I have lived my life full of longing to leave one place for another only to find myself after a time longing to go back.
Perhaps the pattern started in my childhood. The son of a Methodist minister, I moved every four to six years. But the pattern became my way of life when I started making my own decisions. I left one college for another only to go back to the first. I left my first newspaper job for graduate school only to go back to the newspaper job. When I went through a divorce, I had a yearning for home and headed for Tennessee. I worked on a newspaper in Memphis for a year before heading off to graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I was there three years but almost left every year. Finally, I settled in Milwaukee. I spent the first three years looking for a way out before the city captured me. I was there for seven years, and I yearned to go back for a long time after. I spent the next eight years at the University of Utah until another divorce and another case of homesickness brought me back to Tennessee, this time Nashville. I thought I would stay in Nashville the rest of my life, but after a good ride at Middle Tennessee State University, the university had a major administrative change and I no longer felt I fit. Through the good graces of a former graduate student, I was able to go to Loyola Chicago. I loved the students there, but the administration treated me like I was starting over again and created more hoops than a man 60 years old ought to jump. I headed back to my job in Tennessee for a couple of years, but I loved Chicago so much I kept my primary residence there.
I am very good at complicating my life, and I am on the verge of doing it again, moving back to Chicago while keeping a small place in Nashville, for a little while at least. This move has made me remember all the moves but particularly the one I wrapped in songs. That was the one from Milwaukee to Salt Lake City in 1983. The University of Utah had offered me an excellent job in a program with a top ranked graduate division. It was the first place to ever offer me a job in large part for my intellectual strengths. I accepted the position eagerly. But as one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs suggests, what looks like freedom can feel like death. The contrast between my waking life and my dream worlds as the move approached was out of Blue Velvet. In the daylight, I smiled and slapped my leg and said how glad I was to go. My dreams and fantasies told a darker, more tortured story. I coped with the duality of these feelings by compiling a list of songs. For the road? No, not that road. The songs were for the end of the road, my death.
As the summer went on, my songs or “the funeral list,” as I called it, evolved into a full-blown fantasy that included a service, mourners and a few remarks. My wife and I both hated to leave Milwaukee. At first, we had thought of the city as a stopover. Barb believed we wound up there because I hated to fly and I could drive to the interview. It was a sleepy department in a building about ready to fall down that hadn’t made a hire in years. I was the only assistant professor. I liked some of the faculty members, but the biggest hook was that I thought it was a place I could have a role in helping to build something. The city had all the advantages of a big city, excellent museums, a wonderful park system, big league sports teams and, like Chicago, a shoreline on Lake Michigan. It had been a city built by working men and women, and its politics still reflected that. The Socialist Party had been strong in Milwaukee, and until the 1960s, the city had a Socialist mayor. We arrived in the mid-70s, but you could still feel the winds of the 60s blowing through the city.
Milwaukee did have its downside. Though it was large, it was a provincial city and a hard place for newcomers to get a toe hold. Tucked away from the major transportation lines, it was a city long on residents with deep roots to the city or rural Wisconsin and short on the kind of strangers who come and go and contribute to cities being more fluid. In Milwaukee, people remained connected to the people with whom they had attended high school and college and to the ethnic traditions they grew up in. We felt out of place at first, but somewhere along the way, I fell in love with my students, tough kids mostly from working class neighborhoods, and I worked hard to help build a better department. Barb completed a master’s degree and found a job she liked working in public access cable. This was back in the day when it was still possible to dream a little dream about cable as a democratic force. We both developed friendships and ties, and we fell in love with the city’s basketball team, the Milwaukee Bucks, or as we thought of them, “Don Nelson’s Bucks.” We had season tickets for five seasons and watched a team almost good enough to win a championship climb and climb, but never quite get over the hump.
