Friday, October 9, 2009


Little by little, I begin to understand Paul Simon's Graceland. For example, consider the lyric, "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar." For years I had no idea what that image meant.

Then a friend explained in passing that a National Guitar refers to that gleaming metallic instrument that a blues player might strum. Apparently the metal was designed to produce resonance amid other instruments.

At once I can see that gleaming silver water of the river, a wide path that crawls through tin shacks and desolate towns and fantasy islands of gambling promise, and I know where it goes: "I am following the river, down the highway, through the cradle of the civil war."

On one level, the river is the cradle - and the grave - of the war that defines America's character. We hope to find ourselves reflected in the newly poured monument to the Greatest Generation of WWII, but in our quiet and honest moments we must return ever more to the place that cleaves us in two.

The soul of our country is splintered by that original sin, that civil war, and all the interstate highways with their perfect designs of frictionless mobility cannot take us too far from where we began and ended - no matter how hard we work to keep it all together. We hope to go somewhere else, though we never seem to get there. Always, always we return.

Returning, we seek grace, a pitiful thirst for forgiveness. But we carry with us the baggage of that war, of our wars. Our traveling companions are the wrecked lives and broken promises ("ghosts and empty sockets," Simon calls them) of haughty confidence that we could somehow wander from our circuitous past to find a straight and level grade.

So we return, always to who we are.

Simon offers an image of this eternal return, and I smile in recognition: "There's a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I'm falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil, I say, 'Whoa,' so this is what she means." Yeah, I know what she means too.

OK, truthfully I don't know what possessed Paul Simon to write Graceland, I shudder to imagine the crisis he felt when crafting those lyrics, but I say with some certainty that his was not a mellow experiment in emotional tourism. Simon undoubtedly confronted some dark recess in his life in order to write that song.

He wrote it for his own reasons, but we all feel the meaning on a personal level. At some point we all go to Graceland. And on the way, waiting in some dingy bus terminal, perhaps, where "everybody sees you're blown apart," we find we've lost that thing that once kept us together. We see what once seemed lost to our blindness now brightly manifest.

At Graceland we renounce our right to defend ourselves from all the pains of a life lived with hope. We abandon our obligations and seek redemption in flight. The gates swing wide and we float among the ghosts, shattered and broken - but not quite damned - by "every love, every ending" we held so tightly. Graceland is surrender; it is failure; it is acceptance.

I've kept this song on the periphery of my life for so many years without facing, directly, the inevitability that I would one day encounter its message as more than a great addition to a road trip playlist. I know I'm too bound for Graceland. No, I'm in no hurry to get there; I'm happy to drag my feet and get lost in the dust. But my destination is no different.

I just need to build some faith that the destination is no more scary than the departure.

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