Tag Archives: Neil Young

Strong Winds

With a promise of winter a stiff and chilly wind blew in from the east this morning, doing its best to wrest the last leaves off the trees and drying the ground from last night’s rain.  I stood for a time at an upstairs window looking out over our back yard.  My eyes were level with the tops of the trees.  The evergreens and the giant willow at the edge of our yard bent and flowed with the gusts, an elegant and ancient dance.

There was something majestic about it all.  The wind itself has a certain power – physically, yes, but also over the imagination.  That sense of shifting, of being lost in the midst of great movement, the ebb and flow of it, the whooshing as the air and the remaining leaves enact their annual fall battle.  Sometimes it seems as if the trees are passing the wind from one to the next, down the street, from bare branches to red and gold leaves and back again, as one tree top after another will begin to sway.  A great and intricate pattern, known only to nature.

The animals sense it too.  Winter is coming!  The squirrels have been furiously busy, canvassing the yards for undiscovered acorns and then stashing them away in some secret place.  The deer have been nervously pacing the neighborhood, wondering where their winter food will come from, especially now that the woods has been virtually taken away by the new housing development.  And in the late afternoon, as the sun began to sink and the cold intensified, a great hawk sat for a time on a low branch.  Surveying the ground stoically, the wind ruffled its feathers.  Suddenly it took to the air, cruising low over the ground, and then disappearing from view in a copse of trees.

You may remember the song Four Strong Winds.  Written in 1961 by Ian Tyson, the best known version of the song is on Neil Young’s classic 1978 record Comes A Time.  With haunting harmonies sung by Nicolette Larson, it is a song about loss and longing, about moving on when the chill of winter begins to creep in.  And also about how hope endures in the human heart, even in darkness.  From the song’s chorus:

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may…

Here is a link to the Neil Young version of Four Strong Winds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTMMS88gi6c

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Filed under liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, Uncategorized

Strong Winds

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way –

The lyrics are by the Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, but they were popularized by the great (and mercurial) Neil Young, on his mega-hit 1978 album Comes A Time, in the song entitled Four Strong Winds. The song is soaked in regret and sadness, in loneliness and looking back. It is a tale of human separation, of the walls that sometimes rise between us and those we love. ‘Still I wish you’d change your mind, if I asked you one more time, but we’ve been through this a hundred times or more.’

I was reminded of Young’s plaintive rendition of the song recently during Shabbat services. From where I sit (literally and figuratively) I often know exactly what is going on inside of one person or another. Someone recently had a loss. Another person is worried about a sick relative. The person in the back corner just lost their job. The person on the isle is going through a divorce. And the list could go on and on.

And so it was that I watched a strange and painful scene unfold. Parents and an estranged child, long since grown to adulthood. The couple, sitting at one end of a row, regular Shabbat attenders. Their son entered the room. There has been almost no contact between parent and child for a long time now, the result of a long forgotten but brutal and bitter dispute that left wounds too deep to heal. The son wandered, looking for a seat. Purely serendipitously he sat in his parents row, on the other end, not realizing they were there until it was too late. But now he couldn’t move. It was a point of pride. So he sat with his back angled toward his parents, staring away from them, fixing his eyes on some point in the distance. He held a siddur loosely in his hands.

The parents also suddenly realized their child sat just a few feet down the row from where they were. When was the last time they spoke to their son? A boy they raised, loved, taught how to read, ride a bike, drive a car, catch and throw a baseball. They were so close, the same Shul, the same room, the same time, the same row. But they could not have been further away. Wrinkles of sadness and regret formed around their eyes and in the corners of their mouths.

Soon the service would be over. The son and his parents would rise, not looking at one another but intensely aware of presence, and with it lost time and a long and lonely journey. It would not end this day. The parents slowly walked out, not looking back. The son? He waited an extra minute or two, pretending to look through the pages of a prayer book. Soon he too would be gone.

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The Muse Descends

Neil Young, the great Canadian singer and song writer, once said that the vast majority of his songs come to him whole cloth, lyrics and chords complete.  He wakes up in the morning, rested and bright eyed, and suddenly an entire song floats into his head.  All he has to do is right it down.

If that experience is a regular one for Neil Young, my guess is it is highly irregular for most rabbis.  This is the time of year when we struggle with sermons more so than any other time.  We want to have our very best material, we want to give our congregants, as my predecessor Rabbi Mark Loeb used to say, ‘heaven.’  We hope to be creative, brilliant, wise, poignant, original.  So we slave away.  We write and re-write.  We edit and edit again.  We stay up late into the night, staring blankly at our computer screens, hoping against hope that it will somehow all come together.  It can be a torturous process.

But every once in a while the muse descends.  What calls her, I do not pretend to know or understand.  Some strange and mystical elixir of timing, thinking, energy, and then a door that opens from inside the mind.  Suddenly the fingers tap the keys more quickly.  A page appears, and then another.  Perhaps a sermon will actually be completed before the holidays arrive.  Maybe even two, who knows?

The problem of course is that we cannot call the muse, we do not have the power to choose when she comes and when she departs.  Maybe we learn over time to hone our skills, we develop a sense of the craft of constructing a sermon.  Song writers too talk about the craft, the way a song can be put together with sweat and tears and gritted teeth.  We can wait for the muse, but it sure is good to have a backup plan – sit down and type!

Ah, the muse.  Thinking about her always brings to my mind the gorgeous elegy that Robert Hunter read at Jerry Garcia’s funeral:

An Elegy for Jerry by Robert Hunter

Jerry, my friend,
you’ve done it again,
even in your silence
the familiar pressure
comes to bear, demanding
I pull words from the air
with only this morning
and part of the afternoon
to compose an ode worthy
of one so particular
about every turn of phrase,
demanding it hit home
in a thousand ways
before making it his own,
and this I can’t do alone.
Now that the singer is gone,
where shall I go for the song?

Without your melody and taste
to lend an attitude of grace
a lyric is an orphan thing,
a hive with neither honey’s taste
nor power to truly sting.

What choice have I but to dare and
call your muse who thought to rest
out of the thin blue air,
that out of the field of shared time,
a line or two might chance to shine –

As ever when we called,
in hope if not in words,
the muse descends.

How should she desert us now?
Scars of battle on her brow
bedraggled feather on her wings
and yet she sings, she sings!

May she bear thee to thy rest,
the ancient bower of flowers
beyond the solitude of days,
the tyranny of hours –
the wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head,
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legends of the dead.

If some part of that music
is heard in deepest dream,
or on some breeze of Summer
a snatch of golden theme,
we’ll know you live inside us
with love that never parts
our good old Jack O’Diamonds
become the King of Hearts

I feel your silent laughter
as sentiments so bold
that dare to step across the line
to tell what must be told
so I’ll just say I love you
which I never said before
and let it go at that old friend
the rest you may ignore.

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