Somehow, it’s again that time of year up here – Thanksgiving’s nearly within arm’s reach, we’re careening towards final exams at the university, and, in Alaska, the sun’s rising later and setting (for my East coast sensibilities) entirely too early. The darker hours arrive packed with a little bit of extra weight, so that I catch myself humming or murmuring Take a load off, Fanny with added oomph. I hunker down, turn on the low lights, spin the Nina Simone and Bach and John Prine records – those are my vitamins – and dig into one of the long novels comprising my never-ending list.
This then also means it’s the time of year that I pitch a curve ball to my students, pull out Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” and propose we engage in some variation of, initiate a rigorous spin on the questions she asks herself. (“The Summer Day?’ Really? Professor Bower, I coasted on black ice the whole way to class tonight. The sun went down at 4pm. I have frost inside my Subaru.”)
Please come along with me a moment. Trust me. I promise. No, I insist:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean…
And then of course there’s the wonderful query that concludes the poem. I’m tempted to include it above, but something begs me to hold off. Only in the hopes that if you’ve never read the poem, you’ll go find it and do the work of reading it all the way through – top to bottom, beginning to end – and experience the satisfaction of earning that last line. Her last question.
The point of the exercise is pretty straightforward – hardly complicated:
I wonder what questions draw you back to life again and then again through the days? Do you utter them aloud to no one in private? Does your dog cock its head, wag its tail when you do? Do you bashfully whisper them to someone in the dark, maybe slightly embarrassed, even though you know he or she will respond with an affectionate smile? Do they nearly hum, do they practically glow inside you?
Here are a few of my questions. Some days, they seem like hulking ravens I carry around in me, and during these mornings that I manage to rise early, I set them free, cast them towards the visible stars, those flecks of undying light glittering across the ink-black dark of 6am:
Who made the song?
Who crafted the impulse to sing?
Where did (the) music come from? What causes a song to evoke tears, goose bumps, and shivers? What song has my six-year-old been singing all year long – besides that annoying one from Frozen? The other one, the unceasing song he sings that changes melody throughout the day, that never repeats the same words twice; the one that if he catches you listening he’ll stop singing until he’s alone again?
Any day now, or one evening soon – in a Walgreen’s, a low-lit church, or in my living room – I’m going to hear the grave, opening bars of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and I’ll be seven-years-old again.
Second grade. Candlelight everywhere I turn my gaze within the cavernous church. Christmas Eve. The overflow of guests spill into the Narthex, pack the balcony, and even flood into the choir’s designated pews at the sides of the church. (The choir remained in their loft at the front of the sanctuary those holiday evenings.)
This must be where my affection for minor keys and shadowy, tear-stained tunings and chords came to life in me. I still recall the way the low end of the church organ seemed to dig deeper that evening, to plow under something rooted even below the bottom of me, and unearthed maybe a light, or at least a source that seemed to then spring and rapidly wend through and ripple along the entire length of me. Unremarkable, on one hand – easy for others to ignore, maybe like a homeless, unwed teenager giving birth in a stable – but also unlike anything I’d ever experienced or witnessed. Let’s hazard a guess that on that night, a music lover was born. In one organ’s lingering, unfathomable vibration…
Whatever it was – whether the dirge-like melancholy of the music set to this Whoever-Isaiah guy’s mysterious, mournful words, or the sensual and terrifying soup of sounds and reverberations issuing from the fierce cage of that instrument, and/or the collective croons and groans of a church in overflow that single night of the year: I shook. For a moment, True North quivered and pulsed. Felt it first under and then on, all over my skin. I certainly found it hard to remain still, and I fought to contain myself. I may have looked like I needed to pee.
Did they feel it, too? Looking up and around at the congregation, I studied faces for signs. (In my memory – and so I’ll allow that I could be wrong, but – this space forever remains a rigidly somber, deadly serious room. A place where a Holy Spirit could’ve done cartwheels, a son of God could have performed miracles in a clown suit and not roused an emotion or evoked a single fevered passion from the gathered crowd.)
