Radio Meditation: Music Lessons in Impermanence

So here in the Twin Cities we have this brilliant radio station, 89.3 The Current. (You can stream it here if you’re not a local.) It’s a Minnesota Public Radio station, which means yes, pledge drives every once in a while, but all the hosts/DJs are great, and consequently there’s loads less advertising than other stations. But the best thing about it is (as it should be) the music. And the best thing about the music (for me) is that it’s unpredictable.

Because what’s great is that I don’t even like all of the music, which you’d think would be completely counterintuitive, but this is what makes it so fantastic—the element of surprise. Most of the time, if we’re choosing to do anything, our first preference is to pick something we expect to like so that we won’t get surprises, won’t get stuff we might not like. Love Oldies stuff? Find an Oldies station and settle in. Like Country? Just scan the dial. With most stations, you pretty much know what to expect. We tend to pick based on familiarity. It’s comfortable.

But the only thing I’ve learned to expect from The Current is the surprise—and they pride themselves on it. In addition to some of the more “normal” fare you’d expect from a pretty much all-ages-friendly station, the hosts have this deep and diabolical love of throwing new/random/weird stuff your way from pretty much every genre imaginable, though they do tend to skip the realms of Classical (there’s another MPR station for that) and stuff like German death metal (which is admittedly fantastic, but not really a public radio sort of thing). But they will often say, “If you don’t like the song that’s on right now, wait five minutes.” And they’re right. It’ll be something completely different. Don’t like Johnny Cash? The next track might be Johnny Rotten. Still not your favorite? Wait five minutes.

This is just the radio, sure. But this is also life. Constant change. Every moment is new. If I don’t like this particular part of my life right now? Wait a bit, play my part while whatever it is plays through—it will change. And if I like what’s playing right now? Yes, in a while, that will change, too. We’re more than seven billion people here trying to make music out of our lives, and the harmony and dissonance of that changes every single moment. And when it comes down to it, I know I’m not completely in control of my playlist anyway—only how I respond to the songs I’m hearing. The practice of being really alive is just to pay attention to each song as it plays, engage with it, see what it’s about, what it contains, what you can learn. And then decide what to do with it.

In another setting, this sort of observation could actually be called Zen Buddhist meditation practice, noticing the impermanence, the constant change, of life, the universe, and everything. That would be done in silence, and you would be sitting and noticing the thoughts showing up in your mind—what you like, what you don’t like, where you get stuck. Your job there is just to notice your response to life.

But the practice of noticing life doesn’t have to look exactly like that. So sometimes I use The Current for a somewhat unorthodox meditation practice. What’s this song? Do I like it? Am I itching to change the station? Why? Why does Justin Vernon’s voice bug me so much? And why does my whole body relax when my ears hear even just the very first notes of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand?” And when are they going to play that Courtney Barnett song again? (The one I really like, not that other one…) And I get it, I get it, he was magnificently talented, but really… 24 hours of Prince?

And so I listen to the radio sometimes to find out what I’m like. I notice feeling like I really hate a song, but then I realize the guitarist has really great technique, and also notice someone made that guitar with great care, and those strings, and the piano, and somebody really loves that lead singer who’s really just trying to put his soul out into the world through his music. By the time I’ve considered all of that, I realize I hate that song a lot less than I did five minutes ago. There are people in there now. And it’s really unpredictable, because one day, after hearing a song I didn’t like from someone I consider more celebrity than musician, I read that she’s locked inside this soulless performance contract, and I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. So now every time I hear that song, I just feel sad.

This is a weird practice.

