Oh, those geese! They’ve opened the floodgates to thoughts of life and all its mystery and grandeur. My skull is awash in musings.
I have no time for Creationists and their glib “Intelligent Design” cousins. I know better. I have lived a billion years of evolutionary history in my short lifetime. It exists within my DNA, my very soul.
“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” – of all the things I learned as a biology major, this phrase was, by far, the most profound and glorious. The phrase comes to mind often, at least once or twice a year, although I graduated from college more than 30 years ago. It comes to me when I’m beset with mundane cares; the frivolous or self-absorbed worries of my daily life.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny…it’s poetic, is it not? These three words encapsulate the miracle of life. It refers to the fact that the human fetus (any mammalian fetus, for that matter) develops through every stage, every phylum of life. I began my journey as a single cell…a human paramecium. I then morphed into a multi-cellular being. I grew cilia and swam in an amniotic sea. I lived as a worm with a simple alimentary canal before I developed my digestive tract with the remnants of an herbivore’s suite of stomachs. I developed a notochord, and later grew a spine. I had a tail once, before my bones fused to form my coccyx. My brain began as a reptilian brain (before it grew into the befuddled organ it is today). I grew gills! Imagine that!! I was a fish for a month or two (good times, good times). My eyes developed from sightless, sensory orbs into functional lenses. In the space of nine months, I lived the life of every being that lived on this planet over the course of billions of years. I am Life. I am the dream, the struggle, and the reality of Life surging, yearning, growing, and manifesting itself in all of its glory.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny…it takes my breath away.
Late last night, as I sat quietly reading, I heard geese honking high in the winter sky. I put my book aside and listened raptly until their cries faded to silence. There are sounds in Nature that tug on my soul, sounds that open doors to deep mysteries and wonder. The raucous song of geese as they wing their way to distant lands is one of those.
It’s the song of Life.
Now, I know that many consider the Canada goose to be nothing more than a hyper-amped pigeon. People treat them as a gross nuisance; complain vociferously when they choose to roost in our retention ponds and soccer fields. Neighbors visibly display their disgust as they scrape the droppings from their fashionable shoes. We try to shoo them, scare them, kill them…
To me, the geese are harbingers of winter. I have absolutely no idea how they come to decide when it is time to venture southward. They have no need for clocks or calendars or maps. They simply know when it is time to go. They are attuned to the rhythms of the earth, some unfathomable cosmic clockwork. I see them winging their way purposefully to faraway destinations and I feel humbled. They know more than I could ever comprehend. They are closer to God than I will ever be.
There are many sounds like that, music that thrills and perplexes. The cries of loons at dawn, the haunting serenades of wolves, the whistles of whales traversing the deepest oceans, the incessant croaking overtures of frogs…the list is long…all are songs of life and love and mystery. There are forces, impulses, needs, yearnings and dreams in Nature that dwarf my own. We humans are possessed of an unwarranted arrogance. We are just a miniscule fraction of the Whole, and I often think that we are among the most clueless of beasts.
Well, the band-aids have fallen from my fingers, blisters giving way to callous. I think I’ll leave the drums alone for a while. Who knows when I’ll revisit them again? I spat my rage and thrashed my fury. The storm has passed, leaving me spent and hollow.
I suppose I should call this current play list: Aftermath. It’s just a handful of songs, but I guess that’s about all I can handle nowadays.
The Wallflowers: “God Says Nothing Back” (from Rebel Sweet Heart) Anna Nalick: “Wreck Of The Day” Anna Nalick: “Breathe (2 AM)” (both from Wreck of the Day) Cowboy Junkies: “You’re Missing” Cowboy Junkies: “One” (both from Early 21st Century Blues) James Blunt: “You’re Beautiful” James Blunt: “Goodbye My Lover” (both from Back to Bedlam)
To speak of love or loved ones in the past tense is to die inside, if only just a little. No matter how beautiful the sentiment or how luscious the reverie, the fact that they exist only in the past haunts and darkens.
Compare and contrast: “She swore I was her lover for life” as opposed to, “She swears I am her lover for life.” The latter is now a former truth. The former is the truth I bear, though the heart bleeds and the soul aches. The latter statement once filled me with boundless hope...a sentiment so beautiful and profound that I began to build a life on that foundation. Sadly, it was but a passing truth...a dream more than a truth, actually. The former is now my reality, but it exists as only a melancholy memory. The statement, once so clear, so definite, is now laden with questions: Who failed whom? How and why?
When we speak of lovers and love, the tense makes all the difference.
I’ve been living in a dark and silent world for the past month. The music vanished once again. There have been no grace notes in my life. I spent the holidays alone…by choice, actually. I’m glad that night comes early these days. I welcome the dark. I find solace in the dark.
I’ve been walking in the woods at night and I rather enjoy that. There’s a unique peace that envelops the frozen, naked trees in winter. You can find your feelings in the quiet. Sadly, no animals spoke to me on Christmas Eve (just in case you were wondering). I only heard my own thoughts. I’m sure the animals’ whispers would have been far more uplifting.
There are days when I am overcome by a longing for a love that was. The longing burns so deep in my gut that it physically hurts. I find myself staring into a void. The stare is of that leopard-esque "1,000-yard" variety.
Some days, it feels like victory enough to simply keep breathing.
* * *
Yesterday, for no apparent reason, I cued the BoDeans’ song “Only Love.” I feel a strong, strong affinity for the BoDeans. Three boys from Waukesha, Wisconsin – sons of the prairie - harmonizing so sweetly, and singing so simply, about life and love and heartbreak. I love Sam Llanas’ voice, and I love the way his voice blends so well with Kurt Neumann’s. Even better, I find that my own tenor voice fits in well with theirs. The BoDeans are the only band I can sing along with comfortably and seamlessly. I’m rather pleased with the resulting harmonies…a rare happenstance.
“Only Love” was released in 1987 on the Outside Looking In CD. That was the year that Rolling Stone magazine voted the BoDeans as “The Best New American Band.” Quite fitting, I believe. The BoDeans sing of the complex landscape of the heartlander’s heart. As a bonus, Jerry Harrison produced that CD. I adore Jerry Harrison as an artist/producer. His recordings sound as clairvoyant as a bell. His sound is always simple, yet rich…extending to depths rarely heard on most recordings.
I fell in love with “Only Love” from the first time I heard it almost 20 years ago. The song clicks on every level. The spare instrumentation, the vocals, the harmonies, the lyrics and the drum/bass groove charmed me from the very first listen. I must have listened to that song several hundred times at least. It’s one of the few songs that I can listen to repeatedly and still enjoy as if I am hearing it for the very first time.
I have a personal reverence for this song, as well. I had listened to it repeatedly at a time when it held a particular relevance for me. I’ve lived this song.
For the first time in over a year, I sat down at my (electronic) drums. I normally only play (rather quietly) through headphones but, this day, that simply wouldn’t do. I plugged my kit into the amp, hooked up my microphone, picked up my heavy rock sticks and kicked the song into gear. I adjusted the volume to “just-below-distortion-but-louder-than-a-jet.” I needed to make loud music.
I think all drummers feel a certain impish glee when we can make a dramatic entrance partway into a song. “Only Love” begins with Kurt strumming his Fender. Kurt, and then Sam, join together in earnest, yearning voice. Jerry added a bit of reverb/delay to the vocals and drums. I adjust my amp to add reverb to my voice and drums, as well.
Danny Gayol (the drummer) enters at the end of the first verse with a powerful snare accent and then lays down an incredibly powerful kick bass groove at the start of the chorus. The BoDeans sing: ”It’s only love” to the pounding pulse of the kick bass. I join in.
It takes a replay or two for me to find the groove. A clever Rock 16th pattern on the kick bass…wrist-breaking snare accents…a bit of deft handiwork on the closed hats…and a well-placed cymbal accent or two…It all came rushing back to me.
I joined Kurt/Sam on vocals:
“If I could I'd take you baby in my arms Take away all love's pain And all love's scars Maybe we could run away 'til we get so far away That I couldn't see us coming back again Well it’s only what you make of it It’s only what you need
It's Only Love” (8 Times)
I wanted my sticks to shatter and break. I wanted the bass pedal hammers to rip through the skins. I pounded my drums with every ounce of strength that I could muster. I blistered my fingers. All the while, I poured my heart out in song. I put the tune on “repeat” and played and sang until my voice cracked and fingers bled. I destroyed three sticks, but (sadly) the drum heads survived intact. Damn! I wanted my ferocity to rip through every drum, dent the cymbals and crack the hats. I stopped when my body began to ache, and blood oozed from my ears.
Sometimes making music beats a primal scream by a mile. But, then again…it’s only love.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about my personal spirituality of late. Actually, it’s been a preoccupation throughout my entire life, but seemingly more so now. There’s quite a bit to ponder…too much in fact. I’ll scratch the surface by reminiscing about two events that influenced me greatly.
* * *
I was around 10 – 12 years old. I can’t remember any details about the day except that it was summer. I was preparing for my evening shower.
