I was playing guitar with my girlfriend in the front room the other day. We were picking out a Lyle Lovett tune we’re both fond of called “South Texas Girl.”
It’s a near perfect little Kodachrome snapshot of a tune about growing up in Texas, driving down country roads, shopping at the five-and-dime and singing old radio tunes with Mom, the South Texas girl in question. Intentionally and vividly idyllic though it may be, it sounds honest, and I think it a beautiful, funny, remorseful recollection of the innocence and safety of youth looked after by kith and kin.
I am, admittedly, a sucker for tunes like this, and even on my toughest tough-guy day, this one in particular hits me right in the numbers. The moment I try to sing along I get a frog in my throat and stumble on the words a little. Playing the song on guitar the other night was no exception, but we kept after it. In the chorus, the narrator talks about singing an old cowboy song as a boy, not understanding the words, and singing along with his mom anyway:
… I didn’t even know what the words meant or anything
I was just singing because I was supposed to
Singing Mother Maria, watch over us please
As we wander around in this dangerous world
Thank Mother Maria, there’s nothing so sweet
As the undying love of a south Texas girl.
That’s when I lost it.
I had tried for hours and succeeded in keeping the news of the day safely at arm’s length. But the second I vocalized those lines, the song’s petition for protection, I could not keep the thought of those kids in Connecticut at bay any longer and was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness the likes of which I cannot recall in my adult life.
Nothing — not God, not the Virgin Mother, not their parents, not the promises of the American Dream — nothing had protected those children. How could they? There are monsters. There are real honest to god monsters, and it’s terrifying. Just as terrifying is the helplessness attendant to the idea that there is no one to watch over us, that we’re on our own.
Increasingly frequent reminders of our failures as a species, like the one in Newtown, attack at the foundations of our collective psychic fortitude. Included among the perfectly reasonable, even rational responses to the world we live in are nihilism and despair. These are horrible options, though, and have to be avoided with a focused and dedicated sense of urgency. One of the only things that can protect us is the evasion, at all cost, of desperation. We, paradoxically, are all that we have left. Humanity is our last line of defense against the inhuman.
The song we were singing the other night represented a real problem, that of actual helplessness, which I thought might scuttle me. But it also contained a slow acting and admittedly incomplete antidote. A momentary balm was provided by the song’s valorization of plain, everyday experiences as dignified. Decency can still be achieved in brief moments, and the kindness of small joys can still reinforce the imperfect bonds of our humanity to remind us that we’re capable of beauty. It seemed important that I remember that.
Anything that relies on nostalgia, like “South Texas Girl,” implicitly compares a concept of previous simplicity to a world that appears to have become unhinged. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when there are clear indications that human decency is as obsolete as the Works Progress Administration. It’s not true, though, at least not completely. We are undoubtedly a violent and greedy species, and this moment in our history seems to be, in a word, super fucked up. We’re also capable of awe-inspiring beauty and truly insightful introspection.
There is not a shortage of human kindness. You can have some. It generates itself constantly. It’s just quieter, less obtrusive than the destructions of its opposite. It can be difficult to spot, but giving up searching is not an option.
A friend of mine who passed away this year had something like a mantra that goes, “Love wins. Love always wins.” I want so badly for that to be the truth and, short of actual certainty, I will continue operating under that assumption, because the alternative is intolerable.