Week 382 // On the Verge of Closing off Ancient Circles

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Goodness gracious
Sorting out all these pages
On the verge of
Closing off ancient circles

Do the impossible
Weigh down the line
With just your hand
Pay yourself in phrases

First impressions
Dash away first impressions
Then destruction
Tear the world down around you

Do the impossible
Make the world rhyme
With just a gesture
Pay yourself in platitudes

Oh the morning
All the words swirl around the morning
Oh the fisherman
Sets out to
Fill up his net again

Do the impossible
Run for your life
And don’t look behind you
Pay yourself in phrases

Notes
As introspective and personal as this project has been over the years, there’s a fairly gaping hole in my personal experience that I tend not to write about very often. I will turn to my long-time listeners to correct me, but I think the last time I explicitly wrote about writing was the funky and endearingly weird “Week 200 // Mount Everest“, the self-titled anniversary track that anthropomorphized this very website.

This track is fairly loose and less ambitious by comparison, but it cuts to some of the same truths of how entwined this writing process and I have become. This track wonders aloud about the dangling themes and threads I have never resolved over the years of ponderous writing that this project has traversed. Truly, I’m never really on the verge of closing off any of these “ancient circles”, as I have termed my ever returning topics and musings in this song. Most thoughts can’t resolve. That isn’t really the point of writing them down, or singing them, or playing them out loud. The point is to interrogate a notion from a slightly different angle each time, and to fill in a piece I haven’t actively noticed before.

Anyhow, writing about writing can be rightly skewered as metatextual navel-gazing, but I think I’ve earned it at this point.

~M.E.

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Week 381 // Islands

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Sew it on your jacket
A badge to stake your claim
The only image like it
Never one the same

Moon above this island
A mournful eye does watch
And somehow landlocked I am
A circle of a thought

Oh the army waiting
Grand archway they will cross
The grass is red and laden
The islands never lost

Notes
This week’s song is a broad sketch of the city and the people in it. I’m playing with the geographic and personal barriers that make New Yorkers islands within islands. I’m also somehow interested in the land as a historical series of battlegrounds. Those battles have been both of wars for the continent, and of personal struggles upon slivers of land over which to lay claim. They are in the past, and they persist. I watch them play out on the street, outside my window, on the bus, beneath the sidewalks, and on park benches.

This song is an approaching shape of an idea that I am trying to tease out. I suspect that there is a cycle of songs dealing with these notions on the way, or perhaps I am already in the midst of it. I think before my next entry, I have to take a step back and hear what I have been writing lately. I haven’t kept up a practice of listening to myself in recent months. I fear writing in a vacuum, locked away from a productive dialogue with my own ideas. I want to locate what I am feeling within the recent body of work, and then respond to what I hear. Stand by for more.

~M.E.

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Week 380 // Admission

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I’ve got my
Golden ticket
I keep it
Back at the candy store
Expect us
Uninvited
What are these
Deadbolts even for?

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before, not once

My thoughts are
White as ever
Hosanna
Praise the coming war
Remember
To hold the island
Whatever
Were the bridges for?

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before

Remember
Not ever
Remember
Not ever
Remember
Not ever

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before

Good answer
Great thinking
I’d never ever
Thought of that before

Notes
I’m having trouble writing about this song without falling on my own sword. I’ll attempt to be honest. I’m trying to deal with my own racist thoughts and deeds. Living in a diverse neighborhood of a diverse city, I frequently encounter my neighbors of color while combatting thoughts, biases, and fears that circle around my head like racist gnats. As a progressive, I tell myself that my awareness of this problem is a good start. I don’t know whether or not it is. I want to be better than I am.

A lot of white people are congratulating themselves for loving the new film, Black Panther. It’s a great movie, an important movie, and it’s awesome that it is so well received. I have taken great interest in watching the surrounding public conversations about race, representation, and colonialism unfold. I have tried to read more than write about it, and listen at least as much as I speak. Still, I’m amused by the soft awakenings to racism that happen in the context of pseudo events like the release of a thought provoking film in an unexpected space such as superhero cinema. People like me start to have conversations that include epiphanies about the struggles of others. We talk about the subject as if it is new and novel. We come to simple conclusions, and feel proud of ourselves for making intellectual leaps that require the slightest amount of empathy.

This song is an admission that I do all of these things. It’s a sardonic indictment of the shallow epiphanies beheld by white progressives, set against the naked racism and entitlement that I inhabit and hope to transcend somehow. I offer a chorus of white voices congratulating each other for what fascinating ideas they have about subjects they’ve done little work to engage. I’m trying to admit how little I know.

~M.E.

