River days

There was a moment recently when I and everything I own was out on the road between my old place and this new one. I sat in the cab of the rather overlarge moving truck, my computer backpack resting safely on my knee, feeling exhilarated and chatting to the classics student who had come to help me move. Brandon told me about his recent trip cross country with the moving company’s owner, how they hiked the Grand Canyon and skied at Tahoe while shepherding some family’s possessions from one life to another. It was a write off, he explained.

Did you know Mark Twain once claimed a gorgeous, unsettled virgin forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and then promptly burnt up nearly every tree on it? He and a friend had to launch a boat into the lake to escape the accidental conflagration. You won’t believe the things that happened to Mark Twain, and the things he made happen. The life he lived. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Twain since I wrote about Best for the Best and had to admit ignorance about his life.

So, first a clarification. Regarding the riverboat scenes in Josh Ritter’s song Best for the Best, I wrote, I can see that riverboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes. It turns out this was not the preferred way to pilot a steamboat down the—albeit placid—Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It turns out it required rather constant attention, and Twain spent much of his time behind the wheel quite frightened that he would crash or run aground. In fact he had recurrent nightmares about it. But the river—his piloting years were interrupted by the Civil War and he never took it up again—was a great source of nostalgia throughout his life, and, as was often his way, once some years had intervened he remembered it slightly differently than he had lived it. When things got sticky he often spoke longingly about returning to the river, as if he’d be immune to troubles there.

In the final verse of the cryptic song Monster Ballads we hear from Twain via Huck Finn:

And I was thinking about my river days
Thinking about me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

There’s reflection here, and high adventure, fluent friendship, flight from the law, and yet the setting imbued with the solemn and sacred. The river as church. In light of what I’ve read about Twain and those four evocative lines, I’ve been thinking about the notion of river days. Those stolen seasons of our lives when we drop our bags and forget who we are or were supposed to be and run barefoot through the tall grass of life. When the experience becomes all.

Travel is usually required. Youth helps. I chose London: went for six months, came back with hardly more than my original suitcase four years later. I had the time of my life, or so my heart keeps telling me, when Parliament or Piccadilly rises up in my mind’s eye and mocks the routine that has worn down an easy path—or a rut—that I’ve begun to follow without having to watch where I’m going. That first year in London everything seemed injected with the novel. I went about buzzing with the heightened awareness of it all, as though outside myself. Even I was a novelty, and this new me observed the other in the huge glittering city and in interaction with new foreign friends, questioning all sorts of things never questioned—or even acknowledged—before, and tending a bumper crop of new insecurities. They were good, though. They made me grow. And they made me think quite a bit about America and her place in the world.

Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been drawn to water, and some of my best thinking and feeling during my London days occurred while staring out at the muddy Thames. How to describe what happens when two human eyes linger over a body of water? Words don’t seem enough . . . soothing, I suppose. Monster Ballads just might prove that music can do better. You’ll also get the sound of journey, with the hypnotic, playful bass line and gentle, regular percussion. And so much more, or something else entirely: Monster Ballads is extraordinary in that it’s one of the most vibrant and vivid musical portraits I’ve ever heard, seen, touched, and yet it’s also . . . a pristine ivory canvas . . . being caressed by wind-rippled curtains on the windows . . . of a room of sunshine-scattered gold coins . . . in a mountainside cabin. Grab a brush, it says.

Of course the problem with having had some river days is that one can get a little impatient when the adventure dies down. One can find herself standing in her kitchen belting I don’t give a damn for just the in betweens. She might walk blocks and blocks out of her way to have a secret serenade by a foreign accent. The hard times abroad, marinated by memory, will soften.

And if one is honest she might find herself trying to replicate that frusterated river days sensation in compartments of her stateside life. She might sell all her furniture and move into a condo share across town, just to shake things up, to see if anything can seem new again. And she may, as the moving truck approaches the turning off the main road—the westward journey broken at just four miles—be tempted to turn to the driver and say, “Can we keep going?”

The past an address

Seattle was lovely—the coffee rich and hot, the sky blue, water water everywhere, and the library a bonefide future glass building that gave both inspiration and vertigo. The Seattle Art Museum is revived and very recently re-opened; I think the wine glasses we drank from came straight out of the box. Josh came along to the SAM, where I stood in front of a Native American piece that referenced Three Sisters, and, smiling just a little bit, I thought of this line from Thin Blue Flame:

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land

It comes in that earthly-ethereal, Elysian final verse . . . and for months now I’ve been luxuriating in the imagery, thinking, “All that . . . and Chekhov too?”** I suppose heaven is what we make it—surely one message in Thin Blue Flame—and I’d gone and pulled out a chair for that fine writer. Oh well, he can come anyway. Something tells me Josh won’t mind.* And, yes, I’m ignorant about Native American agricultural history. It won’t be the last thing I get wrong about these songs; they’re complicated and weird (high praise in my book), and that’s part of the reason we’re here.

So now I’m home and packing to move. On Saturday I had an impromptu meeting and shaking-of-hands with the gentleman and father of four who paid $3.2M for this gorgeous building that was home to around fourteen people and ten apartments. He was showing his shy, smiling parents the boiler room, speaking in Italian. I introduced myself and asked whether they’d like to step into my humble place (surely destined to become the wine cellar, the maid’s quarters, or the laundry room).

