I came across I column I wrote the other day.
It was from years ago, and it was about literature and how I can think about certain books and suddenly be back wherever I was the first time I read them. I think of “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton and picture myself sitting on a folding stepstool outside of the apartments my family lived in in Elyria, Ohio. I was in third grade.
Sometimes in that same memory, I’m selling lemonade to union guys coming to a United Auto Workers meeting my dad was holding at the event hall at the apartment complex. Maybe I read while I waited for customers. Maybe it was two separate events. Maybe the stepstool is the only constant.
It was black and yellow and the kind that has two steps, with rubber pads on each one. I used to turn it around and sit on the lower step and use the upper one as a desk. It’s the kind of stepstool I wish I had about once a week, especially when a smoke alarm battery starts chirping.
I don’t know what’s true. It’s all variations on a theme, just like everything.
But it made me think of words. And poetry. And music.
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Every time I hear the phrase “variations on a theme,” I think of the poem by Ken Koch, and who knows where I first read it. It’s variations on the poem “This is just to say,” by William Carlos Williams:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
In Koch’s version, something goes awry, every time. Here’s my favorite:
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I don’t know why I like it. For the same reason, I love all the Edward Gorey books, literary and twisted, just how I like it. Kind of funny and horrifying. Like all the best things, right?
I dig a little darkness in my art.
But mostly what I love is watching someone interpret someone else’s work. We all come at things from a different perspective, with all the ways we’ve been wronged or all the things we’ve hoped or all the ways we’ve loved and unloved, done and undone.
It happens in everything. I see it all the time – someone online will ask, “What’s your favorite race,” and 10 people post as many different replies. That’s OK. They all come at it in different ways. I love the Twin Cities Marathon because I was successful at qualifying for Boston there. I hate the Vermont City Marathon because I wasn’t. Same with Phoenix. It isn’t the fault of the race or the organizer, but sometimes you need something besides yourself to blame.
The variation can be in your training, in your perspective, in your reasoning for going at all. It doesn’t matter – it’s whatever you say it is.
A few weeks ago, I started teaching cycling classes at the gym again. I haven’t done it in about a year and I was a little anxious about starting up – how does their stereo system work, will I have any issues at 5 a.m., and will I be able to solve them. We went over the day before so I could try everything out, make sure I could make the microphone work, the music play. And in a moment of panic, I worried that my ancient iPod wouldn’t work.
I may be the only person left who hasn’t been streaming music on their phone. Instead, it’s just whatever songs are on my iPod, with whatever I’ve bought in the last year, having lost all of my iTunes music in the process of life.
So I signed up for Spotify, paid for the version without ads, and downloaded a playlist of some of my favorite spin class songs I’ve used in the past and a variety of other stuff. Maybe I can make this work without a bunch of bad pop (nothing against bad pop, I love it, too).
This was all glorious to Viv, 7, who realized she could now use my old iPod to play music. That’s meant she’d discovered a lot of songs that have what she calls – rightly so – inappropriate lyrics. It also means she’s blasting Jason Isbell or The Lumineers from the front yard, which makes me as proud as when I find her holed up with a book somewhere.
The soundtrack of my life is some of what I love, some of what the people I love adore and some of what I just grew up listening to on the radio. Just like those books can put me there, so can the songs, pulling off the road more often than I admit, to cry in my car for reasons I can’t explain. You just have to sit there and sing it and feel it.
The class went fine. An Avett Brothers song I’m obsessed with, “January Wedding,” came up during a spin and it was a poor choice, but I let it play out because it makes me happy. Nobody seemed to mind.
A friend of mine was telling me about a night she drove across northern Minnesota listening to the Avett Brothers the whole time, and another friend remembers nursing her newborn to a live recording of them. For each of these women, this is the background to those events, to that dark, dark drive, to that time in the middle of the night with a mewling baby and a sense of wonder mixed with terror. These are their variations on this Avett Brothers theme.
For me, I don’t know.
I think about a run at Good Earth State Park last year, just me and Neil Young.
I recently pulled up “Athens County” by Jonathon Edwards, a terrible song, as I plan a trip home to Ohio later this summer to see my dad, whose mind is crumbling around him, who played Paul Simon’s “Graceland” for me nonstop for years, who made me listen to Marty Robbins as we drove through the night to Rhode Island. Who loves Jimmy Buffett and took me to see him at outdoor venues throughout Ohio. Is it the best music I’ve ever heard? No, not even close. But I was some of the best times of my life.
My cheeseburger in paradise was wine coolers at Blossom Music Center in Ohio.
The runs I’ve done in these cities lay alongside these soundtracks, layered on the books I read and the NPR shows I listened to, the local food I ate and the people I knew.
It’s all variations on a theme, the theme of just living. The theme of not knowing what you’ve done, of knowing all along, of knowing it was wrong or right, of knowing there’s only one way, and that’s through.
This past weekend, I was riding my bike to Luverne, Minn., and there was some gravel, and I’m still a little sketchy on it, still worried about falling, still sometimes taking medicine to make my wrist stop hurting. And as I rolled through the countryside, I sang to myself over and over, “The hardest part is through,” a line from a Lumineers song, a sentiment echoed in everything from embroidery to 12-step programs.
And yet it’s true.
I started this post thinking I would talk about some of my favorite cover songs, and about why I love them – to hear how someone else imagines something – stemmed partly from the Spotify stations that play acoustic covers and partly from thinking again about this drive in Ohio and Woody Guthrie songs interpreted by Billy Bragg and Wilco. I will always be in my car between Columbus and Cleveland, listening to “California Stars,” laying on the gravel road at The Ridges, the bike path that runs along the Hocking River.
I’ll be there with Lucinda Williams. I’ll be in Athens with Van Morrison and NPR. I’ll be in Good Earth with Neil Young. In the Phoenix marathon with Quintron and Miss Pussycat or Dennis Ferrer, step by metronome step toward just missing qualifying for Boston.
Right now, I’m reading “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I mark nearly every page with words I want to live in. I’m about three-fourths through the book, and some of it I can’t stop thinking about. Think about this: A line where the narrator describes someone as the kind of person who doesn’t need to be reminded to put his oxygen mask on first. That tells you everything you need to know about that person.
But then there’s this, talking about grief, the “salt in the pudding,” as he writes.
“Didn't Roman generals hire slaves to march beside them in a triumphant parade and remind them that they too would die? Even your narrator, one morning after what should have been a happy occasion, was found shivering at the end of the bed (spouse: "I really wish you weren't crying right now"). Don't little children, awakened one morning and told, "Now you're five!" - don't they wail at the universe's descent into chaos? The sun slowly dying, the spiral arm spreading, the molecules drifting apart second by second toward our inevitable heat death - shouldn't we all wail to the stars?”
So when the Avett Brothers say, “are you aware the shape I’m in, my hands they shake, my head it spins.”
We’ll take you in.
Like a pair of stolen, polished dimes. Ask to dance. It’s fine.
Wail to the stars. Steal the plums from the icebox. Fins to the left.
Walk the tightrope in the snow, walk it again between the towers.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.