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Week 379 // Into the Field

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The field is aglow
On the night before the rain
It’s a storm that always seems
To come this way
It blows this way
Always once a year

The tracks in the yard
All the way to the door
It’s a cold cold night
And I don’t live here no more
It’s a stranger’s home

So please follow me into the field
Look for me out in the storm
Watch as I crack like a limb from a tree
Darling, stand with me waiting for more

It’s the door around the back
With the fog in the glass
I’ll trace our initials there
And they’ll disappear too fast
They’ll disappear way too fast

My love, follow me into the field
Look for me out in the storm
Watch as I crack like a limb from a tree
Darling, stand with me waiting for more

Notes
I rarely ever listen back to my old songs anymore. If I did, I think I’d be struck by their open spaces, in deep contrast to the concrete and steel of my recent works. Even as I’ve drifted ever toward being far more of a folk musician than a rock musician, the work has become distinctly urban. That’s my life now, so it’s also my song.

Still, from time to time I visit old places in my words. New England often feels like a dream. As I round the bases in New York for the fifth time, I wonder about my sense of place. I feel a longing for, and alienation from my old home that I can’t shake, even as I understand my purpose in the place where I live, and count the many blessings my life here has granted me.

In this song, I float like a ghost outside my old home, looking for a an anchor to a place where I haven’t made my life for some time. I think I could have dug a bit deeper into these themes, and I suspect I will someday. Still the lilt and turn are authentic, and I like how this came out.

~M.E.

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Week 378 // A Midnight Song

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This is a midnight song
Every night I sing it to the cars passing by
Radio sings back to me while I shut my eyes
But sleep is not to visit for a long long time

This is an old refrain
Everyone has got a cross and this one’s mine
The rooftop signals stretch for miles and I lose time
And all the neighbors count their blessings

Won’t it please come back to me tonight
Can’t it please come back again

This is the floodlight moon
The two cut down last week for coming home too soon
The groceries scattered on the walk, what can I do
but lie awake at night next to you

This is a midnight song
Every night I sing it to the cars passing by
Radio sings back to me while I shut my eyes
And sleep is not to visit for a long long time

Won’t it please come back to me tonight
Can’t it please come back again

Notes
After last week’s umpteenth song about being kind of broke, I thought I’d follow up with another riff from my greatest hits by playing around for the umptieth time with the subject of my ever returning sleeplessness. However, “A Midnight Song” shortly took a turn I didn’t quite see coming. I began to ponder not merely my own sleeplessness, but the restlessness of my whole neighborhood following a brutal crime that took place not far away at all last week.

I live in a neighborhood filled with with families and seniors. The typical mild crime that takes place in the area seems to be drug related, which means that most of my neighbors don’t have much to fear from it. It doesn’t involve them. That line was crossed last week, when an attempted robbery turned deadly. There is a sense of sorrow and nervousness in the air that you can chew on.

I often lie awake late at night, peering out my window at the few lights that remain on in the apartments across the way. Those lights represent the others like me; the others who, for their own reasons, can’t settle their minds to find the rest they’ve earned. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but these past few nights, more windows seem to be lit up. We’re still trying to settle down again.

~M.E.

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Week 377 // Quite Large, Viewed from a Distance

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The ride is too long
But it gets me uptown
Pass the time to the rant of a seer
An evangelist getting around
And the end might be nigh
And our sins might consume us
And I’ll catch the rest soon enough

I got a pocket of change
Plenty more where that came from
Rub two dimes together
Check me out darling
No telling now what I’ll become
And the beggars can wait
And the tax man can wait
We’ll be staying out later than we should

On the way to the pawn shop
Not all that long ago
Making bets on the price of my banjo
And counting how far I think it might go
Just a mile or two
Or a decade or two
Or New York City with you

Notes
I have spent a lot of time broke. I’m not proud of it, but it’s a fact of my history that is evident to anyone who has paid attention to any sustained run of these songs. I sing about being down on my luck a lot, and it’s not some intellectual exercise in empathy. I really did pawn a banjo for rent money one time. And a keyboard. And a bass. And a bunch of other stuff. I’ve also had a ton of help over the years, so when I’m singing about being broke, it’s important to note that I’m not really singing about being poor. I’ve never faced the existential threat of poverty. After all, I had a banjo to pawn in the first place. And a bass. And a keyboard. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

Still, it’s a relief to ride around beneath New York with the best paycheck I’ve had in a little while. I don’t mean to be a braggart. I haven’t got enough to brag. It’s just that this isn’t a fun place to be broke. Walking out the door exacts a fee, and it isn’t small. It causes one to view the city from a distance, even from within. Look, but don’t touch New York. Hold your breath until you get home. You made it home, just don’t check your balance. You’re not tired? Go to bed early anyway. It’s for your own good.

This growly waltz is a song I’ve written a bunch of times, or close to it. I like this version. It’s pretty honest.

~M.E.

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Week 376 // A Tether

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Trailing behind me
A gossamer string
If ever I must find my way back
It’s waiting for me

Wherever I must go
What monsters wait for me
What horror lurks below
I’m counting on that string
to lead me through the danger
To guide me past the strangers back to you
To safety

The night is a strange thing
The mind walks alone
The trap in an innocent dream
The edges aglow

Wherever I must go
What monsters wait for me
What horror lurks below
I’m counting on that string
to lead me through the danger
To guide me past the strangers back to you
To safety

Notes
My friend David had a marvelous jam session for his birthday party. I’m not accustomed to playing much music in groups any more, so it was great fun to break out of the typical solitude of Mount Everest for an afternoon. For the occasion, I took my antique mandolin out of its case for the first time in a couple of years. It is a splendid old axe that was given to me by my Dad many years ago. It can’t be said to be in perfect condition, with cracked enamel, and a pick guard that broke five or six years back. Still, its intonation is rock solid. Its neck is straight, and it plays much like new. If you are a long-time listener, you might have heard it before, but you would have to ponder back to the early days. When I came home, I didn’t put the mandolin away. I decided to make up a new song first.

