When I’m driving my son hither and yon, he and I often talk. Usually I leave the radio off (despite sometimes dying to hear some news from the outside world, no matter how grim) so that he can offer up things he’s thinking about. Given the pod-like quality of the car — that we’re strapped in together, at least from point A to point B — anything can percolate: questions about life or death, an anecdote about some kid at preschool who wasn’t very nice, commentary on my parenting. I try to field his questions and observances while keeping my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road.
My friend Susan told me the other day about a trip to the mall with her ten-year-old son, Aidan. He had so much to tell her that when she stopped to get gas, he kept talking for almost ten minutes, seemingly unaware that they were no longer driving. These moments for us parents, and I think I can speak universally, are like little sunbursts — clouds part and we hear things our children have been mulling over, alone, even though we were right there, standing at the ready. For me it’s always humbling, and a little heartbreaking, to know that my kid is a separate being, working the world out on his own, and that, ultimately, I’m on the outside.
Lately, though, in the mornings, as we get closer to his school, after we’ve passed the rolling hills and the farms and start to enter suburban sprawl, he pipes up from the back seat: “Play ‘Ashes and Fire,’ Mommy.” Ryan Adams’ “Ashes and Fire” is code in our house for “life is sometimes hard and I’m feeling it right now and I need a pick-me-up from someone who gets it so that I can feel alive and hopeful again.” When he says this, I know he doesn’t want to talk. Maybe it’s how long and cold our winter was up here in Maine, or maybe it’s that he’s getting older, or maybe there’s something else going on that he’ll tell me two weeks from now — but even though the mother in me wants to pepper him with questions, I also know that I have to respect that all he wants is release. So I slide in the CD and we listen to it as loud as we can bear in our small car with the windows closed. And again. And again. And then, after I drop him off, I get back in the car and turn it on for the drive to my office.
“Ashes and Fire” became our family anthem last fall, after a hard few months and a move. The only way we got through some of the tough feelings and the darkening afternoons was turning on this song as loud as it would go, each of us grabbing something — a broom, a bowl, some thin air — and jamming away at our “guitars” as Ryan Adams sang his lungs out.
It’s funny, because “Ashes and Fire” is gritty and sad: “As he stared past the fire/ His hunger to leave, well it gnawed his poor heart alive.” And I can’t really tell you that I respond to the lyrics as a story—that’s almost beside the point. All I know is how the song makes me feel: It somehow manages to be about the ups and downs of life and love, but at the same time, with it’s rockin’ guitar, it’s about hope and even jubilee. And I think it’s the hope part — and maybe the jubilee — that we’ve all needed more than anything.
There’s music that you come to know as defining a period of your life. For me it was Duran Duran, Whitney Houston, and Madonna in the mid-eighties; Roy Cohn, Serge Gainsbourg, and Tom Waits in the early nineties; and Cowboy Junkies, Enya, Greg Brown, and Lucinda Williams in the mid nineties (I remember seeing both Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown with my brother, Aran, down at Irving Plaza in New York when I was first living there, working at The New Yorker and trying to make it as a writer and actor). After 9/11, there was the Ryan Adams revelation with his song, “I Still Love You, New York.” I remember hearing it while driving, shortly after I’d left New York City and moved back to my home state of Maine; I felt my heart come out of my body and hover somewhere between me and the steering wheel.
When my husband, Dan, came into the picture, he arrived with his own bunch of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals CDs. One evening we drove down to New Hampshire to see Adams play and it was at that concert that we first talked about moving to California. Later that summer, we showed up at our friend Jonathan’s house wearing our matching Ryan Adams T-shirts (we hadn’t noticed), and Jonathan, a music buff, opened the door and said, “You guys just get off tour?” Dan laughed (he’s always quicker than me) and said, “I wish, man.” During our first years together, there were many afternoons that Dan and I spent driving around with the windows down, listening to music and letting the events of our lives and the world wash over us.
But oddly, at a certain point in my life, I started to forget about listening to music. I mean, let’s face it, when you’re parenting a small child there’s not much you really listen to other than your kid. Kids, at least when they’re little, are full of so many epiphanies and questions, noises and needs that it’s necessary, I often think, to be totally present to do the job right.
And maybe I’ve just wanted quiet when I’m finally alone. Or maybe I don’t think of it, or don’t have the headspace to feel everything I know I’ll feel once I hear the first few licks of Ryan Adams’ guitar.
Until lately, when my son started asking for Ryan Adams again. After “Ashes and Fire” we play “Easy Tiger” and then “Let Us Down Easy.” With each song, I feel more open to emotions I haven’t been accessing so that I can get through what has to be done: drive from here to there; stop at Rite Aid; go back to Whole Foods for the third time this week; make dinner; channel the voices and personalities of Master M.’s two identical white bears, Marvin and Chocolate.
Back in his car seat my boy is singing along and I’m up in front singing too. And I’m thinking about how fleeting joy is — and life, for that matter. I could drudge from task to task, I realize, or I could let go and turn the music up.