A River and a Volleyball

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat
(youtube)

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 
(Wikipedia)

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might read like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film version. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing, constant, imperturable companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” imagining it as a witness helps Joe feel less alone. The river is personified more than it is deified; the spirituality of “Ol’ Man River” is relatively non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow. But it reminds us of how long humans have been animating the forces of nature to help them manage their fears or understand what they could not control.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”
(rogerebert.com)

A personification similar to “ol’ man river” is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes ashore on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, listens to it, yells at it, and finally weeps when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a living persona in an object, a process that results from an individual’s suffering and the need for a reliable, wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe the consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.

The Homely Truth About the Shortest Day

We passed the shortest day of the year last week. It’s the annual drama of encroaching darkness turning to growing light, the grand rebirth, the celestial, uplifting reminder that in any sphere of life, the gloom gives way to brightness.

I’ve always imagined the event as accompanied by an elegant symmetry. I thought that the darkness closed in evenly from both sides, that the sun rose a little later each morning and set a little earlier until the shortest day on December 21st, when the process neatly reversed at both ends of the day. The sequence, I thought, between early December and early January had the shape of a tall hourglass. The left “sunrise” side sloped in to the right during most of December and the right “sunset” side sloped left, each changing by a minute or two each day. On December 21st, they met at the narrow waist and reversed direction.

scienceblogs.com

scienceblogs.com

Well, it doesn’t work that way. Changes in sunrise and sunset times aren’t in synch. The sun doesn’t neatly rise later each morning until the 21st and then reverse course. It keeps rising later and later well beyond the 21st, past Christmas and into the first week of January. Imagine the left side of the hourglass sloping down and right until it’s well below the waist.

The timing of sunsets changes in the opposite way. Sunsets change direction, from happening earlier to happening later, about a week before the shortest day. Imagine the right side of the hour glass sloping inward not all the way down to the waist but only part way. Such an hourglass would have a weird, uneven tube descending from the upper left to lower right. It isn’t until early January that both sides would be moving apart from each other again.

The shortest day is the shortest only because the speed of the changes in the times of rising and setting vary from day to day. In early December, the sun rises later by a sizable couple of minutes every day, while sunset drags on at almost the same time, so the length of daylight shrinks until the 21st. After that, the changes in sunrise slow way down while it is sunset’s turn to pick up the pace, getting rapidly later (by about 7 minutes between the 21st and New Year’s Eve in New York) and lengthening the day.

So the shortest day grows out of a ragged process, not the aligned and symmetrical one we thought we were seeing. The universe spins in ways that we don’t or can’t grasp in detail, but we pull the meanings that we need from our approximations anyway.

 

The Spiritual and the Sentimental

The word sentimental doesn’t get good press. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” is how the usual definitions run. “Exaggerated and self-indulgent” emotion does sound pretty unwholesome. But I see no reason to disdain tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia, and I think they even have a place in religious feeling as well.

Unlike emotions with more voltage like anger or joy, sentimentality about a person, a place, a pet, a song or even a smell amounts to a quiet but vivid sense of the thing itself and how fleeting it is or was. I am sentimental about people I’ve known in the past but also about those I feel close to today. I’m being sentimental about them whenever I stop for a moment to take a mental snapshot of them, in the hope that doing so will hold them from fading away. The old saw about taking time to smell the roses is sentimental for the same reason.

Sentimentality is about the fleeting nature of things, ultimately about the swift passage of life itself, about stepping into the river that never stops moving. It can also be about merging. The desire to hold on to a moment or a memory can shape itself into a craving to lose oneself in it. The object of nostalgia may be a mother or father or other figure from childhood, but it may also be a god, nature, the cosmos, eternity, or mystery itself. Sentimentality and spirituality overlap here.

I’m not saying that spirituality is sentimental, nor that sentimentality is spiritual. I’m sensing, though, that some of my spiritual moments and my sentimental ones have a thread of emotion in common. They both mourn the frailty of worldly things in time. We are always in the present moment, which thus is a constant, but the past is no such thing.