…Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos…
When we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book, and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art.
– Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
College is a time of identity exploration. We try on different characters, often changing our wardrobe or choice of music to suit. I arrived at Berkeley in 1994 as Independent Bookworm Punky Princess. That first year in college, my penny loafers evolved from companions of pleated skirts to the sockless friends of Gap khaki shorts and Berkeley insignia sweatshirts. One of the tee shirts I wore under them had Rosie the Riveter printed on it, heralding the shout “We can do it!” It was the year I rocked along to Alanis Morisette, stood in the eleventh row at an REM concert, and discovered Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, otherwise known as the Indigo Girls.
The next year, which housed me in my first apartment, was colored by my growing fascination with German art and literature. I lived across the street from Cody’s Books, where I’d spend scholarship money on wallpaper-covered Insel-Verlag copies of Rilke’s Letters in the original German. Ute Lemper’s new versions of old Berlin cabaret songs joined my growing collection of music by female artists.
These carried me over into the summer, which I spent cooking at a youth camp on a Native American Reservation. Shopping trips meant long, weekly rides from Ione to Sacramento with Paige and Meline, women who owned red Toyota pick-up trucks. We’d sing along to the Indigo Girls, and I’d look out the window, embarrassed at my own bliss. Rosie the Riveter exploded in me, as Ute, Marlene, Amy, Emily, and Alanis shimmied up to Dar, Aretha, Joni, and a whole slew of other gifted goddesses.
My senior year in college saw me through a blue period, when I fell for people who saw self-destructivity as a form of high art. I escaped them every now and then by dipping into my old independence, which had matured into solitary Flâneuse Days wantonly indulged in San Francisco. I’d finish my walks from Union Square through Russian Hill, Chinatown, and along the wharf by meandering back to North Beach. There, in my favorite bar, The Gathering, I’d sit at the counter drinking comospolitans, munching on maraschino cherries, and listening to jam sessions with “Bishop” Norman Williams and B.J. Papa.
My CD collection grew to include Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, and Stan Getz. Even art deco period recordings by Fred Astaire tickled my jazz fancy. To my mom’s delight, I shed my Birkenstocks and began to dress like a young professional, always in slacks and blouses of gray, black, white, or navy blue. My leather bag carried copies of Kafka, Brecht, and Madame De Staël, all coursework for my last minute switch to a major in German literature.
I reached the nadir of that year playing the femme fatale of one fellow’s real life Fassbinder film. Right before I cut myself off from him, I cleansed my CD collection. I remember how my roommate Valerie, bearer of one of the biggest hearts in the universe, turned from her inbox with an oblong glance and furrowed brow.
“What are you doing,” she said, almost rhetorically. It was clear what I was doing. I was putting CDs in stacks and stuffing half of them into plastic, Amoeba Music-bound bags.
“Cleaning out my CD collection.” Cleaning out my life.
“What are you getting rid of?” Her hands rested gingerly on the keyboard.
“All the women. Except for Billie and Sarah.”
She told me later that warning bells had gone off in her head. As I reduced my music to what appeared then to be the bare essentials – jazz, Brahms, Bach, Stravinsky, Chopin, and Mozart – I was actually being misogynistic to myself. Valerie saw that, but I only got it later. I was castigating, flagellating, stripping down to the ascetic, because I had been dumb enough to let someone else do it to me first.
Ten years later, I was home in Southern California taking care of my mom, who was terminally ill. She had suffered two years from two kinds of cancer, and I had left my life in Europe – that coveted life most beatniks who listen to jazz and Brahms dream of living – to be by her side. I hadn’t brought a lot with me from the continent. I knew that I had boxes of clothes in closets in California, all testimonies to the phases of character I had gone through during my years at Berkeley. My choice of wardrobe as caregiver was a practical, not emotional one, so there was little hesitation in recycling old costumes. It wasn’t a big deal, as I was learning, the hard way.
