Recently, an old friend connected with me. This is the guy I made music with back when I first started to play guitar and tried to sing. He has recordings of it. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to discover these tunes. There I am, a teenager doing some of the things I do now but for the first times. There are no earlier recordings I know of.
For a long while, I’ve felt we are the things we do. This sensibility is a legacy of the time I slipped out of high school. I did that for a number of reasons, but one of them was to read without the distracting ache that school made. And read I did. A lot. And though all the pages of all the books from then flow together a bit somehow, there are things rooted in me. One of them is that notion that we define ourselves through our actions. I think it came from Sartre, but whether it did or didn’t, I still feel that way. Deep as bone. We are what we do. We become creatures of the contexts in which we place ourselves. No matter how hip we think we are, how resistant we believe ourselves to be, we are water taking the shape of the jar, tending toward ice until only a desperate shock of tragedy or the heart’s leap at beauty or love can shatter the shape we’re in.
Still, when I listen to the recordings and know myself in them, I wonder at the enthalpy. I don’t calculate it—how could I? But I do wonder. There’s this sense that I am there. I’m here, in the present, but I’m there, too. Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind. I don’t know. I only know how devotedly I loved to do those things I loved to do, and still do. The days between the child and the man are bound each to each by that peculiar piety.
This recording is “Everybody’s had the Blues,” by Merle Haggard. The sweetly quivering lead vocal belongs to Phil Sivilli. I’m the other guy. Phil tells me the recording is labeled “Langtree and T.C.” Neither of us remembers that. Plainly, it’s what we called ourselves for a moment. You know? Teens. I suspect he’s Langtree, but he’s pretty sure that was me. Leaves us both to wonder what T. C. stood for.
This one is a song originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, but Phil and I were entranced by The Band’s version of it. I believe the “delay” effect was an accident. Funny. And there I am trying to squeak along on a harmonica, too. I’m surprised at how tentative my vocal is. I understand why I’m tentative, but I’m surprised that I am. I don’t remember that.. Still and all, the harmonies on the chorus are just, really and truly, awesome.
The whole real/unreal thing always throws me for a loop. I don’t really get it. For something to be real, does it have to be permanent? If that’s the case, then nothing is real. Love can’t last longer than a heart, and hearts give out. Unless, of course, you believe in the long embrace of the afterlife. I mean, according to some folks, we’d be too busy to hold hands anyway, hot dogging it over brimstone or singing praises in, I don’t know, 36-part harmony? Cool idea, the singing. Walking fearless through the shadowed valley into the glorious light of the Lord, eating a trail mix of joy and bliss and berries on our way. This all feels like crap.
The answer isn’t in a classroom either. Science and philosophy regularly fumble some of the big stuff, because they are too often based on a narrowing of vision at the expense of the periphery. And not just that. Take evolution. Plenty of facts in the ground for that one. Though some of the dots may be missing, there are more than enough on the page to connect and get the picture. But to suggest evolution supports a hierarchical understanding of life, or that it justifies the endless assault of social Darwinism on our better instincts, is just mind-numbing. That isn’t extrapolation; it’s imposition. Blinkered eye out, dead eye in. But you know what they say about the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, so crap is king.
You have to see in and out at the same time. You have to look. The yearning to understand has to be stronger than the yearning to prove. And so much of understanding is in our skin.
Consider the practice of philosophy. Reading is a significant part of it. So is rumination to build synaptic “muscle.” But if you want to have something to say about the world, you have to be in it, absorb it, and be wholly absorbed by it. Not through conferences or speaking invitations or a neatly fenced program of “study abroad.” These things are fine, but limited, controlled, protected. You need to be alone and loose on the streets, in villages and jungles and deserts and cities. Starting with no direction, so you discover who you are in that place as you build the story of it with every step you take. You have to go where you’re afraid to go. That’s part of how you know you have to go there. And is it corny to say you have to be in the moment? You do. You can’t take yourself out of the equation. You can’t understand a thing without you.
Of course, not every journey is geographic. Anais Nin wrote about cities of the interior. There are worlds on both sides of our skin. Some of the best trips go both ways. Maybe love happens when we yearn for those worlds and they yearn for us and one another all at once. What trembly bliss might then ripple on the surface of our skin and under it?
But I don’t know. All that yap about dream and reality eludes me. I generally can’t tell the difference between the two. If you think you’re in love, you’re in love. The rest is just finding out what that means. You have to go there. If you’ve got a one-way ticket in your hand, it’s because that’s the only way. All that “planning” for a future you won’t get hurt in is just what you tell yourself to convince yourself it’s a good idea to get on the bus. Just get on while the door’s open.
Look, you can only get hurt to the extent it matters. And if it matters that much, what are you going to do? Sit around and think about it? Maybe pack the trail mix. I don’t know what kind.
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