Listening to a Big Star song that isn’t “Watch the Sunrise” while watching the sunrise

I’m up before the sun today, just because I got bored of reading and binge watching and eating and drinking early last night. I’m out of coffee, so after slipping out for a cigarette, I’m sitting here sipping on the spiced tea I usually drink to unwind.

I’m looking around my neighborhood and sitting on my duplex’s stoop when a thought I’m familiar with comes calling. Things haven’t turned out like they thought they would. Like I’d wanted them to. Today would have been my seventh wedding anniversary. Seven years ago, I brought together friends and family from around the country to tell them that I was making a choice to love someone selflessly for the rest of my life.

We were legally married that January, also on the 21st, in a wood paneled meeting room in a courthouse, with carpet the color of a dried bloodstain. Four years ago, the divorce was finalized on that anniversary.

Seven years ago, I was an idealist. “My heart was set to live, and I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds,” Alex Chilton singing Chris Bell’s words, it’s increasingly clear, but the ghosts in the the harmony were ghosts shared by both men, and if the instrumentation on “The Ballad of El Goodo” is to be believed, by bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens as well.

I don’t know anymore if I believe in love at first sight. I know I thought that this girl I married was going to be important to my life from the first time we talked, but I don’t think I thought we’d be married, much less divorced and not speaking. I certainly didn’t expect her to become someone who would struggle to break me, with words and fists and money.

And though Big Star’s music haunts so many memories in my life — we even had a line from “Thirteen” engraved on our wedding bands — there is one song that has always been mine. “The Ballad of El Goodo” was love at first listen. Every word is a lesson ripped from a life. Every last note lands perfectly because it’s been blown around and shifted, broken up and beaten down until it knows exactly where it needs to be.

It carries a simple message, but one I don’t believe I’d heard before. If I had, I hadn’t noticed. “Life is harder than anyone could have warned me,” it whispers as it leans toward me, “but be patient and steadfast, and everything will be okay. Maybe not great, but okay.”

When I was terrified to leave college and enter the job market in mid-2008, with signs of the impending recession clear for anyone who cared to look, it was this song that took hold of me and told me I’d get through. When my wife’s love soured into mere contempt, this song was still there to tell me to just keep going. When all I could think every day was that I just wanted to die, and that that would be easier for everyone, this song kept whispering in my ear to hold on.

So this morning, when I wake before the sun, and slip out into the strangely cold second day of spring to sneak the day’s first cigarette and sip tea, and think of all the ways my life has gone awry and become other than what I had wanted for myself, I have “The Ballad of El Goodo” pulled up in my headphones, on repeat.

Looking around my neighborhood and taking deep breaths, I look at the way the streetlights fall onto the grass that no one in my neighborhood has bothered to mow yet, the bridge begins to chime in:

I been built up, trusted,
broke down, and busted
But they’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours
if we can just hold on.

I’ve talked about those lines a million times before, but today, another thought strikes me: I like how things are turning out. I’ve held on, and I’m starting to get mine.

I have an amazing new job, with people who are starting to give me my first real sense of belonging. I want this job to be the start of an actual career. I have a decent apartment filled with things I love (or at least like, and at least one book that I keep just because I hate it so much). I have a reliable, new-ish car with a great stereo, and I can afford the car payments and rent and insurance and internet and my loans without starving.

This isn’t the life I’d wanted, and I’m pretty roughed up from the life I’ve had, but I don’t want to try to turn around and live any of it differently. I’ve slowly built a life that makes me content, if not always happy, just by holding on through the times when I’ve been anything but.

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