Archive for May, 2011

Me looking into my abandoned high school.

Part 1:

“He wakes up in the morning.
Does his teeth, bite to eat and he’s rolling
Never changes a thing.
The week ends, the week begins.

She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking,
But we never say a thing.
And these crimes between us grow deeper.”

When I was a senior in high school, something felt a bit different in the music that was suddenly available. It seems like before that year, you listened to country music, you listened to pop radio (including things like Madonna and Nelson) or you maybe listened to things like Poison.  R.E.M. was my favorite band, I was hugely happy when “Losing My Religion,” got them some hits and brought them into the mainstream.  But senior year, one classmate recommended Live to me, it seemed like MTV was playing more types of music, and Justin E. made me a tape of the album _Under the Table and Dreaming_.  When he gave it to me, he said, “I put them in a different order than how they came, but this is they way I think it should be.”

I remember junior year, grunge came in. This was 1994, late for the rest of the nation. I started wearing my grandpa’s worn out flannel shirts (much to my grandma’s chagrin.) After I went to college at University of Illinois, I heard Dave Matthews all the time.  Eventually, a roommate had a CD of _Under the Table and Dreaming_ and I discovered that I also preferred Justin’s ordering of the songs.

“Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time.
Lights down, you up and die.”

I love this verse of “Ants Marching.” I love how high his voice goes. I can sing along with him, but when he drops down (too low for me), I have to make up a harmony.  It sounds pretty, but looking at the words now, I see that they’re sad.

“Goes to visit his mommy
She feeds him well, his concerns
He forgets them.
And remembers being small
Playing under the table and dreaming…

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die.”

In my high school, you didn’t have to eat on campus for lunch. Before you or close friends had a car, you’d walk across the square to the Dairy Queen. Or, you’d walk up to C&K (video) and buy candy and chips. With a car, though, you’d have time to go to the Huck’s for chicken or tater logs, or maybe the other gas station. And I think Huck’s eventually had pizza and sub sandwiches?  I can remember being in the back seat of someone’s car at lunch, this song on the tape player, singing along, the same harmony I sing now, with the wind coming in through the open windows, and feeling so young, so strong and beautiful and possible.

“Driving along this highway
All these cars and up on the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged,
No time to exchange when
All the little ants are marching.
Red and black antennae waving.
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way,
Candyman tempting the thoughts of a
Sweet tooth tortured by weight loss programs
cutting the corners, there’s a
Loose end, loose end, cut cut
On the fence, try not to offend.
Cut cut, cut cut.”

Justin was a big fan of the Raiders and Dave Letterman. I had a serious crush on him in junior high. I wonder where he first heard Dave Matthews Band. Maybe on Dave Letterman? I’ll bet I could still re-order the playlist on this album; that’s how many times I listened to the tape.

PS: Just having seen the video again, I see that it’s shot in NYC. That’s kind of strange; I don’t think 1995 me imagined I would ever even visit here..


View inside our old accounting classroom.

Part 2:

Janet had cable TV, and for some reason I didn’t. At least not then– I can remember times when my parents did. R.E.M. had just released _Monster_; again, this is a 1995 song. MTV was making a big deal about when they debuted videos from the album.  When the video for “Bang and Blame” came on for the first time in North America, Janet was watching, on the phone with me. She described every moment.

“If you could see yourself now, baby
It’s not my fault
You used to be so in control
You’re going to roll right over this one
Just roll me over, let me go
You’re laying blame
Take this as no, no, no

You bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,
Blame, blame, blame
You bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,
It’s not my thing so let it go.”

Here is my memory of Janet describing those first few moments of the video: “Okay, so it’s black and white. There’s a microphone. Michael Stipe is walking up to the microphone. He’s wearing a striped shirt. He’s… um, he’s hitting the microphone. He looks angry. Um… they’re in an empty house, camera going from room to room. No one’s there. A bedroom, unmade bed. Oh, a dog.  Back to Michael, hitting the microphone, waving his arms around. He’s walking away. He’s coming back.”

