Flying Cowboys

I’m having a moment.

Potatoes are steaming on the stove top, garlic cloves on the cutting board, and Rickie Lee Jones on the turntable. It’s 2016, and I haven’t heard “Flying Cowboys” in at least a decade.

In this moment, making dinner in the kitchen, the wind whips through the trees outside. A tropical mist drizzles our island in grays, sputtering in gusts of chilly downpours. This minor nip has me cranking the oven, baking, and feeling cozy.

Jeb is taking care of some laundry in his room. The Bohemian (rained in) is taking a rare pause, reading a travel magazine and sharing a glass of red wine with me.

I stand at the stove, a living snapshot of warm domesticity, when the familiar intro notes of “Flying Cowboys” needles out from the vinyl on the record player. Just as one whiff of tomato soup can transport you to your grandmother’s kitchen thirty years ago, this guitar riff instantly sends me to the year I turned 21.

Twenty years old in Pacific Beach, California, I was trying to find my place in a town where I didn’t know how to do the parties, and I was always getting sunburnt. Just when I felt completely lost, I met a man twice my age, his chest-length beard gleamed with almond oil in the La Jolla sun. Having recently left a Sikh ashram after 20 years of devotion, he’d moved to the beach, and unleashed his long locks from the confines of his turban. At a time when my Religious Studies classes weren’t reaching me, this man walked the sands by my side, talking about the Infinite.

That which there is no greater.

And that, I couldn’t really fathom. So I knew it was as close to God as I had ever come.

I’ll call my friend “the Guide”, as he came into my life-like a signpost, pointing to paths I hadn’t seen before. Figuratively, he led me to new terrain. Literally, we took a lot of walks together. Often, we meandered the coastline, sometimes spanning the length of several towns. We drank fresh-squeezed orange juice, ate mung beans and rice with garam masala, and listened to plenty of music. Our soundtrack was Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Deep Forest. And driving in my Subaru, the constant in the tape deck was Rickie Lee Jones.

The Guide encouraged me to face my fears, and I took him seriously. I left Pacific Beach and set out on a summer-long, solo road trip, designed to put myself in all sorts of uncomfortable and daring situations (camping alone in the forest, hiking unknown trails, ‘going with the flow’) all the while trusting (and essentially, asking for living proof) that I was divinely protected. It was my mission to convince myself that I was wholly cared for in the world, that I could face a fear and overcome it, becoming all the stronger for it. RLJ’s “Flying Cowboys” cassette was with me all the way.

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Now, 42 years old in the kitchen, a 12-year old boy down the hall, and a husband in a nearby chair, the nearly 21-year old me, boulder hopping around Smith Rock, Oregon seems distant, until the music.

Standing on the cliffs today
I thought I saw you below
my shadow growing smaller…

Rickie’s words fall, full and sweet, over carefully plucked guitar strings.

Her longing melody brims, all tongue and teeth inside her mouth, swirling sound, then spilling:

Were you walking on the water?
Playing in the sun?
But the world is turning faster
Then it did when I was young
When I was young

At Smith Rock, I climbed to the top of rock peaks, as far as I could go without ropes. I dared to linger and dip in the river, even when I saw bobcat scat on the boulders. I reached a long arm to snap a photo of myself in the reeds, recording a solo moment long before ‘selfies’ had a name.

The irony of the song lyrics positions me on a timeline, simultaneously experiencing their truth in both past and present. The familiar notes of a song I haven’t heard in years, washes through me in my little Hawaii kitchen. I feel time and space viscerally. I am having a moment with steaming potatoes, my skin tingling, my heart open. I am happy and grateful in broadening perspective.

“Mom, it’s so unfair!”

Jeb has left his laundry, entering my musical moment, grumpy-faced.

Jolted from my reverie, my ears are now filled with the woeful tale of confusing directions on an English final, missed points, and a resulting lowered score. His grievance has drowned out “Flying Cowboys,” though Rickie is still scatting the refrain, “oh, when I was young…”

I’m far from the riverside grasses of Smith Rock now. There is a disappointed tween in my midst, and garlic cloves wait to be chopped.

Back in my cassette days with Rickie Lee Jones, this present kitchen scene was what my heart had truly wanted, though in my dreams it was only warm and fuzzy. I didn’t imagine all of the emotional intricacies that parenthood and house holding would entail.

