hello blackbird / hello starling / winter’s over / be my darling

It’s been a whirlwind long time since my last update, and I’ll do my best to slowly catch you up to where my life has gone since the end of January. (Don’t worry. It’s not too far.) I have been feeling incredibly creative lately, but I have also been struggling with focus and productivity. My thoughts come in quick bursts, as mandated by my hectic schedule. I’m lucky if they organize themselves into a complete sentence, and luckier still if a piece of paper happens to be nearby. Usually, I’m on my way to a band rehearsal, symposium, public presentation, job interview, art modeling gig, or regular shift at work, and there’s no time to record my eloquence for the ages.

(Apologies if my writing is a little rusty. Language is a muscle, etc…)

The last time I remember being able to press pause was the end of February. I managed to secure two days off work in order to see Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band perform live at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati. In much the same way I weaseled into courses that were already full in college, I used candy as bribes, texted and e-mailed constant reminders, and even issued ultimatums. I needed to go to this concert, and it may seem an exaggeration to think of a musical performance as a mental health panacea, but trust me: there is nothing quite like a Josh Ritter concert.

I arrived in Cincinnati to meet with my friend, Joe*, who would be my concert buddy for the night. We killed some time (pun intended) by strolling through an old cemetery near his house, and I geeked out over funerary monuments with flying buttresses and German epitaphs. Once we were hungry enough for dinner, we got some deliciously greasy grub and headed to the concert.

(*not his real name)

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As we walked into the theater, I became increasingly nervous. Josh Ritter is so dear to me, and I was sharing his music with a good friend in a much more intimate way than a casual Dropbox file. I do nearly everything on my own these days, and social anxieties are often amplified 1,000x when I’m out with others. I was worried that something would go wrong, that Joe would have a miserable time, that his car would get towed, that the date was printed wrong on my tickets, that none of the instruments would be in tune, that the crowd would be weird… From the moment we entered the venue, my anxious little mind was chugging along at full speed.

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I was not, however, too distracted to accurately date the theater based only on the art deco designs around the stage. A win for history nerds everywhere!

I think part of the reason Josh Ritter’s music is so important to me is the fact that it is one of the few things I can know for sure is mine. I am a chameleon. I will change my clothes, my music, my vocabulary–my entire everything!–to be what I imagine others want me to be at any given moment. I am so good at this that I can change practically by the minute. It’s certainly a skill, but it doesn’t leave one with a very strong sense of self.

Josh Ritter is different. I fell in love with his music before I fell in love with any boys. None of my friends knew who he was, and his wasn’t one of the many CDs my parents handed me hoping it would distract me from N*SYNC. His music has been with me for years, and it has shaped, clarified, and ameliorated so many of the struggles of my nascent adulthood that I have lost count. His lyrics are magical and excite my imagination. When I close my eyes, I can see the stories play out with vivid characters and mystical landscapes. His music is warm, comforting and nostalgic. I am never so much myself as when I am listening to Josh Ritter sing…which may be the reason I always find it so hard to share him with others. He is such an intrinsic part of myself that it feels like a personal attack when someone doesn’t dig his music.

(One time a boy I thought I loved told me Josh Ritter was for old men, so I stopped listening for three whole months, and it felt like losing a piece of my soul.)

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All nerves aside, the concert was amazing. The venue was a beautiful art deco theater in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The opening band, Barnstar, was brilliant and hilarious. As the lights dimmed to signal the end of the break, Josh Ritter opened with a truly moving acoustic rendition of Idaho that left me in literal tears. If you have not yet heard that haunting melody, go and listen to it right now, and imagine, while you do, sitting not 20 feet away from the man as he softly croons the tune bathed in a cool, blue light...

That alone is what all my dreams are made of, not to mention the rest of the set, which had me oscillating between that intoxicating mix of weepy nostalgia and unbridled joy. I stopped worrying almost immediately. To paraphrase some of his lyrics: it was hard to think a smile could bring springtime, but it did. He is truly one of the happiest performers I have ever seen. I am notoriously pessimistic, but I cannot be sad in front of Josh Ritter. His energy on stage and high spirits carried the evening and set my heart free.

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After the concert, sweet, patient Joe waited with me by the side door of the theater for the performers to exit. The group ahead of us in line turned into a tale from the Book of Virtues when they were thrown out for trying to sneak backstage, which left Joe and I first in line. I don’t remember much of what happened next, because, before I knew it, Josh Ritter had wrapped me in such a warm, familiar, and genuine hug that my mind went completely blank. I know we talked about Oberlin and history and museums. I was lucid enough to ask if we could take a picture but not enough to tell the woman taking it how to use my camera. There were more hugs–at least four!–that made me feel so loved. He told us to drive safe with such sincerity he could have been my brother or cousin or best friend. But he was a complete stranger. As we walked back to the car, I kept reminding myself that he was a complete stranger, but the recent memory of so many consecutive hugs overruled any logic. For the first time in forever, I was unselfconsciously giddy. My entire body was vibrating with happiness. I could have run a marathon. I barely slept that night.

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The next day, Joe and I spent a solid 3 hours at the amazing Cincinnati Museum Center, got some ice cream, and then I dropped in to say hello to my grandma before I headed back to Columbus to finish my laundry. I visited my parents, hugged the cat, and then finished the northward haul to Cleveland.

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A really awesome exhibit in the history museum at the Cincinnati Museum Center

I hit the ground running as soon I returned to Cleveland, arriving on time for a work shift before I even saw my apartment. It’s been the same ever since. I barely have space to breathe, but I’m hoping to update this blog soon with every important milestone I’ve achieved since my last post. (Hoping, not promising.) These include such gems as: the Mary Church Terrell symposium at Oberlin College in February, cutting my hand open in an hilarious-in-retrospect kitchen emergency, the perils of phone interviews, and voting in Tuesday’s primary election.

Until then, I wish you all the happiness of seeing Josh Ritter performing live.

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