Dearest Rachel –
I wonder if you ever bother to look down on the earth from wherever you may be. How fast is it moving, from your perspective? They say that the spin is a thousand miles an hour at the equator, but what is that on a sphere of 24,000 miles in circumference? Can that actually be observed, except through time lapse photography? Can you see the movement of the clouds, as they glide from west to east, outpacing the spin of the earth, as they swirl around like cream in a coffee cup?
Or is that all too slow and boring to watch?
In the silence that envelops this house in the mornings, I find myself listening to the wind as it whips around outside our bedroom. It always sounds like it’s threatening to knock something down, or tear something loose, like it just did the other day a few hundred miles south of here to devastating effect. And even up here, you don’t have to drive far to see lawns with bundles of sticks, pulled from long-standing trees by the forces of nature, sitting by the curb like so much garbage.
It’s mornings like these that plant a certain song in my head; just as you tend to be subject to weird dreams, I would often fall victim to earworms. I’m sure you could guess as to what song comes to mind as I listen to the gusts just outside these walls.
Now you know well that I have nothing against Robert Zimmerman and his oeuvre of work. Believe me, I wouldn’t comment on a song i didn’t listen to and enjoy myself; there’s so much music out there that I’ve never listened to – and never will – that simply isn’t worthy to be addressed. Indeed, I don’t begrudge him his Nobel prize, as odd as it might seem to present to a singer/songwriter. His lyricism, his musicianship… he puts his heart and soul into much of what he writes and sings. He asks pointed questions through some of his songs (“With God On Our Side,” in particular, comes to mind), and makes the banality of life interesting – in a way that I can only aspire to – in others.
But some of his greatest works (insofar as they are the most famous) sound so profound the first time you hear them, and even the hundredth time. But somewhere along the way, you listen to it, and find yourself asking “what’s that supposed to mean?” So it is with this song.
Maybe it’s because I’m taking it the words too literally. Listening to the wind provides absolutely no answers to anything. In fact, for the folks down south, it raises a whole lot more questions than answers: Where do we go from here? How are we going to rebuild? Should we even bother to do so here?
But even the questions themselves are so nebulous that, while they seem so profound, they’re really only pretending to be.
Take the bit about the cannonballs flying, for example. Now, maybe this comes from my having played too many games of Civilization, but be honest: cannonballs haven’t flown in ages. They don’t have to be banned, they just get made obsolete. As Will Rogers put it (long before Dylan, I might point out), “You can’t say civilization don’t advance… in every war they kill you in a new way.” Now, if the fuss is about war in general (which would make sense, especially given when this was written), then the logical answer would be when it stops being profitable, or at least, when other means of making profit become easier and more efficient. The only question there is, will the desire for profit simply lead to economic warfare going forward? Maybe, but at least the bloodshed would be taken out of the equation; wouldn’t that be good enough?
Or maybe it’s just too late for that. I know I’m bouncing around in the lyrics, but it’s just that certain lines bother me more than others. I agree that we are plagued with folks who pretend they just don’t see, who hear no cry, whose minds are so set that not even facts can persuade them from their lofty, self-righteous perch. But the question of ‘how many deaths must there be…?’ completely baffles me. Stalin is attributed with asserting that any one death being a tragedy, while millions taken as a single whole is but a statistic. One might be sufficient to answer Bob’s question – especially for those of us who have felt the sting of Stalin’s ‘tragedy’ – but what response should there be, then? If ‘too many people have died,’ how does one go about reversing that trend? Life is a terminal disease, Bob, and nobody gets out alive. Barring necromancy, I think we’re kind of out of luck here. The question being posed here is so inane, and there’s literally nothing to be done about it; why bother posing it in the first place, Bob? What do you expect from the listener, anyway?
For my part, I’ve come to terms with the fact that where you are is better than anywhere I might go; to call you back, even if I could, would be ridiculously selfish. It hurts to be without you, and the task of finding another to fill your place sometimes leaves me questioning whether it’s worthwhile.
Maybe I should ask the wind?
As for Bob’s first question, I wonder if it wouldn’t best be answered by a fellow Nobel laureate. His own body of work may have fallen out of favor, being somewhat nationalistic and decidedly Anglocentric (and we all know what that means in this day and age, don’t we), but this particular poem seems a little more along the lines of personal advice from one generation to another. It reads a little strange to the modern tongue, but I think it’s worth considering:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,Rudyard Kipling, “If,” 1895/1910
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Might that answer your question, Bob?