Midweek Music Break: Lynn Tomlinson, “The Ballad of Holland Island House”

[Lyrics copyright © Lynn Tomlinson]

Says artist (and lyricist) Lynn Tomlinson at her site:

I came across the haunting image of a house standing alone in the water in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Reading more about this house, I was struck by its story, and its relevance today, when so many communities are facing challenges from sea-level rise. The images I chose and the visual style reflects the artwork of Winslow Homer, Van Gogh, and Kathe Kolwitz, artists working in the late 1800s, the time period when the house on Holland Island was abandoned.

This video’s construction involved much more than that brief paragraph suggests: each frame was hand-painted in clay — not oil, watercolor, gouache, or other traditional medium — on glass. I’ll give you a moment to think about that — especially about the relationship between art and artifice, between real and ideal, between temporary and permanent, natural and man-made, and then and now

On this page at a site called Sometimes Interesting, you can read many details about the island and its last house, with many photos (including what appear to be the last known photos before the house’s collapse beneath the waves). Wikipedia, of course, offers its own useful summary.

My favorite “fact”: Holland Island is not an island of rocky protrusions; it’s an island of clay and silt. Although Tomlinson does not (to my knowledge) say so explicitly, it’s hard not to draw a dotted line between that geology and the physical media at the heart of the visual one.

(Tomlinson’s film won 1st place in the Greenpeace USA “Postcards from Climate Change” Student Film Contest. And as you can see from the still frame of the Vimeo video about, it’s picked up a good number of other awards as well.)

Aside from the work of the animation itself, Lynn Tomlinson wrote the ballad’s lyrics. The music and the performance, though, are courtesy of a roots-music/Americana duo going by the name Anna & Elizabeth (surnames Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle, respectively). Their joint mission, says their Web site:

WE HOPE THAT OUR WORK

  • BRINGS LIGHT to old ballads, tunes, hymns, and the stories of everyday people.
  • HONORS the lives & creativity of those who have gone before us — ancestors, pioneers, friends, and dear teachers
  • PASSES THE TRADITION to a younger generation & encourages friendships across generations
  • INSPIRES people to make art in their own homes.
  • JOINS conversations with other artists & community makers — in learning how to create art that feeds, that brings people together to sing, dance, and ask the difficult questions.

Which, you might say, is a mighty big chunk of ambition to bite off. Nonetheless, they’re making a pretty sizable dent in it. A couple weeks ago, they released their second album of reimagined “old-timey” music. They are touring over the next several months, performing at venues up and down the east coast of the US, the Midwest, the Northwest; in the UK; in Canada.

Finally, both relevant and not to be sneered at: Anna & Elizabeth are aficionados of an old, old art form called “crankies.” Picture a story or ballad — a story song — told visually, by way of a series of consecutive panels… which are joined together in a looooong roll and hand-cranked through a frame to illustrate or comment on the passing scene and moments.

Not only their sweet-harmony performances and musical tastes, but also this affinity for frame-at-a-time storytelling, make them the perfect accompanists for Lynn Tomlinson’s video.

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Deep Magic

'When It Exceeds Our Ability to Understand,' by user 'mancosu' on Flickr

[Image: “When It Exceeds Our Ability to Understand,” by Fred Mancosu on Flickr.
(Click to enlarge.) Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (from which I could have selected the entire week’s offerings):

Alternate Endings

There are times when they gather at the edge of your life,
Shadows slipping over the far hills, daffodils
blooming too early, the dark matter of the universe
that threads its way through the few thousand blackbirds
that have invaded the trees out back. Every ending

sloughs off our dreams like snakeskin. This is the kind of
black ice the mind skids across. The candlelight burning down
into the sand. The night leaving its ashes in our eyes.

There are times when your voice turns over in my sleep.
It is no longer blind. The sky is no longer deaf.

There are times when it seems the stars practice
all night just to become fireflies, when it seems there is
no end to what our hearts scribble on corridor walls.
Only when we look at each other do we cease to be ourselves.
Only at a certain height does the smoke blend into air.
There are times when your words seem welded to that sky.

There are times when love is so complicated it circles
like chimney swifts unable to decide where to land.
There are endings so sad their shadows scuff the dirt.
Their sky is as inconsolable as the two year old, Zahra,
torn from her mother and beaten to death in the Sudan.

There are endings so sad I want the morning light
to scourge the fields. Endings that are only what the river
dreams when it dries up. Endings that are constant echoes.

There are times when I think we are satellites collecting
dust from one of the earlier births of the universe Don’t give up.

Each ending is an hourglass filled with doors. There are times
when I feel you might be searching for me, when I can read
what is written on the far sides of stars. I’m nearly out of time.
My heart is a dragonfly. I’ll have to settle for this, standing under
a waterfall of words you never said. There are times like this
when no ending appears, times when I am so inconsolably happy.

