“Oo-ee all the sights I’ve seen”
– Bruce Cockburn, ‘States I’m In’
Bruce Cockburn’s new album just came out. Bone on Bone is the twenty-fifth studio release in a recording career dating back almost fifty years. It also happens to be Cockburn’s first in quite a while – since 2011’s Small Source of Comfort.
Is it any good?
While I understand this question – it seems a most natural inquiry – it’s not one I’ve really considered. I’ve listened to the record perhaps a half dozen times to date. But I’ve not really asked myself, ‘Is it any good?’
I first encountered Bruce Cockburn in 1979. Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws had just been released and ‘Wondering Where the Lions Are’ was all over the airwaves. The latter caught enough of my attention to draw me into Kelly’s Stereo Mart, where I held the Norval Morrisseau cover in my hand – ‘Never seen anything like this,’ I remember thinking – whilst forking over $3.99 plus tax.
In the years since, I’ve made my way through all Cockburn’s official catalogue – from his 1970 self-titled debut through the above-mentioned Small Source of Comfort and now Bone on Bone. To begin this exploration was all about ‘Is it any good?’ At some point, however, the metric shifted.
The easy labels applied to Cockburn – folk singer, Christian mystic, political activist – obscure the fact that he typically writes about his life. His songs, with rare exception, offer witness to where he’s been and what he’s seen, what he’s felt, what he’s wondered and / or understood. At some point in my journey through his oeuvre, I realized this. In that moment, listening to Bruce Cockburn became less about ‘good’ or ‘bad’, much more about catching up with an old acquaintance.
And so it’s been during these initial runs through Bone on Bone. In the course of eleven songs, I’ve learned that he’s been attending church (‘Jesus Train’) and is part of the morning crowd a Peet’s, a Bay-area coffee shop (‘Cafe Society’). The inclusion of a French language piece (Mon Chemin) has me wondering if he’s spent any time in Quebec recently. And ‘3 Al Purdys’ hints that the experience of writing in character – an experience started only recently with ‘Call Me Rose’ – still holds interest.
Is it any good? I don’t know because this is really not the watermark through which I am listening. Right now it’s all about reconnecting, re-familiarizing with a stream of experience I’ve had the good fortune to touch in with every now and then through almost four decades.
Which reminds me of meditation. Sure we all begin asking, ‘Is it any good?’ ‘Was it relaxing?” ’Do I feel more peaceful?’ ‘Is it any good?’ With the passage of time and the accumulation of practice, however, this metric too shifts. With time we begin to realize there is something much vaster than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ unfolding through practice. A relationship is taking shape – a relationship with who we are.
When this happens, our orientation necessarily alters. We sit down looking not for evidence of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but instead curious about how it is for us in this moment. Are we open or closed? Is there something waiting in the shadows? Does tension pull somewhere in the body? How is my heart? What does the lower belly feel like?
In the beginning, we all engage meditation looking to get what we want out of the practice. Eventually, however, we understand this is not at all what meditation offers. Rather than falling in line with our ideas regarding what it is and should be, what it might and should deliver, meditation simply holds a door open to the bone on bone reality of our lives right now.
Like listening to Bruce Cockburn’s newest release then, meditation is an opportunity to loosen the hold of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on our lives. It’s a chance to sit down with an old friend, ask ‘How’s it going?’ and humbly listen – no judgement, no evaluation – just listen as answers flow forth.