The first time that Ev took a group of 5th graders to France, she returned with two cultural realizations that would change the way that we lived our lives from then on. The first came from the family that she stayed with. They introduced her to the joys of French rosés, something we had always associated with bad vintages in funny, squat bottles from Portugual, or worse, in pop top jugs from California. After this trip, our summers were never the same as we came to discover all kinds of great pink wines. And in addition, she also brought her discovery of the French popular musician, Francis Cabrel. Prolific and eclectic, his later works are introspective in the same way that defines the paths of many 20th century French philosophers. I don’t speak French, but I love Cabrel. On road trips, we’d pop a Cabrel CD into the player in the car, and I’d ask Ev to translate the lyrics real time. I have sung enough French to recognize much of the vocabulary, but Cabrel is often symbolic, so we both delighted in the process–me getting to really know the songs and Ev meeting the challenge of translation on the fly. And although there are a few Cabrel songs I would be happy to never hear again, some of his songs would make my “Stranded on a Desert Island Playlist.” My favorite Cabrel album is Samedi Soir Sur la Terre (The last night on Earth), and one of my most favorite of all Cabrel songs is the first track—“La Corrida.”
“La Corrida” is the tale of the bullfight told from the point of view of the bull. In contemplation and waiting in a dark room, the locked door is suddenly sprung, and the bull finds himself in the bright light of the ring. At first he thinks he just needs to defend himself, and so confident is he in his own strength, he boasts that it is the toreador’s ears that the bullfighter’s lover will sleep upon tonight–a reference to the practice of awarding the ears and tail to the victor. But confusion arises as the ring closes with a locked door behind him, as the picadors like peacock puppets, stab his shoulders forcing his head lower and sapping his strength, as the dancing toreador in ballet shoes dodges and twirls around him. Suddenly he is hyper-aware that this is a fight for his life. Throughout the song, an echoing refrain is the bull’s bewildered, ironic question, “Est-ce que ce monde est sérieux?” (Is this world serious?). On the studio recording, the song ends with Nicholas Reyes, founding singer from the Gipsy Kings calling a la flamenco, “Yes, yes! Dance man and dance again and kill other lives, other bulls. And kill others, come, come and dance.” Like so many Cabrel songs, “La Corrida” has a meaning that is both obvious—bullfighting is cruel; and subtle—we have more in common with the bull than we may wish to admit.
As you can imagine, the meaning of the song has changed significantly for me. When I first listened to it years ago, I was struck by the ironic refrain, “Is this world serious?” Although I had experienced situations before where I might have asked the same question with the same irony and bewilderment, I had no clue of just how metaphysical the question was. That has changed. ALS allows no irony. Dis ease is serious business. It forces existential interpretations of meaning, seeking out new ways to translate past life experiences into present definitions, and a sense-making capacity that requires more consciousness than most of us might ever desire. Everything, everything is colored, filtered, diffused, washed, shadowed and illuminated by the incessant presence of dis ease, so what was once a mere simplicity now must be carefully thought through for its consequential complexity.
Even so, I love the bull. He dares me to examine my life in the face of dis ease’s deterministic push.
I admit that I am privately more than a little embarrassed by how the bull’s arrogance and confusion and his misunderstanding of his own capacity in the small universe of the bullring, was interpreted by my old normal self as pathetic, more of a “there but for the grace of God go I, but I’d never be caught dead in such a place” interpretation. As if I actually had the choice, now I recognize my own arrogance in being so flippant. ALS has no room for simple truths. Even the title of the song has deeper meaning than first glance; “La Corrida” translates as “The Run” in Spanish and French, but it doubles in French as “Bullfighting.” It is from the same Latin root as the English word “corridor,” and somehow the three meanings combined seem almost appropriate in capturing what it is like to experience dis ease’s progress as I am thrust far too swiftly toward the ultimate endgame, a dance down a hallway with but one exit, not quite dodging the picadors that would sap my strength until the coup de grace is delivered. Est-ce que ce monde est sérieux? Indeed! Such questions transcend simple meaning.
Ultimately, I find myself granted one kindness that my friend the bull does not have—the time for consciousness to unfold both in grace and horror. While a similarity between us exists–the bull’s sudden epiphany of his mortal danger in the bullring runs parallel with my own violent rip from immortality by an ALS diagnosis—there also the similarity ends. This dance of ALS slows time for me, while my friend has no time to mindfully examine his predicament. The gift of dying in slow motion is the choice to practice a level of attention that sometimes feels like a Mephistolean bargain; each new insight a trade for physical function–the loss of a finger-lift or less a fraction of yesterday’s strength today–until there is nothing but realization that carries through week by week and day by day.
This past week had so many highpoints, but by Friday, it was all I could do to hold things together. It isn’t about the highpoints anymore, for highpoints are too prone to ego without authenticity. Rather, it is about the gifts paid forward, each to each, never fully perceived but realized nonetheless–kisses stolen in the darkness, love proclaimed from the depths of the soul’s balustrades. It is about the energy of my sons cooking with their true loves in a kitchen that demands energy for a father soaking it up like gravy sopped by crusty bread. It is the look my Ev gives me when she knows, she just knows, and I am comforted for a few moments more. It is the sharing of colleagues in an educative space, the joining of the many into a set of diverse purposes that somehow narrate a unified tale of epic proportion and day to day living. It is fatigue morphing into illumination as friends succumb to the inexorable, the next loss, while their families and loved ones blink their comprehension back behind their eyes, flooding their souls with tears.
Music has always had the power to speak the unspeakable, to ask the unaskable, to understate the obvious and to reveal the hidden depths that lie much more in the listener than in the music itself. “La Corrida”–this small trifle, this song spoken in the space of a framework defined by AM radio fifty years ago–understates dis ease, and it simultaneously reveals its magnificence. I wish it was nothing that a good rosé couldn’t knock the edge off, but ultimately, we kneel in dis ease’s presence, nothing more than bulls in the finite space of the ring asking, or maybe pleading to understand: Is the world really serious?
And it is. It really is.
Here is a link to a reasonable translation using the studio recording, with an anti-bullfighting message.
And here is a link to Cabrel singing “La Corrida” live on YouTube.