But my most favorite things are the songs I never saw coming, that I never knew existed, that come on the air and I realize halfway through the track that I’m grinning madly (Ursula 1000’s “Mambo”) or notice that my jaw is dropped open because wow, who even thought this could be a thing? (Like seriously: Sturgill Simpson covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom?”) Or the slow recognition of the sideways genius in Father John Misty’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the War.” If I actually controlled my own playlist, I would never have chosen these songs, and my life would be massively less fun than it is now. There’s just so much great music out there I don’t even know about, and I can’t wait to hear more of it. (Of note: listen for the “No Apologies” track around 4pm every day and wait for the crazy to roll in.) I still smile remembering one dreary afternoon when I was driving home and they played Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” I was laughing so hard by the time the song ended. There were no words for this—well, okay, there were words: “All I wanted was a Pepsi… ”

This is life for real, the big picture: it’s a surprise, and it can be way more fun than what you had planned. You’re not in control anyway. So enjoy yourself, make good music, notice the people making all the music around you. Welcome the surprises. And practice paying attention—even if it’s just listening to the radio.

Categories: From the Imagination, In the Ears, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Are Who You Meet

I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.

With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.

I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.

if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)

Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?

Categories: On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dare: I Gave, I Give, I Keep Giving

[Note: today’s post is in support of Blog Action Day’s “The Power of We,” which you can find out more about here]

Give: [with two objects] to freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone)

I was going to try to be clever and translate this post’s title into Latin—and when Google informed me that “to give” in Latin is “dare,”  it just put a new spin on everything I had been planning to say.

I talked awhile ago about the word “mine,” and all the grasping and clutching and nasty ownership byproducts it can produce. But if “mine” is protective and clutching something toward yourself, “to give” is daring, to make yourself open and vulnerable, to unclench your hands and release what’s in them, not only to give up possession of a thing, but if you’re really fully giving, to also give up your expectation of what will happen to that thing as well. (This last insight, on expectation, was given to me by a very wise friend, and it has permanently affected my perspective on giving.)

To give is to make an offering, to dare to say, even on the smallest level, “I would like to honor you by presenting this thing which I hope will please you.” You are humbling yourself, opening your heart to that other person, who you care enough about to offer this expression of care or admiration. Even if it’s just a $20 gift card, it means something.

Stores have had fake Christmas trees under their rafters for more than a month now, and every year the impending pressures of the holiday season can knock a little wind out of my sails. Of all times of the year, this is where the word “giving” usually has the emotional baggage of “mandatory” attached to it, which can often suck all the spontaneity and life out of giving anything. You make a list, you imagine what you’d like to do, you calculate how much you can actually afford, you guess at how much each person will spend on you, and, at the base of it, you try to make it heartfelt while trying to make everyone happy. It’s enough to want to make a person hibernate, no matter how good their intentions.

Many moons ago, I fell in love with an organization called Heifer International which partners with communities in poverty all over the world. Heifer’s “gift catalog” is filled with animals you buy for communities involved in Heifer projects. These communities, who want to provide a more self-sustaining life for themselves, have contacted Heifer to develop a plan for their area (for example, a local milk cooperative) and then, if the project goes forward, the participants not only receive training and education in agriculture but then livestock suited for their geographical area (cows, goats, camels, etc.) as well. It’s not a food drop in an emergency situation—though those are also valuable and necessary things—this is building a sustainable livelihood. And you get to help by purchasing cows. Or water buffaloes. Or pigs. Or sheep. Whatever is best for their project. And so you get to send a card (or anything you care to do) to your friend saying, “somebody now has a water buffalo thanks to you!” or something to that extent. Heifer makes cards available. I liked making my own. (They call it “fun fur” because it’s a lot of fun. Though do be careful with the glue.)

You’d think that whole process in and of itself would be a laudable thing, but the extra beauty embedded in Heifer’s model is something called “passing on the gift.” For every animal received, it is part of the Heifer contract that the first offspring of an animal be given to someone else as a gift, and that person’s animal’s first offspring after that, and so on. Heifer partners with a community project officially for several years, helping and monitoring to make sure everything is going smoothly, and during that time they track the gifts that are passed during the course of the project, which are numerous. There are even official “Passing on the Gift” ceremonies that communities hold. But if a community stays true to the spirit of the gift over time, the initial project can birth generations of gifts—gifts that simply can’t be tracked forever on hard copy spreadsheets. If that spirit is passed on, the gifts just keep giving.

