Cry me a river
Well, you can cry me a river
Cry me a river
I cried a river over you
I've been thinking lately about how our individual lives fit into the overall human tapestry. One way in which we are all unavoidably equal is that we are all subject to 'the human condition.' Every life is subject to need, illness and death. Every life is a struggle. And all our lives are brief.
Main Entry: human condition
Part of Speech: n
Definition: the positive and negative aspects of existence as a human being, esp. the
inevitable events such as birth, childhood, adolescence, love, sex, reproduction,
aging, and death
There are certain questions that, if not hardwired, are posed unambiguously by our existence. We've pondered them for as long as we've had the necessary equipment for consciousness, that mysterious something we still can't adequately define but which we understand makes us human.
We have thought of these things as the meaning of life, or the Tao or by any number of other philosophical expressions to have arisen within a given culture. We've all, in our way, pondered the meaning of our existence. It is strange to find oneself a living and dying creature in a world hostile to life. To be alive and awake is to question and wonder...and wonder we have.
It seems that to be human is to be on a quest for meaning. I think we all are to some extent. To me it seems a very natural impulse. Since we can think about the meaning of our existence, why wouldn't we? I think some people settle too easily for simple answers, but it's something we all need. Meaning. We usually find it in each other: family, neighbors, tribes, dare I say civilization? Yeah, maybe not.
Gauguin's famous painting asks the obvious questions, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
These notions/questions/musings have been part and parcel of our thinking from our earliest beginnings as a sentient species. They form the impetus of at least one of our primary and primal activities – story-telling...which we do in endless forms: sometimes in words, sometimes with marks and colors, sometimes with song or dance. Virtually every culture does this at some level, weaves fanciful tales about origins and significance, trying to suss out in one way or another the various puzzles of our existence - how to think, what to feel and just what is the point of it all.
There is no point many say, and that may be true. It may be that life simply is and that it has no meaning at all. If for no other reason than artistically, I prefer the more poetic/philosophical views. Even if they are ultimately meaningless, I draw some inspiration/comfort/succor/satisfaction from them. If the universe is cold and empty, if existence is accidental and random, if life is absurd and devoid of meaning, I can still appreciate beauty, wonder, creativity and the varieties of human invention and creative expression.
I can still appreciate those first cave people drawing on cave walls. Their drawings and paintings are not meaningless to me. I can imbue my world with meaning, just as they did theirs. We can all do this by using our imaginations. And why wouldn't we?
Happiness runs in a circular motion
Thought is like a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Sometimes I think our culture has, to some degree, an unreasoning bias against imagination or the imaginary – this is the age of science after all. But just think where science would be without the power of the human imagination. Science itself had to first be imagined, albeit incrementally and in fits and starts. And the same is true of every scientific advancement – those that aren't simply accidents, anyway. The fact that we have brains that are capable of conjuring such delectable stews from nothing at all is significant. I suppose that's almost too obvious to say.
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination," Albert Einstein once said. "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
It's quite likely that the first thing ever made by a human-being was a tool. Decor came later...presumably – necessity being the mother of invention. But I could be wrong about that. Maybe the first technology was a charred branch used to make marks on a wall...maybe even a drawing.
We don't really know if the first tool use, or technology, was a stick, a rock or what. We know it started simply and grew more complex. Early people around the world mastered the art of stone and bone tool-making and survived for many thousands of years by their mastery of the tool-making art.
I first started finding and collecting ancient lithics, arrowheads and other stone tools like knife blades, spear points, scrapers, drills and the like as a young boy. I've never lost my fascination with them. They range widely in age and craftsmanship and, paradoxically, many of the finest, in terms of their manufacture and artistry, are also the earliest or oldest. They exist by the many millions. They cover much of North America and are also found in many other parts of the world, particularly Africa, Asia and Europe.
I have on occasion, when standing on a river bank or in the middle of a cornfield admiring a new find, been moved to tears by the obscure work of an ancient member of our race who has long since gone to dust. Could he have known, might it have ever crossed his mind, that one day thousands of years hence, one such as I would come along to find his work and be so moved? It's not out of the question. The human imagination is a wondrous thing. It's not hard for me to imagine the tapestry that binds us all together inter-culturally and across all space and time.
