The Glimmering Hush
I couldn’t divorce my process of writing Whiskey & Ribbons from Bon Iver’s music, even if I tried. From the moment I heard their first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, I connected the songs to that book and those characters. The last song on the album, “Re: Stacks,” has always been the one I envisioned playing after a reader read the last word and closed the book. I, like so many people, was immediately emotionally attached to that album and have listened to it on repeat for days and days, even leaving it on in the background when I’m only barely paying attention to it. I love having it in the atmosphere because it’s gentle and pretty and only around thirty-seven minutes long, mostly just a guy and his guitar. And it’s not only that Bon Iver album that I love so dearly, it’s their entire discography.
One day while I was listening to Bon Iver I asked my kids what they thought of the music, if they liked it, and they said yes. “It’s quiet,” they said. And that’s exactly the reason I love Bon Iver albums so much—the quiet, although the songs can get quite busy. But even when the music is sometimes chaotic, there’s still a quietness to it, sonically. That’s the reason I can listen to the albums on repeat all day long, the reason I thank Bon Iver in my novel acknowledgments. Because of at times sentimental, intense, or even overwhelming and/or embarrassing emotions laid bare, coupled with deliberate room and quiet to process those emotions after experiencing them. It’s forever inspiring and necessary to me. Justin Vernon, Bon Iver’s principal genius, recorded For Emma, Forever Ago, in an isolated cabin, during a Wisconsin winter. The album ends with roughly forty seconds of purposeful silence, the time and space to think about what we’ve listened to.
Vernon has a music project with Aaron Dessner of the National called Big Red Machine, and in their song “Forest Green,” Vernon repeats the phrase “I was gonna give you all of my time. More time. More time. I was gonna go and get you more time. More time, more time.”
“I need long stretches of time to work on my books” is something I said to my mom last week when we were attempting to make plans to get together. It’s the only way I can explain why I sometimes have to say no to being social more than two days in a row and why when I come back home from traveling for book events, I need a few days or more to recharge and decompress. It’s why I’ve deleted all social media apps from my phone. I do my best writing and thinking at home, when I don’t have to be anywhere, when I can spend an entire hour or two on one sentence. The summer is nice because I don’t have carpool duties or as many other distracting demands on my time, and I can let the day reach out in front of me. My husband’s corporate job puts the food on our table, keeps the roof over our head, and I’m grateful I can devote myself full-time to being a homemaker and a writer.
In early July, I read as part of an art installation called Escape at the Eaux Claires Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Escape was a tiny air-conditioned house by the Chippewa River, and in groups of one to five, people would come inside and listen to a writer read to them. Escape was an escape from crowds, from the noise and heat and mosquitoes. The people who came inside were warm and quiet. I read flash fiction from my first short story collection Every Kiss a War. We were short on time, only together for four to five minutes, which made the whole experience pleasantly intimate and intense. Small.
Vernon and Dessner founded the festival, but Mike Perry, an awesome writer and Vernon’s dear friend, didn’t know when he asked me to be a part of Eaux Claires that I had thanked Bon Iver in my novel’s acknowledgments. It was a treat to be able to tell Justin thank you in person. The festival was really groovy and special in a way that not all music festivals are. (I spent a lot of my college years going to music festivals, waiting in hot, long lines for dirty Porta Potties, waiting in hot, long lines for $11 cans of shitty beer.) Eaux Claires was different not only because I was invited as an artist, but also because the festival leans heavily on spontaneity and wonderful weirdness. Musicians performed in the middle of the forest, on platforms surrounded by mirrors. White helium-filled balloons with little lights inside lined many of the paths leading festival-goers to performance spaces and there was a nonstop duck-blind deejayed dance party in the trees. Backstage, I had the pleasure of meeting another Oxford American contributor, Julien Baker, who not only writes the “Getting Out of the Way” By and By column, but also has a soaring, amazing voice that I got to hear firsthand, carrying up and out over the trees, to the bluest summer skies and puff-white clouds. The Wisconsin weather was beautiful. I also heard Big Red Machine’s “Forest Green” and its invocation of more time when I was up in Wisconsin. After Wisconsin, for the first time since late winter I’d have two months off from traveling. The second week in July, I could finally put away the suitcases that had been packed since early March. From the moment I heard the song, the repetition of “more time, more time” got stuck in my head—as I was washing my face at night, as we were driving home, as I was unpacking. I listened to the song over and over again the way I always listen to Justin Vernon’s music, attempting to decode the lyrics and to let his voice ribbon through the quiet spaces.
Shortly after we arrived home in Kentucky, I got a dramatic, near-tragic demonstration of the power of those words in the song. While out at a coffee shop, my husband rushed over to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a small child who was choking. Like so many scary, life-threatening things, it all happened so fast. The child’s mother, screaming help me oh my God in a rising, terrifying panic. Me, jumping to my feet and responding with tears. My husband, realizing what was going on and running over to look at the child’s face before getting behind him and performing the Heimlich four times—until the child forcibly spit out the huge gummy frog that had been on top of his ice cream. It was such a blessing and relief that the child was okay and that my husband was able to react superhero-quick. A perfectly normal evening and coffee date quickly turned into a life or death situation—a reminder of how precious and fragile our existence is, and the mystery of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time.
This came after a recent, sudden death in our family and news of other people younger than we are who had passed away. Violence, accidents, these human bodies turning on and betraying us. Because of all of it, because of my faith and how I react to the gravity of being alive, I couldn’t stop thinking about life, death, time, and James 4:14. “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
“Heaven’s My Home” by Sam & Ruby is on this Glimmering Hush playlist because that title rings very true to me. I know my time is limited, even if I’m fortunate enough to live to be an old woman. Being hyperaware of my mortality means I’m hyperaware of time. I respect and cherish and don’t want to squander it. I want to fill it with the best things and I want it to be as free from anxiety or darkness or noise as possible. I want to spend it looking up and giving and looking out for people. I know I will always want more time.
More time, more time.
I was thinking of that on my walk this morning when I saw one of my favorite birds—the bright yellow American Goldfinch—take flight. I absolutely love goldfinches and they’re busy and active in late summer because they nest later than other birds. Goldfinches take their time. As soon as I saw the yellow flash, before it vanished like mist against the blue, I thought, I’m walking right here at the right time, otherwise I would’ve missed it.
I’m so glad I had the time to get the timing right. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
THE GLIMMERING HUSH PLAYLIST: August
“The Glimmering Hush” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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