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rasp

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Day 18 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:


rasp1    \rasp\  vb.  1 :  to rub with or as if with a rough file  2 :  to grate harshly on (as one’s nerves)  3 :  to speak in a grating tone

rasp2  :  a course file with cutting points instead of ridges.

 

 

Miss Mae, the eighty-year-old bar owner who’s smoked two packs a day since she was sixteen, the one who tells you in no uncertain terms to “Get off my stool,” the stool you didn’t know was hers. Your voice when you are on the cusp of losing it, but before you’ve lost it completely and before you sound like a boy going through puberty. Tom Waits, singing with his throat full of gravel. The car engine trying to turn over and then trying to turn over again. Frogs. Red foxes. That episode of Friends where Phoebe has a cold and her voice lowers and sexies itself for her gig at the coffeehouse, and then she tries to get sick again so that rasp will return. Bea Arthur as Dorothy saying to Estelle Getty over and over again in each episode: “Ma!” James Earl Jones saying, If you build it, they will come. Lauren Bacall asking, You know how to whistle, don’t you? Stevie Nicks. Rod Stewart. Bonnie Tyler. Macy Gray. Brian Adams. Louis Armstrong singing, Stars shining bright above you. Kim Carnes singing, She’s got Bette Davis eyes. Bette Davis. Linda Ronstadt has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing (she said, If there was something I could work on, I’d work on it till I could get it back. If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug. I’d take napalm. But I’m never going to sing again). When I heard the news on the radio, I was close to crying. I knew a girl in high school, a soprano, who always refused to drink after other people, terrified of getting a cold and losing her voice.  Someone on a ventilator. Someone with a voicebox. Someone with a virus. Riff Raff. Gollum. Carface. She also wouldn’t talk on the days we had performances scheduled. She wouldn’t even whisper. Unrasping: with rest, honey, rest, apple cider, cayenne, lemon, ginger, zinc, eucalyptus, humming, using a humidifier, inhaling steam, gargling salt water, drinking tea, stopping speaking, stopping singing, quitting smoking, quitting caffeine, water, sleep.  She went to a conservatory for college, I think. Now she has four kids and lives somewhere in the South. I’m not sure if she still sings.

 

 

 

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ly·ric

 

Screenshot of Woody's Journal taken from "The Making of The Works," album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)

Screenshot of Woody’s Journal taken from “The Making of The Works,” album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)

 

ly·ric  (lir ik),  adj.  [ < Fr. Or L.; Fr. Lyrique; L. lyricus; Gr. lyrikos],  1.  of a lyre.  2.  suitable for singing, as to the accompaniment of a lyre; songlike; specifically, designating poetry or a poem expressing the poet’s personal emotion or sentiment rather than telling of external events: sonnets, elegies, odes, hymns, etc. are lyric poems.  3.  writing or having written lyric poetry.  4.  in music, a) characterized by a relatively high compass and a light, flexible quality: as, a voice of lyric quality.  b)  having such a voice: as, a lyric tenor. Opposed to dramatic.  n.  1.  a lyric poem.  2.  Usually pl. the words of a song, as distinguished from the music.

 

 

the words of a song/as distinguished from the music

 


 

“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

 –Sherwood Anderson, letter to his teenage son, 1927

 

 

Lyrics have always been a kind of savior.  From times before written word when sounds were bellowed round a fire, when epic poems were sung as a way to pass down history and legend of how a people came to be. Even the sound of the word om, a mantra for invocation, deemed sacred in part because of the vibrations sent out and the resonance of the sound when sung, a-u-m.

 

Lyrics have saved me at various moments in my life. I think perhaps the greatest gift of these words set to music is their ability to do away with the notion that we are alone. When I am in pain, that is the moment I find it hardest to see beyond myself. There is a meditation practice Pema Chödrön writes about called tonglen. Tonglen is a practice where you get in touch with your own suffering and then breathe in the pain of others. This is in direct opposition to many new age practices that promise relief through visualization: go to your happy place, imagine a bridge covered with ivy and a brick cottage, breathe in the scent of your favorite flower. Tonglen instead asks that you connect with and breathe in the intensity of your own pain and breathe out relief. Then, tonglen asks that you think of all the people in the world who at this very same moment are experiencing the same pain as you—whether grief, loneliness, anger, jealousy, or fear—and to breathe in their pain and breathe out relief. Tonglen makes you aware that you are not the only one feeling what you are feeling. Tonglen gives you an opportunity to offer relief by seeing outside the parameters of your own pain. Lyrics do the same thing.

