On how life is wonderful and overwhelming. How every moment is a gift and should be filled with gratitude. How every work of art is a miracle and how we will never run out of art, vinyl records, films, books, or Sufjan music to partake of.
This is both a joy and a tremendous burden.
Let us rejoice with trembling
Coming Late to the Party: Part of a regular series here at PostConsumer Reports wherein I reflect on something that I either totally missed or completely disliked the first time I heard, watched, and/or read it. In a sense, the party’s been going on for quite some time and I have arrived but significantly late. If you will, it is the AfterParty or the PostParty Party. This week's entry is more of a meditation on why we all will always be arriving late to the party: there's just too much out there to discover...
I have been waiting and waiting for months and months.
Just to be able to listen.
Even now I am waiting.
I have amassed a decent collection of vinyl records over the past few years (Simon & Garfunkel, Sufjan, Arcade Fire, Jack White, Paul Simon, Steve Taylor, Keith Green, Queen, ELO, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, and more!) but I had no way to actually play them. With the Christmas 2013 money I received I ordered a nice turntable at the advice of my brother-in-law. Trouble is, the company is a start-up and makes their turntables by hand in small batches (they're called U-Turn Audio), and with the increase in demand during the Christmas season that meant mine did not arrive until late March.
But after a few technical hiccups (mostly due to my ineptitude) I can now listen to my records (thanks to my father-in-law's eptitude). So a few nights ago I (finally) went upstairs where I have everything set up to inaugurate a sacred practice: to just listen to music and do nothing else. In my life ONLY listening to music has been in short supply lately. Usually I am in the car, working at the computer, or doing chores or exercising while carrying around my ipod. That is, my mind is always occupied by something else, while music, tragically, has been relegated to the fringes of my life. The supposedly simple enjoyment of music has transformed into a utilized service provided by technological devices (ipods and CD players) rather than a focal practice (consciously listening and engaging with music) imparted through a focal thing (the turntable). For me, creating a space to solely listen to music is a concerted way to make it a focal practice again (for more info on "focal practice" and "focal things" see this article about the work of philosopher Albert Borgmann).
The first record I chose to listen to was ELO's New World Record (a gift from my mother-in-law), from which I had heard only one or two songs before ("Living Thing", "Telephone Line"). And guess what? It was amazing; it is not their best work or the best album I have ever heard, but the album itself is a wonder.
There have been three times in my life when I have become absolutely incensed upon discovering a work of art on my own because no one had ever told me about it. The first two times were as a kid when I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia and the Star Wars films. I was flabbergasted my parents had not told me of these things. Why were they hiding them from me?! For what purpose were they denying me these life changing events.? The third time I was incensed was as an adult when I discovered (right around the same time) the music of ELO and Queen. Sure I had heard their music before, but I had never really heard it before. To me their music is the perfect infusion of pop and classical harmonies and song structure. This time though it was more my fault I had been left out. I have been playing catchup ever since.
And so I sat and listened and allowed the music to fill me. I decided to place the record player on the landing at the top of our stairs leading to the second level—about the only room that made sense in our house due the (rather dangerous) continual traffic of our kids. The landing contains an entire wall of books (both fiction and theology/philosophy) under which are all my CD's. As I sat and listened my eyes wandered exploring the titles. I began to see each book and LP as a container of potential energy waiting to be unlocked by the right device. For most of their existence they lie dormant, waiting for their moment. I realized my LP of New World Record had been waiting since it had been pressed at the factory, its purposed remaining unfulfilled. But even before that, the music had existed since 1976 and was only now being unlocked for me. A cacophony of sounds and images began to play before me: all the music, and books, and films I had yet to partake of; all of them waiting, containers of potential energy chomping at the bit for their moment in time.
BOOKS: Salman Rushdie. Karl Barth. N.T. Wright. Margaret Atwood. Umberto Eco. Plato. Hegel. Kierkegaard. C.S. Lewis. Cormac McCarthy. Susan Wise Bauer.
FILMS: Kirosawa. Bergman. Leone. Scorsese.
MUSIC: Bach. Dylan. Daniel Amos. Springsteen.
In the overwhelming frenzy another thought emerged: It was a miracle any of these works of art existed at all.
Not a half an hour earlier I was reading Susan Wise Bauer's masterful The History of the Ancient World: from the earliest accounts to the fall of Rome. In it she put forward her argument as to why civilization came into existence in the first place: it was the result of an "elemental urge: making sure that no one seizes too much food or water." Which is to say that as humanity's population increased, food and water was not as easy to come by, which meant someone had to be in charge of how food and water were produced and distributed, which resulted in those being in charge becoming kings. And as kings oversaw vaster and vaster areas solidifying around stable food sources out came better and better works of art: dramas and stories and songs and pictures of ever-increasing beauty and imagination. Looking at the books on my shelves while listening to one of my records I realized none of these things had to be here at all. We could all still be scrounging around for food and water and fighting over who is in charge, but instead we have an all but endless supply of these superfluous gifts we call works of art. This to me is a miracle.
But it is an overwhelming miracle. I am pretty sure I will never be able to read all of the books I already sitting on my shelves. I know I will never be able to ingest enough of Bach's music, let alone anybody elses. There is simply too much art in existence. "The world is abundant," as some people say, and it is entirely to much (toomuchtoomuchtoomuch. too. much). As I pondered everything I will never be able to partake of I then thought of the new work by Sufjan Stevens, a ballet entitled Everywhere We Go along with another work of his called Planetarium, works which I had never heard and had no ability to hear in the foreseeable future (other than through Youtube clips, which I'm not exactly fond of as a medium for enjoying art); each note and rhythm of them fully in existence and yet fully ungraspable by my consciousness. It was all so sad and beautiful. I wanted to partake of it all, but since ALL was impossible I almost wanted nothing. I almost wished I knew about none of it.
But then to add to the guilt more thoughts came pouring in: Is not God my true joy? Could not every work I think is worthy of my time be trumped by the greatness of God; by singing and praying in his presence, by immersing myself in his words? Should I just skip the scholastic career and go right to Aquinas' state, post-ecstatic experience? What exactly am I striving after in my pursuit to engage with every great work of art in existence? Is this guilt not a man made idol in need of destroying?
What exactly are we humans meant to do with our time? What is its best use? Do we plan out every step for maximum benefit or do we live on instinct following the whims of a given moment?
One thing is for sure: we will always be forever coming late to whatever it is we were meant to do.
Other entries in the "Coming late to the party" series:
Coming late to the party #3: Radiohead's OK Computer
Coming late to the party #2: The Art of Surprise (Simon & Garfunkel, Tuneyards, and St. Vincent)
Coming late to the party #1: Fernando Ortega