I had a _massive_ crush on Michael Stipe. I thought he was the hottest thing ever. I was dying to see this video, to see what he was wearing, how he was dancing, to see the story to go along with the song.  Janet talked throughout the video, trying to tell me every single detail.

It’s not a hugely great song. It goes well with the entire album; I know all the words, I like singing along to it, I like the video. I don’t think it would ever make it on a top twenty list of favorite songs, though.  Whenever I hear it, though, I immediately visualize the start of the video, and remember that there was a time in my life when I spent hours each day on the phone with Janet.


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Photo by s.alt

The piano chords begin, my heart gets a lump in its throat. I stop whatever I’m doing, and take a long, deep sigh.

“Sister Winter,” by Sufjan Stevens, is a song that makes me sad in the most delicious way. Think of how you might feel when gazing at a pieta in slanted afternoon light, in seeing an abandoned stone fence that has been overgrown by encroaching land, by finding an old diary that you wrote when a child. Wistful, nostalgic, forgetful, near-regretful.

Fall is beautiful, and winter is beautiful, but there is something about the dying, and the waiting, isn’t there?

“Oh my friends I’ve
Begun to worry right
Where I should be grateful
I should be satisfied.”

His voice is certainly mournful here. I immediately hear/see the lonesome black stretch of empty branches, that purple bruised sky before winter sunset. I see the stubble of old corn stalks in frozen fields.  Definitely in the emptiness of winter, it’s easy to be unsatisfied.

“But my heart is
Returned to sister winter
But my heart is
As cold as ice.

Oh my thoughts I
Return to summer time
When I kissed your ankle
I kissed you through the night.”

I guess this song, at least the beginning, is full of regret. I don’t necessarily feel regret when I listen to it, I just hear melancholy, and maybe a yearning for… for friendship, for the space to feel grateful and joyful.

“Oh my heart I
Would clap and dance in place
With my friends I have so
Much pleasure to embrace.”

Here, oh here. Here I get goosebumps, here I feel hope. I cannot convey how pretty this song is, how lovely this verse is. In my life, my friends have been my estate–they have saved me time and again, and shown me my own self. I am inspired every day by their voices, and have had so much joy in their presence. Oh, my heart, indeed.

But, this is a sad song.  It continues:

“But my heart is
Returned to sister winter
But my heart is
As cold as ice

Oh my thoughts I
Return to summer time
When I kissed your ankle
I kissed you through the night

All my gifts I gave everything to you
Your strange imagination
You threw it all away

Now my heart is
Returned to sister winter
Now my heart is
As cold as ice

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise.”

For this narrator, it is that he _would_ clap and embrace.  Grammatical future tense.  Longing, not having.

“And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you a Happy Christmas

To wish you a Happy Christmas
To wish you a Happy Christmas
To wish you a Happy Christmas.”

And yet, Christmas songs are so often about hope. And maybe this is more specifically an Advent song… he somehow travels through winter, through that place of apology, and returns. He returns to his friends, full of wishes.

I guess maybe it’s the future tense that makes it sad?  That not knowing that a chance to return will come?  By the end of song, the piano has become less spare and more fulfilling, and the sadness is tempered with hope and relief.  Which, really is Christmas: winter tempered with hope and relief.

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Dangerous women

“All women dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous women, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” ~ T.E. Lawrence

I have a lot of dreams. I want to found a school. I want to bring talking about religious freedom and the interior spiritual lives of young people into the public policy realm. I want to get my PhD and publish and share my curriculum ideas. I want to continue to learn from young people, and amplify their voices.

I want to go back to Prague, go back to Haiti, go back to Paris, go back to London. I want to go back to the Bodliean. I want to learn how to knit, quilt, make cheese, paint, play the piano, speak Arabic, ride a horse, film, preach. I want to design a library for children and teenagers, organize a gallery show, publish my memoirs.

