I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between me and those who matter most, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is always something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. And, there were sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.
By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!” From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time, “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to.
Nothing but the distance between them.
Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.
I miss walking out to my mailbox and opening it to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.
In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience,” taking me back to the reading of telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. It makes sense then, that when I ordered the book that grew from the website, I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.
Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan. There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’
Steinbeck’s letter below can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
Profoundly saddened by the recent death of Dolores O’Riordan and news that Tom Petty died of an accidental overdose, I barely looked at the clock yesterday, the way I have done for the past six years, on January 19th. I am loath to declare the date I underwent the mastectomy and reconstruction of my right breast, a “cancerversary,” one of those cheery-sounding sniglets often used to mark milestones for those ensnared within the disease. There are too many milestones – the day a lump is discovered or a diagnosis delivered; the date of a surgery undertaken to remove tumors or breasts or pieces of a lung; the day, five years after diagnosis, when an oncologist makes pronounces NED – No Evidence of Disease.
Maybe it’s because we don’t have the right words to respond to cancer, that we make up others to minimize and manage the havoc of it, to shelter us from it, to make us smile through it even as we are scared. So scared.
me with Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie. says that writers must write about the scariest things in their lives. Intrigued by this advice, I went to hear him speak one evening at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. I took my daughter, in Junior High at the time and immersed in his Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Along with everyone else, we laughed as he shared what were surely the scariest things about his early years on the Spokane Indian Reserve. His own laughter as he described his father’s beverage of choice,”Squodka” – a mix of Squirt soda and vodka – belied, I imagine, the anguish of a young boy confronting the reality of an alcoholic father who disappeared for days at a time. We know Sherman Alexie knows that alcoholism on the rez is no laughing matter.
Nor is cancer. It is a serious disease deserving of serious words, but we do a lousy job of talking about it in a way that confronts the reality of it – beyond awareness – or that leads us to knowing what causes it or how to prevent it. We speak in codes that keep this scariest of things at a safe distance. Code is acceptable in the cancer conversation and not just the pink stuff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the “save the boobies” fare. Codes. “Mastectomy,” for example, is code for “amputation.” I wonder. Were I an amputee in the “traditional” sense, would I refer to the day I lost a limb as my “ampuversary”? No. I would not. Medical euphemisms abound. I used to toss around “lumpectomy” as though it were the removal of an inconsequential wart, instead of what it really is – a partial amputation. When I was first diagnosed, I presumed a lumpectomy was in the cards for me. As a word, it didn’t pack much of a punch, so it didn’t frighten me. Then I met my surgeon who pointed out that my cancer was not amenable to lumpectomy given its proximity to the nipple and the fact that I was not endowed with large breasts. Essentially, she didn’t have enough to work with; therefore, the surgery to remove my breast and reconstruct it would be trickier than the “simple” lumpectomy I had anticipated. As her meticulous notes would later confirm, “dissection was very difficult given the very small circumareolar incision used for the skin-sparing mastectomy.” It would require additional time and effort, not to mention skill and patience. So she recommended (and I nodded sagely in agreement as though I knew what she was talking about) a skin-sparing mastectomy which entailed removing only the skin of the nipple, areola, and the original biopsy scar to create an opening – a small opening – through which she would remove the breast tissue. Duly spared – spared, no less – the skin would then accommodate a reconstruction using my own tissue. Simple.
Reading through the details of my surgery, you would never know that cancer and its treatment is ugly or that it hurts. At times it sounds downright regal, befitting a fanfare of trumpets, especially that climactic moment when my breast tissue was “elevated off the pectoralis and delivered from the wound.”
While three surgeons operated on me, my weary husband waited, leaning on our daughter, she on him. It would have been about ten o’clock in the morning when my surgeon came out to announce to them what she would later write, that “the frozen section was negative for metastatic disease,” that there were no abnormal nodes, that no further dissection would be needed. She and my husband performed a silent high-five in the hospital hallway. And, after three hours, she had removed all the cancer she could see and could go about her day, leaving me in the capable hands of two highly sought after plastic surgeons, one being one of the best in Phoenix, the other a master of DIEP flap reconstruction, who had flown in the previous evening from Texas.
