I’m sure I knew his work before, but the first time I recollect hearing Elliot Smith’s voice was the summer of 2004 in Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington, DC, that was a quick walk from the apartment Jesse and I rented when we first moved there.
A regret: our apartment was small, and that’s all I ever saw about it.
An appreciation: the small place had an ability to get me out of it and exploring the city. I found Georgetown, the National Zoo, the National Cathedral, the Kennedy Center, and even made my way into Virginia all by myself. The part of myself that I consider hopeful has a love for cities and the energy they house, and a belief that I could be a part of that energy if I could only figure out how.
Those days, on my way into Georgetown, I often admired a library on a hill, and fantasized about working there. I’d work there, and walk home to our townhouse in Georgetown where I’d write best-selling Young Adult books and we would have fancy book launch parties with champagne. I’d wear a fancy dress and Jesse would wear a tux. There’d always be fresh flowers in our house, and our house would be clean because by then, I would know how to do everything—how to manage everything.
“Callie,” Jesse said to me one day while we walked along the Potomac river holding hands. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to afford to live in Georgetown.”
I took a slow, dramatic inhale, and tossed my hair. “Jesse,” I replied, “I usually get what I want.”
Maybe what the small house did was launch me out of reality, and into fantasy, feeding my appetite for what could be rather than being satisfied—content, joyful, even—for what is.
Regardless, it is how (and why) I found Politics and Prose, and whether or not I’d paid any attention to him before, when Elliot Smith’s haunting, angel voice drifted into my ears, and made its way into my thoughts.
My routine in the bookstore went like this: I’d check out the writing section to see which books I might consider working through in my early, unnamed dream of becoming a writer. Then downstairs to the Children’s and YA section, then a quick breeze through the clearance section, and into the cafe for coffee, reading, and I don’t know, perhaps writing. I’d carry a notebook with me but usually I wrote down questions I had, and song lyrics.
Drink up baby
stay up all night
with the things you could do
you won’t but you might.
The first time I heard Elliot sing these words I was equally offended and felt as though he was staring through the bars he was singing about right at me.
“You don’t know me,” I imagined myself replying. “First of all, I don’t stay up all night. I’m a morning person. Second of all,…..”
But there was no second of all. Elliot was right—I was always talking about things I could do, but didn’t know how to begin, or was afraid to begin, or got overwhelmed by what I did begin.
So I’d just sit there and listen to Elliot tell me about myself, lulled by his voice and the subtle waltz of his melody.
I don’t think much about Elliot throughout the year, except in December, when I cue up my “Hipster Holiday” station on Pandora. I don’t know enough about the hipsters to contemplate whether I am one, but I like the music on this station—themes of winter, darkness, anticipation, and maybe not hope, but tentative curiosity seep from the songs without being preachy or trite. Sparkly dark is a good way to describe this music.
Elliot’s “Between the Bars,” isn’t in the rotation, but “Somebody I Used to Know” is. The first time I heard this song was in December of 2016, on my drives to Detroit where I was teaching at the time. By then, I’d handed in my resignation letter and everyone knew I would no longer be teaching in a few weeks. I was miserable. Heartbroken. Elliot’s work felt like fists grabbing my shirt and pulling me in for a hug or a sock to the stomach. I couldn’t tell which. I can’t tell now. Maybe it’s both.
Why couldn’t I make teaching work? Why do I miss it if I can’t do it anymore? How could I give up something I love; something that’s a part of my identity? Why didn’t I fight harder for it?
I don’t want to be somebody I used to know. Somebody who I remember was fiery and energetic and creative and fun.
At the time, I believed I needed to leave teaching in order to survive. I believed teaching was killing me and I didn’t want to die. “Death” and “rest” were so muddled I was having a hard time telling the difference.
The worst part of Elliot’s song were the lyrics: “Throwing a living past away,” because that’s what it felt like I was doing—throwing something alive away.
It is the worst sort of giving up there is, and I listened to Elliot’s song not to make myself feel better but I guess to mourn—myself, and him. By then, I knew he was no longer alive. He died from what appeared to have been self-inflicted stab wounds, and knowing this, I am sad that someone whose music I love, whose lyrics gave me pause, challenged me, and in some way kept me company, is no longer. I’m sad and haunted that what he named in his art was not enough for him to keep creating it.
It is Thanksgiving weekend and I’ve declared today a baking day. I shall make two pumpkin pies, three loaves of bread, and pecan bars. I say all this while I light candles and cue up my “Hipster Holiday” mix. I also have plans to write, and design not one, but three online courses. I can do these things between pie crusts and bread kneading. I believe it will be no problem, but it’s the first time in 20 years the pies don’t work out. The bread dough won’t rise. The shortbread for the bars is so sticky it ends up looking more like a sand dune than a base for a cookie.
