Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New SARK book and Old Cowboy Song

Johnny Cash determined my life’s destiny in 1986. My father, then a senior editor at the San Francisco office of Harper and Row, was working with Cash on developing a book, and through some means of what I imagine was booze-induced networking, so popular for publishers in the 1980s, Dad landed backstage passes for Cash’s appearance at the Cow Palace in Oakland. 

I had been listening to the “Highwaymen” album, a collaboration among Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylen Jennings, and Willie Nelson, and had only just been allowed to move the needle on the player independently, since I tended to listen to the album front to back to front to back and Dad had gotten tired of having to reset the thing every twenty or so minutes. Endearingly devoted to me, my single, eligible father took me to the concert, instead of bringing a woman he could have certainly impressed into a second date or at least a one night stand.

The green room was actually white and Cash’s head was huge. So was his collar, which was cone-shaped, like the kind one sees on a dog after an invasive trip to the vet.
    I asked him what it was for.
    “Hairspray,” he said, and demonstrated by creating a dense cloud over his impressive pompadour, without soiling his starched white shirt. “So, Vanessa,” he said, now towering over me, the collar still standing at attention, “What song do you want to hear tonight?”
    I was not prepared for that question. I answered honestly. “I’d really like to hear ‘Jim I Wore a Tie Today.’”
    Johnny Cash chuckled with the kind of gravel in his throat that I thought God must have and he said, “Well now, honey, that’s a real sad song for such a little girl.”
    Indeed it was a cowboy’s funeral song. I told him I liked it. He agreed to play it, because that was as good a reason as any to play a sad song. I was validated somehow by this, and that is the year I started writing stories.

When I listen to it now, I make up all kinds of reasons why I might have liked “Jim I Wore a Tie Today.” They range from simple (it has a beautiful melody) to self-aggrandizing (I must have been emotionally precocious). The “real” reason is mostly lost except for a Proustian moment I have with this song lyric: "we did everything in the books, I guess/and a lot that they never thought up." The music lilts upward on an open chord progression that begs for resolution. But, it doesn’t get resolved. We never know what exactly these boys did together that made them so thoroughly inventive.

I wasn’t obsessed with cowboys, or the West, or even any of the Highwaymen as a pre-pubescent. So I have to conclude that I obsessed over “Jim I Wore a Tie Today” at least in part for this moment of opening, adventure, maybe even “badness,” that came through in the lament. There are things that even all the books haven't yet thought up, Cash was telling me. That astonishing reality comes through even in grief.

In 1986, I was overwhelmed with delight by what was in the books. I'd only been reading for three years. I was already two grades ahead of myself and started keeping a journal. That there could possibly be a frontier beyond the library, made of yet-un-thought material, made me feel something I struggle even now to articulate. I’m sure there’s a way to say it in German. Part thrill, part terror, part assurance. 

The first two are probably obvious: the grand scope of possibilities and the limited time people have to explore them before they die is thrilling and terrifying. The last feeling, of a kind of relaxed happiness that follows from the first two, is not obvious at all. In fact, many people I know and love do not share it with me. But it is something that I can access in yoga, in moments of relaxation, in moments of joy--an acceptance of the temporary and acknowledgment of the vast unknown territory just outside my current view. I learned it in part from years of reading SARK, and watching her navigate death, loss, change, success, surprise, and delight.

Tonight I talked to my Dad on the phone. He was chatting about a conference he just went to. He had more energy than me. Weirdly, this thought pushed up from my unconscious: he could have died on his way home from Nashville. I felt profoundly grateful that he hadn't. I realized, as I do every time someone dies or I think of someone dying, that I usually assume the people I love will live another day, and it's just not going to stay true forever. They may not stay healthy, they may not stay sane, they may not stay loving, they may not stay, period. I hate this. I also gravitate always towards people who are wiser than me in these areas. Apparently, I've been doing that since I was a small child.

SARK's new book, Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity is living in my bed right now. It's her 16th book, and an incredibly vulnerable, gorgeous tome full of tips for what she's dubbed "practical gladness." I'm so honored to be one of the featured portraits of Joy and Transformation at PlantSark.  The book is yet another window into this kind of joy/terror/assurance feeling that makes me feel happy to be a human being. 

I'd like to keep overturning the little narratives that I feel are so necessary to my life--perfectionism, in particular, is an important one lately. There are myriad ways to feel differently than we seem to think we must feel. I'm happily indebted to the cowboys and SARKs and blues singers and writers who remind me.