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I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.

I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalites he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.

For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.

In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.

So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.

Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”

And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.

I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?

But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?

I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.

 

**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.

 

Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title:

 

 

 

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It’s been a few months. Of leaving Colorado, loading all our stuff in storage and living in my parents’ basement, looking for houses in Saint Paul (we finally got the fifth one we offered on), getting kids launched into new schools, updating drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations, you get the idea.

We’ve been moved into our new house for just over a month now, and we’re starting to get reacquainted with living in the Twin Cities, eleven years after we left it. There is so much going on here, and I’m excited to dig into it! Last Saturday we went to hear The Salt Vine and Annie Mack at the Aster Cafe; Tuesday night we sat in on a dress rehearsal for Sam’s Son, an upcoming musical; and last night Nathan and I biked over to Humboldt High School to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra give a free concert for residents of our neighborhood – and then on over to Wabasha Brewing to sample beers from our most local brewery (we were not disappointed – Cathedral Porter and Darktober, mmm!).

I’m eager to start playing music here again. We’ve got some big renovation projects happening in our house that will take a lot of our attention for probably the first year we’re here, but I’m hoping to at least get out and hit a few coffee shops soon.

In the meantime, here is a very rough laptop recording of a song I wrote this summer. (We haven’t gotten the recording equipment set up yet.) You can glimpse our gutted kitchen through the doorway behind me! Reminds me a little of this video Nathan and I made years ago in the house we gutted in Owatonna.

Lyrics:

You’ll never recognize your life’s undertow

That subtle subcurrent stays hidden

Till what you should have done a long time ago

Meets what you are because you didn’t

Keep your eyes open wide

Wear your heart on the outside

Clowns and cynics clog our pocket scrolls

We search for angels on the airwaves

We trip and tangle in the threads of trolls

Ensconced in our respective enclaves

Reach your mind towards the light

Hold your soul through its dark night

Keep your heart open wide

Wear your eyes on the outside

Of all of this cursed and kissed existence

You may not feel it for a long hard time

But joy comes ever back around

And nothing beautiful stays in the lines

And demagogues eventually fall down

Raise your voice through the haze

Hold my hand through these dark days

Keep your ears open wide

Let the best songs inside

Of all of this cursed and kissed existence

 

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It’s the last day of another year, and here is my last song for #songaweek2016.

In the middle of writing it, I realized I was quoting from the Bible, the gospel of John, when Jesus is talking to his disciples about getting ready to say goodbye, and he leads up to something I hold as central to my faith – that his followers will be known by their love.

Here’s hoping that maybe in 2017, that can become a little more true.

It’s been an amazing year of songwriting, and I look forward to reflecting on it a bit in another post, as well as making a central list of all the songs and highlighting some of my favorites.

Here’s my song for week 52 of #songaweek2016. Oh, and PS – if you or someone you know might enjoy trying this challenge, check out #songaweek2017.

I go out into the night
I go out I go out like a light

In a little while
you will look for me
you will look for me
and I won’t be there

I go out into the night
I go out I go out like a light

In a stranger’s face
in your daughter’s voice
in the love you share
you’ll know me there

I go out into the night
I go out I go out like a light

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Well, how about a little country flavor? Here’s my song for week 51 of #songaweek2016. One week left in this year-long challenge!

Today I don’t feel like a love song

today I just wanna be loved by you

today I feel somehow we’ve gone wrong

today I just want to be right by you

baby, baby, baby, baby mine

tomorrow feels already faded

yesterday holds all our lovers dreams

we’re cynical hardened and jaded

impervious to juvenile extremes

baby . . . mine

let’s take these scraps and scars

and start again for the umpteenth time

forever feels empty without you

so right now please fill up my arms with you

and cover my aches with your kisses

and breathe here with me in the space we keep

baby . . . mine

 

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I wasn’t only thinking about Aleppo when I wrote this song. Christmas doggedly returns at the darkest time of the year, and sometimes it feels nearly impossible – or insincere, or inconsiderate – to celebrate when so many people are suffering.

But I think that tears of compassion and even deep personal suffering can coexist with tidings of comfort and joy. And the longer I live, the more that is what Christmas – and life in general – is about for me.

So let’s sing and celebrate – and mourn and grieve. Let’s be fully alive and unafraid this Christmas season. True “Christmas spirit” is not a mask that must pretend everything is okay in order to start the festivities, but a wholehearted embrace of the world and the people in it, just as I find them.

I’m not saying I know much about how to do this, or can even possibly begin to understand what so many people have experienced or are going through right now. But I do know that I’d rather practice listening and opening my heart to people – and risk making mistakes – than ignore and pretend – and shrink my world down to what feels manageable.

Once more, with feeling.

Here’s my song for week 50 of #songaweek2016:

it’s an old weathered song
at the darkest time of the year
merry christmas, merry christmas once more
we raise up a toast
and we try to drum up the cheer
merry christmas, merry christmas once more

while the bombs keep on dropping
and nobody’s stopping to cry

it’s a tired refrain
that keeps proclaiming peace and good will
merry christmas, merry christmas once more
and the stars keep their watch
and the snow lies cold and still
merry christmas, merry christmas once more

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Since “Scrooge” has unfortunately become synonymous with a bad chapter of a fictional character’s life, this song is called “Ebenezer” because I think Ebenezer Scrooge actually represents all that is good and hopeful about humanity – that no matter how miserable we become, we can change. We can dance again.

Here’s my song for week 49 of #songaweek2016:

And now
I reach
the end
of me
and find a universe of joy
beyond
control
a miracle of dawning hope
Hold out your hands
and let us dance
again

 

 

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Here’s a little extra song. I actually made this in 2013 but am just making it public this week. It’s one of my very favorite Christmas songs (I grew up hearing Nat King Cole sing it on the record player), arranged with a little addition I wrote working off of O Holy Night. Replete with beautiful paintings!

 

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