This time of year reminds me of the Beatles. I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but last year around this time a close friend of mine and I somehow ended up talking about them — or rather, it was more of a discussion of how I had never really listened to much of their music. As a result, I found myself spending a lot of time in the pre-Covid part of last spring semester listening through some of their albums.
I remember being in Whitney Dining Hall when I first heard a Beatles song with the sitar being played. At the time I was not aware of the folklore surrounding George Harrison’s “spiritual quest” to India and his association with Pandit Ravi Shankar, so the sound surprised me — and also irritated me. Though I recognized the creativity in the incorporation of classical Hindustani instruments and musical forms into Western popular music, that sensitive, droning sound of the sitar was one that had somehow been made almost sacrosanct in my mind years before — and it felt odd to hear it from this music that was “culturally significant” but didn’t feel at all personal.
Sitar music reminds me of Delhi hotels and home-cooked Indian dinners by the fireplace during winter break. It brings to mind vivid images of places — tea plantations nestled in cloud-swaddled hills, hairpin bend roads etched along the sides of mountains, train stations pulsating with numerous and varied sounds. These images are mostly self-constructed, conglomerations of stories told to me by my parents, information from old photos and recollections from sparse memories. They’re a mythologization of a place that is not mine and that I am not truly of — but that is also a place with incalculable bearing on my own life, in its reaches and pulls in minds and hearts close to, and in some aspects entwined with, my own.
This year, when reminded of the Beatles, I began listening to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music instead (listen here for an introduction). It’s beautiful. It can be passionate, even confrontational at times. Other times it’s reserved, reticent. Sometimes it’s overly sentimental, clinging to you with its entreaties not for empathy or even a solution but only for you to step forward and be engulfed by it — perhaps not even to understand it but to move so close so you actually can’t understand it, only feel it.
That extent and layering of expression through soundscapes, intertwined with inexplicable abstractions of connectivity and imagined objects of distance and proximity, has felt suitable — soothing, even — amidst the confluence of all the news, and thoughts from reading and reflecting, within the past couple of weeks. A mentally ill woman was federally executed. Pell grants were finally restored for incarcerated students after being banned 26 years ago. Domestic terrorists attacked the nation’s Capitol. The former president was impeached for the second time. And amidst the news, I reflected often and with no concrete conclusion, on racial injustice and climate disasters, on limits and provision. How do we properly accept responsibility for our personal and collective histories, and for one another? How might we incorporate a vast knowledge of stories and facts into a truthful understanding of reality in the present? And what should we do with that understanding? Where do we, how must we, preserve and create beauty according to the reaches, provisions and capabilities, yet also the limits, of our own circumstances and selves?
“That extent and layering of expression through soundscapes, intertwined with inexplicable abstractions of connectivity and imagined objects of distance and proximity, has felt suitable — soothing, even — amidst the confluence of all the news.”
In his inaugural address, President Biden quoted St. Augustine by saying that as a nation we are a “multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of our love.” Yet not only are we a multitude of beings, individually, each one of us “contain[s] multitudes,” as in the words of Walt Whitman (or, if you prefer, in the words of Bob Dylan).
What are the components of those multitudes? Poet Amanda Gorman’s words at the inauguration on Wednesday remind us of some of what is contained in these multitudes: “… being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” History is contained in us. And we have a responsibility to understand that, and to follow the calls forward, beyond, but first through, that come from that understanding: “The loss we carry asea we must wade.”
Yet more than history is contained in the multitudes that are contained in us. The present, too, is in the multitudes — insofar as we are all woven together and interconnected, and not in a romanticized sense of universal love and belonging or even patriotism, but in the very consequential, weighty and even fearful ways in which our economics, vocations, withholdings, vocabularies and aspirations are interdependent in complicated and immeasurable ways.
To answer those questions, then I must, in the words of President Biden, “Take a measure of me and my own heart.” I must know that it contains multitudes — and then go from there.