They worked on me for the next six hours, and a day later released me back to my life. Six years later, I am told I look just like myself. You would never know, unless you asked to see, or I summoned the courage to show you, that I really don’t look like myself. Not my original self. Hidden under my clothes, since the DIEP flap reconstruction, is a trivial but nonetheless relocated belly button, its circumference now dotted with tiny white scars. Below it, a thin scar, faded to white, stretching from hip to hip, with ‘dog-eared’ reminders on either end where JP drains pulled excess bloody fluid for days after the surgery. I have a right breast too. Sort of. It is in the shape of a breast, impressively so, now that all the post-surgical swelling and discoloration has gone. Its skin is the same, spared by the mastectomy that removed its cancerous tissue through a very small incision around the areola also removed with its nipple.
I tend not to dwell in the macabre, but I cannot help wonder about my old right breast, now a mastectomy specimen preserved in a container of formaldehyde solution. It weighed 294 grams, “the words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.'”
Contemplating all that has happened in the past six years – the cancer, the death of my daughter’s daddy, the shift in priorities – I suppose you could say what they say in Northern Ireland. “God love her, she’s come through the mill.” Lest I wallow too much, however, there is always the reminder that I could be worse off.
I recall encountering someone I hadn’t seen for a few years, and he asked me if I had read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Yes. Indeed I have. Several times. I know great chunks of it by heart. And then he said, “Well, at least your daughter didn’t die.”
At least your daughter didn’t die.
No. She didn’t. She is right here. She is 20 years old now and beautiful. She is tough without being hard. She is vulnerable without the man who was her first word and who bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. She learned to drive without him and walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She earned her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that encouraged her to keep being great at at being herself. She completed her Associate’s Degree and is off to complete a degree in Psychology, so she can one day work with young people who have lost parents. Sometimes my lovely girl reminds me of a beautiful bird. Exotic. Rare. Endangered.
On the anniversary of his death, she told me it was beyond her grasp that two years had passed and that one day it would be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since her dad last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store. To keep her warm.
At least my daughter didn’t die.
So I didn’t know what to say to the person who asked me about Joan Didion and therefore said nothing. I should know but still don’t that when people show you who they are, believe them. Instead I reminded myself of Lou Reed’s reminder of magic and loss and of Sherman Alexie who told us that night in the Heard Museum that when we despair at the lack of compassion in the world, we might remember that the world gave us Hitler – but it also gave us Springsteen.
The world gave us Bruce Springsteen.
And Dolores O’Riordan. And Tom Petty. And, yes, the world also gave us Donald Trump. And all the people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And somehow we have to find the sweet spot in which to live and die.
Magical thinking . . .
So what will I do to mark the day?
A day late, I may just climb again to the summit of Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. It has been over a year since I sat at the top, and I have missed it. Up there, I will survey the valley below. And, glad to be so high up and far away from where I lay eight years ago, I will weep.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
Why not? Why not meet the tall stranger who says he’s slender and likes Bob Dylan and will open doors for me? Why not?
Between the time I met my husband and the time he died twenty four years later, the search for romance and Mr. Right had moved online, a perfect place for me to spend time, my dearest friends urged. It would be fun, they said, a way for me to reintroduce myself to the world as the single woman I used to be in the days before smart phones and texting and instant gratification. Online, I could be equal parts brainy and breezy, I could hide behind pictures that only show my good side and deftly dodge questions with cryptic clues about what I did for a living and the kind of man who might be the right kind for me. In a flurry of box-checking, I could filter out men who didn’t like my politics, my hair, or my taste in music and who didn’t care if I was as comfortable in jeans as a little black dress but did care about when and how to use ‘you,’ ‘you’re’ and ‘your.’ I could be Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” instead of her Sally who had met Harry a decade earlier, around the time I immigrated to the United States. Yes, my next chapter could be the stuff of a Nora Ephron rom-com.