 

I have an uncanny memory for song lyrics; they are stacked, filed, catalogued in my brain—the ones I want to remember and the ones I wish I could forget. I also have a habit from when I was very young of spontaneously breaking into song, singing about what’s happening to me or things I see, or inserting song lyrics when someone says a word that reminds me of the song they come from.

 

I noticed past this fall that I listen to music less and that I sing along less in the car. I’m not sure exactly when this began, but I recognize some of it. Sometimes, even things I love can become things I resist or deny myself. I go through periods of not writing when I am overcome with doubt, when I become focused on product instead of process. When I’m not feeling good about my songwriting or my singing or when I feel I’m not doing enough, I deny myself the moments of even singing along in the car or playing guitar for fun in my home. I even start watching movies as I move about my home instead of listening to music, so permeating is the feeling that I should be doing more. I resist that which matters to me when I don’t allow myself space for it. This is a harsh reality for so many of us: When do we not provide space and time for that which we love out of fear? When does what’s made become more important than the making?

 

I think in truth that most of us have ideas and words and architecture running just under the surface of our skin. The power of all that we could create scares us into not making time, into making excuses, into making work that is so much more superficial than that which our deepest knowing dares us to make.

 

Too often, we are liars.

 

We tell ourselves that the world doesn’t need one more song, one more story, one more sketch.

 

We are wrong.

 

The best songs I have written have been the ones that have come out quickly and seamlessly, seemingly out of nowhere. I have sat down with a pen, a notebook, a guitar, and the song has spilled out. This is not evidence of the quickness of art but rather how quick art can come if we pay attention and allow space for it to emerge. Songwriting is a sort of channeling. I know there are people in Nashville who can turn a phrase, who make their living shaping songs for superstars. But like writing, even those who are prolific, would tell you of a certain spark, a certain word or turn of phrase, the key turning in the lock that opened the way to the rest of the song. A crack in the dam. A snap in the hinge. A pull in the thread that unravels the whole hem,  one seam untying to stitch another.

 

And the lyrics that are made and sent into the world become a place for others to rest within. For hours after a college boyfriend, the first guy I really fell hard for, left to return to the country he was from, I lay on my bed listening to the same song on repeat for hours. It was a Sundays song called “When I’m Thinking About You.” I remember my dorm room and where my bed was positioned by the window. I remember feeling that I had never loved like this before, fearing I would miss him so much my heart would surely break open inside my chest. There were many tears: so many verses and so many choruses worth. I found comfort in the repetition of the same lyrics over and over again. I listened and I cried and by the time I turned the cd player off hours later, I felt better, even if my heart was still broken.

 

Lyrics become a way of organizing our experiences in life, a place to store our suffering and our solace. The spectacle of karaoke feels less about nostalgia or the desire to be the center of attention than it feels like confession. Singing in unison, the resonating feeling of these words that everyone knows. I, too, have felt this way. Like communion, me too.

 

 

“I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

—Woody Guthrie

 

 

Several friends have spoken with me about the songs that saved them. These songs held words they needed to hear during dark times. And somehow the fact that the song existed provided a shelter. These lyrics, a place for solidarity and witness. These lyrics, a kiva, where a voice reaches out of the speaker to our waiting bodies, mouths, hearts, skin as these parts of us echo back a simple reply, yes.

 

One of my favorite songs is Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The first time I heard it, I was in my early twenties and these three young men, handsome and brilliant musicians, were coming through town on a Woody Guthrie Tribute tour. They played this song in harmony on guitars and accordion and it broke something open in me.

 

Foster wrote the song about people living in deep poverty and deep despair, something I knew  nothing about at the time, something I know a little more about now but not in the way the people he is writing about knew it. And yet, I could hear myself in the chorus. Hard Times, Come Again No More. I feel a sort of yearning in this song and a feeling that the song itself beckons a wish, that in singing the song loud enough, often enough, we could somehow stave away suffering. A hope. An impossibility. When I play the song now, I experience it as a remembrance and a tribute, an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that is an inevitable part of being human.

 

Researcher Brené Brown talks about how: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak, when you ask them about belonging, they tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. When you ask people about connection, the stories they tell you are about disconnection.” It makes sense then that for many of us the songs that resonate most are the ones that reveal that aching aspect of being human: having loved and lost, having reached out and been turned away, and the hope we hold for a future when things will turn out in a way that meets our needs and desires.

 

Lyrics feed us. Because we require constant attention and ever-present opening. Because we cannot do it alone. Because we have lived through heartache and heartbreak and have to learn what it means to stand again. Because we must uncover our hands once more from atop our hearts. Because if you needed me, I would come to you. Because there is no other way. Because this fuel, this fire, this field, this flood; this avalanche, this arc, this arch, this aspen; this meeting, this movement, this martyr, this made; this sacrifice, this sepulcher, this sergeant, this soot; this tandem, this tangent, this target, this tongue; this blanket, this buckle, this banter, this bare. Because in singing and seeking, we come to know each other better and we come to know ourselves.

