Monday, June 3, 2013

So Beautiful or So What

“There are only two ways to live your life," Einstein once opined. "One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Simon more succinctly puts this: "So beautiful, or so what."

This driving song starts off with the speaker describing the "chicken gumbo" he is making, then shrugging "life is what you make of it." You have certain ingredients, but the choice of how to combine them is yours.

His next example is a "bedtime story" he tells his children, which may or may not have a happy ending. In either case, the moral remains the same-- the story is the work of the storyteller.

He continues with a gush of humility-- he is "just a raindrop in a bucket," one nameless, indistinct entity among many. He is but "a coin dropped in a slot," a means to an end. "An empty house on Weed Street," even.

Next, we have a musing on "the way we're ignorant," going so far as to "seek out bad advice." Why? We will "jigger it and figure it," rationalizing our (mis)behavior anyway. Even better if we can blame our misdeeds on the urging of others. 

Worse, even though "life is what you make of it" and you can, therefore, actually make something of it, we "play a game with time and love/ Like a pair of rolling dice"... and leave major life decisions up to chance!

The last verse is a major shift-- to a famous photograph of the men who pointed to the direction from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fatal bullet originated. The speaker adds the idea of the responding police siren singing the spiritual "Savior, Pass Me Not." 

Why this historical reference here? Dr. King taught that justice was up to us, as individuals, in the ways we chose to treat each other. His own life story embodied the idea that a person could make his life be the way he wanted it to be. So we choose to make of his death what we will-- a warning to not get involved, or a call to get involved and carry the torch he passed us, spreading the light.

The theme of this song is stated outright several times. But the placing of this song as the last on the album serves to somewhat dismiss the spiritual, divine musings that permeated the rest of the album. We're never going to know, ultimately, what goes on in Heaven. And, since we couldn't affect it even if we did know, our best bet is to focus on the world we do have and can shape.

This echoes a teaching from the Talmud. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, at the Revelation, was not just a spiritual event. It had practical, even legal, ramifications. God gave the Bible to the humans... and it is ours now. "It is not in Heaven" anymore, say the rabbis. It is here, and it belongs to humanity.

Hopefully, this is only Simon's latest song, not his last. But it marks a culmination of a lifetime of theological pondering. In  the very first song we covered, "Bleecker Street," Simon noticed that seems to be a "fog" hiding God from humanity. All these years and songs later, he has stopped trying to pierce the fog with his eyes. 

He is resigned that "life is what you make of it," and that your own attitude, while it is all you can control, is all that matters anyway.

Musical note: 
The unusual instruments this time are...
the bansuri, a wooden flute from India, 
the croatles, a set of tiny tuned cymbals arranged on a rack and struck with mallets
the saz, a Middle Eastern string instrument with a round back, resembling a long-necked lute
the resonator, a guitar with a steel plate over the sound hole, sometimes called a dobro.

Next Song: Tennessee

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