“I will go down with this ship
And I won’t put my hands up and surrender.
There will be no white flag above my door.
I’m in love and always will be.”
- Dido, ‘White Flag’
I step outside and know I’m not going. The sky is clear glass and the air sharp with autumn’s edge. Their touch as I come into the evening is a caress. Stroking a cheek, grazing my heart, the intimacy brings a sigh, then tears. A swell rises out of darkness. Memories have been the order of the day, so this is not surprising. By late afternoon, however, I felt undone. Now my face hurts, my eyes sting. My chest feels like a bruise. I have nothing left to fight with. There’s no way I’m going to that meeting.
For a long while I walk without aim. The streets are quiet. Through glowing windows I can see people returning home. My ipod plays throughout. The plan had been to listen to Reggie while making my way to this evening’s gathering. This is a project I’ve jumped into - helping to prepare a couple compilation discs from an assortment of talks, practices, and excerpts. There’s a deadline.
I can’t take anything more than a sentence or two, though. Something feels wrong, off. I just can’t do it. More, I can’t stand it - an admission I struggle against while spinning through the playlist. There’s not much music here, actually. Most of it is teaching and meditation. I settle on Dido. I play the first song from this collection, ‘White Flag’, then play it again. This goes on for the next forty-five minutes.
This morning my favorite Bob Dylan site, Expecting Rain, featured a link to Youtube. ‘The Eight-Track Museum Guided Tour With Bucks Burnett’ was promised. I clicked and sat through the four-minute piece. At about the halfway mark, our host stood before a wall devoted to Beatles releases. “We start here with the two-track,” Bucks said, pointing out a three-unit series of small black cartridges.
My breathing stopped. Quickly googling ‘two-track tape player’, I was transported back over forty years. The Playtape 1200 was a portable music system introduced in 1967. By 1970 its run was pretty much over but, for a few years, it enjoyed a fair surge of popularity. Music that played anywhere was an accomplishment in those days - even if the tapes ran less than thirty minutes. I adored mine.
I had a collection of perhaps six or seven tapes - some children’s music, the Beatles - and I took them with me wherever I could. One of my earliest memories, in fact, involves this device. It is a somatic memory; I feel it in my bones. It is the sense of carrying the Playtape on my left shoulder, holding the speaker next to my ear, listening.
My father used to grumble about the steady stream of batteries I exhausted with this behavior. I remember him fiddling with yet another package of candy-red Evereadys, pushing them out of their plastic wrapping and slipping them into the rear opening of the machine. He would often screw the back shut with a kitchen knife, a feat that I admired while watching.
My mother’s complaints, on the other hand, had more to do with content. I did have at least one kid’s cartridge as mentioned above - nursery rhymes, I believe - but rarely ever listened to this. The Beatles got a far greater share of playtime, abbreviated versions of The Early Beatles and Rubber Soul. I loved the song ‘You Better Run For Your Life’, even though something about the way Lennon sang struck even my four year old ears as sinister.
The vast majority of my listening, however, focussed upon a single cartridge. There were four Hank Williams’ songs on this: ‘You Win Again’, ‘Kaw-Liga’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’, and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. Over and over I’d play these, fascinated by the tale of ‘Kaw-Liga’, exhilarated by Williams’ swooping vocal on ‘Why Don’t You’. But it was ‘I’m So Lonesome’ I could never get enough of.
In that memory mentioned earlier, the body recollection that has me carrying my Playtape on one shoulder, holding it as close as possible, it’s always this song that’s playing. When I remember dancing about the living room, curtains closed, mid-day darkness offering me some comfort and safety, ‘Lonesome’ is the tune that sounds incessantly. When someone asked me several years ago about the first song I remember hearing - we had been talking about Allen Ginsberg, from his deathbed, requesting the first song he recalled - my answer came quick and easy, without a moment’s thought.