(Richard Jackson [source])

and:

We are now more than halfway removed from what the unwritten word meant to our ancestors, who believed in the original, primal word behind all manifestations of the spirit. You sang because you were answered. The answers come from life around you. Prayers, chants, and songs were also responses to the elements, to the wind, the sun and stars, the Great Mystery behind them. Life on earth springs from a collateral magic that we rarely consult. We avoid the unknown as if we were afraid that contact would lower our sense of self-esteem.

(John Hay [source])

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Distant Cool Dark

[Video: “Composition Complete Track – Bossa 1,” by Volkmar Studtrucker. See the note
at the foot of this post for details.]

From whiskey river:

Impermanence is not just of philosophical interest. It’s very personal. Until we accept and deeply understand in our very being that things change from moment to moment, and never stop even for one instant, only then can we let go. And when we really let go inside, the relief is enormous. Ironically this gives release to a whole new dimension of love. People think that if someone is unattached, they are cold. But this isn’t true. Anyone who has met very great spiritual masters who are really unattached is immediately struck by their warmth to all beings, not just to the ones they happen to like or are related to. Non-attachment releases something very profound inside us, because it releases that level of fear. We all have so much fear: fear of losing, fear of change, an inability to just accept.

…It’s like a dance. And we have to give each being space to dance their dance. Everything is dancing; even the molecules inside the cells are dancing. But we make our lives so heavy. We have these incredibly heavy burdens we carry with us like rocks in a big rucksack. We think that carrying this big heavy rucksack is our security; we think it grounds us. We don’t realize the freedom, the lightness of just dropping it off, letting it go. That doesn’t mean giving up relationships; it doesn’t mean giving up one’s profession, or one’s family, or one’s home. It has nothing to do with that; it’s not an external change. It’s an internal change. It’s a change from holding on tightly to holding very lightly.

(Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo [source])

and:

Of Time

Don’t even ask how rapidly the hummingbird
lives his life.
You can’t imagine. A thousand flowers a day,
a little sleep, then the same again, then
he vanishes.
I adore him.

Yet I adore also the drowse of mountains.

And in the human world, what is time?
In my mind there is Rumi, dancing.
There is Li Po drinking from the winter stream.
There is Hafiz strolling through Shiraz, his feet
loving the dust.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

The coolness of Buddhism isn’t indifference but the distance one gains on emotions, the quiet place from which to regard the turbulence. From far away you see the pattern, the connections, and the thing as whole, see all the islands and the routes between them. Up close it all dissolves into texture and incoherence and immersion, like a face going out of focus just before a kiss.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

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Small Things Big, Big Things Small

Image from 'Mountains and Molehills, or: Recollections of a Burnt Journal,' by Frank Marryat

[Image: illustration from Mountains and Molehills; or, Recollections of a Burnt Journal (1855), by one Frank Marryat. (Click image to enlarge.) For the complete book in various formats, see the Internet Archive. For more information about this image in particular, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

The Swan

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those white wings
touch the shore?

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

Time has no meaning, space and place have no meaning, on this journey. All times can be inhabited, all places visited. In a single day the mind can make a millpond of the oceans. Some people who have never crossed the land they were born on have traveled all over the world. The journey is not linear, it is always back and forth, denying the calendar, the wrinkles and lines of the body. The self is not contained in any moment or any place, but it is only in the intersection of moment and place that the self might, for a moment, be seen vanishing through a door, which disappears at once.

(Jeanette Winterson [source])

and:

Living

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

(Denise Levertov [source])

[Read more…]

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It Seems So Reasonable, and So Crazy

Escaping from Brainland

[Image: panel excerpted from “Slobbering Like Pavlov’s Dog: A Neurocomic,” by Matteo Farinella
and Hana Ros. To see the three-panel portion of the comic of which this is a part, click on the image.
For the whole thing, head on over to
The Nib.]

From whiskey river:

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.

(Kathryn Schulz [source])

and (italicized lines):

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

(Wislawa Szymborska [source; I have used this one before, although not on a Friday])

..and:

The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man’s, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possesses the truth.

To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, “There could be more, there could be things we don’t understand,” is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.

(Barry López [source])

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Pssst! Hey, You. Yes — You. The One with the Brain.

[Video: “7 Myths About The Brain You Thought Were True”]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

Is there a single thing in nature
that can approach in mystery
the absolute uniqueness of any human face, first, then
its transformation from childhood to old age—

We are surrounded at every instant
by sights that ought to strike the sane
unbenumbed person tongue-tied, mute
with gratitude and terror. However,

there may be three sane people on earth
at any given time: and if
you got the chance to ask them how they do it,
they would not understand.

I think they might just stare at you
with the embarrassment of pity. Maybe smile
the way you do when children suddenly reveal a secret
preoccupation with their origins, careful not to cause them shame,

on the contrary, to evince the great congratulating pleasure
one feels in the presence of a superior talent and intelligence;
or simply as one smiles to greet a friend who’s waking up,
to prove no harm awaits him, you’ve dealt with and banished all harm.

(Franz Wright [source])

…and:

Something else gets under your skin, keeps you working days and nights at the sacrifice of your sleeping and eating and attention to your family and friends, something beyond the love of puzzle solving. And that other force is the anticipation of understanding something about the world that no one has ever understood before you.

