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Billy Joel Gets Philosophical on Bravo

October 28, 2013

Last week Walker was home for break, and at the beginning of the week, Ron and I kept asking him if he’d seen this or that on the internet. “No,” he’d say. “How do you guys know about stuff I haven’t seen? You need to read more books instead of being online so much!” By the end of the break, though, he was showing me things I hadn’t yet seen (like Ylvis’ satire-on-Americans-who-think-they’re-so-progressive music video “Massachusetts”).

We loved having him home, loved the sharing of new things, the coming-and-going, and all the singing (even at midnight). But I did realize that I have started to like some predictability to the days in between kid visits and having the house more to myself–that, as Adrian Blevins wrote in her poem “Billy Joel Gets Philosophical on Bravo,” “I’m finding it difficult to live with people. Even the people I love.”

Billy Joel Gets Philosophical on Bravo

That thing Billy said about how we enter someone’s heart when we die?

It’s not A Brief History of Time or anything, but what if Billy’s right?

What if the heart really is a doorway with a silver lock and dying, that’s the key?

Let’s say you die and live in a little apartment in someone’s heart.

Let’s say you’ve got a red velvet chair, an old floor lamp,
and a library filled with all the books you didn’t get to read alive.

Let’s say there’s a cute little deli down the road
and a radio that plays all your favorite songs from the sixties and seventies
and also, on Sunday afternoons, the folk songs, the Knees Deep in Big Muddy.

There’s also be tea bags and after dinner mints.

There’s be a mammoth pile of handwritten letters from
everyone who ever hurt you,
sealed at the point of envelope entry with the person’s initials in wax,
and the prose—the prose would be outstanding—

it would include that loneliness of horses line
from James Wright’s if I could step out of my body poem
and descriptions of everything Hieronymous Bosch
ever thought he shouldn’t, but couldn’t help but think.

The weird thing would be when someone else died
and entered this heart that was your apartment and library and deli.

What if he or she didn’t like your radio?

What if he or she turned off your floor lamp and sat in the dark
despondent about the lack of drugs in this, the Piano Man hereafter?

I’m finding it difficult to live with people. Even the people I love.

As for strangers: you may as well know that’s asking a bit too much—
that’s like knocking on my door and wanting me to believe in angels.

When the housekeeping women in their delicate, prairie-girl clothing
show up with their bibles and small-print documents on the splendor of heaven,
I say I’m sorry, but I’m quite the homosexual.

My sister, on the other hand, once hid in her closet.

What was it like in there? Was there a single light bulb
Hanging from a white socket in the ceiling?

Did she stare at all the coats or rummage through the pockets
of the rejected toddler trousers
while the women knocked and hollered yoo-hoo
in their high-wire voices?

Is that what being dead is? Hiding in the dark with out-of-
style outerwear?

What kind of person would stay up all night
thinking about the philosophy of Billy Joel?

Do you know?

Would you please just tell me before the angels materialize
in their onionskin caps and black taxicabs?

The excitement of having to share the “apartment of your heart” every few months when a kid comes home from college is all-too-temporary, as any parent knows. We’re not feeling much of the stereotypical parental dread of them having to live at home for some of that first summer and fall after college; we’re pretty sure they’ll be moving on and taking most of the excitement of their lives with them sooner than we can be ready.

The good part of it being just the two of us again is that now we can look around and see all the books we haven’t read. Not the ones someone else read and put down, but the ones we have been picking out on purpose, for ourselves. It gives a new meaning even to old habits, like collecting favorite children’s books. I hadn’t realized that I’d been in the habit of thinking someday our kids would read all the books we brought home, but I was, and now I’m not–if I bring it home now, it’s mine.

We began a few years ago, making sure each of us had a copy of the Harry Potter Books, The Lord of the Rings, and Firefly. In the next few years our libraries will continue to separate, and Ron and I may well find that we like living in a house that is like “a library filled with all the books you didn’t get to read” while the kids were younger. Also, we will continue to become the creatures in the James Wright poem:  “they love each other./There is no loneliness like theirs.”

What were the most essential books you had to take with you when you left home, or that your kids or significant other chose as most essential to them when your libraries started a process of mitosis?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 11:54 am

    I think more along the lines of authors than books; I brought Kahlil Giban; Margaret Atwood; Lilian Hellman.

    But your writing brought another direction to mind: Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” More frightening to me than any conventional description of Hell, I find myself asking the same question more often as I age: “Dear God: How would you limit it to only three?”

    • October 29, 2013 8:12 am

      Hey, I just said most essential. Some books and plays you don’t need to read any more as you get older, because you have felt all you have to feel about that or you can pretty much repeat them word for word.

