(Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie, the Musical)
Jane lived in a house across from the university, next to the house in which my high school girlfriend lived. In the early days of our budding romance, my girlfriend's father would yell and shout at me and threaten to call the police on me, red-faced and cursing. That is, until he became better accustomed to me. We were getting to know each other. Anyway, the first time he did this, I didn't want to call his bluff. I was afraid. I ran next door. I didn't know Jane but had seen her outside. I figured she'd offer a hiding place to me, and she did.
Jane's parents, one of whom was a college professor, lived a somewhat bohemian existence, though I did not know that word then. The yard was unkempt, vines grew up and over the wide front porch, tattered rugs covered the floors, and mismatched furniture filled the rooms. There was air of cultivated neglect, I think, as if material things weren't meant to matter that much. A heaviness, even sadness, seemed to hang over that home, and it's disorderliness only accentuated it.
That day Jane was playing a Joni Mitchell record, one with a particularly sad chorus. (Wait, I think that's every Joni Mitchell song!) I don't remember what it was. Maybe it was "A Case of You," with its "Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints," or maybe it was "The Circle Song," which carries her classic melancholy sound and lyric, with itsAnd the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Life's a game, she says, and all we can do is go round and round and round. Well, Jane breathed deep of that sense of frustration, of lostness. And yet, cold though the wind might blow in that house, Jane seemed strangely warmed by it, as if she drank it in and let the blues roll over her until it lit a fire in her, like she was living some dark night of the soul knowing that it was good for her. I liked it as an antidote to my effervescent girlfriend who brimmed with life. On occasion, her happinness could be unbearable, perhaps because it was only part of reality, like an album of songs all in major keys. Jane played the minor keys. When I ran to her house, I traded G-C-D for Am-Bm-Em. I learned that God made minor keys too and meant us to listen to them at times, to drink them in. She'd play her guitar and sing her repertoire of Joni songs. Bent over the guitar, stringy brown hair falling round her, she even looked like the singer-songwriter.
She taught me how to play "Blackbird" on the guitar. I still play it, for myself, anyway. I like that image of a "blackbird singing in the dead of night," encouraged to "take these broken wings and learn to fly."
And when I play it, I sometimes think of Jane, a shelter from the storm, a friend if briefly but one who taught me that there's more to life than happiness or sadness, that breathing the air of sadness can lead to a greater joy. She didn't know all that then, and God knows I didn't, and yet I can trace His hand in Jane, and Joni, and even in the brimming spirit of a girlfriend who loved life and people in a way I found difficult. It all matters. It all means something, even now, after all these years. I still breathe it in, and I'm still warmed by it.