What Elliott Smith means to me

I heard Elliott Smith’s music for the first time in a movie theater over Christmas break when I was in high school. I was seventeen and for years had sought refuge in music, from OK Computer to Sondre Lerche. By this point in my life, I had managed to catch a Rilo Kiley show before the band broke up. I watched international music channels every morning before school. During that time, I sought out new music far more than I do today.

Remembering myself in this context, I’m still surprised that I had never listened to Smith’s music before. October 21, 2003, was just another day for me; I had no idea that years later, I would absent-mindedly think that I’d like to see Elliott Smith in concert some day, only to remember with renewed shock that he’s not here any more.

The first song I heard was “Angel in the Snow,” and the film was Up in the Air. In a rare move, I ended up buying the film’s soundtrack a few days after seeing it, and I quickly settled into listening to “Angel in the Snow” again and again on repeat. “Don’t you know that I love you? / Sometimes I feel like only a cold still life / That fell down here to lay beside you,” Smith sang in a soft, whispery voice that underwhelmed me. I knew that he was famous and maybe expected more punch from that song. But like most of Smith’s work (and like his death), I didn’t feel the impact until after the fact. Now, when I hear that song, I’m immediately transported back to a moment crystallized in my memory: the plummeting opening melody stuck in my head as I sat in the hall of my high school during lunch, surrounded by other stressed-out kids frantically studying for midterms but completely in my own head. Outside, the football practice field was crunchy with snow.

Since then, I’ve gradually collected Smith’s discography. Either/Or was the soundtrack to my morning commute to school during my senior year and has stayed in my car’s CD player permanently since then. Self-titled played in my headphones during my first semester of college. The end of last summer was all about From a Basement on a Hill, snagged at a record store for $4. A friend gave me XO and I listened to it ten times in a row when I moved back home this summer. Last fall, I bought a used copy of Figure 8 at a record store in Charlottesville and since then I have wondered why anyone would ever give that CD up. Disc one of New Moon played during a strange interim between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. I have purposely not listened to disc two of New Moon or Roman Candle, preferring to save a few records while I continue to digest the ones I have.

What I appreciate the most about Smith’s fan community is the sense of mutual respect. Too many circles of indie listeners waste their time trying to one-up each other with “I bet you’ve never heard” and “you can’t really appreciate so-and-so unless you’ve listened to so-and-so.” Smith is off limits in this way. His music feels too personal, too painful to use as a bartering tool for social status among listeners – and not just personal to him, but personal to his listeners, who habitually seem to incorporate his words and melodies into private personal soundtracks impossible to otherwise express. On YouTube, commenters are so frequently nasty – “if you came here because of a film, you’re not really a fan,” people constantly snipe at one another – but I’ve never encountered that type of conversation on a Smith page. On a comment thread beneath one song, someone commented that they had felt suicidal and that the song had helped them. A few months later, another comment appeared in response to this one: “Are you okay?” it said. “Did you manage to get help?”

Last summer, a friend and I reread The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, the source of one of Smith’s tattoos, and noticed for the first time how haunting the ending really is:

Ferdinand ran to the middle of the ring and everyone shouted and clapped because they thought he was going to fight fiercely and butt and snort and stick his horns around. But not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies’ hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadores were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off with his cape and sword. So they had to take Ferdinand home.

And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly.

He is very happy.

Does Ferdinand live or die? Can he exist in a world that’s fundamentally hostile to his personality? These were the harrowing existential questions that we couldn’t answer, buried in what at first glance seems to be a simple, lovely children’s book.

Smith means something different to everyone, but listening to his music has made some bad days a little less bad for me. None of this has anything to do with Scotland, but the post I planned to publish today can wait. I can’t attend any of the memorial concerts, so from where I’m sitting, this the closest I can come to contributing to a vast, emotional literature of Smith’s value. I don’t want to write puns of his song titles and I don’t have anything to prove; he just means a lot to me, and today I want to share that.

Published! Literally, Darling

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an article via Facebook. It was published on an online women’s magazine called Literally, Darling, and as I browsed the website, I noticed a submission form. Literally, Darling looked like the perfect home for an essay I had been meaning to write for some time; I drafted an email and then left it in my inbox, quietly gathering cyber dust as I distracted myself with classes and trip-planning.

