President's Journal

Volume I. #1

 

These journals will meander as journals will, and have the freedom of throwing out thoughts, opinions, and ideas—some will stick, some drop.  Often, through exploring a work of art, these journals will ask questions regarding our human experience and briefly reflect on education and those institutions and cultures of learning—the school, the home, and elsewhere.  At best, these will spark further explorations, conversations and practical actions.  At worst, well, you can take it or leave it…

 

Any real artist is always a source of puzzlement and wonder to me.  The artist is ever honing his technical skills and laboring to improve his craft.  But, beyond a mere technician, the real artist is tapped into something else—something powerfully alive, beautiful, and eager to get out.

 

Andrew Bird is a bit of a puzzling wonder and rare artist.  His music is rich, textured, complex, and exploratory in musical form.  He cleverly and thoughtfully wrestles with heavy themes and sometimes abstract themes such as death, silence, the meaning of words, and the murky depths of the self.  And, he can do so in a way that is not heavy or cumbersome.  Rather, he deftly weaves together his complex music and serious themes with light notes of everyday irony, down-to-earth humor, whimsy, and the hope of a child.

 

Fitting and unfitting with this first entry, we’ll begin with a Happy Birthday!

 

I suggest you listen to the song twice and possibly gaze through the lyrics in between.

 

 

The Happy Birthday Song

Andrew Bird

 

When I wake up in the morning

Pour the coffee and I read the paper

An' then I slowly and so softly do the dishes

And feed the fishes

 

Sing me "Happy Birthday"

Sing it like it's going to be your last day

Like it's Hallelujah

Don't just let it pass on through ya

 

It's a giant among cliches

And that's why I want you to sing it anyway

Sing me "Happy Birthday"

Only 'cause hell, what's it all about anyway

 

Sing me "Happy Birthday"

Happy birthday, it's gonna be your last day

Gonna be your last day here on earth

 

Sing me "Happy Birthday"

Happy birthday, like it's gonna be your

Gonna be your last day

 

 

 

The song begins with a slow drip drop rhythm of every day.  Wake up. Pour the coffee.  Read the paper…do the dishes, feed those fishes.  A bit of an automaton exercise.  Not quite the excitement we’d expect for a Happy Birthday. Presents? Sparkles? Wild plans?  Your day to be a “princess” and to pretend all your sugary dreams will come true?

 

Surprisingly, the narrator, not exhibiting much in the way of enthusiasm himself, requests a happy birthday song and to do so with some gusto, with some hallelujah joy.  Ok.  But not with just any gusto—gusto springing from the day being “like your last day.”  “Gonna be your last day here on earth”  ???  Not so “happy birthday” at all.

 

This is not an ordinary birthday, but a deathday!  Asking as if it’s a reason why to sing the song, the narrator queries: “‘cause hell, what’s it all about anyway”?

 

This is a Big Question or a few big questions.  “What’s it all about?”  What’s life about?  What’s a birthday about?  What’s the “happy” in birthday about?  One of these?  All of the above?  Rather than simply being a new artsy take, a macabre twist on an old “cliché”, the question is relevant for any of the above and points to the source of joy and meaning for all and any of the above.

 

It is not answered by words.  In many ways it is a question for the heart and not just for the head, for the inner eyes, not the exterior.  And, it is answered by music.  With child-like notes from the xylophone, with beating drums, and with tones of hope, growing expansion and eternity—all added to and infusing the drip drop notes of the ordinary every day—the question is answered, at least partially and in one way.

 

This is a different kind of birthday. And to me it does not musically speak of escaping the dreariness of the every day.  Rather, the answer echoes back, in and around the every day.  It challenges to see the today with a sense of eternity and meaning—rather than dreariness, it points to a romance, a poetry of life.  This beautiful artistic wrestle with death provides a penetrating inscape, not an escape.

 

Exploring a song or work of art is a different kind of interior exercise.  But, it’s not just for the artsy.  It taps and exercises capacities of the mind, emotions and imagination that are vital for perception and judgment but are often left dormant, atrophied, or to their own wild immature devices. Stopping, listening, beholding—all pretty important for this human thing.

 

This song sparks a series of questions for me.

 

In response to death, what makes a person capable of such a song—a song and answer naturally springing from the depths of the heart, and not an inauthentic answer of parroted words expressing how we’re supposed to see and feel, but don’t?

 

Do not the song’s “answers” express the natural and deep longings of the human heart?  Why would we assert and presume it more reasonable to view this natural drive, instinct and longing as an illusion—an artificial comforting blanket that covers the truth of things rather than points to it?  Is not creation—animals, plants, etc.—guided to what fulfills it by instinct and longing?

 

While not seeming “festive,” it’s also a relevant question at this time of year—the great feast of Christmas.  Is there any ultimate meaning or joy in the feast or any great feast for that matter if death is not brought to the stage—seen, heard, questioned, answered?  Isn’t the ultimate defeat of death the fountain source of joy for any great feast?

 

With respect to education, how much of real life enters into the culture, into the curriculum, into the experience of schools and learning?  And if it does enter, is it explored in a way that encourages a real personal search and, hopefully, discovery?  In a way that can touch the heart and emotions and that respects and encourages the intuitive and imaginative powers and capacities of children (or adults)?

 

Obviously, I think there are answers here—some, at least, and not all wrapped neat and clean and topped with a sentimental bow.  The power of the arts, of stories and songs is obviously an answer—and something we have known for a long, long time even if we tend to forget and at times institutionalize the forgetting.  Hopefully, simply reflecting on the experience of this beautiful little song provides a little something.

 

‘til then!

Jeff

 

P.S.  BTW, I can’t encourage you enough to get this guy’s music and let it sink in and be with you for a while.

The Mysterious Production of Eggs

 

by Andrew Bird

 

© 2015 Samuel & Erasmus institute. All Rights Reserved • 22903 Emily Trace Lane, Katy, Texas 77494

 

SEi is a Federal 501 (c) (3)  tax exempt public charity.  Contributions are tax deductible.