 

I sing because I’m grateful for having been sung to. And I sing because it is when I am singing that I feel most alive. And I sing because no matter how hard my day has been, no matter how uncertain the road ahead is, no matter the current state of things, I need to be reminded of the beauty that can be found curled up inside a long held note and the calm of the silence in between one sound and another. Songs are of us and for us. They are of our making and they are how we are made.

 

 

 

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dis·cuss

Preservation Hall, August 2009, Lisa O'Neill

 

dis·cuss (di-ˈskəs),  v.t. [ME.  Discussen, to examine, scatter < L. discussus, pp. of discutire, to strike asunder, shake apart, scatter  <  dis-, apart + quatare, to shake, beat], 1. to talk or write about; take up in conversation or in a discourse; consider and argue the pros and cons of.  2. [Colloq.] to eat or drink (something) with enjoyment.  SYN.—discuss implies a talking about something in a deliberative fashion, with varying opinions offered constructively and, usually, amicably, so as to settle an issue, decide on a course of action, etc.; argue implies the citing of reasons or evidence to support or refute an assertion, belief, proposition, etc.; debate implies a formal argument, usually on public questions, in contests between opposing groups; dispute implies argument in which there is a clash of opposing opinions, often presented in an angry or heated manner.

 

This second Sunday, the dictionary project‘s flash fiction february features a flash fiction story by writer César Díaz. Enjoy!

 

Preservation Hall

Life of vagrant alleys, of pool halls and restaurants, and whiskey n’ beer taverns soak into the walls of Preservation Hall and sets them throbbing to jazz. At night, these doors open to people who come in stamping feet and nodding. Road shows torch songs that meld into the swollen hearts of lovers of bebop, of blues, of hot jazz. These songs sop the walls; seep out towards the life of New Orleans alley rats and barflies. During the afternoons, these houses are dark; the walls sleep before the musicians plug in, before the singer rehearses. Or until Hayward comes within them, that’s when the walls pulse and the shadowed air grows luminous.

Hayward is the owner’s brother. He is seated at the back by the bar, watching the stage just before rehearsal. Light traces down upon him from the ceiling. Half of his face is a balmy orange, the other in shadow. A dim glow of the club rushes to and Hayward’s mind wonders. He asks the bartender for whiskey.

Stage lights are soft focus, as if they shine through fingertips. Beneath them, hid only by a mere shadow of a set, is Marian. She sings without piano, without ensemble. Hayward begins to feel as if his body was an audience listening and singing, and snapping fingers, swaying heads, eyes closed, all smiles. He singles Marian out.

The pianist’s hand slips onto the keyboards, improvises. The walls awaken. The pianist’s arms, limbs, fingers—fiddling and shifting and lifting. In the air, on the floor, fills the rhythm of the music.

Hayward to Marian in thought: Soon the pianist will herd you, tame you, darlin’. Blunt your sharp pith into soft gestures. Soon the audience will see you, call you beautiful.

Marian croons, intones. The pianist follows suit in snatches and jazz turns. Voice and strings, spare with loose passion, whelm the room. It stops, and the music retracts. The walls again are off. The stage once again, silent. Men clap.

Hayward: She whom I’d love. I’d leave before she knew that I was with her.

Hayward’s blood presses in. He wills his thoughts, gulps his whiskey to rid his mind of this lust.

Hayward stares.

“Missus Blake, wonderful! Bravo!” says the hall’s manager.

He wants the rehearsal done with. He wants quiet before the men and women from as far away as Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain come and dine, drink, and dance up and down the Quarter. He’s noticed Hayward’s songstress. He watches her. He wants her, and Hayward observes the hall’s manager from the bar.

Marian lines up, the piano next to her. She snaps her fingers—music starts. This time a saxophone. Its sound carries and flows where it will not strain Marian’s throat. Marian allows herself to carry, to flow. Her lips are curiously full, and very red. Her legs in thin tan stockings make her lovely.

Hayward: Oh, stage-bird. Music girl. Lil’ stuck-up West Coast jazz girl. You’re all up there. Murmur your music, paint the walls in sounds. Bartender, more whiskey!

Another music break. Marian sees Hayward. She knows he’s been looking at her. She’s been watching too, off and on. She plays coy.

“Who’s that?” she asks.

“The owner’s brother,” says the pianist.

The pianist stares at Marian.  He notices her glances, how she tilts her head, her dark brown locks wave over her bare shoulders. She moves for Hayward around the stage until she sees she has him. Then she withdraws proudly.