  2. Jenny permalink
    October 28, 2013 12:51 pm

    When I was a child, I wrote my name in all the kids’ books, though of course they were not all mine, or even mostly mine, or mine at all. Possession! Nine tenths! Law!

    When I left home, I took a lot of books with me. My sister and I fought over some of them (in a civilized way) and I actually bought her a new copy of What Katy Did so that I could have the one I loved.

    • October 29, 2013 8:15 am

      That’s totally understandable, to buy your sister a new copy so you could have the “real” one. My parents were strict about a few books actually belonging to my brother. I got one of his old Thomas the Tank Engine books when Walker was little, though, because he wanted ALL of those books and my parents still had one of my brother’s at their house.

  3. October 28, 2013 1:30 pm

    I haven’t many books that were shared, though when I move out I wonder if I might be able to take a few of the children’s books I loved. Traditional fairy tales. I’m hoping it’ll be okay because no one else read them!

    It’s nice sometimes to get time on your own, no matter how much you love your family. I like the poem a lot.

    • October 29, 2013 8:18 am

      If no one else has read a book that is in your house, it is by rights yours. This is the law of books in houses.
      Glad you like the poem! I wanted to talk about the ending, but didn’t manage to work that in–I like the absurdity and sense of possibility.

  4. October 28, 2013 7:28 pm

    No books — couldn’t bring books to basic training. I have a few from my childhood that I collected from my mother when my own children were born. I’ve passed them along to the grandkids — well no not really. The books drowned so I bought new copies and sent those along.

    • October 29, 2013 8:20 am

      New copies count as passing along–it’s kind of a corollary to the law of books in houses that whatever copy you can find is still the “same” book. It’s nice when you can find the same cover, but I don’t consider it absolutely necessary.

  5. October 28, 2013 8:49 pm

    Weirdly, I don’t think we’ve had many arguments about whose books are whose. In retrospect I’m not sure how that happened — my sisters and mother and I have certainly had multiple copies of books we all loved, but the process of mitosis seems to have happened easily.

    Also weird: I had almost no problem deciding which books to take with me when I moved to New York. I gave myself permission to take two boxes, and the decisions were all perfectly easy and natural, like I was working from a list someone had given me of what books I would need.

    • October 29, 2013 8:23 am

      That is weird!
      Eleanor had a mental list of books she needed to “twin” from our collection, and we spent some of her senior year in high school looking through used book stores to find her own personal copies of them.
      Walker read Snow Crash this summer and then packed it up. I had to find us another used copy.

  6. November 1, 2013 10:33 pm

    Like Jenny, I remember packing two boxes of books when I moved away to college and that the process was easier than expected because the essentials were so obvious. One more box might have undone me, but two was not hard at all. They have since multiplied rather considerably. I brought some reference books that I thought would be collegy — The Random House dictionary my grandfather gave me, Roget’s thesaurus, from a used bookstore that my mom gave me, an atlas that was only a little out of date. The essential books, though, were Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, The Mists of Avalon and a few others. I left Jane Eyre behind, because my paperback was falling apart. But (and I know you’ve heard this story before but I will tell it again here) my mom had bought me a hardback in a slipcover at the same used bookstore the Roget’s came from, but without my knowledge. She slipped it under my pillow and I didn’t find it until that moment when I got into bed that first night of college and realized I wasn’t going to see them again until Christmas. Inside was a note:”I thought you could use an old friend.”

    • November 2, 2013 9:22 am

      That’s such a nice story, about Jane Eyre.
      If I packed any books to take off to college, they would have been buried in among my clothes. There was still a bit of a lingering perception that I couldn’t be trusted to pay attention to my classes if there were books I liked to read lying around. In college, though, classes were finally interesting enough that I could pay some attention to them. Although there was a memorable incident with Ron giving me the first book of a series, Nine Princes in Amber, when I had intended to study for finals.

  7. November 4, 2013 2:10 pm

    I love this post and the poem. I am right there, finding it hard to live with even the people I love. Especially them, some days. My son took all his graphic novels, and he was welcome to them, though I am delighted he took reading matter of any description. When I left home, I took with me a huge stack of set texts I was about to have to read, and I can’t recall packing anything extra. Just as well – the books have grown exponentially from that year on, I think. I like the idea of special books that had to be taken about with me, and I do wonder why I didn’t actually have any.

    • November 4, 2013 4:13 pm

      I hoped you might like the poem, and am delighted to hear that you do. It seems to me a step in the direction of being a whole person again, rather than merely an “empty-nester.”
      Of course, it could just be a step in the direction of becoming cat-like. Every time one of our cats rubs his face against something, we say he is articulating the feeling that “everything here is mine.”

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