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Monday, October 24, 2011

Like the Darkness Between the Fireflies

In a flurry of e-mails between me and a friend I haven't seen in a while, the decision was struck upon to start a writing group. Of sorts. I was mostly stoked about the Mason Jennings show I just went to and he was commenting on the lyrics I posted on my blog a few days back from Be Here Now. I offered to make him a disc of Mason stuff that I particularly love and he suggested making that our first assignment, "You make me a disc and I make you a disc and the writing assignment will be on thoughts of the disc received." Okay! And I added - write a little something about the music you're giving me too.

We have pretty different tastes in music. I pretend to be eclectic, but I really listen only to bluegrass, folk and Justin Timberlake. I'm also really sensitive about other folks liking the music I like. I'm a music snob, a la Rob, Dick and Barry in that hilarious scene from High Fidelity, which for some reason will not link to this page. You Tube it - High Fidelity, music snobs.

Nick Hornby, the same guy who wrote High Fidelity, wrote another book called Songbook. This work of non-fiction is an autobiography of sorts, where Hornby dissects his favorite songs, chapter by chapter, and relates them to specific times and anecdotes from his life. In the opening chapter he says,

"All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don't like them as much as I do."

I decided my disc of music would be entirely Mason Jennings. There are so many others I could include in an autobiographical cd of my life, songs that have meant so much to me over the years, Perry Como's Catch a Falling Star, The Beatles Only a Northern Song, Golden Slumbers, A Day in the Life and You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, Dave Matthews Band's #41, Elliott Smith's Angeles, Pete Yorn's Turn of the Century, Nickel Creek's Out of the Woods, Martha Scanlan's Seeds of the Pine, Smashing Pumpkins's Blew Away, The Shins's Pink Bullets, Wilco's Jesus, Etc., just about anything by the Punch Brothers, but especially I'm Yours if You Want Me, Stay Away, The Blind Leaving the Blind First and Second Movements, It'll Happen, This is the Song and Soon or Never . . . I could create a compendium of my life in song. It would be a strange mix of the melancholy and the magnanimous. But I'm not out to make an anthology, and were there one artist I could relate to every stage of my life, it would be Mason Jennings.

If you don't know Mason's music, please take the time to educate yourself. I've never experienced more stripped down, honest and moving music than what I've heard come from him since my first Mason show at the Aladdin Theater when I was visiting Portland for the very first time in 2004. I will always remember how he introduced Sorry Signs on Cash Machines: "You know those times in life when it seems like nothing else can go wrong? When your chest just doesn't contain your emotion and you're ready to break down? And then you walk up to an ATM only to find your checking account is overdrawn? This song is about those times. Take care of each other." And then he sang, "I won't let you give it up/with sorry sighs and forced bad luck/come on baby let's see what we're made of/I know true love don't look like anybody else."

So this is what I'll share with my newly minted writing group - my life in Mason lyrics:

Early childhood: my memories from early childhood are all good. They're the singing, white sand beaches and big waves of Lake Michigan, visits to and from Oma and Opa, raking leaves, whittling sticks, Lincoln's New Salem, hamburger soup, reading with mom in bed, sliding down the stairs in laundry baskets, bug hunts, tent building, walking everywhere hand in hand with daddy.

One Mason song comes to mind: Sunlight.
"underneath the lilac tree/I close my eyes and suddenly/I'm ten years old and running through/open fields chasing after you/sounds of summer fill my ears/if I live 10,000 years/I'll never feel as good as this/moments before our first kiss/there is nothing to demand/no algebra to understand/just sunlight on a freckled face/everything in its right place/simple things turn magical/minutes freeze like popsicles/and drip their seconds down our shirts/I love you so much it hurts/there's no such thing as real time/I've been yours and you've been mine/and we've been ever happily/everywhere I've been you've been with me/there is nothing to demand/no politics to understand/just sunlight on a freckled face/there is nothing to control/no question marks left on our souls/just sunlight on a freckled face/everything in its right place . . . "

Late childhood: this is where things get dicey. When I began to feel out of place in the church that was home for my family. Where I began to succumb to deep depressions when I grappled with what I actually believed compared with what I wanted to believe. And then people began dying and suddenly I was very much alone, realizing I was the only person in my immediate family, and in our church family, that had no real hope of seeing these people I cared about again. And man, did I ever try to believe. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I wrote these beautiful odes to Jesus, that detailed my affection and devotion and begged for belief. And it all exponentiated the depression to a fever pitch. I was even suicidal at one point when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. To make matters worse, I fell in love. And even now, as an adult, more or less, I think of this love as the only time in my life when I've truly been in love, and it's true what they say, "first loves die hard."

