It was way back in the 80's when my friend Patsy introduced me to James Taylor's soulful baritone- well before I myself was anywhere near the top of the hill. I admired her for knowing musicians,; for having the sense of self to to bold about music, and which artists she loved. I couldn't relate; being naive in every single imaginable way, and having spent my teens isolated on the farm with my clock radio volume turned down so low that it was nearly imperceptible. I couldn't risk my protective mother hearing me submit to the music of the masses- the music of the hellbound, sinful, worldly ones. At such a whispering volume, it was difficult to hear the tune; the lyrics; never mind ever develop the ear to identify artists. If that wasn't enough, my intense anxiety and fear of displeasing anyone; ever; prevented me from forming my very own opinions of what or who to love.
So, I was grateful to Pat for her less self conscious ways, and for her confidence in popping JT into the tape player, and assuming that I would love it. And - I did. I loved them all: "Shower the People", "Sweet Baby James", " Steamroller", "Line em up", "Secret of Life"; there wasn't a James Taylor song that I didn't love.
So, when I got on a plane in 1987, headed for Wichita Kansas to volunteer with Mennonite Disaster Service, I was sure to pack my JT cassette tapes and walkman. I didn't know how much I would need JT during those lonely and confusing months in Wichita; how I would find comfort in the familiarity of his voice in the wildly, weirdly unfamiliar world of work in construction and cohabitation in a near condemned house in the industrial part of town. On nights when my housemates and fellow volunteers would head to the gym to play volleyball "just for fun" (like pulling out my fingernails and molars without anesthetic could be fun....) I would stay in the eerie house alone in my upstairs bedroom; earbuds in, listening to, and remembering James Taylor's songs as they sounded in the familiarity of Winnipeg. After work, where I'd spent hours and hours not knowing how to frame; or hang windows or doors, or hang drywall, or how to hit a nail on its actual head, I would lay in my bed alone and have James sing his familiar songs. "Handy Man. I'm Your Handy Man...." He was everything that I was not, and he sang of it so cheerfully.
A few weeks or months into my adventure turned nightmare, I fell into sort of love with one of my roommates and fellow volunteers. He was witty, and clever, and possessed a sort of intelligence that I could only admire and wish for. I felt myself as an imposter; and I felt this keenly. I had always known myself to be a bit stupid- and smart enough to know it. Not at all blissful in my stupidity, but painfully aware of my inability to hold onto facts and of regular, mainstream ways of being; I sensed the importance of hiding my real identity at the very real risk of losing my now one ally; my one chance at fitting in somehow. So I feigned love for what he loved; I feigned understanding of what he spoke of; I laughed at his jokes even when I lacked the cultural reference necessary to understand its subtleties. (growing up without television or confidence isn't as romantic as one might imagine!) I "liked" the music he liked. The only time I was utterly firm in my own convictions was when he tried to convince me to join the group in volleyball; "just for fun". That much I knew- as my years in junior high intramurals can attest to. A woman with twelve left feet can never, ever experience group sports as fun, and will no longer attempt to. Besides, there was no way in any world I would make myself vulnerable in such a way. Just getting through the work day was more than enough, thank you very much. My evenings belonged to James, and to gearing up for the following day of failing at construction, at life, and at being.
On nights where the weather was mild, I'd open my bedroom window to the bleak parking lot beside us; adjacent to some industry or another. There was a seedy nightclub just south of us up the parking lot; and as the night wore on, I'd hear the strippers being announced: "Aaaaaand heeeere comes Hot Chocolate!" and I would feel my loneliness keenly, while James would sing to me "You've got a Friend". I would remember the times I had dared a walk near our home, and how the catcalls and proposals shouted from open car windows shocked and frightened me. How bare I felt. How stripped , vulnerable , and objectified I felt. And then how I found my sanctity in being desired by the inhabitant of the bedroom next to mine.
James was there with me- singing "Up on the Roof". "so when I come home feeling tired and beat, I go up where the air is fresh and sweet, I get far away from the hustling crowd, and all that rat race noise down in the street... .. And darling, you can share it all with me..." Not that my new love knew my affection for JT- What if he didn't like it?? What if that estranged my one link to mattering - to being halfways "enough"? No; James was mine alone. Alone with my Walk Man, alone in my bed when everyone else had drifted off to sleep- less worried than I was about the following workday's impossible demands.
