Go West, Young Woman: The Tree Ring Tradition

Much to my chagrin, we had no plans for New Year’s Eve this year. None in our Circle of Us did either so I guess there’s comfort in doing nothing separately…together. But I like putting on a fancy dress and heels, having cocktails made for me and eating appetizers while wearing silly hats and talking. Talking all night about everything and nothing with the people I love so much–out and about in a city that has loved me as much as I’ve loved her for all these years. This was the first year in years that, worldwide pandemic aside, none of us made the effort, which actually feels like the rightful end to a year headlined by The Great Resignation.

But from the bedroom windows of my 1931 Doelger home, we can see clear to downtown on a good night. Past the treetops of Golden Gate Park, the spires of St. Ignatius, and the abominable tip of that god forsaken Salesforce Tower, we had a perfect view of San Francisco’s fireworks. Sure, we could only see the top half of this impressive display but I was witness to it from the comfort of my own bed, which I’ve snugged up and centered into the bay windows. I only left the warmth of my fella and our animals once that night to pop my head out of the kitchen window that never properly closes to ask the neighbor kid to PLEASE not shoot illegal fireworks directly into the backyard that my bedroom overlooks. Hell hath no fury like a “single woman, not divorced,” who sees fire coming at her home and can’t remember what damage is covered by her insurance policy. Maybe today I’ll resolve to be a real adult.

I was overjoyed to see these fireworks return since they were cancelled last minute last year, another victim of the pandemic we’re all pretending is over. Plus, we’re heading to Miami for a wedding in the Spring, last night I made plans for a Santa Fe road trip with two of my favorite women, and, in the final throes of December I finally ordered a Clipper Card after living in San Francisco for 20+ years. Proving that old resolutions, although delayed, can still find life at some point. Some things can live on despite an unusual end to and start of a new year. Every January 1st, without fail, my main music friend Morgan makes a Top Ten Albums list that defined the previous year for him. I’m just not together enough to chronicle my life like that; ironic for a woman who does history for money. But I do seek out The Tree Ring anthology (2014) every New Year’s Day and usually listen to it, here and there, throughout the first week of whatever year I find myself in.

The Tree Ring and Joel P. West have been featured on this blog before so I won’t go into all that he is and what The Tree Ring means to me. But I will say, as I grow older, it’s interesting to see what music grows with me. West is from San Diego so maybe there’s an unspoken kinship here. Like finding an American while traveling abroad and feeling close to this person you have nothing in common with except the one thing you both have in common. Regardless, they are a refuge in a foreign lands as is The Tree Ring for me. Embarking on every new year is sort of like flying to the UK: you know you’ll speak the same language but you still don’t know what you’re in for.

West spends much of his time writing film scores now, the most recent of which were Chef’s Table and Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings. January feels like the opening credits to a newly released film anyway, so going cinematic with his music soundtracking the first part of the month always feels right. And maybe he’s our generation’s Danny Elfman? He’s sure fitting that bill for me. I’m a notoriously terrible sleeper and I could not go to bed when I was young unless the music of Thomas Newman, James Horner, or Danny Elfman was softly wafting out of the CD player next to my bed. Particularly Elfman’s music in Edward Scissorhands, which was on repeat for much of my teen years.

Now, I cannot start a new year without listening to the expansive, hopeful, soulful, Joel P. West because he brings the available light of the oncoming year into focus for me. And because I am, if nothing else, a traditional woman who is a lover of music.


Ringing in the New Year

It’s 2023 and here I am, finishing the last of an Irish Whiskey cake leftover from dinner last night. Perhaps I’ll be healthier tomorrow, but probably not. New year, same old self.

The myth of renewal when one year changes over is based in nothing outside our persistence in believing it. January 1, 2023 is just the tomorrow of December 31, 2022 and will be the yesterday of January 2, 2023. Nothing more, nothing less. But, of course, what makes the promise of New Years real is the strength in which we believe in it. A resolution is not a revelation, it’s just one more decision to see through (if you can) except if it becomes the decision–something like filing for divorce or quitting your 9-5 job to pursue art. But, this type of monumental move is often made once in a lifetime, if at all.

I once declared well-intentioned resolutions every year, but the only one I ever really kept was to moisturize more. Trivial but important as we all age. This tradition ended when I authoritatively announced (a little wobbly, after the clock passed midnight at Stookey’s Club Moderne) that 2020 would be the year I traveled more and regularly rode public transit! As you can imagine, that worked out great. And while I don’t put the same weight onto one year moving into the next like I once did, there is still something special about this time of year.