Three songs come to mind: 1. Jesus, Are You Real - because this is a song I sang in my heart everyday without having ever heard it.
2. Sorry Signs on Cash Machines - for my erstwhile love. "I know true love don't look like anybody else." I was convinced of it.
3. Southern Cross - this song reminds me of my dad. I think my losing my faith (or, quite possibly, just coming to grips with the fact I never had it to begin with) was very hard for him. Moving away from my parents was excruciating. All I could think about for the 9 months I lived in Spokane was how much I missed them. This song seems like a conversation between us. The bit about heading out early in the morning to surf reminds me of all the times dad would wake me up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to head down to the beach in Michigan to talk and sometimes just sit quietly together:
"Trying to remember what I started this for/when a surfer friend of mine came and picked me up/and we paddled out as the sun was coming up/talking about how everybody's got to find/something that gives them the strength to stay alive/and out laying on our boards in the southern hemisphere he said to me/have some faith, have some faith/and I don't know what I want/but I know where I want to be/and everywhere I go/I wish you were here with me/stars hang on tiny strings/my dreams are made of memories/once everything made sense/now I get so alone that I can't sleep/somebody please tell me if this is where I'm supposed to be."

Early adulthood: I guess in my mind this begins when I moved home from Spokane and began going to school. I reconnected with my childhood friend (above) and found that I really resented how intact his faith was after all the years and all the shit we went through in our church. And then it fell apart and I began the painful process of extricating every last shred of it from my person, while he just skipped along to the next church, the next spiritual family, as if nothing had happened. I still remember a painful conversation that took place one evening while sitting on a beach down the street from my family's summer home in Michigan. "I don't believe it anymore," I finally admitted out loud. He might have been the first to hear it, and I felt the book close on that particular chapter of my life. Not too long after that I fell hard for another guy. A very unavailable guy. Who, sadly, fell for me too. And I decided after a while that I needed a change of pace. I moved to Chicago, but even from that distance, this was a difficult connection for me. It didn't help that he was supremely depressed most of the time and I felt this maternal instinct to rescue him from his lack luster relationship and his PTSD driven illusions and trepidation of death. And he got me. At least I think he did. And that was a first for me. I don't use the L word with him, but in a moment of weakness or drunkenness I might admit to it. So for these two men:

1. East of Eden -
"I'm just a student of this life just like my father/and I am a stranger to this heart just like my mother/oh and brother you should know/that this heart is filled with sadness and regret/but I'm learning as I go to forgive the things that I just can't forget . . . all of the wishes I once lost are now returning/all of the demons I have fought are slowly turning/oh and brother you should know there is no one in this world that feels no pain/but I'm learning as I go to accept the things that I've no power to change/all of these streets are heading out/this old song's no longer blue/although nothing's figured out/looks like we both made it through/if there were one thing I could ask/I would ask you where you've been/cause I still wonder where you were/when this whole big ship sank in."

2. Tourist -
"Is who you are now who you wanna be now?/or are you someone you don't wanna be?/is what you wanted what you really wanted?/or is it nothing like you dreamed?/honey there's a boat and it waits for us/somewhere there's a time and a place for us/it could be perfect if it wasn't for us/cause mama we're in love with a memory/a perfect dream of how it used to be/when our air was windy and our nights were free/there's a tourist in every heart [who] sees what he wants to see."

The Chicago years: it was some time during my last two years of college that I began to really recognize and put into practice what I now know to be true - that "most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." And I wanted to be happy. It helped that I had lain to rest the demons of my childhood. I was an atheist. I said it out loud. I didn't mince words. And that "peace in my heart that the world never gave" was suddenly there in spades. Turns out all I needed to do was accept who I was and what I believed. It was in my college years that I shared my love of Mason with my mom (we actually met him at an Italian restaurant before a show in Champaign one fall evening). She and I adopted the anthem "Be Here Now" as our own.

