We all have them -- those songs that are indelibly linked to certain times in our lives. I think my favorite radio interview I've ever done was one in which I was asked to submit eight songs that captured particular moments with a short description about why. Then the interviewer and I chatted for a few hours -- and what resulted was like hearing a narrated soundtrack of my own life.
What I realized, somewhat humorously, when I put the list together was that I have always had the same taste in music. Which is to say that I have a total weakness for melancholy singer-songwriters who find joy in the bittersweet. And chief among those is, of course, the one, the only Jackson Browne, troubadour of the melancholy, minstrel of the road, and heartbeat of hope for change. For almost every period of my younger life, I have a Jackson Browne song to accompany it. But if I had to pick my absolute favorite, it would be The Late Show, my absolute favorite song from my absolute favorite album by Jackson Browne, Late for the Sky. OK. Not just a song. The anthem of my life.
But, that gorgeous and heartbreakingly hopeful song about love is not the subject of this week's blog. Another song is. . .a song that is indelibly linked to one of the indelible moments of my teenage years . . . a song on my list for that radio show . . . and a song that circled up over and over again this summer. Circled up so many times, that I finally paid attention to what it was asking me to hear.
That song is Running on Empty.
Running on Empty, the title song on Jackson Browne's classic 1978 album of completely original material all recorded live in concert . . . something only done once before. A song which takes me back to an afternoon I will never forget. When I hear Running on Empty, I see my three best friends and me sitting on the grass at a bus stop in Westwood, California. I knew it would be the last time I would see any of them for over a year, or maybe ever -- because I was going to Germany. Something that had been decided for me just three weeks earlier. They would finish their senior year of high school without me, while I took a year off as an exchange student. And when I got back, they would be in college. I was being sent to Germany to be an exchange student, because my mother felt that I had failed. Who or what, I have never been sure. My schoolwork, my future. Those would have been the safe answers. But I'm pretty sure who she really thought I had failed was her.
After my parents' divorce, my mother fell apart. And I became the stand in for her spouse. She taught me that, according to whichever Miss Manners of the Moment with whom she concurred, in the absence of a a husband the child opened the doors, pulled out the chairs, walked on the outside of the sidewalk (to buffer the "lady" from any offending flying detritus). Instead of a husband, she had me. I failed her because I was growing up, developing deep friendships with my schoolmates that displaced her. Having taught middle and high school, I now know that this is a rite of passage for all teenage mothers and daughters. But then, I felt as though I had committed a crime for which I was being punished with exile. Exile from the people I loved most in the world. It was the second great heartbreak of my life -- my father leaving after my parents' divorce being the first. But I did what I have always done whenever something difficult has happened. I got on with the business of surviving.
And yet that memory of the girl who had just turned sixteen still always surfaces when I hear Running on Empty. It was the song of the year in 1978 to every Southern Californian, on every radio station. So it was playing in Kovs' car when we pulled up to the bus stop where my best friends were going to drop me off. Funnily, I have no memory of what we had been doing. Some bittersweet goodbye outing. I only I remember how I felt when we all sat on the grass at the bus stop and waited for me to be taken away from them. I will always remember the moment that bus pulled up and I climbed in, sat down, and then watched them disappear in the distance. Without crying -- because I never cried, I was punished for crying -- but with an ache in my throat and a terror in my heart that felt terminal, as the faces of the three people I loved the most faded from view; as I turned away to compose myself among the strangers on that city bus. Getting ready for what has seemed like a lifetime of heartbreaking goodbyes. Every goodbye leaving a piece of me behind, whittling away at my original wholeness. Swisscheesing my soul.
I have never heard Running on Empty without remembering that sixteen-year-old me pulling herself together to go home to her mother without letting her see her pain. I have never heard Running on Empty without feeling the aching love I felt for my friends that day. I have never heard Running on Empty without feeling like it was the song that set the tone for the rest of my life.
So this summer, on the afternoon I drove away from the final intensive of my seminary program, I turned on my radio and guess what was playing? So this summer, the evening after my graduation ceremony as I drove out of the church parking lot, guess what was playing? And it played for weeks after that. Literally every single time I got in the car, Running on Empty came on the radio. I took notice, but really didn't listen deeply. Which is to say, I really didn't want to listen deeply. I didn't want to hurt.
Then, a few weeks ago, I went to see Bob, my first-year seminary dean, play in an amazing show celebrating the life and career of Jackson Browne -- the entire second half of which was the whole album of Running on Empty. As I sat in the audience, watching this group of incredibly accomplished and passionate musicians recreate the sound and vibe, heart and soul of that album, I remembered not only every single lyric and every single note, but I remembered every single feeling that album evoked in me. As a teenager, I had looked to that album as a roadmap for what life would be like -- a life I imagined that I, like my parents, would probably spend on the road. I had no idea what my road would look like. I just knew I would be on one.
And so I have been. Ever since I drove away from my best friends on that city bus. I have been to 49 states, countless countries, on and in almost every kind of wheeled and winged conveyance there is. I have loved deeply -- people, places, experiences, animals, birds -- and then always quickly said my goodbyes (unless I just snuck out of town) and then moved on. It has been the leitmotif of my life.
In this week's podcast, I shared my realization about the way in which movement has been such an essential part of my life -- because I am someone who needs to move to think.
10,000 steps a day is never a problem for me. I don't know how I would survive without them. And that has only the tiniest bit to do with fitness. When I am anxious, I move. Day or night. I move. But like Jackson Browne, I have always felt that I am "running on empty, running blind, running into the sun, but I'm running behind."
Which is, of course, what I was meant to hear as the song circled up over and over again this summer. That I may be intentionally homeless and living a life on the road. But I'm ready to stop living life as the sixteen-year-old me. I need to stop running on empty, running blind, running into the sun, running behind.
