My last post spoke of a failure of imagination and made a call to foster imagination in our lives. I lamented what I saw as one repeated pattern of widespread lack of imagination that has disfigured the lives of many children and young adults. For me, this lament led to an urgent request that we all try to be more imaginative and support places where imagination is allowed to flourish. And what is so important about imagination?
Well, if we define imagination as forming a mental image, it may not seem like much. It can sound like a mundane act, simply one of our main faculties as human beings. But what an amazing faculty it is. After reading a passage from Wendell Berry’s Imagination In Place one day, I began to understand imagination as seeing and inwardly seeing. (In fact, that may be a direct quote from the book, pardon my memory.) This phrasing and his words further opened my mind as to why I am so attracted to this faculty and find it urgently necessary to use it. In this “graced moment of opportune crisis” (as Lyanda Lynn Haupt once put it), we must imagine.
We must take a good hard look at ourselves and our communities and the world. This awareness of what happens in and around us is key. It is part of the imaginative seeing. However, if it is the only part, our “good hard look” becomes an endless accumulation of facts. This does not end up being terribly useful. It’s plenty of data points, but what do we do with this data? How do we arrange it and interpret them?
This leads to further consideration of inwardly seeing. Inwardly seeing is not self-absorption but is a quiet opportunity to look at what we know and to synthesize the things that our eyes have seen. Quite simply, it’s processing and forming a mental image, as the dictionary definition so mundanely puts it.
It is mundane, in some regards. It is also an accessible faculty to all human beings. I think there’s something powerful in that. I staunchly disbelieve people who say they can’t draw/write/sing/act/etc. I don’t usually say it to their face, but I’m saying it now. We all possess the power to imagine and to create.
Creating things from our imagination is not always a constructive force, but, if we honestly move back and forth between seeing and inwardly seeing, we are bound to do some imagining about what is good and true in the world. And, if we act creatively to bring these good and true things forth, wow. Just wow. That’s where a blog post becomes a woefully inadequate way to depict all this. I surely don’t know how it all works, but I am sure that we all need to use our imagination and make good things.
The City Museum is a place of infinite kinetic imagination for many of us. Not all can share in its magic, but many feel strongly about the mysteriously transformative world that the Cassilly crew have built and continue to build. The seemingly boundless strangeness, silliness, and surprise of the sculpture-scape draw out the shy inner child in some people, and the place opens up most visitors to seeing the world and themselves in bizarre new ways. I’ve not been there in years, but that’s how I remember it. I remember the first time I went on the big slides after they were expanded almost to the building’s top floor. As someone played an organ, people of all ages were climbing several flights of stairs to slide back down all of those stories in the chutes of the former shoe factory. As wild as that was, it is just one of many giddily preposterous experiences that the City Museum facilitates. I am glad that Miss Cyrus visited the City Museum because every person her age (and of every age!) deserves such a chance to let their imagination laugh and play in such a landscape. No matter what you think of her as a celebrity, I think that Miss Cyrus has suffered from unimaginative circumstances fostered by her handlers.
A lamentable failure of imagination continues to hastily build up many child stars and remorselessly tear them down. The process of rising to fame and then falling from grace is older than all of us, I will admit, and I am sure that few child celebrities have been allowed a graceful adolescence. But the marketing of children and young teens by companies like Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom (National Amusements) has become so rapid and nauseously formulaic that I feel it demands our attention. Without any public expression of shame or even regret, the same companies that plaster these children all over their television channels and movies aimed at children later fill their tabloid news shows and other media with the fiery crash as their stars age, getting into hard drugs, being recklessly and embarrassingly promiscuous, blatantly plagiarizing movie ideas from comic book creators, etc. Whether these children are willing participants in their meteoric rising and falling seems irrelevant. These companies repeatedly derive countless profits from their rise and demise even as they distribute their characters to children all over the world.
Do you find these behaviors repugnant? I do. So what action can we take? I don’t know. Realistically, we have little leverage against the behaviors of the three or so companies that own most major media content in the United States of America (and far beyond). The only answer I can conjure is to spread imagination in loving ways to those around us.
