Hold away despair

Last week, I heard a 16-year-old violinist on the radio paraphrasing a Catholic priest who said that prayer set to music counts three times as much as a regular prayer. Leaving aside the numerous problems with this idea – I mean, for starters, even if we assume prayer is a real thing, what does it even mean for some prayers to “count” more than others? How do we score this out? – I have a soft spot for it. 

It’s pretty simple. I don’t really believe in prayer in the same way that I don’t believe in a Man-in-the-Sky or most other common conceptions of a deity – but I still pray. I pray almost daily, and I pray the same prayer each time, and the prayer I pray almost every day happens to be part of a song. It goes like this:

Move me brightly.
Light the song with sense and color,
Hold away despair.
More than this, I will not ask.

The song is called “Terrapin Station.” It’s performed by the Grateful Dead, and the words to my prayer were written by Robert Hunter, the band’s primary lyricist. The song itself is an epic multi-part suite, and these words – appropriately, in my view – come at a time that can best be described as the song’s climax. I’ll come back to this in a moment. 

Cognitive dissonance at Santa’s Village

Does a prayer set to music count three times as much as a regular prayer?

I can always count on my good comrade Tim Donovan. He’s a sparring partner, a perpetual formidable challenge to my thinking and ideas, a thorn in my side, and he’s always there with a hypodermic full of fresh outrage – and motivation – to the arm when I need it. 

It was about a month ago, on a day during which I needed none of the above things. I was in the car with my wife and three sons navigating the strange land that is New-Hampshire-Above-Concord, headed to the Mt. Washington Valley to meet my parents and sister for a three-day White Mountains vacation. The weather was perfect, especially the further we drove north. Sunny and mid-seventies, no humidity, wispy white clouds and a gentle breeze floating through the magnificent landscape. The kids were all happy and/or asleep, my wife and I smiling and telling jokes and laughing and blaring some cool tunes for northern New England cruising. This is what it’s all about, amirite? 

Mt. Washington, a wonderful mountain in a magical land where the world is not about to end
Mt. Washington, a wonderful mountain in a magical land where the world is not about to end

I’m pretty sure I saw it outside a McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts or tiny gas station with a porta-potty – the twins are potty training, so a three-hour car ride requires more than the average number of pit stops. Now, in Tim’s defense, he didn’t send it directly to me or anything, he just posted it on his Facebook wall. A climate scientist named Dr. Jason Box (as an aside, kind of a cool name), commenting on massive bursts of methane discovered erupting from melting undersea arctic ice, said that if what appears to be happening is actually happening, we’re fucked.

We’re all professionals here, and I’m not the sort to let a little thing like the impending end of the world ruin a good vacation.

No, I’m not just being vulgar or colloquial, that’s actually what he said, straight up. 

“Not now, man! I’m on vacation.”

I actually posted that below his link, desperate to find some humor in a very unfunny moment. This was not, of course, a new concept to either of us – Tim’s written professionally on the subject and we’ve talked and wrested with the issue more times than I can remember. The lack of realistic optimism available on the subject is the basis of many of our shared lamentations. What was different is that usually we’re saying things like “If we’re lucky and the gas within the melting Arctic sea ice doesn’t fuck us,” and here staring us in the face was preliminary indications that we’re not lucky at all, and just in case we wondered if we might be acting a little overdramatic, here was Jason Box to tell us, no, we’re actually probably fucked. 

Still, we’re all professionals here, and I’m not the sort to let a little thing like the impending end of the world ruin a good vacation. But it never really left my mind, either.

I’d be looking up at Mt. Washington and the region’s other cascading mountains, bespeaking their relative timelessness, that pristine blue sky resting crisp behind and all around, the green of the trees and white of the wispy clouds serving to accent the flawlessness of all Creation and Cosmos, and the thoughts would come. Beautiful, yes. Perfect, sure. But not for long. When we went to Santa’s Village the following afternoon, a delightful time was had by all. We rode rides, fed reindeer, climbed on a demonic rabbit, saw a man dressed as Santa, committed borderline blasphemy at a life-size Nativity scene, laughed, ate pizza, donuts, and cakes, and made the kind of happy memories that stick with you for all of life.

Cognitive dissonaaaaance!
Cognitive dissonaaaaance!

This was precisely the kind of celebration I’m always talking about, the kind I always babble about how we need more of it. The marking of seasons, the enjoyment of kin and clan, the free breathing of free air and joy-taking of life and Earth and Space. I was living it. I don’t always pull it off, but here I was actually avoiding hypocrisy, practicing what I preach. It was an ordinary vacation that was a spiritual gift and blessing. This is the stuff, this is what life really has to offer.

Incessantly, the thoughts still came. It’s all a lie. Everything you’re doing, your whole way of life, is careening the entire human race toward and over the guardrail of extinction. Laugh it up – it’s only a matter of time. 

