Sometimes you can make a cheese sandwich, pick up a book, and change the way you think about life. More often, you can make two, open the computer, and read Postcards from Yo Momma. The former infinitely rare and precious experience is preferred, but it’s impossible to manufacture. You cannot prime yourself for epiphany, even if the the book is pithy, the mustard piquant, and you’ve arranged yourself prettily, nay, beatifically, in a sunbeam.
I have tried it many times with Heart of Darkness, which is a work that feels like it should impart some kind of something. Every time I open the book I think, like a young man bound for the colonies, “My god, I’ve really started something.” And every time I open the book I raise a crust to Joseph Conrad the polyglot, who in this novel gives a fine demonstration of the fact that some brains are different than others. Some brains take words in any language and make minions of them (others make mincemeat). Conrad, in a third language, wrote one of the most epic beginnings ever. I challenge someone to find a second paragraph that portends such greatness:
The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
It keeps going like this, all his words perfectly arranged, the narrative artfully made. And yet in spite of Conrad’s virtuosity, by the middle of this slim but theme-sodden novel, I usually find myself musing on the accomplishments of Martin Sheen, wishing I hadn’t made so many unhelpful underlines in my copy, wondering if the first sandwich feels lonely in my gullet, and realizing I missed the part (again) that explains who the Pilgrims are. This last read, I sent myself into a paroxysm of giggles by imagining one of the fellows on deck cutting Marlow off halfway with an emphatic cry of “Boooo-ring.”
I actually did have an epiphany this last time, but it was not the kind I had been trying for. I did not glean arcane truths and readerly thrills from the novel. No, I realized that my feeling about Heart of Darkness is not hate, but something akin to contempt, the contempt bred of school-day familiarity.
Unless things have changed considerably in the last few years, if you go to college and study literature, you will encounter this novel. You will see it in a class that builds it up, then you will see it in a class that tears it down. You will talk about the Other, and the Intended, and the Horror. You will make much of colonial ineptitude and Conrad’s startling frankness re: it. You will read Chinua Achebe (then several years later you will read him again and marvel at how fucked up the world, and you, must have been to necessitate the writing of an essay pointing out that Conrad was racist). At the end of it all, you will do a group project on Apocalypse Now.
Heart of Darkness is not bad or boring, but it bores me, badly. I almost feel guilty getting bored, because I think Conrad had significant things to say. And he had a sense of humor, a grim one, my favorite kind. He knew, for example, that many colonials were idiots and that Marlow was an inspired windbag. But I get bored, and think how I can pare the story down to just a few words: “White man oppresses black man, is oppressed in turn by jungle mysteries.”
I will never regret studying literature. Reading novels is fundamental to my particular brand of personhood, and so it’s important to understand how they work and why they do and what they tell us about the world. And studying Heart of Darkness is important and I’m glad I did it. But I suspect there’s nothing like prolonged study to turn some books stale for some people. Indeed my copy of Heart of Darkness, one of those scholarly critical editions, is an object lesson in making novels loathsome by burdening them with six different levels of pointless annotations and distracting hieroglyphics, and entombing them in essays that total several hundred pages longer than the novel itself.
Of course, as we are told by the lovable old salt, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be.” I know intellectually, in my fragile bird brain, that Heart of Darkness is a Great Work. But I don’t know it in my own, less inscrutable heart.
Having failed to convince friends to join me, I went alone to Riverside Church the night of November 9th for Mary Travers’ memorial service. On my way in, an usher handed me a program with a black and white photograph on the cover of a bombshell with long blond hair and blunt bangs, a straight nose, almond eyes staring at the camera, and a sensuous mouth. I opened the program and scanned the pictures—black and white and color, aesthetically delineating eras—on the inside flaps: that same blond bombshell performing at the Lincoln Memorial (black and white), smiling at her husband (color), doing presumably good deeds in a presumably third world country (black and white), and with her two bandmates, smiling and bald from chemotherapy on what looks like the stage at Carnegie Hall (color).
Inside the sanctuary, the pews were packed with the predictable sea of gray hair, sober colors, practical sweaters and comfortable shoes. (Two thousand people, the paper reported the next day.) I slipped into a seat three rows from the back between a man my father’s age and a woman my mother’s. At 29, I was at the youthful end of those who had read the small notice in the Times that morning: “A memorial celebration of the life and music of the folk singer Mary Travers will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at Riverside Church. Ms. Travers, who with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey formed the renowned trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on Sept. 16. Besides Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, participants in the celebration will include Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton… Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Senators George S. McGovern and Max Cleland.”