In the meditative tradition I am part of, the word ‘tantra’ holds particular significance. It is generally translated as ‘continuity’ and points toward the continuity of wakefulness in our lives. In spite of this accepted designation, however, I sometimes wonder about other kinds of continuity in my life. What else has been a steady presence through the years? Hank Williams and this plaintive cry always comes up.
But it’s not just this artist and just this song that’s been continuous. The feelings, too, that come with ‘So Lonesome’ have had this quality. Sadness. Sorrow. Loneliness. Ache. For so long these have bled out from that darkened living room, spreading their deep stain across decades. “Hear the lonesome whiperwill / He sounds too blue to fly...”
And yet. And yet.
Meditation teaches us to turn toward life. This I write in big, bold letters at the start of every introductory class. “MEDITATION TEACHES US TO TURN TOWARD LIFE.” “This is our thesis statement,” I explain. “Everything we are going to do or talk about today comes back to these seven words.”
If we are happy, this fact suggests, the practice helps us experience happiness. If we are sad we are encouraged to experience sadness. It’s not a matter of picking and choosing. Instead, it is a matter of turning toward without the filter of ‘this’ or ‘that’. Of very simply turning toward. Again and again.
The results of such steady discipline are many, of course, and these can often be surprising. Take those feelings, for instance. For much of the last three years my gaze has been directed toward these. The angle of my sight was slightly off to begin with - it had to be; I had never looked this way before and needed to move slowly. With time and familiarity, however, the gaze has become more direct and what I have seen has been like an onion slowly peeling back layer after layer: numbness, then panic, then terror, then the memories came.
Tonight, in retrospect, I know why I couldn’t do that meeting, why I couldn’t listen to Reggie in spite of the weighty obligations I felt pulling me. This knowledge arose out of my repetitive listening to Dido, to that first song on Life For Rent, to ‘White Flag’. She’s marking her ground in this song, staking her claim. Her ex- may have moved on but this does not mean she is no longer in love. These feelings are here, they are in her - they are her - and she is unwilling to pretend otherwise. ‘Flag’, in this sense, is an act of life-affirming defiance: “I’m in love and always will be.”
Is sadness the only thread winding its way forward from that curtained living room? Is sorrow, loneliness, and ache? That these have been steady companions is undeniable, but are they everything I heard and felt in that old Hank Williams song? For the umpteenth time tonight, I follow my training with these and turned toward their difficult presence. I look and, with Dido resonating inside, another layer peels back.
Under everything else, there is defiance in that little boy holding his Playtape 1200 on one shoulder. There is a sense of marking ground, staking claim. There is hurt and ache and loneliness, yes, but there is also a determination to find a way - to find any way - to stand amidst these. There is a fierceness that yearns to live, that is going to find a way to live regardless of what has come or what will. There is a deep, almost primal love for this life that will not be surrendered, that will not be given up.
“I’m in love and always will be.” Swinging back and forth, ear pressed to the sad music coming out of a single speaker - this was my way of saying these words, this was my way of making this declaration, of not giving up.
And I’m still not giving up.
Toward the end of this evening’s wandering, I stopped in a nearby park. My back surrendering to the support of a thick-trunked tree, I wept. These tears came not because of the sorrow that had washed through my day, but rather from a sense of overwhelming awe. It was all so beautiful: the glass sky, the sharp air, the sore heart. And it was all so amazing. I had come from that shadowy living room - through the barren years, the sleepless nights, the heavy depression - to sit here tonight realizing this: how much I love, how much I am loved.
We used to sit around the fire, you and I. Firelight dancing over our faces we would share stories reminding us of who we are, of what it is to be human. Now I sit in a coffee shop, the light of a laptop casting my features aglow. Still we are telling stories, it seems, and still these remind us of what it means to be alive. Back then, each tale ended in the same way: with the words, “This life is good.” Tonight, too, this seems a good way to end. Fitting. Appropriate.
This life is good. This life is good.
NEIL MCKINLAY - MEDITATION | COACHING | INTUITION - WWW.NEILMCKINLAY.COM