Back in April, I went to a Bruce Cockburn concert. The experience reacquainted me with a songwriter who I like very much, but who I hadn’t listened to much lately. Since the concert I’ve been listening to Cockburn’s 2009 live album, Slice O Life. A song called “Child of the Wind” (lyrics below) is found near the close of that album, and its lyrics linger in my mind with every listen. I think it’s a song that must be listened to very early in the morning or very late at night, when one’s mind briefly rises above the events of the week and takes a widescreen perspective on one’s existence, struggles, and passions.
Originally recorded for the album Nothing But A Burning Light (1991), “Child of the Wind” is a song in which Cockburn attempts to describe his love of journeys and roads. But the journeys and roads he has in mind are both physical and spiritual. At the song’s core is the notion of restlessness. This concept ties both realms together, or rather, reveals that they are already and always intertwined.
Significantly, Cockburn admits that uncertainty characterizes the roads he loves the most. In asserting this, Cockburn thereby makes his audience think twice about their assumptions regarding uncertainty. Is it something negative that only erodes? Or can it also be that which fuels you, and even prods you when necessary? Uncertainty can be damaging, but it can also be a creative, even constructive force. The song itself is a testament to that fact, as it was written after a dry spell in Cockburn’s career.
It is interesting to note that roads are part of the vocative order for Cockburn: they place a call on us which we must answer. Yet not everyone heeds the call; hence Cockburn’s line, “They call, can’t you hear it?” It’s difficult to know whether he’s asking in a calm or exasperated tone. He almost seems to be implying that some will not hear the call; others will perhaps hear it, but not follow it, perhaps out of fear. We are afraid of some roads in life. And yet it is only in the act of journeying, of setting out, that we overcome our fear.
“Child of the Wind” is also a song that poignantly juxtaposes the personal with the global. The two are clearly connected in Cockburn’s mind and work, as he is known not only for his music, but also for his humanitarianism and involvement in numerous political and social justice initiatives over the years. Note how Cockburn sings two verses about his existential restlessness and his longing for “uncertain roads” of both the earth and the spirit, then suddenly — yet appropriately — broadens the listener’s horizons to include the earth as a whole, and its profound and paradoxical blend of curses and blessedness. Cockburn is a man who has been around the world and who has seen both the best and the worst conditions that can be found.
As the song winds to a close with its final chorus, deep down, I think Cockburn knows he’s not too old for the term “Child of the Wind,” despite what he sings. After all, in a sense, we all remain children throughout this life. We are all restless; we never reach complete mastery, nor do we ever experience complete contentedness. Thus, we are children, in this meaningful sense, even though we age unceasingly. One can’t help but feel young when encountering “the spiral perfection” of a soaring hawk or the love of someone close to us. It seems as though our restlessness is such that it does not preclude us from forming deep connections in life, whether it’s with the natural world, with other people, or with our Creator.
For Cockburn, the key to living with this permanent (in this life) state of childhood and restlessness, and the key to coping with life’s confounding mixture of beauty and tragedy, is not primarily to focus on certain things and not others. Doing so will lead to naivete, apathy, or despair. Instead, one must learn to look at everything with new eyes: “Depends on what you look at, obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see.” How does this truth work itself out over the course of one’s life and work? Cockburn wisely sidesteps any one-for-all, cut and dry solution, and leaves the hard work, and the answer, to his listeners.