Friday, December 30, 2011

I heard them because I accepted the limitations of an arts conference in a Virginia girls’ finishing school, which limitations allowed me quite by accident to hear the blackbirds as they flew up and overhead.

John Cage from “Lecture on Nothing,” 1959. It occurs in a passage where he's talking about structure, that we need it to see and hear life. That life without structure goes "unseen" but structure that contains no life (read: heart/reason for being) is dead. Take for example a mediocre Hollywood blockbuster or network sitcom. Things that go through the motions quite competently but ultimately don't move us or leave us with anything meaningful, or worth remembering. The new Mission Impossible movie probably fits that bill. Or on the other hand, those who have a lot to say but don't intentionally push into mainstream channels don't get heard. Without structure, one that makes sense to others, one that is visible, the content and quality of ideas can be lost.

He goes on to talk about his experience at the "Viginia girls' finishing school," that there he was, listening to a lecture, and he looked out the window to hear birds rising from a field. Simple, but he was only able to experience this moment, to hear this "sound de-licious be-yond com-pare" because he "accepted his limitations." What exactly are his limitations? He accepted his situation, whatever that may have been. From the passage, it reads as if he was a little bored, maybe bored with the speaker, and turned his head to look out the window. What's remarkable is that he was ready to hear these birds. It's one thing to turn distractedly away from a thing, be it a speaker or a TV show or a man on the street holding a sign, but it is entirely different to recognize this impulse to do so. And once he does, he's able to accept where he's at, and move on.

Easier said than done, to accept where we find ourselves. And it's hard, and at least for me, takes a lot of talking and processing to even begin to understand the "limitations" of a situation. But it's a quote I always come back to, partly because he doesn't seem to blame his situation. That a thing can't be anything more than it already is. The speaker was not boring, but the arts conference was not for him at that given moment. It is from this same distance, this same perspective, that allows him to hear the blackbirds rising from the field. A kind of ethic or posture, and in his terms, a kind of structure that allows him to experience clarity. Once he comes to the one moment of clarity (which may have taken him days/weeks/years to arrive at. Who knows) it's no coincidence that the world suddenly becomes beautiful. That his ears and eyes are suddenly in tune with a bigger world.