Mennonite Disaster Service didn't last forever, thank goodness. After five long months of working really hard at shoving my roundness into their square peg, my sentence was finally over and it was time to return home to Winnipeg. I had "played the game; acted the part, but it wasn't written for me". I had run, but I could not hide. With profound relief, I returned to my old job as medical receptionist; assumed my bedroom in my prior rental; and left everything MDS behind. Everything but James Taylor, and my disaster boyfriend. We were both from Winnipeg, and so there was no reason to part ways. Besides- though he knew so little of my interior life, we did share a chemistry. There was no denying this.
But as anyone who has taken an honest look at their interior life can attest to; I knew that I was chafing. My silence was crushing me. My fear of having my own opinions, likes, and dislikes was taking a measurable toll. But I knew I couldn't find or use my voice while being linked in any way with someone else's voice; likes; dislikes; and opinions. So it was time to have a difficult departure. It was time to set myself adrift. It was time to take the risk that comes with no longer attaching my own significance to Any One Else. It was time to break up. And "breaking" is an inadequate verb for what this actually means or feels like.
Breaking was terrible. I simultaneously felt tremendous relief, freedom, and a profound sense of being alone. I began to challenge myself with impossible things. I began to meet new people, and to try new experiences. I had time for my friends again- lots of time. I went dancing (I'm a terrible dancer). I flirted with strangers. I wore clothes that felt playful. I listened to James Taylor. That much I knew.
My old love would find me. He found me in the university library once. It was autumn, and he brought me a beautiful golden leaf- It can be different- he said. It doesn't have to be like it was before... And I would fall into the blueness of his eyes once again. After the exhilaration of reunification would come that familiar feeling of having to make myself small, smaller... small enough to make no waves; have no opinions; to adopt his likes as my own. And my need for it decreased; while my need for honesty grew. Honesty to myself, most importantly.
And so, I made the big, big break. The "we are never, ever, ever getting back together" break.
But also- sweet freedom. Sweet honesty. Sweet possibility.
And here's where James Taylor comes back into the story in a whole, new , painful way. To get over the breakup, the boy's best friend challenged him to date someone else- anyone else- who he was remotely attracted to. Enter: Patsy.
And she said- Yes.
Not only did she say yes; she entered with her whole self. She shared her favourite activities. Her favourite food. Her favourite music. And he didn't want to risk being disliked, so he went her way. He liked what she liked. He showed interest in what interested her. He laughed at what made her laugh.
And I lost.
My best friend. Our mutual friends. My boyfriend with his golden leaves and eyes of blue. (the frost is on the pumpkin; the hay is in the barn)
I suppose James Taylor still sang to me, but I honestly don't remember. It was a sad time.
It's 30 years later now, and I have my own "sweet baby Jane". (not James) I still love listening to JT, although my Walk Man is a thing of the past.
With the distance of thirty years gone, I hear "Secret O Life" a little differently now:
|"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time (I'm glad that time is done, but still... time sure does move on by quickly.....)
Any fool can do it (Even an anxious young woman, now not so young)
There aint nothing to it (I beg to differ...learning to be present takes intention.)
Nobody knows how we got to
the top of the hill (weird how days turn to years turn to decades)
But since we're on our way down
We may as well enjoy the ride
The secret of love in in opening up your heart (grateful to have chosen someone who I can do that with....)
It's okay to feel afraid\But don't let that stand in your way (this does NOT get easier)
'Cause anyone knows that love is the only road (I sure didn't know just how much freaking love would be required)
And since we're only here for a while (you guys noticing how people are just dying like crazy..??)
Might as well show some style
Give us a smile (don't smile just to keep the peace though... trust me on this one...)
Isn't it a lovely ride?
Sliding down (my chin and breasts and thighs mostly....)
Try not to try too hard (who has the time at this point??)
It's just a lovely ride
Now the thing about time is that time isn't really real
It's just your point of view
How does it feel for you (your opinion and your perceptions matter)
Einstein said he could never understand it all (Whaaaat?? And here I thought I was stupid?)
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race
Some kind of lovely ride-
I'll be sliding down,I'll be gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It's just a lovely ride
Thanks, James. Thanks.
You'll never know how your words, your tunes, your presence helped so very much. thanks for sticking around.