The sound of transition

The sound of transition

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2006, Kate Bowman-Johnston shares how a move to Pennsylvania from Michigan inspires a meaningful mix CD.

Later today, I will be sweating profusely. I will be carrying heavy boxes up an unfamiliar staircase, squabbling with my husband over where to put the bookcases, offering cold drinks to friends we haven’t seen in a long time as they huff and puff to assemble furniture. And by the early evening, I will be sitting on the painted hardwood floor with a beer in my hand, surveying the chaos with a mixture of relief and bewilderment, wondering how this new apartment in this new neighborhood in this new city in this new state on this new coast will become our home.

Transitions are always difficult for me, and none more traumatic than physical moves. Ever since I left for a college 800 miles away from my childhood home, I’ve dealt with this by marking my territory with monuments that recognize both my past and my future, which in turn makes sense of my present. More often than not, these placeholders come in the form of music. To figure out where I’ve been and where I’m going, I make mix CDs.

My latest cross-country journey from Michigan to Philadelphia is no exception. I was excited to embark, but at the same time, I was mourning the city I’d come to love over the last three years. I was going to leave the community in which I’d had my first real job, in which I’d lived all by myself for the first time, in which my husband and I later made our first home, in which I’d found some unexpected lifelong friends. I needed both to grieve and to anticipate, and so I started looking through my albums.

What resulted was a mix CD in three parts, representing the past, present, and future. It documents what we love about Grand Rapids, Philadelphia, and the physical and emotional spaces we would travel in between. We made copies for everyone who attended our going-away party, as much to introduce them to our destination as to bid our former home goodbye.

A few weeks before we left Grand Rapids, a new resident of the city (and also the editor of this website) asked if I would share some reflections on the track list with catapult readers. She herself was in the process of navigating a geographical transition and mentioned that one particular song embodied her tangled feelings about leaving behind what you love and embracing the new. Here are several highlights of how the mix did the same for me.

Part I: Goodbye, Grand Rapids

  • “Half Acre” by Hem
    I am holding half an acre / Torn from the map of Michigan / And folded in this scrap of paper / Is the land I grew in.If I had room and copyright enough to include all the lyrics to this song, I would. Aside from being specifically about growing in and leaving Michigan, it eloquently asks the questions that pull at every person who’s decided against staying put: “Think of every town you’ve lived in / Every room you lay your head / And what is it that you remember? / Do you carry every sadness with you, / Every hour your heart was broken?”Sung sweetly and sadly by Sally Ellyson against a meandering, pizzicato refrain, these questions have a strong implied answer: yes, of course, because place matters. The events that shape our lives—every sadness, every heartbreak—cannot happen outside of time and space, and so they are inextricably tied with that which we call home.At the same time, home is meant to be a refuge, and that is why I love the conclusion of “Half Acre.” Midway through the song, the tone changes, both musically and lyrically. Glockenspiels pick up the pizzicato refrain, transforming it into a beatific carol. An orchestra begins to build and soar as Ellyson reaches the pivotal moment: “But.” Except. All this sadness, but—she has hope, for she is holding a scrap of paper that can “crack the darkest sky wide open / Every burden taken from me / Every night my heart unfolding / My home.” We carry every place inside us even after we have left it physically, for better or worse, making us who we are at any given moment.
  • “Holland” by Sufjan Stevens
    Sleeping on Lake Michigan / Factories and marching bands / Lose our clothes in summertime / Lose ourselves to lose our minds / In the summer heat I might.Stevens is a Michigan native, a Calvin College favorite, and a musical hero, so including a track from his 2003 tribute to the state, Say Yes! To Michigan, was a no-brainer. After much fierce debate we settled on “Holland” because of the town’s personal significance; we spent many summer days, as well as the cold January day we decided to get married, at the Holland State Park. The breathless “oh-oh-oh-oh” refrain recalls the starkness of the notorious Michigan winters, as well as the solemnity of committing (or not, as the case may be in this song) to another human being for the long haul.
  • “Especially in Michigan” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
    Life is my friend / Rake it up to take it in / Wrap me in your cinnamon / Especially in Michigan.We couldn’t not feature a wicked Chili Peppers guitar solo and non-sensical lyrics by Grand Rapids’s own native son Anthony Kiedis. It’s as simple as that. (Well, there was also the attraction of an entire stanza rhymed against the word “librarian,” which happens to be my prospective profession.) Everything else we chose for Part I of the mix was so mopey that we wanted to end on an upbeat note with a warning that “lions and tigers come running just to steal your luck”—especially in Michigan, apparently. Beware.

Part II: On the Road Again

  • “Tables and Chairs” by Andrew Bird
    I know we’ll meet someday in the crumbled financial institutions of this land / There’ll be tables and chairs / There’ll be pony rides and dancing bears / There’ll even be a band / After the fall there will be no more countries, no currencies at all / … And that’s not all / Oh-oh, there will be snacks.“Tables and Chairs” is the most delightful post-economic-apocalypse party song I know. Quirky and whimsical like Bird himself, the song is in constant musical flux as it describes bidding one’s friends goodbye for awhile, knowing that a joyous reunion is imminent. I’m tempted to see this as a Kingdom song in that sense, which is part of why we included it. In particular, the exuberant declaration that “there will be snacks” is both childlike and truthful.I have often imagined, usually while dining with friends, that the new earth will involve regular, delicious meals and that eating will finally be unburdened from the earthly baggage of excess for some, scarcity for others. But Bird’s proposal takes this to an entirely new level, for he reminds us that while food nourishes our bodies, it can serve another function, too: fun. Snacks aren’t staples, they’re frivolous in the best sense of the word—a treat, a surprising gift. They are unnecessary, and in Bird’s imagined utopia, they will be available to everyone. (“No currencies at all,” remember?) I love Bird’s tongue-in-cheek approach to the collapse of civilization as we know it, but I love his optimism about it, too—his insistence that we will meet again someday with the people we have to leave behind during ordinary time.
  • “America” – Simon & Garfunkel
    Michigan seems like a dream to me now. / … Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America.I grew up listening to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s perfectly matched harmonies, but it wasn’t until I saw Cameron Crowe’s movie memoir Almost Famous that this song took on personal meaning. After that, it went on every road trip mix because of its innocent, idealistic tone and its climactic insistence that all travelers are searching for meaning in their journeys, no matter how mundane. “America” fit perfectly as a transitional song for this compilation because the narrator begins his travels in Michigan (“it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw”) and ends up on a Greyhound in Pennsylvania, bound for the big city on the New Jersey Turnpike. Never mind that he’s undoubtedly destined for New York—this is a great song to blast during a nighttime approach to any glittering metropolis. It has mood in spades, and that’s what we were going for with this section of the mix.

Part III: Hello Philadelphia

  • “Mercy for Cities” – John Francis
    I know of something called mercy for cities / If there’s a God, well, he’s heartbroken too / Fills up the cracks and the potholes with pity / Fills up the spaces between me and you.John Francis is a local Philly musician with whom my husband was familiar because they attended college together. His trembling falsetto is often compared with Jeff Buckley’s, but Francis distinguishes himself with his own unique, growling brand of soul. “Mercy for Cities” stood out to us for inclusion on this mix because it reflects the feelings of helplessness experienced by so many young people who encounter urban decay and chronic homelessness for the first time—and many times after, as well. “Mercy for Cities” was included on a compilation released in conjunction with The Simple Way, an intentional community in Philadelphia whose most well-known member is Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution. The Simple Way—and, in this song, John Francis—declares that “another world is possible,” favoring the homeless and the impoverished in imitation of the upside-down kingdom.
  • “Streets of Philadelphia” – Bruce Springsteen
    Ain’t no angel gonna greet me / It’s just you and I my friend. A tribute to Philly is not complete without a Bruce Springsteen song. The Jersey boy has penned an understated, poetic portrait of despair and redemption set in the city of brotherly love.  With the gentle chorus of “na-na-nas” and the pulsing layers of organ, “Streets of Philadelphia” is classic Springsteen fanfare for the common man as the narrator searches for companionship and for himself. Hope is evident in the past-tense phrasing of some of the verses, but it blooms into sober fullness with the realization that people must be one another’s angels so that we are not left to fend for ourselves in the dark night of the soul.