Answers in a Secret Northern Place

When I awoke this morning, around ten after four, somber nonsense lyrics and a simple, repetitive tune spun through my head. I sang these words out loud:

Garfunkel Smithers was a very bad man,
ice water flowed through his veins.

I sang a fairly lengthy string of lyrics, but many of the rest of them escape me now, less than an hour later. It’s odd; if I don’t write them down the moment I sing them, they fade quickly, disappearing almost entirely within a few minutes. In that sense, they behave like most of my dreams; I remember snippets, but rarely the whole thing. Yet I sometimes remember the lyrics and the tunes accompanying them for days, weeks, even months. The same is true of my dreams, from time to time.

The rest of this morning’s lyrics were equally dark as the ones above and similarly nonsensical. And they were, truly, voluminous. For the most part, the lyrics rhymed. Something about eating salad for breakfast and growing gaunt and thin, I think. Redundancy is a hallmark of my early morning lyricism. It’s as if I’m singing from a hymnal crafted from a thesaurus. But there is no hymnal; just my brain sorting a massive list of unnecessary syllables, discarding them in sing-song manner through musical lyrics. The tunes, though, always seem to be familiar (though different from day to day, for the most part).

I wonder, am I alone in this behavior that suggests—rather assertively—madness? Or is breaking into unwritten song against a backdrop of unpolished musical notes meaningless? I do not know. And I do not know who to ask. I’ve tried asking Mother Google; she refuses to give me a definitive answer. As I was searching, I came across this from the British Journal of General Practice:

Recurring tunes that involuntarily pop up and stick in your mind are common: up to 98% of the Western population has experienced these earworms. Usually, stuck songs are catchy tunes, popping up spontaneously or triggered by emotions, associations, or by hearing the melody. Aetiologically, earworms are related to memory: auditory information functions as a strong mnemonic. Psychologically, earworms are a ‘cognitive itch’: the brain automatically itches back, resulting in a vicious loop. The more one tries to suppress the songs, the more their impetus increases, a mental process known as ironic process theory. Those most at risk for SSS are: females, youth, and patients with OCD.

Okay. So the tunes might arise as described (though they seem new and unfamiliar to me as I hear myself sing), but what about the lyrics? [Oh, and I realize I am neither female nor young, so OCD may be involved in some fashion. Right.] The tunes are not my chief concern, anyway; it’s the lyrics that emerge, fully-formed as if written before I thought them, from my mouth. Mother Google sometimes fails me. Or, perhaps, I’m asking her the wrong questions.


Last night, I spent an hour on a Zoom call with two good friends, a couple I’ve known for longer than I’ve been married. I’m afraid I was not particularly good company but they lifted my spirits by expressing interest in my life, my experiences, my thought processes. I indulged myself by talking about myself. Our conversation only rarely involved their lives, their experiences, their thought processes. It’s embarrassing to realize, after the fact, how self-absorbed I must appear; and, I suppose, I must be. Yet they patiently let me be self-absorbed. Those are the kinds of friends we all need; people who, by their very presence, bring comfort. I hope I am that kind of person when that’s the kind of person people need me to be.


For reasons that remain unknown to me, I find certain words incredibly attractive. They appeal to me so much that I seek out opportunities to use them in my writing. One of these days, I may copy all of my writing from a period of time (say, six months) and place it in a Word document. Then, I can run a macro (that I would have to find) to determine the frequency with which I have used every word in the document. I have not done this yet, but based on memory of words I have found irresistible, I think I would find these words (among many others) used with greater-than-average frequency:

  • gossamer
  • wisdom
  • diaphanous
  • detritus
  • prism
  • translucent
  • haze

While there’s nothing wrong with having a love affair with specific words, overuse can make one’s writing seem labored. It can appear limited in breadth and suffocating, crying out for oxygen to keep it from withering. Perhaps, instead of using some of my favorite words in writing, I should have those words carved into chunks of mesquite wood that I can hang on my walls. Or maybe impress the words in wet clay and then, when the clay hardens, fire it in a potter’s kiln, glaze it, and glaze-fire it to make a finished piece.

I wrote a poem a couple of years ago, using one of my favorite words: wisdom. At the time, or maybe it was sometime later when I reflected on the poem, I commented about the number of times I use the word in my writing. One might think, by the frequency of its use, I think of myself as having some special connection with it. That’s not it, though. Instead, I think the frequency with which I use is is evidence of longing for something I cannot achieve. Just for the hell of it, I’m going to post (for the third time, I think), that poem again:


Wisdom grows not from the tender love of nurturing care,
but from abject neglect and brutal abandonment spun
on life’s loom from frayed spiritual kudzu that tries to
choke and strangle resolve.

Wisdom struggles upward from the darkest depths of the soul,
breaking through impenetrable layers of heartache and failure
toward the open skies of an open mind ready to accept answers
in the absence of questions.

Wisdom sheds arrogance and conceit during its journey from
certainty, through hesitation and ambiguity, toward doubt and
the knowledge that enlightenment is temporary and all answers
are clothed in fallacies.

Wisdom understands enough to comprehend that we know nothing,
even as we build temples to celebrate the knowledge we one day will
cast aside when we find what we will believe are truths hidden
beneath layers of dogma.

Wisdom is vapor—an imaginary mist arising from tears falling on
white-hot convictions that decay into doubts when confronted
with arguments and evidence, both credible and absurd—gossamer
smoke in a hazy sky.

Wisdom is experience adjusted for failure and tempered by success,
an age-worn garment woven from the tattered remains of youth and
the anticipatory shrouds of that inescapable conclusion to
which all of us come.

This post seems to me a little like I’ve gone wandering from room to room in a big vacant mansion in my head. I’m looking for familiar furniture, hoping to find evidence that I belong here. Instead, I conclude that this place was not meant for me. I belong in a one-room cabin on a homestead carved into the remote wilderness of northern Alberta, north of Wood Buffalo National Park,a good thirty miles outside Fort Resolution and one thousand miles north of Calgary. That’s where I should be. Secluded. Deluded. Looking for the warmth of southern answers in a frigid, wind-swept, secret northern place. Wisdom. That’s where it will be waiting for me to find it.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Answers in a Secret Northern Place

  1. Bev, I do the same sort of thing, too. I make up lyrics out of nothing. Often, they are nonsensical but there’s always a story line attached to them (even though the story may be bizarre). I can never remember them, either. I’ve tried to record myself singing them, but something about taking the time to get my phone out, open the “record” app, and try to repeat what I’ve sung screws up the works. I rather enjoy doing it; if I could make any money off of it, it would be even more enjoyable! 😉

  2. bev says:

    Interesting about making up lyrics. I have a close, longtime friend out west — a very unusual individual — who makes up lyrics just out of his head. He usually does it when he has to wait for someone — like if he’s been put on hold on the telephone. The lyrics are always very interesting and sort of like some kind of running narrative – a story of some kind. I have no idea how he does it. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who does this thing. They aren’t like real songs and I know he wouldn’t be able to repeat the same thing later — these are very spontaneous and seem to just spill out. It’s quite fascinating. Anyhow, interesting if you have something similar. I suspect it is a fairly rare and interesting ability.

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