Ed Sheeran was on the plaza of the Today Show last week. The first time I paid much attention to him, he was singing on the plaza one Friday many months ago. I was drinking my coffee and fast forwarding through the show, a frequent school year ritual that I’m missing this summer. I was particularly intrigued with how Sheeran layered in the sounds as a one man band, so I downloaded his album Divide and listened to it on the treadmill. Castle on the Hill is really catchy, but the line that grabbed me in the first verse was “I tasted the sweet perfume of the mountain grass I rolled down” (when he was six and broke his leg running from his brother…).
I was a poet in middle school. Something about the onset of adolescence sparked a creative vibe with cadence and rhyme. A strange thing happened when I listened to Ed Sheeran sing about tasting that sweet perfume. I saw my middle school self standing on the curb at the edge of a park in my grandparent’s neighborhood, the same park where I sat on a swing one summer and wrote a poem called My Green Private Valley. I can’t remember any other lines, just the refrain. I honestly don’t know where my middle school works are these days, maybe in the landfill. It’s been more than twenty years since I last looked at that park. I assure you, there’s no mountain grass. It’s a park ditched for drainage, not a true valley, and if it was green it was because the Panhandle had gotten more rain than usual that summer.
The castle that Sheeran sings about is Framlingham Castle constructed in the late 12th Century. My great grandparents owned one of the first wood-frame homes in Gray County built in the early 20th Century. It’s now a historical landmark actually, a point of pride in my family. I’m sure Pampa has some lovely homes, but no castles and nothing older than 1900. My point is that no good reason exists for a song reminiscing about childhood in the country lanes of an ancient English town to transport me to a small uninteresting park in Texas – except that a lot of my childhood took place there. And that park was interesting enough to inspire poetry in a young girl wandering the neighborhood, probably bored and looking for a break from adult conversation.
I listened to Castle on a Hill for a week or so everyday in the car. It stirred in me a longing to stand on the curb of that park that I couldn’t shake. I’ve been surprised since I’ve started writing regularly how often I’ve found myself thinking about my grandparents and especially about their hometown. I don’t have any family there any more. My grandparents would be 107 and 105 now, so even their younger friends are gone. I have so many memories of summer visits and snowy Thanksgivings. I remember almost every detail of the room where I slept in a twin bed with a red corduroy bedspread, a portrait of my legendary uncle I never got to meet prominently displayed, my grandmother’s typewriter on a library table in front of the window. Whenever we came to town, my grandparents always had a gaggle of friends over for cocktails. We often went to the Johnson’s where Mary served chocolate covered reception sticks, and I had to use every ounce of my willpower not to eat the whole dish.
Longing for home is a huge inspiration, somewhere close behind falling in love and suffering. One of my very favorite poets, Christian Wiman, also has West Texas in his blood, and you stumble upon it over and over again in all his collections. One I love is Dust Devil. Wiman writes,
Mystical hysterical amalgam of earth and wind
over and of
dust you go
through a field I know
by broken heart…
wild untouchable toy
called by a boy
in a time when time stopped.
It’s the perfect description of both a dust devil and nostalgia for the places we know by broken heart, where we lived in a time when time stopped, or at least moved slower. I can only imagine how many dust devils my great grandparents must have watched from the porch of the pioneer cottage. I couldn’t begin to count how many I’ve seen driving the now paved roads still lined with that ancient red dirt.
I was listening to the radio during a rare solo drive on the 4th of July, and the DJ introduced an hour of favorite summer songs by saying how music has the power to transport us. Even in the dead of winter, we can find ourselves on the shore or back in a teen romance thanks to Blondie or Brian Adams. It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s just particularly surprising where we find ourselves. And as beautiful as that castle on the hill must be, I’d choose a humble cocktail party, and the dust devils, and My Green Private Valley any day.
Where has a song taken you? I’d love to hear from you. Email responses to firstname.lastname@example.org