When I heard the song as I was driving away from my seminary classmates in June, I felt that same heartache pang of leaving people I love. But my head understood this was different. I wasn't being banished to a foreign country. And yet I felt the pang of leaving as though I were. I have felt that same pang all week, preparing to drive away from the beautiful Hudson Valley, where I have spent the last two months in my sweet outdoor hermitage. I have grown to love it here -- and have made deep and profound connections with people, places, creatures, the sky and trees. I will miss it tremendously. My heart aches, even as I know that I am ready to go.
All week, I have been having deep and sweet conversations with individuals, dogs, birds, meadows, rivers -- connecting with the heart of my summer here. But this morning, Friday morning, I decided to do something different. I decided to feel my goodbyes by making them consciously. So I got in the car and headed up the hill to my beloved Spring Farm Trailhead. As I turned the corner onto the road, I was listening to a new song on the just-released album by the band that has been the soundtrack to the last five years of my life -- these years of immense change. Blind Pilot. The song played, a song about love and loss, the lead singer's voice a gorgeous tenor, the wind blowing billowing clouds above the trees, and suddenly I started to sob. Like the sobs emerging from stone-faced stoic decades during which I never really let myself feel finally geysering up and out. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. The release of a lifetime of stored-up sorrow.
There was someone to whom I needed to say a particularly important goodbye, and I wasn't sure he would be there. One of my dearest friends I have met in these past two months. I prayed he would show up for our last meeting. He was. I was so overjoyed that my sobbing just stopped. I pulled over and we had our usual morning conversation.
I don't know his name. But I fell in love with him the first time I saw him standing there. It took me almost a month to decided to pull over to the side of the road for a real visit. But when I did, he looked right over at me. And so now, whenever I drive past, I stop and we connect. I can't get near to him, nor he to me. But we look at one another and talk with our eyes. You see, we both see the world the same way. Every day, he stands in the doorway of his barn and just stares. Stares out at the world. The beautiful meadows. The trees. The view beyond. He stares, just I have all summer, at the beauty everywhere.
I had never taken his picture. I thought he would just live on in the photo album of my heart. But today I pulled out my camera, and saw him up close for the first time. His long grey face, his big ears, his sunny tail flicking away flies. I etched my friend on film before we said our goodbyes.
When I drove away, though I could feel the tears still drying on my face, something felt wholer inside me.
So I went up to my beloved meadows. I walked round to say goodbye to the green, the views, the birds. I took pictures. They let me. They seemed to know I was leaving and were indulgent with me. Holding my sadness and permitting my heartfelt goodbyes in a way I never had given to myself. What I hid from my mother all those years, I realize, I had also hidden from myself.
And then, as I walked up to the view I love so much, I saw it from a different view. From just below the crest of the green hilltop, there were HUGE clouds puffing up over mountains. I grabbed my camera. When I did, I realized that there seemed to be specks in the lens. But I kept shooting, only to realize later that I was being given a flying send off.
As I drove back down the hill, I found myself thinking about the conversation one of my wonderful new friends and I had had this week over lunch this week -- about the connection between joy and melancholy. That day, I had come home and jotted a few things down, looked a few things up. Which is when I found this gorgeous short poem that slayed me:
How Precise, Joy and Melancholy (Mary Buchinger)
In a sky of banded color—pink and black as if ruled—a bird flies
all pink pink air, draws near the terrible line, touches, enters, and is lost
Reading that poem I realized that, my whole life, I have been afraid to love, because I would be punished, exiled, banished, have my love taken away. I leave so I won't be left. This is where my love of melancholy minstrels like Blind Pilot or Jackson Browne or David Gray comes from -- the way in which they capture the in-between place where joy and sorrow meet, that exquisitely I painful place we call bittersweet or melancholy. Because Ms Buchinger is right. We touch, we enter, and we ARE lost. But if we can STAY lost, then we hold on to the Love that is real. Even if it is by welcoming in, taking up residence with melancholy. Melancholy, the alchemical crucible where love and fear, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, longing and loss, meet. Joy, as it all turns out, is a Janus -- the gateway, two-headed god of Love and longing.
I thought about the melancholy I was feeling, but this time instead of sobbing, I smiled as I drove -- realizing that, for the first time in my life, I am no longer running on empty. These past two months, I have stopped -- finally, for the first time in my life -- long enough to feel truly present someplace, to connect deeply and love where I am even though I have known I was leaving. To enjoy the now without the exit strategy of planning my next escape.
So this time, my goodbyes, though bittersweet, are beautiful. Because they carry the love of the love I feel for this place and its inhabitants, not the fear of the love I have been afraid to have. This time my goodbyes feel true. And so, instead of goodbye, I can speak the language of goodbyes in other languages that I have never dared to believe: Hasta la vista. Au revoir. Aufwiedersehen. Arrivederci.
Until we see one another again.
Maybe this time, tomorrow, as I drive away, I will have the courage to speak my favorite goodbye of all -- and actually mean it: Aloha. The Hawaiian word used for both greetings and goodbyes, as though they are one. The Hawaiian word for Love. The Hawaiian word for joy.
"Aloha is being a part of all, and all being a part of me. When there is pain - it is my pain. When there is joy - it is also mine. I respect all that is as part of the Creator and part of me. I will not willfully harm anyone or anything. When food is needed I will take only my need and explain why it is being taken. The earth, the sky, the sea are mine to care for, to cherish and to protect. This is Hawaiian - this is Aloha!" - Curby Rule
Aloha to my beloved Hudson Valley Hermitage and all friends, creatures, clouds, trees, fields, flowers, sunsets, skies, water. Aloha. You are a part of me and I am a part of you. And we are part of All. The All of Love. In Joy -- Aloha!