For me, this embodies the spirit and process of giving—the act of caring for a person, understanding what they desire and/or need, giving what you hope will bring them true joy—and then letting go of your own expectations of thanks or results. Who knows what the ripples will be?

These kinds of gifts—not just Heifer gifts, but any gifts given in this spirit—well, those are worth staying awake for through the holidays.

Categories: In the Lexicon, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

It’s Labor Day… So I Made Something

It’s been a good long weekend, but sometimes going back to your regularly-scheduled-life after a three-day weekend can be a little overwhelming. So, in support of something very important, I made a little reminder for myself, knowing that every day it’s always up to me whether or not to put a check mark in that box.

I do believe I will paste this up on the bathroom mirror, right next to my toothbrush.

yes thanks I like fun

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Hiatus (Or, No Thanks, I Don’t Like Fun)

I got an Evite invitation a couple of months ago for a friend’s party. The creative hosts had made up their own reply headings, and the section for informing them that you were unfortunately going to have to decline their lovely soiree was titled, “No Thanks, I Don’t Like Fun.”

This made me feel both delighted and deflated–the former, because I loved their ingenuity, and the latter, because I actually couldn’t go. Thankfully, it was because I had equally fun plans, but still, there’s something about checking a box that says, “No Thanks, I Don’t Like Fun” that just isn’t, well, fun. I have been thinking about this ever since.

I grew up on a farm. Farm kids are born busy, and develop impressive work ethics, if they don’t choke and run away to join the circus (where they will find they were deluded, for circus life also requires an impressive work ethic). But there is always something to be done. And something after that. And something after that. And you learn not to sit down much. And if you sit down, chances are you may very well be told to stand up again and go do something else. Farm life has many pleasures, to be sure, but there is always lots to do.

Don’t get me wrong. An impressive work ethic is a wonderful thing. But if you internalize it too much, you find yourself trained to always look for that something “more” to do and conditioned to feel guilty every time you sit down to do something unquantifiably productive. This is sad, and probably also a little unhealthy. There will always be more to do. Something more to organize. Something else to clean. It will never end. And that’s not bad–taking care of life and helping the people who count on you is important. But all work and no play, as they say… and isn’t there some expert somewhere who says that dirt is healthy and builds character?

And so. Here I go, picking up from almost four months ago, an unintended hiatus. Four months of unintentionally checking the, “No Thanks, I Don’t Like Fun” button when it comes to writing and imagining and pondering books and words and shoes and ships and sealing wax, etc. And there are books to talk about—the last four months have not been without books. (We are discussing a hiatus after all, not a death sentence.)

I think I will make myself a sign to hang somewhere that I will see every day that says, “Yes, Thanks, I Like Fun.”

You can make one too. Take a picture of it. Post it up for everyone to see.

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

This Just In: World Won’t End in 2012 (Probably)

And so another year is wrapping itself up. According to some, we’ve only got one more left. But instead of finding some fog-doused, dark, maudlin cliff to epizeux from (see The Anthill for reference), we suggest grabbing your holiday decorations by the bells and coming with us.

Welcome to The Aardvark’s Bizarre, conjured up by the curious in search of great words and the stories they come in. We finagle them from everywhere, and we’ll share what we find. Expect reviews of books, screenplays, and song lyrics. Expect reports of words you never before suspected to exist. (Did you know there’s a word for the smell of rain? More on that later.) Expect shiny little quotes from witty people about why misery is for the weak. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to play with your food, but playing with words has always been fair game. So we’re just going to keep having fun noodling with them and sharing their stories with anyone who jumps on for the ride.

So come on. Join us in sucking the marrow out of life (or even just some chocolate pudding from a tube). Even if we only have one year left, no amount of pushing or pulling on our part is going to change that, so there’s no point in getting all weltschmertz about it (more on that one later, too).

Once more into the fray!

– The Aardvark-in-Chief

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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