It's the morning after the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, and like many people I would imagine, I find myself not much good to myself. I am horrified and heartbroken. This country and its murderous weaponry. And the plague of plagues, the rampant mental illness of the age. It has become the norm, even when it doesn't manifest itself in scenes such as this latest one which go straight through all of us, if we possess any humanity. We stare at screens, we seek validation where none of any substance or importance is to be found, and we decay. We rot. We shed compassion and gentleness. We acquire anger and unvetted righteousness that merely masquerades as virtue. That's what we're doing and it seems so obvious to me. Just as it's obvious that we could do something easily and readily to make it that much harder for a person of evil to do what another in their rank did yesterday to poor innocent babes, the people who tried to protect them, and the loved ones they leave behind, who will never be close to the same.
On these days, I am methodical. I want to put my head down and be inside of something. A hand that will hold and not crush. When I've completed the last of these words, I'll go outside and run thousands of stairs, my eyes to the ground. When I feel as though I must be methodical, and I must regiment myself in order to retain the spark of human vitality, for others and myself, I find that I reach for music. Before I reach, I think about what would be best, what can reach me. This morning I am thinking about spirituals and work songs. Black people sang them in the fields on plantations so that they could keep going. They were methodical. We must be methodical to continue in a society that more and more operates as a breeding house for pain, torment, devolution, ignorance, all the more so when it need not be this at all. There is a slurry of emotion in me, a bad mix of what a friend calls heart scalding—a burning where one is conscious of the degrees of that burn in the edges of the cuts, the slices, the ribbons the heart has become—and anger. Color coded, my emotions are crimson, outlined in the blues and blacks of what I figure the furthest recesses of the universe must be like. Or perhaps there is nothing there, and our inner selves are becoming that way, too, because we let them, when we fail to listen to that which surrounds all of us.
The men and women who sang those work songs and spirituals—a jazz before jazz that is jazz always—would console themselves that when they died, a better world would await them. Think of the grief you must know to look at your existence in those terms. They cultivated community with each other in what was tantamount to an enclave of sanity and peace. I feel like this is what so much of our world has become: the search for the enclave. The enclave is not close to the whole, and it is the whole that affects us all. We have to listen to the reality that surrounds each and every one of us, though we increasingly force reality out of our field of view. It is the master drummer, the home key, the song of songs, the album of albums. But we tune it out. We push agendas, we politicize the selves right out of our beings. We don't sing with our human brethren. We don't listen to the songs we need to hear. The headphones are faulty. We do nothing about it. We turn up the bass, rather than give ourselves over to the singer, as one would with an Ella Fitzgerald record, a singer of life.
The tenets of those work songs and spirituals are in the music we reach for when we become methodical, because if we are not, we'll do something worse and only plod along, which is not striving, fixing, interconnecting. Plodding curtails our hearing. We won't listen to the world. So few of us do now. We listen to the siren song of instant gratification. We care about things like retweets and likes. We paper over our eyes, our ears, cotton balls fill the mouth lest some get removed so that bromidic nonsense can be parroted yet again.
What keeps us human? What makes us human? What turns us human? What allows us to be wrecked when we should be wrecked, as on mornings such as this, but to still avoid the traps of hollow rhetoric and internet grandstanding? What allows us to move from our own lives into the feelings of another who has lost the little girl? Where is our empathy? How is it developed? How is our emotional imagination widened so that we can get beyond our selves? There are mothers who sang with their children on Monday night, who come Tuesday evening were waiting for DNA results in a communal gathering spot to know if that same child was still alive. Is that itself not a song that fills all of you, all of the parts of your insides, becomes a part of your own inner voice, and the music of you?
I listen to Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," knowing Cooke died via a gun, and the heart scalding and the anger continues on, because change is not coming fast enough when it can, and Cooke, at least, was not an innocent. He played a part in his bloody end. I hate that I make the qualification, because it causes me to think of a terrified child in a corner as a man advanced upon her, and this child was entirely an innocent, had just started her own song.
I don't even want to say was. I don't want to give anyone or anything—this murderer, this society that fosters so much sickness—the credit of the past tense. Is. I reach for those work songs and spirituals and they take so many additional forms. They’re the Beatles of “Across the Universe,” Sly Stone and There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Bobby Blue Bland not more than two steps from the blues that belong to all of us. And Billie Holiday. Human pain dressed in satin, and then naked, strong, saying that we, too, may shed the costuming, and follow. John Coltrane with Ascension ripping through the murk, the mud, what brutish humans do to one another in a life that is much too short for some, and feels far too long for others, to lead us on to a higher plane. I am being methodical, my head is down, because it is all I can be right now, and this is not something that happened to me save in the sense that we are all part of this fabric that is this time, this age, this country, this society, and for the love of God, or the love of the absence of God, or whatever you believe in, why are we so bad at hearing the human song?
And so I practice my listening with these artists, or try to reengage with a world that is often a needlessly excessive world of hurt, so that I will not lose the connection. So that I will remember to listen. That I won’t turn away from the song. I bow my head. I am in deference to the tears that come. They, too, are a song, but they shouldn't have to be. Hold your loved ones tight. Yourself, as well. And people you will never know, in thoughts and forms of touch that are not tethered to the physical. The intense somatic quality of the heart that belongs to all, and not just ourselves. There is but one record. We are all in its grooves. We go round and round. That's just how it is. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't listen, we shouldn't sing, and we shouldn't get our parts right.