That Kind of Lonely
"This is a song about finally letting go
of our delayed adolescence."
Patty Griffin's Website, click here.
NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts, click here.
Stephen Thompson's Article on Patty Griffin, click here.
Everyone Wants to be Somewhere Else
"Well, this party turned a corner. Every room is in disorder. Now the nightingale won’t sing for us; we scared her away. Well, you asking me a question and didn’t wait to hear the answer. As we’re following the dancer falling down a flight of stairs. Every strand has come unwound. Every heart is all worn down. Everyone in this room wanted to be somewhere else. So tonight I found a key and drive away a little early. It's the last time I'll be that kind of lonely."
The lyrics are from "That Kind of Lonely," the second of the three songs Patty Griffin sings in the Tiny Desk concert offered by NPR. You'll find the song about five minutes and forty-five seconds into the concert. In what follows I offer a reflection on a sentences she uses to introduce the song: "The is a song about letting go of delayed adolescence."
Imagine a father talking to his son about going to college: "Now that you are leaving home it's time to leave adolescence behind and become a adult."
I want to say to the father: "Well good luck on that one."
I am a college teacher and I now that many young adults don't really leave their adolescence behind. I certainly didn't. Some join fraternities; go to parties; get drunk and then tell stories the next day about how much fun they had. They are delayed adolescents: that is, adolescents who delay growing up until they have gotten something out of their system. I am really not sure what the something is. I just hope that they don't hurt too many people, including themselves, before they let go of whatever they are trying to let go of. Take a look at the video at the bottom of this page about binge drinking; you'll get the point.
But one thing is pretty obvious. Delayed adolescence can last well into adulthood. We may or may not fall into binge drinking, but we fall into binge nostalgia in one or both of two forms: (1) nostalgia for a romanticized past in which we were happy even as we are not happy now and (2) nostalgia for an unrealized future in which should have been realized in the past but wasn't. The first form of nostalgia is for a dream realized; the second for a dream deferred.
It is hard to say which form of nostalgia is most common. Perhaps some of us were lucky enough to have had happy times in our adolescent years and call them "the best of times." This is to be celebrated. The problem occurs only when we allow these times to define our lives and never grow up. We become perpetual adolescents, always remembering a paradise which was lost and which we hope to regain.
Of course the paradise that we remember is idealized. Usually the remembered past was intense but not always happy. But in retrospect we accent the sunny days and forget the stormy ones. Occasionally we drive people crazy with our inability to accept tragedy, ambiguity, and imperfection. We want everything to be perfect, just like things were.
Others among us never had a happy adolescence in the first place. Tragedy hit early and we had to grow up too soon. There was a divorce, a death, a disease, an accident. Or we suffered the cruel fate of being "unpopular" and "unnoticed" by our peers. For us adolescence was a lonely time and as we remember it we feel sad.
Of course, amid our melancholy we may romanticize our pain. We may remember only the stormy days and forget the sunny days. We long for a happy childhood or happy adolescence we never really enjoyed. We live with melancholy for a possibility that we missed but long for. This is nostalgia for a dream deferred.
A Lonely Place
I present these two kinds of nostalgia as if they occur separately. This is not true. Usually they are woven together, more softly, in the undercurrents of our individual lives. We are nostalgic for whatever innocent days we enjoyed and we long for the realization of deferred dreams. This is part of being alive. Our lives we are shaped by memories from the past, some of which are happy and some sad, and also by hopes for the future, some of which were unrealized in the past. Soft nostalgia gets a bad name. It comes with aging and is a little like wine: good in moderation.
The problem emerges when our nostalgia hardens into an obsession. It then controls our lives and we cannot live in the present, accepting the circumstances of our lives and accepting other people for who they are. When this happens the past and future become false gods: yardsticks by which we measure our lives and everything else. The present is never good enough, forever falling short of an idealized past or future. We forget the miracle of walking in the green grass, here and now, one step at a time, grateful for the day. Along the way we become self-absorbed and self-preoccupied, always on our way toward a happiness that never quite arrives. It is a lonely place to be.
Finding a Key
"So tonight I found a key and drive away a little early. It's the last time I'll be that kind of lonely. "
Patty Griffin's song is an invitation to escape the harmful side of delayed adolescence, to move past binge drinking and binge nostalgia. But it raises a rather important question. What is the key that helps her -- that helps us -- leave the party.
It may not be religion; that can be an opiate, too. But it seems to me that religious people have practices and values that can be antidotes to inordinate nostalgia.
Buddhists tell us that if we spend a little time each day in meditating, relaxing into the present moment of our own breathing, we might become better able to appreciate the sacrament of each present moment. We might remember that each day is the only time we will ever have this day.
Jews remind us that we do not have to be happy in order to find meaning in life and that meaning is found, not in falling into false utopias of the past or future, but in the hallowing of each day with a recognition that it is grounded in a sacred mystery who holds all hearts in covenantal hands.
Christians tell a story about a man who encouraged his friends to consider the lilies of the field and not worry about tomorrow, because the winds of grace flow ever so freely, wherever they will, but especially in acts of love.
Muslims remind us that divine love is always more than our concept of it, not because it is so far away, but because it is closer to us than even our own breathing. Trusting in this love we do not have to be quite so attached to the circumstances of life, because we are nourished by an inner source of strength that transcends past and future
I know I am being selective and that these traditions contain many other ideas. But it seems to me like all of them offer perspective that helps loosen the bonds of obsessive nostalgia, so that we dwell more fruitfully in the present trusting in beauty, living with respect and care for others, being grateful for the past and future without expecting perfection, and accepting our own death, so that we make space for new life.
Maybe if we live this way we don't always have to be somewhere else. Somehow we feel together with the world and held together by something still deeper. We can turn to others without the pretense of a party face: "Welcome, you are the party I've been looking for."