Like a Window in Your Heart
For a long time, I thought of Paul Simon’s song “Graceland” as simply an ode to the Elvis Presley estate in Memphis, Tennessee, which, I, too, visited many years ago. For some of us, Graceland is a pilgrimage, a musical space that serves as destination location. One has to visit Graceland. After all, in my work office, I hang pictures of the holy trinity: Dylan, Zappa, and Elvis. I don’t even say his last name. Just Elvis. Going to Graceland was a major event for me. I had wanted to visit for some time. Simon’s song captured that spirit as he travels with his son, his nine year old companion, through the cradle of the Civil War and toward the site. The other day, however, I focused on this part of the song, which, for whatever reason, had avoided my attention all these years:
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “Losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart”
These are powerful lyrics regarding love and its loss. “Graceland,” it seems, is also a song about lost love. It’s a song also, maybe, about Carrie Fisher and Simon’s failed marriage and on again off again relationship with her. It’s a song about an escape to a place, where Elvis lived, in order to move away from relationship loss. It’s not, then, a song about musical pilgrimage. It’s a song about personal pilgrimage. A simple reading, I know. But for years, I heard this song — it comes on the radio every few days or pops up on my Spotfiy every so often — and I never thought about “Graceland” as a story about losing love being like a window in your heart. Whenever I heard this song, I thought about Elvis. I thought about the physical place called Graceland where you buy your tickets to visit Elvis’ home on one side of the street and then take a shuttle to the other side of the street for the visit. I thought about Elvis’ lush shag carpet and — by current standards — gaudy interior decorating. I thought about the Elvis’ grave, which I took a picture of and can no longer find. I thought about Elvis. I did not think about losing love.
What do I think about these days in quarantine? Like most people, I think about haircuts and seeing friends face to face, and drinking beer in a taproom again, and having something to do or somewhere physical to go to on a given day, and escaping the monotony of sheltering in place. During COVID, I think about fear and panic and the way such emotions get tangled up in news headlines and Facebook posts and university concerns about how we will return in the Fall when our campuses are not prepared for social distancing or alternative methods of teaching. I think about people worried about wearing masks in public and people who direct attention to people who do not want to wear masks in public. I think about openings and closings and days that sit heavy with idleness and lack of motivation. I think about people clamoring for the city to reopen and those who think it should remained closed for some time. I think about losing love. I’ve thought about that for some time now, long before COVID.
Paul Simon is one of my favorite song writers. He can insert into a song lyrics that stop me and cause me to reflect on sadness or loneliness or desperation or damage. While “Graceland’s” story of losing love has long eluded me, “Hearts and Bones”” declaration of his marital conflict with Carrie Fisher never has:
One and one-half wandering Jews
Returned to their natural coasts
To resume old acquaintances
Step out occasionally
And speculate who had been damaged the most
Who has been damaged the most. I’ve cited this line often in conversation with others. I cite this line often in conversation with myself, during quarantined days of solitude where I talk to myself often and philosophize many things internally. Who has been damaged the most. Damage is a competition for some. Damage drives relationships into the ground as each person struggles to maintain supremacy in the childhood/adult trauma department. People carry private damages around with them, secrets that may subtly surface from time to time or not. Others parade their damages online and in person, bragging about their grief and medication dosages that are supposed to counter that grief. I have my own damage, as we all do, but a middle class upbringing in the suburbs of Miami in a stable family isn’t very competitive with someone else’s trauma and damage. I can’t win the who has been damaged the most contest even if I tried. Damage is all around us. The economy is damaged. Businesses are damaged. Lives, lost to COVID, are damaged as are the loved ones left behind. All around this virus based damage remains personal damage, people dealing with their demons and trauma and speculations about whether they are the most damaged or not. I spent many years listening to, interacting with, and not understanding how to respond to another’s such damage. Nothing I could have done would have helped. We were in a competition I was not participating in.
Simon’s musings on damage and losing love suddenly stick out for me when, in the past, they did not. The song is called “Graceland,” but there is another story embedded in the song, a love story that only now, with a tiny bit of extended observation, sticks out for me. The obvious generalization (Elvis) hid the detail (lost love). What doesn’t stick out for us today? What is too general or too obvious? Everything feels so obvious even if nothing really is. Our news cycles are expectedly caught up in pandemic related issues and promises that because of the virus X (airline travel, dining out, higher education, etc.) will never be the same again. Nothing is supposed to be the same again. Every pandemic in history, whether the plague or the Spanish Flu, led to changes in medicine or how we understand disease or other issues, but did not change X forever. We had sports after the Spanish Flu. We had travel. We had entertainment and dining out. We had higher education. News is sweeping. Generalizing. News delivers the obvious, not the detail that sticks out. Nothing is allowed to stick out. A song, on the other hand, is quick, emotional, with lyrics we catch or do not catch as we listen. We listen intently with headphones, or we listen while jogging, talking to others, driving, working, doing the dishes, etc. We listen but we don’t listen. We accept the obvious: it’s a song playing. It’s natural that a set of lyrics about losing love might get lost in a song which heralds Graceland as a pilgrimage. I was listening to the song. I was not listening to the lyrics. Relationships, marriages, love, etc. function the same. We listen. We don’t listen. Not a very profound thought, I know. Neither is my reading of “Graceland.”
