About the author: Emily Banks is the author of Mother Water (Lynx House Press, 2019). Her poems and essays have appeared in The Cortland Review, The Southampton Review, Borderlands, Superstition Review, New South, Glass (Poets Resist), and other journals. She lives in Atlanta, where she is a doctoral candidate at Emory University.
About the author: Jennifer Smith Gray lives, works, and writes in the Scarborough Bluffs area of Toronto. Much of the inspiration for her writing comes from memories of her time in Northern Ontario, where she was born and lived before heading south years ago. Jennifer’s work has been shortlisted for the FreeFall Magazine Annual Prose Contest, and published in Birkensnake 6 and CommuterLit. There is more at www.jennifersmithgray.com.
You have love in places I can’t describe. I need you.
Every widow has a visceral metaphor to describe the psychological traumas of our loss. Perhaps it’s as simple as our hearts being ripped from our chests or good, solid punches in the gut. For me, it was like every bit of skin had been burned off my body in an instant, the entire remaining surface just nerves and blood vessels, nothing but pulsations and a constant wail of sensations that never wavered and became its own numbness. I spent more than a few months on the couch, smoking pot, watching Bravo, and eating one organic chicken pot pie per day just so I could tell anyone who asked I was eating.
And I listened to this song on repeat. Spotify reminded me when they released my end-of-decade statistics. This was my top song of 2016. Gary, my husband, was alive for the first half of the year. For the other half, he was not.
I just want to let you know I love you. Don’t ever let go.
I don’t remember finding the song. This is actually the third version of it, the first having been released by Austrian EDM duo Klangkarussel on Soundcloud in 2011. The second, released in 2013, featured vocals by British singer Will Heard, a livelier, funkier version that feels like watching a breaking sunrise after an all-night rave in the 1990s. The version that vibrates most in my mind is this third one, released in 2015 with vocals by American Jaymes Young.
It’s icy. It’s harder. It throbs just like the exposed sinews of what remained of my body, my mind an insensate scream mirroring the song’s synthetic undulations. I welcomed the song not for making me feel better but for encasing me in its echoes, helping to shield me from a world that continued to rush even though Gary, and I, had been stilled.
One Wednesday Listening to “Con Los Años Que Me Quedan” by Anri Wheeler
To read this piece, click the album cover below.
About the author: Anri Wheeler is a New Yorker living in Massachusetts, a writer, and mother to three strong daughters from whom she learns daily. She is an antiracist educator who facilitates equity and inclusion-centered learning with graduate students, parents, and nonprofit organizations. When not writing or teaching, she is a marathoner and former pastry cook who loves baking for loved ones. She is working on a book-length memoir.
To read this piece, click on the album cover below.
About the author: Rhiannon Conley is a poet and writing instructor living in North Dakota. Her work has appeared in Occulum, Literary Mama, Longleaf Review, the Penn Review, Rust + Moth, Exposition Review, Stirring, Sidereal and more. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and 2018 and for Best of the Net in 2018. Her first chapbook, Less Precious, was published by Semiperfect Press in 2017. She writes an irregular newsletter of short poetic essays called Smol Talks and more regularly Tweets @RhiannonAdmidas.
Like every other parent with a young daughter, I went to see Frozen 2 at the end of last year. Perhaps not like every other parent, I also went to an opening night showing with my fellow adult sister, sans kids. We grew up on Disney, and we both have a special love for the Frozen franchise.
What we didn’t know then was how Anna’s lament, and the way she talks herself into taking one little bit of action at a time to move forward in the face of great devastation, would take us through the first through days and weeks of 2020.
My dad passed away very suddenly on the morning of Jan. 1. There were no signposts, there were no clues, there were no hints whatsoever for any of us that this was coming. As soon as I ended the call from my mom, delivering the news, I dropped to the floor and screamed, as if someone had physically gutted me. So if you’ve ever wondered if people really do that sort of thing like they do in the movies or on TV, apparently they do.
So when Anna sings, “I’ve seen dark before, but not like this. This is cold, this is empty, this is numb. The life I knew is over, the lights are out…” I get it.
My family started visiting the Disney parks when I was barely more than a toddler. I have film-strip memories of meeting Prince Charming and Snow White when I was barely old enough to remember. I’m sure seeing the magic in my eyes then was a big part of the reason why my parents took us repeatedly over the years, enough times that I long ago lost count. It’s why we were planning another trip together later this year. I grew up on Disney magic, and a big part of that was my dad.
