What Paul Simon Taught Me About Life’s Hidden Harmony
As the singer retires from touring, a writer finds the secret in the music—and in the book he gave her.
If there were a soundtrack to your life, who would be the musician?
It’s a question I love asking of new acquaintances. It breaks the humdrum of the overused and unimaginative “What do you do?” to strum at something more individual: “What moves you?” “What kind of music sings in your veins?”
My life soundtrack is, and always has been, played by Paul Simon. I could have told you that at age 9. But only recently have I understood why.
I first heard Paul Simon on a cassette tape in my dad’s family’s horrible faux-wood-paneled Oldsmobile station wagon. It was the Graceland album, one of the most innovative and timeless rock albums of all time, and it happened to bear my name: Grace.
I was a timid girl then, afraid of discord, avoidant of any risk of physical or emotional harm. On family road trips I would sit in the middle seat, on that loathed cabernet-colored leather, so as to keep my younger half-brother and half-sister separated. By running interference between my siblings, I could keep them from fighting and thus keep my dad and stepmom from shouting at them.
Staving off those shouts was, for me, a matter of survival. The slightest edge in someone’s voice sent me bursting into tears. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone disapproving of me, so I endeavored to have no flaws. Perhaps because I had already known the heavy consequences of disharmony — divorce — I desperately wanted harmony all the time.
With my quiet self installed as a human demilitarized zone in the backseat, we rolled past the hills of California and Utah and Montana to the sounds of Graceland. The melodies and lyrics drew the landscape of the world as I was coming to know it. It was a hopeful place, the world of Graceland — one that embraced the sorrow and confusion inherent in life while still bouncing down the road to a joyful tune.
As I grew, Paul Simon’s music matched the rhythm of my joys and heartbreaks. At 9 years old, I would ride in the car with my mom and we’d sing that line of “Graceland” together: “My traveling companion is 9 years old, she is the child of my first marriage.” My mom and I smiled over it, and that allowed me to feel light about my parents’ divorce.
Things got darker in my adolescence. I was still an optimist at heart, but I felt alone and misunderstood. I washed the dishes before anyone thought to ask me twice, lest the second time annoy the asker. When my siblings and parents argued, I hid in my room and listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock.” I knew already that I was a writer, so the song lyrics felt like my own: “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.”
I felt like an island then. I didn’t know that inside me was growing a rock — the strong, not the lonely, kind.
Paul Simon was the first big concert I remember, the first time I felt the electrifying energy of a rock show on fire. The Oakland Coliseum Arena blazed with the beats and notes of this music I knew and the exhilaration of thousands of fans. He played “Call Me Al” as the last encore, and then we all screamed so loud that he played it again. As the energy pulsed through me, the retiring, safe little girl in me stood aside and I felt in her place a hunger for experience.
Around that time, my dad started to coach me on how to speak up for myself, and in the most tentative ways, I practiced. My mom took me traveling abroad and showed me the exhilaration of leaving my comfort zone and discovering wholly new worlds — a jolt just as addictive as the feeling of that first rock concert. After college, I traveled to Mexico and Morocco and Vietnam, while Paul Simon was also traveling the world to discover different forms of music that he wove into his albums.
One day, while working as a writer at an elite ideas conference, I saw Paul Simon sitting in the audience a few rows ahead of me. At warp speed my mind started slinging together words and phrases that I wanted to say to say to him. My boyfriend, a fellow writer, nudged me. “Paul Simon on the move,” he whispered.
Paul was walking up the darkened aisle toward the door. In a second I was out of my seat and walking too, leaving my bag and laptop behind. I caught up with Paul in the empty foyer. “Don’t be a bubbling fangirl,” I lectured myself. “Be cool. Say what you have to say, and let him go.”
“Excuse me, Paul,” I said. He turned around, and the little speech I’d just written in my head tumbled out of my mouth as if someone else was saying it. I told him that Graceland was the soundtrack to my childhood, told him about the “child of my first marriage” line and “I Am a Rock.” “I just wanted to say thank you,” I concluded. “Your music has been a good friend to me.”
And then, we talked. He stayed. We discussed one of the speeches we’d just heard. Based on my comments about that speech, he said, “There’s a book I think you’d like.” He walked me over to the conference bookstore, and there it was: Tenth of December, a short story collection by George Saunders. “I think you’ll find this interesting,” Paul said. “I’m going to get it for you.” And we walked over to the register, and Paul Simon laid down his credit card and bought me that book.
It is a bleak book, unflinching, with all the sharp human insight of a Paul Simon song but very little of the joy. Except that in the title story, on the last page of the story and the last page of the book, a dying man remembers how he and his wife used to fight — and then forgive each other. The man thinks: “That feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing…” Conflict between people, seen through this dying man’s eyes, is not an end but a beginning. A bridge to loving another human more completely, flaws and all.
I was 34 then, and I loved completely the man I’d been seeing for several years, the one who nudged me after Paul Simon. But I wanted to be a mother, and he wouldn’t commit to having children with me. He could scarcely even commit to a dinner date amid the tumult of his years-long divorce and parenting the three children he already had. If I waited, I couldn’t know when or if he’d be able to say yes. I should leave him, I thought. Wracked with uncertainty, I left for Guatemala.
Alone on a bus climbing a mountain in Guatemala, I hit shuffle on my iPod. I felt no fear about the journey ahead, about venturing alone into a foreign land in a foreign language to face my feelings. I didn’t know what I’d decide to do with my relationship, but I knew I would be okay. The digital algorithm on my iPod spun, and a new song came on: “I Am a Rock.” My mind zoomed back to the cocoon of my teenage bedroom. And I thought: “Look at you now.”
The last time I saw Paul Simon in concert, on a warm Berkeley evening outdoors, I finally understood why my soundtrack is his. His music blends the lightness of a sunny afternoon, spread out on a blanket in the grass, with the wistfulness of looking at the world through a bus window. He is a teller of quiet stories. Of everyday moments for everyday people that evoke the fragility and beauty of life. Somehow he manages to touch the loneliness, longing, and fickleness of human life and yet hold it all gently, with a bit of joy.
Paul Simon sings to me because I also long to blend the hard and the beautiful, to feel the rain but live mostly in the sun. I don’t have to gloss over the hard parts anymore. My own bruises show that we can, indeed, have disharmony without losing love, that we can have disappointment without losing hope.
In early February, Paul Simon announced that his current tour will be his last; he’s retiring from touring to spend more time with his family. And these days, I say hello in the evenings to the same man who sent me to Guatemala when he arrives home. Then I sit in a soft chair in the corner of a darkened room and sing our baby boy to sleep. He is ten months old. I sing him a Paul Simon song:
Little boy, won’t you lay your body down
Little boy, won’t you close your weary eyes
Ain’t nothing flashing but the fireflies