Sally was an extension of Nora Ephron – single-minded with a certain way of ordering a sandwich exactly the way it needed to be for her. I understand this particular idiosyncrasy and over the years have even hired waiters and waitresses to atone for the aggravation I have caused them. Now most people will remember Sally in the throes of a spectacular fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli, but for me, she shines brightest in a scene that snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who still shows up to remind me how little time I have to become who I am supposed to be. Life, she asserts, is what happens in between the beginnings and the endings – in the middle –and in the twinkling of an eye. It is also for the living. She’s right. Of course she’s right.
When she realizes she’s “gonna be 40 . . . someday,” Sally is barely thirty and sporting a sassy hair cut that in 1989 should have worked with my natural curls. It gives me no pride to tell you that I subsequently carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a glossy magazine that featured Ms. Ryan’s many haircuts. For countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page as though it were the Shroud of Turin, while I beseeched them to grant me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before and one that does not belong in an online dating profile – unless Nora Ephron is writing it.
I remember when 40 was an eternity away from 20. By all accounts, forty was the deadline for letting oneself go. 50 was sensible and dowdy. 60 heralded blue rinses – for hair not jeans. 70 was out of the question – definitely not a new 50. And now I’m gonna be 60 . . . one day. Time to take stock of all I have accepted about myself, the “alternative facts” if you will. Some are minor – I don’t have sensible hair, and I spend a fortune coloring it and trying to tame it. Fonts matter in ways they shouldn’t – if I don’t like the lettering on a store sign, I won’t shop there, and Comic Sans on homework assignments forces me to question the teacher’s judgement. Even though I recently found out that it’s bad for the car, I only buy gas after the ’empty’ light comes on. I can finally go on record and confess that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. Opera doesn’t do it for me either, and I only went to the ballet once because all the other mothers were taking their daughters to see “The Nutcracker” for Christmas. I resent the aging process and the way it sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. There was a time when, without glasses, I could read the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle (in French and English); now, I spend less time reading than I do searching for one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at concerts over the past forty years than on something as graceless as aging. My memory is unreliable too. I can tell you what I wore and with which handbag on June 5th 1984, but not where I’m supposed to be tomorrow evening. If Mr. Right cares about punctuality, he should probably know I have a stellar capacity for getting lost. Although, with factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly an app for that, I am much better at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. To be fair, if I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without much assistance, but until such times, I lean on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than both of us, and those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination – where they are already waiting.
Other truths are more painful. I almost learned from my ordeal with breast cancer to be kinder and more patient. My teenage daughter will attest that I have yet to reach a level of proficiency in either area. The circumstances around my husband’s death shattered my sense of certainty and made me cautious. The result? A fragile guardedness reminiscent of a temperamental garage door.
But who would want to read any of this in an online dating profile? It’s much safer – and easier – to sparkle and enchant as you would on your resume – except you have to be cuter avoiding clichés and divulging your home address. You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward especially if the last time you were ‘out there’ was 1989 and when you met a man at a bar, you did not already know his political persuasion or his favorite movie, how much he earned or if he had a tattoo. You wouldn’t know his deal-breakers. He would buy you a drink, ask for your number, call a day – or maybe two – later, take you to the movies the next weekend, and over time – real time – you would build the scaffolding necessary to weather every storm in a teacup.
Awkwardly, I built a profile. I checked the boxes, being scrupulously truthful about my age, politics, and marital status while taking some liberties with other details like hair color and the frequency of my visits to the gym. This was resume writing, right? My best friend reminded me I have an unparalleled expertise in ambiguity which reminded me not to give too much away. Emboldened, I provided ambiguous and annoying responses to the simplest questions: Favorite thing? The right word at the right time. Perfect date? Anywhere where there’s laughter. Hobbies? Binge-watching Netflix originals.You get the idea, and you’ll therefore understand why I abandoned the idea of online dating – or it abandoned me.
About a year later, after a period of offline dating which left me thinking my remaining days would be better spent alone, my best friend told me to take one more field trip online. Obediently, I touched up my profile, uploaded a recent picture in which I’m wearing my favorite green shirt, and waited to see what would happen while also weighing the benefits of spending my golden years in a convent.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
I took a chance.