A video montage of Peter, Paul and Mary concert clips featuring “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was code for “Please turn off your cellular devices,” and the service began. Cameras on mechanical arms manned by a PBS film crew patrolled the airspace above the gray heads like giant disembodied insect legs. As it goes with memorial services, a parade of people—many famous—from Travers’ life then began filing on and off stage to lead the audience in song and to recall and applaud her beauty and talents and hobbies and temper and quirks and grace in the face of illness. November 9th would have been her 73rd birthday. I thought about how somber parades like this of personalities and anecdotes ask us, “Remember this time? Remember that time?” and how we in the audience then say to ourselves, “Yes,” even when the truth is closer to, “No, but I believe it.”
Veiled cell phone warnings notwithstanding, for the duration of that first half hour, a man in the pew in front of me held his phone in the air so that the person at the other end of the line could hear what she was missing. I pictured that other person on a couch in a comfortable living room somewhere sitting alone with the phone to her ear, her face quiet. I wondered whether she was his wife, daughter, or granddaughter and whether she could hear a word of what was being said or sung through the earpiece, or whether all she heard was the occasional garbled lyric of a well-known protest song and the static of periodic applause.
I preferred to imagine her as woman of about my own age and the man in front of me as her father. He had probably told her about the car he drove in those days, about the time he took it to the record store to buy his first Peter, Paul, and Mary album, about how he had taken the record back to his house, put it on the record player and promptly developed a crush on that blond bombshell. Maybe he had told her how he had once seen the group in concert and been close enough to see that the buttons on Mary’s shirt were made from mother of pearl. Speaking of mothers, he may have then said, your mother has always been very patient with me. Sitting behind him that night, I wondered whether holding up his phone was this man’s way of asking his daughter to remember the things he had told her about who he had once been in another time and place. I wondered whether the she in this equation was sitting wherever she was sitting with the phone to her ear for his sake or hers.
As a teenager I watched the movie Harold and Maude thinking what an eccentric hobby it would be to spend one’s spare time attending strangers’ funerals. That’s what you are supposed to think when you watch that movie; its eccentricity is the engine of its charm. Yet in the past year, this extracurricular activity seems to be one I’ve begun cultivating. Last February I braved an hour and a half in the bitter cold outside Riverside Church in a line that wrapped around the corner and reached to Broadway to attend Odetta’s memorial service. In May, I finagled prime seats to Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Bash at Madison Square Garden. The concert may have been billed as a celebratory extravaganza but it resembled a memorial service in that the celebration was one of a life nearing its end, and Pete was more the theme of the evening than the primary performer. And now, the Mary Travers service, back again at Riverside. I plan to keep going as the services keep coming, which they will.
So far, the events I’ve attended have shared traits: length (they have all been at least four hours long), singing, the singing of specific songs (“This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Amazing Grace”), references to Selma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers, Nixon’s List of Enemies and Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, and famous faces on stage or at the pulpit podium (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Peter Yarrow, Bill Moyers). The crowd always knows the words to the songs, as well as to clap reverently while nodding knowingly at the mention of key cultural touchstones. To watch a crowd like this respond to the word “Vietnam” is akin to watching more traditional evangelical churchgoers respond to a particularly resonant passage from The Book of John.
I went with friends to the Odetta service and to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, and socialized with them throughout both, so sitting alone through Travers’ service was a new experience and one I intend to try again. All around me was a burgeoning community of mourners coming to pay their final respects and say goodbye to all that. The pews have been full thus far, but looking at that sea of gray hair I have begun wondering whether this Riverside pew community will begin to thin out as the services reach a fever pitch, then slowly fade to nothing. I keep picturing myself among the stragglers at these final services and us stragglers—us Harolds and Mauds—getting to know each other, making the pews a good place to be as our own hairs begin to gray.
A fair number of the people there had probably been at Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday as well. Many were the same people who had celebrated life in a different way fifty or sixty years ago, doing their small parts to imbue the words “Selma” and “Vietnam” with the meanings they have today. Many, but not all. Some were also young, some middle-aged. These are the ones I will sit with when the pew population thins out. I looked for them now and then among the faces in the crowd that night. I wondered whether one day one or more of them would confide to me that the same things that brought me to these pews had brought them as well.
