A few weeks ago on a perfect spring day in Seattle, we—my sister, her friend, and I—walked along the canal, talking feminism and theatre and the purpose of art. We crossed the blue bridge anticipating a day of Theo chocolate samples, Jai Thai pad thai, Ophelia’s used books, and the Fremont vintage mall.
The vintage mall is an underground treasure trove of strange old items: books, gloves, sunglasses, trunks, VHS tapes, lunch meal trays identical to those at Crystal Spring Baptist Camp in the late 90s. As I do every time I visit the vintage mall, I perused their selection of vinyl records, hundreds of forgotten bands in a bulky medium.
I’ve had a record player consistently since middle school, when hipster was maybe a type of pants and a strange kid in the middle of South Dakota was buying 99 cent vinyls at Goodwill. This continued through college, but my move to Texas involved a Camry and only a Camry. My extremely large, heavy, and vintage record/cassette/8 track player with two occasionally-working speakers was trumped by dishes and bedspreads. I left the player behind, but some of my favorite records snuck into the nooks and crannies of my tightly-packed vehicle.
Admittedly turntable-less, I still wanted to see if the vintage mall had a particular Bob Dylan record. I have been attending a very rigorous and measured Dylan education course, taught by a good friend of mine. It’s been a roller coaster experience, yet my teacher assures me that I’m feeling all of the emotions, condensed, that Dylan fans experienced over the years as Dylan has reinvented and reenvisioned himself. Now I’m a fan, years too late.
I found a Dylan greatest hits vinyl, volume I, for only a few bucks. On it were all of the songs that mark this first year of graduate school (a year that I haven’t yet had the energy to stop and process), songs I love because they remind me of Texas and literature and porch swings. So, even without a record player, I bought the record.
In a record shop down the street, I found volume II.
So I carried home—Seattle to Portland to Salt Lake City to Dallas to Waco—two records in a plastic bag. After much research but not much time, a brand-new record player arrived at my door. Since I’m also sans stereo system, I tricked my TV into running the audio through its speakers and as Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” filled my apartment, the hum of the record player a muted underscore, I felt centered, like maybe this is what has been missing.
I was trying to explain to a friend why a record player was necessary, in the age of Spotify and iTunes and Pandora. I ended up just describing the experience in detail:
The necessary mindfulness as you handle vinyl records. The intentionality it takes to load the record player. The scratch of the needle, the grains of the sound, the sounds of breaths recorded that remind you of the human element of music. The difficulty of pausing briefly for a quick YouTube video. The unobtrusiveness of the music, without ads and pop-ups. And just when you’re getting used to the background music, it stops. You have to turn it over.
It’s a process that requires attention and purpose that Spotify, and much of life, doesn’t. Much in my daily life can be done half-mindedly—rarely do I have to be fully present to accomplish tasks. Text messages are short and instant. Television rarely requires thought. Books and papers can be written on autopilot, with little of my actual self bleeding into the pages. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m necessary for this world to continue moving.
Sometimes I wonder how it does keep moving. A young man was shot recently at a university very close to my heart, very close to the place where I bought that record. And then just a few days ago, a shooting at another Oregon school I’m familiar with. Before that, shootings in California.
My response is to be so tired, to be so tired of being sad and scared and angry that I want to disengage and find a cabin in the woods to hide in. And I would bring all those I love with me, and we would always be safe.
But life is not safe. I texted a friend in despair after the SPU shooting, after finding out my sister and her friends were okay in their bodies but broken in their spirits, and I admitted I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. If this life is worth the pain. If the beauty we encounter tips the balance of utter deprivation and evil that good and fine people encounter, seemingly without purpose.
There’s the trite answer, and then there’s the true answer, and sometimes they’re the same and often they’re unhelpful. Often the answer isn’t what is important; it’s the question. In this case: why are we here if it hurts so bad?
Triteness isn’t welcome here. The only answer that’s given me any true comfort is in a gravely voice piping out of a record player sitting in a small apartment in Waco, Texas. In approximately 20 minutes, it’s going to need me to turn the record over. I participate in this process of beauty, of bringing it to the world, of helping people notice melodies and harmonies and banjos and harmonicas. The music can’t continue without me.
I can’t stop the hurt, but I can participate in the remedy. And I believe the remedy is beauty, Jesus, love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness and goodwill, all of those things that both cause and relieve pain. That requires purpose, attention, and the willingness to participate in the process. To turn the record player on, listen, then flip the record – for everyone’s sakes.
So my new question, as I listen to “Blowin’ in the Wind” float across my apartment, is not how do I escape, because that’s not an option. Instead, it’s how do I be present, mindful, and purposeful. For my sister, for my friends, for my mother, for me.
For Bob Dylan. He needs me.