I have so much to learn, so many voices to hear, so many stories to note and compare. Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed– I say, “I am getting old! I am just beginning!  Where will I find the time? Who will listen to me?” 

Sometimes, I feel dangerous: “Look out, I am going to make this happen. This is essential, don’t try to stop me.”

Sometimes, I feel confused: “How does this all connect? Where does one dream end and another begin? How will I know when to listen and when to speak?”

This quote reminds me that sometimes dreaming isn’t easy, and doesn’t _feel_ easy. It might be appropriate for me to feel trepidation, if I am seeking to take action.

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I have a song that I listen to when I need to be revved up.  When I am feeling down, or not very smart, or not smart enough. When I’m applying for grad school, applying for grants, deciding to move, or feeling small.

There’s a drum roll, the cymbals clash, and then the bass starts up: I smile immediately, every time. I start to get excited.

“Where I come from isn’t all that great
My automobile is a piece of crap
My fashion sense is a little whack
And my friends are just as screwy as me.”

In fact, I have listened to this song while finishing, sealing, and mailing every grad school app I’ve ever completed (all four rounds). I have listened to it in celebration when I learned I was going to California.

“I didn’t go to boarding schools
Preppy girls never looked at me
Why should they I ain’t nobody
Got nothing in my pocket.”

“Take that, Harvard!” I holler to the mailbox.  “Take that, BU!” I shout as I shimmy and stomp around my apartment.

I sing harmony during the chorus:

“Beverly Hills – That’s where I want to be!
Living in Beverly Hills…
Beverly Hills – Rolling like a celebrity!
Living in Beverly Hills…

Look at all those movie stars
They’re all so beautiful and clean
When the housemaids scrub the floors
They get the spaces in between.”

I actually picture the esSex House during this verse, and Tom, Eric, and Jodut. I picture my sunroom bedroom, and to-do lists on the wall, and practice GRE math problems on the white board in the kitchen. I picture myself, triumphing intellectually, shaking my fist at everyone who ever thought he was above me in grad school, rocking an academic conference.

The best part is coming up. I always shout it.

“I wanna live a life like that
I wanna be just like a king
Take my picture by the pool
Cause I’m the next big thing!”


“Beverly Hills,” by Weezer. Self esteem in a thrumping, happy, rollicking tune. I always feel happy as soon as it starts, and capable of anything by the time it’s finished.

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image from toothpastefordinner.com

“Feliz Navidad.”  Honestly.

Poor Matt, with all of his Christmas mixes. The song is on several. I’ve been with him for a few Christmases, now, and never mentioned the burning dislike I feel for this song until this year.  He was shocked!  How could I hate a Christmas song?  And why had I never told him?

It’s lucky for me that the song I like least only comes around for two months a year. I sort of forget about it the rest of the time.  I think I really hate it because it always, always sounds the same. It’s not like there are multiple arrangements for it, people ranging from the Smashing Pumpkins to Mary Chapin Carpenter covering it, slowing it down, adding mandolin, _something_.

I dislike the sudden, manic, “I want to wish you a merry Christmas” repeated. I dislike the repetitive strumming. I tense up as soon as the song starts. To me, it feels like being trapped in a towering dollar store Christmas aisle… surrounded by things I usually love (glitter, decorations, ribbon) but suddenly sharp and dusty.

I see from Wikipedia that not only is the song one of the most downloaded Christmas songs in the US and Canada, it also has, in fact, been covered by folks like Moby and Celine Dion.  Dear Matt, Maybe try the disco version on a Christmas mix this year?

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photo from Two Stout Monks’ on Flickr

I’ve been loving reading posts on this meme from Grammar Piano and Matt, so I decided I would jump on in.

My favorite song is “Half a World Away,” by REM.

“The storm it came up strong. It shook the trees, it blew away our fears.”

