A Soldiering Life
On November 11, 2012, I turned twenty years old. This is about that. It’s also about literature and music, which only age insofar as we do.
“I was meant for the stage, I was meant for the curtain. I was meant to tread these boards. Of this much I am certain,” sang Colin Meloy of The Decemberists on stage at the Hollywood Bowl while the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra eased into the tune behind him. The 14,000 people in attendance stood transfixed—transfixed because it was a performance meant for the stage. Live music from the old world, with strings and horns and percussion, enveloped the new world with contemporary song.
This was June 2007; five years ago from now; I was fifteen years old.
Two years before that, I bought Picaresque, The Decemberists’ third album, on Compact Disc. In 53 min 7 seconds, Meloy takes the listener on a tour of the world, beginning with a stampeding parade, containing a double suicide, and ending with the tale of murderous revenge in the belly of a whale. It’s a work more literature than theatre. While Meloy might belong on the stage, the language that I first heard at thirteen still knocks around my head today.
On my first listen, I kept repeating “Eli The Barrow Boy,” the story of a boy from “the old town” who walks along the tree line of a city peddling any wares he can: coal and marigolds, “corn cobs and candle wax for the buying.”
As he pushes his barrow, he sings:
Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe
Made of gold and silk Arabian thread
But she is dead and gone and lying in a pine grove
And I must push my barrow all the day
And I must push my barrow all the day
Eli pushes for love.
It’s a hokey thing: doomed love. We’ve been hit over the head with it from Shakespeare on up but it resonates still. And it struck a chord with thirteen-year-old Blake to an extreme.
//* PARENTHETICAL INTERPOLATION w/r/t DOOMED LOVE & TEENAGE BOYS, NAMELY ONE: ME
(It’s probably prudent that this was around the time I read Shakespeare’s Othello for the first time. If you haven’t read it stop everything in your life right now and get to it.
Okay, you’ve read it now? Onwards.
We can talk about the plot and, since it’s fresh in your mind, I can attempt to console your broken heart.
The sinister plotting of Iago causes Othello to assume Desdamona was unfaithful with Cassio and to take the life of the one he loves most. As Othello stands over her sleeping body he says to himself:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,— Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!— It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood; Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men. Put out the light, and then put out the light
Desdamona wakes as Othello stands above her. He asks her if she has any sins to commiserate. She has none. She looks to him and says “Guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear.” “Think on the sins,” Othello replies. “They are loves I bear to you,” she replies.
She dies at his hand knowing intense love for him and the betrayal that must go along with being killed by your love. It’s something I can intellectualize, but to actually empathize is beyond me. My loves have never tried to kill me.
O finally figures it out and takes his own life: “I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee: no way but this: Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”
I remember feeling that pain as if it was my own. I learned four things after reading Othello:
1. I learned what it is to make the biggest mistake of your life.
2. I learned love can make us the most honorable and reprehensible of creatures.
3. I learned that William Shakespeare has expressed every sentiment I have held more authentically and prudently than I ever could, and he did it in iambic pentameter to boot.
4. I learned that Iago is a complete and total prick. There are people whose only intentions are their own and who won’t stop until they hurt whoever they can. Avoid them or be prepared to fight.)
END of PARENTHETICAL TEXT *//
The next verse of “Eli the Barrow Boy” takes us where all doomed love goes and where every one who has lost their love ends up.
When they found him
Dressed all in corduroy
He had drowned in
The river down the way
Eli had a simple life (he’s fictional, I know, but go with me here). To understand Eli, we are transplanted to a different world in geography and chronology.
(The lyrics mention Eli is beneath Tamarack trees (Larix laricina). The Tamarack is native to North America—I’m not sure Meloy thought about this because it makes the history much more recent than hoped for.)
300 or 400 years ago in North America, peoples’ lives were much simpler. Finding love really was the greatest thing a person could do. And Eli is just a poor kid, likely an Orphan with no skills. So he dedicated his life to just making enough money by pushing his barrow that he might be able to afford a fine robe “made of gold and silk and Arabian thread” for the girl he loved.
But she died.
And so must he. Without her, he had no reason to push the barrow: no reason to live.
SEVEN YEARS LATER, IT’S 2012 and I’M TWENTY
When I listen to Picaresque, not just Eli catches my ear. Now “The Engine Driver” stands out.
In the chorus, Meloy sings:
I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
And around this chorus he builds a cast of characters: an engine driver, a county lineman, and a money lender. But he (the “I” of “I am a writer”) is only creating these characters to become them and hopefully to leave this love behind. But each of these characters remains tortured nonetheless. (“There are power lines in our bloodlines” is a lyric that will never leave my mind.)
In the creeping refrain of the song, the speaker sings: “And if you don't love me let me go. And if you don't love me let me go.”
