This post is about drones. The musical kind, not the…other kind. Or the other other kind.
A while ago, something occurred to me: if I completely adore a song on a deep, what feels like a cellular, level, it almost certainly has a drone. A low note on a synth often does it. Could be a piano, too. Or, slightly more literally, a bagpipe. I don’t discriminate.
(And, I should disclose, I think I’m pretty generous when I say “drone.” If you consult the dictionary, a drone is “an instrument or part of an instrument (such as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone.” I mean something broader: whenever there’s a part of the music that is more or less sitting still below whatever else is going on above it, even if it’s not just one tone. Sue me, musicologists).
It’s not always obvious to me what, exactly, is appealing to me, or that it has anything in common with all the other times that I felt transfixed. Instead, it just feels like my brain saying an emphatic, unconditional YES to whatever is going on.
This phenomenon is so pronounced that my boyfriend (much more observant than I am) picked up on it very early in our relationship. As it happens, he often finds drones unsettling. Somehow, through this adversity, we manage to make it work.
Cat Power said something that made this all make sense to me: a drone is a thick cloth to keep the song warm. Yes, that’s it: it’s something that makes a song feel all that much more physical. Like it’s reaching out and holding me still.
Something like a steady mark against which change is measured. The drudge of daily life. The steady heartbeat. But also discord, warning, a ghost at the feast. A hint of intrigue.
Lest I get totally carried away, let me stop and show you some drones I have collected in the wild:
Especially the last few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. This means a lot of lying on the strangely comfortable floor under a blanket.
I nap, and play games, and read, and write a bit here and there, and FaceTime my family, and in moments of tremendous ambition, go out for a meal or some exercise.
There’s some big part of me that feels pretty defensive about this. To answer “nothing” to the inevitable “what did you do this weekend?” feels like a betrayal of conversation itself. It feels almost passive-aggressive, like I’m withholding something, or else it feels like a cry for help with a life that needs filling.
Another driver is the problem with many names: FOMO (fear of missing out). Or, if you enjoy incredible long German words, Torschlusspanik (gate closing panic)—the fear, as night draws in, that you won’t make it back inside the city gates before the gates close at curfew. Much like a medieval peasant with a dread of being trapped outside with the outlaws, I have a fear of time passing and leaving me behind, and opportunities slamming shut before I had a chance to explore them.
This is, typically, irrational and unwarranted. I am not a medieval peasant, and my future is probably not full of bloodthirsty outlaws. But that’s beside the point.
But doing nothing is also, ironically, something I’ve been wanting to do more of. In recent years I’ve had lots of moments of feeling over-committed, and I hate all the resentment and drama that tends to go. along with that. In times like these, I start to fantasize about what it would be like to have nowhere to be, no tasks that needed completing. All the freedom in the world to do what I please and say yes or no to the whims of the day.
So much of my life is spent caught between these poles, trapped in that in-between, nowhere space between action and inaction, between something and nothing, neither pursuing the relaxation that I crave nor getting tasks done, but feeling increasingly awful as I play infinite levels of a mobile game that is throwing my entire nervous system out of whack and making me nauseous.
The goal is to find that space of beautiful nothing-doingness, where I produce nothing of external value and I enjoy the minutes as they pass. Where I’m free to do exactly what is right at that moment.
This weekend, that’s looked a lot like lazy floor time. It also looked like writing this, rather than some rather more involved (and possibly more interesting) posts. But this weekend has also looked a lot like contentment, so I want for nothing.
I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.
We were lined up, robed, on the risers, facing the congregation. I was always the one who insisted on the robes: even in shades of medicinal pink and purple, they made church choir feel gloriously dramatic.
And this is how it goes in my memory: our song is interrupted by the assistant pastor, stepping up somberly to say that we, the United States, have just now on a Sunday morning dropped a clutch of bombs in Afghanistan. He leads us in prayer about it.
I don’t remember if we started singing again after that.
That was 2001. A lot of things have happened since then, both martially (for us) and personally (for me). One thing (really, the only thing) uniting both of those columns: a massive chunk of the taxes withheld from every paycheck in my first six jobs went to the wars.
But otherwise, nothing else happened, for me. For millions of people in various countries thousands of miles from here, and for many thousands of my fellow Americans? Everything happened, or stopped happening.
19 years and most of my life after that day in church, just a week ago, I was having a night at home pruning my houseplants, doing the laundry, and meditating. A real evening, you know? Then I looked at the internet and it appeared that a whole new war was starting. Or the unending one was metastasizing. It’s sort of hard to tell the difference. My stomach made a few flips. I took a few capsules of valerian root and tried to sleep.
And what do I do?
I drive around Northern Virginia when I’m unable to avoid it. There are apparently no zoning laws and people live cheek-by-jowl with the sharp-topped office towers bearing proud names of companies whose advertisements on the metro make little sense and are almost always for drones.
I read Silk Roads. I learn: this is what those who desire to be world powers do. They bite down hard, and don’t let go, of the area between the Mediterranean and China. They are happier to let it dissolve in their mouths than to open their jaws. They always have and they always will, from Rome to Britain to the USSR to us. These days, they are required to find timely, heart-rending excuses for this behavior, but these excuses are superfluous, neither necessary nor sufficient to explain it.
I continue to be disappointed about my government from without and within. I learn more about the massive portion of it that is completely unaccountable to us, by design, and proudly so. I find it hard to stomach this.
I come to believe that abuse of power begets conspiracy theories about the abuse of power. Belief in those conspiracy theories enables those who would abuse their power to do so in the open, with a smile, on a grand scale.
This is not a surprise.
And even as I write these words, weary and in a sense heartbroken and enraged, I look up from the keyboard to laugh with my boyfriend. I take breaks to write notes thanking family and friends for Christmas gifts. I stretch my legs on the floor.
Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.
When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?
As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.
“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”
“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.
The third had merely shrugged.
Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.
But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.
Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.
They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.
And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.
They ignored their unease. They did not stay.
They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?
But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.
And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.
So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.
And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west.
After all, who is to say what will happen?
“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.
But the star never troubled them again.
They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.
As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father.
Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later?
Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?
Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?
Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?