Flocks of birds, lit from underneath by Bruce Springsteen’s lightshow, fly over the Met Life stadium. The light strips off their brown feathers and wraps them in a pure bright white. They look unearthly against the polluted murk of the New Jersey sky. Below them is a tangle of spotlights and flashes and monitors, threaded through with a lean howl of a voice. I am far away and in the back, tucked away into the darkness, level with the flying things. I feel just as fleeting.
Bruce pauses the music, stops the lights, and introduces to us Clarence Clemons’ nephew, Jake. Jake’s uncle played the saxophone for the E-Street Band for most of his life and as we realize who this young man is we also feel how right it his that Clarence’s blood remains. Bruce then tells us tonight is a séance, asks if we sense our own spirits among us. I am here with my mother, and I know we both are thinking of my grandmother, her mother, almost two years dead.
Three days later, I go into New York City to see Bon Iver perform as the sun leaves on the late train. My friends and I stand by the Dinky and gossip in a circle, wearing our sunglasses. The all-white apartment where we stay yellows a little, like paper left out in the sun, as we walk inside. We tip ourselves over the balcony, thirty floors up. We stride down 66th street four abreast, though my foot—which I will later find out is fractured, a small fissure snaking down it—is hard to walk on. I decide not to feel that particular pain; I have already marked this night as a memory.
My dress has an open back and the red velvet of Radio City’s seats pricks my shoulder blades, but I spend the concert sitting. We all do. Justin Vernon, bearded and lovely Bon Iver frontman, commands us to sing along, promises no one will laugh at us, and we do, quietly, but I’m not sure we mean it. Again, I am far away. But where at Bruce I felt a part of that distance, surrounded by the drunk and middle-aged, by the thick New Jersey voices of the men behind me, by being with my mother again, at Bon Iver I turn heavy. I love Justin Vernon’s songs, more than I’ve ever loved any Bruce Springsteen song, but it’s not music to fly with. It’s music that takes me back into myself.
My senior year in high school, my friend and I saw Sufjan Stevens in concert. We spent most of the night sitting, as far in the back as we could get, watching Sufjan—ironic, self-mocking—look as uncomfortable with his presence before us as we were with watching him. But then, for his last number, he began to dance and his back-up dancers danced, and we agreed, together, we would rise. And then like smoke, light, birds, we lifted from our own haunches and we shifted and shuffled and those around us danced too. We ran to the orchestra seats and hovered over Sufjan, staring down at him, not as a hunter poised, but as you’d look at a house a child made out of sticks, at a stranger’s initials encountered on your sunset beach walk.
* * *
My mom says it makes sense that I want to be a religion major, because I was raised simultaneously in two faiths and in none. Almost untrue: I was raised in a church of my mother’s music. Each night I had Peter Paul and Mary instead of a Lord’s Prayer and each Sunday began with my mother’s songs, our carpet soft in the sun, our steel-framed windows blurring the light a little, not staining it with color but tingeing it with dirt and soil and grime. I remember Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, David Bowie, the Beatles and above all Bruce Springsteen. My sister and mother danced. I don’t remember that I ever did, because by the time I knew enough to have a memory I knew enough not to make such embarrassing ones.
I carry these songs with me as I move around this campus, which feels sometimes like a strange room, and I don’t know if I want to let them out of my head. I think I want them to stay mine and my mother’s and I’ll share them one by one with other people as I realize I love them. I want to keep them perfect and whole as Bruce was on those childhood Sundays, as Bon Iver was on adolescent afternoon car rides, which were also sunlit but a lot less easy. If I can hold them still, I can go back and live there when I no longer know where I am or love who I’m with or have any control over how fast it all goes.
It’s not that I didn’t know life was fleeting. I just never had to think about it. When my grandmother died it was sudden, but a full and strong life had come before. It wasn’t too hard to understand. But that same year a friend of mine died and I realized the number of people I know who’ve died can and will only get bigger. Then a classmate died, someone my roommate knew died, and I lost a little of the horror I used to feel when death was rare. I am used to the slow sick slide my heart takes when it hears the news, how I say the only thing I can: “how sad, how sad.”
As I watched both of these men illuminated by flashing lights and booming drums, I couldn’t help wonder what it would be like to be eternal, and whether either of them knew. It felt biblical: this kind of ardor makes gods. The spaces below me were filled with waving hands, open mouths, voices, the people like specks. At Bon Iver, there were no mothers, no dead, only my friends and I posturing brave and wobbling, afraid even to open our mouths, holding our voices secret and silent, sure they’d flap away. We didn’t have the joy of living in spite of being closer and closer to no longer being that made it so easy for those at Bruce to sing with their dead, the heaviness of carrying that with us that made my mother’s feet so light.