The pianist adds, “I hear he’s no good.”

Marian: Oh, hun, I know respectable folks, lotta of ‘em. New York to Chicago to Philadelphia. I’ve had better men. Doctors and lawyers. Not the hall’s owner’s brother. My.

A haughty laugh, a smile and glance back at Hayward.

His eyes are fixed. He waits for her to fly, paint the walls with her sound. Her bare shoulders coaxing, her thighs firm against her purple dress.

Hayward: I bet she can… I got my place close by. Gotta get her right. Keep her loveliness.

Marian: “What’s eating that guy, anyway?”

“He loves you, darlin’ just look at his gaze,” the pianist says.

She swings to the front of the piano. She leans a bit, her brown hair revealing her bare back. Marian feels his eyes. She moves for Hayward. Her back towards him but projected.

The pianist again strokes his keys.

Music starts, again. Hayward’s head bobs.

The saxophonist plays his notes softly. A fluttering butterfly. Taunting. Undulating. O’ just a little more.

Hayward asks for another shot.

Marian to Hayward in thought: I bet you can’t love. You’re too skinny. Like making love to paperclips. Your lips are slight. You couldn’t love me anyways. But I could get dinner or a gift, a dress out of you anyways. Men like you will marry if you love. Would you love me? Give me kids, a home, everything? Oh, you will. If I make you. Just watch, hun.

Marian sings. For a moment, she forgets her tricks. She forgets Hayward off in the distance, drunk by the bar. She bellows glorious notes like muscular limbs. Her croons like sugar heartaches. The walls press in, she is in control. The wall come alive, a flesh-throbbing body that for a split moment pushes Hayward and Marion together. His heart against his mind.

And then, just then, the shaft of light from the ceiling goes out. Hayward’s eyes follow it. Along with the light, pulled upward, goes his mind…. into dreams:

Marian sings—

Marian dressed in black. A thin garment. She waits alone on stage. Hayward dressed in a suit and tie approaches. His feet shuffle forward, floating as if on air. The air sweet with a nutty scent, roasted and warm. Marian knows he’s coming. At that moment she steps off the stage. Her face is tinted a yellow glimmer of autumn leaves. Old Southern flowers, her perfume. Hayward’s eyes speak, “I saw you first, I did.” His melancholy runs deep, sealing all his senses but his eyes. Marian walks away. He reaches for her. She nears the shadows and glides away from the soft light of the stage. “She’s not for me, even in a dream.”

—Marian croons.

They’re at Preservation Hall. It’s as if Hayward knows nothing of it. Only that Marian is its walls. They are singing walls, tender lights throbbing, bobbing, and pushing inward. On Hayward. It is how he feels. It is the whiskey and not his instincts. He has lost his faculties. Hayward enraptured. Marian, his butterfly.

The pianist crashes a chord. Her walls collapse.

The light above him is no longer.

Marion turns and seeks his face, his eyes and they are not there, but shadow. She looks one way, then the other. Pulls her hair, sways her hips. But it’s no longer the same. Hayward’s eyes are not there. His mind gone elsewhere. He has made a decision. She is not for him.

“Missus Blake? Missus, are you okay?” asks the pianist.

Her eyes flood with tears, she stares at the ceiling lights no longer shedding the light towards the bar. On Hayward.

Hayward is gone. He has let her go.

 

Preservation Hall, August 2009, Lisa O'Neill

 

 

César Díaz is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He is a recent graduate of the nonfiction program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He’s working on his first book. He can be reached at diaz.cesar at gmail dot com.

 

 

On the creation of “Preservation Hall”:
When I received my word, I immediately jotted down keywords that rang out to me, words that elicited an emotional and visual response. These words from the Latin root meaning of ‘discuss’: to “examine, scatter, strike asunder, shake apart,” got me thinking about an idea for a story where two characters interact without ever speaking a word with one another. I’m fascinated by the way we “talk” through body language, eye contact, and what I think is pure human instinct. In my story, I wanted for Hayward and Marian to have an entire discourse with one another, a back and forth argument where one tries to figure out the other, and in doing so a decision or course of action is made by the story’s end. I wanted my story to have a very “hot jazz’” feel to it, where the language, the tone, and delivery of the story becomes the lens by which the reader examines this interaction between Hayward and Marian. I wanted the reader to feel the jazz club, to see how the walls throbbed and came alive with the music, while also gently lulling the reader into an imagined space before dropping them back in reality. All in all, my word inspired the creation of a lyrical story, a sort of verbal minstrelsy that mimics what Marian does to Hayward: moves around the stage to attract your attention before withdrawing proudly.

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