I’ve not written a word.
By noon, I call Jesse, sobbing. Nothing is working out. Everything is a disaster. Why can’t I do anything? Why do I always bite off more than I can chew?
I’ve learned recently that these days I’m only using part of my brain called the amygdala. It’s the part that deals with stress, anxiety, emotion. I call it attack brain. I’m always in attack mode. Attack here means to me, “do something.” I always must be doing something. That’s how I matter.
My feelings—all of them—are enormous, and all I think I know to do is attack them. It must be too much for me to simply experience them. I must act. I must do something with them. Worse, there seems to be no language for me to use. I feel I have lost it. There’s no nuance. I only deal with extremes: I made a mistake with the pies and the yeast and so I’m a failure. Clearly this also means I shall never write again.
This is sad and scary because I thrive on story, and creating story, especially from the bad parts of myself. Or, the parts I think are ugly and I want to make beautiful.
I wonder if this is what it was like, in part, for Elliot.
It’s an early release day for Jesse so he comes home in the afternoon. He walks into the kitchen, where I am, flour all over myself, and ingredients for at least four recipes all over the counter. He rolls up his sleeves, and steps toward me, and does his best to hide his amusement. “Do we even have enough mixing bowls for all this?” His question makes both of us erupt in laughter.
He steps closer to me, and puts his hands on my hips. “You don’t have to do all this,” he says, quietly.
“But I want to,” I whine and I think of Elliot’s lyrics from “Between the Bars.” I wonder which bars he is taunting me from—pubs, a jail cell, or bars of music—when he tells me to talk about all the things I could do but I won’t. I can imagine each scenario: him sliding a pint across the bar to me, him grasping two steel poles and pulling his head toward them so his words shoot at me loud and clear, him in a library writing down music lyrics, and seeing me with a blank notebook, watching him.
“I can’t write anymore,” I tell Jesse.
“There’s just so much going on, and I can’t grasp any of it. I can’t make anything from it,” I say.
“I think you need to live it for a while,” he says, then pivots and reaches for a small bowl—about the only one that’s left—in our cupboard. He turns the faucet on and tests the water. “This has to be pretty hot for the yeast to proof, but not so hot it’ll kill it.” He carefully scoops out a teaspoon of yeast from a package I’ve declared is no good. “I like to use a pinch of sugar as well,” he tells me.
I know all this, but I guess I’ve forgotten, and it’s peaceful—hopeful—watching him work slowly and undisturbed in this mess I’ve made. He stirs the concoction and almost immediately it begins to foam. It’s beautiful.
“I think you need a break,” Jesse says, and I tell him a friend asked me earlier about getting a cup of coffee.
“Go,” he says. “Get out of the house for a while.”
So I do. I leave, unshowered, probably with flour and butter in my fingernails, and a baseball cap on my head.
My friend is at Literati, a small and vibrant bookstore on a corner of downtown Ann Arbor. It is the first place I discovered by myself when we first moved here. I walked inside that day and thought, “I want to do this,” not having a clue what “this” is. I’m still not sure, but the afternoon sky is deepening into navy and I’m running towards the bookstore and my friend like an elementary school kid just let out for recess.
She’s snagged a table in my favorite part of the cafe, between windows overlooking downtown and next to us is the author’s wall—signatures in black Sharpies of those who read from their books in this store: Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Caleb Roehrig, me.
I do my best not to sneak a peek at my name, though I know I’m sitting underneath it.
“You have a different hat on,” my friend says.
“Yeah,” I say, and touch the brim.
“Where’d Calvin go?” she jokes.
“Felt like it was time for something else,” I reply.
She looks at me quizzically, waiting for more. She knows how attached I am to my Calvin hat. I don’t know what to say; how to begin. I remember how much I’m feeling these days, how I’ve lost language, and that Jesse says it’s OK—I’ll find it again, if I start to live again.
So I shrug, and we start talking about something else: family, Thanksgiving, the upcoming Michigan vs. Ohio State game, running. We are never at a loss of things to discuss.
Literati is a place that would play Elliot’s music. I’m sure it has, and tonight, I listen for him, but he never sings.
And that’s just fine. I’m not worried about what could be right now. I’m hopeful and feeling joyful about what is: a friend who knows me well, a husband who helps me with my wild dreams, my name on an author’s wall in a bookstore that is my compass—showing not direction, but all the places there are to explore, and confidence that I don’t have to throw anything living away.
A Writer’s Dream Book
“Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.”
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine