“The alchemy of the changing life is the only truth,” said Rumi.
I’ve been going through things in my house. I want to sell it and move to someplace smaller and simpler. I remember being young and being thrilled at the prospect of certain possessions: a mixer, a comfortable chair, a sculpture. Now I’m at a different place in life. My friend Lou said to me, “You’re entering the third act,” and I think that’s accurate.It’s not about disengagement from the world, but it is a changing of identity.
I’ve been going through pictures. Photos, mostly 4x5s that have sat in boxes for years. I am pulling out the ones I like in order to have them scanned. Reduce a lifetime of images to a couple of CD discs. I am amazed what bad quality most of them are. Digital photography and ipad screens have ruined me forever in terms of looking at photos.
There are lots of pictures from my work over the years. Hundreds of pictures of me doing assemblies, or working with kids or teachers, or recording. While they bring a joyful nostalgia to these many years I’ve had the incredible fortune to sing for my supper, I don’t see the point of keeping them. Again, most of them are not great quality, existing more to document a moment than to be recognizable later. I don’t expect that I’ll forget what I’ve done in my life, and if I begin to, I’m not sure these pictures will help. Really, no one sits and looks at pictures together anymore, unless they’re presented in a photo book, a phone, or a slide show. Another tradition seeping away.
I’ve worked with lots of elders in my career. I have a CD called “Eldervoices” that synthesizes some of that experience. One thing that got me started on that road was how older folks in facilities would want to talk with me, and how they would have their central story to share. I first captured this in my song “The Night I Played With the Duke.” The nursing home staff wanted to be sure that I talked with this old man, who proceeded to tell me how he played with Duke Ellington one night. A high point, and a story he told often.
What would my story be? What would yours be? A love of your life? The work you did? A trip you took? Your children? A house you built? Old people can become focused when they look back, and, like seeing the tops of mountains over clouds when you are in an airplane, certain things, and only a few things, are revealed. “Rosebud,” says Citizen Kane. “I could have been a contender” says Marlon Brando. “I played with the Duke,” says an old black man in a wheelchair in a nursing home in Seattle, forty years ago.
We shed identity, I believe, and grasping for what we were or what we have done is no longer necessary at a certain point. I’m getting rid of a ton of photos, but I’m keeping some. And I know that there will be more taken and shared in the coming years.
Time distills us like Scotch whiskey. Ages. Mellows. Sweetens or spices. And the alchemy of your life is the truth that remains.
What can you live with? What can you live without?
The song seems somehow related. I’ve been working on it hard for weeks. In part because the guitar part is very difficult for me. 6/8 steady without getting too fast, and a couple of tough moves. The words, too, over and over again changing. Here’s what seems done at the moment. I was thinking how my friend Peter Berryman would write this song. Possibly a list of things and the memories associated with them. Or perhaps a medical list? Here’s my version.
What Can You Live With?
What can you live with?
What can you live without?
You might not know but time will show
The truth beyond a doubt
What you can live with
What you can’t live without.
With his feet on a chair and a curl in his hair
It’s not a strike at least it’s a spare
With fresh pressed clothes and a nice place to doze
It’s a ring on his finger’s not a ring on his nose
But oh the white wind howls.
Romance came to call, like a fairy tale ball
She barely stood up when she started to fall
And the wine that was spilt in the house that they built
covered the walls with longing and guilt
But oh those deep Egyptian towels
And you cut off your skin trying to cut off the sin
Dressed in a suit zipped from within.
Don’t be surprised at each compromise
With a wink of an eye and a word to the wise.
He crosses the line, and she’s left behind
Anything’s better than being resigned.
But oh you can h-ear the distant owls
© Stuart Stotts 2018