Mix Tapes

We’ve been in a clearing out mood recently. I know a lot of people are, though I can’t say it’s particularly pandemic-related for us. For several years we’ve been talking about putting sticky notes on all of our belongings that say either “going to Colorado” or “not going to Colorado.” The specific location, or even the fact of a move, is not the point as much as is the question: if we wouldn’t move it somewhere new, why are we keeping it here?

The kids are all pretty settled in their adult lives away from here, and if their old belongings don’t have sentimental value for them, maybe we don’t need to keep hanging on to them. I mean, we’re the parents, so some things will always have sentimental value for us that they don’t have for the kids, but do we really need multiple boxes and backpacks of never-gone-through end of school year stuff from elementary and middle school?

Most of the things we have accumulated are ours, and not the kids’, however. Here at my writing desk I have a smattering of books, gifts, hobbies, and outdated technology that I simply haven’t organized, put away, or gotten rid of. In immediate reach of my left hand is: a collar tag for Cody, the box his clay footprint came back in from the crematorium earlier this year, two Liberian lappa fabric bracelets, three cables for computer peripherals I can’t identify, a horsemanship journal I started at a clinic in Colorado in 2004, several blank greeting cards for various occasions, a letter from the census bureau about how to electronically complete the census (which I did back in the spring), a Zentangle drawing book, a bandana, a mostly empty tube of toothpaste, a folder from Scout’s allergy vet with instructions I only needed last January, a computer mouse I haven’t been able to find for months, and a mix tape (literally a cassette tape) I received for my, let’s see, maybe 20th birthday. This is in a space roughly ten by twenty inches on the edge of my desk. Small wonder the whole house, not to mention the barn, the garage, and assorted outbuildings, feels a bit overwhelming. Also small wonder my go-to approach is to just get rid of everything.

When I moved from Vermont, where I went to college, back to my parents’ apartment, and then two weeks later to the farm in Maryland where I started a job, I packed everything I owned into my 1964 VW Bug, including the travel crate containing my three cats. Among the things I brought with me was a box of I don’t know what, because I moved it from the car to the room I slept in at my parents’ place (or maybe I left it in the car; either thing sounds plausible) to the closet at my house on the farm. When I moved from there three years later, having never opened the box, I just threw it away on the theory that things unexplored and unused were unneeded. I still have the desire to close my eyes and get rid of things.

When I look is when I start to have trouble. Not with some things – I got rid of easily half my clothes, probably more, without a thought, and I went through every item. In Deep Creek by the splendid Pam Houston, an author who makes me want write more and who also makes me want to give up writing entirely because she appears to have already had most of the thoughts in my head and has written about them better than I could, her description of identifying what she wants to pack in case of fire evacuation includes this: “I face my closet and can’t find one single stick of clothing I care whether or not I own.” A much less dramatic reason in my case, but a perfect description of my feeling about clothes.

The mix tape on my desk, though. It’s nowhere near a cassette player – in fact, the only cassette player in the house is currently in a pile of deconstructed stereo we haven’t made up our minds about yet. I think I pulled it out because I wanted to accurately cite the title (The Whinin’, Cheatin’, Drinkin’, Cussin’, Lyin’, Cryin, Dyin’ Birthday Tape), or maybe I was looking for one of the song names (my introduction to country music, in case the title didn’t give that away). I got rid of most of my cassettes – the store-bought ones, or the ones I made of albums I can easily get in another form – earlier this year. But I still have a box of mix tapes, and a few whole albums taped for me by someone else, in the basement, and I keep walking past it and thinking “I’ll decide about those later.”

I haven’t listened to any of those tapes for years, but just looking at the handwriting on them is enough to bring back memories. Some of them are tapes I made. In college in the midst of a pre-coming-out panicked depression, I made a tape with the title Trouble, Trouble, Trouble with every song I could think of about being troubled, having the blues, and just general misery, on the theory that if I wallowed in it for long enough I would eventually realize I was wallowing and snap out of it. Fact: I have never listened to that tape without starting to laugh, even if it’s not till the middle of side two. There’s one called Since My Phone Still Ain’t Ringing, I Assume it Still Ain’t You, which I made about, if not exactly for, someone I sort of dated in my early 20s. There’s a Yaz tape made for me by my best friend my senior year of high school, and a Robert Earl Keen Jr tape made for me by my sister. There is a tape that when Rose listened to it the first time made her say she felt like she was reading my diary, made for me by someone I’ve never met but a mutual friend thought we’d have the same taste in music and she was more right than she knew.

