My mother was a beautiful person in every way, including her voice. Everyone thought it was delightful. But she had this habit of waking me up every morning, from the time I was in Kindergarten until I was in Junior High School, by singing a variation of the Hoagy Carmichaelsong, “Lazy Bones.”
Sleepin’ in the shade.
How you gonna get your corn pone made?
How you gonna get your corn pone made
Sleepin’ in the noon day sun?
Most people would think what a charming way to wake up your son rather than yelling at him, “Get your ass out of bed, you’ll be late for school,” or by clanging a pot or ever stronger nudges until he is pushed out of bed onto the floor. Yet despite her lovely voice, I found it a most disagreeable way to be awakened. She’d sing it over and over, and the repetitiveness would drive me nuts, until I finally forced my eyes open, and said, “OK, OK… enough! Stop it mom! I’m awake!
Then I’d go off to school, where we learned to sing rounds. They were fun. No one really paid any attention to the words or questioned them. We just sung them, trying not to get distracted by the person before or after us who would be either one phrase ahead or behind.
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
No one ever asked the teacher what the song meant. “Life is but a dream?” Didn’t that line merit some kind of further explanation? I guess not, because all of us kids were more focused on remembering when it was our cue to come in on the song. Even if you lost your place, the rest of the class kept the song going in its overlapping repetitiveness, until the individual words gave way to mere sounds with no meaning. A mantra if you will. And the collective vibrations emanating from our very young lungs seemed to settle down the squirminess of children our age.
By the time I was in Junior High, one of the most obnoxious songs I ever heard became number one on the hit parade and became a favorite in my mother’s repertoire. It was Doris Daysinging “Qué Sera, Sera,” with mom’s own rendition to suit my gender.
When I was just a little boy
I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be handsome, will I be rich?
Here’s what she said to me.
“Qué sera, sera,
Whatever will be will be.
The future’s not ours to see,
Qué sera, sera.”
I can’t begin to tell you how I loathed that song. Just hearing the first few strains of it on the radio would make me nauseated. It was worse than “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window (Arf, arf!) I don’t think my ears ever hurt so much. I had a visceral aversion to both of them. Yet mom sang “Qué Sera, Sera” incessantly. I could have strangled her!
Fortunately, I made it to High School, had my driver’s license, and could change the station on the car radio from the insipid Pop station to the new Rock and Roll station. I was saved by Doo Wop Rock and Elvis, Come Softly and I’m Mr. Blue, sock hops and the Twist. I never looked back, musically speaking, and Rock and Roll became my constant companion. Mom hated it. She worried there was something immoral about it. But I could care less. I would be out of the house and away at college just as the British were invading the United States.
About that same time I discovered psychedelics and, much to mom’s dismay, became a hippie. Though she was against the war in Vietnam, she worried that my involvement in the anti-war movement would end badly… with me in jail or with a cracked skull. I tried to allay her fears, and though her frequent phone calls were purposefully designed to change the direction of my life, she always ended them with a long, deep sigh and a “qué sera, sera,” which annoyed me as much as it ever did.
She was equally annoyed when I began to hitchhike back and forth across the country and later, travel around the world. During those travels, I met an older woman. She was Swedish and had spent many years in China studying acupuncture. One day she heard the sound of a gong that enthralled her. She traveled South Asia in search of a master gong maker who could forge her one that would speak to her innermost spirit. When the three-foot diameter bronze gong was tempered, annealed, and burnished to an iridescent glow, the gong maker explained in detail how it should be hung. The frame could not have any metal in it. Only wooden dowels should be used, and fabric cords from which the gong could be suspended. Monica asked the gong maker to teach her how to get the most powerful sound out of it. The gong maker replied that it was the gong that would teach her how to play it so as to maximize its effect.
Monica took me to her home to show me the gong. It was beautiful and the frame was exquisitely crafted. She told me to sit cross-legged about two feet directly in front of it and to close my eyes; breathe deeply and slowly. Then with one long sure swing, the padded mallet struck the gong and it rang out in multiple frequencies. It rang and rang. I felt myself void of thought but rather a part of the gong’s vibrations that seemed would never cease. Like infinite ripples caused by a pebble tossed in a calm pond, I felt myself expand from my heart chakra outward in concentric spheres, past the boundaries of my skin, and into the surrounding warm air of the room. Monica was convinced that Gong Therapy would be the perfect way to center a patient before beginning an acupuncture session. I heartily agreed.
The gong gave me the same sensation I felt when I would sit with a group of people chanting OM. Actually, it is AUM, with a little quick dip in the voice between the sound of ‘ahh’ and the ‘oommm.’ When you pause to take a breath, the vibration of AUM continues because everyone is taking their breaths at different times, but the constancy of the sound remains. The repetition of the mantra is akin to the repetition of the concentric vibrations of the gong; the repetition of the round. And the purpose of repeating a mantra is to focus the mind until there is no mind.
So many teachers, philosophers, and gurus have written of this world as one of illusion… nothing but a dream. When forks in the road appear, choose one and be done with it. Be here now! The time it takes you to decide which fork in the road you should travel is wasted time. It doesn’t matter. Choose one, travel it, and don’t look back. As the Belgian poet and essayist, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote, “At every crossroads on the path to the future, tradition has placed ten thousand men to guard the past,” a past to which you may not return for it is useless to try to change it. It is only in the present tense that we should live. But reading is an activity of the mind. It is not experiential. And what we regard as trite with our intellects is, more often than not, true when we experience it. In fact, it is so true, that’s what makes it trite!
Life may be a dream. But that does not mean we become what a friend of mine calls “bliss-ninnies” or “sky farmers,” oblivious to the world around them; thinking it is enough to bathe in the wonder of the dream. No, there is action. We row, row, row the boat, we don’t just drift. We make smooth, almost effortless progress, especially when we row together in rhythm… for if we try to row too quickly or desperately or on a rogue beat, we only create turbulence and therefore resistance, which slows us down.
We know whatever actions we take, whatever decisions we make, once taken or made, they are in the unchangeable past and what will be, will be. Who would have guessed that decades after I first heard them, I would find the lyrics to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Qué Sera, Sera” so heady and true, if still not musically appealing? Perhaps someone should strike the gong and get out the hook, but it is only the middle of the third act and I am not quite ready to leave the stage.