The behavior pattern described above lacks imagination. The storyline is worn out and without merit. The jokes are stale and propped up by canned laughter. The dance moves are mechanical. The music is phoned in and auto tuned. The art is a cheap, slick imitation of someone else’s work, just like the clothing styles they lift from their paid focus groups.
I know you have a better imagination than they do. First of all, you are a human, not a corporation. Second of all, I’ve seen your Vimeo channel / Bandcamp page / zine / graff writing / open mic night set / open source programs / wood working / math homework / knitting projects / notebook doodles and, frankly, I can’t look away. So, please, KEEP DOING THAT. It’s the only answer I’ve got.
P. S. Don’t be content to share it only on the Internet. Be imaginative in person with other people, friends, family, strangers, and anyone who will let you. And visit the City Museum if you are able! Visit somewhere that similarly sings out to your imagination if you are not able! Let joy flow uncurbed. Cuz why not?
This song arose while I was in undergraduate college in 2006 or 2007. This track is just a sample of the full song. Over time, I’ve been adding more verses, a bridge, and other chord progressions. But these are the verses which came to me first. Here are the lyrics as recorded in this low fidelity SoundCloud track:
Photograph shrines line wallets and walls.
Long distances are traveled by phone calls,
But bytes and bits and bits and bytes don’t shine much light on silent nights
when the spirit disappears.
Amputees and refugees can tell you there’s a war.
We didn’t start the fire. We just let it burn on more.
Neurotic circus acts keep the status quo intact,
but it doesn’t still our fears.
You’ll find us cryin’ for love but knockin’ on hate’s door.
You’ll find us cryin’ for life but knockin’ on death’s door.
Don’t you know that most people are both rich and poor?
The difference comes in where their treasures are stored.
Where’s your treasure stored?
So, that’s the bit of it that was ready to be recorded this summer. It’s a song about being lonely, even in a digital world. Not only do we have “analog” photographs and recordings to make us feel connected to our loved ones and acquaintances, but we privileged on the planet have digital, real-time connections. Yet cellular phones and digital social media haven’t done a great deal more than photographs to render our beloved in a way that dissipates our feeling of their absence. Even physical presence sometimes isn’t enough to shake us from our lonesome feelings, but emails, texts, letters, photographs, and social media comments certainly can fall short of conveying love and concern for/from our loved ones.
This is also a song about trying to think we have it all together in a world that’s falling apart. I invoke the lyrics of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, which lists a variety of world events over a forty-year span. The verses of his song simply list the events, people, and places of the time period, but the chorus says that “we” tried to combat “the fire” of historic events.
I felt compelled to suggest that many of us let “the fire” burn on more. To be honest, many “amputees and refugees” of global conflicts might think that those of us with an audible political voice do not do enough to fight the proverbial fire. The 24-hour cable news stations and insulating news websites create an idea that the status quo is viable, but we can’t seriously believe them when we search our hearts and minds. We still fear for our safety, for our moral high ground, and for the consequences our comfort exacts on other people in the world.
Beyond the notions of loneliness and lost socio-political opportunities, I find it useful for us to ask ourselves where our treasure is stored. The wording of this question comes to me from my Judeo-Christian spiritual experience, but it’s a question any of us can ask ourselves. Consider that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter encounters this concept on the graves of his beloved mentor’s long-lost family members. Where is your treasure stored? Where do your footsteps show that you have walked? Where do we invest and seek returns? Where do we exert effort and hope that it may bear fruit? Where do our voices speak and our hands act in diligent and intentional work?
This song is in a minor key and the verses aren’t cheery, but, I find that the question “Where’s your treasure stored?” speaks hope and presents an active way forward. If we feel disconnected and if we wonder how to act in a world full of conflict, I think we do well to step back and question where we have been sinking our personal resources. Whether we are monetarily poor or rich, all people have abilities. When we question where we are using those abilities, we open up to listen and learn about ourselves and our place in the world.
Here’s the SoundCloud sample of “Where’s Your Treasure Stored?”:
I graduated from high school ten years and a few months ago. As I neared the end of my public school education, this song (“Goodbye, Hello, and In Between”) came to me. I recall it being prompted by a request of one of my best friends who happened to be on the student council, but it was also generated out of the nostalgia I felt as my friends, classmates, and I stepped out of our public education.
