Skirt Magazine, May, 2008
In the spring of 1970 I was a college sophomore living in a dorm room that looked pretty much like the one my son lives in right now. Two beds, two desks, a window facing an expanse of southern California green lawn, a cupboard for clothes. Even some of the personal accoutrements, hauled from home in the trunk of the family car, were similar: a guitar, a t.v., a stereo. Granted, my t.v. was considerably smaller than the one-eyed monster that occupies a corner of my son’s room, and my hi fi was about 100 times larger than the iPod that lives in his pocket, but they function the same way.
In 1970 most of the girls in my dorm celebrated their 20th birthday. I hit the mark in January, and that May we were planning a surprise birthday party for my room-mate, Joan. In those days, on a student’s tight budget, birthday gifts were usually heartfelt but hand-made – something crafted with glue and calico, or a poem painstakingly hand-printed on something that resembled parchment, then artfully charred at the edges before being decoupaged onto a scrap of wood. I was never very good at anything remotely having to do with art, but I could sing, and I had spent hours in front of my stereo speaker scrying out the chords to Joni Mitchell’s latest hit to sing at my room-mate’s party. Every song that Joni Mitchell had ever written seemed to reflect some aspect of our lives, but The Circle Game told the whole story, at least to this point. It seemed an appropriate gift for Joan, marking, as it did, the passing of years –
Ten times round the season…
Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now…
So the years spin by, and now the boy is twenty…
Sitting on the edge of my bed, with Joan nearby, I gently plucked my guitar strings, unfolding the little introductory lick, infusing the melody with my own vocal hues because I couldn’t hope to duplicate Joni Mitchell’s high, pure tone. I saw my room-mate’s eyes well with emotion and when the chorus came around, knowing the song, she joined in.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. It was that last verse, about arriving at the twentieth year, that locked the song into a moment in time for me: May 26, 1970, Joan’s twentieth birthday, when the future beckoned all of us like a shimmering light.
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through.
We were such dreamers then, living in that tiny room on that sun-washed hill. I can’t speak for the others, but I know that I dreamed about a long white dress. It seemed to me, at twenty, that only when I wrapped myself in that symbolic gown would my life truly begin. Joni Mitchell would sing about that, too, some years down the road. She would set the lyric to a melody in a darker, minor key that would have puzzled me on that brilliant day in May.
Thirty-eight years later, last Memorial Day weekend, I picked up my guitar and plucked the notes that introduce The Circle Game. Behind me, a window looked out on the Pacific. There were five other women in the room, college girlfriends, scattered on sofas or curled on the floor. Joan was there, and Joanne and Jane, Mary and Mina. We had traveled the world, made and re-made our careers, built marriages, lost them and started lives anew. Back in the 70’s we all lived in that college dorm, and for almost four decades the same soundtrack has been running through our heads. When I sang the first, sweet line of Joni’s Circle Game, it was not a solo. Every voice in the room picked up the song, and when the chorus came round I slipped happily into a harmony.
But although the lyrics to the song had not changed, the singers had. We weren’t singing about our own childhoods this time, but of the children we have borne and nurtured – the toddlers who wondered at the world, the ten year olds on skates, the teenagers in our dented, second-hand cars. Our children had reached their twenties, and it was their hearts that were filled now with dreams and yearning and passion.
A few days ago my son called me from that dorm room that looks so much like mine once did. We talked computer to computer, his grinning face on my monitor just about the same size as an old record album cover.
“Mom,” he tells me, “I’m learning a new song with a really cool guitar lick. I think you’ll like it. I’ll send you the link and you can listen to it.”
A few minutes later I’m on YouTube, watching two twenty-something guys in blue-jeans and black t-shirts on a wide stage. They pick out a nifty little lick on steel strings, and blend their voices in a song that documents the stirring of the soul in the first quarter of life. Over and over the refrain asks, Am I living it right? Am I living it right?
I listen to the words of that song and I imagine my boy hunched over his guitar, working at that tricky lick, his tenuous tenor slipping along to John Mayer’s melody. In the back of my mind, floating in a high, echoing descant, Joni Mitchell sings,
And the seasons, they go round and round.
©2008 Patricia Bracewell