a few days ago, in a fit of stress at work, i turned on some james taylor. ain’t no problem that man’s voice can’t solve, i tell you – he’s like a lubricant for the soul. was that gross? it was, wasn’t it? but you know what i mean, don’t you? mr. taylor is the master of his craft, and he’s got a voice like warm honey. his music tends to have a placebo effect on me; i turn it on and instantly, it’s like i popped some sort of magical calming pill, and everything stressing me out seems to melt away. at least, that’s what happens most of the time.
on this particular day, my itunes chose a song that dug up a deep memory for me: the beautiful love song, “something in the way she moves.” if you haven’t ever heard that song, a) have you been living under a rock and b) you can listen to it here. mind if i take you back in time a bit?
it’s the early august in the mid nineties. i’m spending my summer, as i’ve done for the last few years, at a picturesque, idyllic jewish camp about two hours north of portland. off a practically deserted state road, and down a long dirt drive, the sun sparkles off a perfectly blue lake (though it’s sandy and brown at the bottom, and i know that because i’ve reached the highest level of swimming ability and have been allowed to go in the deep end). the grass grows greener than anywhere i’ve ever seen, and across hundreds of acres, leagues of sunburnt children hit home runs on the softball field, and use their small, nimble fingers to mold mugs and bowls in the ceramics studio. the air smells of bug juice, sunscreen and the wood chips which cover the pathways outside our brown and white wooden bunks.
every morning at 7:30, a bell tongs, and we roll ourselves out of bed, all messy hair and oversized tshirts and flannel pants that drag in the misty grass, watching the sun rise higher above the lake, gathered around the flagpole for morning calisthenics and announcements. for eight weeks, we assemble sock people in arts and crafts (arts and farts, we call it). we eat overcooked kosher chicken in the dining hall, banging on tables covered in scratched red and white plaid fabric, cheering for our friends, our bunkmates, for girls and boys, splashing our plastic water glasses across the table, and begging for our counselors to get us a bunk night in the kitchen, where we can use oversized economy mixers to make cookie dough and throw flour at one another way past our bedtime. we gather on the field to watch movies on an oversized screen, we attend shabbat services every saturday morning, sitting indian style or rocking in our crazy creek chairs as we sing the prayers we’ve been singing since our first day at synagogue.
and every friday night, we gather for friday night singing. we pass around tattered songbooks, held together with inexpensive plastic binding, and we put our arms around each others shoulders and sing “the gambler” at the top of lungs, knowing nothing of kenny rogers, but knowing that if nothing else, you’ve gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to turn around, know when to run. our eyes shine bright as we belt out the james taylor tunes we know by heart, our tiny legs twist and turn as we act out jodi mitchell’s circle game. in these moments, we forget that we are awkward. we forget that we haven’t hit puberty yet, or we’ve hit puberty too soon. we forget our crushes and our cliques, and the fact that we heard bats flying around our bunk just two nights back. we forget that we’re terrified to go back to our big cities and our small towns, where life closes in on us. all we know is that we’re here in this moment, and we’re singing together, and we bang our fists and shake our shoulders and tap our feet, and we care not that we’re out of tune. because in these moments, there’s just the open road, and ice cream for dessert, and a sky that’s infinite and sprinkled with stars.
in late august, we’ll go our separate ways, and we’ll pack our army-sized duffel bags with tattered tees and socks that undoubtedly aren’t ours. and we’ll hug and cry and promise to return next summer, and swear that we’ll be friends forever. and some of us are. some of us aren’t. what do we take with us? each camper gets a songbook, all earmarked pages and tattered tears, and we pass them around like yearbooks, signing away our memories and our lives, telling our best friends that it’s surely forever and that no one could ever take their place.
what does this have to do with james taylor? one year, a boy in our brother bunk signed mine – and he signed it on mr. taylor’s ‘something in the way she moves.’ “it explains itself,” he wrote. short, and simple. and though i’d sung those lyrics many a time, sung my heart out, in fact, i had no idea what the message meant. if only i’d known, right? it’s quite possibly the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me. imagine that. a nine year old boy gave me the most romantic moment of my life, at a time when i couldn’t even interpret it, couldn’t see the sweetness in its simplicity, hadn’t a clue what it meant. i recall crowding over the page with my friends, our ponytails dripping onto the page as we studied it, trying to discern its meaning. did i move funny? did i look funny? did he just love james taylor?
small moments, small memories. but good ones. james taylor, i salute you, for writing a beautiful song that resonates with me still today. and to the man who left the message, i’ve never forgotten it. and i don’t think i ever will.