I have two brothers. My brother the doctor has spent some time in jail. But he got better…more on that later. The younger is a preacher who has written several books. I have always wanted to write a novel. I’ve started at least a dozen novels in my mind but none have gotten past page one. The inspiration is real, but the practice of writing falls apart. I have a mind like a pinball machine when it comes to novel ideas and a mind like frozen halibut when it comes to writing the words. My younger brother tells me to stop it. There is nothing new in the world. Just write about all the old stuff that has already been written but tell it in your own words. Apparently, I need a muse.
Lately I’ve found strange inspiration through Spotify playlists…Morning Motivation, Country Coffeehouse, and of course the irresistible, Songs to Sing in the Car. It turns out that the playlist I like best is Chill Singer-Songwriter. And those writers of songs that tend toward the poetic bordering on crazy, James Taylor, Jackson Brown, Van Morrison, Mark Broussard, Jack Johnson…those are my peoples.
Finding one’s inspiration was once grittier requiring journeys on strange highways in the hope that, like Abraham, leaving country and kin will bring you to the promised land. Today, one doesn’t have to go on the road with Kerouac or battle Quixotic windmills, or leave family like Abraham, to find inspiration. For instance, if I type Leon Russell into the Spotify spyglass, I become a Stranger in a Strange Land.
When I was a kid back in the Sixties, I heard about people looking for their head. I didn’t have any idea what that meant. One can find their head with ease nowadays, through the progressive power of Moore’s Law and an algorithm. It is simply the milieu of my assorted internet posts and surfing debris with a nudge from creepy eavesdropping technology. The subliminal internet possesses the monetary and social algorithms of my demons and angels. This reminds me of an old Hudson and Landry skit about a hippie in the Deep South looking for his head:
A Redneck sheriff pulls over a Yankee hippie for speeding: What’s your name boy?
Hippie: Claude…Claude Nine
Redneck sheriff: What you doing down here in this part of the country, boy?
Hippie: You know, I’m just lookin’ for my head man.
Sheriff: You think your head down here, huh boy?
Hippie: Well it might be, you just never know.
Finding your muse was much more romantic in the old days when youngsters had to get arrested to find meaning. My doctor brother once spent time in prison as a juvenile because a police officer caught him using a toga sheet to adorn a nude sculpture in front of the performing arts center. If not for Mom, he might still be in jail…she bailed him out. Dad wanted to leave him in jail to marinate. An art piece, a bed sheet, and a small town cop threw down the gauntlet at the feet of a young man. Now, he is a doctor.
Even if we don’t comprehend our own soul or sculpted metal art forms, there is a unique ethereal algorithmic force that does. You don’t have to go to jail to find your head. The world is our oyster and there are no limits to what we can do…what we can learn …what we can consume. Limitlessness has become a thing enabled by the power of binary intelligence.
But what if this is untrue? What if there are limits and constraints and mysteries that are just as valid and purposeful as the seemingly limitless potentialities of our modern world which incessantly communicates the requirement to define ourselves as masters of our own unique singular identity?
Too often, “we look for our head” only within the confines of our own individuality. Wendell Berry says that the natural way to find identity is to acknowledge and live within the confines of communities and friendships. He writes,
…we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as “earth” or “ecosystem” or “watershed” or “place.” But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.
In other words, we are social beings, and cannot find any sense of true identity alone. This changes the very concept of freedom. It means that only within limits do I find freedom. Mr. Berry goes on to say,
In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define “freedom,” for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, “free” is etymologically related to “friend.” These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of “dear” or “beloved.” We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our “identity” is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.
Mr. Berry reduces the nine ancient Greek muses down to two. The first is the Muse of Inspiration, of inarticulate visions and desires. I hear this muse in my church pew and at sunrise and in Van Morrison singing, “This is the love of the one great Magician. Turn the water into wine.” Moments and poets and songs and visions inspire us, give us goosebumps. So, what to do with inspiration? Well, there is a second and more troubling Muse that informs the first.
This second Muse is the Muse of Form or Realization, who returns again and again to say, “It is yet more difficult than you thought. This Muse serves us best as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
I love that idea.
Jesus said my yoke is easy and my burden is light. That takes a healthy dose of vision and desire. Inspiration is often easy and light.
Jesus also said take up your cross and follow me. The muse of form requires sacrifice and effort and discipline, and it is fraught with baffling boulders and deflecting discouragement. It is the reason we run marathons, and climb mountains, and go to work each day, and love our neighbor who never rakes his leaves. It gives us hope and reminds us that in the end, the river of our life is most beautiful when it is impeded.