I. Took. A. Chance.
Ignoring the raised eyebrows and the sage advice from online dating sites who would deem his boldness a red flag, I broke protocol. Without any protracted emailing phase, I agreed to meet the tall and forward stranger the next afternoon. A quick study, I had filed away the important bits – he was a liberal, a non-smoker, and a music-loving musician who was divorced and had a little girl. I dismissed the interest in football (the American kind, for God’s sake) and golf (eye-roll), hoped he meant it when he checked ‘no preference’ on hair color, and held on to his mention of integrity – and the picture of the Harley Davidson. Box checked. He said he worked out every day – of course he did, who doesn’t – and no religion too. No deal-breakers. He had my attention.
Still, disenchanted by dating – online and off – I half-expected Mr. Forward to be five feet tall and 95 years old. Who knew if his pictures were current or if he had built his entire profile on a foundation of fibs? Maybe he didn’t really like Bob Dylan (a deal-breaker) and maybe he went to the gym thrice daily. Let me just digress to tell you that there are more than a few men in the land of online dating who claim to live in the desert – but also enjoy moonlight walks every night – on the beach. Honest to God. I also had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in ‘the dating rotation.’
It was a Monday. I had sent a breezy text suggesting we meet at 5 at a well-lit bar. I was wearing the outfit I had worn in my profile picture perhaps to prove that I had posted a picture taken within at least the past decade. It was also a good hair day, Topher having redeemed himself with fabulous beachy highlights (just in case a moonlight walk was on the horizon). I was also a mess, embroiled in a legal battle that I’m probably not allowed to discuss here or anywhere else, but I think I probably told him all about it within the first five minutes. The Harley I’d seen in the photo was parked outside, silver steel shimmering. Unless he had borrowed it just for our first date, this was a good sign. Onward. He was sitting at the bar, staring ahead, and I watched him watch me out of the corner of his eye as I walked the plank all the way from the front door to where he sat. Butterflies. Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.
Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off those boxes our middle-aged online personas had created. He loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his. Virtuality was becoming reality and although I was skeptical – sorry, musicians, but you have a reputation to uphold – I was also smitten. The bar closed, and off we went to another – our second date – but who’s counting. Having read and committed to memory the FAQ section of the online dating site, I knew this was another red flag. First dates that are too long (or turn into second dates on the same night) are deemed more likely to create a premature and false sense of intimacy. Too much too soon, the experts say. They’re probably right, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t do it again the next night and most nights since. We’ll do it tonight too.
A match made in heaven? No. In spite of all the tactics and algorithms deployed to make sense of our checked boxes and declare us a 100% match, and being declared ‘official’ by Facebook and the young bartender who thinks we’re photogenic enough to be “the desert Obamas,” we are making this match right here, right here where angels fear to tread, in the messiness of the middle of two lives that collided at the best and worst of times. There is no wrong time.
As for the rest of the story? The rest of the story is for me. And for him. As Rob Reiner reminded me in his tribute to Nora Ephron:
‘You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having when you’re having it.’ There’s a right time to talk about certain things, and you don’t need to be out there all the time just spewing. It’s how you become an adult, and I think she helped me see that.
P.S. Because I know you want to know, I asked him what compelled him to be forward in the first place. He says he thought the woman in the picture was looking directly at him. I tell him there’s a song in there. Long may we sing it.
Had I not been awake early this morning, I would have missed the goings-on on Cyprus Avenue. It is Van Morrison’s 70th birthday, and it crosses my mind again that his music – like Seamus Heaney’s poetry – has scored much of my life. For the crowd gathered up on Cyprus Avenue to celebrate his birthday with him, a sense of wonder; for me, a homesickness Stephen King aptly describes as “a terribly keen blade.”
Social media and BBC Radio Ulster are doing their best to assuage the lump-in-my-throat melancholy – while at the same time making it worse – reminding me of the thousands of miles that stretch between us.
I am not there.
I am not there, with my college friend Ruth, to sing along and wonder if he might indulge us with a rendition of Cyprus Avenue which everyone surely wants to hear – for old times sake and because it is fitting. But you never know where you are with Van; you just remember where you are from.
