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Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
"No, really!"

My Favorite Bit of Paper Cup Philosophy

The Way I See It #76

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meaningful Things: Music and the Letter

I am a woman who loves to write. My father does, and my daughter. We're wordy sorts who feel an urge to tell our stories. Yes, we're all talkers, too. But we particularly seek out writing as a means of expression.

I am also strongly drawn to music and bonded to some of it. My music. It doesn't even have to be particularly good music for me to love it. I'm willing to listen to virtually anything at least once, and if I like a song, I'll probably always like it. I'll remember the first time I heard it and why it pulled me in. Sometimes I remember what the weather was like and what fragrance I was wearing. I certainly remember the company I was keeping at the time. Eventually some of the songs become a part of who I am, the artist a friend to me. And I like to introduce my friends around.

Um . . . and then there are my musical oddities. I (frequently) land on an old or new favorite and play only that song for ~ oh, say six months in the car. Likewise there will be one going in the office for 11 hours a day. I've been known to make co-workers nearly weep and Ex refused to go anywhere in the car with me for years. I like to enjoy my music by nearly complete immersion and then I move on to the next song. I think about how I'd play it or how I'd have structured the delivery of the lyrics differently. And yes, there is some hope for me. The medications do control most of the other obsessive behaviors . . . I'm kidding! And a music lover with similar taste to mine presents me with custom mixes frequently. They contain up to 25 different songs. I didn't know people listened to music that way.

I received a letter from a young man in the late 1960s. I was somewhere between 15 and 18, depending upon whichever year that letter landed. 1969, I believe, so either 16 or 17. The young man and I exchanged letters often, and this is unusual, because we were also seeing one another in person - extremely often. But he is a writer, too, and we both fell to written communication to supplement our face-to-face time. We each had that much need to express ourself to the other. It is fortunate that we developed the writing habit, because we faded from and reappeared in the other's life time after time. We spoke seriously at one time about collaborating on a book about a relationship that had many faces over time. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say we have exchanged a million words, or perhaps a googol, in person and in writing.

So the letter arrived with its 6-cent postage stamp. Sometimes I used feminine stationery. We both used college lined notebook paper. We were teenagers. Students. Notebook paper was appropriate to our circumstances. He wrote in fountain pen. He still does. This was a shorter letter. Just the one piece of notebook paper, written on one side. I'm sorry I don't specifically remember the letter's subject, but I do not. What I do remember is the writing in the left hand margin. It was a snippet of something, a poem or a song, and it was dreamy and beautiful. He had turned the page at right angles to write those words, as they were presented vertically when compared to the horizontal sentences of the letter. Although I did not have a complete frame of reference for the words, they made me think he was the most brilliant and sensitive young man I'd known.

When I next saw him or spoke to him on the phone, I asked about the words and he pointed me to a music album I've now owned on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD and MP3. I bought the record for myself with babysitting money and I proceeded to breathe in every word of every song . . . for 41 years now. Many of them are wonderful, but the one from which he wrote part of the lyrics is a thread in my personal tapestry. I introduced both of my parents, my husband and my child to the artist, but more to that song. They probably all liked it, but it didn't mean to them what it meant to me.

The words he wrote were these:

" . . All my sisters soon were gone
To Denver and Cheyenne.
Marrying their grownup dreams,
The lilacs and the man.
I stayed behind, the youngest still,
Only danced alone . . ."

The song is "My Father" by Judy Collins. Across the decades I've thought about my own practical Kansan father who wouldn't have ever promised such a thing as " . . we would live in France . ." or that "we'd go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance . ." unless he had the paid tickets in his pocket. Of course, I'm not much of a dreamer like the woman in the song. I wonder which of us had it better.

The young man who wrote me the letter was an active Viet Nam war protestor. He was associated with a group called The Resistance (among others) and he participated in a protest organizing meeting at which he sat next to Judy Collins. He still grins when he speaks of it today. In 2000, my mother, my 10-year-old daughter and I sat in the champagne picnic area at the San Diego Summer Pops awaiting Judy Collins. It was cool on the bay. We munched and drank bubbly (not the child, of course). My mother hoped Collins would sing "Someday Soon". She probably would. It was a big hit for her. Amber hoped for "Pretty Polly". Unlikely, but I hoped so, too, in solidarity. When she walked out onto the stage, I nearly choked on my croissant cucumber sandwich. Where was Judy Collins, the cute folkie/hippie chick with the voice of an angel and the words that spoke to me, subject of Stephen Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"? Who was this 61-year-old in the pastel colored suit and what had she done with Judy? Until she took the mike and said, "Hello!" That was Judy Collins' voice! What the heezy? And as she sang the evening away, reminiscing about a young singer/songwriter named John Denver who stayed with her family while trying to make a name for himself, I realized that Judy wasn't a cute folkie/hippie any more and Leslie wasn't 16, and we were still spending a wonderful evening in one another's company.

When she sang "My Father", I wanted it never to end. My mother recalled the song and tapped my foot under our picnic table. My daughter, a child who knew every word, sat with tears rolling down her face.

When I did some research for this post, I came across the YouTube shown below. Judy speaks of her father's blindness and how he was sent away to a special school. It reminds me of my blind great uncle, Ralph. And then she proceeds to sing her beautiful song, taped in the same year I learned the words.