But my dad didn’t just deliver grand gestures like Disney trips either. He was a constant presence, not just for me, but for dozens of girls over the years, thanks to his devotion to coaching youth soccer. He was at every practice, every game, despite working a corporate job at a high level. When he retired in 2013, it was as a vice president, and I remember person after person after person getting up at his retirement party, talking about what a wonderful manager he’d been, how he’d taught them so much, how he’d mentored them, how he’d cared and encouraged and been a light in so many lives. How they’d been made better because of him. So it wasn’t just us, I’d thought.
So again, when Anna sings, “I follow you around, I always have, but you’ve gone to a place I cannot find. This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down…” Again, I get it.
Eventually you run out of air and energy and have to stop screaming, it turns out. And that’s the moment when you have to decide what the hell it is you’re supposed to do next. What is you can do next. So maybe it’s silly, at the age of 37, to admit, but I heard Anna’s voice then too, the same way she convinced herself to rise from the floor.
“Just do the next right thing. Take a step, step again. It’s all that I can do. The next right thing.”
It’s her refrain that I hear when I get to a moment and don’t know what or how to move forward. I find the next thing that seems right, and I do it. I grab a note pad. I make a list. I cry. I find account numbers. I make a spreadsheet. I cry. I cancel things. I erase plans. I undo intentions. I cry. Because nothing feels right, not the way it used to. But then again…
“…A tiny voice whispers in my mind, ‘You are lost, hope is gone, but you must go on and do the next right thing.’”
So I get it. I can’t do this, but I do it anyway. For my mom. For my sisters. (And them for me too.) And for my dad, because he always did. And because it’s the next right thing.
In the stories I’ve written this winter, I’ve been writing the kind of men I want to exist in real life, the kind that don’t exist in my memory.
My earliest memories take place in 1987, the year that “Make It Real” was recorded by The Jets, a family of brown sisters and brothers with rich low voices like honey. I was four years old then. The song makes me gauge what love has become for me, from the time I was a tiny girl until now. I grew up in a brick house, raised by the women in my family: my mother and my aunt and my grandmother. While they hung sheets out to dry on the clothesline, a radio played from the kitchen window. “Make it Real” was my favorite song to hear. That is how I grew up — on radio and fairy tales and Aqua Net, on wishing for a Prince Charming that would never make it on time for me.
“Make it Real” is about the dreamscape of yearning. It talks about love that’s not reciprocated, about separation and loss. It’s about playing pretend.
When I’m separated from someone I cared about, dead or living, they begin to fall away from my memory. I stop trying to remember what they look like and I forget the sound of their voice. This is how I know that I’m healing, that I’m putting myself back together from love. I can only remember them when I dream about them.
When I was a girl, I dared dream of reciprocal love, when my mind and my body had a greater capacity for forgiving. The men I love will always fall short of reciprocity. They will never be real to me. There is only the hushed part of them, the hoping for the return of the good parts of them. The parts that are transient like synthetic beats.
Only the women I love are real to me. Every time I hear “Make it Real”, I think of my grandmother tugging a rat-tail comb through my tangled hair and the glow of my aunt’s cherry rollerball lip gloss, and always, my mother’s perfume, powdery, sweet, alive and not ghostlike.
More often than not, Katie Darby Mullins’s recommendations on Twitter lead me to new songs that feel like old friends I’ve had at my side since the beginning of time. Case in point: an appreciation thread for The Hold Steady’s Thrashing Thru the Passion, which brought me to “Entitlement Crew” a couple of months ago. No prizes for guessing why someone who’s always felt like a square peg in a round hole would be drawn towards that title.
“Entitlement Crew” reads like a perfectly formed flash fiction piece, set in the four-walled universe of a house party. In the living room are the people who sing, dance, brag and bray their way to a good time; in the kitchen are the drunks and the losers and the one-night conspirators, hanging out among empty bottles and torn bags of chips, exchanging secrets they’ll have all but forgotten the next day. There’s the hint of a possibility, a connection, a spark that fades too quickly: two systems in the dark and people dancing, just like two parallel lines never ever meet, and two intersecting lines only cross once, usually too briefly to move past the awkwardness of an unflattering first impression. And there’s the Entitlement Crew, fabulous and fashionably late, to remind you that whatever you’re hoping might happen is never going to come your way (or if it does, it will never be the grand, fateful moment you made up in your head).