On a particularly gloomy day about a week after I had drafted my pitch, I found myself back on Literally, Darling, clicking through articles and wishing that mine was among them. I refined my pitch and finally worked up the nerve to hit the send button. A few days later, I received a friendly reply from the editor. “I am very interested in your pitch,” it started out, followed by the even better sentence, “I particularly like the angle you’re proposing to take…” As Liz Lemon would say, I was high fiving a million angels, and in between reading for class, writing papers, and visiting with my parents, I managed to draft and edit the essay I’d been writing in my head for the past year.

The essay went live today, and the response from my friends has been wonderful. Thanks so much to everyone who has read and reposted; it means the world to me. For anyone who hasn’t read the essay yet but would like to, you can find it here.

If you found your way here from my LD bio, welcome! Thanks for visiting.

I have an almost-completed blog post about the culture clash currently transpiring in my flat sitting in my drafts folder (such a familiar feeling) as well as a second article for Literally, Darling in the works, so check back for new content shortly. For now, I have a train to catch and a few more angels to high five.

In the meantime, here’s a goofy, sratty picture that I never thought I’d find myself in:

L-R: Nessa (my big), me, and Rana (my grandbig) - my incredible sorority family.

L-R: Nessa (my big), me, and Rana (my grandbig) – my incredible sorority family. 

Obituary for my boots

Old boots, new boots.

Trusty old boots; new boots yet unlaced.

When I was eighteen, I bought a pair of boots. They had seams and laces and soles that clicked loudly across my high school’s faded linoleum floors.

They were edgier than any shoes I had owned. I let them sit in their white box for a few days, wrapped loosely in tissue paper, before I worked up the nerve to wear them. But soon, pulling on those boots became part of my routine. The stiff leather creased and sagged until it was pliable and soft, folded around my toes and ankles and fraying into a fine hairy fringe near the zipper.

I was sitting under a tree on a warm spring day, talking to my then-boyfriend on the phone, when I noticed the first signs of deterioration: a long, deep fissure between the heel and the sole where the bottom had worn thin. By then, I’d been wearing those boots for two years and in all kinds of weather, from trekking across Grounds in rain, sun, snow, fall leaves, grass, and gravel to stepping in sticky spilled drinks at parties.

The second blow came during the following winter. I had worn those comfortable boots to awkward first dates, UVa’s annual the Lighting of the Lawn, noisy family gatherings, the library. In my wardrobe of plain dresses, band t-shirts, and denim, those boots made my look just a little bit more interesting. But as I sat through a chapter meeting one winter afternoon, I felt something shift and realized that the sole had finally cracked right in half, across the broadest part of my foot just before my arch.

For my twentieth birthday, I begged my parents to have the boots resoled. “I don’t need anything else,” I told them, desperate to regain access to my full wardrobe. My clothes somehow needed those boots; without them, I felt plain and awkward, as if I could somehow slide back to the days when my only shoes were clunky tennis shoes worn with ill-fitting jeans. After a week, I went into the cobbler’s to check on their progress. Like a parent driving through an elementary school’s car-rider loop, I protectively spotted what I had come for. My boots sat sagging on the floor beneath shelves of sewing supplies.

I walked on new soles through a freezing week of Greek activities that January, zipping them up over thick wool socks. Crunchy snow and sheets of ice couldn’t steal my balance. The now-scuffed leather took spring puddles and mud with indifference; it had endured worse before. In a crowded concert hall, I stomped percussion to Jeff Mangum’s acoustic set. He broke a guitar string; I broke the heels a little more.

Summer heat forced me to shelve my boots for a few months, but they were the first item I tucked into my suitcase when I began packing for St. Andrews. I carefully wedged them into a corner of my suitcase where I hoped they wouldn’t be too crushed.

And then, in the stuffy London hotel room where I spent two nights sleeping on the floor, I saw the first sign of unfixable damage: just above the heel of the left boot, the thinnest imaginable slit had secretly started spreading as the leather finally started to pull apart.

