In the gloaming, oh my darling
When the lights are soft and low
And the quiet shadows falling
Softly come and softly go…
At the start of September, 1991, I was just beginning my seventh grade year in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is a fairly typical city on the decline, and the schools are both overcrowded and underachieving. Which may help to explain how I managed to find myself one of the “best students” in my particular pond. Honestly, and I sound like a complete nerd for saying it, I loved learning. I lived for books and classes and computers – school, I suppose, was a welcome respite from the stresses of growing up in a fractured home. In any case, after a conversation with my new friend Diane, I decided that I should make an effort to get transferred to the nearby town of Chelmsford. The academic opportunities were said to be amazing (and they were, comparitively), and I positively drooled at the idea of taking advanced classes in a town full of kids who – I presumed – lived for the same thing. (How young and simple, eh?) I finally made my way there for October 28th. The decision, though it has brought me the friendships and relationships I treasure, was not without its share of hardships. (1)
Apart from the obvious difficulty of leaving my friends (both of ’em!) behind, I had to cope with being a social outcast. Children from Lowell were considered diseased, drug-addled things by more than just prejudiced, misinformed students. I soon discovered that my flawless academic record was “good, by Lowell’s standards,” but that I wouldn’t be permitted entry into the upper-level courses I had become accustomed to. Indeed, I was sent down with the “average” children – and, let me tell you, they would’ve hated me without my coming from “Lowell.” (2) This, I suppose, is about as close as I’ll ever get to understanding being persecuted for possessing minority status. And, because of that, I am positively amazed by people who both grow up with this nonsense and overcome it. Really. My stupid, Anglo, suburban nightmare was enough to make me give up on school, ambition, and friendships for years – I can only imagine what “legitimate” minorities go through. If Middle School is Hell (and, I think we can all agree with General Patton that it is), then I was sent down where the lawyers and traitors go. And there I remained: friendless (but for one or two other social rejects), hopeless, and drifting. Which is how I entered high school, and where I would have remained, if not for one fateful day in the band room.
Word came down that people were being asked to perform in the pit at the Children’s Play. The play was a tradition, and each year it was written (music and script) by students. I had neither the interest nor the skill to perform the musical parts of the play, but I was keen to write a script for it. I did – an occasionally-funny adaptation of “The Frog Prince” (that you are never allowed to read. Ever.). I was beaten out by a Junior, but many commented that they saw some promise in my script. And one of them even suggested that I should help “Anna and Erika” work on the lyrics for the songs. Now, if this were a film version of my story, you would see the following:
JON looks up from his place on the edge of the group to the door which has just opened. ANNA has entered. She is about sixteen, blond hair, and dressed in jeans and sweater. There is a quality of sophistication about her. ANNA approaches the group and sits next to JON. THE OTHERS inform her of their suggestion, and she turns to introduce herself. JON swoons.
Which is about right, I think. The first thing I remember about Anna is that she had these amazingly green eyes – the sort that demand a response along the lines of a sheepish glance down and a soft uttering of the word “gosh.” Which is not to say that I fell in love with Anna at that moment, but that I was positively awed by her. She looked so different from anyone that I had met. And indeed, she looked so very different from any of the people that had, up until this moment, been kind to me. Anna was happy to work with me, and we agreed to meet the next day after school. I was convinced it was a ruse – that the cool kids (or, “cute and fuzzy bunnies” for John Cusack fans) had it in for me.
And I was so wrong… We met after school, and Anna drove us to her house. She offered me a can of Schweppes dry grape ginger ale (3), and we sat on the piano bench. And then, wonder of wonders, she asked me what kind of song I wanted to write. While I thought about this, having never written a song, Anna warmed up by playing bits of things – Chopin sticks in mind. And she was good. The kind of talent that makes you want to edge away for fear that it will burn you up. I settled on sitting on the floor, cross-legged at the edge of the piano bench. Looking up at Anna seemed the right place to be (still does, in fact).