When I first took my seat that evening, I noticed those around me taking stock of my person—my age, my moderately expensive handbag, my iPhone, my fur vest. Throughout the service the man on one side of me would occasionally lean over and quietly ask me a question. In each case, I couldn’t tell whether he was hard of hearing or whether he was quizzing me on my place in that pew. If it was a quiz, I failed. The woman on the other side of me would wait for my responses before correcting me.
“Who’s that?” he whispered, as a man with white hair in a grey suit took the podium.
“McGovern,” corrected the woman on my other side. I flushed.
As a string quartet played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” he turned to me again and whispered, “What movie is this from?”
“Platoon,” hissed the woman on my other side.
I wanted to apologize for getting his questions wrong even when I knew the answers. Instead, I smiled as I stood to leave five minutes early. For the past half hour people had been slipping out and I had begun to feel as if I had stayed too long at the party. I was neither family, friend, nor peer, after all. I wished them a good night, hoping that next time, I would answer their questions correctly, that I would know my history, for their sake and mine.
Goodbye to all that. You can’t write that phrase and not name-check Didion, who earned her reputation as the observer in their youth of the generation I was now observing in their age. In her famous essay, she explains how over the course of a decade, she fell in and then out of love with New York. She flew into the city at 20, a girl with all the time in the world, and she flew out of it at 29, a woman aware that neither time nor life were what they had been when she arrived. The essay is a memorial to a time and a place, and to a girl who had been and who that girl had become. It is melancholy and wry and wise and tender and bitter and sweet.
As it was beneath the arched stone ceilings of Riverside Church, beneath the strict architecture of Didion’s sentences, there is a great deal of emotion churning that people understand. Sitting in the church that night with nearly 2,000 people who remembered where they were and what they were doing on those days in 1968—more than a decade before I was born—when the gunshots sounded in Memphis and Los Angeles and their youth ended, I realized that just because these people had said goodbye to all that does not mean they ever let it go; that’s what memorial services like this were for. While some of the famous folkies may have lived fast, that was not the image they were projecting. The movement’s breakout stars were people who resembled, at least superficially, your average guy and gal who wanted to change the world and make it a better place back in the day; the folkies most resembled the everyday members of that generation. The ones dying now are not dying young, troubled, or tragically; these are the ones who have just gotten old and sick.
I never worry much about the fate of classical music or the novel when I catch talking heads bemoaning their imminent demises. I have a feeling both will find ways to weather their current and future storms with an audience to support them spiritually if not financially. I don’t know if I can say the same for folk music. It rose to popularity as a single generation came of age. It fell from grace when that generation got its rude awakenings. It has been growing old ever since alongside the people with whom it blossomed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it dies with them, too.
When Pete Seeger took the stage at Mary Travers’ memorial service, the entire room rose to its feet, a single organism, to give Seeger a standing ovation before his name had even been announced. Everyone in that room knew who the stooped old man carrying a banjo in the plaid shirt was. Last year, when I told friends—well-educated, left-leaning, socially-conscious individuals—I was going to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, more than a handful had responded saying, “Wait, that name is familiar. Who is that again?”
There’s a Tumblr site called My Parents Were Awesome where people can submit old photographs of their parents when their parents were young. The site is like a photo album for a generation, not the public face of that generation, but a more private one. There’s Jim with his long hair and beard smiling at Elaine with her long blond ponytail and paisley shirt. There’s Vilma bearing her middriff at a dancehall. There’s Karin and Gary snuggling on a lime green beanbag chair. There’s Jim, hairy and shirtless, standing in the doorframe above Sue in her swimsuit on the steps of a wood-framed cabin. There’s Bob sucking on a hookah at the dining room table, and a smiling David embracing a smiling Norma in a peasant shirt that billows over her pregnant belly.
My parents were awesome once, too. My mother left the chicken farm in Maine where she had grown up for adventures in rent-striking, a summer on a Massachusetts naked commune during which she ate a naked dinner with Taj Mahal, and a failed-yet-eye-opening attempt at group-living in Haight-Ashbury; and my father, the architect and painter, who escaped the stifling atmosphere of country club St. Louis life for Cambridge and the offices of Hugh Newell Jacobson and Jose Luis Sert. They weren’t exactly hippies or fervent subscribers to any particular counter-cultural trend, but they were young and open to experiences and taking chances with their lives.
