Sunday, November 25, 2012

Waxing gibbous

An ocean of clouds
rolls in waves across the sky,
carrying the moon
like a boat that disappears 
into a thicket of stars.

from Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing

Young moon waxing gibbous: ninety-one percent illumination. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Set my pulse to the Midwest's pulse

One night a few years ago, I went downtown to The Entry to see Jason Molina, an Ohio singer/songwriter who was on one of his restless highway tours of middle America and Canada. The Entry is an intimate venue that adjoins the more famous Mainroom at First Avenue, holding maybe 200 people inside its black-painted walls. 

I went alone that night, because a. though I’d been a fan for a couple years, I didn't know anybody else who even knew who Jason Molina was, and b. so I could completely sink into the experience without having to pay the slightest attention to anything or anyone else. 

I got there early, staked out my place behind the rail, and when he and his band took the stage, I tried to drink in every note he sang. Feeling as if that music was feeding my heartlander's empty places: those wide, unpeopled plains unfolding beneath a bright moon. 

The prairie and empty highways throb like a pulse through this man's songs. He casts a spell woven of stripped-down sadness, minor chords and powerful, dreamlike images: wolf-headed conjurers, thunder and crows, ghosts and dust, bluest-blue and blood-so-red and a moon that swings like a blade over the Midwest's heart.

"I know serpents will cross universes to circle around our necks
I know hounds will cross the universe to circle around our feet
They're always close, always so close
Step by step
One's beside me
To kill me or to guide me
Why wouldn't I be trying 
To figure which one out?"

"Ring the Bell" - Songs: Ohia

His songs—the ones I love best—are stark, haunting, yearning, like a soundtrack to the rare dreams that inhabit you for hours after you awake, so vivid and strange are urgent voice in a strange language that nonetheless is clearly calling you to pay attention: a vital message is being sent from your deepest dreaming.

Exquisite songs, with an elemental power rooted in sadness, and in the beauty of vast, moonlit landscapes...

Two Blue Lights

...songs of unspoken farewells...

Nervous Bride

...passionate, eerie, skin-shivering songs.

Coxcomb Red

Now you know who Jason Molina is, too.

Speaking of a recent album, he said: "So in a way, these are meditations on depression, waiting, dislocation, separation, doubt, fear, loneliness...the usual from me...but here, if I did not see redemption or even a glimmer of hope, and thought I could put that into lyrics and a simple melody, I allowed that to be the driving force of the song.... All of this is an attempt to put a serious price on lyrics that are honest not witty, shy but not weak, weary if they are and sad without apology, depression without a fight and depression with a fight."

After the Entry show, I hung around to thank the man, in a sincere but inadequate effort to express what his songs mean to me. As I spoke, his kind face lit up, he took my hand, and he thanked me for coming to see the band.

Jason Molina has been on hiatus the last couple of years, as he battles some demons. I, and many others, are hoping hard that he finds the redemption he is looking for. 


Jason Molina died on March 16, 2013, from organ failure related to alcoholism. He was 39.

We will try and know whatever we try
We will be gone but not forever

The real truth about it is there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross
I've really known that all along.

—Farewell Transmission, 2003

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Even at noon, the shadows are long

Crisp, russet riches drift against every fence and burrow into the corners...the season of strolls winds down...

...soon the park stairways will be blocked off, so that the Park Board doesn't have to shovel them or keep them clear of ice. Or because of potential lawsuits. But these token barriers are easily got around (since I'm 5-foot-1, I usually crawl under). 

The eatery in the park building, where we, and the rest of Minneapolis, load up on clam fries, crab cakes and craft beer on smiling summer days, is closed...

...the benches are mostly empty...

...the sun is low in the sky...

...and the shadows stretch long.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

One day's walk

"In beauty may I walk
All day long may I walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk
With dew about my feet may I walk
With beauty may I walk
With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty."

--from the Beauty Way ceremony of the Navajo

Thursday, November 8, 2012

November music

November is all about mood: quiet, contemplative and melancholy, as the skies darken with clouds and the year folds inward to rest, then sleep. 

This track, "The Great Exhale" (an apt description of November) is from the just-released New Wild Everywhere album by Great Lake Swimmers, a band from Toronto. All things must pass, but a homecoming awaits us.

The title song is upbeat and hence a bit more "April" than November, but it's about the vitality of the burgeoning wild, even inside the most building-est city, so it must be included here....

I've been a fan of Midlake, a band from Denton, TX, for several years--another band who writes beautiful, sad songs rich with nature imagery and themes of loss. Here is "Rulers, Ruling All Things"....  

...and "Acts of Man," another gorgeous song about our connection (or lack of) with the natural world, performed live. I recommend sitting in a darkened room, closing your eyes, and letting the songs take you deeper into that sense of waiting that November is so good at evoking in us.  


Monday, November 5, 2012

Fairy gold

In the stories, a traveler returning to mortal earth with a pocketful of fairy gold stolen from the Otherworld is always dismayed to find that his treasure, in tricksterish fashion, has undergone a transformation into yellow gorse flowers, or golden leaves.

I wonder if this story-germ was born out of human encounters with the transient beauty of the natural world and its creatures? People must always have tried to steal away a bit of its beauty for themselves, secreting away some glowing wild-rose or bright pebble plucked from a stream—only to find next morning that the beauty they’d sought to possess and preserve had faded to dullness, its magic lost. Fairy gold.

Maybe humans yearned for beauty that would stay, so they began to create beauty of their own; fashioning ornaments of gold, weaving cloth rich with woad-blue and rose madder. Unchanging, relatively permanent objects that could perhaps echo nature’s glory yet maintain their shining life, even when locked away in a treasure house or buried in a tomb for long centuries.
Anyway. What I’m getting at is how intrinsic this shapeshifting impermanence is to beauty’s sheer poignance, the way it can seem to pierce the heart and crack it open. Is it because the flip-side of our yearning for beauty seems to be our grief for its inevitable loss? ”So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost (and as everyone who's ever read The Outsiders will remember). 

In another beautifully melancholy poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins calls loss "the blight man was born for," and tells a young child (and the rest of us) that our own mortality is reflected in the wild life of the leaves, and it is really for ourselves and our loved ones we mourn when we experience grief at the dying of a season. 

This idea isn't unique to the West, either...the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi finds true beauty in the impermanent and imperfect, which can fill us with spiritual longing or a sense of melancholy.  But it also may fill us with peace, because of its authenticity and essential truth about our mortal existence....

These are the thoughts I was thinking, as I saw that the rich, shining brown oak leaves I’d gathered from the ground one day had lost their luster the next; now bewilderingly flat and lifeless as grocery bags. Almost as if I’d caged a bird for its song, only to render it mute; a pale reflection of its wild and joyful self. Holding onto what cannot be captured, only felt. 
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