It’s a restless 3 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it’s a month near the dispirited end of a hellish year in which too many people have died. Sometimes I can block it out, and sometimes I can’t. The thoughts that swirl around my brain tell me that tonight I can’t.
The house settles around me. Everyone else is asleep on this Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep isn’t coming, at least not for a while, so I wander downstairs, check my e-mail, read the CNN headlines, and look out my window at the few lights still on in my neighborhood, wondering who else is up and prowling their hallways. I put on the headphones and settle back with an old friend, Paul Simon’s American Tune—the perfect late-night accompaniment to insomnia. With somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masks the images that churn with nocturnal disquiet:
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it’s alright, it’s alright
we’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong
It’s an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a different world—Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai—but it’s a sentiment all too contemporary for those who descend daily into London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets or inhabit the splintered ruins of Asian villages inundated by the tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, those who suffer from sub-Saharan Africa’s AIDS plague. Death carries no passport, and it’s no respecter of nations. And we too here in America have heard that insistent refrain. Poor New Orleans, pummeled and drowned, struggles to return to something approaching normal life. A Cleveland, Ohio suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole in its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave while two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3 a.m., I can’t help it. I wonder what’s gone wrong.
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest
We cross the oceans and send rockets hurtling to the moon, planting our flag on whatever scrap of rock we can find, claiming the land and its allegiance as our own. But it’s not. We’re misfits and strangers here, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we’ve learned nothing, least of all how to love. Just turn on the news. Or take a look at my heart. I think of the words I’ve spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naiveté, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that scent in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the scattered roses in my mind. It’s the shock of recognition, the one clear moment that comes only when all the distractions and entertainments have faded, when there are no more excuses, when the mirror reflects our true image. What can you do? In my case, you pray. And you play the single greatest song of a singularly great American songwriter. You shut up and you listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.
I sit in my office, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor in a darkened room, pounding out this grim end-of-the-year reckoning. I won’t be sad to see the end of 2005. Auld Lang Syne, and good riddance. We traffic in sorrow, the real hard coin of the realm, and music sometimes speaks hard truths. Tonight I listen to Paul Simon, to a beautiful melody and words that sting, and ponder the minor miracles: how we manage to rise above the broken-heartedness and our own damned culpability, how we somehow find the strength and courage to get up, bleary-eyed, and do it all over again.