This line I love. I often sing it to myself, or think of it. I think of dark branches, in that weird gray-green sky before a storm we used to get in the Midwest, and the smell of ozone in the air. I didn’t know it was ozone smell as a child, just that crackling smell of possible, of taking cover.

It has been raining a lot this week in the Bronx. The rain has pounded and pummeled the blossoming trees outside our door. This morning, when I went outside, the large magnolia blossom petals were all over the sidewalk, shining white in the gray morning light. The covered over all the broken bottles and litter in our yard, covered over the litter on the sidewalk and in the gutter.

I’ve always been an anxious person. My parents report that when I was little, I would take things with such grave intensity that I would tremble, or hallucinate. I would wake up early, before anyone, and wander around the house and yard, eating cold hot dogs from the refrigerator. I would sing in my closet, and in the garage. I tied curtains to my arms and legs, and ran around the backyard, in the rain.

“This could be the saddest dusk
I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle
High alive
My mind is racing
As it always will
My hand is tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away here
My head sworn
To go it alone
And hold it along
Haul it along
And hold it
Go it alone
Hold it along and hold, hold.”

Sometimes it feels like recognition, when I feel fluttery and powerful inside, and when the natural world is in accord. When I was in high school, living along a highway just out of town, I used to wake up in the middle of the night, and walk barefoot across the grass onto the hot highway surface. No cars coming in either direction. Smell of fields and fragrant bushes in my parents’ yard.  Once, I took out a glass tumbler and threw it on the highway, to hear the shatter and tinkle of glass.

“This lonely deep sit hollow
I’m half a world
Half the world away
My shoes are gone
My life spent
I had too much to drink
I didn’t think
And I didn’t think of you
I guess that’s all I needed
To go it alone
And hold it along
Haul it along
And hold it
Blackbirds, backwards, forwards and fall and hold, hold.”

I was hospitalized for depression in the summer after my senior year.  Inside the hospital was long days. Wanting to nap, but not being allowed. Air conditioning and strange nights of sleep.  When I got out, I think my close friends were maybe unsure of what to do with me.  I have two great memories from that period, a brief time between getting out and when I went off to college.

“Oh, this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes high alive
Blind to the tide that turns the sea
This storm it came up strong
It shook the trees
And blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear.”

Three of my girlfriends came and picked me up at the house by the highway. I don’t know if I knew where we were going.  We drove out into the country, onto someone’s family land. A swimming hole, a small lake, completely surrounded by trees, and then farmland. It was so quiet. Late afternoon, just swimming.  I floated on my back, letting the water fill my ears until I couldn’t hear anything. Looking at the sky, seeing the dark ring of trees in every direction of my periphery.  Feeling thankful for friends that would bring me here without word or fanfare at all.

“This could be the saddest dusk
I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle
High alive
My mind is racing
As it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away and go .”

In that same week, my cousin Larry and I were out at the farm at the same time. We’d grown up there, like brother and sister, especially during summers. I guess we had some kind of conversation about what had happened with me, but I don’t remember it. We got on a four-wheeler, and Larry drove.  The boys were always more adventurous than me on the four-wheelers, but I didn’t complain when he jumped it over ditches, and drove us away from the farm and up onto our grandpa’s land, land between fields, dark with trees.

I don’t think I could find that land now, but I have such a vivid memory of driving onto it, looping around in the fields, through the trees, the four wheeler too noisy for conversation. Another summer evening, that weird kind of dark shade in trees before evening comes.

Even though the song describes going it alone, that’s not what I hear or feel when I am singing along to the song. Partially, this is because I sing harmony, because it talks of “holding,” and because the fears blown away are “our” fears. Even though the singer has sworn to (try?) to go it alone, it doesn’t seem to me like he has. At least, “Turn to a miracle/high alive,” always, always feels like a sudden surge of connection.

Also, I notice as I listen to it now, that although the lyrics read “hold it alone,” I have always heard and sung, “hold it along.” I guess I imagine holding something over time, keeping it, helping it along.

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