I’d be playing cards and telling jokes or ranting politics (in the happiest sense), having a grand old time, and the other part of my mind would tell me, Good for you, but it’s pretty futile, don’t you think?

So I believe it is necessary to view the world before us squarely and unflinchingly, with clear heads and unbiased judgments based in fact. I also believe it to be the responsibility – as well as perhaps the meaning – of conscious life, whenever able, to respect, enjoy, and celebrate that life with which it has been bestowed. Ethically, I am required to be honest. Morally, the meaning of my life is the celebration of its divine existence. There, in the flawless majesty of the ancient White Mountains, lay my cognitive dissonance.

Celebration required dishonesty. Honesty required despair. And whenever I looked at my kids smiling and full of wonder or recognized my own personal wonder at being accompanied by a family I like so much, it was hard to get myself to believe there was anything wrong at all. 

But everything is wrong. Dr. Jason Box knows what’s up.

Let’s be honest – it’s a bad little age we find ourselves in

The despair I’m talking about is neither foreign to me, nor is it irrational. As a parent, frankly, I wrestle with guilt all the time. I might see some shit, but I’m probably going to be dead before it gets really bad. My kids will be there to see it. They might have to deal with famine or fight in wars over water. My kids probably won’t get to take their kids to Santa’s Village and celebrate life with them there. My kids might grow up and not be able to celebrate much of anything at all. This isn’t hysterical or dramatic – the methane is coming out of the Arctic sea ice and – still – absolutely nobody is doing anything about it. 


Sometimes it makes me want to give the boys the best and most wonder-filled childhood I possibly can, because it might be the only good times they get to have. It sucks when you think that the best and luckiest outcome for the next couple of generations is bare survival. Best case scenario, the human beings keep living here on this crazy blue water-rock in space. But let’s say we somehow manage to actually pull that one off, or we’re wrong about how bad it is (or any of the other unlikely scenes of roses Tim and I – and many others – concoct in order to envision any kind of future at all), the hopelessness doesn’t end there.

I’m quite brazenly the sort of person who believes there are two sides battling it out for control of the whole thing, and one is basically good and the other is bad, and I’m proud to at least in some tiny way posture myself as to be fighting on the side of the good. Even here, however, what usually worries me is not the likelihood that the bad guys will eventually win, but that they won already. I think back to the cultural uprising that was the 1960s and, under sober analysis, it is not a dawning of a benevolent Age of Aquarius I see so much as Hunter Thompson’s imagery of a wave breaking and rolling back. What if that was the high-water mark, what if the best of the good guys have already been murdered, what if our dreams of taking principled stands are nothing more than mere pageantry designed to assuage our own consciences while having no tangible influence on an outcome that is already decided? I find it hard to conclude otherwise.

What usually worries me is not the likelihood that the bad guys will eventually win, but that they won already.

How does one respond to these conditions? I may still believe in celebration, divinity, enjoyment of life, and the like, but I’m also not the sort to advocate a retreat from reality in order to take advantage of exclusionary privilege and block out everything that’s bad. I often wonder not merely what I should do but what I will do – will I have the strength and courage to continue on? Will I just acquiesce to our collective defeat? Will I simply resign myself to the fact that it doesn’t matter at all, in the grand scheme, which of these options I choose? 

In light of reality, it's almost hard to call the book of Revelation silly.
In light of reality, it’s almost hard to call the book of Revelation silly.

There’s a reason I wear a pendant of St. Jude around my neck. He’s the patron saint of hopeless causes. That’s also the reason that I pray. Given all that I’ve just described, is there a rational response to these contradictory and dim circumstances? 

If the answer is no – and I believe it is – I’ve still got to keep on living and doing the thing. If that requires employing a semi-functional and irrational response over a non-existent rational one, so be it. I might have high standards and I might be an ideologue, but I’m no purist. At this point, who among us can really afford to be “above” anything? 

Mystic Wizard + Grateful Dead = watch out, you guys

Fortunately (for all of us), there are people out there who know more than I do. One of them is undoubtedly Robert Hunter, the man responsible for my prayer. Hunter, who has written the lyrics for more than one Bob Dylan album, is not just a poet par excellence and Jerry Garcia’s lifelong creative partner, but a mystic and psychonaut of such a high degree that few alive can match it. In Box of Rain, his book form compilation of lyrics, he describes the song’s genesis:

“I wrote Terrapin, Part One, at a single sitting in an unfurnished house with a picture window overlooking San Francisco Bay during a flamboyant lightning storm. I typed the first thing that came into my mind at the top of the page, the title: Terrapin Station.
Not knowing what it was to be about, I began my writing with an invocation to the muse and kept typing as the story began to unfold.”

Much of the song is actually a story-within-a-story. With the opening invocation, we’re introduced to the Storyteller, who, as promised, evokes the muse:

Let my inspiration flow
In token lines suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me
Till my tale is told and done.

While the firelight’s aglow,
Strange shadows in the flames will grow,
Till things we’ve never seen
Seem familiar.

