I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism. I’ve been asking other writer-friends to define the word for me, so I can add to my functional understanding of its complexities and what different people perceive it to mean. I’ve asked friends earnestly if, really, shouldn’t I should try to develop some cynicism, a shell, a coating, a veneer? I’ve thought about the difference between a familiarity with the nastiness of life, a healthy respect for the damage-possibilities, and the choices we have within that maelstrom to live strong and brave and beautiful anyways.
I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism in music. You don’t have to have been a reader long to know that my heart tends to bleed everywhere. I love those shiny songs and mindless songs and fractured songs, but the ones that seem to stick with me the longest are the ones that are the most bald-faced in their lack of cynicism, in the way they take advantage of the unique medium of music to assert …some sort of hope, some wrestling with life, some refusal to lay back in the muck and let it swallow us. It’s the reason that I picked this quote from Nick Hornby’s Songbook to be on the top of this blog since the beginning:
“I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part…”
I’ve been trying to write this post since July, when I went to the Timber! Outdoor Music Festival. For the second summer festival in a row, the set from Noah Gundersen was the one that made me sit in a stunned silence on the dirty ground. Noah and his siblings and his band amaze me in everything they do. There is something foolishly generous and wholly beautiful in all of his music, and in their performance of it.
That Saturday night in July, for the final set as the ground vibrated and the sweat of the day dried, the show suddenly stumbled into a clearing of something magnificent and unvarnished. It was something so pure and strong that it almost doesn’t make sense when I try to explain it to someone else, but that dissolved me so that when it was over I couldn’t speak to anyone at all, and all I could do was head directly to my top bunk in the yurt and cinch myself all the way tight into my sleeping bag. I needed a cocoon around me, warmth to stop the shivers, like my skin had been peeled off.
It happened when they launched in to this song, and specifically around 1:09.
Garden – Noah Gundersen
I have read that you have to be careful after rescuing a starving person not to give them too much rich food too fast because it will overwhelm their systems. I thought of that when everything cut out during that set under the pines, as Noah and Abby together sang: “…but wait. Wait. See how the morning breaks; it’s the simplest of love songs ….but it’s all our hearts can take.” There was so much generosity there.
In that moment, in unintentional defiance of cynicism, I was obliterated.
Noah’s live performances always feel like the summation of things I forgot. As they sang this song, I sat there and I thought something blazingly bright and clear and frustratingly ambiguous. I found myself thinking, “Because this moment in this song exists: …________.” For four months I haven’t been able to finish articulating the second half of that equation.
Last night in Boulder I slogged it out with Noah over some whiskeys and I tried to finish wrestling out the rest of what is true in the unfinished second half of that equation, and how it has been chasing me for months. Noah smiled and he said, “but I think that’s the thing, the not filling in that second half. That ambiguity is beautiful.”
For you it might be another song, and for me it was this one, on that night, in a campground by a river in Washington State. It was the moon. It was the certainty of something ineffable, that I have not yet forgotten.
It reminds me of some of the final lines in the magnificent book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, her story of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the southern border of Washington state, after a shit-kickingly hard period in her life. She writes at the end of her trek about sitting on a bench by the Bridge of the Gods, finally accomplished in what she set out to do in those months, despite the seeming-insurmountable difficulty. She writes about how all the blissful things yet to come in her life were unknown to her as she sat there bloodied and bruised and strong from the miles and miles she had walked. It was all unknown to her — “everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.”
Now that’s a statement borne out of whatever the opposite of cynicism is; hard struggle and finding your way back to the person that lives under the bruise of life hovering on the surface, maybe. It resonates with me, and so does the purity in this song.
It’s the simplest of love songs, but it’s all our hearts can take.
[top image from Timber! by Jason Tang]