It was during the last of my Mom visits that I was haunted by a line from Closer to Fine, the song by the Indigo Girls that everyone has heard at least once in their lifetime. “The best thing you’ve ever done for me is to help me take my life less seriously – it’s only life after all.” One unsuspecting afternoon, years after having sold the album back to Amoeba Music on Telegraph Avenue, I re-ordered the album on impulse. Of course, the Amazon website reminded me that there were other albums by the pair, and I clicked away, replenishing my old collection.
Amy and Emily pulled me through my mother’s death. I listened to them on the freeway driving through light rain the morning of the day she died. She’d woken up, lucid, to stop the nurse from giving her an anti-anxiety drug that would have put her out for the rest of the day. She asked the nurse to call me instead and have me come as soon as possible. I understood what was going on: she was going without the drug so we could be together one last time – really be together, hang out, even though the painkiller she was on made her eyelids heavy and her speech slurred. Still, the mom beyond the meds had called for me with intent, and I knew this deep down as I drove to the hospice that morning. I dropped everything, got in the car, and turned up Closer to Fine. As tears streamed down my face, I concentrated on one singular thing – the words to the song.
When it was over, I belted along to the next track, and the next.
I remember worrying in the back of my mind about the slick asphalt of the freeway. I remember thinking that the lightness of rain made it risky to rush, but I couldn’t bring myself to drive slower. It was all I could manage to focus on the music. I knew it was the last drive to the hospice. I knew she was calling me to be with her as she rallied, and that everything as we knew it – illness, stress, but also our living, breathing partnership of mother and daughter – would be over soon.
Though scared of speeding and skidding, I surrendered my inability to grapple with both goodbye and my control of the road. Angels flanking the car on either side let me drive through the tears and simply hang on to the words of the music.
This is why the music of the Indigo Girls is a form of holy art. They name me. I see people in church singing praise songs and raising their hands up in the air, turning palms to the sky that are ambiguous in their giving and receiving. I get a little embarrassed when I see it, because it’s so intimate to watch, but mostly, because I never feel like doing that in church myself. I do, though, when I am listening to the Indigo Girls – in the kitchen, in the living room, in the driver’s seat. The history we have, the History of Us, names me. It saved me at the most terrifying and sacred point of my young life, en route to my dying mom.
As an expatriate, I cherish the value of this. It takes a while for expatriates to settle into their entire selves abroad. Only people who have traveled to other places to root understand what it requires of us. Setting up house in a new culture necessitates time to orient, to take in the different context, to see what pieces of us fit. We are inventive, pulling up our untended parts and re-trying them on for size. We are flexible, like wishbones – because we are strong enough to withstand the bending and pulling required of a life away from the soul’s geography of our original terrain.
When I return to Southern California, I relish in the places where I am from. My schools, the trees lining the big street downtown, the bookstores, the cafés, the sushi bars, the neon lights at the Denny’s restaurant by the freeway, the vegetarian submarine sandwich at Ralph’s, Target – they hold pieces of me that never expire. Those friends, too, who have never left my original terrain, hold pieces of me. They remind me of where I am from, of who I am from. They reflect me back to me. Call me materialist to identify myself in consumer experiences and bodies planted in towns, but this stuff is the backdrop that completes me. If God is the invisible force binding the jigsaw puzzle of my life together, my friends and places – my soul’s past geography – are the individual pieces. I, the entity, regroup and rest whenever I return to them.
But art – like the soul – transcends history and place. When we are named by art, we transcend space and time. Art names us again when the material has surrendered itself to change. A favorite poem, a resurrected song, a painting’s effect on you, the familiar characters of a well-read book: these are portable keyholes to the parts of us we do not want to neglect. In the time it takes to turn on track one of Closer to Fine, I am back in the car on the freeway, crying my way to my mom. I am also further back, sitting on the floor of a Berkeley dorm room at three in the morning with the volume turned all the way up.
Finally, I am standing next to my stereo in a European apartment, palm up, listening to Amy and Emily. My daughter, ten weeks old, rests in a sling on my chest and peeks a quiet head out from inside the stretchy green fabric. I look down, meet her wide, almond shaped eyes and two lips pursed in silent appraisal. My other hand, resting on her downy head, tells her about how this music names me, and how it has brought me full circle. I sing to her and welcome her to the sisterhood.
© 2008, 2016 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.