Midlife Coffee with Joni Mitchell

9 years ago

Weekly I participate in a meme called Old School Friday (OSF). I'd seen it around the Net for a while and thought, I should do that. God knows I should. Like most of us, my life has a soundtrack running through it, as one of the bloggers and creators of OSF said of herself in comments on a post. I'm squarely in midlife, and the soundtrack of my life is old school music.

Yet, each stage of our lives probably has a different soundtrack. During midlife it skips back to songs from our youth and then forward again to music that resonates with transition and change and sometimes even to fresh love ballads with fresh heartbreak blues. Our midlife soundtrack may be muse, tormentor, or healer, sometimes all three at once.

One of these midlife tracks suddenly appeared on my MP3 player last week. I don't mean that it mysteriously added itself. I mean that I uploaded it from my collection with a batch of other songs and forgot about it, and then, as I was making coffee one morning about to begin a day of writing, I heard the singer singing, "caught in the middle/Carol, we're middle class/we're middle-aged/we were wild in the old days/birth of rock 'n roll days."

It was Joni Mitchell, and I was struck by the thought that I'd listened to this woman in my preteen and teen years (1969-1979), thinking one day I too would have a man leaving in a "Big Yellow Taxi" because it seemed, as she sang it, to be some kind of rite of passage. I'd also listened to lots of vinyl Motown growing up, thinking some day love would come like a Temptations or Smokey Robinson tune, but that didn't quite pan out the way I'd hoped.

In 1969, Mitchell released her Clouds album and I probably heard "Both Sides Now." It's a mystery how, though, since I was only 9 and my family listened to R&B or news stations mostly. I'm thinking I heard it one night hiding under the covers with my transistor radio when I was supposed to be asleep, yes, on one of those nights when I was sneaking music instead of a book.

However, I imbibed that song in 1978, feeling this woman Mitchell must be a fortune teller because I'd met a boy, went splat, and now I really did know "Both Sides Now," but nothing like how I'd know it in later life. There I was again in my early 40s going through divorce and playing Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now album, released in 2000, and I wept at her latest rendition of her hit "Both Sides Now." No longer was it the the faster tempo tune that smacked of a folk-meets-pop-rock youth, the one on which I'd worn down the groove as a lovelorn teen. It had been reborn as middle-aged blues that shook me from the inside out, sung with the soul of the 57-year-old woman that Mitchell was in 2000.

It had been released in my birth month of the year I turned 40, but I don't think I found it until three years later (music laid low during much of my marriage), just in time to hear "the screen door slam and a big yellow taxi (take) away my old man," sort of, except I didn't miss him. I missed what I'd missed by trying to find bliss in a life with echoes of Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."

The thought that Joni Mitchell--painter, songwriter, singer, and defiant-yet-tender woman--might be one of my midlife muses, more a major muse than the minor one she'd been in my youth, had occurred to me before as I listened to her Both Sides Now CD/album and applied "A Case of You" to a male poet I knew personally who was another type of muse in my life in 2005/2006. However those thoughts were about a woman in love, facing disappointment, and growing in wisdom. That was nothing like the voice I heard with fresh midlife ears as I listened to "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody." She originally released the song in 1982 on her Wild Things Run Fast album when she was 39.

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody
By Joni Mitchell

Caught in the middle
Carol, we're middle class
We're middle-aged
We were wild in the old days
Birth of rock 'n roll days
Now your kids are coming up straight
And my child's a stranger
I bore her
But, I could not raise her
Nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--

Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing--
Oh my love, my darling
One more time

Uranium money
Is booming in the old home town now
It's putting up sleek concrete
Tearing the old landmarks down now
Paving over brave little parks
Ripping off Indian land again
How long--how long
Short-sighted business men
Ah, nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--

Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing--
You give your love, so sweetly
One more time

Christmas is sparkling
Out on Carol's lawn
This girl of my childhood games
With kids nearly grown and gone
Grown so fast
Like the turn of a page
We look like our mothers did now
When we were those kids age
Nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--
Nothing lasts for long--
Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing--
Oh my love, my darling
Ive hungered for your touch
A long lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me.
(time goes--where does the time go--
I wonder where the time goes. . .)
(Joni Mitchell, 1982)

I listened to this song repeatedly that morning and didn't get back to writing for a while. I took my cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table reviewing my life, reminding myself how I'd dreamed on my jukebox dimes thinking "I need your love" and that truly "nothing last for long."

I was curious about Mitchell's daughter that she bore but could not raise, thinking that this woman is a confessional poet as much as she is a painter (painting is the artform she says is her true love) and a singer/songwriter.

The daughter is real. (See Wikipedia with further reading under Joni Mitchell's Secret) I've never given up a child, but I could still embrace her loss as my own, a symbol of whatever I'd sacrificed to be who I am today, good or bad.

