It’s been just two weeks since India went on full lockdown and reports tell us people there are saying things like,
“The sky is so clear I can almost see God.”
Older people in populous cities around the globe are saying they haven’t seen the blue sky in decades, which means there is an entire generation of young people, not just in India, but in cities around the world who before this moment, haven’t known the sky as blue.
When I was a young girl I frequently looked to the sky for answers, laying on my back to escape a growing pain in my challenged world. Under the tendril arms of a Weeping Willow tree, in one of the many backyards we moved to, I would often wonder out loud, speaking directly to the clouds floating by,
“Can I see god? Can god see me?”
Would I have wondered that if I hadn’t been drawn into the sky’s calling to explore its timelessness and beauty? Sometimes I was drawn to stare at the sky for the pure beauty it poured into every little cell in my body. Sometimes it was to escape the growing pain behind my ribs, right above my heart.
It was from this little backyard, that I first heard my father singing a song that made me, my brothers and my mother all laugh.The song was written by a man named John Prine who’s music became a balm for that pain in my little heart.
“Sing the one where they blow up their TV and move to the country!” I would shout at my Dad when he picked up his guitar. When our extended family got together, my brothers, and my cousins would shout, “Sing please don’t bury me!” in an effort to help us make sense of the human condition we were learning to both lean into and avoid.
Mr. Prine sang of love, death, farts, clowns, dreams, heaven, hell and all the longings a young or old heart could hold. His songs helped me, my brothers, and cousins make sense of our mother’s tears, our grandmother’s strength and our father’s rage; why alcohol and marijuana had become staples in most of our homes.
At family gatherings, among the awe of stars and annoyance of mosquitos, my uncles and aunts shook their heads laughing as they sang his songs, uniting a common sadness while threading hope into us kids. Like the clouds in the sky, his songs eased the sharp edges of lives wrought with hunger, depression, abuse, and for my nuclear family, moments of homelessness. Laughing came more easily when Mr. Prine’s songs erupted into a chorus of voices around the fire. His weaving of heaviness and lightness gave us permission to choose and accept joy, the way we accepted our parents’ pain. Smacking mosquitoes in the humid Ontario summer nights became worth the cost of welts the size of quarters, just to feel that kind of joy and connection with each other, and the stars.
The weeping willow, the blue sky, the night stars, and John Prine, are entwined with the memory of my mother sitting fully clothed, her yellow bell bottom jeans soaking wet with my brother held between her legs in the bathtub as a steam of water filled the air. I remember standing in the steamy bathroom, watching my brother’s chest heave and gasp as his asthmatic lungs began to breathe, the color from his lips turn from blue to pink again. John’s lyrics, “sitting in the bathtub counting my toes when the radiator broke, water all froze, got stuck in the ice without any clothes, naked as the eyes of a clown,” popped into my head and somehow, made it all seem OK. It marks the first time that music eased a moment like that, and it laid down a track in my brain that showed music was medicine the same way the willow, the blue sky and the stars could be.
I read today that the Himalayas can be seen for the first time in decades from miles away, showing the sky, the moon, the stars and the possibility that exists right before young wondering eyes. I wonder if Mr. Prine was able to see out a window from his hospital bed and see the stars shine bright? What might he have written about this moment?
Mr. Prine once said in an interview about writing songs that, “Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time, and it takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it. They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around, the song is liable to pass you by.”
What might we do not to let this moment pass us by?
We could say it is a moment of introduction between one generation and the sky, between the generation who may not have noticed how blue, or bright or inspiring it is. They were born into a world where normal is a sky occluded by pollution, time is invaded by busyness and wonder is seen as idleness.
What if we could stop for a moment and recognize that this generation may for the first time be seeing the sky as blue, taking their first clear breath, hearing the first birdsong, and we are rediscovering the medicine of sky, music, breath?
What if we just hurried up and wrote a new song for this moment? One that would live into the future, as all Mr. Prine’s will? What if we didn’t wait for the next pandemic? What if, instead of Earth day, we had Earth month? A once a year Global Holiday Month to put it all on pause and remember those like Mr. Prine, the one’s we’ve lost, and to show the young ones a blue sky, the night stars, the bird song? What if we didn’t mess around and let this moment pass us by?
Imagine if every year, there was one month that both the breath of people and nature could just pause, and exhale and remember together what is possible? Maybe the losses wouldn’t be so huge? And wouldn’t that be a real step towards equity? If we can think it, we can be it.