He was gracious and humble, with kind eyes, and despite my ambivalence about moving away I could muster no animosity. Instead I burbled about how my years here had been so special, how I had considered writing a letter to the new owner and leaving it in the Ernest Hemingway fold-down desk. It felt a bit silly to congratulate someone on the cash purchase of a $3.2M home in possibly the most beautiful part of the city, and certainly I did not calm any fears by giving my assurances of how much they would enjoy the neighborhood, but congratulate and assure I did. He seemed genuinely grateful, and, as I said, kind. He said goodbye, I shut the door behind him, and I gave the wall a little pat. Phew.

One inevitably thinks about the coming in the planning for the leaving, and I will be forever mindful that I arrived here with a broken—no, a mangled heart. And now I leave with a mended one, even if there are some scars. It took just shy of two years. This little place under the sidewalk was here waiting on the nights I felt so bereft and so betrayed by the still-turning world—so low—that my homeward footsteps slowed and I, feeling unequal to one more, considered lying down on the sidewalk’s cold concrete. This home and its fickle oven hosted last summer’s baking school, when Sunday afternoons were reserved for the playing of classical music and the mastering of quickbreads, muffins, pies, cobblers, cookies, and cakes.

It cooperated when learning to cook took over in the fall, and my father and I spent a weekend hunting studs in the wall—him, drill pulsing, cursing old buildings’ basements and the things that lurk in their walls—in order to mount a pot rack. Those same walls did not sigh when I repeatedly reconfigured the furniture and moved decorations, learning to listen to its space and successfully making it my home, and one—my first—that I loved. Its inlaid bookcases handsomely supported my acres of books.

It opened its hobbit-sized door to Grief and we sat and gazed at it together, turning it round, memorizing all sides, and I cried, and cried and cried into its silence, determined to put in my time, hoping each honest encounter would be the last. It welcomed me home late at night during the harried months when I socialized and volunteered like a hamster on a wheel, booking some engagement nearly every night so I’d fall into bed too tired to think. It stayed up while I learned about investing </yawn> so I could invest the money I’d saved and exile anxiety about financial independence. It was screening theatre to Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which I watched each time it aired last autumn, the sight of a young brilliant Bob Dylan staring blankly out making me weep for reasons that weren’t clear. Yet. It was concert hall for Dylan and Josh Ritter, whose music I played incessantly through the winter and spring. It was sounding board for those first strange, spontaneous laughs—at the TV, at Josh’s lyrics—and later, the hilarity that sometimes ensued when visiting with friends.

This “studio plus” didn’t judge when I scrawled the sad and bitterly triumphant last verse of Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind on my whiteboard (changing letters to emails), even if my brother did, after beholding it with furrowed brow, laughingly suggest I take it down before inviting anyone else inside. It was reading room to numerous books that kept me company and led me back to warm wonder at the world. It witnessed the deepening of my most cherished friendships and put in motion a resolution to be a fine hostess, one whose home says Drop-Ins Welcome. It kept the light on and nudged me, like a mother bird, out the door when I ventured out on a first date that might as well have been the first ever.

It was a portal of prayer.

Lest I sleep too soundly its radiators clanged in the small hours of the winter nights. Its wonky windows swelled in the rain and even then couldn’t keep out the city’s dirt. The hot water failed on the mornings of some very important meetings, and the drains served up absolutely monstrous centipedes every once in awhile. And its charms shrunk away with the rest during some very lonesome times. But it gave me the space and the silence in which to write in a way I hadn’t before—and writing began teaching me all kinds of things that I hope will never stop.

There’s a line in Thin Blue Flame that goes

The future glass buildings and the past an address

There are, of course, numberless ways to talk about Thin Blue Flame, numerous things to explore. There are tiny phrases of precious gem that give way to panoramic themes. Lately I’ve been thinking about The past an address, thinking how much it says in how little, and how it captures a courageous approach to and respect for history—political and personal. (The politics in Thin Blue Flame can’t be denied: one gets the idea Josh will rejoice when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one folksy frat boy’s past address.)

The past an address says sometimes it’s time to pack the U-Haul and set out for new beginnings. It says, don’t worry, it will still be be there—no bull dozers, please—and you’re welcome to drop in when you need to, to sit in the garden and remember when, to wiggle your toes in the fountain, to tear up the floorboards for time capsules and corpses, to resurrect and reinterpret heroes and villains. To revisit and rethink or even revise.

The past an address says But we don’t live there anymore. It was splendid for awhile, but we never quite fixed the electrical problem; we didn’t think the new boiler was worth the expense. We made some lovely memories. We healed some wounds. We made some terrible mistakes. It was time, so we’ve gone down to the post office and arranged for the forwarding of mail. You’ll find us striking out somewhere new, somewhere with space enough for all our new ideas.

And for the future.

Next: River days




**I’ve just remembered (vaguely) that the notion of going to Moscow (Russia) as escape from the family’s stagnation and failure in the country figures largely in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Moscow, Idaho, you may know, is Josh Ritter’s hometown and perhaps the setting of that final verse of Thin Blue Flame.

