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#32: The queen turns 1. (Also: snowfields, jellyfish, and songwriting)

Apparently, yesterday was the 1-year anniversary of the release of Queen of Everything. I did not remember this – not until logging into Facebook this morning and seeing a memory telling me so.

Photo by Melissa Stukenholtz @ Gorman House Photography, Jamaica, IA

I didn’t do anything special to commemorate. I didn’t take myself out to dinner or send myself flowers or bake a cake. I just went about my day and forgot.

The year since QoE has felt a little longer than most. And rough around the edges. Also rough in the middle. It feels rough here at the end, frankly, if you want to know the truth. Personally, globally, politically, the year since QoE has been a bit of a shit show. Appropriate, considering the whole idea behind QoE is feeling like the queen of a castle in ruins (and your crown is made of paper). Maybe I need to be more careful about the songs I write. They manifest.

I was thinking about 2017, collectively (i.e., not in relation to the album), at 4:00 this morning while lying in bed, covered in cats and staring at the ceiling. My mind, as it frequently does, went back to Iceland—the hike through Fimmvörðuháls Pass. (You can read more about that here and here, if you haven’t already and care to.)

As I’ve written before, the hike felt like a 9-hour micro-model of life—throwing yourself into the unknown, delighting, then despairing, persevering, and then finding peace. If I could print a map of that hike onto a transparent overlay, I believe I could lay it over my life, track my steps, and stick a pin in my exact position at any given moment. And if I could do that, well then, I could measure how much further until I’m out of the desolate snowfields and into the peaceful green.

Months later, bits of the hike come to me in sound bytes, still frames, and videos. The moment that came to me this morning at 4 a.m. was a video I took while standing in a snowfield. It was in the dead center of about 3-4 hours trudging through snow, rain, sleet, tiny bits of hail, and lava fields. I was alone and felt every single ounce of that alone-ness. At the point in this video, there were no hikers visible behind or ahead of me and hadn't been for quite some time. The wind scooped through the barren landscape uninterrupted, and dropped one loose metal washer against the pole of a trail marker over and over again. The sound of it made me ache.

I remember when that desolate middle began to transform. The snow began to disappear. One tiny white flower poked out of rock lining the trail—a sign of life. Further along, one tiny white flower turned into two or three. Further, six or seven. Eventually, scraps of moss appeared like throw rugs. Other hikers dotted the hills. Voices traveled around bends. And then I was out of it.

This morning I lay wondering, “Am I back in the snowfields? Shouldn’t I be out of this by now?”

It occurred to me before—and maybe I even wrote about it here but don’t remember—that there is a critical flaw in the hiking metaphor: There was a day after the hike, and a day after that, and another day after that.

For that matter, there was the hour I sat at the camp at Þórsmörk, waiting for the bus back to Reykjavík. The camp office was busy. Hikers splayed out in various formations, chatting and laughing about their adventures. As far as I could tell, I was the only one there alone. This doesn’t usually bother me, but I nearly always notice. I sat near a group of four young Canadians. I thought about joining them, but I had fallen too deep inside my head and couldn’t climb out. This happens to me regularly, as I’m sure it does with many introverts.

So, yes, there was peace after the lava fields, but then I immediately slipped back into isolation and un-belonging. And the day after the hike was an off day and more of the same head swimming. And then I slept in my car and had come-to-Jesus conversations with myself. But then… Then came the whales. And the horses at the side of the road. And flocks of wild swans. And the hot spring. And the monkey swing.

And then I came home.

The flaw with the hiking metaphor is that it repeats. It’s not a one-shot hike (delight, despair, persevere, peace forevermore). There is more than one snowfield. And the wind will scoop uninterrupted at any time through any vacant space.

While looking for the metal clanking video, I found another video I forgot I’d taken. It was the bus ride the morning of the hike. In this video, I am alone on the bus, staring out the window and the passing blurry landscape, listening to conversations in languages I don’t understand. The video is both technically terrible and thematically perfect.

This "cocooning" is actually my favorite part of foreign travel—the feeling of anonymity, invisibility, and submersion. But every now and then the same sensation hits on home turf, and that feels unwelcome. I feel it every time I listen to people talk about home décor, department store sales, clothes, or make-up: I’m a foreigner here, and I don’t understand what anyone is talking about.

Anyway… where was I going with all of this? I actually sat down this morning to write about songwriting, writing, and the subconscious. (But then logged into FB and saw the QoE anniversary.)

Right… lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, 4 a.m., shit show, Iceland, snowfields, clanking metal video.

While lying in bed thinking about the clanking metal in the lonely snowfield, a completely random memory popped into my head. I would have been 20 or 21, living in a tiny efficiency apartment on S. Clinton in Iowa City. I was a smoker at the time (and was until my mid-20s). It was well after dark, and I was walking home alone. Passing the post office, I saw a pack of Old Golds on the sidewalk. And then another pack on the sidewalk heading toward the building. And then another pack after that. And another. There was a trail of unopened packs of Old Gold cigarettes leading from the street to the doors of the darkened post office.

I smoked Camel Lights; but I was 20 or 21 and broke. When you’re broke, cigarettes are cigarettes. So I picked up the first pack and then the second pack, and then I stopped. Large evergreen bushes obscured the entrance to the post office, where the trail of smokes ended. “I’m not that stupid,” I said. I took my two packs of crummy, free cigarettes and carried on, unassaulted.

I lay in bed this morning wondering two things: 1) Why did this memory show up this morning? and 2) Why did my brain store it in the first place?

These questions led me to a whole dialog with myself about small, odd things we notice and log. Conversations – why do some seemingly ordinary conversations stick to us for years? What about them signaled “Remember this”?

Physical sensations -- why can I still feel the sensation of Grandma Hartman's thin washcloths swishing through soapy water in the kitchen sink on Barkley Lane in St. Joe, Missouri?

People – yesterday morning driving my son to his doctor’s appointment, an older, southeast Asian woman (my guess) in cultural dress crossed the street behind a young girl who was likely Fisher’s age. Several hours later, I saw the same woman driving a small, silver sedan. We passed each other on University Avenue.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot. I’ll notice the same random person (and not usually in any kind of distinguishing cultural dress) at different times in two different places on the same day. Des Moines is small, but not that small. Ninety-percent of the strangers I see on any given day, I’ve never seen before (or never noticed before) and may never see (or notice) again. So why do we notice what we notice when we notice it? Is it a metaphysical transfer of energy? Are we jellyfish? Are we gelatinous blobs of soul and consciousness with thinner boundaries than we think, accidentally bumping into one another without actually touching?

I was part of a group of songwriters talking to high school kids this last week. I’ve never been able to answer questions about the songwriting process very well. I don’t necessarily have one, and I don’t usually have much intention, either, and I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing. Something inside of me starts knocking like it wants out. I sit down with the guitar or at the piano. I tinker until something feels right. Then a melody starts coming out on the backs of word-less vowels. And then comes a short, incomplete line of words. It dangles from a crack in my consciousness.

Then I start pulling on that short line of words until the rest of them come out. When I look at them scribbled into my lyric journal, I see bits of subconscious, the images it’s stored, the feelings it’s wrestling with, the people it’s talking to when no one is around. It’s a mysterious, curious, and surprising phenomenon every time. Part of me wonders if the songs that come out of me or the stories or the characters or the memories stored actually belong to a stranger my soul bumped into. Did the woman on the street accidentally drop her deepest desire into my coat pocket? And what of mine did I send with her?

I don’t know how to say any of these things to high school students in a band room, though.

Anyway. Happy anniversary, Queen of Everything. Your crown is torn, and your roots are showing, Dear, but you're fine as-is.

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