I had just read or heard somewhere that scientists had determined that our universe is finite. I was taking off my clothes when I began to ponder what we might discover if we were to travel to the end of the universe and peer beyond the edge. What would we find? Heaven? God? Another universe? A whole bunch of universes? My head began to spin. I felt faint. It was as if I physically experienced something profound, an indescribable awe. I can’t remember any specific thoughts. I don’t recall thinking anything. I was simply overcome by awe. I began to hyperventilate. I grew dizzier and dizzier. As everything began fading to black, I clutched at the shower curtain for support…just before I went tumbling into the tub, shower curtain and all, falling unconscious as my head hit the wall.
* * *
I was in my 20’s. I was on another personal hajj. This time I was somewhere in the northern Colorado Rockies, high up in the mountains. I had been riding all day. It was summer and I was hot, dusty and numb. I think I rode about 800 miles that day, which is a bit trying on a motorcycle. It was dusk and I soon found a small campsite. I slowly began setting up camp. Not all that much is involved in setting up camp. I was always a minimalist when I rode. Two saddlebags for clothes and such, canteen, sleeping bag, plastic sheet/ground cloth, a pup tent and a compact cook kit. I could survive for weeks on end with just that, my bike, some cash (and a few credit cards).
As I said, I was dead-tired. I took my time gathering firewood and kindling. It was a warm night, so I decided to forego the tent. The sleeping bag would do just fine. I puttered about. I inspected my bike, organized my possessions, and tended to the fire in preparation for a bit of supper. A can of beans seemed about right. It was dark when I sat down to eat. It was all so very quiet and peaceful. Nature’s evensong relaxed me.
I grew sleepy. I unrolled the sleeping bag and laid myself down. Shock and awe! SHOCK AND AWE! There, directly above my head, was the Milky Way - a blindingly bright river of stars. I had never seen anything so magnificent. All I could say was “WOW!!” I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t even blink my eyes. I just stared at the Cosmos and was filled with utter rapture and awe.
I think that is as close to God as I have ever come.
For six long months now, I’ve been battling bitterness and cynicism. I think I’m slowly losing ground. It’s a battle I cannot afford to lose. I’ve fought this fight before (more than a few times), but it feels different this time. Either I’m weaker, or my demons are getting stronger.
Maybe it’s an age thing. Everything becomes more challenging as you deteriorate. Perhaps there is an upper limit on the number of vows forgotten, promises broken, dreams shattered and love reneged that any one heart can endure. Who can say? How many times can words be traitorous before they lose all meaning? Experience too many disappointments, and bitterness and cynicism can simply overwhelm.
Save me, Erasmus! I need your wisdom more now than ever before. Five and a half centuries ago, you picked up your quill to scratch out your praises to Folly. I know, I know, it was a polemic against the state of human affairs but, nonetheless, your words rang wise and true. You understood the human heart and its utter dependence on folly. You observed:
“Jupiter, not wanting man's life to be wholly gloomy and grim, has bestowed far more passion than reason - you could reckon the ration as twenty-four to one. Moreover, he confined reason to a cramped corner of the head and left all the rest of the body to the passions.”
I’m not sure about that ratio, but I’ve always believed you were right. You understand the human soul. You even anticipated your critics:
“Now I believe I can hear the philosophers protesting that it can only be misery to live in folly, illusion, deception and ignorance, but it isn't - it's human.”
I took you at your word when you wrote:
“I think nothing more happy than that generation of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts; splendid titles too, as I conceive them. I’ll tell you a thing, which at first perhaps may seem foolish and absurd, yet nothing more true. And first they are not afraid of death—no small evil, by Jupiter! They are not tormented with the conscience of evil acts, not terrified with the fables of ghosts, nor frightened with spirits and goblins. They are not distracted with the fear of evils to come nor the hopes of future good. In short, they are not disturbed with those thousand of cares to which this life is subject. They are neither modest, nor fearful, nor ambitious, nor envious. Add to this that they are not only merry, play, sing, and laugh themselves, but make mirth wherever they come, a special privilege it seems the gods have given them.”
I was just a young man when you first inspired me, Erasmus, when you pointed out that:
“The pleasures which we most rarely experience give us the greatest delight. Few there are that rightly understand of what great advantage it is to blush at nothing and attempt everything.”
“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”
Erasmus, my friend, come sit with me. Help me be a fool again. Who, but a fool, could believe in words of love when they have been proven false time and time again? It takes a fool to give all…sacrifice all…for another. It takes a fool to simply hope and trust. But…it is only the fool who will experience true love. Oh, Erasmus! Help me be brave enough to be a fool again!
* * *
(Ironic, isn’t it, that someone who has lost all faith in words would spend so much time searching for them?)
I combed through a number of my poetry anthologies to seek out this specific poem.
This poem is an old, old friend:
Small Prayer By Weldon Kees
Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes. Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen, That time may find its sound again, and cleanse Whatever it is that a wound remembers After the healing ends
* * *
Isn’t it amazing how quickly children heal? A trip, a fall, a skinned knee…the next morning there’s a scab…the day after that it is gone. Presto! All is well.