A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land



I’m flying to Seattle on JetBlue, and my individual TV screen shows our route due west across Montana, just over the places I’ve always wanted to go: Missoula, Glacier National Park, Great Falls. The nose of the little white electronic plane is inching toward Spokane, which I happen to know is very near Moscow, Idaho, home to our man Josh Ritter. I know this because I got a huge glossy one-page-per-state driving atlas for Christmas (at my request), and sometimes I bone up on my American geography while I lay in bed a night. I have a tiny apartment in a big city, and I live alone, but if I heave that big atlas in bed with me, I can feel small (look at all the places to go!) and big (Vermont fits under my thumb!) and alone and together all at the same time. One night I traced my finger over Highway 61 back and forth from Minnesota, wondering where they put the bleachers in the sun.

I look at the unfamiliar towns friends have moved off to, and I check in on my favorite literary characters. And so I turned to I and looked up Moscow, slightly surprised to find it practically on the border with Washington. Josh mentions his native Idaho at his concerts a lot—and there’s the song—and I’ve heard him on occasion invite the concert hall to his house. I’ve inquired ingenuously with friends how seriously I might take this invitation. I mean, honest, I didn’t think I was the sort to show up unannounced at a stranger’s house, but that’s the thing about Josh: he makes one feel it just might be okay, so one needs her friends around so she does not blunder.

Back to Snow is Gone, don’t you think? I told you what it meant to me, gave you my own personal context, which always means so much to the self, and can never be adequately replicated for others. (And yet we blog, and pen songs, trying, trying.) So let me try to strike a more general tone, because it’s too lovely a song to move on just now, and there’s that matter of the window.

(Just over Spokane now! The sun sets in a downy cloudbed awash in an indescribable mix of coral, pink, gold, violet and a hot yellow. The clouds have separated into swiftly moving wisps, that, if you squint, resemble red dust moving across the plains or the desert. It’s a beautiful Western scene. I look down at the cluster of tiny houses and can’t help smiling. Somewhere down there . . . )

In Snow is Gone the speaker starts addressing the birds dustying their wings upon the lawn in the morning sunshine. The speaker seems to want some attention, but they’re never looking ’round for me; they’re doing that darty-eyed bird thing, not having it. Oh well, he says, and casually drops that goosebumps line I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know.

Next verse he’s addressing one bird in particular, one whose feathers he’s admired, one with confectionery airs. Confectionery! This one’s not having it either, even though the speaker is singing in exultation and pulling all the stops. And we think, uh oh, this is a girl. Bird, after all, is a term for girl in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere, I don’t know.) But oh well, he reasons, again, and offers an honest truth and a request: I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.

In the third verse everything turns round: the birds are gone (to roost, and in the live version you can hear Josh smile on that line—did you know that, amongst his other talents, Josh Ritter gave smile a sound?), the speaker taking their place outside and underneath her window. He’s singing his heart out, unsure whether he sings for himself or her. But he’s flown a long way, honey, and he’s got something to say—a confession—and he demands a space to say it in, after which he promises to go. I’ve heard Josh shout the line THEN I’LL GO!, and my spirit just says A-men. As one who wants not for passion or ease (and overindulgence) of expression, I love this line for capturing that glorious and terrifying and exhausting moment when you’ve worked it through in your mind, and in your heart, and it’s burning you up, and maybe you rehearse, but you make that humblest request of another: Just listen to me; I’ll ask nothing else. In fact I’ll go. I think maybe it’s happened to me once. And rare is the man with the wherewithal and self-awareness and confidence (or maybe abandon?) to do it.

There are important Ritter themes here. Pay attention to that window, to that outside-looking-in motif; you’ll find him out there again and again. I love this song for the contradiction in the patented Ritter modesty, the aw-shucks-she-doesn’t-like-me-back sentiment, and the confession of why he loves to perform–because it makes him the center of attention. He sings to be adored, and if you’ve been to a concert, you know this is true. And yet mercy he gets. Mercy in spades.

And there’s the jubilant chorus, in which a seemingly deliriously happy speaker greets the birds with Be my darling! Gosh this song can make you happy. At the end the birds exchange last night’s feathers for new ones, and you wonder what did it. The telling? The performance? The girl who came down and opened the door?

Today, for me, this song is about being an artist in love with the waking world, with her art, with another, with herself-as-artist. It’s about being a romantic, starting anew, taking a stand. It’s about being honest with oneself–even in contradiction–and in turn being ready to be honest with another. It’s about facing rejection and stating your Truth in a respectful and timely fashion, but stating it nonetheless. It’s about dignity and hope.

But maybe you say it’s about the weather.

That’s the marvelous thing about music—about art—isn’t it? Some man in one of those tiny matchstick houses down there sat down and wrote a song, and it means this to me, and that to you. And then it gathers memories and meaning and changes for each of us over time, and it will always hold infinite promise for those who haven’t heard it yet. We give it life in this way, and in return, it does the same for us.

No wonder he sings for the love of it. I write for the same.

Next: The past an address