Part of my morning ritual right now is chipping away at Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith, which is about the art and process of song writing. Webb is one of my favorites. In the chapter, “It’s Only Words,” he talks about the songwriter’s task, different than most any other written art form is “technological haiku,” being governed by forms and rhymes and music and time such that “Every word, every note must count”
What it means is that we have been challenged with accomplishing an almost impossible task exquisitely. We are the Swiss watchmakers of music and literature. (38)
A bit later in the chapter, as he cautions against easy rhymes and clichéd connections, he goes on to say,
By varying our word choices and being biased slightly in favor of the unusual, by giving our listener the benefit of the doubt in our assumptions of his or her intelligence we grant ourselves the potential to create original and significant works. (57)
That sentence written by a man who rhymed adios with morose in a song that will bring you to tears. He knows of what he speaks, and, I think, he speaks of more than songwriting.
One of the significant works, as far as movies go, for Ginger’s and me is Serendipity, the John Cusack-Kate Beckinsdale love story that came out seven or eight years ago and now shows up, it seems, at least once a week on a cable channel somewhere. And we watch at least for awhile most any time we come across it in our channel surfing. (The same goes for French Kiss.) Tonight I found it as I was looking for something to watch between innings of the Red Sox-Orioles game, and I came in just where Jeremy Pivens’ character, an obituary writer for the New York Times, is challenging Cusack to follow his heart, though the search for his soul mate feels futile, by quoting the Greek philosopher Epictetus:
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
Once the game and the movie ended, I came in to check my blog roll before writing and to see what poetry was posted by the folks from the Dodge Poetry Festival, which is one of my Friday traditions. Tonight, they introduced me to Simon Armitage, an accomplished poet who was new to me. As you can hear for yourself in the clip below, his first poem recalled a science experiment he did in middle school when challenged by his teacher to go out and measure the size of the human voice without instruments. He stood still in the school yard and had his friend start walking away, shouting, both of them having decided when he could no longer hear the shouts they would know the size of the human voice. They lived in a small village, Armitage notes, and they ran out of village before they ran out of voice. They never found its limits that day. Here is the poem, written in reflection:
We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face
I don’t remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth,
I had to raise an arm
from across the divide to signal back
that the sound had carried.
He called from over the park – I lifted an arm.
Out of bounds,
he yelled from the end of the road,
from the foot of the hill,
from beyond the look-out post of Fretwell’s Farm –
I lifted an arm.
He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth, in Western Australia.
Boy with the name and face I don’t remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.
Much of my life these days doesn’t feel much bigger geographically than the little village Armitage describes. I can walk to the Durham restaurant; I drive three miles to Duke. Our church is hardly a mile beyond that. I buy one tank of gas a month. My work schedule from Sunday to Thursday keeps me in the kitchen for so many hours that Ginger and I joke about it being as though I have an out of town job and I come home on Friday and Saturday. There is much about what I do for a living that I love and I’m aware how easy it is to fall into a routine that makes me sort of put my head down on Sunday afternoon to get through till Thursday so I can “come home” and have a couple of days off. It feels like the existential equivalent of settling for tired rhymes. I want to do more with my days than rhyme moon and June over and over again.
I realize my situation is neither unique nor overly difficult in comparison to most of the people on the planet. The majority of the guys I work with have second jobs that keep them in kitchens even on the days I get to come home to Ginger. Still, the voices I heard today challenged me to remember I am called to do more with my life than settle into a routine, and I am called to be more than someone who allowed himself to forget he is called to make a significant and exquisite offering of the days he has been given. The routine is, as it were, the song form – the melody that calls for my lyric, for my contribution, for my foolishness. I wonder if that isn’t what got lost in the life of the one in the poem who was once filled with enough wonder to wander out of town trying to see how big a voice was, only to end up in suicidal despair.
Webb says a good song is one that opens with an invitation and knows where it is going. He then quotes a Gibb brothers’ song to prove his point. It begins
There’s a light, a certain kind of light
That’s never shone on me . . .
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you
To know where a song is going means doing the work, the research to figure out what story you are trying to tell: listening, watching, taking notes till you have the raw materials to craft the song – and keeping a good rhyming dictionary close by.
If my life is a lyric, what then, can I learn by listening to what I feel inside and to what is going on around me even in the midst of the routine? As far as where my life is going, what comes to mind first is John’s description of Jesus as he prepared to wash the disciples’ feet (a verse I know I have mentioned before): “Knowing he had come from God and was going to God . . . .” Or, as Andrew Peterson sings so beautifully,
And in the end,
The end will be oceans and oceans of love
And love again
Each day, then, becomes a line in the lyric of my life, a chance to say something exquisitely about what it means to find that love in ordinary things; a chance to rhyme and resonate with my collaborators, if you will; achance to improve, to live full of joyful foolishness.
Now – what rhymes with colander?