These are some of my better pieces:
That white blade in the lower right corner is a Cumberland point, a spearhead roughly four and a half inches long, fluted on one side. They are sometimes fluted on both sides and sometimes not. The flute is a shallow groove running the length of the point, resulting from a flake being expertly lifted from the face, and terminating abruptly in what is known as a hinge fracture toward the distal or pointy end. The purpose of the flute is to accommodate a haft. These flutes, the art of which was later lost or abandoned, are diagnostic of the Paleo Indians, the very first people in North America: Mammoth hunters, forefathers of all Native Americans. It's between nine and eleven thousand years old and is exquisitely crafted as though it were carved from a bar of soap, not banged out of stone. It has some minor plow damage where you can see the original dark blue color of the flint beneath the white surface patina caused by the chemistry of multiple millennia in the mineral-rich earth. It's the finest Paleo piece I've ever found. Produced by very small populations of wandering nomads, they are as rare as hen's teeth.
Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw.
Had two big horns and a wooly jaw.
Wooly bully, wooly bully.
Wooly bully, wooly bully, wooly bully.
I remember the day I found the Cumberland very well. It was on the rim of a bowl-shaped plowed field that sloped steeply to a central depression, the site of an ancient spring. When you pull a treasure like this from the ground, there is always a first reaction of disbelief...then it sinks in just what a remarkable thing you have plucked from the soil. As I admired it, examining its fine details, the first to do so in at least nine or ten thousand years, I wondered about its maker. What was he (or she) like? What was his (or her) life like?
I looked around and tried to imagine that place on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau 10,000 years ago, without roads, telephone wires, farm houses or plowed fields, a pristine, wild and savage Eden. I imagined the spring, long since gone but for the faintest of traces, welling with cool, clean water. How important that water source must have been to the small bands of nomadic Mammoth hunters like the one to which my toolmaker, artist and master flint-knapper must have belonged. The thousands of artifacts (most fragmentary, few whole) in the surrounding field gave testimony to that truth. That site was, for many thousands of years, an important place for the carbon-based lifeforms that roamed this land, both human and otherwise.
How many game animals slaked their thirst at that spring and how many were slain there? How many camps were pitched on that spot, how many spearheads, hide scrapers and knife blades were flaked there from stone? How many humans have lain on that ground by a campfire, gazing at the same stars that dance across our sky? I wonder what they thought of them. They couldn't possibly have grokked the cosmic scale in the same way that we can or even begin to understand their nature as gigantic nuclear furnaces at impossible distances, but I bet their wonderment was just as profound. I bet they dreamed of them, sang of them to their children, spun stories, legends and rhymes about their nature, origin and significance.
There's no telling how many ancient stories were told around that spring, how many songs sung in that space, how many humans rose there to dance beneath the diamond sky.
I don't want to talk about it
How you broke my heart
One of the reasons we tell stories is to make sense of something confusing that has happened. Imagine a group of Paleo Indians just returned to camp from a Mammoth hunt. Pause for a moment to consider what it must have been like to go up against a Mammoth with nothing more than spears and a few of your buds. We know their family groups were small; there were probably never more than six of them going after a Mammoth, and fewer was probably common.
Imagine the moment when they had their quarry surrounded, the giant beast rearing and roaring, stomping and flailing and swinging its mighty tusks in deadly arcs. That had to be an intense moment for the comparatively frail hunters with no Blue Cross Blue Shield, no ambulances, no doctors, nothing. Their hearts would have been pounding, massive doses of adrenaline coursing through their bodies. In such situations, when one's focus is concentrated to a fine point, time seems to slow down and the senses blur. Often people's memory of the event, even immediately after, is fragmentary and dreamlike.
Part of the post event processing involves the participants telling each other what they recall, what they felt, who did what, what they believe took place, and from this process emerges a consensus of what happened. It's how we make sense of adrenaline-filled moments of great danger and confusion – how we coax clarity from what has been called the fog of war. Our stories help us understand chaotic experience and make sense of the great mystery through which we journey.