Eight hours behind and a lifetime away from where the second concert of the day is now underway, I relate easily to those fans who have traveled from other continents to sit now among the eighty five trees lining Cyprus Avenue and absorb Van’s Belfast, if only for an hour or two. Clicking on the link to the BBC Radio Ulster broadcast, I was transported instantly to my bedroom in my parent’s house on the Dublin Road, a teenager again and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg – in the Days Before Rock and Roll.
Justin . . .
I am down on my knees
At those wireless knobs
And I’m searching for
Athlone, Budapest, AFN,
In the days before rock ‘n’ roll
Specific and evocative, the names of streets in Van Morrison’s songs – Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue, Fitzroy – as much as the characters that people them and the rituals that shaped those lives – Madame George, the window cleaners taking a break for tea with Paris Buns from the shop, you taking the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, kids collecting bottle-tops, all of us tuning into Radio Luxembourg on our transistor radios, going to the pictures, or the chipper, and filling ourselves with pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels, barmbrack, Snowballs – all these with a Sense of Wonder that has a universal resonance.
And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?
Maybe I understand the pull that brings fans from other continents to Cyprus Avenue today. I am reminded of the time I drove from Tucson to Tucumcari and Tehachapi to Tonopah – places Lowell George immortalized in Willin’. While they turned out not to tourist destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I could hear Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George growling about her every mile I covered. Too, I remember visiting San Francisco drawn less by St. Dominic’s Preview and more by the sight of orange boxes scattered against a SafeWay supermarket in the rain. Can you hear the echo of Patrick Kavanagh in Van Morrison’s songs, finding God in ‘the bits and pieces of everyday.”
As a new mother, almost eighteen years ago, far away from my Northern Ireland home and in Arizona, it was “Brown Eyed Girl” that I sang to my green-eyed girl to help her fall asleep. When she did her first little dance as a toddler, a jaunty “Bright Side of the Road” kept her going. As she twirled and clapped her hands, I reminisced about a wee dander down Sunnyside Street, heading out with my friends on a Saturday night, and this song, so jaunty that it was used as the promotional jingle for a “Belfast’s got the buzz” campaign while our wee country tried to pick itself up from all that had ravaged it.
When I got over getting cancer and when I turned a corner in the world of widowhood, it was to my favorite Van Morrison song that I turned and turn. “When the Healing has Begun,” is a tour de force from “Into the Music,” the first Van record I bought from Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record store in Antrim. A far more satisfying thing than the school lunch I was supposed to buy – it fed my soul. I played it until I knew the lyrics by heart. And there they stayed until about twenty years later when I found a pristine copy, a German import, still in its protective plastic, at Tracks on Wax then a treasure trove for lovers of vinyl in Phoenix, Arizona – before vinyl became cool and collectible for a new generation.
I had worn out that song, which required some effort. In the days before record players like mine had to compete with tape decks, CD players, and MP3 files, if I wanted to hear a song just one more time or just the opening breath of it, there was no simple replay button, no nonchalant click; rather, the knack of placing the stylus right in the groove, in “the sweet spot,” where it would pick up the familiar repetitive rhythm, the violins, a “yeah” from Van, and “we’ll walk down the avenue again.”
Cyprus. Fitzroy. Belfast. Phoenix. it matters not. We are anywhere and everywhere, underneath the stars. Neither here nor there. It enchants me still – and maybe even Van himself – this song that takes him from a roar through a mumble to a barely there whisper at the end. And when the familiar refrain streamed across a continent into my kitchen in the desert with appreciative whistles from the Belfast crowd, my whole world stopped for a second. Hypnotized momentarily. Such is the “aesthetic force” of that song for me.
Back street jelly roll . . .
I remember the first time I saw him perform it, at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Leaning forward from the good seats in the balcony – having scored tickets from a friendly roadie in the Crown Bar – it felt a bit like being in church, somehow knowing we should behave and be quiet, reverent even, if he was going to take us along with him on this song. And he did.
And the healing begins . . .
And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we will smile
And we’ll say baby ain’t it all worthwhile
When the healing has begun