Two Mules, Trains, and Rain

My old high school buddy Wade just retired. We kept in touch over the years, meeting occasionally for lunch, where the conversation tended to revolve around family, jobs, and stupid things we did in high school. But most of our contact of late has been through social media. That’s how I came to know him as a Tea Party guy and a staunch Trump supporter.

Wade and I have gone back and forth these last few months over whether Trump is fit to be president, over immigration, over kneeling during the national anthem, over what it means to be a conservative, and over a host of other issues. And though we vehemently disagree on just about everything, we’ve remained civil. That’s probably because we know that, deep down, the ties that bind are stronger than any bombs Donald Trump can heave into our midst. Turns out that stupid stuff we did more than four decades ago supersedes stupid stuff the president does and says right now.

A few weeks before his retirement, my friend had to put his old dog down. The confluence of politics, friendship, and dogs nudged my mind (my family and friends will not be
surprised at this) toward Bob Dylan. I’ve been a Dylan fan for almost fifty years now, and I’m convinced that there’s a Dylan song for every circumstance.

Dylan’s best lyrics work like scripture. They speak to us where we are, saying different things at different times. St. Paul’s Corinthians metaphor of seeing “through a glass darkly” meant one thing to me as a teenager; it means something wholly different as a sixty year-old. Likewise, picturing the Tambourine Man “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” brought utter joy to my teenaged heart. Now the joy of that line is tinged slightly with sorrow.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Dylan’s work is on par with the Bible, but rather that the songs are dynamic, not static. No poet—other than Shakespeare—has this effect. I can teach Hamlet year after year because the play never gets old. It shifts and changes to meet me where I am. Likewise, the power of the 23 rd Psalm never wanes. It moves with equal force the sick and the well, the old and the young, new mother or bereaved son. Just so, I can listen to
“Visions of Johanna” hundreds of times because an eerie truth—solid but slippery—resides in an image like “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” There’s a reason Dylan’s the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize. I’m just sayin’.

So what Dylan song for my crazy old right-wing friend upon his retirement and upon the death of his dog? Let’s try this on for size:

If dogs run free, then why not we,

Upon the swooping plain?

My ears hear a symphony of

Two mules, trains and rain.

There’s nothing remotely political about those lines, which explains why they are so apt. Listening to the symphony of mules, trains, and rain may be the best antidote for all the
political craziness that’s in the air.

Trump’s rise to power has been tough on friendships. Somehow he has made everything political: sports, Christmas, simple love of country, neighborliness—Trump has a knack for infusing politics into even the most innocuous subjects. I recently was talking about food with a friend and caught myself wondering if, in some way, something I’d said could be judged as “too liberal.”

Politics is weighing us down, and the best thing may be for a time just to “run free across the swooping plain,” listening for the sounds of life beyond, above, outside of politics. I will not bury my head in the sand. I will speak up when the president undercuts American values. I will argue. I will take a stand.

But for a few minutes, I can put it all aside and feel with my friend the heartbreak of losing a faithful companion. I’m so sorry for your loss, Wade. And best wishes for a long and fruitful retirement. Run free, old dog.