For years, there was a large painting of a suitcase hanging in my parents’ living room in Virginia. When I would ask about it my mother would respond, “Oh, that’s just by an old girlfriend of your father’s back in Cambridge.” I always wondered why my mother was okay with the fact that this strange still-life hung in our family living room, but it seemed to be something I would never understand. I’ve seen too the clothes my mother wore then. I fit into them in high school: the pink Mexican dress that ended halfway down my thigh, the brown and white striped Marimekko shift cut for a stick figure. I remember when she first brought them out of the attic for me to try on. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking at me in the Marimekko. “It fits you perfectly.” I continued growing, of course, and the dress hasn’t fit me for years. I don’t even know where it is now—whether it’s packed back away in some attic box that I will find when I have reason to go through those boxes, or whether I forgot it at a friend’s house or left it behind in a hotel room somewhere along the line.
There is a photograph I have on the refrigerator of my Brooklyn apartment that I think illustrates a moment of transition in my parents’ lives between who they were once and who they are now. It’s a family portrait taken on my mother’s childhood farm. My mother, in oversized sunglasses and her long hair pulled back, is beaming and holding the reins of my grandfather’s appaloosa. My father, in his aviators and chin-length hair, is standing behind the horse. You can’t quite see it, but you know his left hand is supporting me at six-months-old perched in the western saddle in front of my sister, who was seven years old at the time and who has her arms wrapped tightly around my babyness to make sure I don’t tip over and fall off. My parents are still relatively young here, they both look young and as if they might still occasionally act young around their friends. When my own friends come over and notice the picture, they often do a double take between me in real life, and my mother frozen in time. “You two look exactly alike,” they say.
The photograph, snapped in 1980, is in color, but the color wears that yellow coat of time. It is maybe the only photograph I have of my family in which I can see, for my parents, the continuity between their youth and their age. That said, I write this in a moment that I recognize as yet another time of transition in all our lives. The baby in the picture has just turned 30 and my father celebrates his 70th birthday in May. The hand holding up the baby in the photograph is slowly being lifted up and away from horse, saddle, and the blond seven-year-old as well.
My father, who has taught architecture at the University of Virginia for more than three decades, has been trying to pin down his retirement plans for years. He would habitually drag his feet when the topic came up, but this past summer, he set a date: May 2010. Two months later, the 36-year-old who was once the blond seven-year-old was diagnosed with cancer. There’s still the four of us for now, but there are also other things.
I discovered the music of the folk revival movement after watching The Eyes on the Prize PBS series about the Civil Rights Movement in my eighth grade civics class with Mr. Moore and wondering about the soundtrack. Mr. Moore wasn’t crazy about getting up to the blackboard to lecture us, so he showed us movies instead. The Eyes on the Prize series took up a good two weeks of class time and by the time we had finished it I had decided I wanted to be a folk singer when I grew up because that was an effective way to change the world. I remember coming home each day after school and asking my parents about whether they had been to Selma or the March on Washington or where they had been when Dr. King was shot and how they had confronted their own parents about politics and whether they had ever seen Dylan in concert, or Odetta. To some questions they answered “Yes, and he was rude,” and to some, “No,” sometimes adding, “but we did watch on television and were of course sympathetic.” I was disappointed that they hadn’t been more politically strident, but was glad they hadn’t been boring either.
I don’t know if folk music is still an effective method of changing the world, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it and for the sincere singers who popularized what became anthems for my parents’ generation. That said, I’m not and never have been a huge fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary. For all the individual strength of Mary’s vocals, I’ve always thought of the group as a little bland. Although my parents know all the songs and have memories of the group from when they were young, they feel—and felt—the same way; my parents and I have always preferred Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Arlo and Joan and Joni and Dylan. I did, however, at some point during my adolescence buy a CD or two of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s music that I would listen to occasionally. The first (and only) time I ever tried to add my own verses to a folk song was in ninth grade after repeatedly listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “500 Miles.” “If you miss the train I’m on,” the song goes, “you will know that I am gone…” I cannot remember what new stanzas I wrote down in the song notebook I kept, but I do remember how encouraging my parents both were when I came downstairs to sing for them with the guitar they had bought me.