My parents visited this past weekend, and along with a bag of candy corn, a Reeses pumpkin, and two packages of dried black beans (they clearly read my blog), they brought a new pair of boots, identical to the old ones. Or at least, I thought they would be identical. Same design, same designer, but three years younger and fresh from the factory. They lack the scars of rain storms and stepped-on toes. They’re stiff and expressionless where they sit under my desk, laces yet to be tied. My old boots slump comfortably together next to my bed, longtime companions worn down by time and traveling.

My old boots are survived by one pair of gray Chuck Taylors, one pair of black wedges, an assortment of sandals, and two pairs of slippers. The new boots have yet-unimaginable miles ahead of them.

Ode to a Black Bean

My last post touched on a rather serious personal loss, but as my spirits are cautiously lifting and my appetite is slowly returning, I started thinking about losing other things, both permanently and temporarily. During my first year of college, I studied Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts of “One Art,” which is about this subject:

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I love this poem because it tries to reclaim the way things just slip through the cracks in life. Bishop’s mention of big, obvious losses – a lover, a home – are heartbreaking, but the intentional way she refrains from including specific identifiers creates a feeling of forgetfulness. Bishop’s mention of “some realms I owned” isn’t casual; it’s a purposely vague phrase that creates the feeling of mentally reaching for some information that is no longer fully there. “Realm” sounds dreamlike, but the word “real” is embedded right there.

I knew when I chose to study abroad that I would lose a semester at UVa. At home, my sorority is hours away from Parents’ Formal, the football team is preparing for tomorrow’s game against another team (even if I was home, I wouldn’t know which one), the leaves are about to change color, apples are ripening on the trees at Carter’s Mountain, and the supermarket probably just sold out of canned pumpkin. The Virginia Film Festival is off my calendar this year. I’m losing this Virginia autumn, just as I knew and accepted that I would.

When I came to St. Andrews, I gained new experiences that made up for this loss. Looking past the castle on my way to class, I see the North Sea every day, sparkling with sunshine or through a solemn veil of mist or under wooly clouds. Two weeks ago, I gained a sweater. I gained new vocabulary words like jumper, which means sweater.

But the strangest, most unexpected losses have been the tiny interruptions of my daily routines. At home, black beans fill about a third of my meals. From black bean soup to spinach/mushroom/black bean quesadillas to to huevos rancheros, they’re a meat substitute that’s inexpensive and easy to cook, one of the most-used items in my pantry. I was surprised not to see black beans at Tesco, but when I asked my Scottish roommate about it, she cocked her head. “Do you mean kidney beans?” My hopes of finding black beans evaporated.

In Scotland, authentic Mexican food is nowhere to be found, and most bathrooms have separate taps for hot and cold water. As autumn deepens, I haven’t been able to find candy corn or those pumpkin-shaped Reeses cups, or anything pumpkin in general.

In case my tone doesn’t show it, these losses are not serious. Foods and traditions, those familiar touches of home, are all things that I took for granted before living in Scotland. I love the comfort of those routines, but they’re not essential. Before I left, my English advisor told me that just walking down the street while I’m abroad would “open the doors of my mind.” My other major, American Studies, is considering making study abroad a requirement. How can we meaningfully reflect on American life if we know nothing else? It’s not that Europe is fantastically better or worse. Every place in the world has its own set of complex histories. But being elsewhere, knowing more than one place, can give you the ability to notice and observe the things that gives a place its, well, placeness. It’s an ability that, once cultivated, can be drawn on again and again.

Now that I’ve been in Scotland for a month, my muscles have finally learned to flip the switch on the wall before I try to turn on the shower – I don’t have to think about it any more, it’s just part of my routine. I know not to even bother going to Tesco when the school kids are out on their lunch break; the convenience of dropping by the store after class just isn’t worth the fifteen minutes I’d spend dancing through a crowd of pimply fifteen-year-olds to get to the produce. Slowly, I’ve tuned into my frequency and fit myself into a pattern of life in St. Andrews.

And it’s only been a month.

For every new little routine I’ve picked up, I’ve left another one behind, only to be relearned when I’m back home next semester. New routes to class, new Thursday afternoon habit, new place to stack my books when I’m done reading for the night, new favorite coffee mug. And just as slowly and surely, my Scotland habits will leave me, and in five or ten years, I probably won’t even remember them, just as I don’t have to remind my sleepy muscles to flip that shower switch on the wall every morning. Isn’t it strange, what we leave behind and what we take forward?

