A word from Curt
November is NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month. I’m leading a group of six writers (I still have room for two more) to write a book (fiction or non-fiction) of 60,000 words. That’s 2000 words per day. The story below, “Sing Out Your Life Song” is from my November project, The Pineywoods Manifesto: Field Notes on the Full Life.
I’m writing it for my four grandsons Noah, Jack, Jude, and Luke. It’s about the things young men need to know.
Today’s topic is “Having a Life Song and a Life Soundtrack is essential to the Full Life.
Grateful for your being a reader,
From the upcoming Curt Iles book, The Pineywoods Manifesto: Field Notes on the Full Life.
Chapter 46 : Sing out Your Life Song
I finally found a song for the Life
You know, it’s what keeps my feet on the ground.
-“Song for the Life”. Jerry Jeff Walker
I’ve manipulated her wheelchair to the Nursing Home’s single piano.
I hold out two old hymnbooks. “Aunt Margie, would you play a few songs for me?”
She rubs her bad hand. “I’ll have to play with just one hand.”
I laugh. “You’re better with one hand than most folks are with two.”
My Aunt Margie Nell Iles Walker is a renowned pianist in SW Louisiana. She has entertained tens of thousands with her unique style and limitless repertoire.
I open the hymnbook and request several favorites. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Come Thou Fount. I am Resolved.
She uses both hands and slowly and painfully picks out the notes and rhythm. A smile edges onto her face that has been absent during her long nursing home stay. She calls it her prison.
But at the piano, she’s no longer in prison.
Each song is slightly stronger and the smile grows too. She is doing what she was born to do. Play the piano. She has a God-given gift that has been evident since she began playing publicly seventy-five years ago.
A story is told of how as a five-year-old, she played at the old Dry Creek Church. They’d wake her from her pew nap to play the invitation hymn.
Back at her wheelchair pushed against the piano, Aunt Margie picks up steam. She’s always had perfect rhythm and it flows out of her on each succeeding song.
Tears fill my eyes as she plays my secular requests. Tara’s Theme. Chariots of Fire. Laura’s Theme (from Dr. Zhivago). Ashokan Farewell. They are songs that tie our hearts together. During her days of playing at the camp, she’d smile and wink at me on these songs, knowing they were my favorites.
She rubs her hands between songs. I sense she is growing tired and don’t wish to overdo it. I make one final request. “Will you play ‘How Firm a Foundation’ ”? It’s my Life Song.”
For at least twenty years, my Life Song has been the foundation of my life. I probably listen to it weekly. It’s steered me through the roughest storms and days when I didn’t think I was going to make it.
I sing off key as Aunt Margie lays down the melody.
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
It’s an old song, anonymously written, about having a strong foundation for life. I’ve drawn solace and peace from each of its verses.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
The above verse reminds me that even when I may feel alone, I’m not. I’m also reminded that singing does something for the soul. I recall a line from a Dave Rawlings song,
I feel better when I sing
My burdens are lifted
That’s my voice you hear rising.
– “Method Acting” David Rawlings
Our souls, her piano soul, and my scratchy bass soul, both rise.
I lean down. “Aunt Margie, play one more verse before we go.” I sing my favorite verse that I call the double-double negative verse:
“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
We finish and I slowly wheel her back to her station in the hall. Still rubbing her hands, she says, “I did better than I thought, but I’ve lost so much of my playing.”
I kiss her forehead. “You’re as good as ever in my heart. Why don’t you come practice every day? You’ll get stronger.
Her dark brown eyes dart to mine. “I believe I will.”
If you’re in DeRidder, Louisiana, drop by Westwood Manor and roll Aunt Margie to the piano. You’ll probably have to nudge her there, but do it anyway.
You’ll be touched by her playing.
Helping her do what she was born to do.
If you’ve read this far in The Pineywoods Manifesto, you’re aware that music and lyrics play a large part of my life. I firmly believe that music revives and restores the soul.
The songs I love best, which I call my Life Soundtrack*, keep my feet on the ground and when I veer off who I am, and where I come from, they steer me back.
Those songs can move me to tears, or hit the steering wheel with my fist in agreement to a line or statement.
My Life Soundtrack is eclectic. Much like I am.
My wife says I’m peculiar.
I say I’m eccentric and wear that badge with pride.
She also says I’m more eccentric/peculiar as I age.
I confess to that.
It’s because I’m not the same man I was a twenty-two or forty-two. I hope I’m a better man.
However, my Life Soundtrack hasn’t varied a great deal in those four decades.
Oddly enough, my Life Soundtrack* is a strange mix of spiritual and secular songs. My Dad’s song list was similar. He’d follow “Amazing Grace” with “Folsom Prison Blues.”
On my own song list, when facing major decisions, I’ve always went back to Steve Winwood’s “When You See a Chance, Go Take It.” For a man in his sixth career, that’s pretty often! It always seems when I’ve struggled and faced a tough fork in the road, I’ve heard that song on the radio.
It’s usually pointed me toward the road less traveled, which would be a great way of describing most of my career decisions. If you look at the timeline of my life and career, it may seem that most of the latter decisions have seemed a step backward.
But like my hero Thoreau, I’ve always felt most comfortable on the road less traveled.
Although I’m still discovering great new music through my sons and friends, my musical foundation is still built on four Southern groups: The Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, The Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m also a lifelong friend of The Band. All of the Band members are Canadian, except for Levon Helm from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Two of their songs The Weight and The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie down are high on my Life Soundtrack.
That may not sound like a typical Baptist deacon’s playlist, but the words of Toy Caldwell, Uncle Charlie, Dicky Betts, Ronnie Van Zandt, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson express how I feel as a Southern Man.
My music is eclectic. Just like me. I follow the advice of Leon Russell,
“You’ve got beat your own drum.”
Leon is harkening back to the famous words of William David Thoreau in Walden,
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Grandsons, keep a Life Soundtrack* close to your heart. Populate it with songs that stir your soul. When you seem to have lost your way, listen to your songs. They’ll keep your feet on the ground and your steps moving forward.
* Your Life Soundtrack are the songs that have shaped your life that will fit on an 80 minute CD. I’m attaching a screenshot of my current list to this blog.