Terrapin Station.
Terrapin Station.

The storyteller, not one to disappoint, gives us his story:

Shadows of a sailor forming,
Winds both foul and fair all swarm –
Down in Carlisle, he loved a lady
Many years ago.

Here beside him stands a man,

A soldier, by the looks of him,
Who came through many fights,
But lost at love.

While the storyteller speaks,

A door within the fire creaks.
Suddenly, it flies open,
And a girl is standing there.

Eyes alight with glowing hair,

All that fancy paints as fair,
She takes her fan and throws it
In the lion’s den.

“Which of you, to gain me, tell,

Will risk uncertain pains of hell?
I will not forgive you
If you will not take the chance.”

The sailor gave at least a try,

The soldier being much too wise – 
Strategy was his strength,
And not disaster.

The sailor, coming out again,

The lady fairly leapt at him.
That’s how it stands today;
You decide if he was wise.

It’s a pretty straightforward little folk love story, appearing at first glance to have no relation to the prayer to follow. It offers no explicit insight on the subject of despair or how to handle a bad age or the end of the world. But after having spent a few years now immersed in these words and their inseparable melody (which Hunter says came suddenly to Garcia, driving around alone in the city, at the same time he was composing the lyrics – something that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with either of them), an implicit suggestion has come to take the shape of an apparition before my eyes as I hear and sing the words of this little story. 

Consider the notion that, perhaps, this is not a simple tale of a human man loving a human woman and proving his love through some chivalric ordeal – consider that, perhaps, the girl who emerges from the fire is not a flesh-and-blood woman but the goddess of life. The sailor and the soldier are not merely competing suitors vying for a special spouse, they’re each on a quest for the embrace of life itself. The soldier bases his action in careful, strategic analysis. The sailor, on the other hand, sees the fan falling among the bloodthirsty lions, and realizes, “Here’s my only shot.” The soldier knew that in the lion’s den lay probable failure and death, but the sailor didn’t care. Truly, the sailor had just as great a chance of dying in the attempt as anyone, but since he didn’t, he was rewarded with the divine communion with life itself. 

“That’s how it stands today. / You decide if he was wise.” 

Well, yes, I decide that he was wise – irrational but wise. And while I still, at the time of this writing, feel extremely far off from any kind of solution on these matters of life and apocalypse and despair and honesty, I take something applicable, some small but practical lesson, from the little fable. The whole of the future seems to me a giant lion’s den, and the Mistress of Cosmic Life has just thrown her “fan” into it. The only hope available is to go in there and get it. Rushing towards an almost certain devouring at the teeth of lions – as good an image as any to express what we’re up against – isn’t that sort of hope I would pick if given the choice, but in our case, it’s this or nothing. The only hope I can possibly conceive lies in my own running straight into the home of the beasts and seeing if I – or any of us – might make it back out to collect the reward.

That’s a mystical lesson, not a rational one. I anticipate and recognize that flaw. It’s just that there aren’t any rational lessons available. Robert Hunter is a mystic and a poet, not a scientist or, well, soldier. I don’t know if my interpretation is remotely close to what he was thinking, looking at the San Francisco thunderstorm in the late 70s. In fact, he says so, in the very next lyrics, the last before the song climaxes in prayer:

The storyteller makes no choice,
Soon, you will not hear his voice.
His job is to shed light,
And not to master.

Since the end is never told,

We pay the teller off in gold
In hopes he will come back,
But he cannot be bought or sold.

Then we have my prayer. “Inspiration, move me brightly. Light the song with sense and color. Hold away despair. More than this I will not ask.” And why should I ask any more? If I’m able to avoid the cataclysmic obstruction of despair by any means available in the universe, I hope I can at least do my own part and take it from there.

I lack a solution, I lack an “answer,” I lack a cure for my own despair or anyone else’s. All I’ve got is the prayer sung by a humble sailor willing to do whatever it takes to win the world-lady’s favor. It’s not tangible, but it’s much, much better than nothing.

Much better than nothing, man.
Much better than nothing, man.

At this point, I’ve said way more than enough, especially for someone without much of his own wisdom to offer on the subject, even as a wizard. The final lines of the song, embroidered with haunting beauty, are as mystical as the rest, and I will leave you with them for your own enjoyment, meditation, and conclusion.

Faced with mysteries dark and vast,
Statements just seem vain at last.


Some rise, some fall, some climb
To get to Terrapin.


Counting stars by candlelight,
All are dim but one is bright – 
The spiral light of Venus,
Rising first and shining best,
Oh, from the northwest corner
Of a brand new crescent moon.
The crickets and cicadas sing
A rare and different tune:
Terrapin Station.
In the shadow of the moon:
Terrapin Station.
And I know we’ll be there soon…
Terrapin! I can’t figure out
Terrapin! If it’s the end or beginning
Terrapin! But the train’s put its brakes on
Terrapin! And the whistle is screaming:

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