As I considered what to say about the end of high school and that summer after, I couldn’t honestly be bubbly and cheery about it all. As a teenager who thought over and over-thought things, I couldn’t accept the idea that we were in the “best days of our lives” without addressing the reality that public high school is a time of turmoil for many people. Many of us who have gone through public school in the United States of America lament aspects of the school system (for instance, our school building felt painfully sterile and was rumored to be based off of a prison floor plan), but we also hold dear certain teachers, friendships, and experiences we had during this time of our lives. I doubted how heartfelt the goodbyes were going to be, but several of those last hugs and verbal goodbyes carried more emotional weight than I expected. In a country with some malleable public rituals, ending high school is still seen as a pretty obvious advance into legal adulthood for most people. The culmination of this period urges strong feelings in even the most aloof people. I don’t think it’s too sappy to wax poetic on our formative years. To misappropriate a Neko Case quote, “I’m holdin’ on to that teenage feeling…”
During my high school years, I learned to play guitar from an excellent and humble teacher. I wrestled with depressive feelings, yet my couple of close friends drew me out and kept me going. I moved from being a recluse among my peers to learning that I was also a social creature. I stepped out of my comfort zone and actually went to a couple of “shows”. A small group of my close-knit friends made some weird and interesting films. My mind expanded under the pressure and inspiration of classroom and extracurricular activities. I learned to ask important questions from and found community in Christian church organizations. I sort of tried to express unrequited love to crushes but did not date anyone. Through it all, my parents offered me support while still allowing me to independently develop a sense of self.
A lot happened from Fall 1999 to Spring of 2003, but, for high schoolers who had completed all of the graduation requirements, something ended in May of 2003. It was with some trepidation that I watched my more ambitious classmates rocket off towards careers and schools that put them in very “adult” positions. I wondered, “What am I supposed to be doing?” Along with my family, I examined my options and entered in an undergraduate college program.
But earlier that summer, no, back up into spring… I felt the sage clarity of a send-off. Though I was not wise then nor am I very wise now, I felt that we were all saying goodbye to a lot of things. We were saying goodbye to our former selves, to a lot of our friends and teachers, etc. I wanted to keep in touch and did for years. But ten years later, not even on-line social media has been able keep the bonds that were to break. Saying goodbye to one version of self, I honestly wasn’t sure how my post-high school self would look. Other people had more sure concepts of how they would transform beyond 2003.
As for those aspirations and ambitions? Some people lived up to them, and others fell back on other plans. The weird thing is, decade by decade, I watch some people of my generation take over more and more of the power, fame, and finances in the world. That’s something to which I allude in this song, but I could never have understood the specifics of how this would happen until recent years. Many of us are settling in careers, families, and homes (“nesting” as some say). Some are wandering. Some are seeking. Some are floundering. But a few of us are actually taking the steering wheel that drives companies, culture, industries, policy, etc. That’s something my “teenage” mind cannot fully grasp. I’m trying to live authentically, and it’s worthwhile to juxtapose my present self next to the words and motions of this song I that came to me when I only had eighteen years. It’s like taking two images on tracing paper and holding them up to the light.
My sister is going through high school in our home town now. I played this song for her during the summer before school started, and now she’s in the middle of a bittersweet couple of semesters. To say more in a public blog would be cliché, but I wish the best for her during the last of her high school months.
Here’s a low fidelity recording of a song I sing called “Goodbye, Hello, and In Between”.
This summer, I’m getting my chops back on my songs and others. This is a sampler of things to come and was recorded in a very lo-fi setting. What you’ll find here are my original songs and one Gershwin standard that an old friend of mine taught me to play, God rest his soul. He taught me guitar and taught me quite a bit about chord melody and the old standard songs. And he taught me to be humble and balanced even if your skill is great.
A couple of these songs have to do with summer. I am ten years out of high school, so the song “Goodbye, Hello, and In Between” song is a bit removed from when I first wrote it. The other songs are not quite so old. No pressure to tip, but if you do, it will go towards better recordings in the next two months and my general finances at home. Thanks for listening!