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All There Is

I never really liked Peggy Lee. It wasn’t the hair and jewelled headband, though I always did think it made her look exceptionally cheesy and desperate. It was her song “Is That All There Is?”

What a downer of a song.

I was in sixth-grade when it wafted out WGY airwaves every morning, while my mother—widowed, beautiful, in love with someone she could never have—served me prune juice and Freihofer’s corn toasties.

“Is that all there is?

Is that all there is?

If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing.”

Could you have faced the day with a smile after prune juice and Peggy Lee?

I spent the next 30 years trying to outwit that damn song. But sometimes, on my bleaker days, it seems to get it just right:

I haven’t published a book. I haven’t found my soulmate. I can’t even do a headstand unless I am within 12 inches of the wall—talk about separation anxiety.

“If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing.”

It’s on days or nights like these that I get an image of myself with a a rhinestone headband and a platinum rinse leaning into some nameless lush on a darkened dance floor. Dancing out of time. It’s pathetic.

Plus, it’s also a little over the top for a Lutheran pastor who lives in Niskayuna, shops at Hannaford and regularly carts her two daughters to Girl Scouts, hair appointments and artsy-fartsy entertainments. I am about as squeaky-clean as it gets. No jewelled headbands (although my hairdresser—God bless her—keeps assuring me I’m a hot tamale. At least for a femme of the cloth).

But that aside, I know I’m not alone in trying to outwit “Is That All There Is?”

It’s as though the collective project of people around my age—the decades of the fabled Baby Boomers—is to demythologize lives we burdened with unrealistic expectations. And to somehow be OK, or even more than OK, with our reduced existential circumstances.

We grew up in an era that reintroduced the morality of rebellion against repression: Elder Boomers lived through McCarthyism and the civil rights era. Middle Boomers got a plateful with the Vietnam war, the pill, the assassinations of Martin Luthur King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Kent State and Roe v. Wade.

Tail-end Boomers like me hung out in bongwater-scented dorm rooms, reading Mircea Eliade as we fed our munchies and waited for transcendence, while Miles Davis blew blue in the background.

After college we may have worked in co-ops or Montessori Schools. We may have gone on to art school or hitchhiked through Europe. We may have flirted with Hinduism, sent our résumés round the not-for-profit circuit or found a way to stay somnolent off the wages of our girlfriend or boyfriend.

But eventually many of us started having kids. Or we realized, not without some reluctance, how pathetic we would look as gray-haired, financially insolvent, girlfriend-freeloading dreamers. That worked for a few 19th-century German poets. And for more than a handful of visual artists and musicians of decades past. But unfortunately (or fortuitously, if we are honest with ourselves about the degree to which we live as a nation of financial privilege), those of us raised in the Catalog Era still nurse at the teats of the capitalist empire.

And on the more personal level, we spawn and we care. We work and we are driven. We love and we cleave. All these silly clichés still apply. And so we end up—where?

Well, it seems that those of us who haven’t sold out to the inebriating screens of television and the computer end up reading books like The Care of the Soul or How to Want What You Have. Or, having read A Path With a Heart, in which the author, Jack Kornfield, talks about finding the inner path to self-awareness, we open his new book with hope and relief. In After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, he describes the filtered illlumination available to us in caring for aged parents, loving our spouses, raising our children and pruning the errant impulses of predictable and expected narcississim.

Maybe this is simply the way to put flesh on the bones of “A Love Supreme.”

Or maybe I am just making do, still trying to outwit Peggy Lee and her nightclub angst. Nancy Drew meets Veronica yet again.

As to the question of where we end up as adults, a friend of mine says we end up on Procrustes’ bed. This was the bed to which, in Greek mythology, the sleeper must tailor his or her proportions. It was the bed that defined its sleeper, whether that definition was to cramp or give ample room.

He may be right, but I have always disagreed with him about this.

I have always chafed at Procrustes’ bed every bit as much as I have chafed at Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”

Maybe I was simply born too old for bitterness.

And if that is the case, I believe I am really and truly blessed.

Because what else, for God’s sake, do we have than all there is? What kiss, what face, what sound, what word, what taste will be more dear to us than the one we have experienced thus far?

We are always cusping on the ultimate. Each moment may be the last moment—and how fast and loose we play with such basic common sense.

Promises of nirvana or heaven or ecstasy aside (after all, where are our frontline reporters?), there is nothing to come that we can be more certain of than what is now.

This becomes our great excuse either for irresponsibility—“Hey, man, live in the moment, man”—or our profoundest reason for a selfless, but paradoxically fulfilling, path of love.

I want to believe that Peggy Lee died happy. Or at least with her roots showing.

But more than that, I want to believe I won’t die bitter and pissed, blinded to the secret wonder of all there is.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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