The other day at the Lake of the Isles dog park, I sat on a bench and listened to the sound of the galloping pack’s jangling dog tags harmonizing with the spring bird’s songs. It was clear, bright, and beautiful. Perfectly spontaneous. Like no music I’d ever experienced — but also like every other piece of art that connects you with the rest of existence — though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who heard it.
It lasted all of 45 seconds, then faded out and gave way to the people chatter, Lake Street traffic and wind.
I wasn’t going to tell you, or anyone, about it, because it sounds slightly insane and because I’m not even sure such moments are pertinent or even communicable anymore, given the fact that so much of our energy of the moment is focused on soapbox bombast, blowhard power, macro- and micro-tumult, and trying to figure out how to deal with headlines such as, “The Beached White Male: Can Manhood Survive The Depression?” (Newsweek, yawn) and “The Big Disconnect: Our national discontent runs deeper than dollars and cents” (The New York Times, duh.)
Then I went to the Uptown Theater to see “I Am,” a documentary in which filmmaker Tom Shadyac asks “What’s wrong with the world and what can we do about it?” Oprah has an entire television network dedicated to same, though I don’t have the stomach for her shark-swim in the shallow end. The same could be said of “I Am” (iamthedoc.com) and several have, but in a culture war where three new poems by Mary Oliver (Parabola, exactly) gets no play and Donald Trump can flick a booger and be “part of the conversation” if not the next president of the United States, I’ll go down casting my vote for a mainstream film that quotes the mystical Sufi poet Rumi (love is the answer, always) and the calm spiritual minds of Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomksy, Howard Zinn, and dozens of others interviewed by Shadyac.
In short order, they get to what makes us tick (love, compassion, connection) and what makes us sick (materialism, competition and a learned mindset that tells us everything from what “good” weather is to why the stock market is God.) It proffers that the heart, not the brain, is the main source of our intelligence, and that paying attention to it, the moment, and each other holds the truest riches of the human experience.
To that end, one of the film’s most impassioned arguments, and there are dozens, for how we should be living our lives, comes from a farmer who tells a city slicker that everything around them, all the trees, soil, insects and animals, are alive. He says it over and over, again and again, “alive! Alive! alive!,” like filmdom’s Dr. Frankenstein did in 1931 when his creation first gives off a pulse. The farmer’s point is that when you don’t take for granted the bounty of nature, the world is a miraculous place to be a part of.
(And yes, I am salivating here like my pup Zero at the prospects of the kaleidoscope multiple flora orgasm that takes place at the Lake Harriet Rose Gardens for three-four weeks in May–June. Tune in.)
“I Am” takes pains to avoid the preciousness of, say, “What The Bleep Do We Know?” and gets straight to the questions in a crisp, one hour and 18 minute rumination on how we are connected through science, history and society. Shadyac is a likable narrator and for the most part stays away from self-serving new-guru hype. Plus, his story is pertinent: The son of a doctor turned Hollywood director who has a brush with death and ends up wanting to contribute something more.
Pertinent because his trajectory butts up against the so-called American Dream that tells us the brass ring is Hollywood, money and fame. Shadyac found himself as “the man who had it all” and yet something inside was empty, which admittedly sounds like the plot of every awful Hollywood Eat-Pray-come-to-Jesus hero’s journey torn from the pages of More magazine.
Still, I thought a lot about that emptiness, and how people fill it, as I drove home from the theater, where only a few other souls took in the late show the other night. I thought of people I know who have chased wealth and materialism all their lives, did a gut-check on my own financial and personal unease, and came away wanting to recommend it to several seekers, as well as down-in-the-dumps folks I know who it might speak to.
More than anyone, I thought of a woman I encountered in the Edina Lunds parking lot last Friday morning.
For some reason my minivan battery needed a jump, but when I politely asked her for help, she (along with three other women) refused. I suppose because I’ve spent my life helping stranded motorists, I was stunned. Her face was 60-something pinched, and her car — a BMW or Mercedes — was immaculate and black. She went into Starbucks, got her coffee, and when she was safely in her car, she spun down her window and said, with me standing there with my limp jumper cables in hand and her driving away, “Don’t you have Triple A?”
Fair enough. She was either terrified of me, or of life, or in a hurry. But it left me wondering about her. I wondered if she ever hears the harmonies of the dog tags and birds. I wondered about her life. I wondered about how she came to a moment of such clenched living in that crowded suburban parking lot on Good Friday morn.
I wondered about her again as I watched “I Am,” which points out that in Charles Darwin’s “The Descent Of Man” the word “love” is mentioned 95 times and “survival of the fittest” only twice, and that Darwin’s most important — if largely unknown —discovery is that the most prominent shared human emotion is sympathy.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.