I didn't mean this post to become a mini-treatise on Joni Mitchell as midlife muse. I'd hoped also to cover midlife poetry, point out that baby boomers, most in midlife now or easing past it, are telling their stories in verse. Remark on some of my own poems that I realize now are about midlfe even though I didn't think of them as midlife poems when I first wrote them, one of which is "I am a Wheel." Another is "Leaves from a Dead Woman's Diary," that I didn't take seriously at all, but another immediately pegged as midlife crisis poetry. I was even going to talk on Robert Frost's famous poem "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening," written while the poet was in midlife, a time when some of us look back wearily, knowing we have miles to go before we sleep.

I wanted to talk about how few black female singers there are contemporary to Mitchell who also confessed their sins the way she did. You need a sense of being free and fearless to do that, the way Tina Turner was after she left Ike. I wanted to touch on how the generation of black women behind me have Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Jill Scott, women who ain't afraid to tell it like it is with artistic skill. (I know someone will shout out about now, but what about Aretha, what about Patti LaBelle? Good singers singing our souls but from a different chamber, I'd say. What about Alicia Keys for younger women? Hmm, talented but still in the oven singing about hormone-induced love.)

Friends in the peanut gallery have been throwing names at me too: Millie Jackson, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Roberta Flack. And I say I'm not talking raw sex, just social causes, a good voice lost in the radio shuffle, or the singer you like. I'm talking time in the confessional from broken and shoeless to the bedroom to the boardroom to babies to scrawled signs of protests and hollerin' in your robe on a suburban cul-de-sac--a strumming the whole spectrum of life repertoire.

I'm also thinking, however, black women may have been even more under the thumb of male producers. I'm thinking Phoebe Snow maybe, if she'd lasted, and some others.

And then I'd planned to move from Mitchell's black female contemporaries into women blogging midlife, many of whom you may read at Midlife Bloggers or find here at BlogHer such as Karen aka Midlife Muse whose own blog is Midlife's A Trip. Or Blogher member Candelaria Silva who wrote at Midlife Bloggers "Living Life Deliberately" and also blogs at Good and Plenty.

While snooping around for this post, I re-acquainted myself with Kat Wilder: My So-Called Life. She coincidentally has a post about being someone else's muse, but not quite in the way I mean today, more in the way of having that male poet I mentioned as a muse or being a muse to a poet: Muse Over This. Her post about boomers overrunning Facebook is funny. She said "feels sorry for Facebook."

I discovered a blog called Midlife Poet, but also discovered abandoned "midlife" blogs by women and wondered what happened; did blogging with hot flashes get the better of them or did they get tired of self-exploration? Furthermore I recalled when MsMeta asked here at Blogher, "Where are all the mid-aged women bloggers?" She's gathered 160 comments on the post, and ByJane answered her with a post saying "We're Here."

Waxing philosophical, I think the psychology of midlife in general may be symbolized in the Roman god Janus, one face looking forward, one looking back, both faces seeking clarity while watching doors. For women specifically, however, I think the ancient Greek goddess Metis may be calling us. She is the suppressed voice that will find a way to speak even from a grave of dead of dreams and prophecies, a voice urging us to find purpose in the creative self when some of us could easily throw up our hands, climb in bed, cover our heads, cry "all is lost" or spend years saying shivah for our tighter bodies. (I'm talking psychology here, not religion.)

So, which of us is waist-deep in midlife fiction about us losing our waistlines yet still finding love and faith, panning for validation gold? Boomer lit's booming, I'm told.

Who's wearing thin the pages of a midlife poetry book, a Bible, or a self-help for old dames tome? Which of us is meditating on midlife's choices and challenges? And who's fighting midlife each step of the way, missing its grace, mentally blocked by images of their youth in a coffin?

Who's staring at Jamie Lee Curtis's pictures in Mode magazine and yelling "Rock on, sister!" Whose whole life is consumed with synthetic vs. bioidentical hormone debates? And who's taking the necessary time to contemplate their middle-aged inner navels, a luxury some women do not have, and hearing music?

As I consider us midlife women, look over midlife poets and bloggers, and contemplate a voice speaking to me--Joni Mitchell's music--I wonder, "What soundtrack is playing in the lives of other women in midlife?" Are they living with the oldies or finding new voices or old voices that continue to sing such as Bonnie Raitt? Do they synch with the pain of Jada Pinkett Smith and unfinished business with trauma? Her band, Wicked Wisdom, appears to have been born as she approached the cusp of middle-age. Today she's got at least her big toe in midlife at 38.

Who's walking around with Annie Lennox in her head? Who's writing her own songs each day?

How are the muses of our lives calling us to create our own dreams and paths, and what do the soundtracks of our lives say about who we were, who we are, and who we'll become?

BlogHer CE Karen asked a similar question when she pondered role models, asking who inspires you in midlife? My question's a little different. You need not respond with a person. The answer can be a reclaimed or newly-discovered passion; it can be an art; it can be inner revelation; it can even be self-acceptance.

Nordette is a BlogHer CE whose personal blogs are WSATA and a newer one, The Urban Mother's Book of Prayers.

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