The other day the phrase “time and the flying snow” drifted from the sky onto my computer keyboard as if released from the clouds. But it didn’t come from the atmosphere. It was released from my memory. Long memory.
The phrase is the title of a book of songs, sheet music by Gordon Bok, a book I bought years ago when I believed I could learn to play the songs on my guitar. One specific song, really. I was ambitious and very wrong about my ability. I could strum a tune with a few basic chords, but my talent, or perhaps it was my persistence, went no further than that.
I still have the guitar, though I haven’t picked it up in years. The book is somewhere, too, though I haven’t seen it lately. But the song, that I do have. Not every word and note because it’s a long song, but phrases that worm their way up into my mouth now and then the way stones in the New England soil find their way to the surface in a spring garden.
Don’t you wonder about the mystery of memory and music? It’s like the mystery of memory and smell. You know how, when you go through the front door into a house you’ve never been in before, and you smell the residue of slow-cooking onions, and you know that even though your body has never moved through that house before, you know that smell, from your grandmother’s house, say. And then not just any day of cooked onions comes to you, but a very particular day riddled with the particular sounds and tastes, pleasures and hurts, worries and choices, and the particular angle of the sunlight that eases through the front curtains around 4 in the afternoon. And her voice, calling your name, as if nothing had ever changed or slipped away. A voice from far away, or is it just the wind?
It’s like looking backwards through a telescope so that everything from that moment is tiny yet visible, contained and embraced in the gaze of single, unblinking eye.
That’s what a song does, too, doesn’t it? It’s a ticket on an express train right to some moment when you are ten, or maybe twelve, sitting in the apartment of your mother’s friend, and your mother and her friend are drinking coffee (you can still smell that, too) and talking about something that you don’t care to know about, but there’s a record collection and the friend says put anything you want on the turntable and you see this song takes an entire side of a record album so how can you resist that?
And the needle makes a miracle, transfers the sound from the vinyl to the speakers to your ears to your memory to this moment.
And you play the song again today, in a different room, in the library where your daughter volunteers one afternoon a week, your daughter who is on the tippy edge of launching herself into her own life. Soon, very soon, but not quite yet. And when she smells onions, she’ll remember home.