Maybe it’s the weather that encourages us all to stay inside or our communal decision to slow down around the holidays. As a society, it feels like we let each other have a break. In this spirit, I did a wild thing and took two whole weeks off starting on December 19th and ending tomorrow. It’s the first time I’ve put work aside to be intentionally unproductive since my father died in 2010. Grief makes you want to disappear into something. Some people shoot up, others drink, I worked as many hours of the week as I could physically bear so I wouldn’t have to be alone with myself.

We have an unhealthy commitment to overworking here in the United States, so it was fine that I dodged my grief by dodging myself like this. Ambition is rewarded, no matter how blind. In the meantime, I lost my grandmother (2013), my mother (2018), a beloved uncle (2019), the woman who launched my career (2020), and a surrogate mother (2022)–all but one to cancer. I lost my health (2013/2020) and let go of anyone who reminded me of what I once had as well as both childhood homes (2012/2020). I no longer had a foothold in Southern California, a place I’ve come to love more every minute I’m away from it, or a firm grasp on who I am as a woman of flesh and spine and memory.

In the meantime, I lost myself. So, I am work and work is who I am, because I am now unmoored and what I was is no longer grounded on this earth. What I was is buried six feet beneath the soil of five separate cities, none of which I live in.

So, I put down roots in San Francisco and bought a home in 2021 with what will always feel like money I did not earn–money my father earned and never had the chance to enjoy. In what I hope was the right move, I bought a single family home despite being childless to have room for everyone I lost, and have space for everything they left behind in my inheritance. I bought a home in which to host holiday dinners, despite the fact that I cannot cook (although am trying) and am a “single woman, not divorced”–a category I checked several times in my mortgage paperwork that would have been absent had a man been signing in my place. I bought a house so I could finally bring the people I lost above ground, introduce them to the living I am trying to keep close, and be at home with myself.

On December 25, 2022, I hosted a baker’s dozen for dinner in this Doelger home that was last sold in 1956. We cooked a 16-pound prime rib roast from an old-school neighborhood meat market called Guerra’s, drank all the alcohols, and laughed extremely hard about something I can’t quite recall now but know, for a fact, was hilarious. And after that, I only left this home for walks on the beach in between the rains. I read voraciously like I haven’t been able to in years, listened to records annotated in my mother’s handwriting, watched movies new and old, cleaned a house destroyed by holiday merriment, and spent quality time with my cat. I found comfort in silence, in stillness, with momentary breaks of chaos evoking that scene in Home Alone where the extended McAllister family has pizza the night before they leave town.

The last two weeks of being mostly alone with myself wasn’t part of a resolution but is hopefully part of an evolution moving towards…I don’t know what…contentment? I hope to be a person at ease with her regrets and failures, measured in context with her accomplishments and the realization that what she does can have impact but that she, in the grand scheme of things, does not matter. As Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail said, “I lead a small life–valuable, but small–and sometimes I wonder: do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

The person who will eventually cure cancer will matter. The person who, with an apron on and a cat in her lap, writes this blog post that a few people will eventually read does not and will not matter. So, you’re probably wondering, why write a blog post at all if nothing matters? I suppose it boils down to this: I release this as an act of courage but mostly as an act of writing. This remarkably productive unproductive time has allowed me to recapture a part of my life before loss that was, and is, elemental to who I am. I rejoined my life as a thinker instead of a doer, met myself as an artist and not a nonprofit administrator. I don’t have the audacity to think people will care about anything that is found here on Nostos Algos, but I do think that a single act has a greater chance of becoming a habit if it’s made visible. For someone to be a writer, they have to make a habit of writing–of synthesizing the things they see and read and and hear and feel by pouring it all into words with regularity.

I want to be a writer who is seen as an artist free from her motives as a museum professional. When you’ve spent 12 years trying to disappear into ambition, visibility this naked is a revolution.

Daily Dose: Local Natives, “Desert Snow”

Some music triggers recall. And thank goodness, because some memories (the simple ones) don’t always like to surface.

Songs by Local Natives always take me back to my last few years of undergrad at San Francisco State, where I had nothing but time to read and absorb music and stumble forward. Even their new tracks, which do feel fresh but still feature the band’s signature harmonies, are transportive. Here I am again, skin pulling warmth from brutalist concrete benches in the quad, rummaging through my Green Apple Books tote bag for a pencil I’d lost somewhere in the halls of the social sciences building they demolished this year.

There’s so much I wanna tell ya about my time there, more than you could ever know.

Daily Dose: Jack White, “All Along the Way”

I love Jack White. It is a deep, abiding love that has weathered the test of time–from the White Stripes to his solo career, the Dead Weather and Bond, and his brief foray into film (and Rene Zellweger). I’m here for it!

