Monday, November 27, 2006

Blogging the Blues

The rains came yesterday, threatening to overwhelm the windshield washers of my truck, turning Highway One into a river, knocking the leaves off my roof, shutting thoughts of sunshine out, turning the heart inward. In the evening I snuggled in my comfortable chair by the electric radiator while the rain poured down, listening to tunes on the iPod, and brooded. All around me the blues danced their seductive dance. What's the use, they said. It's all over in a moment.

When I was younger I wanted to play in a jazz band. I listened to the great saxophonists -- Bird, Getz, Prez, Bud Shank -- and I learned to hear the structure of chord changes in a song, within which the jazz soloist improvises. Without the structure, it's all noise (although Ornette Coleman taught the generation after me that noise can be jazz, too). I lean toward melody, away from the chaos of atonality. I cling to structure. Of course it's a cliche that you can't break the rules until you know them, and rules, in poetry as well as music, provide the structure, the womb, for creativity. So much for theory.

I find the structures around me, the familiar habit patterns that hedge in my life, crumbling. It's all improvisation now, sounds of silence signifying nothing.

One explanation is my upcoming safari, to Europe and Asia, in less than a month's time. On the road I live out of a small suitcase and backpack, the journey providing structure, the rules improvised as I go along. Habits die easily on the road.

But in anticipation I have begun to clean house, throwing away less important files and papers, books and tools, including an old rice maker and a turntable for vinyl I rarely used. Hardly worn clothes go off to Goodwill, old magazines to the (recycled) trash heap. I also erase future entries in my calendar, skip meetings, antiwar vigils and Sunday mass, dodge old friends for an afternoon at the movies by myself. I ponder the virtues of brushing teeth, doubt the efficacy of prayer, pretend that health doesn't matter, and take naps.

Structure for most people is imposed by responsibility, a job, family obligations. In a relationship, everything -- proximity, intimacy -- is determined by the Other. But I retired from work to enjoy the benefits of Social Security, money deposited in the bank every month, and my wife is gone and the children on their own. Even the wild cats in my neighborhood do not need me since I stopped feeding them at my landlady's request (too much cat shit in the garden). I am alone. I can do anything (within the bounds of my income and savings).

Such freedom is scary, and to avoid its radical call I draw on a variety of distractions, most prominent the internet and the movies, not to mention ice cream and popcorn. When my life is structured by meaningful social activities, I can justify these indulgences as harmless diversions. But when the structures break down, as they have now, then the modes of escapism are unveiled as addictions.

Writing eases the pain, soothes the unruly beast within. Like the blues singers of old, I ruminate on the joys and wrongs of life, and I mythologize the world around me.

Thanksgiving was a time of good food, music, games and videos with my extended family in Sonoma. I collect gigabytes of new digital music to audition: Joanna Newsom, Regina Spektor, Robbie Williams, Dianne Reeves, the Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, along with new work by the Who, Willie Nelson and Tom Waits. Just being together again, for one more year, is an act of gratitude. The next day the roads are crowded with shoppers oblivious that the Friday after Thanksgiving has been declared Buy Nothing Day by Adbusters Magazine. The incessant consumerism in the stores crushes my spirit and encourages a bah humbug attitude toward the holidays. And while it's good that the blue wave of the Democrats swept the nation, in Iraq, where the "war" has lasted longer than World War Two, people slaughter each other while the pundits continue to debate whether or not it is yet a civil war.

I learn about the horror of genetically modified food (even bagels are unsafe) from an excellent documentary, "The Future of Food," directed by Jerry Garcia's widow, and about Beethoven's passion from the fictional "Copying Beethoven" with its moving musical scene of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony which brought tears to my eyes. Beethoven, I discover, read the Bhagavad Gita, the spiritual text we've been studying in our sangha. Did he renounce the fruits of his work by being unable to hear it? The eyes of Nicole Kidder and Robert Downey Jr. have it in "Fur," a surreal film about photographer Diane Arbus and her symbolic breakthrough from housewife to creative artist. Both actors deserve an Oscar for the emotions that they can express only with their eyes. Did you know that Arbus's husband Allen became an actor and played the psychiatrist on the "Mash" TV series? He was a friend of Downey's father and acted in his cult film "Greaser's Palace." And while we're at the movies, I found Daniel Craig to be a pale imitation of Sean Connery as the new James Bond in "Casino Royale."

As I struggle with words to define whom I am and what I am to do during my brief span of years, the words of poet Mary Oliver come to me. While this may be late fall in California, and her poem marks the summer, I am still struck, again and again, by her focus on this "one wild and precious life." It's all blues to me (imagine it sung by Billie Holiday).

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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