Monday, April 11, 2011

lenten journal: lyrics and layers

One of the signatures of my life are pockets of unfinished things.

I have shelves of unfinished books, stacks of papers to be gone through, any number of unfinished household projects, and – thanks to an attempt, at least, to finish unpacking one corner of the guest room in our house – a folder of unfinished songs. At the end of the last century, I was a songwriter, collaborating with a good friend. I wrote lyrics and contributed on the harmonies. When that chapter of my life came to a close, I came away with the idea that I was not a melody maker, so the not-yet-songs found their way into folders and unfinished stacks and have stayed hidden for so long that I find it hard remembering them. Some in the stack have stayed with me in one form or another, but others were a complete surprise. This is one that caught my attention:

a world away
on a road outside nairobi
someone’s walking home
someone’s burning dinner
someone’s about to go
half a world away from me
I don’t know any names
on a road outside nairobi
it happens just the same
on a subway in st. petersburg
someone has to stand
a woman’s having trouble
another lends a hand
as the five o’clock train fills up
like a mobile sardine can
on a subway in st. petersburg
they’re heading home again
name a town pick a place
take a lap in the human race
find yourself a world away
in the people you won’t see today
in a house in yokahama
the little one’s asleep
while parents balance bank accounts
and say the rent’s too steep
grandma’s on the telephone
asking how’s my little girl
in a house in yokahama
it’s not such a different world
name a town pick a place
take a lap in the human race
find yourself a world away
in the people you won’t see today
Part of the reason this particular text struck me is the theme, which is one I’ve carried with me for many years. I can remember saying to friends in college, “Sometimes it bothers me that there are places I’ve never been – whole cities, countries – where no one has ever waked up and said, ‘I wonder what Milton is doing.’ They have never missed me and they’re doing just fine.” As long as I’m printing older works, I even wrote this poem a few years back:
a family is gathering for a meal
outside Spokane
the daughter is still
wearing her soccer uniform
the mother is chatting
as she passes the potatoes
the father is nonverbal, tired
trying to engage the dog is
waiting for someone to share
they will finish their dinners
their conversations
their homework
they will turn on the television
the phone will ring several times
It will not be me
no one in that house knows
I live across the continent or
I have tales to tell of my youth
of my life, of what I did yesterday
they don’t know I can cook or play
guitar, or that I’m writing a poem
they don’t know I’ve never
been to Spokane and
they’re not concerned
they are finding their dreams
building their lives
breaking their hearts
living out their days
without knowing me
and they are not the only ones
in all my years
the phone has never rung
and a voice declared
“come quickly to spokane
we just realized we can’t
go on without you”
the same could be said
for the table across the room
from me here in the coffee shop
the gossamer tether of humanity
doesn’t appear to reach as far
as the next booth unless the light
is just right and I can see the lines
I’m not sure which view
is easier to live with
The other reason I was caught by the folder I found was there were several poems/lyrics that were fairly complete and yet had sat in the blue cardboard folder with the picture of Pooh reading to Piglet while each one of them sits on a stack of books and the inscription, “Words and Such.” On the bookshelf next to the desk where I’m writing tonight are three more binders of unborn and unfinished songs, a whole stack of journals with snippets of insight, a couple of folders with articles and quotes, five icons that need to be completed, and a draft of a novel that I finished, but never could figure out what to do next. Within arm’s reach is an archaeological exhibition of the layers of my writing life with almost as much left undone as done, I suppose.

The last phrase takes me once more to the prayer that has traveled with me through much of this Lenten season: “forgive us for the things we have done and the things we’ve left undone.” I’m not sure I need to ask forgiveness in this case – except for a couple of the lyrics – as much as I need to attend to my past, to regard it. Some things pass by for reasons we understand and others for reasons we cannot explain. Sometimes we walk away on purpose and other times we just let things fall away. I look over at the bookshelf and I think of Ezekiel standing over the valley of dry bones and watching God reanimate those who had been lost and left for dead. What he thought was over wasn’t over.

Though much of what I found in my excavation might be considered, in the parlance of The Princess Bride, to be “mostly dead,” I’m doing good work to go back through the layers of my life and remember, as best I can, not only what and why I wrote, but for whom and with whom. Whether any of the songs are ever finished, or any other of them are seen by anyone else but me, living in the layers, as Stanley Kunitz pointed out, is how I continue to move towards wholeness. Here are the closing lines to his poem:
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
In this trinity of existence – archaeologist, settler, explorer – I re-member my life in what has been, what is, and what is to come. I cannot see beyond the borders of my limitations and can reach farther than I can imagine.

Thanks be to God.



Anonymous said...

Milton -

You just get better and better. I may just have to call you now and tell you to "just get up here, we need to talk.


Kelly B said...

Thanks be to God, indeed. Wonderful reflection Milton!