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My Little Town

Hereís to Paul Simon, my first guru.

The other day I was riding my bikeóthat machine in the basement that is supposed to protect my muscles from atrophy during these cold, gray, dismal Michigan winter daysóand listening on a little portable CD player to the songs of Paul Simon, in his 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. The second track is called "My Little Town," and the lyrics caught my attention:

Coming home after school
Flying my bike past the gates
Of the factories

And here I was, flying my bike, pedaling on and on and on, never leaving the spot, listening to music to keep from being bored out of my head while I walked my muscles as though they were my dog needing exercise, not being really present, trying hard to not be present. Just get it done. Put in the time. Your body needs it.

It took until the next morning for me to really wake up to what I was doing, all the while the lyrics of the song playing in my head.

In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all

The entire album was about the past, how we were, where we all come from. It was a message album. Its plea was for us, especially those of us in the "me" generation, to wake up and see what life is all about. Of course, like all of Paul Simonís songs, it was packaged in the rhythms and argot of the young, and I listened to the music for years without really thinking about a "message." No doubt another characteristic of my age.

And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall

The young donít think very much; they absorb. We went through the motions as we were directed to do, and we learned by rote things that were expected to help us in the future. Some day youíll understand. Now, just do it! Sometimesótoo often, I supposeówe went through life, doing the things we thought we are supposed to do, never realizing the absurdity of many of them. Or we tried to make the best of bad situations, with what little resources we had:

My mom doing the laundry
Hanging our shirts
In the dirty breeze

The futility of life is answered by different people in different ways. The young tend to want to fight. While mom hung out the laundry, we looked around, fretful.

And after it rains
Thereís a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
Itís not that the colors arenít there
Itís just imagination they lack
Everythingís the same
Back in my little town

Some of usóthank goodnessócame to recognize that something wasnít right, that the world might be bigger than the tiny place we called home. Even if we didnít have the knowledge, there might be an urge:

In my little town
I never meant nothiní
I was just my fatherís son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun

If we were lucky, we discovered the possibilities. If we werenít, we discovered the pitfalls. Sometimes, events pulled us out of our narrow ways of thinking. World War Two surely did that to many people. Millions of young men and women had a taste of a different kind of suffering and a different kind of hope, a taste that literally changed the world. The youth of the sixties, faced with the leftover absurdities still rampant among their parentsí generation, instigated changes that weíre still feeling today.

On one level, "My Little Town" gave us an affirmation for moving on. Nostalgia was not its theme. If we got its message, itís because we had left the past behind and pressed on toward something greater than what we grew up with. If we didnít it might have been because we grew up in a different "little town" that hadnít lost the color of its rainbows.

The next morning after my bike ride to nowhere, with its lyrics running in my head all through my shower and my breakfast, I realized that the song, "My Little Town," isnít about my home town, at all. It isnít even, except on the surface, a plea to look beyond the habits and prejudices most of us cling to most of our lives.

"My little town" is my own mind. Self-satisfied that I have gone, oh, so far beyond what I used to think, what I used to believe, I still drop my anchor where I think I can see the bottom.

Itís imagination I lack.

The moment I sense that I see the truth in anything, I cling to it. It becomes Truth, and if it doesnít answer my next question, Iím stuck.

Hanging our shirts in the dirty breeze

is often the only thing I can think of to do. Even if what I believe doesnít work anymore, I defend it.

Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun

expresses my impatience with the progress of my life. It doesnít always occur to me to pull back and take another look.

And suddenly I realize that I have never left my little town. Instead of waking up to the present moment, I try to fit my difficulties into my definitions of the pastóeven the past of just yesterday. Clinging to what I think is some kind of certainty, Iím helpless to see whatís before my eyes.

Still Crazy, After All These Years.

 

March 14, 2003

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