Posted by: gdevi | April 4, 2015

Have a Happy Ending

My internal life has slowed down measurably since I read that Joni Mitchell has been hospitalized. I recognize in it the dread and unspeakable anguish I feel when the death anniversary of my dog Sally draws near, or when I lie awake at night and think of losing my mother. It is a burning, numbing feeling, pervasive, silent and unsharable. Most of the time I am really not aware, in an existential way, of myself, my body, my mind etc. But there are people, events, places, and things that make me acutely aware of the immense accumulated texture and history of my life. Joni Mitchell’s music is intricately woven into that immense matrix of what constitutes my selfhood. Joni is recovering well from her hospitalization, but her mortality has firmly entered my consciousness.  Her death will diminish me in ways that I cannot describe.

I have always loved Joni’s song Little Green, years later confirmed as the song written for her daughter that she gave up for adoption as an unwed, poor, destitute young woman in the mid sixties. In particular, I loved/love the benediction to the child: “Little green have a happy ending.” It showed me an idiom to write about loss, grief and truth with a well-bred distance.  It matched the contours of my own psyche; emotional outbursts repel me, and expressions of agitated needs, wants and regrets in songs repulse me. It is not just a matter of aesthetics, though it is so important in any type of art not to substitute ugliness for beauty. It is not just a matter of aesthetics. It is also a matter of truth, always the essential corollary of aesthetic beauty. When we act from the depth of our truth with no dissimulation of any sort, there is no turbulence;  only, as Emily Dickinson would say, “a formal feeling.” In another context, we hear this when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they are doing.” Likewise, Joni’s songs have no bad faith in them. There is nothing greater we can ask from an artist.

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Human relationships, particularly, relationships of love, provide a rich template to explore the internal and external experiences of the balance between selfhood–and one’s drive to fulfill one’s inner destiny is part of this selfhood–and what one gives to the world outside. Loss is a defining feature of this relationship between the self and the world, because the world is infinitely more immense than our little selves. The only way in which we can partner with the world is by enriching it with our own work; sometimes this partnership comes with what we may traditionally view as “loss.” Joni’s songs are exemplary chronicles of this loss; a loss that is not only firmly grounded in art, but is also secondary to art.  The benediction for the given-up child appears in different forms across her songs. In the River, for instance, the intensity of the song is in the refrain “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” with the phrases  “river,” “skate away” and “fly” emphasized and lingered over in the manner of a jazz singer. The romantic partner in River is standing far behind while Joni wishes to skate away from him on a frozen river.  When so many women sing of wanting to be claimed and possessed by their male lovers–in fact, this is the reason for their existence, they state–Joni’s songs, even the romantic ones, approach romantic love tentatively, exploring and searching as in My Secret Place (“why did you pick me?”), but mostly letting them go away, the relationship posed as no more than a polite question (“will you still love me when I get back to LA town”in Blue Motel Room is a good example).

This divestment of male company and male endorsement is most evident in the songs of Hejira--the flight of the believer from the company of the unbelievers. Like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Joni’s Hejira is the musical testament of women who need to work and express themselves in their own way and often have to do it against terrible odds. The only female historical character mentioned in the song collection in this great album is Amelia Earhart, who disappeared while en route on a circumnavigational flight around the globe. Amelia encapsulates the anxiety of a pioneering woman who mistakenly thought that what she wanted was the comfort of a male partner, into whose arms she fell but who, ironically or perhaps not, asked her to stay away. Amelia Earhart must be patriarchy’s favorite cautionary tale for pioneering women, but to Joni, the tale is a false alarm; there is no danger in flying solo. The six white vapor trails that the jet planes leave behind them are the six white unbroken lines of the first hexagram of the ancient Chinese oracle I Ching: the Ch’ien, or The Creative. When you draw the Ch’ien hexagram, you align yourself with the untapped potential of the universe, to create, to produce works of sublime success. Chi’ien is associated with the domain of Heaven, pure energy and motion, and its generative matrix is what has not come to be, but is on its way to becoming. Dreams and false alarms: one can only pray that one will have enough discrimination and insight to recognize that one should not listen to false alarms about one’s dreams. You are a leader, and leaders are often alone, especially, if you are a woman.

Powerful, pioneer, articulate, expressive, truthful, detached, vulnerable, distant, cold, reserved, modest, solitary–these words come to me when I think of Joni. To me, you are immortal, Joni Mitchell, in the way Marcel Proust defined immortality: “People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.”  Safe travels, Joni. Thank you for renewing me with beauty each time I listen to you. With much love always, Gayatri.

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