Monday, October 21, 2013

Me and My Dad in the Grand Canyon at Sundown

I think I must’ve been about fifteen years old. The fields alongside the highway were spring green with new wheat. The sun through the window was blazing even though the chilly air outside was keeping the glass cold. It must’ve been February or March in Oklahoma. The car was growing increasingly stuffy, so my father flipped on the air conditioning, probably for the first time that season since I remember the smell of Freon filling the air. Dad had checked me out of school early, and we were headed for an orthodontist appointment in a nearby suburban town.

My memory of that afternoon is nearly photographic and enables me to recapture the exact feeling of being the young teenage girl I was then. The brilliant green wheat, the vibrant blue prairie sky, the hot sun, the cold air, the chemical smell of the air conditioner, the exact location on the old back highway we always took where the road rises up to cross the railroad track, the angst and irritability of my teenage self in the passenger seat next to my father.

We were on our way to get my braces tightened. My sweater was too warm and my head was achy. If I could have seen my own face, I’m sure I would now also have a vivid vision of my scowling eyes. I can remember the feel of my frown. There’s no doubt that I was a lovely travelling companion.

My dad reached over and punched the button for the radio. He had been listening to one of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series tapes before I go into the car, and the middle of a song jumped out of the speakers with no introduction as Bob wheezed away between shrill harmonica screeches.

I can feel myself roll my eyes in the hugely exaggerated way that only teenage girls can. I can feel the irritation rise in my chest and burst out. I can hear my snarky voice taunting my dad about how terrible this music is and why must he torture me this way? Isn’t it bad enough that he’s dragging me to the dentist? He has to assault my ears as well?

Bob and I were having a whining contest which I initially won, but what happened next changed me.

My dad turned the stereo off. He sat beside me in silence for a moment, but I could sense him gripping the steering wheel, seething, collecting his anger and his words. I waited for the backlash. Quietly but fiercely, he told me that I disappointed him. He told me I was too smart to not be able to understand what I was listening to. He had tried and tried to tell me that this music was important to him because it had a realness to it and an old soul. It had the Truth. He said that very few people in my whole life would ever just offer me the truth straight out. Most people want to tell you what they want you to think, some version of the truth that suits their own purpose. He told me that when I came across the Truth, I needed to be able to see it for what it was. I needed to learn to accept it from whomever was there to give it to me. I had to learn to hang on to it. I had to smarten up and recognize that this music was offering me the Truth and I was refusing to hear it because the delivery wasn’t as pretty and soothing as I liked. He told me to stop acting like a silly little teenage girl; he knew I could do better than that, be better than that.

My hot anger froze into indignant silence. I sat stunned, staring straight ahead, watching the highway disappear under the hood of the car.

I will play one more thing for you, he said. It’s not really a song. You should try to actually listen to it for once, and if you still don’t like it, I won’t make you listen to any more Bob Dylan. He fast forwarded the tape until he came to the beginning of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie. Bob’s shy speaking voice explained about being asked to write a short piece for a book about Woody and how he ended up writing five pages which he had with him and wanted to read aloud. I listened, really listened, as the words rolled out of the stereo speakers and washed over me.

The words said everything I had ever thought or ever felt. Bob spoke to me about all the things that lived inside my mind and heart. He went on for seven minutes describing life exactly as I experienced it, and I knew that these things I had thought must be true. My mind cracked. My understanding of everything shifted. I grew up in that car in that moment on that day.

It might seem silly to place so much weight on a song (or a poem) or on a change in my taste in music, but that experience of a piece of art sharpened my worldview. Today I am a fierce fan of Bob Dylan because his words describe the world in a way that I can trust.

I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to sit next to my father, listening to music, knowing that for a moment we were both experiencing the universe in the same way, together.

And there's something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin'
But it's trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when you’re layin' in bed
And no matter how you try you just can't say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it

Read the whole poem here.

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