(On Jordan Karnes’ new book of Essays)
Originally published on Carets and Sticks, March 25, 2014
I have to preface this book review (the first on Carets & Sticks), with an admission that this may not be a review at all, but rather a personal romp about a good friend, heavily sprinkled with excerpts from her new touching and thoughtful book, It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here, which was recently published by Carville Annex. Perhaps it’s a way for me to construct a dialogue with her beautiful words which feel so familiar, so true. To insert myself in a narrative about a time in her life that I was mostly absent from.
It’s a curious thing to know someone from a time and place. The time with Jordan is our early twenties when the days were long and sticky, and barbeques were implied, and the place is San Diego. I haven’t seen Jordan for about three years (which is totally absurd), or more specifically since my wedding, where she read a few ee cummings poems, and one about oranges that I don’t remember the author of. In a way that event marked the end of that time and place. I suppose marriage does that to people. Catapults you out of being a freewheelin’ kid into living for something else – sharing a purpose with another being (although I’d like to think we are still freewheelin’ where we can be).
We all seemed to be moving into adulthood then, marriage or not. John and I moved to the midwest to go to graduate school, and Jordan moved to the Bay area to do the same. Other friends switched jobs, buckled down, or started doing more freelance. At least that’s the narrative in my head. It’s too painful to think of that sun-soaked place existing in the same way without me after I’d gone. Jordan’s new book of personal essays seems to pick up where we left off–delving into these recent years in which mental focus has been on career and love, instead of on baking tarts, drinking Pastis, and dancing to the Rolling Stones in the living room.
Lately I’ve been fond of saying that, in my new job, I have to live in the front of my brain, where it’s all logistics and multi-tasking, and I miss living in the back of it: glazing through life in a sort of soft fascination.
I knew Jordan when we all lived in the back of the brain–I get legitimately choked up thinking about those carefree years, ripe with bikes and picnics. I always loved her because I felt like she could match my emotional energy. I think for the most part I kept this energy hidden from friends and family at that stage of my life–unsure what to make of my brash and intense mental swings. I would retreat and cry, or write a moody poem. But, Jordan wore them on her sleeve. I kept mine in a jar. I was trying to come to terms with my own independence, and I held things back, but I respected her realness.
She validated my total love of Joni Mitchell. Perhaps no surprise that two totally manic and emotional people found a shared musical taste–Joni always rendered something real in me that others would scoff at. But not Jordan: She knew. “I want to knit you a sweater, make you feeeel better. I want to make you feel free.” We both felt these words deeply. And then there were The Beatles, and Joanna Newsom, and “Oh La La” by the Faces, and the song “My Girls” by Animal Collective that was so popular then, and we would put it on at social events and be the only ones dancing.
There’s a line in the Leonard Cohen song, “Suzanne,” that reminds me of this. He is talking about Jesus. It goes “he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” I think that’s perfect. The whole song. Talking about Suzanne and Jesus, desire and salvation, hesitation and ecstasy. The chorus in the song really kills me–especially when Nina Simone sings it, and especially at the end. “She’s touched your perfect body with her mind.” That’s the power, that outside/ inside energy or connectedness that changes everything. That changed me. This was the power, and it was much different than control. This was the kind of visceral magic that can make or break hearts, spirits–or even CD players. For example, I broke my CD player in my car with my emotions.
I know the CD player is made up of plastic and lasers and other technology I don’t understand. But what you should be thinking about is the song playing, which is music, which is magic, and narrative, which is imagination. And while plastic and lasers are very real things, what’s more powerful than magic and imagination? Case and point: my broken CD player.
I think part of my manic repetition was in reaction to the song’s ending. It’s great. It makes you feel like everything is going to be okay–that this person, Judy, who is me, is going to be okay. The horns kick in and the beat picks up, and Judy’s “got the star upon her shoulder lighting up the path that she walks, and if she’s ever feeling blue then she’ll just write another song about her dream of horses.” But I wasn’t okay. I was miserable. When the song ended, it was almost like it had left me behind. But I’m Judy. How could it leave me behind? So I started it over. And over. I killed it.
At the end of a Joni Mitchell biography I read a few years back, the author included a stuff Joni Likes Section. The New Radicals song “You’ve Got the Music in You” is listed. I firstly love this, because the song is actually called “You Get What You Give,” but I imagine Joni latching onto the feeling the music and dancing around her house, singing the chorus repeatedly–assuming the title. She is then quoted from a Rolling Stone interview in 2000 as saying “The only thing I liked in a long time is the New Radicals’ song. I love that song. That’s the first song since I was a teenager that I rushed over to the radio to turn up. I like the harmony, I like the passion in his voice. I love the song, you know, “You got the music in you,” and I love the punk irreverence of it. Now, that’s my kind of punky white boy.”
I’ve always thought that it was pretty amazing that a musical legend would so unabashedly admit to being smitten with a one hit wonder. I can’t argue that the song is not catchy. It grabs you with the opening “WAKE UP KIDS,” but then loses you somewhere in the sing-rap portion about Marilyn Manson. “That song sucks,” John said laughing after I told him about Joni’s love for it. I’ve tried to explain to him on a few occasions (last night being one of them) that regardless of the merit of the song, it’s so lovely to me that Joni loves it–like she is just moved by the spirit of the song, and jives on it. Like how we used to jive on “My Girls”–even though every other twenty-something was also jiving off it then, and it was also arguably a one hit wonder. Sometimes I just want to jive off a thing, and be unapologetic, un-ironic. As I get older, and more educated (thusly more critical) I feel this is harder and harder to do.
