the last of my suicide scrapbooks.
I will miss a great deal, I'm certain, but pretty much everyone and everything I would miss I've already been missing for far too long.
I have very little in the way of advice to surviving members of my traveling party, other than perhaps this: Carry a tune. Carry it with you until it's capable of making you and those dear to you dance.
I wish I had done this more often.
"Whoever brought me here is going to have to take me home."