The city and the university proved much harder to leave than I thought when, hurt and angry from a bruising but successful promotion and tenure year, I said yes to a very good job in a highly ranked department at the University of Utah. I was proud of the achievement. It was wonderful to wear, but when I came home and took my clothes off, the move filled me with dread. There were a lot of good reasons to stay: Barb had a full fellowship to work on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and promises of support at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern as well. I had taken the lead in recruiting good young faculty to our program who had stood by me during a dreadful year and were expecting me to become chair of the department.
Still, I see now that I had too much of the wrong kind of pride and would hurt myself and everyone who cared about me to exercise it. I had been taught better. My father was a humble man, more of a healing minister than a builder or orator. His obituary captured this dimension of his life like this: “Imbued with a rare talent, Reverend Eason had mastered the art of living in brotherly love with his fellowman.” When he was nearby, I felt that I was learning a bit of that art as well. But after he died, I developed an exaggerated, if fragile, sense of myself. The threat of defeat at one university tore a hole in that image. I had to reclaim it somehow. I imagined that I was open to counter arguments, but I really wasn’t and my wife and friends knew that. I had become one of those guys you can’t tell anything, a master of “You can’t do that to me. I won’t stand for it.”
The only problem was that my unconscious mind wasn’t with me on this decision, and it kept me thinking about death rather than new life. The song list, and plans for my memorial, though full of serious ideas, kept these dark thoughts playful. The service was to take place at my favorite tavern, Tony’s on South Second, where some students late in the summer actually held a going-away party for me. In my fantasy, the small room was packed with true blue friends. No one attended in an official capacity. There were some wonderful testimonials to me as a teacher, friend and thinker and though my bones were in a small container near the tap beer, I floated somewhere above the bar, in tears at what a wonderful person others believed me to be.
The songs were the centerpiece of it all. I imagined them sung live and thought my friends Mark Lucius and Terry Perry could handle them. At some point, I thought people might take up a collection to bring Steve Young there. The list kept changing, but here are a few of the songs and some of the important lines that I remember:
So have all of your passionate violins
Play a tune for a Tennessee kid
Who’s feeling like leaving another town
With no place to go if he did
Cause they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid
“Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester
This song grew out of Winchester’s flight to Canada during the Vietnam War. I identified with his sense of being hunted and hounded in 1969, but the feeling had continued for me long after the war was over. Its origins were probably in the prying eyes small towns turned on the minister and his family in the 1950s. I had grown up in a fish bowl that it usually took more than music to make disappear.
. . . The early dawn cracks out a carpet of diamonds
Across a cash crop car lot filled with twilight Coupe Devilles
Leaving the town in a-keeping
Of the one who is sweeping up
The ghosts of Saturday night . . .
“The Ghosts of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits
This song reflects my urban romanticism and celebrates the liberation inherent in city life. I came to believe that I had found my greatest freedom in bars like Tony’s. I would always carry a heart full of nights when I closed the place and drove home through a city that seemed to have been asleep for hours.
There were others, a John Prine song “Please Don’t Bury Me” to add a little humor, Gram Parsons’ “Wheels” to add a sense of movement, and a traditional spiritual “Peace in the Valley” to suggest some final resolution.
The only recorded piece of music was Nina Simone’s almost 19-minute version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a version where she adds many gospel flourishes and inserts a poem near the end by Last Poet member David Nelson titled “Today is a Killer.” Harrison’s version of the song is that of a man on a spiritual path and is therefore a song of great faith. Nina Simone turns the song into an agonizing call for a hidden God to reveal himself. The song moves from crescendo to crescendo in intoxicating rhythm. The phrase, “Won’t you show yourself Lord?” — repeated again and again–is the most succinct statement of the song’s plea. God must show himself in the words of Nelson’s poem, because “Today is a Killer.” Simone uses the words of this poem, sung alone with only her piano, to slow the song down and amplify her themes:
I often sit there at the sea and dream dreams
and hope hopes and wish wishes,
as I listen to the wind song dance for me.
