Searching for the real deal

At the foot of our hill, the Sawmill River feeds from the the brook that swells with each rainstorm as it flows across from our house, its soft murmur growing to a roar we can hear from our porch.

Coming down the hill, its namesake, an old sawmill, remains an used landmark. But a more potent image is provided by the boys who sometimes gather on the bank with fishing poles: a montage that evokes an innocent era.

Just as the sawmill — restored by neighbors who believed in the value of preserving the structure — honors this vestige of the past, so the image of kids fishing down by the bridge over the neighborhood stream echoes from another era.

The same is true with kids playing stickball, I guess. Or doing "double Dutch." Or watching butterflies or tadpoles. Or, for that matter, reading.

I call it reality. It's a nostalgic scene that pays homage to a time before selfies and kids walking with earbuds, reading and sending texts instead of being where they are.
When you say "Amazon" nowadays, does anyone remember that it's a 4000-mile-long river whose river basin encompasses 2.7 million square miles in nine nations including 5.5 million miles of rainforest? Or do we just think of it as a corporate behemoth?

"I saw it on Amazon Prime," "I saw it on Hulu," "I saw it on Facebook Live," are phrases that have far outpaced, say, "I saw it on Main Street" or on the stage, or on the prairie. Or better yet, I lived it.

“I watched the sunset again tonight. How absolutely magical!”

Seemingly, we've been transformed into a largely spectator society in which far more people likely watch baseball, football or basketball games than those who actively play the game. We've collectively tuned in, and tuned out real life.

No wonder those kids I see out fishing seem like re-enactments of Huck Finn, like living anachronisms I always have to pinch myself to make sure they're not simply young actors shooting a movie before my eyes.

My fear is that we're growing increasingly divorced from our natural world, and that reality has become almost entirely what we're told to believe by media -- which in turn is largely entertainment, infotainment or outright commercial hogwash.

Music, too, has become the passive soundtrack of real life, as though it's simply a product of SiriusXM or You Tube Music.

There have been summer evenings when through open windows I've listened to the sounds of people practicing piano or violin, or for that matter musical ensembles playing. My heart skips a beat, stirred by the recollection that there are still people for whom enjoying music isn't simply a standby earbud exercise. Or that there are people who go out of their way to attend a live performance rather than hearing a recording by the Masters of the Charts.

With adoration in this celebrity culture of brand-name superstars as possessing the only real talent (those masterfully-engineered Top 100 hits that follow a prescribed formula) we've come to devalue ourselves and cast aside the truth: "If you can talk, you can sing; if you walk, you can dance." *

In recent years, I've been saddened to see DJs (are they still called that, even though discs themselves have become passe?) take over from live musicians at weddings and other celebrations, and to watch as coffeehouses and other music venues have gone dark.

I love watching the eyes of young children widen magically when they experience live music being played, or better yet, actually get to try out music-making or finger-painting for the first time — exposed to the thrill of what they can create.
That’s my version of sublime reality, anyway.


A favorite social studies teacher of mine, Scott Finnegan, asked those of us in his class long ago, "Do you know the real purpose of education?"

No, it's not to allow us become more financially successful in life, he corrected us, or to pass on a litany of facts to memorize.

It's to help us become more interesting people to be with when we're alone, as well as to develop critical thinking skills.

I take that to mean not simply formal education, but those parts of life -- our pastimes, our stories and arts, and those of other eras and peoples by which we learn to become more fully human.

No technology, no commercial substitute, can ever replace that.

* (My friend, Kathy Bullock, has used this phrase to describe African culture, and I quote it here in deep appreciation.)

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