My wife will confirm that I am often an anxious man. I am wracked with worry late at night, and I am often disturbed from sleep by fitful dreams. This little mandolin tune is about the tether that I can follow back to a feeling of security and calm. It is for Rebecca.

~M.E.

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Week 375 // Shadow

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I chase my shadow
Into the new year
Where does it go?

Lost in the gaps
Between streetlights
On my way home

If I’m like a shadow
And I can loom larger
Why should I be small?

I’m like a guest
In the vapor
Do I belong?

I’m company kept
By a phantom
Follow along

And I will be long
Every afternoon
Limb like a spear

And I’ll seem to disappear
On cloudy days
But I will be here

If I’m like a shadow
And I can loom larger
Why should I be small?

So I’ll cast on the sidewalk
I’ll stretch across acres
I’ll cover it all

If I’m like a shadow
If I’m like a shadow

Notes
Yesterday, I sat down to write this song, and it spilled out of me in no time at all. When I had finished, I didn’t much care for what I had made. I felt that I had aimlessly reached for a metaphor, and failed to grasp it. What was I saying by comparing myself to a shadow? I alluded to their amorphous and phantom-like qualities. I drew out a conclusion about casting myself larger than I am, but what did I mean by that? Nonetheless, the song was complete, so I decided that I would attempt to rectify the seemingly shallow metaphor by improving it in a future effort.

Today I sat down with the recording, and I heard a song that I like. I may not have reached the depths of my lyrical potential, but I like the way the words play against the melody. I like the clarity of the vocal performance. I like the driving rhythm guitar. I like the hanging chords and choppy hits. It’s a fun song to listen to. These songs aren’t required to get to the bottom of something. They don’t all need to feel urgent or important. This project is about collecting valuable lessons about songwriting and creative practice, and this song contributed to that aim. I’m satisfied.

~M.E.

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Week 374 // All We Long to Know

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Hours pass
Where do they go?
Everyone I know is packing up their things
And heading nowhere

Foolish grin
Look to the sky
Everyone is pushing childish things aside
With good intentions
Stocking up the shelves
It’s true the wind can change at any second

So hold my hand a little longer
Help me onto my feet
Call the fear a distraction
‘Cause it is

Oh love of mine
What can you see?
By the light of morning
We will soon discern the shape before us
Everyone’s a goner, darling, even us
We won’t escape it

So hold my hand a little tighter
Help me back to my feet
Call my fear just a distraction
‘Cause it is

All we long to know
All we long to know

Notes
I have been working up to finishing this song for over a month. The guitar part first occurred to me in early December, during a trip with my wife to visit family in California. Sometimes when I discover a guitar lick or a melody that I like, I don’t have the guts to write the song right away. A byproduct of this project is that many songs don’t get the attention I might like to give them. Time constraints or other circumstances intervene. I’m constantly afraid that a potential gem will come into the world as a rushed, middling effort. So I put it off until a day when I can’t summon another idea to run with instead, and I hope against hope that I don’t mess up a good idea. I think I did alright by this one.

This song is another snapshot of my age. It is watching the the days pass like scenery out a car window. It is fear of change and mortality. It is the itch of ignorance of the future. It is waking up with equal parts trepidation and curiosity. It is asking for help making sense of it all, and getting the help you need.

~M.E.

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Week 373 // Trial and Error

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It’s a picture
Of a child
Did you know him?

Kid, you you can’t stand
At the edges
Of a landslide
It’ll get you there

In the morning
Letting go of it
In the evening
I will be there
And I can’t predict
Who survives

It’s a shadow
In the streetlight
That you recognize

Hey you can’t react
To the slightest
Provocation
“Cause you’re better than that

In the morning
Letting go of it
In the evening
I will be here
And I can’t predict
Who survives

Oh to be old and kind
Oh to be old and still kind

Notes
Old photographs never stop getting older. Every time I see myself as a child, the image seems a little bit more like somebody foreign to me. Over the years, I have appreciated that a lot of personal growth comes from the strength of our will to change. We experience a pitfall or face a challenge, and we adjust something small about our way of approaching the world. Over time, those adjustments become habits. After a while, a habit might become part of our character. It is hard to judge the success or failure of these calibrations with eyes on the present. That’s why old photographs can be jarring. The aggregated changes we’ve undergone can stand in contrast to an earlier state of being. By seeing who we were, we get a glimpse of who we’ve become, and can reflect on who we’d like to be. Then we adjust again, however subtly. It is a process of trial and error. Taking stock of this process, I wrote this song.

~M.E.

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