Driving back up the M1 (R. – remember those majestic cooling towers as you pass Sheffield? They were blown up a while back. The place seems so lost without them. Good job we imortalised them when we did!), a song I distinctly remember from my childhood came on the radio. I could hardly have told you I remembered it so well until I heard it serendipidously like this – but suddenly I was in that space, or rather echoes of that time/space merged with my current emotional space.  I think I must have always thought the song was by Paul McCartney – the tones and the melody lines (particularly the break to the middle eight) are so close (- although wikipedia remarks: ‘The melody echoes the ending of Elton John’s 1975 single Someone Saved My Life Tonight). Anyway, it was Billy Joel’s My Life (1978). [Listen via YouTube]

From the moment the strolling bass, neat drums and skating piano kicked in it all just spoke to me in so many ways – all in its three and a half minutes (the perfect length of a pop song). The opening lines, ‘Got a call from an old friend / We used to be real close / Said he couldn’t go on the American way’, immediately got me thinking about my planned trip to Bogota – to get away from the American way and to see R. (we did indeed use to be – and still are – real close). Of course I’m hardly going to pitch a ‘stand-up routine in L.A.’ when I get there, but hey ‘it’s okay’.

It was the second verse that really began to interweave various strands of thought.

They will tell you, you can’t sleep alone in a strange place
Then they’ll tell you, you can’t sleep with somebody else
Ah, but sooner or later you sleep in your own space
Either way it’s okay, you wake up with yourself

I have been reading Barthes’  The Neutral recently, and in particular the entry on ‘Retreat’, which works around the difference between place and space.  We can organise our space (and feel it), whereas place is somewhere we are situated, whether we like it or not. He writes: ‘…it wearies me to have to look for (and not to find) my place … but this weariness is converted … if I’m asked not to take up a place … but only to float in a space’. And he further explains: …the Neutral would be a sutble art of keeping the good distance between landmarks (including human landmarks of emotional space. Cf. last year’s course on the critical distance in shoals of fish: Neutral = spacing (production of space) and not distanciation, distancing’. In one brief verse – as I sped along in the fast lane of the motorway – these ideas were all there. You cannot necessarily ‘sleep alone in a strange place’ (nor sadly with someone else), this is a ‘place’ that – in this case – is closed off to you (certainly as one’s life unfolds). But, still, you’ll always have your ‘own space’, which always includes waking up ‘with yourself’ – and which you’ll always be left to fathom for yourself (and/or as a space in which to fathom those around you). So, how you choose to wake up, how you produce the space of your own (which is all you have) is all part of the subtle art of keeping good distance.

It is easy to listen to My Life as the pronoucement of reformed and now assertive individual (as we find for example in the relentless I Will Survive): ‘I don’t need you to worry for me cause I’m alright /I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home / I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life / Go ahead with your own life, and leave me alone’. But, if the opening lines about giving up the American way were not enough, the middle eight makes evident (in words and melody) the melancholy which underlines the song. There is the unforeseen line ‘I never said you had to offer me a second chance’, followed by the wonderfully ambiguious rider ‘I never said I was a victim of circumstance’. And the most powerful line, which the whole song revolves around, is just three words : ‘I still belong’ – the melody, which goes up, bounces you back into an ‘space’ quite other to that of ‘my life … leave me alone’. The sense of belonging we feel never actually goes away.

Of course the emphatic ‘my life’ that drives through the song cannot be ignored, but my reading of it is that it is about affirming an appropriate kind of spacing… (following Bathes’ dalliance with zen literatures) I have found myself thinking about that vaguely zen-inspired problem of whether or not it is possible to clap with one hand. It sounds impossible, but I got to thinking (due to circumstance being like a circumference) that maybe you can be true to something, hold a clear and real feeling, and that need not necessarily require the other hand to meet in the resounding clap we expect, we wish…

I don’t (yet?) know how to practice any sutble art of keeping good distance between human landmarks of emotional space, but I’d like to think it might be equally precious, and for now I suppose it might start with saying ‘I don’t need you to worry for me cause I’m alright’… but…

…but I’d always be lying if I said ‘I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home’.


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