But these moments never seem to last too long
because after the hopes, the dreams and the wishes,
after the singing of the dancing wind,
after you and me in a stolen moment of happiness,
after a glimpse of the timeless natural universe
moving in evanesce, moving in evanesce
moving in startling beauty
comes the reality of today
grinning its all-knowing fiendish grin
knowing everything I say
everything I feel
everything I think
every gesture that I make
pressing his ugly face against mine
staring at me without life in his eyes . . .
Because today is a killer.
Today is a Killer by David Nelson
She adds “and only you can save us lord” as a transition back to Harrison’s lyrics. After what seems a journey through a hellish god-less world, the song ends with a powerful Hallelujah.
Back then, I thought I was a person who knew what was happening in me so I didn’t really explore the fantasy. Mostly, I just made a joke of it. Now I wonder, what was driving this drama? Was I merely reveling in my own sense of importance? Was it the return of my childhood fear of death? Was it just separation anxiety, a fantasy to tame my fear of the unknown? The answer I have settled on is that it was an act of mourning for a part of myself I feared I was losing. My childhood had prepared me to perform a self that was expected of me. Ever since my father’s death, I had struggled against the artifice of that life, naively believing I could easily find a persona that was really me. My teaching position in Milwaukee had allowed me to simultaneously have the status of being a professor but also to fancy myself as a bohemian rebel. My tenure battle had taught me that maybe it was impossible to live this dual life. And the promise of Utah, an excellent academic department that offered to support me in ways I had never imagined, had to be balanced by a loss of personal freedom as I would have to fit into a department organized around cocktail parties in suburban homes, going to athletic events as a group in the university’s colors, and a score of other sacramental social events such as the annual soft ball game between the faculty and graduate students. Was a part of me that I felt was central to my sense of being going to have to be sacrificed?
Autumn came and I moved to Utah, leaving Barb in Milwaukee to sell our house. The university was wonderful in the ways I had anticipated and a struggle for me in the ways I feared. I drank more and more to hold it together or to imagine I was. But sometimes even strangers saw right through me. On a flight back from Memphis, two years into our stay, I encountered one such person. She was going from Memphis to a professional meeting in Denver. I was heading back to Salt Lake from a professional meeting. I was drinking straight gin, my sedative of choice when flying. We began a casual conversation that revealed more of our thoughts and feelings as the flight went on. This was not romantic foreplay. It was just a very intimate personal conversation between two people who would never have to face the consequences of anything we told each other. I don’t remember what I told her or what she told me. I suspect I talked the most. All I remember is that by the time she got up to go, I felt very naked. She had a tender, quality and seemed to be as touched by the conversation as I was. When she stood up to get off the plane, she looked down at me and said softly but fondly: “I will always remember this plane ride with the saddest man I have ever met.” I felt both recognized and ashamed.
A couple of years later I stopped drinking and started the long process of changing my life. I didn’t make these changes fast enough to save my marriage or save either of us from some difficult emotional times. The world didn’t change magically, at least not for long. Still, I left Utah in 1990 with a clearer head and saw that road stretching from Salt Lake City to Nashville as one of possibility, not of death.
That one trip, of course, didn’t mean the end of wanting two things at once as my movement between Nashville and Chicago in the last 10 years attests. I have given up predicting where I will be next or for how long. I am keeping one foot in Tennessee by holding onto a small place to stay when I’m here. But who knows? In five years I could be in two new towns or have added a third. I am not a road warrior. I don’t like the in-between. I have come to think of myself as a transient in residence, a person who likes to burrow into the fabric of everyday life but never manages to stay long enough to see what the cloth turns out to be. If there is an afterlife, I hope it has many realms and that there is a special place for people like me where we can request reassignment periodically or at least move between realms. Surely such souls could come in handy where other lost souls continued to kill themselves again and again.
If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well.
Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will
(A number of writers offered support and suggestions on this one. I am particularly grateful to Lynne Butler, Bonny Holder and Barbara Bennett.)