Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Apparently Solid Self

“It’s just a thought, only a thought.”
- Dido, Life For Rent

I visit the local library once a week. Mondays usually. I go late enough in the day to have gotten some work done, early enough to stop for a cup of tea in a nearby village. I wander the stacks looking for books, DVDs, CDs. This largely for my daughter Samantha’s benefit, to meet her needs for the next few days. But I like wandering for myself, too. I especially enjoy drifting through the music area, flipping through discs, waiting for something to catch my attention and suggest I take it home.

This process added four CDs to my collection this time around: The Cure’s Standing on the Beach (because it’s been so long since I heard ‘Boys Don’t Cry’), John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland (because of a line in the Cowboy Junkies’ ‘Tuesday Morning’), The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (because in contains a song the band itself describes as “a paean to REM”), and Dido’s Life For Rent.

Three of these choices aren’t too surprising. I have, as listed, dubiously ‘good’ reasons for picking them up. The last, however, is different. Having never heard of the artist, I was initially attracted to the cover. “Dido” appears red in the upper left-hand corner. A smiling face lights up to the right. Turned sideways, the singer’s features are seen in black and white. ‘Cool name,’ I thought, adding it to my pile.

Then I hesitated. Suddenly suspicious of my choice, I turned the case over. Gazing at the back image - young woman in a dress, bare feet, half-smile on a tilted face - I looked for hints of what lay inside. ‘Another breakup album,’ I thought, glancing through song titles. ‘Probably a musical chick flick.’ Next came, ‘Not my thing.’ Responding to this relatively abrupt evaluation, I started to put the CD back.

Buddhists talk a lot about a solid sense of self. This, in fact, is considered the root of a great deal of struggle and dissatisfaction. Ignoring that life is constantly shifting, we conclude ‘I’ is a stable, consistent entity - always this or always that. We then expend a great deal of time and energy maintaining this ignorance. We act in ways that support our manufactured notion of ‘me’ and avoid behaviors that violate this - often with little regard for consequences.

I was a competitive swimmer for thirteen years. When this career puttered to an end, I hopped out of the water and onto the pool deck. From here I coached the sport for another couple of decades. Through a fair portion of this latter span I continued to swim. This was not like before - nowhere near as intense - but I would typically hop in two or three times a week. After the swimmers had gone home I would spend maybe thirty minutes sailing up and down as I had so many times before.

One night I moved to the edge of the water, pulled on my cap and goggles, and readied to dive in. ‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ I thought. ‘It rarely feels good and I really don’t like it.’ These realizations froze me in place. I was a swimmer. I loved being a swimmer. I had been a swimmer for as long as I could remember. Yet I didn’t want to get in. I did not want to get in ever again.

A lifeguard watched me stand there for almost twenty minutes. “I wondered if you’d had a stroke,” she later confessed. Locked into a sense of ‘me’ as ‘swimmer’, I was unable to turn away from that edge. I couldn’t allow myself to be anything other than what I had always been. This is why I eventually jumped in and paddled a couple easy lengths: so I would know I had. Another few weeks needed to pass before I finally abandoned my post-workout swims for good.

Unsurprisingly, we usually demand others play along with our solid charade. In ways both big and small, we insist they be as consistent as we think we are. Back to the library: Samantha has pretty much exhausted all the Beach Boys compilations in stock, so I have started bringing home actual albums. She wants Smile, but the first original work I was able to obtain was a ‘twofer’ repackaging of Sunflower and Surf’s Up.

Released in 1970, Sunflower was the band’s attempt to recapture the commercial interest and creative momentum that drained away following Brian Wilson’s breakdown three years earlier. Pretty much every band member contributed to the effort. A great deal of attention was given to song quality and track listing. The bright, optimistic title spoke volumes about how the group felt toward the newest addition to it’s catalogue.

For the most part, however, Sunflower did not sound like anyone’s idea of the ‘Beach Boys’. In spite of the fact ‘It’s About Time’ and ‘Got To Know The Woman’ - among others - are incredible songs, neither of them fits into the familiar mold the public knew and expected. As a result, the album went largely ignored. During its four week stay, Sunflower peaked at #151 on the charts. Very few of the cuts have ever been played in concert and I would guess this fact is not going to be challenged during the Boys’ 50th Anniversary summer tour.

In My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle's captivating filmed conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, two friends and playwrights, the latter speaks of deliberately opening doors with his non-dominant hand. Shawn listens, confused. What Gregory is attempting to do with this gesture is shake up the dynamic above. Focussing upon something as mundane as turning a door knob, he is trying to unsettle our tendency to take so much ourselves - and such a sizable portion of our lives - as ‘the way it is’.

It’s a good practice, in my experience. It is a good way to rattle the cages of that apparently solid self we carry everywhere, limiting both ourselves and others in the process. “Just do something different,” Pema Chodron says, lending words to this.

When we see ourselves clinging to an idea of ‘Beach Boys’ instead of opening to the freshness of an unheard song, do something different. “Anything different would help,” Chodron affirms, “anything that’s not habitual. For example, you could go up and take a cold shower and sing at the top of your lungs, or drink a glass of water from the wrong side, like you do when you are trying to get rid of hiccups.”

Good practice. Good advice.

I didn’t, in the end, put that Dido CD back. I held it at arm’s length for several seconds, looked at it hovering over all the other discs in the rack. Somehow in those moments I saw what I was doing: reacting not to what was happening - I really did like the cover and really did think her name was cool - but to my ideas of who ‘Neil’ is and what his ‘thing’ might and might not be.

Life For Rent is a break up album. I suppose for this reason alone it could be considered the musical equivalent of a chick flick. But I’ve been listening to it all night long. I choked up over ‘White Flag’ while making dinner. ‘Sand In My Shoes’ was a favorite as I washed dishes. As I’ve been writing this piece both ‘Mary’s In India’ and ‘See the Sun’ have been repeated at least three times each. Some very appropriate lines appear in this last song:

I’m coming round to open the blinds
You can’t hide here any longer
My god you need to rinse those puffy eyes

I guess I’m not the person I thought I was.


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