I went to Mary’s memorial service, not for Mary so much as for my family. These days, when I talk to my parents on Sunday evenings as is our routine, we ask each other what we’ve done during the week. I tell them about the parties I’ve been to and the music I’ve been to hear and the museum exhibitions I have every good intention of attending. They tell me that the dog is well fed, that they talked to my sister a few days ago, and that things in general are just fine. But more and more, they’ve been telling me, too, about who doesn’t know how he hurt his back and who is feeling sad about her childrens’ life choices and who needs a hip replacement and who died quietly from a heart attack the day after he had gone out and bought himself a new computer. Every six weeks or so, we’ll go through the “What did you do this week?” routine, and they will run through the typical list of responses before I will say, “What else?” and they will then hesitate before elaborating: “Well, we went to so-and-so’s funeral. It was nice.” Most of the time it’s just an acquaintance or neighbor they have lived down the street from for 35 years, but sometimes too, and with increasing frequency, it is a beloved old boss or friend. I think then about Mom and Dad coming home from these services, my father calling to the dog and retreating to his studio, my mother going to her computer to see if there is a new email waiting for her in her inbox from either me or my sister. I can only hope we don’t let her down too often.
I knew when I told my parents over the telephone I had gone to Mary Travers’ memorial service that—even though they hadn’t been fans per se—they would want to hear all about it, just as they had wanted to know every detail when I told them I had gone to Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday. I could hear it in their voices as they asked me questions—Who spoke? What did you sing? Did many young people go? Did you have a good time? Who went with you?—that they wished they could have been there. In each case, I tried to tell them everything I could remember to make what I had seen come alive for them, but I am a poor storyteller and I know my paltry accounts left them unsatisfied after we had exchanged “I love yous” and hung up the phone.
Riverside Church it is not yet a confirmed venue on the old folkie memorial service circuit, but my money’s on the likelihood of it becoming one. It is an interdenominational church with a liberal tradition. Martin Luther King spoke there, Nelson Mandela has too. The walls soar up past scenes in stained glass from the life of Christ to a domed ceiling. Church acoustics are always tricky, especially when the place has to accommodate more than a single voice. Sounds bounce from wall to wall to wall so that when you are singing as part of a group you can never be sure if you are singing to the intended beat or to your own imagined tempo; it’s nearly impossible to discern whether what you are hearing and following is coming directly from the choir and choir director, or from an echo across the room. Not even Pete Seeger, the master song director himself, can overcome this technical glitch. That night, my corner of the room reached the final line of “This Little Light of Mine” at least a measure ahead of Seeger and his banjo that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Outside, the church dwarfs the other buildings on its quiet Harlem corner and opens onto Riverside Drive. Unlike the great cathedrals of Europe, it does not open onto a city square in which pigeons beg for birdseed, men with carts sell postcards, and enterprising artists sell watercolors to tourists. Instead, it opens onto a scene that at first appears more modest but is really just more American. From the front steps you look out not at other buildings enclosing you inside the city, but to Riverside Park, the Hudson, and across the state line to the trees of Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Even the church’s name reminds me of its political and social allegiances. It was probably an unintentional allusion, but nonetheless when I think about the church I soon find myself humming an old Baptist spiritual co-opted by the folk revival movement: Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside…
I met the first boy I ever really loved during our first week of college in 1998. We sat next to each other at a lecture being given by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin. It was a small lecture hall and only half full. Coffin had been the outspoken and progressive chaplain at Yale during the Civil Rights Movement and then served as a senior minister at Riverside through the late Eighties. He retired to Vermont, not far from where I arrived that September, more than a decade younger than I am now. I don’t remember exactly what he lectured on that evening, but I do remember his thick white hair and how whatever it was he was saying was what I wanted to hear when I was scared and lonely, missing home and my parents intensely: stuff about taking on the world and doing the right things and making our families proud and one day, too, ourselves and our own children. Coffin died in 2006 at age 82, two and a half years after the boy I met that night when I was 18 years old broke my heart.
The boy and I didn’t start dating immediately as I had thought we would when we said goodbye to each other that night in the chilly New Hampshire darkness outside the lecture hall. In fact, we didn’t even know each other until we met again and started dating a couple of years later. We were a case of opposites attracting. I am highly sensitive and impulsive where he was (and is) analytical and methodical. It took me a long time to understand him, but my lack of understanding never meant a lack of sympathy, respect, or comfort. I always remembered how something had brought him to that auditorium his first week of college, how he had been there, his knee touching my knee, as we forgot—temporarily—our anxieties about our new lives. When we were together, I would sometimes ask him if he remembered that night and he never did. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember?” I would ask. “We went to see William Sloane Coffin. We sat next to each other. I knew then that everything was going to be alright so far away from home.” In response, he would smile and shake his head. “No,” he would say, “I don’t remember, but I believe you.”
Image credit: Fabian