There’s a whole section of tapes Rose and I made for each other when we first became friends and then when we first got involved. It’s a bit of a musical time capsule – both in terms of what music was out at the time and in terms of the phases of our relationship (Songs for Louise from Thelma is still among my favorites). As I type this, Rose is listening to a playlist that has this vibe in the kitchen (I hear Melissa Etheridge, and a paragraph or two ago, Don Henley). I’ve thought about taking the mix tapes and remaking them as playlists, but there’s something about the handwriting that stirs my heart in unexpected ways.

I can make a playlist now without even listening to the songs. In the mix tape days, there was a lot of planning. Ordering and reording of songs on paper before I started taping. Deciding which songs revealed too much, or didn’t say it quite right, or felt like they came from somewhere in the most honest part of me. Stacks of vinyl, other tapes, and eventually CDs to pull songs from. Writing out the song list – include the artists with the song names? Write on the factory insert or make my own? The point of it all, of course, was in trying to show someone else what was in my heart. The opening chords of any one of those songs can sneak up on me and make me cry, or make my heart swell, before the words even start, remembering how I felt the first time I listened to one of those tapes Rose made for me. Would I save them in a fire? Hard to say. Would I move them to Colorado? You know, I think I would.

Turn the Music Up

 

Telluride

“If you shut up with what you’re choosing you’ll hear something choosing you” -Joe Pug, Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011

It is Summer solstice weekend, and I am missing my music festivals. Summer solstice is the traditional weekend of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of the more magical events I have been to. It is also the weekend of the Firefly Music Festival, one of the more ridiculous events I have been to.

For someone who doesn’t like to go out in public much, hates being in crowds, and has a long history of making plans only to break them, I love music festivals. Even when I hate them, I love them. I did not plan to go to Telluride or Firefly this year, but I did plan to go to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in August and I had tickets to several other individual concerts, and none of these things are happening and I am pining.

My favorite festival venues share some traits: they are in the mountains, they are small as festivals go (attendees are counted in the thousands, not tens of thousands, and they have no more than two small side-stages), there is a creek to cool off in, there is shade somewhere if not actually near the stage, the food is a step up from carnival food but you can get a corn dog or a funnel cake if you want one, and, at least for the ones in Colorado, the towns are really nice places to walk around, get a cup of coffee, and find some good non-festival food when you just need a break. Telluride manages to make the inconvenience of terrible parking options into an adventure with a gondola ride back down to the town from the top of the mountain where there’s room to park in the summer when the ski slopes are closed.

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I have camped at two of my three favorite festivals. The selling points of most right-next-to-the-venue campgrounds are reasons for me to run screaming in the other direction. I don’t actually want to stay up all night picking and singing, or drinking and smoking. Telluride has a family campground which is about a mile away from the venue and tends to be quieter, because it turns out that screaming children are in fact much quieter than stoned hippies. It’s all relative, though: the stoned hippies of Telluride are exponentially less annoying than drunk teenagers driving their moms’ SUVs and setting up their beer bongs and teen drama right next to you at Firefly. Drunk hippies are a different kind of problem than stoned hippies, and at DelFest once after a night of having people nearly fall into our tent on top of us, we moved into the sober camping area (Camp Traction, a wonderful concept), where people kept kindly inviting us to meetings between and after (and sometimes during) the acts.

However much I love being outdoors for days on end with nothing to do but gaze at the mountains, eat delicious food, and people-watch at a near professional level, the music is the point. I have secretly been loving the shelter in place/safer at home aspect of the global pandemic where I don’t even need to make excuses for why I don’t want to go out in public and do the things. But where live music is concerned, I feel the space where that shared experience isn’t this year. There’s always something to love at a festival – dancing with a crowd when you just can’t keep your feet still, singing (or shouting) along to a song we all know, the collective wonder of discovering a new artist for the first time. Sometimes everything comes together and creates something that is beyond words.

I have never been as cold as the first time we went to Telluride and just as Mumford and Sons came out the rain started to pour down. The mountains disappeared entirely behind a wave of rolling clouds. The rained turned into snow, then rain, then sleet, then more snow. People were passing out garbage bags for us to wear but there was no keeping any part of yourself dry or warm. And yet. They had the whole crowd in their hands from the minute they took the stage, and they carried us through their musical journey of songs we knew (they only had one album out at the time) and new songs that would be on their next album that sounded like pure magic then and that I still feel a thrill about now.

The thing I love most about live music is that even though the music may be reaching each of us in a different way and touching on different experiences or different parts of our hearts, it can move us – in this case, literally, physically move us – in the same way, the whole crowd dancing and bouncing and whirling and singing and making a truly joyful noise. And if you’re even luckier, all that music and all that joy can make the clouds move on through and can bring back a longer view of the beauty around you.

 

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