Nothing can stop a blossoming body.
It’s all so different now. I bump my shin and sport a contusion for, oh…say…five months. Wounds wound longer once the body grows old.
As I’ve said before, I’ve been blessed in many ways. One blessing is having financial security. I would have never guessed that I would become “comfortable” in life. My parents never had money. They could provide no guidance regarding investments or investing. However, one value they firmly imprinted in me was frugality. Growing up with little, it only takes a little to satisfy. I always had a bit of money left over at the end of each month, so I began to invest.
I’ve been investing in corporate stocks since my first job, more than 30 years ago. I made a lot of mistakes. I learned a great deal. Investing is a discipline that tests your intellect and your convictions. Over time, I believe I became a decent investor (of course, a 10-year bull run in the market helps enormously).
One of the hardest emotional barriers to good investing is “loss aversion.” Loss aversion is an all-too-human emotional response that compels us to continue with poor investment choices because we’ve invested so much in them and we simply can’t stand to think that the investment was wasted. This, then, leads to the “sunk cost fallacy” by which we throw even more resources down the drain rather than facing up to our mistakes and cutting our losses. Decisions about future investments should be made based solely on future possibilities, not biased by what may have been a huge investment in the past. I write this with the air of a know-it-all, but it comes from painful, personal experience. For example, I invested more than $80,000 in a company I had fallen in love with. I bought stock as the price was going up…way up…and then bought lots more as the stock came down…way, way down…all the way to bankruptcy. Yeah, loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy can really hurt.
(Note: The sunk cost fallacy is also known as the "Concorde Effect", referring to the fact that the British and French governments continued to fund the joint development of the Concorde even after it became apparent that there was no longer an economic case for the plane. The project was widely regarded as a commercial disaster which should never have been started…and was almost cancelled…but political and legal issues ultimately made it impossible for either government to pull out)
* * *
So, anyway, I was reviewing my portfolio recently, congratulating myself for some good decisions, and slapping myself upside the head for some poor choices. I always do a bit of pruning, rearranging and new investing about this time of year...and, therefore, I have to confront these two investing bugaboos again…
I paused to reflect on how difficult it is to shake off loss aversion. And we’re only talking money here, folks. Money’s not even that important. How much harder is it, then, to walk away from a failed relationship? Investing dollars is child’s play compared to investing your heart, guts, mind and soul in another human being. We bleed and cry for our relationships. We gnaw away at our own tough edges. We bite our tongues, bury dreams, sacrifice and suffer for the sake of love. We try so hard…and hope so much…that we can’t even recognize emotional bankruptcy until the pain completely overwhelms us.
I am not overly burdened by regrets. When asked: “If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?” I answer: “Everything…or…nothing.”
One’s life is, after all, the course we map by the decisions we make. It is shaped by our choices regarding schools, friends, lovers, employers and habitats. If I wanted to experience a completely new and different life, I would alter a great many decisions. I have no idea what the consequences could be (I’ve never been good at anticipating consequences), but I’m certain my life would be totally different.
The thing is, I know why I made all the choices I made. My reasons were valid (to me, anyway)…I tried to satisfy my yearnings, appease my hunger. More often than not, I chose to follow where love would lead me. Each choice led to consequences, and not necessarily the hoped-for consequences. Still, if one must go through life as a moth drawn to a flame, is it not better that the flame be love, rather than fame, fortune, security, popularity, privilege or power? If I were to have another chance at life, I’d still be a fool for love.
* * *
Lately I’ve been thinking about one thing I wish I had done differently in my life. I wish I had written a love letter every evening. It wouldn’t have been that hard. In fact, it would have been no sacrifice at all. I have to believe that one can reap enormous benefits by making love the focus of each evening’s meditation. If only, at the end of each day, I had stolen a few minutes to reflect on the love experienced that day, the joy of life itself; surely, that would have done at least two hearts good. To know that you must look…each and every day…for love’s quiet presence and tiniest blessings, would focus the mind on something quite beautiful and beneficial. It would not have been difficult to compose a letter each night, seal it in an envelope, place it on my partner’s night stand, and have it opened at the beginning of the new day. It would have inspired both partners…and a bit of inspiration can go an awfully long way…
* * *
I compose love letters in my mind every night. It’s different though. There is no addressee with eyes to read. I can dispense with the typing, the envelope on the nightstand. I compose love letters to the ones I love. I compose love letters in my head every night and entertain myself with the thought that, perhaps, there really is a great Cosmic Consciousness, and that loving thoughts will somehow find their way to loving hearts…places where my reveries, hopes and dreams can shimmer or soothe. It does me good.