Say what you will any old way about church, religion, and what all, but you gotta admit, “who mourns in lowly exile” is a pretty badass, enviable line…
How do you, following a song like that, manage to stagger to the podium to read from the text? And in a tone that imitates reverence no less? How are you not wracked with sobs, or babbling incoherently, or stupid giddy in the bewildering comedy? Never mind finding any nerve to confidently or blithely or humbly offer a homily after an organ shook the earth off its axis? Why didn’t they hand out glasses of water? Call the Red Cross? A boy was on fire. Call Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson – someone notify Levon Helm…He’d know what to do.
Not too long following that Christmas Eve, I woke late in an evening. Or maybe I never fell asleep. I was a terribly anxious child, and never more so than at nighttime. I left my bed, and proceeded to the living room, walked into the light and sound of the television. There I found my mom watching Simon & Garfunkel’s Central Park reunion concert on PBS. I think it was “The Boxer” – maybe “The Sounds of Silence” – but perhaps the specifics don’t matter now. Except that while I didn’t know who these men were, I wanted to – I wanted nothing else – and that night I had no idea if I would ever see or hear them again. I was a boy. The world blew away each night and miraculously began all over again every new morning. These two might have only proven briskly passing characters in the running dream that was waking life. So, I only recall that, seated there beside my mom on the couch, True North quivered again. (Once more, with feeling…)
I wanted that. But what specifically? A record? To sing? A guitar? All of it? The compelling glow, the vibration again rippling across the skin?
I guess I’ve never stopped asking those questions. Never stopped being wracked with wonder, going to a kind-of school boy crush inside, becoming slack-jawed, jumbled, terror-stricken towards that one marvelous, mysterious object of affection that my life, with knees knocking, has shyly never stopped courting:
And why is that light inside – the one brought to life by music, the arts – the only thing I’ve ever truly trusted? How, why has nothing else ever aroused so much of my affection or wonder as the perilous, redemptive journey you can undertake in a single song? (Granted, this love affair has come with costs, debts that I hope my kids never incur…)
I hear there’s now a science to this; that the scientists can capably, rationally explain what I’m describing. But I’m not ready to abandon the mystery. Not yet. The mystery – the longing, the affection, the universe within the reverberations of a single, melancholy minor chord – draws me again and again to court something I’m tempted to call Love, but that might rather prove Tomfoolery, Naïve, Impractical, Self-Destructive, Temporarily Insane. A Fool’s Errand…or, All the Above & Then Some.
Note: Twice during the recording of Hope, Alaska someone approached me – on two separate occasions – and asked me if I had embarked on a new relationship, assumed there was a new woman in my life. Something about the way I carried myself. Something in my face suggested new love. I smiled – did I blush, too? “It’s the songs,” I told one friend. I laughed. And I couldn’t say more than that. “Just” the songs.
Thank you for your kind assistance during my journey this year.
And apologies on the delayed arrival of these rewards. Numerous times throughout the Kickstarter campaign, I heard people inform me that the learning curve is substantial, and that once you embark on your first Kickstarter, you’ll know how to run one better the next time around. (You mean to tell me people launch multiple Kickstarter campaigns? And live to tell the tale?) People also informed me that the people backing your campaign really want to see you succeed in your effort, and so they will understand when, say, you return to work after a month of album-promotion to hundreds of neglected emails, they’ll empathize when you return to the classroom and your students ask if you’re really a professor of this discipline or a poorly trained actor, and they’ll remain patient if you fall a little behind in getting things out as quickly after the campaign as you imagined you would.
Continued, large-hearted thanks (without end) for your support. I still can’t wrap my head around the way it’s all played. All you folks were/are/remain incredible. It’s as much your album as mine in many ways.
There’s a Thanksgiving holiday around the corner from this letter, and it perhaps goes without saying (but shouldn’t) that I’ll lift a glass to all of you that evening, and likely during the rest of the celebrating and many toasts that follow throughout this holiday season and into the New Year.
Happy Holidays, all of you, without whom…
Nothing left to want or be,
Jonathan J. Bower