Driving to work

IMG_2207I’m reading a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth.  I imagine that any biography of Dorothy Wordsworth would focus primarily on the handful  of years before her brother William married when she kept the diary that was to become known as the Grasmere Journals.  I have only read excerpts of these journals, but what I have read I have found arresting.  It is satisfying to read about a specific day in a specific place and imagine the light on the water of a lake sparkling as she describes it, the wind in the trees and the clouds building above the hills.  It somehow recreates a life more evocatively than a conventional biography usually does.  Although there are certainly important moments in a life that we recognise and tell stories about, 99% of life is minutea, and this minutea is ephemeral.

Take my ordinary day, for example.  I must have driven over the same piece of road on the way to work close to one thousand times now.  Each one of those journeys has taken about thirty minutes, and every one of those journeys has been different from the last.  My drive to work is along the motorway from Wellington to Petone.  I enjoy it.  Mainly because the harbour is so beautiful, and the mixture of wind, cloud, and light makes a new panorama each morning as that mixture of elements plays again and again on the sea of the harbour and the ranges of hills around the harbour.  This journey is a part of every single working day, a journey that has now accumulated to represent hundreds of hours, and yet in the unwritten autobiographies of our lives it would not even be mentioned.

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I went to the Constable exhibition when it was at Te Papa.  Generally I don’t like Constable paintings very much.  Rural scenes of wagons in babbling brooks don’t do much for me, but he does have a more impressionistic style of landscape painting that I like, and there is one strand of his paintings that I particularly enjoy.  Constable did hundreds of cloudscapes.  These are rapid paint sketches of the clouds on any given day.  He noted the date, and the weather conditions on the back of each piece.  I love these.  Although they are meaningless they seem to me to be full of meaning.  While they were probably simply technical exercises done to hone a skill, much as a musician might practise scales, they read to me like the precise recording of nature we find in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal.  Any attempt to record the ephemeral has a tendency to resonate against man’s awareness of time, and the fleet footed span of years that make up a single life.  Constable’s clouds and Dorothy Wordsworth’s descriptions of nature have this resonance.

IMG_2212aOf course both of these people had their work refined into another form.  Constable used his own observations of clouds in his more substantial pieces, and William famously drew on some of his sister’s passages for some of his poetry.  However, for me there is something closer to real life in the originals of these more refined artworks.  Clouds fleetingly  form and reform across a sky and are gone.  They loom above our lives and vanish with the moments we live through.  A chance encounter while walking with her brother led Dorothy to record this in her journal in 1802:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road . . .  some rested their heads on mossy stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway.

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Which led William into a poem that famously begins with this:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;

Unfashionably direct and warm-hearted it is one of Wordsworth’s sweetest poems, but how much more of the moment of life is in this:

And reeled, and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.

I drive to work everyday and almost everyday I am struck by the great beauty of the harbour.  Some mornings the sky is a clear blue dome with a warm orange glow on the cusp of the far hills; some mornings the clouds make tremendous piles over a choppy, restless sea, and fingers of light shaft down behind Soames Island. 

What of it?  I am neither dismissing art or trying to put ordinary life on a pedastal.  Reading the Grasmere Journals and looking again at Constable’s paintings of clouds reminded me of two things.  Firstly, that much of my life is spent in cars or at work and yet that vast chunk of my life goes unrecorded and, secondly, that I should remember to open my eyes once and awhile and appreciate the transient beauty of ordinary things.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree – Tony Orlando and Dawn

Number one in New Zealand – 31 May – 2 August, 1973

IMG_2198Sometimes I feel like a part of me has gone away for awhile.  When you wake up in the morning it is as if that other self woke an hour earlier, stepped out of you, pushed open the front door and walked off into the empty Sunday streets.  So when you get up, and they are already far away up in the hills, you feel empty.  Empty, and waiting for their return.