I’ve known my share of Entitlement Crews. I’ve met them at lectures, outside of bars where I was the only one not smoking, at the clubs my friends talked me into dressing up for (whatever the “little money and no dress sense” version of it was in the mid-2000s). I used to know who was a handshake person, who was a hug person, and who would insist to kiss everyone on both cheeks. I accepted their sugar-coated and back-handed compliments with smiles that felt stuck to my face with Sellotape, but never learnt to laugh at jokes that weren’t funny, not even then.
A decade later, it’s no surprise that very few of the friends I downed tequila shots with at parties are people I’d still call to go out for a coffee. The Entitlement Crews of my youth revelled in their pack mentality, their safety in numbers, the confidence they seemed to have acquired as a birthright. I, on the other hand, only hoped to cut through the noise and find someone like me: another person who was never taught how to keep up the act; who spent every waking hour in the company of a sinking feeling; who knew deep down that everything is brittle and is breaking apart but wasn’t quite sure who else they could tell.
Every verse in “Entitlement Crew” holds a tiny truth, and some of them break my heart on behalf of the person I used to be. The strongest feeling I get when I Iisten to it, though, is gratitude. Here’s a song that captures what it’s like to cut your path through life on your own and at an unsteady pace, with better words than I could ever hope to find.
When “Me and Your Mama” was first released as a single, I was still in shock from what had happened two days earlier, but I wanted to keep moving forward. I was looking for things to listen to, and a new Childish Gambino single seemed like the best option.
The keys in the opening of the song calmed me down, and the whole intro lulled me into a false sense of security. The transition into the first “chorus” hit me like a ton of bricks, and I didn’t believe that it was Childish Gambino singing until the very end of this middle section. At the ending, I was at a loss. I had chills. For something so calming to switch to something so aggressive to give way to something so peaceful that quickly and that smoothly, there was no other response.
Bring it back to the present. This song still has the same effect on me. Despite hundreds of life changes, despite the passage of time, despite a slight shift in music taste, this song still hits me the same. I know what to expect from the intro, sure, but the ending still gives me chills. There’s something in the music that gets me every time.
Maybe it’s the tone shift. Maybe it’s the bass line. Maybe it’s the guitar and the keys. Maybe it’s the effects on the drums. Maybe it’s the synth line towards the very end. Maybe it’s a lot of things.
Or maybe it’s because, despite all the life changes, I’m still a very similar person inside to when this song was released. I’m not saying people can’t, or don’t, change. I’m not saying a culture can’t shift. I’m just saying some things will always stay the same.
Sometimes it’s best to ignore the negativity and just groove.
That is much easier said than done in today’s climate, I am well aware. Cities are burning across the world, the earth is slowly dying, and the leaders of the “free world” want to strip away whatever rights they can to make sure we live subservient to them. There isn’t a free moment away from any of this information. Social media is constantly throwing new forms of propaganda in our faces, and it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction.
Yet even with all of this going on, it’s important to remember to take time for ourselves and remember what makes us unique. It’s important to lay back and realize that while we have hit a point where a revolution is justified, taking care of our individual health is paramount. It took me a long time to realize this, since I’m so used to worrying about everyone before myself.
It might seem selfish to worry about yourself before others when all of this garbage is happening in the world. It might seem misguided of me to suggest that ignoring the rampant negativity and grooving is the way to keep sane in all of this madness. However, Digable Planets would agree with me here, it seems.
Towards the beginning of Blowout Comb, a far more “conscious” album than their first, there is “Jettin’.” It serves as a reminder, much like “Pacifics” on Reachin’, that sometimes it’s best to just cruise around your city and listen to some music, taking in the scenery and appreciating what life has put in front of you. Whether that cruising is in a car, on a train, on foot, on a bike, it doesn’t matter. Just get out and see what is going on in your city.
This song has cleared my head in ways no song has before, and I’m certain that when you hear the bass line, the vibes/keys, and the drums, it will clear your head, too. There’s nothing wrong with jettin’ around when life is getting you down. Digable Planets are here for you, too.