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

What can we publish?

Over the weekend, I experienced an unexpected loss. In between then and now, I’ve wondered what I can say about it on this blog. It feels wrong to publish another ordinary, upbeat post without acknowledging the fact that a big part of my life has suddenly changed. But because I’m not the only one affected by this change, it would be inappropriate to expose any specific details.

We’re all aware of our online presence at all times. To the people who haven’t seen me in years (most of my Facebook friends) and the people who have never met me (most of my WordPress followers), my online presence IS my identity. To the people who know me most intimately, my online presence is only one persona. To me, it’s right that my in-person and my online personas should be separate. The real-world me needs to have something that online me can’t.

But blogging – and writing in general – blurs that line significantly. A writer I spoke to this summer told me that the best writers are the ones who expose themselves. “Keep a journal,” he advised me. “The more you share with readers, the more interested they’ll be.” I don’t want to expose my own pettiness or embarrassing moments any more than you do, but the difference between us is that you’ll be more fascinated by me if you feel like you know something that should be secret.

David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, tackles this subject in many of his essays, most of which are memoirs focused on his family members. In Sedaris’ essay “Repeat After Me,” he says of his sister Lisa:

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing that I’ll only turn around and write about it.

In another essay, “Etiquette Lesson,” Sedaris describes his sister Tiffany’s habit of pretending to open a jar to disguise the fact that she is on the toilet while talking on the phone. (If you don’t catch my meaning, just listen to the essay.) It doesn’t get much worse than that, right?

It’s not like Sedaris’ siblings particularly want this attention, but over the years, they’ve accepted it. If I manage to make a career out of writing, I imagine that people will view me with the same expectation that Sedaris’ siblings carry. Writers harvest stories from life that happens around them; it’s a fact.

But what happens when your own story becomes intertwined with someone else’s? Whose story is it then? And when and where can you tell it? Or maybe you should only tell parts of it – the unobjectionable parts, the parts that are general knowledge.

In an essay that I’ve referenced before, Andrew Bird tackles this problem:

I’m getting the urge to write about something that’s happening right now that’s too personal and painful to discuss in this forum. But then why is it O.K. to put it in a song? Why is the song safe? Is it safe? And I realize that I might be staying away from this subject because of this essay and that makes me want to scrap it. But here it is as it’s beginning to exist. There’s no telling how it will turn out.

What happened last week falls into this category. It’s a story that can’t be told here or now, but it’s one that’s going to continue to shape me, and that will come through in the way I think and write and live. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Bird distinguishes between forms of expression. There’s something about a song’s use of poetic lyrics and evocative instrumental moments that leaves room and admits to not knowing everything. It’s harder to be ambiguous in an essay without losing the reader completely. An essay craves concrete definition, something I can’t give while I come to terms with this event.

I’m working on a research grant application for a project that I hope to pursue next summer. The subject is sensitive and focused on fractured familial relationships between real people, so I’ve been preparing by reviewing the ethical standards that my university uses to gauge the appropriateness of using  human subjects in research. Meanwhile, St. Andrews’ matriculation paperwork defined freedom of speech as a right that “is not absolute.” Factors such as national security and public safety limit free speech: “The interplay between such competing rights creates boundaries and limitations on what can be said and the manner of expression.”

Similarly, sometimes there are stories that can hurt, hinder, expose. We all know some piece of information that, if revealed in the right moment to the wrong people, could injure someone infinitely. Shaping a narrative gives the writer power to include and omit at will. Not everything needs to be put down in black words on white paper; some stories keep living and breathing and changing and growing outside of any page. They can’t be contained. Some stories are meant to be told in whispers or novels or poems or songs or phone calls. Not everything should be a nonfiction essay.

Before this past weekend, I felt that what I had been writing here was somewhat valuable – as a collection of observations or a reflection on my growing awareness of the world or just as practice at writing and being read. It wasn’t until I considered the possibility of writing about something that was actually vitally important to me that I realized how simple and benign my subjects have been. Bigger, more difficult stories loom in my future. But for today, this forum remains wrong for the plot twist I’m unexpectedly living. For now, this is the story about why I’m not telling the story of what I just lost.