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Life seen from the loading docks

§ Life seen from the loading dock looks different from the life seen in the lobby.

I’ve been acquainted with one or two of each in my time. I was part of the production crew for a stop on the national tour of Movin’ Out in my Missouri alma mater’s enormous theater. I still see load-in: a small crowd stood in an empty room bigger than most houses. The door was open to the weird blue spectra seen before a dawn. Transport trucks backed up to the dock. Then there was a momentary rush of activity—and the sun had set.

Another dock I know much better is outside Washington, in Virginia, shared by a florist, a retail shop, and a custom engraver. I must have taken hundreds of pensive lunch breaks there, and hauled hundreds of boxes of stock across its concrete surface. And I was just working there part-time. What would I hear if the loading docks could talk? “One box stacked on me came all the way from China and its contents went to clean a dozen homes. And that day, several dozen centerpieces waited on me before they were delivered. It was busy.”

Or, there was the back alley behind a concert venue across the tracks from Chinatown in Chicago. We waited in the cold among the bands that loaded in by order on the bill. One of us noticed she was bleeding—which was a little bit alarming, but, she got it under control. Not much else went on for us. The real rock stars networked and caught up. I imagine the enforced idle time of waiting-in-the-queue is when a lot of bands really get to chat.

§ In cities I prefer to walk half a block over from the main streets, in the alleys. It’s quieter, there are fewer people, and (to me) it’s more interesting. The back alley is reality. There’s no façade whatsoever.

Walk down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and you’ll see storefronts, advertisements, canvassers, and lots of well-dressed people of business and/or tourism. People of wealth—not to be confused with people of substance, of course. Go down the stairs to an underpass and you’ll find different doors into the material machine that makes it work, and almost no one is there who doesn’t have a real reason to be..

Or walk down an alley in a neighborhood holding a mix of apartments and storefronts. No front doors, dressed for everyone’s eyes. Just the back porches, gardens, garages, and realities. People actually use this space for more than movement, and it’s a little more authentic maybe because there’s less point-to-point travel down these unnamed streets we call alleys. People are more still there, and mostly they’re just living.

§ People are able to live an entire life without seeing reality—at least in this moment of human civilization. Instead, they see the images—storefronts, branding, design—that have gradually built up on top of it. Reality is where substance happens, as opposed to style. I worry that too few people are exposed to substance and not enough know that it’s not the same. That’s a danger in an information age, and presents a worrisome question: are you working with and reckoning from the information or the world that it represents?

It’s easy to make bad decisions if that isn’t asked and the answer isn’t known.

The years make rainbows

§ It’s early spring around Washington, DC. Walking along the Potomac River I see hundreds of white, purple, blue, and yellow wildflowers—too many types for me to identify, unfortunately. I recognize daffodils and chicory, and the few early dandelions… the plants that have had practical or aesthetic value to me. There’s a beautiful poem about daffodils. Chicory and dandelions are edible. Ask me about something I couldn’t eat as a child and I’m usually at a loss.

Farther from the riverbanks, there are red mulberry buds and the beginnings of magnolia blossoms. I don’t believe I ever noticed mulberries blossoming before this year—I only know the buds belong to mulberries because I know which trees I’ve eaten mulberries from. It’s been nice to become sensitive to the passage of cycles and time in one place. I’m not sure it’s possible to sense that without stillness. Despite growing up around mulberry trees, I’d not know their cycles if I hadn’t been passing the same few specific trees, week after week, for long enough to observe those cycles. Unless that kind of familiarity builds, I usually only see what affects me directly.

It’s possible I could know how they work by studying mulberry trees, and I imagine many botanists and arborists could be shown a mulberry tree in some arbitrary season and identify the species and seasonal context. But then, there’s a direct affect between botanists and all plants, whereas I don’t have more than a passing knowledge of plants. Just a knowledge of the plants I’ve passed enough to be affected.