Then the sadness hit. A big part of why I chose to go to school in Chicago was to be closer to my Opa, my absolute favorite person in the world. He was 86 and dying slowly of congestive heart failure. That process sped up shortly after I moved to Chicago. Luckily, I was able to drive out to the suburbs pretty often, twice a month at least and sometimes more, to visit him. In his last year of life, he was full of grandfatherly wisdom and took every chance he got to sit me down on the couch and share it. And then, one beautiful spring morning, while I was sleeping off a hangover, right through my morning classes, I got a call from my Aunt and that was it. I took the Metra to the Orange Line to Midway Airport, where my Uncle Jeff picked me up to go to the hospital. He was dead when the paramedics responded to my Oma's frantic 9-1-1 call, but without the DNR on hand, they resuscitated him, which was horrible, but at least gave me the chance to say goodbye to him while he was still breathing. At one point during the 8 hours we sat in that room waiting for him to stop breathing, I was left alone with him for a few minutes. I took the opportunity to sing Mason's "If You Need a Reason" in his ear:
"Lovely, lovely quiet lake/how could this be a mistake?/too dark now to see your face/your hair's blowing all over the place/the moon is caught in a frozen glass/we could not let this moment pass/the sun is waiting far away/till I had the chance to say/all that's missing, all that's lost/every hope at any cost/every dream too good to come true/floods my heart when I'm with you/if you need a reason as to why you're here you don't need to look further than me."
And then I begged him to stop breathing, and eventually he did. I was holding his hand.

In summary - Chicago years: 1. Be Here Now
2. If You Need a Reason

Portland/Now: Man. I'm happy here. I think some people spend their lives looking for the place they fit. That feels more like home than home. I found it at 24. I'm the lucky one. That's not to say there wasn't an adjustment period. I was lonely for about a year, and still am sometimes, so the first song I'd put in the now category is Lonely Road.

Next I would go for Which Way Your Heart Will Go. Bekah and I had a conversation a week ago about how our lives would look if we hadn't made some of the decisions and mistakes we made. And I really feel like my failures, just as much as my achievements, have brought me to this place. So I'm thankful for both of them.
"Where would I be right now if all my dreams had come true?/deep down I know somehow I'd have never seen your face/this world would be a different place/darling there's no way to know/which way your heart will go."
It's a melancholy song, but it's not depressing, exactly, it's reflective. And I'm a reflector. Uh, or a reflective type of person, rather.

Next up - Darkness Between the Fireflies. Because I'm over the past and happy in the present and I don't want to look back too much and certainly don't want to be too caught up in the future. Plus it was one of the very first songs I learned to play on guitar and I'm quite fond of it.

And to sum it all up, Boneclouds, because it ties up everything and includes my love of nature.
"Wind blowing through the trees, branches bend, light shines through/I am so far from where I began when I was young/morning's breaking, I can hear birds singing and I feel like I'm never gonna die/life is looming and the summer's blooming and I feel like I'm never gonna die/I feel like I'm never gonna die/boneclouds of ghostly white rattle through skies of blue/send my heart on a train racing to something new/morning's breaking I can hear birds singing and I feel like I'm never gonna die/life is looming and the summer's blooming and I feel like I'm never gonna die/I feel like I'm never gonna die."

Today on his facebook page Mason wrote, "Talking about songwriting with friends and interviewers lately has gotten me thinking: Songwriting to me feels much less like making something than it feels like finding something. It is the two fold act of finding or being given something and caring for it very deeply. Then the third (and separate) part is sharing it and letting it go where it wants to go and is needed."

I was trying to think of a non-creepy way of sharing with him just how much his music has meant to me over the last eight years. And what it's meant to the folks with whom I've shared it. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I said nothing much. I did invite him to Pickathon (unofficially, of course) and asked him to play Sorry Signs on Cash Machines the next time he plays Portland. I said "thank you" for the show he just played. And I left. And I can't wait to see him play again.

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