I have experienced that pleasure of discovering something new. It is an exquisite sensation, a feeling of power, a rush of the blood, a sense of living forever. To be the first vessel to hold this new thing.

All of the scientists I’ve known have at least one more quality in common: they do what they do because they love it, and because they cannot imagine doing anything else. In a sense, this is the real reason a scientist does science. Because the scientist must. Such a compulsion is both blessing and burden. A blessing because the creative life, in any endeavor, is a gift filled with beauty and not given to everyone, a burden because the call is unrelenting and can drown out the rest of life.

This mixed blessing and burden must be why the astrophysicist Chandrasekhar continued working until his mid-80’s, why a visitor to Einstein’s apartment in Bern found the young physicist rocking his infant with one hand while doing mathematical calculations with the other. This mixed blessing and burden must have been the “sweet hell” that Walt Whitman referred to when he realized at a young age that he was destined to be a poet. “Never more,” he wrote, “shall I escape.”

(Alan Lightman [source])
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Jamais Vu

'Ocean,' by Pawel Kuczynski

[Image: “Ocean,” by Pawel Kuczynski. I could have selected any of his images to illustrate this post,
but this one called to me more insistently than the others.]

From whiskey river:

Imaginary Paintings

1. HOW I WOULD PAINT THE FUTURE

A strip of horizon and a figure,
seen from the back, forever approaching.

2. HOW I WOULD PAINT HAPPINESS

Something sudden, a windfall,
a meteor shower. No—
a flowering tree releasing
all its blossoms at once,
and the one standing beneath it
unexpectedly robed in bloom,
transformed into a stranger
to beautiful to touch.

3. HOW I WOULD PAINT DEATH

White on white or black on black.
No ground, no figure. An immense canvas,
which I will never finish.

4. HOW I WOULD PAINT LOVE

I would not paint love.

5. HOW I WOULD PAINT THE LEAP OF FAITH

A black cat jumping up three feet
to reach a three-inch shelf.

6. HOW I WOULD PAINT THE BIG LIE

Smooth, and deceptively small
so that it can be swallowed
like something we take for a cold.
An elongated capsule,
an elegant cylinder,
sweet and glossy,
that pleases the tongue
and goes down easy,
never mind
the poison inside.

7. HOW I WOULD PAINT NOSTALGIA

An old-fashioned painting, a genre piece.
People in bright and dark clothing.
A radiant bride in white
standing above a waterfall,
watching the water rush
away, away, away.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

and:

…there are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong”. We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion…

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

(Alan Lightman [source])

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Early, Late, Later, Too Late

Illustration from 'The Sneetches and Other Stories,' by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel)

[Image: illustration from The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel).
For the complete tale of “Too Many Daves,” see below.]

From whiskey river (operating in terse mode this week, apparently):

No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just … come out the other side.

Or you don’t.

(Stephen King [source])

and:

Waking at Night

The blue river is gray at morning
and evening. There is twilight
at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
wondering if this quiet in me now
is a beginning or an end.

(Jack Gilbert [source])

and (italicized portion):

Try to be reasonable in the way you grow, and don’t ever think it is too late. It is never too late. Even if you are going to die tomorrow, keep yourself straight and clear and be a happy human being today. If you keep your situation happy day by day, you will eventually reach the greatest happiness of enlightenment.

(Lama Thubten Yeshe [source])

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Little Figures, Big Contexts, and the Distance Between Them

[Video: Ariana Grande, “Tattooed Heart.” I’m probably making people sick of this performance.]

From whiskey river:

When we remember our former selves, there is always that little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of an impeccably narrowing corridor.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Why We Tell Stories
(excerpt)

for Linda Nemec Foster

I

Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

(Lisel Mueller [source])

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At Root

[Video: launch trailer for the puzzle game Antichamber. I haven’t played it (yet), but the object
seems to be to keep moving forward — when the answer to the question, “Move forward
from
where?” changes constantly. The game’s designer says that it has an end… despite the appearance
(to me) of an edgeless, centerless geometry of edges and centers.*]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

Isle of Mull, Scotland

Because by now we know everything is not so green elsewhere.

The cities tied their nooses around our necks,
we let them without even seeing.

Not even feeling our breath soften
as clumps of shed wool scattered across days.

Not even. This even-ing, balance beam of light on green,
the widely lifted land, resonance of moor
winding down to water, the full of it. Days of cows
and sheep bending their heads.

We walked where the ancient pier juts into the sea.
Stood on the rim of the pool, by the circle
of black boulders. No one saw we were there
and everyone who had ever been there
stood silently in air.

Where else do we ever have to go, and why?

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

and:

The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

(Peter Matthiessen [source])

…and:

Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed.

And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be.

I don’t want anyone I know to take that terrible chance. And the only way to avoid it is to listen to that small voice inside you that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian, to go another way. George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either.

(Anna Quindlen [source])

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