We talked about lyrics, and Anna played some pieces she thought might work for the play, and then the time came for us to part. She had to head off somewhere, but offered to let me stay in the (otherwise empty) house while I waited for my father to pick me up. I was floored (doubly so!). After all of the terrible unkindness I’d endured – the bullies (adult and student) – this lovely girl was going to let me hang out in her house? Alone?! I accepted, and spent much of the time inspecting the piano. I suppose, in a small way, it was at this moment that I developed a bit of a crush on Anna. (How could I not, right? Stray-dog syndrome, I suppose.) More than that, however, I developed an immense affection for her kindness and friendship. It was the first moment of hope I had in Chelmsford, and, as it would turn out, Anna’s friendship would result in my coming to know almost everyone I now treasure.
There are a lot of little things that come to mind, but the common thread is one of happiness. There was the time we made caramel, and had to eat it all (can’t throw it away, can’t pour it down the sink, and it’s only good while still warm). The time we got in trouble for hiding inside a circle of tympani eating vanilla wafers while the Musical Director was trying to get a rehearsal started. (4) And I’ll never forget the feeling of driving in her car, watching the rain, and talking about the music we both loved. And it’s there that (finally?) we find The Story.
Anna first introduced me to a cassette copy of Angel in the House, on a rainy drive to a weekend Children’s Play rehearsal. And for many of the same reasons we find in the “Kid Fears” entry, I was willing (and eager) to suspend my usual worries about “girl music.” The album, for those of you who are unfamiliar, was written by Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball, and released under the band’s name in 1993. It is a triumph of harmonies and acoustic musicianship. With the exception of the final track on the CD (“Fatso, Part 2”), it’s a perfect example of its artful, literary genre. Sensitive, tough, and witty – and for someone who really loves lyrics, it’s a treat every time I get to hear it. For Anna, I suspect the beauty of the album had a lot to do with its complicated musical structures and that gorgeous piano. I wouldn’t own a copy of this album for a few months, but it didn’t really matter: Anna was happy to play it whenever we got together for this or that.
“In the Gloaming” remains one of the most haunting tracks I have ever heard. I am always impressed when songs can give me chills. I am positively speechless when they do it every time that I hear them. This is one of those rare tracks. The a cappella introduction which is as striking as two voices have ever been eventually yields to a forlorn piano of no small gravity, only to be united in poignant counterpoint for the song’s finale. (You’ll see. There’s a link below.) During her Senior Year (my Junior year), Anna performed “In The Gloaming” at her senior recital. Hearing my friend – my most imaginary friend, to quote another musical Bostonian – perform this song was one of the most gripping moments of my young life. During my years of “exile,” I had never dreamt to have friends of this sort ever again. I had lost my access to a world of color and splendor. During this performance, I cried a little to myself – both for the beauty of Anna’s performance, and for the fact that this was still my world. That there was hope.
Which, I know, sounds a little melodramatic. But again, middle school and, to some extent, high school, are the first time for many kids that life and death become distinct, social concepts. For me, this was a moment in which “rebirth” became a useful, meaningful concept. Anna and I kept in touch a little bit when she left for college, but I knew that she was off to a world of lights. I was deeply saddened to have her go, but I am so pleased to say that we were friends once, and that she changed my life with her music. Go have a listen to her stuff. Personally, I recommend sitting on the floor with a bit of dry grape ginger ale, closing your eyes, and letting it wash over you.
And finally, when I think of Heaven, I think of this:
- See also: “litotes.” [Back]
- This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re routinely offered the opportunity to skip grades. [Back]
- Which, ok, I still have. (Yes, I’ve washed it.) It was one of my treasures – a reminder of the beautiful things that could, and did, still happen. I bet you’ve kept one or two odd things in your own room… [Back]
- A moment that really made me question the town’s value system. Anna was an undisputed member of the good kids’ club – one of the students that routinely made the school proud – and I… well… It was the first moment that I began to realize how arbitrary these designations are – and, consequently, it was one of the first moments where the weight began to lift. [Back]