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A Song, a Poem, an Actor

by Tim Garvin | Essay 

 I’ve been thinking about what in life we notice and what we don’t, which might be better phrased as what we are able to notice and what we cannot. I started thinking about this after rewatching the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, which then made me think of a song and then a poem I like, and then, interestingly enough, about how we live, and also about the meaning of life. I’ll start with the song.

It’s Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go.” There are a variety of lyrical versions of the opening. Here’s the one I like:

Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone.
Tell the man to turn the juke box way down low.
Tell that other man who’s there with you he’ll have to go.

It was released in 1959 as the B side of a long forgotten A side, and right away became a hit and eventually a well-covered classic. It’s all about that opening stanza. It’s naturally rhymed and beautifully constructed, each line developing the scene and sentimental mood until, with the final line, across consciousness flashes a rich, complex truth—the pain of love, and more, the simple pain of feeling—tell that other man who’s there with you… Whatever you are doing, washing dishes or driving to work—let me be lofty—that line tears at the deadness of the heart like a hawk. It opens us to feeling, if only for an instant. Then the dishes are done, and we park the car. Life calls us to the next thing.

The poem I want to mention is To a Mouse by Robert Burns. I read it first in high school. Our teacher directed us to the lines:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley, [often go astray]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Those lines were then the most famous (because Steinbeck had recently written a novel called Of Mice and Men), and I suppose our teacher thought it best to emphasize them. But they aren’t the best lines. Those come in the last stanza, which I discovered later in life:

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e [eye],
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

When you read the poem, it’s first about a mouse whose nest gets destroyed by a reaper, and you are struck with the concision and clarity of the rhyming narration. Then it’s about the kindheartedness of the poet for the mouse. Then, in the stanza my teacher emphasized, you get a bit of neatly phrased philosophizing. But finally, in the last stanza, you are given the most concisely expressed description of the human dilemma ever composed in English—I guess and fear—a line which compresses as no other the uncertain shipwreck of human life.


Now to the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, for which Jennifer Lawrence won the academy’s best actress award. I want to mention three moments. In the first, 36 minutes in, she accosts a jogging Bradley Cooper, hears his manic rejection of her, and replies, “Calm down, Crazy!” and in the simplicity of the word crazy expresses a mix of impatient admonition and patient encouragement, a marvelous compound that vanishes like vapor as the scene continues, but which left on me a deep impression.

The second scene I want to mention happens in minute 54. She is standing behind a doorway and overhears Bradley Cooper’s innocent emphatic defense of her to her parents and a suitor. She has no dialogue, but her close-up transmits a stunning inwardness, a mix of love, hope, vulnerability, and longing.

The third moment is the finale, minute 114, when Cooper tells her he knows it was she who wrote the letter and that he wrote his reply several days before. She asks if he loves her. He says he does. She breathes, “Okay,” and they kiss as the camera circles. And in that okay, so soft, ordinary, and unselfconscious, she compresses an immensity of love and need and surrender, and transmits also clarity, decision, and trust. It expresses both a release of the old and an embrace of the new. Such masterful acting, so self-forgetfully wholehearted, cannot be learned from another, but only remembered within oneself.

How do I get from this song, poem, and movie to what we are able to notice and then to the meaning of life? This way: the welling of feeling created within me by the song, poem, and Lawrence’s three moments came unannounced, unshaped by thought or expectation. My heart was empty, then filled. There was none of the posturing or sorting associated with ego. Emotion struck me not from the front, where I could take its measure, permit this, reject that, but from the side, taking me unawares, raking my heart with its beak. Experiences like that are different from what my ego likes to present me. The ego’s main concern, that little gloater, is with how I’m looking, what they think of me, was I witty, was I smart, did I offend? It has zero interest in how I’m feeling, with whether or not a song or poem or Jennifer Lawrence moves me, or, if the ego does take an interest, and from time to time it might, it’s then only to display its feelingful wares.


See how this gets to what we notice and the meaning of life? Because these moments, in which there is richness of feeling, fill and deepen us, make us compassionate and tolerant and courageous. It is through rich deep feeling that we recognize each other, recognize that war and murder are missteps, that lust, greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, selfishness, and pride get in our way. Those are all attributes of ego, that invisible devious rascal that haunts our lives, and only when it is inattentive and quiescent can we notice what matters. And we notice that through feeling, which is where the meaning of life resides.

It’s true that if you go to the song, the poem, and the movie to see for yourself, you may not be similarly affected. The thought that there are as many versions of a novel as there are readers comes to mind. In the end, words can only prod, hint, and point. They can never be the emotion that flashes through consciousness. That’s always private and personal. It’s what we’re all looking for though, because its presence unites, and its absence separates.

Here’s a little poem about this:

The More You Give

The more you give,
The up you be,
The true you grow,
The more you free.
The free you dream,
The wings you lift,
The high you fly,
The sweet you gift.
The more you feel,
The tear you fall,
The soft you go,
The love you all.

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