§ Flowering plants grow in ubiquity on the Earth. There’s a special stand of them here, though: the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin. The trees were a gift from Japan in 1912, and the Tidal Basin itself was built in the late 19th century as a water management tool. Since then the Basin has filled and emptied twice a day with the tides, and the trees have bloomed once a year with the seasons. It’s a nice clock of sorts, providing clear demarcation from “moment” to “moment” in high tides, low tides, and peak blossoms, although those moments are irregular in length.

I try to take a walk along the tidal basin each year when the cherry trees are blooming and I’m in the area. It puts me in my place to walk along the track of a clock keeping deep time. Japan and the United States have gone from friends to enemies to friends in the intervening century, and the trees continued to bloom. Cicada broods have come out of the ground and returned—Brood II will be out this year after 17 years. And my life has seen its own changes of somewhat less magnitude and somewhat more eccentricity.

The Tidal Basin is a good clock to synchronize with. I’m sure there are many other deep time clocks, but certainly not many people who take time from them. I couldn’t say with certainty that I do myself—only that I’ve passed through the trees, and the people who pass through the trees, and observed a little. It’s fortunate that a city like Washington, where inhabitants can sometimes lose touch in the noisy confusion, have at least the option to take similar walks.

Music as experience and information

§ Some people have the stars. Some people have tarot. Some people have the yijing. I have the music I listen to.

Looking back, it is uncanny the correlation I can detect between what I listen to and what comes up in my life. For instance, when my work is enjoyable and getting me up early in the morning, I’m usually listening to piano jazz from the 50s. Why? I probably happened to be listening to jazz a lot during early phases in my career, and made an association. Or, sometimes I’m listening to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on repeat. That happens when some phase in my life is ending. It makes sense that song would resonate with me in a time like that—that’s exactly what the song is about: a flighty, mercurial person perpetually in transition.

And that’s exactly what the mechanism is: resonance of ideas and/or of memories. It isn’t that music is a divinatory medium like the signs in astrology, but rather that it tells me what’s going on in my heart, mind, and environment.

It’s obvious in the abstract, of course, but in practice it’s hard to pick up on. Unless someone else is listening to all the music I choose to listen to and paying attention to what’s going on in my life and emotions, no one can make the connections except me. Meanwhile, I’m too busy listening to the music to think about whether the song means I feel a certain way or am in a certain groove in life.

However, becoming aware of music (or something else) for its indicative properties provides an excellent path to greater self-awareness. The last time I listened to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” over and over and over, I noticed it, and knew it meant something important to me was about to end. I wasn’t quite sure what (although I could guess), but I sure knew the ending was coming. It wasn’t so much that it predicted the future as it indicated high-level situational information that I wasn’t picking up consciously—except for noticing the song and knowing that there’s only one reason I listen to it. That’s useful information.

§ Perhaps even farther down this path is greater self-direction. I didn’t figure out what was wrong in time to change course in the previous example, but I definitely think harder about what my music choices mean and about what’s going on around me. It’s definitely a source of information, and a medium through which to practice self-contemplation.

I wonder too if it’s possible to change my internal state through choosing music more deliberately. Sometimes when I’ve been unhappy, I’ll try to listen to music that I’ve listened to when I’ve been happier. So far that’s met with mixed success, mostly because I’m not strong enough, and change the song a few seconds later. Other times, I might itch to listen to those ballads about memory and romantic focus (think “Vanilla Twilight” or “Got My Mind Set On You”) that I’ve listened to in the past during foolish, misguided obsessions—and catch myself, and repress that urge to listen, knowing it will only reinforce unhealthy ideas, and ruin relationships.

It’s a road, at least. Some people navigate with the stars. Some people navigate with maps. Some people have supposedly navigated using music (think “Follow the Drinking Gourd” or songlines) so maybe it’s viable for me. On the other hand, it does change what music means for me. Every piece enters my mind now on two levels: what I experience in the moment and what my listening signifies as information. Music remains an aesthetic experience, and now it’s also an encounter with objectivity.

That’s complicated.