While researching Disney artist Eyvind Earle for an exhibition I helped curate at The Walt Disney Family Museum in 2017, I “met” his father, Ferdinand Earle, who was an eccentric scoundrel. Whenever he cheated on his wife with a new paramour, he claimed the urges were beyond his control: the result of divine “affinities” he had to heed. My feminist impulse is to dismiss his understanding of “affinities” as a weak man’s excuse to leave a woman behind, but I do think there’s something to this.

Jack White and I have similar affinities beyond the quintessentially American music he makes. Detroit. Baseball. Historic preservation. Buying vintage things you don’t need. Interior decorating. I am drawn to this man. As I age with artists who are aging with me, it’s wonderful to see music makers like White move past the thrashing chaos that is all of our 20s and find a comfortable place of pure purpose. I appreciate that he seems to only become more himself, which is a hard thing to do in this world and not everyone gets to do it. And his latest album, Entering Heaven Alive, speaks to this evolution as an artist.

He’s created an album that feels a little like Pop Pop sitting by the fire, imparting his wisdom and gratitude to the family that surrounds him in the house he built. It’s true to his catalog but not a repetitive rehashing of where he’s been before, and it’s exactly what we all want from Jack White. Maybe, for some artists, evolution is more like an infinity loop wherein all your affinities intertwine and create something so unique it feels like it’s existed forever. Like an acorn that falls from a tree, roots in the ground, and then grows until it’s surrounded by Oakly kin.

We’re all drawn to people for one reason or another. Most of the time, we have to responsibly ignore these affinities. But music is a safe space and I am (platonically) in love with Jack White and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Daily Dose: Punch Brothers, “Pride of Man”

Studying history, I’m constantly amazed how the hubris of humankind brings our species to its knees time and time again. Even if it also makes sense when you think about how often we as individuals muck things up. But people pick themselves out of the dust and drag it, our species, forward: after war, after famine, after depressions recessions and other races we do not win.

I’m not sure sure about this round, though. Ukraine. One/Six Committee. Supreme Court. Inflation. Homelessness. Inevitably, someone in my circle will reference the Fall of Rome in discussions of current events like these. Historians always gotta History and this is our version of someone yelling “Mooooo” in a crowd exiting a concert.

But maybe this is how it felt in 1942 when the world was at war and everything was rationed and nothing made sense. I used to think it was some sort of inherent ability to hope for better that allowed folks to keep calm and carry on, an internal compass that believed things had to improve. But now I think it might just be resignation and an ability to adapt. Today is worse than yesterday but I’m still alive and standing firm on my plot of metaphorical land. And I guess that’s the American way, to defend your property against all odds.

These are a few of my…Breakup Songs

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View over Torrey Pines State Beach, Del Mar, California / 08.19.17 

There are many ways to break a heart. The newest method I’ve learned is when a man you’ve loved for eight years leaves you for the final time (for another woman) one month after your Mom is diagnosed with cancer. You really do learn something new every day.

Life isn’t kind enough to stop and let you heal; you have to do that on the run. Friends, family, work that inspires and distracts you is key, and…slowly…through the pain…you take away the things that made you better, even if, in the pain, you see time and youth wasted. Blame feels good for a moment, but the truth is no one leaves an eight year relationship without blood on their hands. I am certainly no saint. Human beings are tragic mishaps, which is why you can love someone deeply but can’t find a way to make it stick. That’s the crux of the human condition.

But if something is taken from you, replace it. If you can’t fill the void with something new, then stitch yourself together, mend the tear from what you have left. And if there’s power in numbers, then music is the way to reclaim mine–as the notes in each song add up to a rhythm that reminds the heart to beat, the lungs to breathe, and keeps the nervous system in check. The last time I had my heart broken, I remade myself as a music journalist and found my footing.

So in that spirit I’m launching a new feature on Nostos Algos with this post. These are a few of my… will be a regular(ish) series that shares a few of my favorite things by theme, and, if musical, will be tied to Spotify playlists. The playlist that corresponds here is titled “…favorite breakup songs, and is composed of songs previously featured on Nostos Algos because I’m stitching myself together with what’s sustained me for years. One exception to this is an entire album by Daughter, since this indie British outfit is my spirit animal. Content runs the gamut in tone, from angry to sad, nostalgic to uplifting, and the order is mixed because that’s the reality of emotions: they are not linear.

There are many ways to break a heart, but there are just as many ways to mend it. Here’s to starting that process by sharing it with you, since there’s power in numbers, and healing…one song at a time.


See & Read: 11/4/2015

(C) Nicole Meldahl, 2015
(C) Nicole Meldahl, 2015

“I adore you as much as the vault of night, / O vessel of sorrow, O deeply silent one, / And I love you even more, my lovely, because you flee me / And because you seem, ornament of my nights, / More ironically, to multiply the miles / That separate my arms from blue immensities.” — Charles Baudelaire