In my ears right now: The reader already knew this!

I'm going to end this one a little differently. It's the lyrics that charm me:

My father always promised us
That we would live in France.
We'd go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance.
We lived in Ohio then.
He worked in the mines.
On his dreams like boats
We knew we would sail in time.
All my sisters soon were gone
To Denver and Cheyenne.
Marrying their grownup dreams
The lilacs and the man.
I stayed behind, the youngest still,
Only danced alone.
The colors of my father's dreams
Faded without a sound.
And I live in Paris now.
My children dance and dream,
Hearing the ways of a miner's life
In words they've never seen.
I sail my memories of home
Like boats across the Seine
And watch the Paris sun
As it sets in my father's eyes again.


  1. Thanks for including the link to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." This is the one I played endlessly; seeing myself as Stephen Stills longing for something I couldn't quite catch. Judy was nice, beautiful, lovely voice but she didn't need me. Another young singer did and her words spoke more powerfully to me. Because she sang the words I needed.

  2. @ Tag - oh, Janis Ian! I love her, too. I love that she looks you in the eye and bravely tells of her pain, apparently without shame. Believe me, no female wants to think of herself as an "ugly girl at 17".

    "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with . . . "

  3. This is a wonderful post. It makes me churn inside about things so long ago.

  4. @ The Badger ~ I thank you for saying so, Sir! As you can tell, it's a little rumbly in my soul, too. How quickly it went! How much more is left (at least of value)? Who would we ask? Thank you for the gift of "My Father". It has truly kept on giving.

  5. If Judy Collins was 61 in 2000, she's 71 today. To quote another artist from the same era, the times they are a-changin'

  6. @ Kirk ~ Yes, she'll turn 71 this coming May 11th. I'd pay money to see her again, too. I imagine she still delivers and if one closed her eyes, it would be 1969 again. Good Bob Dylan reference, Kirk, for one as young as you are. They are a-changin', and you can see for yourself that some of us are looking at our remaining days with some unease of spirit.

  7. I didn't mean to depress anybody. I'm just still used to looking at somebody 70 and thinking "Great Depression". A second later, I realize "No, at least as anyone older than a toddler."

    Whenever I see a man of about 48, by force of habit I wonder if he fought in the Korean War, then I realize
    "Wait, I'M 48, and when I was growing up, the Korean War was a TV show starring Alan Alda."

  8. @ Kirk ~ as you do so many times, you've nailed it Kirk. Neither of us feels depressed, exactly. Actually we just chatted about it on e-mail this morning. It's more about watching change occur, observing a switch in things. Remember my shock when I was writing about blind Aunt Martha - an elderly, matronly woman - when I suddenly realized I was writing about a woman the age I am now. It's that kind of "Whoa!" which is accompanied by "How much longer will it be 'good'? When will I not be able to do some of the things I do now?" Sort of looking ahead up the road.

  9. I, too, listen to one song at a time until I can sing it to myself - first I mimic it as i heard it, then I make it my own. Been driving my lot crazy with Teddy Thompson for nine months - just moving on to Dolly Parton!

    From one person who loves letter writing to another - it is the little asides and doodles which make that form of communication quite special. I have saved most of my teen received letters and often wonder who I was and why I didn't do things when the opportunity was sitting right beside me.

  10. @ Rachel ~ Oh, I could dish about Dolly with you! For me it's about absorbing the song, not just "listening" to it. But it drives others nearly insane.

    I envy you your teen letters! Both the young man and I had our letters lost or thrown away by other people. We're both sentimental and would like to have at least some of them now.

  11. I'm into sentimentality right now so I love this post. Love Judy Collins. One of the first artists I imitated. Both Sides Now. It's cloud's illusions I recall. I really don't know much at all, but I do know how good it is to embrace all the good memories and look back in love.

    WV=splin. As Desi Arnez used to say, "Could you please splin that to me, Lucy?"

  12. You don't have the letter--but you will always have the memory. That can never be lost or thrown away. I love how we're all wired differently--I like music, listen to music, but will go days without ever turning anything on. Or I will listen to the same CD over and over again--not to immerse myself in it but because I'm too involved in whatever I'm doing (or too lazy) to choose a new one (and don't have anything high tech that plays more than one CD at a time). I recently listened (over and over and over) to Mexican music that my students imbedded in their photo essay projects. Not my music of choice, but it was sure stuck in my head for several days! They thought it was funny to hear me humming their songs.

  13. @ Kass ~ Wow ~ your timing is amazing! I'm about to quote Desi Arnaz to someone else, so your "splin" made me laugh out loud. I'm with you, Cookie. Without our memories, we'd be empty, soul-less shells. And like the Dixie Chicks, I believe in love (in all of its forms).

  14. @ Dooz ~ Music is intriguing to me. All the varieties of it and why does some of it pull us so strongly and some of it leave us cold? How come we enjoy some of it sung in languages we don't understand and reject some of it in plain language we fully understand? It's mystical to me.

  15. I just read on The Nation emailing I suscribe to that the magazine is going to be hosting a cruise in that fall. And guess who's going to be the entertainment? Judy Collins!

  16. @ Kirk ~ Yep, she WOULD be the entertainer on a cruise hosted by The Nation. I bet she'll sing my song. I know people will love her.