As we are battling a crisis unprecedented in our times, 2020 — who really does not come to play — decided that it is also the year it was going to take Bill Withers away from us. I admitted I cried when I heard the news. I remember my dad, my person, who was a big fan of his music and an avid road-tripper, would play his songs out loud in the car. Along with Withers, he sang Lean On Me, albeit off-key, when I told him I did not make it to the choral speaking team. Lovely Day was my depression fuck you song, when the world seemed so dark and I was grappling to see the light on the way out, the lines, “Just one look at you, and I know it’s gonna be, a lovely day” would fill me with a sliver of hope that the world would be all right with me eventually.
Illustrator and author Austin Kleon, who also cried when he heard the news, wrote a lovely blog post to commemorate Bill Withers. I have never heard until I read the blog post that there was a documentary about Bill Withers called Still Bill, and Kleon shared this quote from the documentary on patience and consistency, which I imagine would stick long with me:
It’s okay to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through Alright, and when you get to Alright, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.
When I heard of Withers’ passing and somehow his songs and my memory with my father coalesced, I was reminded of a few passages in Alexander Chee’s essay, On Becoming an American Writer (shorter version here) in his book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (which I couldn’t stop gushing about) when he could not see the point of writing after Trump winning the 2016 election but then changed his mind when he realised why we should write, why we should create — it’s not for us, it’s for those who might consume (emphasis mine):
What is the point? I was asking myself that day. The problem can be not just who is listening, but who is not listening. Who will never listen. The point of writing in the face of the problem was the point of samizdat, readers and writers meeting secretly all across the Soviet Union to share forbidden books, either written there or smuggled into the country. The point is in the widow of Osip Mandelstam memorising her husband’s poetry while in the camps with him in the Soviet Union, determined that his poems make it to readers. The point of it is in the possibility of being read by someone who could read it. Who could be changed, out past your imagination’s limits.
[..] If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: when I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow, or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems, or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry. Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this.
When I read this, and thought of how Withers’ music transported me back to the time when my parents and I sang his songs out of lungs in the car with the window rolled down in the tropic heat, I think of the comments and actions made for the redundancy and the deprioritising of the arts — especially in the instances of how the funding for the arts was cut or lessened as the country spent more and more on technology and engineering areas that seemed to be more ‘advanced’ and ‘beneficial’ to the country. For far too long arts, music, and culture had always been sidelined, an extra, an add-on, something that isn’t useful until it can be measured against numbers and statistics. If we read history, we would have learned that during the Black Death in Italy, people carried paintings through the streets to confront the plague and to sustain their souls. Today, the people in Italy, a country which had been severely impacted by the coronavirus, took to their windows & balconies to sing arias to boost morale. Withers wrote Lean On Me when he was feeling far away from the community that raised him, “coming from a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid.” I have written many posts on how people turn to books and poetry when uncertainties envelop them, taking comfort in the words and images and in extension, develop empathy and an attuned sense of compassion to the wider society while at it.
I might be sounding like a broken record already — but today, as some of us are stuck safely in our homes, we might want to contemplate the questions and our next steps when this is all over — from questions of the mundanity of lives such as, “Can we still opt to work from home then? How safe can we feel touching the surfaces of the subway? Will our obsessive hand sanitising habits remain with us?” to the questions that will change the trajectory of our society next, knowing what is at stake, “Knowing what is at stake, how can we make sure the arts will no longer be sidelined? How will we ensure the most vulnerable among us will no longer be systematically marginalised? What kind of leaders do we want — or more importantly, what kind of leaders will place the best interest of the most disadvantaged in their agenda? The changes and the worries we are addressing in the midst of the pandemic now — how do we make sure we would not fall into another amnesiac state when this is all over? In essence, in the rush to return to normal, how do we consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to?”
Austin Kleon, in his blog post, transcribed Bill Withers’ interview on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn where Withers talked about how his, a coal miner and an avid reader who had never gone to school, had always stressed on the importance of education to his children. Towards the end of the transcript, Withers said:
Hopefully the music that I made is useful to somebody. I mean, I get nice letters from people that say, ‘Hey man, my grandmother died, and the song helped me.’ I like that kind of stuff.
Rest in power, Bill Withers. My parents and I thank you for the sunshine and your gift of music.
Reading in my tabs:
- “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.” Stop trying to be productive.
- What do anthropological poems bring to us? “Sensations, emotions, ironies, hopes, traumas, urgencies, disruptions, understandings — what it means to be vitally human and to make sense of the human experience. […] With anthropological poems, we see a trained observer in the world, feeling the world, engaging the world, not apart from but of — often trying to relate across human differences.”
- “For the first time in more than a century, since the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918, we collectively and globally face a pandemic that threatens to radically alter the lives of virtually everybody on the planet. It behooves us to converse with the dead. Much is alien about our forebears, but when we read accounts of pestilence raging through ancient cities, it’s hard not to hear echoes of our own increasingly frenzied push notifications.” The cultural constants of contagion.
- Bruno Latour asks, “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?’
- “The familiar is always comfortable, but we need to make a distinction between what is actually desirable and what is simply what we’re accustomed to; sometimes those are the same, and sometimes they are not. The people who are the happiest with the status quo are the ones who benefit most from it, which is why the wealthy are usually conservative; the existing order works to their advantage. […] The people who will be happiest to return to our existing system of debt are the ones who benefit from it, and making them uncomfortable might be a good idea.” Ted Chiang on how we may never go ‘back to normal’ —and why that might be a good thing.
- “I’m going to go out as a fucking meteor!”
- Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. Check out her interview with CBC Radio, “It’s like a reset, when you turn the machine on and off and on again, that our basic default setting is generous and communitarian and altruistic. But what’s shocking is the incredible joy people often seem to have, when they describe that sense of purpose, connection, community agency they found.”
- Viewing: Kim’s Convenience, and La Casa de Papel Season 4 is also back on Netflix! Also all of these walking tour videos.
- Listening: Bill Withers’ tracks on repeat.
- Food & Drink: Earl grey latte and omelette for breakfast.