It’s a Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World

I can’t remember the last time something had the power to jar me out of the all-powerful, thought-consuming state of things. Yes, pandemic. Yes, political polarization and civil unrest. Yes, yes, worry for the economic and health ramifications for millions of people. Transportation stopped. Families stopped. Culture stopped. Yes, yes, yes. I’m thinking about it.

But.

It IS possible to have it knocked out of your head, if only for brief moments. (Thank goodness!) And my moment – the first that I’ve had in a long time – was yesterday. I went to pick up a stack of Moleskin blank journals from one of my favorite stores downtown. I was perusing the book selection. Maybe for gifts, maybe because it felt so refreshing to be out and about and feeling just a bit carefree. The proprietor made a comment, “Oh! Perhaps I should have some Christmas music on!” I rolled my eyes. And because it’s that kind of establishment, and he’s that kind of person, he said, “Well… I have some Johnny Clegg here. How about if I put that on?”

I answered with a great big smile. Johnny Clegg? That’s a name I haven’t heard in many, many, many years. Like from a dream, that name. Johnny Clegg. With Juluka. And later with another band called Savuka. Johnny Clegg from South Africa, a man that played in bi-racial musical groups during the height of Apartheid. The music he and his compatriots created touched lives far and wide, heightening awareness of the situation in South Africa as much, possibly more, than many well known activists. In those days, his bands had trouble finding venues in which they could play. They were harassed. They had to leave the country just to play their music without incident (though they never moved away, just played in places beyond the reach of Apartheid).

In those days, I knew very little about South Africa. I had a vague knowledge that is was racially divided and repressive. I’d been hearing of a divestment movement on campus at the University of Arizona. Late, that effort, as the university was a notoriously conservative campus. On reflection yesterday, I realized that Johnny Clegg’s music spanned the time from my college years to those in which I became an independent adult. It was inevitable. Hearing the music transported me to into memories of a very specific place and time: the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Sonoran desert that surrounds Tucson, the face of a man that I so loved, and an unnerving suspicion that the world might not be the place I’d hoped for after all. One song in particular, “Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World” made every memory sharp and clear. I felt what I felt then and saw images long ago chucked into the dark closets of my mind.

You got to wash with the crocodile in the river
You got to swim with the sharks in the sea

The song was Johnny Clegg’s and written for his newborn son, Jesse. In it, Clegg speaks to his son of all the hopes and fears he feels as a father. It pulls no punches, that song. He speaks about how life will be wonderful. And terrible. He says “I’ll be with you” and also that one day “I won’t be with you”. And more: you must trust, you will be hurt, you will be amazed, you will see and do so many things, all I have to offer is my love for you – and my hopes, I’ll burden you with neither. As Johnny Clegg says over and over: “It’s your world, so live in it.”

Aside from the astonishing truisms in the song, and my vague amusement at now understanding them, I found myself caught up in an endless loop of play. I “heard” the song over and over. My mind was in that time rather than this one. I took a long walk in the afternoon, trying to shake it off. But I couldn’t. Finally, I looked up Johnny Clegg on Wikipedia to learn more about him. It turns out he died in early 2019, at 66, the result of pancreatic cancer. He was a musician, but also a musical scholar and academic. His family was not English or even Afrikaaner, but rather Scots on his father’s side and of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania on his mother’s side. An outsider then, one who’s whiteness gave him freedoms but “otherness” prompted an early awareness that all was not right. He spent a lifetime studying traditional African music, then taught about it through his life’s work. There was much more to his story than I ever knew. I find, more and more often, that’s true of every single person.

Coffee in hand, and not yet fully conscious, my swirling thoughts did finally settle this morning. Guess what they offered up? In a nutshell: perspective. My short immersion in the late 20th century showed me a time I’d believed everything, all the current cares and crisis of the day that existed, must surely remain as the eternal state of things.

Back then, I was young and confused and anxious. Surely that would always be so.

Turns out, it wouldn’t.

The world… well, it was as it was. Surely it would always be that way too. Yes? Apartheid was a great, solid, concrete wall of a system. Germany had existed as two separate countries for the entirety of my life. The Soviet Union? Opaque and immutable as some giant Leviathan. American democracy (and capitalism) happy, healthy and allowing each generation to do better than the one before it had. That was the world. These were truisms. History, and change… well, they were the stuff of textbooks and costume dramas.

But now, here I am, in a world so altered from that one I’ve been reliving that it’s startling be reminded of the vast changes.

