Wednesday 27 November 2002

For a Dancer

Stephanie Kesler wrote (link via Scripting News):

For many of us, our first adult experience with the process of death occurs when one our parents dies.

My first adult experience with death began with a knock on the door around 2am one morning a long time ago. Two policemen gently told me that a close friend, who’d been staying with me until he could find his own apartment, had been killed in a car crash a few hours before. Since his family lived in a remote country town, they asked me to come to the morgue later that day to identify his body. He looked still and white and cold and nothing like the person I had known and loved. I was 22.

I spent the next ten years immersed in death. Another fourteen friends died with startling regularity: motorcycle accidents, cerebral malaria, drowning, hepatitis, suicides, drug overdoses…

Two lovely posts by Loren Webster brought back that grief-stricken period of my life. In each he describes events in his life filtered through a Jackson Browne song.

To Find Out What Is True relates the song For America to Loren’s experiences in Vietnam and America’s lost conscience:

Although I wasn’t one of those who saw the world from “the comfort of a dreamer’s bed,” unless you can call a cot in Vietnam a dreamer’s bed, I, too, joined the army naively believing “in the Motherland.” I found my own “truths” in Vietnam, but America is still “in my blood and my bones,” though I had hoped that we would have learned enough in Vietnam to find new ways of ensuring freedom and justice “for all.”

In About the Size of a Fist Loren Browne’s song In the Shape of a Heart illustrates Loren’s disappointment at the breakdown of his marriage:

Sadly enough, it is possible to live with someone for seventeen years and never know “what she was talking about” and never realize that “she was living without.” Perhaps it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I suspect that it goes much deeper than that. Beliefs that seemed unimportant when young and in love, suddenly seem insurmountable barriers when raising kids.

When I read Loren’s posts, I remembered the Jackson Browne song that gave me hope in the middle of ten years of death: it was For a Dancer, from the 1974 album Late for the Sky:

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down

I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve always thought you’d be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening

I can’t help feeling stupid standing ‘round
Crying as they ease you down
Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know

For a Dancer is a song about the death of a friend, someone we thought would always be with us, and the necessity of embracing life in the face of death. Browne uses the metaphor of a dance to show how you can carry on after the death of someone you loved dearly, celebrating their existence by integrating all the lessons—from them and from “everyone you’ve ever known,” dead or alive—into a dance that is uniquely yours. Because, ultimately, no matter how deeply we love, we must all of us die alone.

Thinking back, I can’t imagine how I could have maintained my hope and faith without For a Dancer. Jackson Browne’s song taught me to accept the arbitrary burden of death, enabled me to make uncertainty one of the defining characteristics of my life, and encouraged me to believe in love and art as antidotes to the meaninglessness of human existence, trusting that “somewhere between the time I arrived and the time I’ll go, there is a reason I was alive that I’ll never know.”

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I'm always delighted and amazed at what powerful memories songs carry for me, Jonathon.

It's good to know others share this love for Browne's ability to express human sorrow and longings.

Posted by Loren on 27 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Two brilliant writers: Jackson Browne, and Jonathon commenting on Jackson Browne. Many thanks... many thanks.

Posted by Tom G. on 27 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Funny you should mention Late for the Sky. I literally wore out a cassette of it a few years, and The Pretender, using the dark, quiet places of those songs to make sense of the dark, place I was at one of the most difficult points I've ever been.

I'll date myself (as young) here, but Running on Empty was the first album I ever owned, from an aunt who was a big JB fan. He's always meant a lot to me in ways I couldn't quite describe, but you've really revealed some of them here. Thanks.

Posted by steve on 27 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Loren's posts stirred up some deeply buried memories, for which I'm truly grateful. I've played Late for the Sky over and over since reading them, remembering all those precious lost souls. As Loren said in his comment above, Jackson Browne has the most amazing ability to express human sorrow and loss. I've known for a long time that the legacy of those years is that I equate authenticity with sadness.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 27 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

'I equate authenticity with sadness.'

I think I do, too. But I was reading John Gardner's 'On Moral Fiction' last night, and even though I disagree with his whole premise, and his whole book really, he did ask an interesting question about why happy endings are considered inauthentic and implausible. Which made me think that perhaps it's not sadness I equate with authenticity, but incompleteness, the possibility for future sadness when you're happy and for future happiness when you're sad. Maybe inauthenticity is the sense that a story or feeling or anything, really, is 'complete' and won't be changing again.

Posted by steve on 28 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Steve, that's it in a nutshell. It's a sadness associated with the knowledge that happiness is fleeting, that nothing lasts. What the Japanese call "mono no aware" -- an intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world. It's important to note, however, that there is -- for me anyway -- no relation between this kind of sadness and feeling depressed. Rather it's a sadness that deepens one's appreciation of the ephemeral beauty of the everyday world.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 28 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour