Monday, February 11, 2008


I've learned that life is sorrow. Also that it is joy. And both can hit you broadsided.

In 2005 I attended three funerals. Two were of my grandfather and my best friend who took pieces of me with them. My great grandmother was the third, and I regret not knowing her well. In spite of their ages I was ready for none of them. Sometimes we wade through so much sorrow that we feel we'll soon, happily, sink into its quicksand--the warmth and darkness a comfort--and disappear.

I have a childhood friend, Grace, who I literally was in the crib with. She's four days older than me. My mom has a picture of both of us together--before we were even old enough to walk--in a crib in our backyard. We are in our diapers and bare chested in the Oklahoma sun. We've laughed at how much chubbier she was than me.

Grace lost her five year-old daughter to an aneurysm in December. As much as I held my best friend and grandfather dear, I can't imagine her grief. I received a picture of Grace, her husband, son, and late daughter in the mail shortly after the death. It was a holiday picture. Everyone was smiling--a young family heading into a new year. The new year arrived but the daughter, Charity, didn't see it.

It has been unseasonably warm the past couple months. Then last night as I was smoking on my fire escape, shivering in the sudden cold, I prayed for a good snow. I have been awaiting the Northeastern winter since I moved to New York. I love the cold. And then it came. At first I thought it was just the wind blowing flurries off the roof tops that had fallen earlier that day; but they began to multiply and cover my coat and gloves. I said, "huh."

I often dwell in harsh memories. They're easier to remember. And often forget the pleasant ones. But when the snow began to fall, and forgive my sentimentality, I cried.

In a poem called "Wife," Hayden Carruth writes of an old man's insomnia, of his drinking and smoking through the night while his wife sleeps in "her half (two-thirds really) of their bed." He closes the poem with these lines:

"His last cigarette, his final gulp of chardonnay,
and he presses against her warm glow,
thinking of how he swam as a boy
of twelve in the warm pond beyond
the elms and hickories at the meadow's
edge. He turned like a sleepy carp among
the water lilies, under the dragonflies
and hot clouds of the old days of summer."

Even in the midst of sorrow, there is joy. There is joy in, as they say, the small things. Settling into bed with your wife. A coffee with a friend. A good book. A laugh.

Or a prayer answered with snow.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Music and Memory

I find that music, like the sense of smell, is closely tied to nostalgia. One may smell fresh cut grass and think of peewee football, his first home, or a college campus. One may also listen to The Clash and think of high school, the history channel, or a bad date at a dive bar.

Music often transports me when I least expect it.

Upon hearing Dancing Nancies by Dave Matthews band, I think of a campfire with friends and guitars; a midnight drive in high school when I jumped out of the car at a stop sign and began to dance in the headlights as my friend rolled down the windows, turned up the volume and laughed; an intimate night with a girlfriend.

Upon hearing Alison Krauss singing Slumber My Darling, I think of a time when my brother was in devastating circumstances, sunken on my thrift store chair, and healed through tears while listening to her voice.

Upon hearing Dollars and Cents by Radiohead, I'm transported to a midnight session of text books, coffee, computer and frustration of marathon studying for college finals.

Upon hearing the Hairspray soundtrack, I'm on the back of the stage of the Neil Simon theater, hearing my wife's foot steps pounding out the dance number of You Can't Stop the Beat as her silhoeutte sways over an empty stage.

And upon hearing Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, I'm in multiple places simultaneously: on the couch with my brother in a rented house and reverie, in a shuttle bus at the airport with my head in the stratosphere, with a good book and good coffee.

I find that music is a constantly cascading photo album that turns to an obscure page when I least expect it and sucks me into a memory all but forgotten.