First me: at fifty-something instead of twenty-something, and with entire life chapters under my belt. My God, the things I’ve done since then! The people, the places, the different types of work, the things I’ve learned… In my twenties, I looked at myself as a particular entity, whole and set. I thought who I was then was who I would always be. Though there is some elemental, unchanged core that remains as much me as ever, much has changed in my thoughts and beliefs. I had no idea that I could, and would, so completely alter with time.

And the world? What of it? Borders have changed. The Berlin Wall came down. Apartheid was swept away. Who would have thought such things could be done? Who at the end of the 20th century could have believed our lives would become less a communal experience and more one of fractured interests, viewpoints and experiences brought on by the exponential intensification of technology in our lives? (Yikes, that was a mouthful of a sentence.)

This. World. Has. Changed.

Changes.

Will change.

In this moment, this endlessly-at-home, permeated-by-the-pandemic moment, I’ve suddenly been reminded how brief it all is. BRIEF! And before you know it, the pandemic will be a long forgotten occurrence, good for a few paragraphs in a textbook and likely the setting for one or two well-made costume dramas. All our worries, our haranguing over this politician and that one, this source of disinformation and that one, this disagreement and that one… it’s all… going to… pass away.

Just like all of history has passed away.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to think about other things. Maybe it’s alright to enjoy a walk, read a book, and make something without current events located smack dab in the center of your mind’s eye. Because what’s here now, well… it’s going to pass away. We know that intellectually. We know it theoretically. But I’m not sure we are allowing ourselves to know it emotionally, in our guts. Ask yourself, as I am: how important is this present set of circumstances? Impactful, yes. Very. Bitterly, impactful. But important? Worthy of our complete emotional engagement? I’m not so sure anymore.

I do know this, though: Johnny had it right.

It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world.

P.S. Full lyrics, for the technologically impaired… and Jesse mfana translates to mean “Jesse boy”.

You got to wash with the crocodile in the river
You got to swim with the sharks in the sea
You got to live with the crooked politician
Trust those things that you can never see
Ayeye ayeye, Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeye
Ayeye ayeye, Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeye

You got to trust your lover when you go away
Keep on believing tomorrow brings a better day
Sometimes you smile while you’re cryin’ inside
Just once you’ll turn away while the truth be shinin’ bright
Ayeye ayeye , Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeye
Ayeye ayeye , Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeyeIt’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
Every day you wake up I hope it’s under a blue sky
It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
One day when you wake up I will have to say goodbye
Say goodbye, it’s your world so live in it
Goodbye, it’s your world so live in it

Beyond the door, strange cruel beautiful years lie waiting for you
It kills me to know you won’t escape loneliness
Maybe you lose hope too
Ayeye ayeye, Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeye
Ayeye ayeye, Jesse mfana, ayeye ayeyeIt’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
Every time you wake up I hope it’s under a blue sky
It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
One day when you wake up I will have to say goodbye
Say goodbye
It’s your world so live in it
Goodbye, it’s your world so live in it

When I feel your small body close to mine
I feel weak and strong at the same time
So few years to give you wings to fly
Show you the stars to guide your ship by

It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
Every day you wake up I hope it’s under a blue sky
It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
One day when you wake up I will have to say goodbye
Say goodbye, it’s your world so live in it
It’s your world so live in it (it’s your world so live in it)
It’s your world so live in it (it’s your world so live in it)

8 comments

  1. I love Johnny Clegg!!!

    On Fri, Dec 18, 2020 at 2:55 PM Studio Briddsang wrote:

    > esuzabeth posted: ” I can’t remember the last time something had the power > to jar me out of the all-powerful, thought-consuming state of things. Yes, > pandemic. Yes, political polarization and civil unrest. Yes, yes, worry for > the economic and health ramifications for mi” >

    Like

  2. Well, wow!
    I was in Kansas City in the second half of the 80s, living in a primarily Black neighborhood, working with the Sanctuary Movement and Free South Africa groups.
    Kansas City is when I learned of world beat music and fell in love with it. I particularly love African beats. Through the magic of internet and Alexa, I still listen each week to World Sound Radio on KKFI Kansas City each Sunday when my friend Tom Crane fills the airwaves with fabulous music.
    We won the fight against Apartheid. The Sanctuary Movement? Well, not so much, but we did save lives. Yes, my work helped save lives.
    Those days and world beat music changed my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for chiming in, Emilie. I hadn’t thought about Sanctuary in some time. I think success is measured in many ways. That movement helped a lot of people, though perhaps no sweeping legislation came from it. That fight goes on.

      Liked by 1 person

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