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Tie a Yellow Ribbon was number one in New Zealand for seven weeks in 1973, and was the biggest selling single of that year around the world.  Before I ventured out on this pointless project  I had never heard this song.  I am convinced of this even though when I first heard the song it seemed vaguely familiar.  I’m sure it only seemed vaguely familiar because it covers such well trodden musical ground, not because I had actually heard it before.  There is not much to dislike about the song, but there is also nothing about it that would suggest to a casual listener in 2009 that this was the song that pushed people’s buttons in 1973.

tonyVisiting the Tony Orlando website is another salutary lesson in the pitfalls of fame.  There is a section of fan poetry on the theme of Tony’s 60th birthday:

A Star is born, whose [sic] now the “Big 6 0”

The world we know him as “Tony O”

Born April 3rd under Aries sign

A better person you’ll never find

 

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There is also an opportunity to hear Tony sing about Nutrisystem, and some before and after shots of Tony before and after using this breakthrough dietary system (although the “after” shot is a little less than reassuring).

The 1970s were good to Tony.  He had hit songs and a popular variety TV show.  His voice is pleasant and he was a handsome fellow.  Still, it pays to keep in mind that he was a simply a voice and a face in this whole marketing exercise.  He wrote nothing, played nothing, and recorded the vocals of his first hit without even meeting the two female  singers who were to be called Dawn.  Not  forgetting, also, that Tie a  Yellow Ribbon is hum along, nothingness.

It is a song that is about return.  Originally it was simply a song imagining a man coming home from prison – if there was a yellow ribbon around the (ole) oak tree then he would know that his beloved was still waiting for him.  This got picked up in 1973 and attached to the idea of Vietnam vets coming home, and picked up again with the Iran hostages.  In fact, just the other night I saw people in some small town in America  tying yellow ribbons for an American hostage in Afghanistan.

I’m comin’ home I’ve done my time
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine
If you received my letter tellin’ you I’d soon be free
Then you’ll know just what to do if you still want me
If you still want me.

Woah tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree
It’s been three long years, do ya still want me
If I don’t see a ribbon round the ole oak tree
I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us
Put the blame on me
If I don’t see a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree

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Of course the art of return can be tricky emotional ground.  Sometimes it is hard to know what or who has changed more: the people and places you return to, or yourself.

In 1973 New Zealanders as well as Americans were returning from Vietnam

Virtually within the space of hours we were plucked out of our war zone and catapulted back into a life where people lived a normal life unaffected by the activities of a war. These people were not involved in our war and did not have the faintest idea of how we had lived these last months and, furthermore did not seem to care. And they expected us to be as we were when we left, to act normally in their sense of the meaning.

But our sense of normality was now vastly different and many fatal strains were placed on relationships. You light a cigarette, smoke it, drop it and grind it out with your boot. So what’s the fuss? Oh, carpet! Sorry, haven’t seen that stuff for a while. Get him out of the reception lounge as quickly as possible before he does something else to embarrass his family.

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 When we came back to New Zealand after living in Osaka for five and half years it seemed like it was never going to stop raining.  I remember walking about Cuba Mall in a daze wondering where everyone was, and being amazed that I could smell the sea.  A tidal wave of responsibilities rose up before me: get a car, get a job, get a flat, look for a house, buy a bed, buy a chest of drawers, buy one of everything.  Although we had lived for five years in one of the most  consumption obsessed societys on Earth, for us, tucked into a tiny apartment, what we consumed was small stuff – CDs, books, a meal out – not the big, responsible, grown-up stuff.  It was a hard return.

As hard as the handful of last encounters with Gran, and the town where she lived.

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I quite like the ridiculous and the sublime; it’s all the bits in between that can get me down.  The ridiculous might be Monty Python; the sublime might be a Brando soliquoy, but it is the vast middle ground that is actually life, and even though I think it is grander things my other self goes looking for on the days when he walks out the door and leaves me, it is the middle ground that is important to do well.  If you get too taken with the sublime you can become very pretentious, or precious, or fey, while endless wallowing in the ridiculous tends to make you very cynical about humanity, tends to make you want to deflate everything and everyone, because you wind up doubting the motives of all beautiful things.

There is endless possibility in the everyday, but there is also the vacuuming to do.

This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand.  The series can be found here.