Over this past year, I’ve felt nothing will be the same again. Not my life. Not love. Not my children’s lives. Not my career. Not my writing. Not how I present myself online and in person. Not how others think about me. That’s not entirely bad. Things have to change. Too often, though, they change for the worse. Think about the other part in “Hearts and Bones” where Simon sings:
Looking back through the cracks in the door
Two people were married
The act was outrageous
The bride was contagious
She burned like a bride
These events may have had some effect
On the man with the girl by his side
These events may have had some effect. They did, of course, as the characters in the song are headed for divorce. Something damaged him. Something damaged her. Damage, if it does not evoke change, generates abandonment. We can quickly become abandoned as in a divorce or as in solitude. Sometimes my life feels as it felt about 30 years ago — a little bit lost, a little bit lonely, a little bit out of sorts in a damaged world, a little bit abandoned. A little bit damaged. Damages change, of course, and become other types of damages. I’ve been writing about vulnerability and openness lately because I embrace each more and more even if this writing damages my public image (if, indeed, I ever had one). I’m fine being vulnerable. To say that losing love is like a window in your heart is to say one is open to allowing others to see what one feels only after one has experienced damage. That’s the wrong way to live out this short life. Why wait until you lose love to allow others to see what one feels? I made that mistake too often in my life. My father never said “I love you” to me when I was a kid or much after. He, though, was a very damaged man. I tell my kids all the time I love them — whether it’s when I’m dropping them off at school and I want to embarrass them or when I want them to know how much I feel this emotion for them. I wouldn’t tell a woman I love her unless I really did; but I can easily tell her how much I like her before love sets in. I have no problem with windows to the heart. Therapy should tell me (and I guess it has) that my father not expressing love damaged me. I’m sure it did. But this is not a competition.
COVID-19 will damage us in ways we haven’t anticipated. This is why I am suspicious of the “end of” narrative popular in various publications or commentaries that already anticipate a future. Damage seldom leads to the end of. Many people who find that losing love is like a window to the heart do, in fact, identify with the end of: end of being loved or wanted or happy or whatever. But most people move on. Economies collapse under the pressure of closures and unemployment. But they often bounce back at some point. Isolation and sheltering at home will lead to divorce and depression and anxiety and various other emotional ailments lurking under the surface of our most vulnerable anxieties that didn’t just appear but were there all along. Most of us will recover. This, too, is a generalization. This too is writing that leaves out all of the details that will inevitably stick out. “Graceland” is one kind of generalization; the news another, my brief commentary yet another.
Elvis was damaged. That detail sticks out for those who know a little about him and his drug and possible food addiction. That detail never appears in the Elvis generalizations bordering on the obvious: the king of rock and roll, the appropriator, the jump suit, the bad movies, the early death, the gaudy mansion turned tourist attraction. I turn to writing when I’m feeling damaged. Writing is my space for personal pilgrimage. Writing, too, is the window in my heart. When I went to Graceland years ago, I was not alone. I was in a young relationship that did not feel damaged. As I would learn years later, there may have been vulnerable anxieties lurking under the surface that did not appear, but had been there a long time. When we went to Europe last year, we went to Brussels prior to a trip to a conference in Ghent. We were damaged. Badly damaged. Almost divorced once and on the verge of a very real divorce. Thirteen years earlier, we spent our honeymoon in Brussels. As we walked through the city, I noticed similar sites and attractions and restaurants we had seen thirteen years earlier. As we walked, I noticed Le Poechenellekelder, a bar we had sat in thirteen years earlier when newly married. We entered and sat again. My kids played on devices. I ordered a Cantillon. I drank one thirteen years earlier as well. I’ve told this story before, I’m sure. I’ve told it to myself and to others and, most likely, in my writing. The damaged stories repeat. They are in competition with one another, each attempting to be the dominant narrative in an over generalized tale where details do not stick out. Each embedded in the other story that is being told.
I should have heard “Hearts and Bones” in my head as we sat there. COVID-19 did not yet exist. COVID-19 was not yet threatening the end of. But it was the end of. I felt it while I sat there at a table with three other people in what was once a family. Even as I write this, I hear the voice of Paul Simon embedded in my own. What was once. Damaged the most. The details that stick out. Within a thirteen year span a virus of a different sort entered and exited and then settled in to make everyone sick. The generalization of this trip might have been something akin to the narrative of return, two people coming back to the place where a new relationship once formed, a personal pilgrimage of sorts to the bars and restaurants that inaugurated a marriage, “the last leg of a journey they started a long time ago,” as Simon sings in “Hearts and Bones.” These events, all of these events in that span of a virus, had some effect on the man with the girl by his side. They still do. Stores open and close during pandemics that flatten and return. Relationships do too. This, as well, is not a profound thought. It’s just a piece of writing. Another piece of writing written during a pandemic and during a period of another type of closure, with its brief openings throughout, and more openings to come.