I’ve heard it said that a smile, like a simple good deed, is contagious. Smile and people will like you. One smile can set the whole world ablaze with joy. Maybe I don’t smile enough, but I’ve always thought that was the biggest load of crap anyone could try to spoon me. Smile a lot and people will think you’re creepy or medicated…or delusional. One smile means nothing in a world where people kill each other just for being different. And, yet, I would like to dedicate this post to a smile, one simple smile that made me believe, even if it’s only for a little while, that there were flowers and butterflies in a brown-paper package tied with purple, sparkly ribbon on their way to find me, and that they would lead me down the path to a job that fits, a partner that cares, and a whole lotta love.
I’m talking, of course, about Josh Ritter. And I don’t know if his smile could change the world, but it did change my worldview, and here’s how.
He walks up on stage with the rest of his group and they’re all looking dapper, and not just dapper in the sense that they’re all young, handsome, and clean. We’re talking vests, bow-ties, curly mustaches, fedora hats, suspenders. Even the opener (Bhi Bhiman, who was awesome, by the way) looked a bit like his mother had dressed him for picture day at school. It doesn’t take a lot to overwhelm me these days, so that I was completely taken by desire goes without saying. It’s just hard to discern between the desire to be these people, and the desire to be with these people. Regardless, Josh Ritter walks up on the stage, and before he even opens his mouth, the warmth is there. You can feel it starting in your feet that can’t seem to keep still. A smile spreads across his face, and there’s something–something not unlike happiness–creeping up in your own heart like summer ivy up an old brick building. He strums one chord on his guitar, leans into the microphone with his eyes closed and his grin as big as ever, and suddenly it seizes you. Yes, this is joy. Pure an unadulterated. And it happens over and over again. Every song is your favorite. Every song touches you, wraps around you so entirely, twists up inside you and then bursts in such a fit of feeling you don’t know what to do but cheer and throw your hands in the air.
When I last saw him, I described his music as particularly beautiful and unforgettable.
I said earlier that his voice was nostalgic, and it’s really true. When I closed my eyes at Vicar Street, the sun was setting on the golden Ohio cornfields painted on the insides of my eyelids and I was in dad’s car with the top down driving home from dance practice. Or the sky was blue filled with big fluffy clouds and I was rolling around the grass in front of Tank, but I could hear the trains that ran behind my neighborhood growing up as well, and the little babbling brook that may or may not have had leeches. I was on playgrounds with creaky swing sets, digging in the mulch, or in my old room dancing and singing in front of the mirror in nothing but my underwear. So, really, nostalgic is the best way to describe his voice, like a picture book full of memories all out of order. (read full entry here)
It was the same Sunday night. It was like an entire life in two hours, all the hope and disappointment, love, dreams, endings and beginnings of living contained in one man’s music. There’s really no better way I can think to describe the sensation of seeing Josh Ritter live and watching him smile and goof-off on stage, so I’ll quit trying and get to the part where we all met him after the show.
I don’t know what everyone else was thinking, but I had a lot I wanted to say. I wanted to drop the name of my old boss in college who had worked with Josh Ritter to make an album in someone’s attic, and I wanted to tell him how much I loved that album. I wanted to ask him if he’d ever tried a co-op when he was at Oberlin. I wanted to propose to him, basically, but after thanking him for coming to back to Ohio and mentioning that we were all from Oberlin, the only thing I really remembered to say was that I’d just graduated. He wanted to know how that felt, and I probably stuttered something along the lines of “Eh…er…uh…well…I mean…it’s…okay, I guess.” Oof. Really?
While I was mentally kicking myself for having such a one track mind that my fear of the future couldn’t wait to emerge until after I’d finished meeting my hero, he was signing the set-list I’d snatched from the stage crew. He didn’t have to care or really say anything at all. He could have just signed the paper and went on to the next person. He certainly didn’t have to personally affirm all the comfort I’ve ever drawn from his lyrics to Long Shadows by actually giving me a long hug and a pep talk. Honestly, I can’t remember a lot of what he said. I was too busy trying to reconcile the fact that a complete stranger was taking time out of his life to comfort some dumb, awkward kid with my general aversion to having anyone–especially strangers–feel like they need to help me. I do know, however, that it was at least ten minutes of Josh Ritter telling all of us that the journey in life matters just as much as the destination, that any one destination does not have to be the ultimate, that there are so many ways to change peoples’ lives and we’d find one we loved and someone to love us. We’re Obies, after all, and we might not be fearless, but we are pretty darn capable anyway.
So, there you have it. Twice now I’ve been touched by Josh Ritter (who I am pretty sure is some sort of angel) and felt something shift inside me. I’m gonna make mistakes (hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve already made plenty), and I’m gonna get hurt, and I’m not gonna be happy, but I just have to be patient. I need to look out the window when my train gets delayed and enjoy the sun setting over the water. I need to turn the music up during traffic jams and dance so hard my car bounces. The point, I think, is that it’s not gonna happen right away, but there’s no reason I can’t enjoy–or at least learn–from everything that happens in between. I’ll get there someday, but here’s to today.
All the best things will find me.