This is the weather we long for, people. This is the beauty of the seasons of change. In Fall, we transition from heat to cold, but in that time the temperatures balance between cool and warm. The world can be a beautiful thing when it is in a time of flux. This is the time of the year that you stop more. You aren’t quick to get out from the hot or the cold. People don’t die from exposure to this weather. People are often stopped by how nice it feels, how the sun feels on your face with a breeze blowing. These are the times it is easy to pause and examine our world and ourselves.
It has been Fall Break at Murray State, so the students are all out of town, and Allyson has even been gone on a marathon of visits to friends and family, with the ultimate goal of helping a friend find a wedding dress. I’ve spent a good bit of this alone in my own head listening and pondering. While walking one day, I was listening to a podcast and noticed birds singing around me. It was so quiet on campus that I could hear the trees and birds. I paused my podcast and have spent a good bit of this week just listening to my surroundings which have been so much more vivid in this quiet time.
Not that I don’t want the college kids here, but their absence has certainly made Murray quieter. There is less traffic near campus, so I’m not subject to the sounds of people in their giant trucks with their so-cool engine modifications so they sound like construction vehicles. I remember when I used to drive boats regularly at camp, there was a noise the boat made when something wasn’t right—it was pulling too much weight or some seaweed was wrapped around the prop. This is the sound these truck engines make normally just from coming out of a four-way stop. And it’s on purpose. I really don’t get it, and there are so many around here, that during a regular day, that noise is pretty constant. This is what I try to drown out with podcasts talking about music, movies, sports, science, history, and so on, but wind or birdsong can stop me in my tracks and make me all reflective.
For some reason, I’ve been hearing about Outkast all week long. If you’re not familiar, Outkast is a hip-hop group out of Atlanta who started making music in the 90s and 2000s. Outkast was my favorite group in their heyday, but they haven’t put anything out in a while. They have recently been on a tour, reviving some of the favorites for their fans, and Andre Benjamin, one of the members, is starring as Jimi Hendrix in a new biopic about to be released. So, the interviews and retrospective feature stories have been all over NPR. I love it when NPR has all this street-cred with 30 somethings.
In one of the interviews with Andre, they asked him about a lot of the songs off their second album ATLiens, which came out in 1996, the year I graduated high school and started college. I wore this album out throughout my college years, and I could rap a good bit of the songs word for word, even now. I really latched onto these guys for a lot of reasons. First, they were from the South and proud of that, but they weren’t trying to play up that they were yokels the way I think some exploitative country and even southern rap does. Next they wanted to try to say something, but they also wanted to make you shake your rear end—and they were good at both. It’s not anything surprising these days to find middle-class white dudes liking rap, because it has a good beat and makes them feel like they are tougher than they really are. I certainly listened to rap at times for that too, but I felt a connection to Outkast beyond it just being cool.
And I was still just a middle class white dude who had very little in common with these guys who grew up in Atlanta, rapping about situations I never experienced. Still, their music was good enough that it spoke to something bigger, something I was feeling too, even if I didn’t know what they were going through.
On Microphone Check, an NPR hip-hop show, they asked Andre how on Earth they did a song like “13th Floor/Growing Old” as young as they were. These guys were about 20, the same age as me when they put this album out, and this song in particular just feels wise beyond its age. It has this somber piano music in the foreground and a beat in the background almost like a metronome. The song has this feel of self-examination and is, of course, about growing old. Even before I paid close attention to the lyrics, the music made me stop and reflect on myself and think about what I was becoming.
I remember a night toward the end of college when a girlfriend and I had decided we needed to break-up. It had been my fault, because I hadn’t put enough time in, being present. I wasn’t willing to see her as much as she needed me to. I knew I was hurting her, but I didn’t want to take away from anything I was doing to make it work. I wanted her to just be ok with seeing me how much she saw me and understand there were other things that were important to me too. I had spent so much of my life wanting a girlfriend and later a wife, and I spent much of that time without one, just hoping. I thought about it so much, imagined all the romantic things I would do, all the ways I would make her feel special, but I wasn’t thinking about the everyday things of just being there. I didn’t realize how hard it would be.
On that night it hit me that I wasn’t as ready for all this as I thought I was. I realized that I was hurting someone. Either of us, looking back now at the other and the paths we’ve taken know those decisions were for the best, and I think a part of me knew that then, but there was also a part that couldn’t easily accept the pain I was causing and the helplessness of knowing I would continue to cause pain no matter how good I wanted to be–that I wasn’t a kid anymore, and all this would take responsibility I hadn’t even considered. I was getting ready to be out there and be a man, and I wasn’t sure what I thought of myself.
I remember listening to that song, “13th Floor/Growing Old,” late at night after my roommates had all gone to bed and everything was dark. I went out onto our deck and looked out in the middle of the big, pulsing city with stars overhead. I shivered and watched my breath, and that piano and drumbeat keep playing in my mind. In that song, they are talking about very different things than breaking up, but what is similar is that journey into adulthood, even multiple levels of adulthood, how we misstep, how we aren’t true to ourselves, how we must continually change. As the song closes, Andre comes in repeating a stanza that has a few potentially offensive first lines that I’ll leave out, but it ends with:
Sores that was open wounds
eventually turn to scabs.
Trees bright and green
eventually turn yellow and brown.
All them leaves must fall down
On that deck, I knew I was getting older. In some ways I relished it, in some ways it was sad. Even now, as the fall comes, I am happy to see the cooler days, the beauty of the leaves, the warmer clothes I haven’t worn in months. But, in those moments I am stopped by something so profound and beautiful as a changing world, it is always full of complexity. These songs continue to revisit, adding chapters to what they mean each time I hear them. I’m glad to hear Andre’s voice on the radio again, to hear him talk about his life and his career. We don’t have much in common outside of him actually being an artist and me trying to be one, but he still sounds like an old friend. Still, there are just as many questions now as there were when I shivered on that deck with Andre in my ear, wondering why everything couldn’t be ok. I’ve seen more, 15 years later, but I’m still asking the music, the wind, “Who am I?”