It is evening and supper is through. The shorter, noisier humans who live with me have evacuated the kitchen in order to pursue some brand of havoc outside. Their taller, wiser maternal figure is putting little ones to bed, and it is finally time. The dishes are scattered throughout the room and roped about with remainders of clingy pasta. Cutting boards with vegetable leavings, pots of what are now leftovers, and a constellation of smudgy drinking glasses: the feeling of liberation at the family’s exodus mingles with a vague sense of oppression, tedious but familiar. It is, as I have already said, finally time: I dial up the playlist labeled “funky soul classics” and the restlessness within me rises to meet the object of its desire.
Say, muse, what happens when the funk begins. The first song to emerge from that mystical black box, a song destined to attend the rise of many fresh civilizations of the mind, is the Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It?” It is the mature grooves of the late-Seventies Jackson family that now overtakes me, not the pre-pubescent flights of the earlier Jackson Five, nor the later, smarmier beats of that most famous Jackson brother, Michael. “Can you feel it?” Oh yes, and the dishes can now be assured of my most vigorous treatment. To the pulse of that relentless downbeat and percolating bass, along with the gratuitous splank of Tito’s guitar, the room begins to move. The dishes, once passive and isolated in their fuddle, now converge on the sink at the kitchen’s center. I, who now am fully master of that sink, apply the strength of thirty-eight human years in deft circular patterns, timed to the overmastering groove and the ascent of Michael’s voice. It would be an untruth to say that my hips are not fully engaged in this process, and that the plates are not cleaner for it.
Even now, as the Jacksons fade and I am moving on to cups and bowls, my five-year-old son Theo wanders into this terrain of glory. I cannot quite discern his words, for the hurrying beat of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1977 classic, “Runnin’” has begun to move within and without me. If “Can You Feel It?” was a song for getting started, “Runnin’” is a song for the long middle of my after-dinner clean-up. The rhythm section is tripping along, and Theo is mouthing something about dessert. “What,” I say, “you want to work on dancing?” Of course he does. I take his ready hands and we fit our movements to the music. The fast fingers of the bass fit tightly within the slinky syncopation of the guitar, both in a profound lock with the hot hustle of the drum kit. Theo and I are all over the dancefloor, more alive than ever, but the kitchen will not be left behind. As the primal elements of Earth, Wind & Fire reconfigure themselves in a surprise Latin breakdown mid-song, I reach for a wet rag and turn toward the besmirched countertop. With these counterpointed rhythms coursing through me, all fear of stiffening carbonara falls away and the counters reemerge just as “Runnin’” returns to its tight home beat.
By the time I have dealt with the sink and countertops, a new song breaks in on me, and I realize that the best has been saved for last, in accord with the proverb. It is Stevie Wonder’s sublime hymn to the power of music, “Sir Duke,” and its joyous, palpitating energy will carry me through my last task, the sweeping of the floor. As Stevie’s confident horns push through the opening of the track, I lift the kitchen chairs onto the table and reach for the pushbroom. As the bass tumbles into its bouncing line and Wonder’s keys begin to do their work, the opening verse catches the theme: “Music is a world within itself, / with a language we all understand.” Precisely, and when funk brings us into its jiggy world, we not only know the language, we want to speak it to all creation. Its language has an order to it, like any language, but it is an order brought about through joy—joy of the ear, joy of the body. As Stevie works himself up into an ecstatic growling scat over the top of his grooving band, I know that this is the only way for me to clean my kitchen. Early one morning, the rich world came into being in a moment of effervescent rejoicing, and that is how it has always been renewed. Behold, the funk of my kitchen participates even now in that moment, still powerful, yet ongoing, a sign and foretaste of the renovation of all things.
Dr. Dwight A. Lindley III is an Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.