Between the Black & the White
... is Grey
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
from My Back Pages – Bob Dylan (1964)
To put not too fine a point on the vagaries of defining various artistic pursuits and before you assume that this is some kind of Keats versus Byron face off, both of whom I happily absorb deep into my bones, the aforementioned piece of poetry was written, not by either of these Masters but by a young Bob Dylan, from his introspective poetic period between shaking the music establishment to its core and going electric.
If one is foolish enough to try and explain poetry at all, one might come to the conclusion, with this verse, that to define life in black or white, like trying to define poetry, just like trying to corral the poet, is a rather futile exercise. Even the exercise of commencing the process is a lie we tell ourselves as we search for the clear cut. However, as we grow older, and, hopefully, wiser, we realise the folly of devoting so much time to the pursuit of the black and the white, confirming the process as fruitless indeed. Perhaps to put it another way, as soon as we think we’ve got something nailed, we end up needing to pull the nail out to find another place for it.
Definitive conclusions, or the task of arriving at them, are perilous journeys and perhaps even more perilous destinations. I have been hearing lately many brain tumour survivors talk about alienation, the feeling of being set adrift from those who they’d thought would have supported them, assumptions made and cast aside as black becomes white before the pendulum swings back into the grey zone around the centre, to do nothing if not appease sensitivities and half-wracked prejudices.
Why am I quoting a single verse from an obscure, albeit magnificent, song, like an attempt to foist some sort of Noble Laureate compose on an unsuspecting audience, the jesting fiddler playing mind games behind the curtain. I’ve been talking to an old friend, a musician with more musical talent in his index finger than I have in my whole being, about doing some music together. He wants to play some songs with me, as we used to do in the days before big city barons purloined grotty music venues and turned them into immaculately clean industrial brushed steel benched Mexican restaurants of the guaranteed income kind. He wants to play some of my songs, written years ago, and some others besides, including the one above, as a homage to survival and redefinition. I can’t play guitar, due to this annoying post operative hemiplegia but I can still play harmonica and piano, and so my dear friend has offered up his services. We are planning on resurrecting the old “Backyard Sessions”, when live music in back gardens reigned supreme. When local cops would come, late at night, not to close us down, but to listen.
I started studying young Bob’s song as one we might perform when the words to the second verse hung in the air like the steam from a Chicago man hole cover. Yes, I was so much older then, yes, half-wracked prejudices do leap forth, we all want things in black and white but eventually, hopefully, we see the lie for what it is and not as some bogus post modern linguistic blind alley that intellectuals want to send us down. “Surely you’re better now” is a popular one, playing well to those who would rather we get on with things. Replying with an “It’s not that black and white” often doesn’t go down well. People want answers, they feel the need for certainty. “It takes time” doesn’t play well either and invites the tasty reply of “How much time do you need?” from those who specialise in answering their own questions. As if we can all move on only once acceptable responses to these enquiries are tidied away.
Certainly some things are inalienable, such as the line between right and wrong, and for many of us that provides us the black and the white that we need, the idea that friends will always be there for us being one of them. That it’s not true in all cases can devastate us until we find that the lie can open up another truth. That truth is that there is always someone who understands, who gets it, where we’re at, what we’re going through, what precisely is our struggle, we just have to find it, or wait till it finds us.
Here is something that is patently black and white, the brain tumour journey is an isolating one. To undertake one can, by definition, only be truly understood by someone else on the same journey. But it is also where this understanding diverges, speaking truth to the lie yet again, that it’s not just those who have been through one understand. The support that my fellow travellers yearn for comes from both expected and unexpected sources, people whose paths would never have crossed if not for this diversion.
What was the young twenty three year old Bob thinking when he penned these words? I have no idea. It doesn’t much matter. There is poetry in listening to people who are going through this journey, who talk of how they are overcoming the half-wracked prejudices, the lies of black and white and the dreams from inside their skull.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had friends who have understood this reality and if they haven’t I’ve made them understand. Having a magnificent wife running interference, providing that luxurious foundation, assists in that respect. But I meet others on the same journey who almost convince me, just by being, that I’m an imposter, with their courage and quiet determination in the face of this prejudice, who give real voice to the truth that aches. Just this past week I have sat in a room with thirty people on the same path, at varying points on that path, describe, not in black or white but in all the colours of the rainbow, what it means to travel the brain tumour road, what it means to feel alienated, scared, confused, disappointed, determined and loved. To be resolute. But not once did I sense a loss of power. I saw cracks in the pavement and dodgy leaning lampposts but in all of that a connection that can almost heal the planet.
If things were as black and white as we’d like them to be we’d know why, and who, and when but we don’t. We want answers we know we won’t get, or at least how we want them and when we want them. When one expresses their disappointment with friends or family, one starts to redefine what it means to have friends, or to be in a family, and then one finds another family, and new friends, reigniting or redefining the old, and the journey starts over or kick starts another chapter, hopefully an exciting one. Part of what makes this journey an exhilarating one, sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating, sad and confusing one, is that the grey is at the very heart of the matter, the brain, the major component of the central nervous system, the important bit. It’s unfathomable, malleable, fungible, magnificent, delicate.
We arrive at that point knowing that the lie that life is black and white is just that and that it doesn’t much matter that it is. You’ll enjoy my harp solo if ever you get to hear it, my mate’s guitar solo on it’s own will bring the house down.