We've always told stories. We've always made pictures. And sometimes we sing.
She's as sweet as Tupelo honey
She's an angel of the first degree
Shes as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey baby, from the bee
The human tapestry, the collective consciousness, the shared human experience; this is how strangers can make images, invent stories, write songs or make music that can lift us up or break our hearts.
Ooh, this old heart of mine, been broke a thousand times
Each time you break away, I fear you're gone to stay
Lonely nights that come, memories that go
Bringing you back again, hurting me more and more
For all our differences we are so alike. We all know joy and sadness, heartbreak and pride, satisfaction and despair. We've all been afraid, lonely, hungry and tired. We all have loved. We have all suffered. We were all born and we will all die...
...and we are all dreamers.
“All beings are dream beings. Dreaming ties all of mankind together.”
This is why artists can pluck the heartstrings that vibrate within you just as they do in me, as they do in all of us. We are more connected than we often realize: emotionally, psychologically, physically. We emerge from a shared history, products of the same evolution, made of the same star stuff, connected through our stories, our dreams, hallucinations and visions, all the way down to our DNA, all the way down to the very atoms of which we are comprised. We are, in our variety, the warp and weft of the human weave, woven into a common, beautiful and savage cloth. In the end, we are all the same.
You better stop, before you tear me apart
You better stop, before you break my loving heart
Agreement is not always possible but working together, willingly/wittingly or not, is inevitable. For good or ill we each contribute to the tapestry. We are equally responsible for telling the story. We each imagine and realize, at some level, in some fashion, our place in the human drama. We each contribute what we will, be it: compassion or meanness; thoughtfulness or recklessness; concern or disinterest; generosity or selfishness; love or hate.
I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”
“Nothing is more barbarous than war. Nothing is more cruel. And yet, the war dragged on. Nothing is more pitiful than a nation being swept along by fools.”
Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution
Let us feed the loving wolf, as the Cherokee might say. Let us use our will and our compassion to transcend the savagery in our bones. Let us use our imaginations to reform, re-imagine and remake the human condition. Let us make peace. Let there be Pax Humana. May we finally learn to be kind to ourselves...and each other.
"What we need most is to restore and revive our humanity. We must create a society where people can live with dignity, a society where people can live in peace and happiness. People are tired of games played for power and profit. People are tired of hatred and conflict. They want to live with more wisdom, confidence and in peace. It may seem like a long and distant path, but I am convinced that the twenty-first century must see a movement to sow the seeds of peace, happiness and trust in every person's heart. The seeds of a truly humane way of life. I am convinced this is the only path."
For me, no amount of analysis will ever change the fact that there is something glorious and magical about being human. In my view, that mysterious magic at our core is why we love each other. It's why life is sacred. It's why the jailbird sings.
Well, you can cry me a river
Cry me a river
I cried a river over you
Language, visual or written, spoken, sung or danced, when married to art, experience and the human imagination provide us the tools to reach each other, to move, celebrate or commune deeply with one another. Through art we are able to share our inner and outer lives, from the mundane to the sublime. Through art we are able to participate with surprising fullness in the lives of others. Through art humankind stands to redeem itself. Art can make us whole.
"Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
Artists are important to society - more important than many people realize, especially in the US. In many other cultures, being an artist is considered prestigious, laudable, worthy. Not so much here. We value our artists so little that most of them live in or on the verge of poverty. We tell our kids: be an engineer; be a lawyer; be a financial gun-slinger; anything but an artist. That is such a pity, for artists, in all their variety, enrich our lives. They teach us, urge us and help us to think different, be different and see the world with new eyes. The need they fill has never, in all of our history, been so great.
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
I've sprinkled this essay with some of my favorite folks; I think I'll try to squeeze in one more. I believe Carl Sagan, who was both a scientist and an artist, wraps this all up very nicely. If you've got a minute, you really should watch this:
Thank you for your kind attention.