Some days it’s only cutting vegetables and homework, and I don’t even see the shadow of transcendence. Other days, I can sense a sweetness beckoning to be fully felt, but am, somehow, afraid to let it in.

By grace (and oftentimes, a good song), there are, occasionally, the kitchen moments, reverberating like a well-struck chord. Granted from somewhere beyond time and space, they may only ring for an instant, but they hint at the depths I still cannot fathom.

That which there is no greater.

I still do not understand it.

But, sometimes, when the music plays, I feel it.

 

The Tide is High

I lived in an orange grove at one end of the country road, she lived in an old farmhouse, tucked in a vineyard, at the other end. My friend, Erin, and I read Nancy Drew mystery books, and we both solidly rode, sans training wheels, on our bikes.

In Erin’s family there was no “Dad,” only “Honey.” I recall the first time they all began to chirp, “Honey’s here! Honey’s here!” I thought it had something to do with bees and a delivery, when actually it was their father coming home from work. They’d all adopted their mom’s pet name for him.

Our country road was rough for bike riding. One day Honey put our bicycles in the back of his pick up truck, and drove us to the Exeter Memorial Building parking lot, where we coasted on smooth asphalt in the vacant lot, no traffic.

It was a sleepy Sunday in our small farming town. The sound of a lawn mower puttered in a distant yard. Birds chattered in lofty branches of the nearby trees. Music leaked from the cab of Honey’s parked pick up. It was 1981 and Blondie was bringing reggae to the radio with “The Tide is High.”

“The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on. I’m gonna be your number one. I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that, oh no…”

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Blondie was new to my seven-year old ears. Urban and foreign. Riffs with bass. I loved the sound as I cruised the smooth of the memorial building lot.

My dad’s truck was always tuned to the twang of the country station, where the The  Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira,” was on continual replay. At home, my mom would wash dishes, cranking the cassette player, and encouraging us to sing along to “Happy Talk,” from the musical “South Pacific.

“Happy talk, keep talking happy talk. Talk about things you’d like to do. You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Change was on the airwaves, and that was my last year with Honey and Erin. Their family would move to a house near the beach in southern California. My parents would separate later that summer. I branched out and learned to ride my bike on the country road, alone. I listened to music beyond the parental musical influences of The  Oak Ridge Boys and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

I discovered American Bandstand on television. Put visuals to my auditory world. The Go Go’s’ “Beauty and the Beat” had hit the charts. The band was all women, even the drummer, and “Our Lips Are Sealed” was rocking my world.

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Love is A Rose

We lived in a country house, tucked back far from the quiet road, hidden among rows of orange trees. There was a white picket fence, ivy growing on the front porch, and a garden planted by my father. In the summer, the sticky scent of tomato leaves lifted to the air beneath black, sprinkling misters.

From inside the house, the sounds of Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits leaked out through windows onto the lawn, where my six-year-old bare feet wandered. “That’ll Be the Day,” “Different Drum,” and “Desperado” played out adult dilemmas that I didn’t understand, but could sing to.

“That’ll be the day, when you say goodbye, that’ll be the day, when you make me cry. You say you’re going to leave me, you know that’s a lie, cause that’ll be the day when I die.”

Big words for a small mouth, but even though I was singing, I wasn’t registering the lyrics. It was Linda’s strong voice and the melodies that I heard and loved.

That album was part of my life soundtrack in the days before my parents separated. In less than two years, my father would move to his own place, leaving his turntable and a portion of his record collection behind. But until then, Linda’s greatest hits of love and loss were about a longing I had yet to know.

Before my family splintered, I do remember a certain, crystalline afternoon, standing by the roses in our side yard. Rather leggy, their thorny stems reaching toward light, they still held big, fragrant blooms. Even though I knew those thorns were to be avoided, I had yet to master picking a bud without getting stuck.

Those delicate pink folds held the sweetest smell. If only I could bend the stem my way without pricking my small fingers. As I gingerly reached to nose up close to the beauty, the song came to mind.

“Love is a rose and you better not pick it, only grows when it’s on the vine. Handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it, lose your love when you say the word mine.”

In that culminating moment at six years old, there was a rose and a song. Everything clicked. Music reflected life. My first experience of metaphor, the words were about something I was holding in my hand…but more.

I may not have understood the full implication of the lyrics, but I did realize that Linda knew the sting of a thorn. No longer a little ditty to hum on the swing set, this song actually conveyed a cautionary creed. I got it, sort of.

So I resolved to no more picking. Only careful inhalations.

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