Despite the love being so deep inside him as to be in his bones. He is the captive of this unrequited love. So he pleads: If it’s not me you love anyway, why can’t you set me free from your thrall. (My words, not Meloy’s.)
At twenty, “On the Bus Mall” stands out.
Two youths run away from something (be it home or hell) and quickly become wise to the template of life for the poor vagabond. The two kids resort to turning tricks in order to pay to stay alive:
In bathrooms and barrooms,
On dumpsters and heirlooms,
We bit our tongues.
Sucked our lips into our lungs
'Til we were falling.
Such was our calling
They’re caught in a painful state, but even the cost of their freedom is inconsequential because they have each other.
And we never let the bastards get us down.
And we laughed off the quick tricks—
The old men with limp dicks—
On the colonnades of the waterfront park.
Despite their situation they remain kings. They retreat to their abode in at the bus stop, they huddle together, and two becomes one.
We're kings among runaways
On the bus mall.
On the bus mall.
There are two of them against the world.
The same stories have been with me for seven years. That’s nearly half of my high-functioning life (sorry five-year-old Blake and all prior). Picaresque isn’t an album I listen to every day or anything to that point—It’s not even my favorite Decemberists album. But it is a sampling of the type of stories we live with through our lives. Sometimes they run parallel to who we are, like Eli did when I was thirteen, and sometimes it takes a while before we realize what they really mean to us.
The Engine Driver’s resort to fiction in order to soothe pain is something far more powerful and afflicting than the routine example of doomed love. But each story serves a lesson to me, then and now.
The comfort of the runaways in “On The Bus Mall” was previously incomprehensible. But at twenty I can understand what it means to need to be in possession of life, even if it is dire and bleak.
TOTUS MUNDUS AGIT HISTRIONEM (All the world plays the actor)
In Shakespeare’s comedic play As You Like It the sad lord Jacques recites a monologue comparing the world to the stage and all the people in it to actors. In this grand production, people play different characters as they age: the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the pantaloon, and the second childhood (extreme age).
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Just like the Engine Driver recreated his character to deal with pain, the actors of Jacques monologue change to deal with life’s unrelenting melt.
(It’s fair to read Jacques speech as a big joke when you look at the “mewling and puking” of Shakespeare’s language—not a statement on quality but on content. Characterizing the world as a stage filled with actors is an easy way to put people and the progress of their lives into boxes and belie what they truly are. For the sake of making a point, I’m ignoring that interpretation.)
At twenty, and for all at twenty-something, I am stuck as the lover and the soldier, sighing like a furnace and jealous in honor. (Do you have to love before you can fight for anything?) But were I to become the soldier alone, I would not leave behind the feelings and memories of the lover, nor the schoolboy, nor the infant. Eli means no less to me now than he did when his story first grabbed my mind.
I was afraid, and still am afraid, of being twenty. The reason isn’t something I can clearly articulate. (Those who I keep correspondence with must be tired of me trying to figure it out and lamenting the state. I apologize.) But fear and regret doesn’t really have a place as it has no effect on the procedure or aging.
All the world is a stage and we must find our costuming and write our lines. On the stage, we are Kings in the spotlight, even if it’s only to a small audience or our reign is only over the smallest of places like a bus stop.
If we trust in Shakespeare and Meloy, we’re all meant for the stage, and each act represents a new role to play, a new costume to wear, and a new person to be. Our progress does not negate our past, and the type of character we become depends on the quality and nature of the character we were. Yet no matter the character we become, the fictive universe cannot out do the real one.
Our aging and subsequent death is our only real certainty, which doesn’t make for a pretty picture. But the procedure of growing older isn’t so bad as long as it is a pattern of growth. To do that, we must be aware of our past and our present. Sometimes that takes running away from what you know and others it takes affirming what you believe and hold to be true.
We change; we grow. We evaluate the past to understand our present so when we reach the point where we are sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, we remain full of stories and histories that changed within us through time.
Note about the artwork: “Ripped Seam on Bumblemarsh” (2012) is a piece made by artistic duo Kate Eric (Kate Tedman and Eric Siemens). Chaos is the center of their work and they use it as a tool to explore how all things interact. The figures, which resemble plant-like beings exploding recombining and falling apart, are the result of applying layer upon layer (sometimes more than 50) of acrylic paint to canvas.
Maybe it’s a stretch to make the comparison between the piece and the theme of aging in the body of the text, but if you compare the flux of life to the flux of matter, the argument sticks. I also just really like the piece.
Kate Eric currently has a show, Ripped Seam and Other Delights, from November 15 to December 15 at the Leila Heller Gallery in New York.
Feeling Generous? If you’re thinking, “Man, I should get Blake a belated birthday gift but I don’t know what to get the man who has everything,” fret no more. Make a donation to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund. Americans on the east coast need your help. Every penny you give helps rebuild the world Sandy tore apart. Enough of my PSA: If you have the means and the heart, help a nation in need.