observations and opinion
After a bleary-eyed 24 hour drive straight down the I-75, the four of us crossed into Florida and cruised in the bright morning light into St. Pete’s. It was the wrong town for Spring Breakers – a sleepy circus of ancient white haired souls on three-wheeled bicycles. We stayed long enough to get bored, get sunburnt and get out, ripping eastward to where the action was: Daytona Beach.
This was a different circus. A street carnival of beer-soaked lust, actually. I remember a girl in a cowboy hat sashaying down the road by the ocean, and a southern college guy calling out to her in a long, slow drawl, “Honey, that hat just charms the hell out of me.” We filled our hotel tub with ice and beer (bathing happened in the pool, I guess). Pretty soon I met a girl from Iowa who kept taking her contact lenses out, putting them in her mouth to moisten them, and then popping them back onto her eyeballs. Gail, I think her name was. I watched the sun rise over the ocean, first time ever for that, with Gail.
And there were J&S, a young married couple from an unknown hamlet called Holland, Michigan. She was tall and funny, with a swimmer’s shoulders; he was slight, as I recall, reddish and fine featured. They were the great prize of our trip to Florida and when we visited them later in the year, at Holland, it was memorable. Holland seemed idyllic to me – clean, wholesome, the home of Tulip Time, a spring festival dedicated to, you guessed it. The couple owned a big house, but were fixing it up; in the meantime, they occupied a trailer. So going there was like camping. I admired their optimism, their hard work, their plan, their love for each other. It was fun with them.
We lost touch, as people tend to do. Years passed, lives went on. Eventually even I, the great hold out, got married. We became parents. The kid liked swimming and we found ourselves driving to pools at night and weekends, for team training and the occasional meet. Junior was chippy about the practices and often bargained her cooperation by extracting a favourite dinner out: Wendy’s. She’d order a burger – no cheese, God forbid the cheese – and a Frosty.
One night I got there early, before she and her mum arrived from the pool. I sat in the car listening to the radio. Music began. The album, “Greetings from Michigan.” The artist, Sufjan Stevens. It hit me.
It is my habit, or curse, to remember where I was when a piece of music hits me. On that long ago drive to Florida, as we rolled along an empty Atlanta freeway in the middle of the night, I heard Paul McCartney’s “Don’t Say Goodnight Tonight” (no idea why I remember that, of all tunes). Two decades back I was in my Beaches living room when I put on a CD of Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question” and felt all of my pretensions and mistakes fall in front of my eyes. Driving home from the office a few years ago the radio played a record by a kid from Napanee, Ontario – “Complicated” it was called, and I could take you to the corner where I was when it ended. Why? Who can say? And just two months ago, I had picked up my razor when Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold” began. I put my razor down.
And on this night, some five years back, in the dark cold of a winter evening in the parking lot of Wendy’s, it was Sufjan Stevens. I sat and listened as long as could, before wandering in to order burgers. Something had happened.
Next morning I stayed home, working in the dining room as I sometimes do. The date was February 27, 2009. That morning, for reasons I cannot explain, I went looking online for my old friends S&J. When I found a likely candidate on Facebook, I sent her a note – at 8:22 a.m. to be precise. The note was polite “If you are the person my pals and I met in Daytona, long ago…hello in Holland, Michigan.” That kind of thing.
Not long afterwards, sitting in the same chair as I am now, I googled Sufjan Stevens (no, I guess I wasn’t getting a lot of work done). It was then I found “Casimir Pulaski Day”, the heart-wrenching tale of a young man who loses his friend to “cancer of the bone.” It hit me hard, having lost my own dearest friend to cancer of the blood, the summer before. I could still feel it. I put a link to the song up on Facebook.
By now I was quite taken with this Sufjan Stevens and had to know more. His Wikipedia article details his quixotic musical career. And it also told me where he had gone to school: Hope College, in the town of, yes, Holland, Michigan.
I remember the moment just like I remember hearing a song: it is frozen in my mind, one tab open to Wikipedia and one to Facebook, juxtaposing my earlier impulse to find my old friends in Holland, Michigan with my sudden discovery of this musical son of Holland, Michigan. Had I heard something about his origins the night before on the radio? Answer: no. Not even the CBC plays a piece of music and then tells you where the artist went to college.
And yes, later that day my old friend from long ago, wrote to me from her home in… Holland, Michigan. They’re still married. The business worked out. She’s a mom and a grandmother even. And when later I told her about the curious coincidence of Sufjan Stevens, she wrote:
To further add to the coincidence…my oldest daughter is a HUGE fan of Sufjan Stevens so I have heard all about him and his days in Holland.
Nothing more came of any of this, save that I started a friendly correspondence with an old acquaintance and began a warm appreciation of a new musician. I haven’t made the long trek to Michigan.
These things probably happen every day and I don’t notice. They may happen every day to you, too, and you may not see or hear them. Perhaps we feel them, like a breeze or a shiver, but shrug them off. There is no explaining how they happen and only a fool would make up a theory as to why they occur (“God wants me to attend Tulip Time again?” Probably not). All I knew, and all I still know, is that two powerful and seemingly distinct feelings pulled me that morning, and they were pulling me in the same direction. There may not be a “why” to it, any more than there’s a reason why one wave will reach your sand castle, and the next one won’t.
As in a piece of music, I suspect that there is a great deal more hidden for us to hear, if we sit still long enough to listen.