One of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, would have celebrated her 150th birthday last week. I remember falling in love with her novels, especially her “prairie trilogy:” My Antonia, O Pioneers and The Song of the Lark. I read all three many years ago at a time in my life when I needed some soothing. I figured that if her characters could endure the considerable hardships of their lives, then I could get through my own trials and tribulations which paled in comparison to the lives of folks living on the Great Plains at the turn of the 20th Century. Their survival was my survival.
Here is something Ms. Cather once wrote that magically reappeared on my computer a few days ago: “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks of this country, they have been singing the same five notes over and over for thousands of years.” And so, I wondered: what are my “same five notes…”
Here’s my list:
Note One: Love. We all spend great chunks of our lives searching for it, and some of us are lucky enough to actually find it.
Note Two: Place. I often think about what Archimedes exclaimed when he understood the principle of the lever: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” We all seek that sacred place. Willa Cather found hers in Nebraska; I finally found mine here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Note Three: Security. We live in a dangerous and uncertain world, and at the end of the day, we all aspire to lay our heads down on a safe pillow. I think of the people of Israel and Palestine.
Note Four: Wellness. We take so much for granted that we often overlook the most simple gifts: a sound mind, a healthy body, a calm soul.
Note Five: Support. I suppose it would be possible to walk this path alone, but I am reminded of an old African proverb: “if you want to go fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk with a friend.” Solitude is fine, but isolation is not.
So, those are my five notes. Now I’m not so presumptuous as to think that my five notes are exactly the same as your five notes, but I bet our songs are not all that different. In fact, while there may be some subtle differences of tone or tempo in our respective songs, the different notes we sing are ones more of nuance than variation or polarity. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’re all singing from the same score.
In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, each state is allowed to present two statues of its most cherished citizens. Two months ago, Nebraska honored Willa Cather with the state’s second statue, only the 12th woman currently represented in Statuary Hall. (The other Nebraska statue is Standing Bear, a chief of the Ponca tribe.) Willa—I’d like to think we’re on a first names basis by now—is depicted striding through an open Nebraska prairie with a walking sticking in her right hand, and paper and pen in her left hand. Goldenrod, the Nebraska state flower, and a Western meadowlark, the state bird, are at her feet.
I bet she can still hear the five-note song of that lark.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. His new novel “This Salted Soil,” a new children’s book, “The Ballad of Poochie McVay,” and two collections of essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”), are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.