I think I’ve been in the habit of overlooking what’s in front of me. In another conversation, Lily told me that I miss the grace around me because I’m too focused on other things. Like negative things, or just things. But, I think I prefer to find grace, or insight, through process, which makes me wonder if I make life harder than it needs to be.
One night in a bar down the street from our houses (we both lived on F Street then), while a few of us gals split some bottles of Saison DuPont (one of our faves at the time), I confessed that I had lost my virginity a few weeks back–Jordan being among the group of three with whom I first revealed this. Everyone howled, and we scrambled from the bar to a booth, scrunching in to hash out the details. Time and place. Reading this book was like catching up with my dear old friend. Like we were talking about growing up–for me wiggling into marriage, for her coming out, for both of us, trying to pursue creativity and light in a way that sustains.
When I say that I don’t know how I’m doing in life, I mean that I’m not an adult in an interesting professional field, and that I feel less legitimate because of this—that I’m not where I should be in life. Otherwise as far as actually living life goes, I’m great at it. I’m just not sure how to connect the two, or if they ever won’t feel so separate.
I take care of myself pretty well. I know when I’m overextending, I try not to fantasize about the women who haven’t loved me back, and I’m learning to set social, emotional, and romantic boundaries. When I’m hungover, I drink coconut water, and when I’m lonely I try to surround myself with good energy, else I pull in my limbs. So, when I say “take care” of myself I guess what I mean is pay off my student loans. And by that I mean I’m terrified of my debt.
Surely, Jordan’s words to me are inextricable from nostalgia and memory, yet she crafts her story telling with a generosity, that I assume would make any reader feel familiar to her experiences. Lines like this one when describing her relationship to language while in France– “when i missed my train i said merde but/ when the wind spilled my coffee I said fuck” —hit on an essential quotidian reality, which seem to connect her experiences to anyone who has ever drank coffee in a comfortable chair, or had their heart broken, or felt incomplete in some way.
Things that are of general interest to me: relationships, space, light, time, love. Things that worry me right now: relationships, finding a room in the city so I can stop commuting, having enough energy to write after work, the idea of retirement, student loans, love. That these are very human worries is assuring to me. That I could have lived my life differently to avoid some of these worries feels impossible.
The humanness is what makes this book of essays so dear, and also what makes Jordan an amazing writer with an Annie Dillard-esque way of cutting to the core of you. Joni Mitchell-esque too. I always have to hyphenate “-esque,” afraid that “Dillardesque” looks too absurd, or someone might not understand what I’m trying to say. I never studied writing, so maybe I’ll have Jordan explain these things to me someday.
Anyway, having grown up in Southern California, I was always used to sweeping things under the rug, coating any sort of emotional issue with sugar, and delivering it delicately. People never said what they meant. It is only in my adult years that I’ve begun to unscrew my jar, wearing things on my sleeve a bit more; Jordan may have been my first example of living like this. She writes, “I’ve recently realized that I am a person who desires a core, soul connection with most people (this is very hard to sustain as you can imagine), and that this connection requires an equally direct language.” She is referring to verbal connection with others, although her written word also engages in a directness that is extremely internal looking, yet always outward—she reaches her hand out through the personal into the universal.
In the spring I lost my job, time was a white sheet gathered in folds to my chin, spread smooth to the horizon. I liked that image so much I made it the first line of a poem I wrote later, after a year of using it in conversation about what it was like being laid off. Back and forth like this, with two hands. To the chin and to infinity. Day in and day out was endless and open and wide and if, on a clear day, I stood very tall, I could almost see forever. Some days, eternity was so blinding that all logistics and worry were burned up in its glow. On these days, anything was possible. The joy of living and making food and writing sentences and having friends was enough to live on. But regardless, all days went something like this: coffee, records, eggs, tortillas. Check Craigslist. Feel depressed about being a number on a newspaper page. Make plans. Look at MFA programs. Ride my bike. Go to the beach. Write. Get distracted by laughter in the kitchen, the smell of cigarettes on the patio. Good morning, white sheet. Good night.
Shortly after Jordan lost said job, I remember sprawling out under the sun on the inclined asphalt road in front of her F Street place eating coconut popsicles. Depressed about our dwindling bank accounts, but eager to make lemonade out of a bitter situation, like only 23 year olds can, we made up a rap about the recession to the tune of R Kelly’s Ignition. I’ve sang our version so many times in my head, I have a hard time remembering the actual words when the song graces the radio waves these days. We smartly changed “It’s the remix to ignition, hot and fresh out the kitchen” to “This may not be a depression, but it is one hot recession,” and “We’re sippin’ on coke and rum” to “Obama’s sippin’ on hope and rum.” See what we did there?
Coconut, asphalt on knees, giggles.
This is just how things were then–friends helping friends, wasting the lazy days away together with laughs and popsicles. Dancing along side by side into an uncertain future. It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here seems to insist that these old days of solidarity, of invested community, of choosing family are anything but over. Rather, they are continually in fluid motion, or perhaps they are just beginning.
Good morning. White Sheet. Good night.
———————————————————————————————————————————————This week, Carville Annex is hosting two readings in New York. Thursday March 27th at Unameable Books at 7 pm, and Saturday March 28th at Mellow Pages at 5 pm. There is also a reading scheduled at CCA Writer’s studio on April 4th. Do yourself a solid, and go hear Jordan read some essays alongside some other great poets. Or at least, check out Carville Annex, where you can read about and purchase her book, It Hasn’t Stopped Being California Here. More readings TBA, and we are crossing fingers for one in Los Angeles with some C&S involvement.